Ignoring the Libyan people.
What, dear friends, would you have thought the two most obvious and major lessons of the upheaval of the last 8 weeks should have been? Firstly, that almost anything can and will happen once the previous pervading sense of fear which inhibits those in autocratic states is overcome, to wildly generalise. Secondly, that you should never underestimate the power of a people all but united, their differences temporarily rendered irrelevant in the pursuit of a popular cause. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions brought down leaders whom had been in power for decades in a matter of days, to the amazement of everyone, including those who taking part in the protests. Even though the discontent and underlying factors behind the demonstrations had been coalescing for some time, next to no one expected the capitulation to be so swift or the movements established to be so broad-based and inclusive.
It's therefore just ever so slightly bewildering to witness the turn of events not in Libya itself, but back here in the West. Even by the standards set by the Tunisians and Egyptians, the Libyan uprising has been little short of astonishing. Twelve days ago many were confidently predicting the country was unlikely to be racked by the same demands for change reverberating around the rest of the Middle East, Gaddafi's state apparatus and the country's relative oil wealth mitigating against a similar taking to the streets. In that incredibly short space of time, helped along by "the Leader's" murderous response to the days of rage, much of the country has been effectively liberated; many of the country's diplomats, ministers and army divisions have defected; and only the capital and an ever dwindling section of land in the centre of the country remains under the Colonel's control.
You'd be forgiven for thinking then that the Libyans themselves have so far made a fairly decent job of organising their own revolution, and indeed of protecting their gains. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia it's true that there have almost certainly been far higher casualties, although no one has been able to provide anything approaching a definitive tally of dead and injured, most estimates suggesting 600+. Impossible as it is to rule anything out, going by the first lesson we've identified, Gaddafi's regime looks to be into its last days. Key now is just how quickly the end will come and whether, if he can't be persuaded to leave, and judging by his interviews that seems doubtful in the extreme, just how many of his own people he might be prepared to take down with him. This is tempered by what we've already seen over the past two weeks: that the vast majority of the forces left in his control have disobeyed orders to attack the protesters. Perhaps anticipating this, he brought in an unknown number of mercenaries, who have succeeded for now in brutally suppressing the uprising in Tripoli itself.
Quite why then there's been so much talk about the potential for imposing a no fly zone is difficult to gauge, given what's happened so far and the efficacy of what one would assume to be the model for the intervention, the no-fly zones maintained in Iraq until the overthrow of Saddam. While there's been reports of protesters being bombed and raids continuing today, there's been no confirmation that they've either been the main or a major source of casualties, or that the targets being hit over the past few days, rather than being civilian have been what would normally be considered legitimate in an internal conflict, arms caches apparently having been attacked. This isn't to suggest that Gaddafi's remaining air power isn't his most deadly potential weapon should he choose to use it and his pilots be prepared to obey their orders; it's more that we seem to be increasingly willing to get involved in a uprising in which we've hardly so far played the best role possible, and when the people themselves have shown no indication that they want direct help rather than the international support they've overwhelmingly received.
After all, it is worth a moment's reflection: up until 2 weeks ago we'd continued to supply Gaddafi with assault rifles and all the tear gas and rubber bullets he could possibly desire, all part of the reward for getting rid of his WMD and opening up his country to Western businesses. Just like France was stung over Tunisia, up until two days before Ben Ali fled offering to help put down the demonstrators, and how it took the Americans an incredibly long time to finally come to the conclusion that Mubarak had to go, so we've found ourselves in the position of having cosied up to a vile dictator and then been forced by events to turn the existing policy on its head. From arming the government David Cameron is now keeping his options open on arming the opposition, as if they don't already seem to have enough seized weaponry, some of it doubtless fresh from our finest defence manufacturers. Handing out guns and missiles without much thought for the future consequences is never the brightest idea at the best of times: doing so now as an entire region finds its voice and has up till now done so peacefully is a remarkably daft idea.
We seem to have moved from one extreme to something close to the other, ordering a leader to go and threatening to barge in to help, all while not putting much to any trust in those we've ignored from the very beginning, the Libyan people. Some of the thinking behind the possible no-fly zone may well be to make up for the previous lack of care, yet it also carries with it a history which is far from being completely straight. While the no-fly zone in the north of Iraq was an undoubted success and helped towards the Kurds gaining semi-autonomy, the no fly zone in the south may have stopped the killing from the air but did nothing whatsoever to end the oppression on the ground. If anything it helped to entrench Saddam's position over those last twelve years, and the regular sorties flew in the south did not endear the population towards either the Americans or ourselves. There always needs to be contingency planning, yet the very thought of regulating Libyan air space suggests that we do not believe that Gaddafi's fall is imminent, especially considering the time it would take to impose, requiring a UN resolution. This is to ignore just how swift the capitulation has so far been, and how quickly things could and almost certainly will change. Juan Cole suggests that Libya's oil production could well be a factor in the thinking towards intervention, carrying with it all the negative connotations of Iraq. And as Andrew Exum pointed out last Friday, western intervention in any Arab country, regardless of motives, is met with suspicion and anger.
Everything then should point us towards letting the intifada take its course. The "hands off" concept however seems to be one we simply can't follow, and the real reasons behind that may well shortly make themselves properly known.