Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict?


by Septicisle    
9:48 am - April 20th 2011

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The announcement that we’re sending 10 or 12 “experienced military officers” to Benghazi, it should be clear, changes precisely nothing on the ground in Libya. Ever since the passing of the UNSC 1973, or even possibly before, there will have been special forces/spooks in the country doing similar jobs.

No, what William Hague’s admission signifies is our desperation at how the situation has turned against the rebels, and also our inability to do anything about it other than gestures.

Despite the caveats made above, it is also a clear example of mission creep, precisely because we have now made official what was previously only being done in the shadows.

Hague’s statement was a master class in euphemism – apparently the main work of these experienced military officers will be to advise the rebels on how they can better “protect civilians”, with a side-order of telling them how they can better organise themselves. This though will absolutely not amount to training fighters, nor will it breach the UN resolution, because we’ve said it doesn’t.

You can give the Benghazi-based rebels all the advice in the world; but without proper training the best they’ll be able to do against Gaddafi’s forces will be a repeat of what’s happened in Misrata, where those who rose up have been able to slow the advance through urban guerilla warfare. Even with the best will in the world, they can only hold out against such a superior adversary for a few months.

Here, as Simon Jenkins writes, are the limitations of half-cocked liberal interventionism being played out: not all of those who wanted a no-fly zone were naive or paid little attention to what it would actually mean in practice.

Then there’s Ming Campbell, one of the first to call for something to be done, who seems to be incredibly uncomfortable with how it means sending in those blighters in the military. Alan Juppe meanwhile says with considerable understatement that NATO underestimated Gaddafi’s “capacity to adapt”, as though bombs from the air were ever going to be able to topple him alone.

All of this was both predicted and warned of, and yet the same old traps have been eagerly walked into once again. Cameron’s belligerence looks more like a self-inflicted wound by the day.


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About the author
'Septicisle' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He mostly blogs, poorly, over at Septicisle.info on politics and general media mendacity.
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Reader comments


Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict?

Not unless Libya finds itself a great-power backer.

2. flyingrodent

Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict?

I’d say it’s quickly and predictably turned into a the perfect example of our attempts at both “humanitarian intervention” and “regime change”, i.e. a badly-planned, poorly-executed and exceptionally violent shambles in which both government and press loudly remind us of the idiotically simplistic thinking that got us into the shit in the first place. Every major setback just proves how right we were in the first place, and shows how desperately we need to double our commitment.

Coming next, from the usual pundits and politicos – The fact that our execution has been ham-fisted and unproductive just proves that what we really need is about eight thousand heavily-armed UN soldiers in North Africa. That will totally work. Trust us!

It’s really amazing how impervious to evidence advocates for this kind of operation are, by the way. Every time one of these operations fucks up, we get a couple of years of grousing about how terrorists ate our homework, followed by pronouncements that the present crisis in no way resembles the last. In that sense, our oh-so humanitarian wars are Vietnamesque in that they repeatedly show up the limits of military power, forcing war enthusiasts to come up with new and innovative ways to ignore exactly those limits.

3. Aidan Skinner

Questions to which the answer is a depressing yes. It may not be Vietnam but it’s incredibly reminiscent of Iraq in 1991. No fly zones, limited air strikes, small numbers of irregulars on the ground.

I was in favour of intervention from the off, provided it was sufficiently swift and on an appropriate scale to be decisive. We delayed and delayed at the UN and have only done enough to keep the rebels fighting, but not enough to provide with them with a significant advantage.

As this drags on, there will inevitably be more civilian casualties from NATO air strikes sucking away the broad but shallow support this had. Not to mention the rank hypocrisy our governments are displaying to what’s happening in Bahrain etc.

From here I don’t a see good option, I’m starting to feel this will be another Afghanistan. Having started to act on a strongly put moral case we cannot easily cease to act, but we also cannot act in such a way that brings an end to things.

