As ever, Hugh White nails it with an incisive, mild article, explaining how it would be difficult to limit our liability if we intervened in Libya:
it would be a cardinal error for Western leaders to launch a flight-exclusion zone there unless they had clearly recognised the possibility – indeed the probability – that it would fail and they would be drawn in much deeper.
As it stands, and for what its worth, I can’t support an attempted limited intervention until there is evidence that our leaders have carefully considered what’s at stake. Whatever the legal and moral questions in the abstract, we need to be assured that they have carefully weighed up how an action conceived in air conditioned rooms as a surgical and low cost flight ban could easily balloon into campaign against the adversary’s ground forces, resulting perhaps in a full scale land war. We need to know that they have considered the tendency of war and of how we historically behave at war. With the escalating combat, our conception of our own interests at stake would expand. It could mutate from a limited humanitarian operation into a war for our credibility, a war to honour the sunk costs of lives and political capital that the war would drain. If our actions didn’t result in regime change, this discrete problem would grow like a cancer, becoming a diplomatic nightmare. Because failure in war is very much an orphan, many of those calling for a moral conflict now would change their tune, accusing London and Washington of overreach, hubris and naivety.
Ultimately, this is about not what to think, but how to think. Its a difficult ‘on the line’ case for debating intervention. Libya isn’t Iraq or the Balkans; its terrain would make airpower more effective against conventional forces; there is broad international sympathy for internationalising the conflict; it superficially looks ‘do-able.’ And there’s the rub. We could easily be seduced into thinking this will be easy and fully controllable. We aren’t scared enough. We aren’t politically able to intervene competently, and until we are, the OSB is gently against it.