Europe in the driver’s seat in Libya
WASHINGTON -- The belated international intervention in Libya serves important humanitarian purposes. But these are not the only concerns shaping the actions of Europe, the United States, and regional partners. The sudden show of French and British leadership in response to the Libyan crisis also reflects some very tangible security concerns – concerns shared by countries on both sides of the Mediterranean. The stakes are high, but this Mediterranean crisis is unfolding on Europe’s doorstep, where Europe is capable of leadership and substantial power projection.
First, timing matters. Two weeks ago, a decision to use airpower to interdict pro-regime forces and isolate the battlefield would have left Muammar Qaddafi on the defensive and politically marginalized. The lesson here is that even with good intelligence and political will, the ability to act rapidly makes a difference. Still, the international response in Libya has been extremely rapid by the standards of past crises, from Bosnia to the Gulf. The situation on the ground has, perhaps, been stabilized. But to set the clock back to conditions prevailing two weeks ago, airpower must fulfill the additional burden of rolling back Qaddafi loyalists from positions far beyond Tripoli. This is feasible, but cumbersome, and will almost certainly go beyond the kind of intervention many international partners had in mind when they supported a UN mandate. Having missed the first wave of defections from the Qaddafi camp, Western and regional leaders must hope that the prospect of attrition from the air will help to peel away wavering loyalists, including forces that may now be having second thoughts about support for the regime. One danger is that a prolonged civil war, or chaos in Libya, will attract many of the North African fighters who have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, and are now returning to the region. In short, having opted to intervene, another clock is now ticking. A stalemate will pose new security challenges as well as a risk of spillovers across the Mediterranean.
Second, location matters. North Africa is already well established in the European mind as a place of strategic consequence. Energy, migration, terrorism, and maritime security are all part of the equation. The political revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt shook European confidence in the stability of the southern neighborhood. In a very real sense, the Mediterranean is Europe’s “near abroad,” and the sense of risk and exposure is high. For years, European defense planners have put possible contingencies in North Africa at the top of their agendas. Even Italy, for all its complicated commercial ties to Libya, has an overriding stake in managing what could become an uncontrolled stream of migrants across the Mediterranean, including tremendous human security costs. Qaddafi has threatened to attack Italian (and Greek) territory in the past, and actually launched a very inaccurate ballistic missile strike against a U.S. LORAN station on the Italian island of Lampedusa in 1986. Libya’s past involvement in terrorism in Europe, including the targeting of exiled opponents, is well known. The outcome in Libya will be felt even more keenly by Libya’s neighbors in North Africa. The last thing a fragile Tunisia and a still unstable Egypt need is a civil war, a humanitarian crisis, or a wounded and aggressive regime on their borders. The need to consolidate and protect the new regimes in Cairo and Tunis only reinforces the logic of intervention in Libya.
Finally, psychology matters. For decades, Libya has acted as a “crazy state,” defying international norms and shifting unpredictably from one international posture to another. Under stable conditions, this might have been tolerated as eccentricity. But the legacy of Lampedusa, the Lockerbie bombing, and the shooting of police officer Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London, is still very much alive. Without dramatic intervention, Europe and the United States faced the possibility of a renewed Libyan campaign of terror against Western and other targets, deliberate migration, energy and environmental crises in the Mediterranean, and other possible threats. This would have meant a protracted strategy of containment. And if Qaddafi remains in place, despite the coalition air campaign, such a strategy may yet be required. With American support, it is a strategy Europe can and should lead.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.