Politics of intervention can often end in a bloody mess
Western nations just can't afford to get sucked into and bogged down in a Libyan civil war, writes Ivor Roberts
Intervention has had a mixed press in recent years. The glory days of the liberation of Kuwait, Kosovo and Sierra Leone came to a shuddering halt not long after George W Bush's declaration of "mission accomplished" in Iraq when the misery had barely begun. The trumpeting headlines, "we are all hawks now" as one Irish commentator put it, soon rang hollow.
And Afghanistan, which had started so promisingly, soon became a morass as essential troops were diverted into an unnecessary and illegal war in Iraq.
Nor was Kosovo the glorious success the Blair government proclaimed. Ethnic cleansing in one direction was reversed so that a quarter of a million Serbs, Roma and other ethnic minorities were terrorised out of the region. And some of Kosovo's leaders now stand accused of organ trafficking by a Council of Europe report.
As we contemplate the current intervention in Libya, we need to reflect on the lessons of recent interventions and ask whether we need some robust criteria before decisions are taken to intervene in a sovereign country.
Unlike Iraq, we are at least dealing in Libya with a situation which was urgent, clearly involved war crimes against civilians, had legal backing in the shape of a UN Security Council resolution and has clearly defined limits for action, ie, no ground troops or foreign invasion.
But like Iraq, the international community by involving its military is entering into the complexities of an Arab, Muslim country whose geographical spread covers a diverse country where the east, centred on Benghazi, has long been alienated from the area round the capital, Tripoli, by tribal, historical differences aggravated by second-class treatment by the Gaddafi regime.
The reality is that we are facing the prospect of being dragged into a civil war. Our proclaimed war aim of implementing a no-fly zone is as partial a cover story as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq. The real aim in both cases was and is regime change.
Now, I can think of many reasons why the world would be a better place without Gaddafi. Only the US has suffered more from his blighted personality than Britain. The killing of a woman police officer on the streets of London by Libyan diplomats, the provision of Semtex and other arms on an industrial scale to the IRA, the Lockerbie bombing with 277 people murdered taken together made Gaddafi's rehabilitation by the West, led by Tony Blair, particularly nauseating.
So what's wrong with getting rid of him?
Well firstly, he is not in a league of his own; there are many others in his Premier division, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for starters but others in Burma and North Korea and in other parts of Africa. We should certainly take punitive action against regimes that treat their own people with brutality and contempt.
But we have a UN Security Council to decide what and when international action should be taken against rogue states which imperil international security or break international law in the treatment of their own citizens.
And regime change should not be countenanced without specific UN authorisation. Without it, individual countries or groups of countries would arrogate to themselves the right to decide what military intervention to undertake. We would be back to the law of the jungle where the powerful countries disregard the views of the smaller.
US President Barack Obama seems to have been sufficiently marked by the Iraq imbroglio as to have been initially unenthusiastic about even a no-fly zone over Libya.
This may have been tactically wise as it enabled pressure to build up from the Arab League amplified by the Europeans, so the initiative could not be deemed to have started in Washington. But it is clear that, so far at least, the military operation has been overwhelmingly a US-led one with some UK and French involvement and a bit of window-dressing from Arab nations.
This has enabled Gaddafi to claim that this is essentially a neo-Crusader intervention against which all Muslims should unite. No chance, of course, but some splits have already emerged among the Arab League, while the Russians have unhelpfully dubbed the intervention disproportionate. How do they characterise, one wonders, their own assaults on Chechnya?
The other problem about Libya is what might best be described as the law of unintended consequences. If the situation on the ground develops into a stalemate, with the country divided roughly east and west, the greater the pressure to ratchet up our involvement, the more we will be sucked into a civil war, and the easier it will be to describe our action as neo-colonialist.
Sufficient of the Arab League's leaders will be alarmed at the idea of regime change that their enthusiasm for Western-led intervention will rapidly give way to harsh criticism.
And while that may be something Western leaders can live with, the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that Western intervention in Muslim countries leads inexorably to terrorism.
Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford, is a former British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia.