Libya appears to be on the edge of a precipice – teetering between the imminent overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi and a slow descent into a bloody and protracted civil war.
Governments around the world have been slow to recognise that the messaging developed in response to Egypt lacks credibility when applied to Libya. The international community is still hoping and praying that reason will prevail in Libya and that Gaddafi will be deposed without further bloodshed.
The package of measures agreed by the United Nations Security Council over the weekend – arms embargo, asset freeze, travel bans and threat of referral to the International Criminal Court – signals however that the international community is slowly recognising that should its prayers go unanswered it has wider responsibilities that it cannot shirk.
These measures are important symbolically – they are unlikely to change events on the ground, but they do signal international condemnation of Gaddafi and his subsequent return to pariah status. In a post 9/11 age where the term ‘international community’ has become contested this is no small achievement.
These measures are important substantially – they provide the foundational blocks for a more forceful intervention in Libya should Gaddafi’s misrule of terror persist. Additional building blocks might include the option of a non-fly zone and boots on the ground.
Knowing how slow the UN machinery works, the international community cannot afford to wait until a civil war is in full swing before initiating discussions regarding a more active intervention.
Early consideration of these options would heap yet more pressure on Gaddafi by signalling the international community’s future intent. It would also ensure that should the need arise plans can be executed swiftly before any civil war generates its own devastating dynamics which would be so much harder to contain.
Contemplating a more forceful approach to Libya is not the same as actively advocating a strategy of Western intervention. Enforcing a no-fly zone might well fall to NATO, but might one not look to the African Union to provide peacekeepers?
The idea of the UK becoming embroiled in yet another foreign conflict is unlikely to find much support here in Whitehall when the memories of the Iraq War are still fresh and with Afghanistan an ongoing concern. Even if public support existed for such an option -and it doesn’t at this moment - it is far from certain that the UK still possesses the capability to undertake a similar operation as it did in Sierra Leone.
All of this helps to explain why, from the UK perspective at least, the crisis in Libya is more than just about how we deal with a mad ruler who massacres his own people. At its heart it is about what type of country do we want Britain to be and what kind of contribution do we want to make to shaping the international community of tomorrow? Selling arms to autocratic rulers appears to have got the thumbs down so far.
Answering this set of questions involves a discussion that extends beyond considerations of national interest and the narrow obligations of government to involve questions of national self-perception, international influence, national autonomy and moral purpose.
That these questions have been raised so quickly after the conclusion of last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review only goes to show what a flawed and resource led process that review turned out to be. Is it time for a re-think?