Turning the tide in Libya


ON THE road from Benghazi, only some 50 kilometres south of the city, the twisted remains of tanks, burned trucks and cars are sad but necessary testimony to the seriousness of purpose and awesome might of the UN-mandated “Operation Odyssey Dawn”, and to the turning of the tide in Libya. In the city, whose suburbs resonated two days ago to heavy gunfire and artillery and whose terrified citizens stared defeat in the face, the mood is once again of jubilation.

Now hundreds of cars are clogging roads from the east, bearing residents back to a city they had only just abandoned. A no-fly zone is now in place or, more accurately, a zone of protection. Muammar Gadafy’s air defences have been “taken out”, airfields attacked and ground forces near Benghazi sent into retreat.

The UN mandate, Resolution 1973, binding on Ireland to assist, could scarcely be stronger, ruling out only boots on the ground. The mission is defined in terms of humanitarian defence of Libya’s people, the “responsibility to protect” that has become part of UN doctrine and which trumps national sovereignty. It authorises UN member states “to take all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack . . . while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.

In truth, of course, the unwritten mandate is for regime change – few imagine that the Libyan people can be safe while Gadafy remains in power and British prime minister David Cameron and other leaders have made as much plain. They want him gone.

In the end, however, this is not Iraq and the heavy lifting will still have to be done by the people of Libya. That is the limitation of air power. He can be disarmed and disabled, but regime change is carried out on the ground. And it will be no mean task. Even deprived of his air force, and his ability to use tanks and artillery severely restricted, there is every danger that he will be able to bunker down in the west and in Tripoli, and that we are in for a prolonged military stalemate and the de facto partitioning of the country.

This is a dangerous road the UN has gone down. There are no guarantees that it will be easy, or not prolonged, or that there will not be civilian casualties. But it is right. Lives will be saved, have been saved already.

The UN can be an instrument of global collective security, a powerful force for humanitarian good – that is what the people of the world expect of it, albeit perhaps naively, not the talking shop it has become. And yes, that involves temporary alliances with despots and reliance on those whose agendas may not be the purest. Not least, it has to be admitted, in Libya, where several Gulf states involved in suppressing their own and the Bahraini people are now involved in taking on Gadafy.

But these imperfect and tainted instruments are all we have to hand. To suggest that because these allies do not meet our ideal standards, we should turn our backs on the Libyan people and abandon them to their fate, to make the perfect the enemy of the good, that would be the hypocrisy, the betrayal of our humanity.