“Something should be done” is a phrase which resonates with students of Britain’s political history. It was the off-the-cuff comment made by short-term King Edward VIII in November 1936, just a month before he abdicated to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. He was visiting an abandoned colliery in an area of high unemployment.
“These works brought all these people here,” he said. “Something should be done to get them at work again.”
The remark created a furore in British political circles, since it was taken as a royal rebuke to the government for not doing enough to tackle the nation’s chronically high unemployment.
Edward did not, of course, specify what the “something” was that he thought should be done, but doing “something” is not the same as solving an intractable problem. Take the case of Libya.
In 2011, Libya was engaged in a bloody civil war, generated by the so-called “Arab Spring”, in a bid to rid itself of the oppressive dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. On 17 March 2011 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, authorising any country that wished to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to do so. The aim was to prevent government forces loyal to Gaddafi from carrying out air attacks on the forces opposing him, and thus to speed his departure from the scene.
Thus was played out, in real life, the so-called “politicians’ syllogism” made famous in the British TV series “Yes, Prime Minister”. It goes as follows:
We must do something
This is something
Therefore we must do this
A clutch of countries, the US, the UK and France among them, piled into Libya with enthusiasm, intent on defeating Gaddafi’s forces, and without a thought as to what might follow. The US dubbed its operation “Odyssey Dawn” and the UK “Operation Ellamy”. At its peak the UK had around 4,000 personnel, 37 aircraft and four ships committed to the operation but, in common with its allies and in accordance with the best political thinking of the time, no boots on the ground.
With Gaddafi down and out, the Western combatants thankfully withdrew, leaving Libya to its own devices. The absence of any serious post-conflict planning meant that the country quickly descended into anarchy, and while rival groups competed for power, Islamic State (IS) saw its opportunity, slid in, and gained a substantial foothold inside the country. As a result, Libya’s 1,200-mile coastline now acts as a safe haven for Islamic State fighters.
The multi-nation anti-IS coalition, led by the US, is dedicated to defeating IS wherever its hydra-headed presence shows itself, and there is a growing desire on both sides of the Atlantic to rid Libya of IS and help it back to stability. Unfortunately UN-sponsored attempts to weld together a government of national unity have so far failed. Although an agreement on paper has been signed between the two main rival administrations inside Libya – the official one based in Tripoli; the unofficial in Tobruk – it has not been endorsed by leading figures in either camp and remains a dead letter.
Meanwhile IS is making full use of the political stalemate to consolidate its grip over the enclaves it has seized on the Libyan coastline. In Gaddafi’s birthplace, Sirte, the group has established Sharia courts that administer public beheadings and floggings for offences such as apostasy and witchcraft. But IS’s intentions extend beyond its radical religious agenda. It is also eyeing Libya’s oil reserves, and has begun targeting the Marsa al Brega refinery, the largest in North Africa. Libya has about 48 million barrels in crude-oil reserves, the most in Africa, according to OPEC (the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries). The oil and gas sector accounts for about 95% of Libya’s export earnings.
On 2 February 2016 members of the international anti-IS coalition met in Rome to consider how to prevent the extremist group from gaining a stranglehold in Libya and seizing its oil wealth. Also on the minds of the European members of the coalition was the urgent necessity to stem the flood of migrants pouring into southern Europe from North Africa.
Western military interventions in the Middle East, made in circumstances more stable than today’s chaos, have almost always provoked more problems than they solved. It was the lessons learned in such military adventures that gave rise to the mantra of “no boots on the ground”.
But that rule of thumb too has been tried, tested and found wanting in the IS-generated bedlam now prevailing in much of the Middle East. Air support for inadequate numbers of local fighting units is not enough. Which is why serious consideration is being given in Europe and the US to establishing a 6,000-strong multi-national force intended to provide support for a Libyan national unity government while helping to eradicate the IS threat.
Veteran Middle East commentator Con Coughlin suggests that to many people the idea of dispatching such a modest force to a country five times the size of France is an accident waiting to happen. Which is why the Rome conference – rejecting the “politicians’ syllogism – held back from launching immediate military aid, declaring that an essential pre-requisite was the establishment of a new unity government. The concluding resolution announced that the coalition nations had determined to continue to monitor developments closely, and “stand ready to support the Government of National Accord in its efforts to establish peace and security for the Libyan people.” So for now, according to US Secretary of State Kerry, the coalition plans to work with Martin Kobler, the UN envoy for Libya, to help the country form a unity government. That process, he said, was crucial to prevent it from sliding into the hands of the Islamic State.
The EU views the situation with particular concern. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, migrants and jihadist infiltrators use the Libyan coast as a launching point into the Mediterranean, hoping to reach Europe, via Italy. So the EU is urging Libya’s factions to support a broad-based unity government or face the prospect of more chaos.
Libya requires political stability, not only to have the strength to defeat its own internal jihadist enemies, but to take advantage of the help of the multi-nation coalition, which stands ready to provide logistical and military support.
So, yes, something must be done – but it cannot be imposed from the outside. Libyans themselves must put aside local rivalries and come together to establish a government of national unity. A democratically elected parliament is the arena in which political battles are best fought.