A hardly surprising result really, the revolution was over the moment the rebels needed to call in UN support. The rebels were effectively beaten. Things only got worse with former regime elements taking up positions in the rebel ranks, we’re now embroiled in helping one set of opportunistic elites oust the current set of elites, either result is going to give the people of Libya the short end of the shaft. Rather than attempt to broker a peace settlement straight away, you know, to stop people dying, we decided a bit of regime change was in order, via the back door of ‘humanitarian intervention’, which historically has always gone well…

Flying Rodent:

Coming next, from the usual pundits and politicos – The fact that our execution has been ham-fisted and unproductive just proves that what we really need is about eight thousand heavily-armed UN soldiers in North Africa. That will totally work. Trust us!

That’s ‘eight thousand heavily-armed UN “advisers”‘. There is a difference, but only if you’re Cameron or Sarkozy.

PS: Why ‘Vietnam’ and not, say, Nicaragua? It’s not as if the strategy of supporting the Contras was legal.

No.

This should be a new variant of Godwin’s Law, something about how long it takes a lefty to claim any given conflict is a new Vietnam. Not only does Libya not have a great power backing it with materiel and moral support, nor do the Allies have a large chunk of domestic political opinion undermining them at every turn (idiot Fifth Columnists like ‘Muslims Against Crusades’ and their ilk are insignificant in this regeard).

Pathetic.

7. Shatterface

‘No, what William Hague’s admission signifies is our desperation at how the situation has turned against the rebels, and also our inability to do anything about it other than gestures.’

So do you want us to stop ‘gestures’ and launch a proper invasion, or what?

Hague seems to be being attacked for doing to little or too much, often by the same people.

I always love the comparison with Vietnam. Add in Somalia and Suez and you have just about the full list of western military interventions that did not achieve their objective – they may have left a mess, humanitarian disaster or a broken state, but they achieved their objective.

So odds on, the western powers will win this one. After all, they have a government in waiting, more popular support than the current regime and some legitimisation. All of those were lacking in the failed interventions.

Ultimately, without some outside help (and without control of the oilfields, there is no incentive for anyone to help Colonel Gadafi), all the regime can do is fight against potentially increasing resources – and with the almost inevitable loss of support that failing to win will bring it.

9. organic cheeseboard

they have a government in waiting

hmm, not sure about this one. The ‘govt in waiting’ seems very likely to be dominated by certain tribes who are unlikely to have much popularity in, say, Tripoli. this:

more popular support than the current regime

is not exactly quantifiable either.

nor do the Allies have a large chunk of domestic political opinion undermining them at every turn

I’m not sure how true this will be if we start sending in ground troops.

10. Flowerpower

It can only be a matter of time before this headline is added to John Rentoul’s “500 questions to which the answer is NO”.

The United States Military Assistance Advisory Group was established in Saigon in September 1950. By 1963 the number of military advisors had jumped to 16,300.

Ground forces weren’t committed in serious numbers unti 1965 – almost fifteen years after the advisors went in.

So we’ve still got some breathing space………

@10
My father was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in 1963, so not all military personnel in Vietnam were advisors. In fact the USAF had quite a presence there and yes, they did bomb targets.

12. flyingrodent

The author’s original post was titled “Mission creep and self-inflicted wounds”, but an LC editor has given it a more attention-grabbing headline. Thus, have we got a series of content-free LOLwars comments.

“Cameron’s belligerence looks more like a self-inflicted wound by the day.”

David Cameron couldn’t give a flying fuck about libyan civilians, he hounds sick and disabled British civilians into an early grave with his sickness benefit “reforms” and they are supposedly his own people.

The opportunisitc bastard thought his falklands had arrived and his chance had come to emulate his spiritual leader the Iron bitch by engaging in an easy military engagement to increase his popularity with the jingoisitic Sun newspaper addled British public.

I have some sympathy for the government on this one, though I do tend to be sceptical of foreign military entanglements (particularly Iraq). Gaddafi was about to crush and butcher the rebels, and the EU was faced with the prospect of coping with a huge refugee problem as Gaddafi supressed the rebellion. Morality and EU/national interest coincided. Something had to be done, and the French and UK governments opted for a no-fly zone as the only plausible option. The US saw this as a regional conflict in which it had no direct interest; and much of the rest of the EU/NATO – particuarly, Germany, Italy and Spain – has decided to leave the costs to us and the French.

