The American Conservative
William S. Lind
May 18, 2011
In mid-April, I was asked to participate in a “Libya Workshop” in Brussels for the EU foreign ministry. Knowing what such meetings are like, I declined, but sent them the following paper:
From the perspective of Fourth Generation war theory, NATO’s most important objective in Libya ought to be the preservation of the Libyan state. That should override all short-term considerations, including “human rights,” “democracy,” and the safety of Libyan civilians. If the Libyan state disintegrates and is replaced with stateless disorder, the Libyan people will suffer far more than they have or will under Mr. Gaddafi or any other tyrant, while Europe enjoys the return of the Barbary pirates.
NATO’s military intervention in the Libyan civil war represents another (predictable) failure of air power. Historically, air power has seldom been decisive in land warfare. The few exceptions occurred when aircraft were thoroughly integrated with the maneuver of high-quality ground forces; the German campaign in France in 1940 is an example. This is not an option in Libya, because the high-quality ground forces do not exist. In their absence, continued NATO air strikes on Libyan government forces are unlikely to bring about a rebel victory.
The question then becomes, if the rebels cannot win decisively and replace Mr. Gaddafi’s government in Tripoli, what outcome is most likely to lead to the preservation of the Libyan state? The unfortunate answer is, a victory by Mr. Gaddafi.
What NATO should have done, instead of intervening militarily when the Libyan Army was on the verge of re-taking Benghazi, was offer Mr. Gaddafi a package of incentives (carrots and sticks) to persuade him not to massacre his defeated opponents. Mr. Gaddafi may be mad (not an unusual trait in Deys of Tripoli), but he appears capable of serving his own interests.
That opportunity is lost, but NATO should ask itself whether the same outcome—the Libyan government re-establishes control but treats its defeated opponents generously—can be achieved by other means. For example, NATO might offer a ceasefire, to be followed by the formation of a coalition government headed by a Gaddafi (not necessarily by Muammar) and including some leading rebels, under which east and west Libya would gradually be reunited. Overt and covert incentives would be offered to all parties to facilitate peaceful reunification.
Alternatively, the Libyan state might be preserved if NATO were to intervene directly with ground forces (one French brigade should be sufficient) to remove the Gaddafis from power and install the rebels as the new government in Tripoli. However, this approach is not as robust as it might appear. Because the new government would have been put in power by foreign forces, its legitimacy might be rejected by large segments of Libyan society. That, in turn, would weaken the Libyan state and could lead to Fourth Generation war on Libyan soil, with statelessness a possible outcome. (We may see the same scenario unfold in Ivory Coast.)
The fact that the rebels would welcome this alternative but would reject the other is immaterial. Because they depend on NATO for their continued existence, they must accept any NATO decision.
If NATO rejects both alternatives on political grounds, then it should not deceive itself: the most likely outcome will be the replacement of the Libyan state either with statelessness, as in Somalia, or with a faux state in which real power devolves to a wide variety of mutually hostile non-state entities, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, this is the worst possible outcome both for NATO and for the Libyan people.
In all scenarios, the greatest threat to Europe’s real (as opposed to ideological) interests is an increase in the flow of Islamic refugees across the Mediterranean. Such refugees will inevitably provide a new source of recruits for the Fourth Generation war Islam is already waging on European soil. The Mediterranean powers must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to prevent such a refugee flow, including a naval blockade of the North African coast and the forcible return of refugees. In the latter case, brief amphibious lodgments can be made on that coast for the purpose of landing the refugees.
NATO’s intervention in Libya was a blunder. Redeeming that blunder, if it can be redeemed, will require decisions and actions NATO will find difficult and unpleasant. They will nonetheless be far easier than living with a stateless Libya.