The downfall of a dictator is always welcome. Especially welcome is the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. He was not the worst of his genre, but for 42 years was the beneficiary of the crassest Western intervention, veering between ineffective sanctions and ostracism to former British prime minister Tony Blair’s cringing, oil-drenched “friendship.” More welcome still would have been his downfall clearly at the hands of his own people, not courtesy of Western armies.
The odds on mayhem after revolution are always high and the pressure on those who aided the revolution to forestall mayhem is intense. Libya this week was fit only for Churchill’s cautious remark about the same place in 1942, that the defeat of Rommel’s army was not the beginning of the end, but “perhaps the end of the beginning.”
The British and French governments have been accused of excessive optimism over the summer and are wisely avoiding Bush’s “mission accomplished” boast in Iraq. Nothing is for sure until a peaceful, democratic government is in place and that is far from being the case.
The mission creep of intervention in Libya has been a classic. Britain and France said they were establishing a no-fly zone “to save Benghazi” from putative attack, but soon found themselves taking sides in a civil war. This escalated into a bombing campaign against Tripoli to “defend the lives of the Libyan people,” and then into a claim that this was impossible without toppling, and even possibly assassinating, Qaddafi.
Likewise did British and US troops go into Iraq merely to “find weapons of mass destruction” and into Afghanistan merely to “eliminate al-Qaeda bases.” There would be no NATO forces on the ground in Libya, then only special forces, then a complete panoply of close air support for Benghazi troops — and now British defense sources admit that troops may be necessary to “help keep order.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has clearly been a prime mover of the NATO initiative in Libya, must understandably feel satisfied at the current turn of events. It is too early to assess fully his strategy. He is undoubtedly lucky, so far, that his illegal attempt to kill Qaddafi and his family from the air has not succeeded, for it would have yielded an anti-Western backlash across the Muslim world.
As in Baghdad and Belgrade, the psychological “terror” bombing of civilian targets in big cities probably did little beyond winning Qaddafi some sympathy and even admiration in the eyes of his followers, but on the battlefield, the Royal Air Force has been the Benghazi air force in all but name. Close support for the rebel advance on Tripoli appears to have been crucial, opening up the coast road and making counterattack by Qaddafi’s troops near impossible.
Cameron has been out on his own in this, with only the maverick French President Nicolas Sarkozy for company, but he can plead he has deftly walked the narrow line between too little intervention and too much. He stood out against both Washington and most of Europe in the rebel cause. He kept British assistance covert — so far. He backed a putative winner in Libya’s national transitional council, and now has a massive vested interest in its triumph and security. After five months of bad news, he can sense the surge of relief that comes with the first part of the mission apparently on the brink of achievement.