That said, I’m not too pessimistic about the outcome. A negotiated settlement might yet emerge. Libya might be partitioned (though that could lead to a massive refugee problem). Gaddafi might be assassinated or flee. The military tide could turn…

15. organic cheeseboard

much of the rest of the EU/NATO – particuarly, Germany, Italy and Spain – has decided to leave the costs to us and the French.

and why not? it was cameron and Sarko who were pushing desperately for it…

A negotiated settlement might yet emerge

surely not? given that our leader as well as Sarko and Obama have explicitly said that Gadaffi must got for us to have succeeded…

Why do any of you care about a civil war (I thought you ‘Liberals’ hated getting involved in such things, ‘Vietnam’ and that!) in a country that no longer has any baring on us and where the so called ‘rebels’ are made up of a huge ass chunk of Anti-Western Jihadist medieval nutbags… that not long ago were blowing up the SAME WESTERN FORCES that are now helping them?!

It’s safer for us to have a now regional scumbag like Gaddafi in power rather than yet another lot of Islamists Jihadists!

Look hoe Egypt is already going as far as more and more power to Islamist groups is going and the increasing Islamic violence happening against non-Muslims and naughty Muslims (like hacking off a Christian man’s ear because he was seeing a Muslim woman!).

You idiots worried about ‘stalled rebel forces’ should be glad they stay stalled, then stay dead and then let Gaddafi just rot away naturally.

Then perhaps all the effort and resources being spent on **helping Al Qaeda** filled ‘rebel’ armies can be moved to help OUR soldiers (already struggling for resources) as they fight the exact same medieval fucks our Government is disgracefully helping out in Libya!

Libya strikes me as yet another example of the international system’s ability to protect civillians and ensure they can experience a level of ‘consent’ in their governance. Intervention couldn’t be stronger and regime change couldn’t be planned for because it was illegal. There is only so much planning you can do in the shadows.

It strikes me that the only way civillians can be protected in Libya is through regime change. NATO have done a reasonable job so far of working towards this when it is considered that their hands are pretty tied – both in actions AND planning.

Simon Jenkins is partly right in saying that this is ‘half cocked liberal interventionism’ in action. But who’s fault is that? As far as I’m concerned the problem lays at the door of the international system, particularly Russia and China who are hell bent in preserving an inpenetrable cloak of sovreignty.

Those on the left should spend less time bashing NATO for trying to make the best of a bad situation and instead direct their efforts at facilitating international change. A robust implementation of ‘responsibility to protect’ and with it the notion that sovreignty is somethign that flows from the people and that there ARE actions that a government can take that cause them to lose their sovreignty and legitimacy to govern.

18. flyingrodent

Those on the left should spend less time bashing NATO for trying to make the best of a bad situation and instead direct their efforts at facilitating international change.

You know, the more messed up bloodbath wars our idiot governments get us involved in at the behest of wide-eyed naifs with Big Ideas, the less interested I become in advice on what the left should do.

Could the people who seem to believe the Western powers are intervening ‘cos they, like, totally hate Gaddafi tell me why they’ve let Moussa Koussa swan in and out of Britain? I’m not sure that Hess was allowed to drop in and out as he pleased.

A robust implementation of ‘responsibility to protect’ and with it the notion that sovreignty is somethign that flows from the people and that there ARE actions that a government can take that cause them to lose their sovreignty and legitimacy to govern.

Will the people enforce this, or governments? Because if it’s the latter you might have a small conflict of interest contained within your plan, which renders it completely worthless.

Britain’s military intervention in Libya – although not in Bahrain, the Yemen or Syria to curb the repression of demonstrators for regime change – has bee hugely successful in crowding the worrying NHS news out of BBC headlines.

As Flying Rodent points out, the part where I made pretty clear this wasn’t likely to be another Vietnam was cut out and the headline, admittedly better than mine but not exactly related the text was stuck on.

