Libya a fatal distraction from Iran

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, March 24, 2011
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 A Gaddafi supporter stands beside the remains of a bombed-out naval military facility in eastern Tripoli

A Gaddafi supporter stands beside the remains of a bombed-out naval military facility in eastern Tripoli

Why are British planes bombing Libya? Humanitarian intervention - that's the answer.

Consider this: until two months ago, Libya was a new friend - and a textbook example of the kind of cold, calculated, national interest-driven foreign policy that would get results and save the West from sentimental but ill-conceived efforts to export democracy to the Middle East.

Within a fortnight, as Libyan protests escalated into a fully-fledged civil war, the policy was reversed. Suddenly, Col Muammar Gaddafi has to go - so says US President Barack Obama, alongside a string of European leaders. But is it up to Western steel, blood and treasure to make this happen?

Not clear. The mission was hastily launched and, 72 hours into the campaign, it is piling up one embarrassment after the other. Meanwhile, it is clear that it was launched before some key questions were answered.

First, who is in command? Initially, a US General, but President Obama insisted that his country is there as a "supporting actress". Most European participants were furious that command was not given to Nato - but Nato was not asked (the Nato Secretary General was not at the Paris summit that launched the operation), and although France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, acts as if he is Napoleon, at least half the planes doing the damage are stars and stripes. The Turks were stalling because they, too, were not invited; while the Italians - Libya's best friends in Europe - were threatening to close their airbases too if command was not transferred.

But, secondly, towards what goal? Remove Gaddafi? Can't do that from the air. Besides, everyone, from French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe to US Joint Chief of Staff Chief Admiral Mullen, is saying that this is not the purpose of the operation. It's just a no-fly zone. Except when Libyan ground forces are bombed, then it becomes air cover for the rebels.

Which brings us to the third point - this is a civil war. France has taken sides by recognising the rebels as the "legitimate representatives" of the Libyan people. Is the entire operation about taking sides? If so, why not say so? There are operational consequences to such a policy - and if played well, they can help speed up Gaddafi's ouster. Except that there seems to be no agreement in the coalition.

Besides, who's on our side? Who are the rebels? The little evidence that there is suggests that there is more than just Islamists, but also much, much more than democrats-in-arms. Beware of what you wish for.

Why all this scepticism? Because Libya is a remote corner of the Arab world, with a small population and little relevance, aside from some oil and natural gas, to Western national interests. Libya's cause for anxiety was taken care of in 2003, during the nuclear quid-pro-quo negotiated by Great Britain with Gaddafi. Once Gaddafi renounced terrorism, paid the Lockerbie bombing victims and returned the keys to his covert nuclear programme, there was little else that concerned the West - and the few unpleasantries the West had to endure at LSE and St Barts were no more extravagant than the average Saudi Prince's splash (which, rest assured, will continue unabated).

By bombing Gaddafi, coalition countries are now inviting Gaddafi to revert to character - expect pyrotechnics soon. All this is the last thing we need when on the other side of the Arab world, in the Gulf, Iran shows no intention of slowing down its nuclear programme but is very active at fanning the flame of insurrection among its rivals' unhappy Shi'a minorities.

For eight years, EU diplomats have announced that stopping Iran's nuclear programme was more important than regime change - Iran's human rights could wait. Given that Libya abandoned its nuclear programme the same year we started negotiating with Iran, why are blood, money and treasure being put on the line when the more urgent threats come from elsewhere? If Libya is a case of a swift victory, by all means, bring the trophy home. Otherwise, it is already starting to look like a potentially dangerous distraction.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracy

    Last updated: 12:45pm, March 24 2011