Do recent events in Libya vindicate NATO's British- and French-backed military intervention, or is NATO always doomed to be guilty of double standards?

The death throes are taking an unconscionably long time but it now seems all but certain that Colonel Gaddafi’s forty-two year rule over Libya is at an end. Even if his few beleaguered supporters manage to drag out the fighting in Tripoli for a few more days, and even if Gaddafi himself succeeds in escaping capture or the martyrdom he himself speaks of, it is inconceivable that his regime can ever regain control of the country.

The gamble taken by David Cameron, the French president, Nicholas Sarkozy and other western leaders in backing the Libyan rebels has paid off. Does this mean that NATO’s controversial military intervention is now vindicated? And what does it mean for western policy in other Arab countries where long-standing autocratic regimes are coming under threat from the people they have ruled with rods of iron?

When it became clear at the beginning of the week that we had reached the endgame of the Libyan crisis, David Cameron rushed back to London from his holiday in Cornwall. In his first public statement the British prime minister was anxious to make clear that it was the Libyan rebels themselves who had been responsible for the turn-round in events and for rescuing Libya from the years of tyranny. British and other western involvement had been merely to assist. But few people doubt that had it not been for NATO’s military intervention, essentially in aid of the rebels, events could have turned out very differently.

NATO’s involvement was always a rather ambiguous affair. Ostensibly its use of air power against Gaddafi’s regime was solely for the purpose of protecting civilian life. That was the basis on which the Arab League had appealed for international help back in March when it seemed that the Libyan leader was intent on launching a massive attack on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, and was ready to inflict huge civilian casualties in doing so. It was the basis on which the United Nations Security Council authorised NATO’s action, albeit with Russia and China abstaining.

But the British and French governments, which took up the lion’s share of NATO’s task, also made clear that it was their own policy to seek regime change in Libya. They were careful not to advocate the use of NATO power to bring this about but they left no one in any doubt that regime change was their ultimate purpose.

The ambiguity inherent in this double position caused all sorts of problems. In the first place it led Russia and China to suspect that NATO was going beyond its brief and that Britain and France, despite their denials, were using military power to get rid of Gaddafi. On the other hand, in order to be able to deny this charge, the British and French governments seemed, to critics who wanted a more robust military onslaught against Gaddafi, to be pulling their punches.

The result was that the military intervention did not seem to be going anywhere even while the cost of mounting it went on rising. NATO’s intervention started to be criticised as incoherent; the result of too hasty a decision taken by political leaders too eager to cut a figure on the international stage. Their action may have seemed like a fine gesture, the critics said, but far too little attention had been given to the detail. Among other worries was the sense that no one really knew who the rebels we were supporting were, or whether they would provide a better future for the Libyan people than Gaddafi.

Some critics generalised such apprehensions about getting bogged down in Libya by concluding that interventions of this sort were never a good idea even when they had the authority of the Security Council behind them.

This week’s change in fortunes, however, will embolden those who backed NATO’s action and the initiative of Messrs Cameron and Sarkozy in bringing it about. They will argue that the military intervention did save civilian lives; that it was scrupulous in not going beyond its mandate; and that the regime change that is coming about can be regarded only as a good thing, as is evident from the jubilant behaviour of the liberated Libyans themselves. The Arab Spring is still dawning.

But if success in Libya leads to the belief that military intervention has been vindicated, what does it mean for other hotspots in the Arab world? The most obvious other candidate for similar treatment is Syria.

At the moment almost no one is suggesting an equivalent military intervention against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. But, after this week’s events in Libya, some may ask: why not? In some respects the parallels are close. The Syrian president, like Colonel Gaddafi, is taking brutal measures that involve the shedding of civilian blood in order to try to put down growing opposition to his regime. That regime is just as repressive, just as authoritarian, just as indifferent to human rights and just as lacking in democratic accountability as Gaddafi’s regime was. So why shouldn’t the west intervene here too?

A simple answer is that the Arab League has not asked for it and the Security Council would not authorise it since, this time, Russia and China would be bound to use their vetoes.

Does this mean, then, that when it comes to humanitarian intervention, there can be no principles to determine when we should and we should not get involved and that, as a result, we are doomed to appear guilty of double standards?

What’s your view?

  • Do you think events in Libya vindicate David Cameron’s decision earlier this year to press for military intervention in Libya?
  • Do you think NATO did act only to protect civilians, or do you think military force was used to bring about regime change?
  • How confident are you that the rebels who are on the verge of taking over the government of Libya can bring order and greater democracy to the country?
  • Should we consider intervening in Syria or not?
  • And in general, are you in favour of using our armed forces to intervene in the affairs of other countries?
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