Shatterface: That’s been the problem with this whole enterprise though, hasn’t it? If you’re going to intervene to protect the lives of civilians, it’s pointless to only do things by halves; either you send in the necessary peacekeepers, rather than just hoping you can bomb it better, or you don’t do anything at all. I’ve been in the latter camp since the beginning, while still hoping that we’re doing works. Sadly, it hasn’t, and it’s been all too predictable.

23. Thatcherite Clegg

The usual Neocon blithereing idiots still don’t see their folly I see.

Even a few more months of this oil quagmire won’t persuade them since they were gung-ho they supported Iraq.

All this was predicted to the shrill yelling of would you leave the civilians to get butchered by Saddam!, sorry.. Gaddafi.

Strange how they are still happy to let civilians get butchered in Syria, Bahrain Yemen.

24. Daddy Mama

“The usual Neocon blithereing idiots still don’t see their folly I see”

Excuse me!?
It’s the Lefty pricks like on here that have supported action being taken. Go read other Libya articles.
Blithering on about ‘protecting civilians’ (whatever a civilian is in this non-uniform revel army filled with Jihadists) and only Nazis don’t want to get involved it seems by the logic on here…despite getting involved means we help a bunch of fascists holding Qurans.

25. Thatcherite Clegg

This was Cameron and Osborne’s idea.
Go read up on what a PM is if you still don’t understand.
Those around Cameron are fully paid up Neocons.
Blair was a fully paid up Neocon.

Though I suppose Bush must be a “lefty prick” for starting Iraq must he ?

@20 cylux

“Will the people enforce this, or governments? Because if it’s the latter you might have a small conflict of interest contained within your plan, which renders it completely worthless.”

That seems like a cop out to me cylux; there are obviously situations in which “the people” are unable to enforce regime change, usually because those in charge have the tanks, secret police etc. In such cases we are therefore left with 3 alternatives;

1) sit on our hands and do nothing (as has often been don in the past, and is now being done in many parts of the world), mouthing platitudes about how awful it is, but that really, these are far away places of which we know nothing, and…anyway.. national sovereignty is paramount isn’t it?

2) give an institution like the UN the power to do something about it, over-riding national sovereignty where required in the interests of those being oppressed, a la R2P; or

3) rely on “the usual suspects” to do it on behalf of the international community, but feel free to sit on the sidelines and throw rocks and complain how repugnant those doing the deed are, either from the left because it’s imperialism, from the right because it’s a quagmire and we don’t care about coffee coloured people, or because you’re a crazy conspiracy theorist that sees mad Islamists round every corner.

In the end we can’t have our cake and eat it. there is a moral imperative to act, and support the overthrow of illegitimate governments who oppress and butcher their own people. If we really find the motives of western liberal democracies so suspect, then let’s put forward a plan for multi-lateral action which takes narrow national interest out of the frame, but doesn’t allow the likes of China and Russia to act as barriers by insisting that national sovereignty is inviolable. It isn’t….nor should it be.

Galen, no-one I’ve read on this site thinks that soveriegny is inviolable, that’s little more than a straw man. What people are saying, in simple terms, is that military intervention usually doesn’t work and often makes things worse. Unless you can address those arguments, your ‘moral imperative to act’ really isn’t worth a bean.

there is a moral imperative to act

Moral imperative to act != bombs away!

Now the average Libyan non-combatant has to worry about being blown up by NATO air-strikes, being killed by Gadaffi’s faction for being a suspected member of the rebels, being killed by the rebels for looking “African” and therefore a Gadaffi hired mercenary, being killed by the rebels as a suspected loyalist, or just generally getting caught in the cross-fire.
We’ve protected no one in this conflict, though we have kept the civil war going, not sure if that really falls under the remit of “responsibility to protect” but well, there you go.
Also I’m not sure why the Arab League’s support was the boon it was considered to be, indeed their lack of support now might well have something to do with the point I made at 20.

