THIS is the decision the US, and Barack Obama, have dreaded from the first moment of his presidency – to make another substantial military intervention in a Muslim, Middle East nation.
Once before, a US president took a risk on promoting democracy in the Middle East. That was George W. Bush in Iraq.
This time the intervention is smaller, the expectations lower. But the central uncertainty is the same – how can it end, what is the exit strategy, what are the bottom-line objectives?
The immediate outlook is unclear. At the very least the no-fly zone, and the more aggressive efforts to suppress Muammar Gaddafi’s ground offensives, should secure for the rebels their stronghold in eastern Libya.
This will allow the rebels to be resupplied and to set up more coherent governing structures.
The French have been widely criticised for extending formal diplomatic recognition to the rebels in the east as the only legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.
In fact this was a pro-active and smart move by the French. It facilitates a deeper political dialogue with the rebels over how they present themselves to the world and what sort of Libya they want to create.
Even if this results in a prolonged stalemate it is much better than outright victory for Gaddafi. And in fact the precedents are not too bad. For nearly a decade the US and its allies enforced a no-fly zone against Saddam Hussein’s forces over the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. The de facto state that developed there was liberal and well run by Middle Eastern standards and has been central to the democratic dialogue in post-Saddam Iraq.
Longer term, the dynamics unleashed by the intervention within Libya itself are unpredictable, but could easily result in the toppling of Gaddafi.
There is profound opposition to Gaddafi even in Tripoli. Some of his forces are mercenaries. Typically, mercenaries will fight without the slightest inhibition about inflicting civilian casualties for a regime like Gaddafi’s. But they will not fight to the last man in a losing cause. Only Gaddafi’s family, and perhaps some of his clan, could be relied on for that.
The US-led intervention demonstrates again the astonishing power of the Arab world to draw the West into its internal conflicts and force it to take sides and invest in particular political groups.
The key political development in enabling this intervention was the vote by the Arab League to request such an action. At the Security Council, the resolution was sponsored by Lebanon, on behalf of the Arab League, as well as Britain and France.
Once again, too, the situation shows the US as the indispensable power. Libya is a short distance from Europe, but nothing was ever going to happen without the Americans.
The intervention has three motivations – humanitarian, geo-strategic and political.
On humanitarian grounds the desire, as Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has repeatedly stressed, was to avoid a slaughter of the innocents by Gaddafi. Had he retaken full political control of Libya, he would have wrought a terrible revenge on the people who rose against him.
Geo-strategically, a triumphant Gaddafi, even if wounded, would have had all his worst instincts reinforced. He would have been emboldened as an enemy of the West and of moderate Arab regimes.
But perhaps the political consideration was the most important. If Gaddafi had survived the democratic efflorescence of the Arab spring, the lesson to dictators would have been clear. You will not lose power, even if almost all your people and the rest of the world hate you, so long as you are prepared to kill civilians.
This would have squandered a perhaps unique historical opportunity to give democracy a chance in the Arab world.
Rudd is right to worry about whether it has come too late.
A couple of weeks ago the momentum was wholly against Gaddafi, and his senior ministers, diplomats and even whole military units were defecting. But then his regime got itself organised, assembled its resources and made much more effective use of its superior fire power.
One of the real strategic dangers of the present situation is a prolonged stalemate. If this should eventuate the rebels need to control at least some of Libya’s oil to fund their operations.
But these are considerations for the weeks and months ahead.
The US will want desperately to limit its involvement, and yet anything which ultimately leaves Gaddafi in power will look like a defeat. Soon enough progressive opinion in the West, and paranoid opinion in the Arab world, will turn against the intervention.
Already Gaddafi is running out the familiar lines – the intervention is colonialist, it is the work of Western crusaders.
The politics within the Arab League will be critical here.
For Australia, it is almost an irony that we are not providing military resources of our own. Geoffrey Grey in his definitive military history of Australia argues that it is in the Middle East that Australia has had its greatest military effect.
This new twist in the West’s involvement in the Middle East is carried out on behalf of the people of Libya, but it is also in the West’s, and Australia’s, interests for a more decent, democratic, and less paranoid, political style to evolve in the Middle East.
The battle is joined once more.
By Greg Sheridan