Another Intervention in Libya? What’s at Stake

February 11, 2016 - Comments Off on Another Intervention in Libya? What’s at Stake

Should a US-led coalition intervene in Libya, with force, for the second time in five years?

This week, I was lucky enough to appear before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, alongside Professor Malcolm Chalmers from RUSI, and Chris Stephen, Libya correspondent at the Guardian. Here are some brief thoughts, building on our discussion.

The bottom line, up front: there is a case for a limited and focussed campaign to check the Islamic State’s expansion in the country, to fit the broader strategy of containment. The UK and the international community have real (though limited) interests in doing so.

At the same time, our first responsibility in conducting a military campaign is to ‘do no harm’ – or at least do minimal harm – to that country’s effort to establish a constitutional government, and to prevent sliding into anarchy. Libya’s destiny is primarily a matter for Libyans. Our job is to check IS’ expansion without making Libyans’ job harder.

Libya today is almost a shattered state. It is fragmented between rival factions (and factions within factions) and rival parliaments. Oil production – its main source of wealth -has plummeted badly since 2011. In this atomised society, there is even more than one institution that calls itself the Libyan National Army. If that isn’t bad enough, Libya is also an arena for Gulf Arab rivalries. There is currently a painstaking effort to pull together a unity government of ‘National Accord’, but the details are dividing Libyans and the process appears fragile.

Beyond compassion, why should we care? The Islamic State has a foothold there. It is expanding its presence. These Islamist zealots believe in the coming apocalypse and think Al Qaeda is too soft. But they are also opportunistic, exploiting divisions, making practical alliances and absorbing former rivals where they can.  IS has also seized the overthrown dictator Colonel Gaddafi’s coastal home town of Sirte, and a stretch of territory on either side. Somewhere, his ghost is laughing.

This raises two fears. One, that the Islamic State if left unchecked could use the country as a sanctuary, and as a staging post for more terrorism abroad. In the words of Libya’s ambassador to the UAE, might this turn Libya into IS’ ‘gas station, ATM and airport?’

Secondly, there are broader dangers. Further destabilisation could drive yet more people to flee North Africa into Southern Europe, with all the upheaval this brings. The security interests of the Medieterranean world and beyond are at stake.

With IS closing in on the country’s oil terminals and facilities, the very survival of the Libyan economy could be jeopardised. We can’t know exactly what more deterioation could bring in its wake. But we aren’t keen to run the experiment.

Before judging how to address the problem, a tiny note to liberal interventionists and R2P advocates. This was precisely the kind of chaos that the ‘something must be done’ faction confidently forecast would happen if we didn’t join the hostilities in 2011. If this ‘textbook’ ‘model intervention’, this exercise in ‘smart power at its best’ shows one thing, it is the lethality of untempered good intentions, especially when accompanied by swagger. President Obama reportedly was hesitant about the campaign in 2011. Evidently, with good reason.

History, however, happened. Judging on what we can know, now intervention in some form looks likely. Haunted by both the failures of intervention, and the failures of non-intervention, governments are understandably uncertain not whether but when and how to step in.

So what is the nature of the problem? Firstly, we should not interpret the emergence of IS in Libya as the sign of a resurgent, metastasising movement that poses a dire threat to our very existence.

On the contrary, IS raises its flag in Libya because it is suffering from the cumulative pressure that the US and its allies and other adversaries are applying on many fronts. IS is a protostate, as well as a terrorist movement, that seeks to rule territory and extract resources severely to fund its operations. Incrementally, gradually, frustratingly slowly, the current containment strategy is successfully strangling it.

Consider the indicators over the past year. IS’ expansion in its heartland ‘caliphate’ territory has been curbed. Airstrikes and ground operations have starved it of spectacular military victories to follow its most galvanising conquest, of Mosul in 2014. It has been evicted from Ramadi, Tikrit, and Baiji. This matters, because IS relies upon the mystique of world-historical victories to keep attracting recruits and edge ahead within the competitive jihadi marketplace. Slowly, combined pressure traps it within a ‘hammer and anvil’ dilemma. IS fighters cannot easily mass to mount offensive operations, as they will present large targets. But if they disperse for security, their effectiveness as a fighting force is weakened.