27 Larry

Hmmnn… it’s generally a sign of desperation when people call “straw man” in any debate; insisting that military intervention “usually doesn’t work” or that it “often makes things worse” can equally well be seen as a dialogue of despair.

It isn’t possible (and never was, and never will be) to guarantee 100% that any given intervention will be totally successful, that it will achieve “every” goal, or that it may not have unintended consequences….. but arguing that unless we can fulfill some unrealistic “tick-list”, then the default position should be to do nothing is just as much a straw man as the one you accuse me of advancing earlier.

What I AM arguing, is that whilst I happen to share the suspicion that western liberal democracies have double standards when it comes to where they can and should intervene, I DON’T think the answer is the status quo, or doing nothing. The answer is for democratic societies to stop supporting authoritarian regimes of ALL types, and make it clear that we will actively pursue diplomatic, economic and (in extremis) military means to ensure they don’t use lethal force to suppress the human rights of their own populations. R2P should mean something… and not just with respect to those regimes deemed to be in the axis of evil.

@28 Cylux

“…..We’ve protected no one in this conflict…2

Oh come now… are you HONESTLY trying to say, contrary to all the evidence on the ground, that you think the lifting of the imminent threat to Benghazi didn’t save thousands of lives when the campaign started?

You’re either not very well informed, or so blinkered by your ideological position that you are prepared to re-write history in a way that would have made Ingsoc proud in 1984!

What I AM arguing, is that whilst I happen to share the suspicion that western liberal democracies have double standards when it comes to where they can and should intervene, I DON’T think the answer is the status quo, or doing nothing. The answer is for democratic societies to stop supporting authoritarian regimes of ALL types, and make it clear that we will actively pursue diplomatic, economic and (in extremis) military means to ensure they don’t use lethal force to suppress the human rights of their own populations. R2P should mean something… and not just with respect to those regimes deemed to be in the axis of evil.

If I said I share a suspicion that financial institutions aren’t entirely honest about their investments it wouldn’t be an “answer” to say that they “should be more honest”. How do you make them into your ideal?

@31 Ben Six

“How do you make them into your ideal?”

By applying diplomatic, economic and ultimately military force to make them change their ways: the balance between the methods used being dependant on the individual situation. It’s not rocket science.

Applying military force to the “democratic societies”? Methinks you’ve misread me.

It’s not rocket science.

No, international intervention isn’t rocket science. If anything it’s more complex.

@32 No I’ll think you’ll find blowing stuff up with missiles IS rocket science.

@33

Or perhaps you just aren’t making yourself clear enough? ;)

@36

Cylux, do you think 1 reference from a US site somehow “proves” your point? Even at face value it is hardly germane, as it discusses Misrata. Are you trying to say Gaddafi’s forces would have rolled into Benghazi and just given those misguided rebels a sever talking to?!

37 -

Let’s have a second take, then. You identified deficiencies within the “western liberal democracies” and then advanced as a solution the idea that they should, well – act better. Fair enough, but how are you going to make them act better? How do you see this change occurring?

@37

..and of course, my post could have been clearer in that I was referring to the need for democratic states potentially to take action against those oppressing their populations; I blame sausage fingers and touch screens, apologies!

@39 Ben Six

“Making” them do it is a tough one of course; it may be an uphill struggle, as when it comes to it most (all?) of the potential actors will tend to default to a position which protects their own narrow national interests, and it’s really only a happy coincidence if that happens to coincide with “the right thing to do”.

If “the people” (broadly defined) in western liberal democracies want to see it change, then it is upto them in the end to bring about the conditions, even if it means surrendering some sovereignty, and potentially foregoing some of the economic benefits of dealing with odious regimes because we can sell them stuff, or buy resources from them, or use them as a source of cheap labour whilst not asking too many awkward questions about their treatment of their own people.

Ethical foreign policies don’t exactly have a great track record I realise :(

no libya is not slowly becoming vietnam, libya is RAPIDLY becoming vietnam .
worse may be the cosequences for cameron if it becomes his iraq. not that i am in the slightest bit concerned for camerons political future, but for the libyan people who have been forgotten, this could be a disaster. as usual, the politicians only care about how it pans out for them, not for the people.

