Challenges for the West

29 March 2011, 15:39

Within several hours after a no-fly zone was authorized by United Nations resolution and "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan rebels were taken, British and French air forces were in action, targeting Libyan tanks and armour on the outskirts of Benghazi.

Actions against Gaddafi – the longest-serving ruler Arab world's – were taken after weeks of discussions and disputes between Western leaders. Being afraid of angering public opinion in United States, the Obama Administration (previously engaged in two unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeing risk of new potential conflicts between the USA and the Muslim world) was skeptic about new military interventions and postponed their decision to join the coalition.

Although David Cameron, Britain's new conservative Prime Minister, called on for a no-fly zone over Libya when it became clear that the Gaddafi’s forces were likely to use weapon against the rebels, Britain found little support among his European Union members. In that time EU was hesitating to take actions, because of yet another all-out war in the Middle East.

Three things changed the Obama's point of view on the situation. First of all, even though for a month rebels were triumphantly marching form their Benghazi base along Libya's coastline towards Tripoli, it became clear that they won’t be able to resist the Gaddafi's tanks, aircraft and 12,000-strong loyal republican guard forces.

Secondly, even the Arab countries agreed that it was enough of the maverick Libyan dictator, who for more than 40 years was insulting, threatening and destabilizing situation in the region. Moreover, with the whirlwind of revolution still sweeping through the Arab world starting from Tunisia and Egypt, Arab rulers supported the uprising against Gaddafi, a ruler that for a long time has repressed both Islamists and opposition democrats in his own country. If Gaddafi had won, that would have signalized the end of the Arab Spring. The Arab League announced that it would support a no-fly zone, and several Arab countries – Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – said they were ready to take part in operations against Gaddafi.

And third, the United Nations Security Council voted, by 10-0 with China and Russia abstaining, to authorise action against Gaddafi's forces to protect the civilian population. This gave the international cover to President Obama, who has always insisted that America would not go it alone or take action without UN support as his predecessor, President George Bush, did in Iraq.

As a result, American warnings about the difficulties of a no-fly zone and American reluctance to speak out against Gaddafi were rapidly changed with blame of Gaddafi’s regime and support for the British and French.

Despite of switch in USA’s opinion, President Obama admitted that he still seriously worries about the situation and have no wish to “get down to work” in Libya. The no-fly zone is impossible to be established without a large number of military in the region and airstrikes to destroy Libya's air forces.

As many of the NATO countries are stretched to their limit by the Afghanistan war, and many have just made large cuts in their military forces because of the economic downturn, Libyan operation could place a huge new strain on their defense budgets.

Besides that, the allies worry about "mission deployment". That is about gradual involvement of their military in a ground war and in what may later cause a civil war in Libya. If Western pilots are captured, or if Gaddafi manages to get his tanks into Benghazi, there will be strong pressure for Western forces to intervene on the ground.

The West also worries that Arab support may not last long. Gaddafi is a skilled politician, and if West accidentally bombs civilians or hospitals, he could convince the Arab world and Africa that his country is being threatened by neo-colonialists who are really seeking Libya's oil. This sort of propaganda is effective among Arab masses that treat the West very suspiciously, and that can easily swayed by seeing pictures of innocent civilians being killed.

Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which were from a great part peaceful and showed Arabs wish for democratic changes and defense of human rights, bring the West into actions. The fighting in Libya, as well as the turmoil in Bahrain – main ally of the West – proves that struggle for changes will be really challenging.

Several questions still remain unanswered. What is the real reason for interventions in Libya? Is it the overthrow of Gaddafi, and not just the protection of Libyan civilians? How deeply are Cameron and President Sarkozy convinced and are able to involve their forces into the conflict? Will the Arab countries join such an unusual alliance with the West in order to fight despotism, or will their governments be forced to change their policies answering by unrest on the streets?

Not for the first time the Middle East challenges the world with a fast-moving and politically explosive conflict.

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