@42 andy

If you think Libya is becoming “another Vietnam” then tell us how, then justify why this is happening rapidly…as neither seems evident to me at all.

Similarly, feel free to enlighten us as to how the Libyan situation is at all similar to that in Iraq, because again, I really don’t see the similarities.

Like you, I don’t care about Cameron’s political future at all, indeed I heartily hope he doesn’t have one…. but that doesn’t mean that I’d agree with you that the Libyan people have been forgotten; badly served perhaps… but hardly forgotten (altho’ you might well argue that the people of syria, Yemen, Bahrain etc have been more or less forgotten……?).

Libya could be a disaster, yes; there are no guarantees. Then again, total inaction carried risks too, and not just for the inhabitants of Benghazi, or Arabs in other countries waiting to see how the “Arab Spring” panned out.

I have no axe to grind for Cameron or any of the other politicos behind the decisions to intervene…. but the fact that they will all have agendas doesn’t ipso fact mean that humanitarian intervention and a concern to stop Gadaffi butchering his own people can’t be amongst the motives.

@38

Are you trying to say Gaddafi’s forces would have rolled into Benghazi and just given those misguided rebels a sever talking to?!

No, I think Gaddafi’s forces would have rolled in and only gunned after the rebels, which is similar to what his forces are currently doing in Misrata. Rather focused behaviour for someone who is apparently a “Mad Dog”, no? Certainly some non-combatants would have been killed by “collateral damage”, but since they are now anyway (indeed by our own air-strikes too) that hardly warrants a “humanitarian intervention”.
However the intervention wasn’t sold as a method of supporting one side in a civil war and keeping them in the game, it was sold as a way of preventing the slaughter of innocents. Of course once the imminent threat to rebel forces stationed in Benghazi was removed mission creep settled in with blindingly obvious predictability. Now, apparently, Gaddafi has to go, from stopping a bloodbath to regime change does the fig-leaf of RTP roll.

And what is your suggestion for Libya?

@44 Cylux

I doubt many (least of all Libyans on the ground in Benghazi) share your somewhat rose tinted view of how Gaddafi’s regime would have behaved a few weeks ago had they not been stopped by the intervention. You appear to think that as long as he was “surgical” enough in his liquidation of those involved in the uprising, that their deaths and the attendant collateral damage are somehow acceptable, but that deaths attributable to the intervention are not defensible.

The scale of civilain casualties caused by the intervening forces pales in comparison with what would have happened had Benghazi fallen; anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a dream world.

Gaddafi has to go because he can’t be trusted not to do the same again. He has to go because any leader (whether in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria or elsewhere) who thinks it is OK to murder hundreds of their own people has to understand that they lose all legitimacy.

A golden opportunity was lost in the first few weeks of the uprising when Gaddafi could probably have been toppled more easily; instead it takes weeks of hand wringing and trying to convince the credulous before anything is done, thus making a drama out of a crisis. We obviously learnt nothing from the Balkans, because too many people still think it’s none of our concern, or that national sovereignty is a get out of jail free card for crazed dictators, or that the sky will fall down and it will be another Vietnam.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict? http://bit.ly/fF5cK9

  2. Anthony Parker

    RT @libcon: Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict? http://bit.ly/fF5cK9 <snap thats exactly what i was thinking!

  3. dhugoza

    RT @libcon: Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict? http://bit.ly/fF5cK9

  4. Finola Kerrigan

    RT @libcon: Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict? http://bit.ly/fF5cK9

  5. FlyingRodent

    RT @libcon: Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict? http://bit.ly/fF5cK9

  6. Jane Phillips

    “@libcon: Is Libya slowly turning into a Vietnam-style conflict? http://t.co/LZHqU2w”

  7. Gareth Winchester

    RT @libcon: Is Libya turning into a Vietnam-style conflict? http://t.co/umlRkWv <- Dunno. Do Libyans consider western forces to be invaders?





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