For those who fall under its rule, and those who migrate to join the show, IS offers a harsh purital rule and a high-taxing, extractive regime that bleeds dry the land it fights to defend. A flight of people and capital will probably follow. Defections are reportedly rising, though evidence is patchy. There are greater restrictions now from Turkey on the flow of fighters into Syria. Airstrikes and interdiction have badly damaged IS’ oil business and depleted its revenue. Only last month, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed, IS halved its jihadis’ salaries, its diminishing resources being split between fighting and governing. Even its own public preachments suggest that the tide is turning: IS’ own Media Centre has shifted its theme from triumph to endurance in the face of affliction.

This does not preclude more theatrical terrorist attacks like Paris. But those strikes too are a response to increasing adversity, not a symptom of a jihadi juggernaut. Libya is a concern to address. But for countries like the UK, the sky is not falling.

How, then, to intervene sensibly? The nature of the problem here is the difficult symbiosis between waging an effective military campaign to disrupt IS, while at the same time working hard to prevent the campaign accelerating the country’s unravelling.

Any prudent intervention should steer clear of the twin temptations of doing nothing or ambitously trying to fix the country. We can’t afford, and don’t have the political will, to insert a large stabilisation force into the country. Going by the rough rule of thumb in counterinsurgency, that an occupier needs 20 troops for every 1000 people, that would require 130,000 troops, an order of magnitude that is too costly and would probably generate resistance. We are talking about checking the advance of around 5-6000 IS fighters. Our society cannot continue fighting intensive large-scale COIN campaigns, and neither can our reduced and stretched armed forces. A ‘rollback’ strategy, or an effort to foist one ‘strongman’ on the country, would be a cure worse than the disease.

So a more limited campaign of selective airstrikes and advisory/training missions, married with special forces and working with locals is the most viable route. The trouble lies in the ‘misalignment problem‘, the tendency for  international forces and their hosts to have conflicting interests as well as common ones. Selecting worthy partners for assistance carries the risk of unintentionally fuelling conflict, by empowering some at others’ expense, driving fresh antagonism, undermining the effort at political reconcilation, and implicating the West with bad governance into the bargain.

Libyans like all of us are political, and increasing their capacity to govern and fight technically does not address the political problem, that others sometimes use the resources and capabilities outside powers give them for purposes we don’t like. We can’t control much of Libyan politics, but we can and should work hard to be discriminate. If this means taking more time and maintaining strong restrictions on airstrikes, then this is worth it. There are some practical steps that intervening powers can take, to avoid unwittingly exacerbating problems from economic collapse to the flight of people, creating a fertile ground for IS to recruit.

This means we need to work harder to insure against unintended consequences. An intensive diplomatic effort to get Gulf partners behind the unity government process is one move worth trying. Another is establishing coordinating mechanisms like joint command centres for intelligence collection and battlefield coordination for a better chance of avoiding entanglement in other conflicts, and some conditionality on assistance to armed groups. Furthermore, the focus ought to lie on a specific centre of gravity rather than on general stabilisation, namely the protection of oil production capacity. To give the creation of a new political settlement a chance means preventing IS doing the one thing that could destroy the economy and thereby undermine the legitimacy of any new order. The Islamic State is a real thing that threatens the country. It is also, potentially, a wonderful excuse for opportunists on the ground to abuse.

Distance itself counts. Libya’s geography limits the direct threat IS can pose and presents it with some notable disadvantages. It would be difficult for IS to export high volumes of oil, which would be vulnerable to interception at sea. Hostile factions and militias abound. There aren’t the same sectarian rivalries that IS can expoit in the Middle East. And IS’ setback last year in Derna could be the pattern of things to come, expansion followed by severe misrule, followed by resistance and revolt. In the meantime, European states can work harder to improve intelligence and counter-terrorist co-ordination, putting more barriers in the spaces in between.

The hardest part of this debate lies not in Libya, but domestically. There is a bipolar quality to foreign policy debate on both sides of the Atlantic. In recent times, public debate has lurched from ignoring mounting problems in Libya, to overreacting and branding dangerous situations as first-order ‘existential’ or ‘mortal’ threats. Containment may be the most sound strategy, but another terrorist attack at home could bait a reckless counter-reaction. Precisely at the time where sustained pressure is working, a little proportion is due.

There is a case for intervention, but one more mindful of a possibility than recent Strategic Reviews, that we may wish to act abroad in the name of the ‘golden thread’ of good governance, stability and development. But in acting to bring order, we can unwittingly be agents of chaos.

Intervention in Libya should focus on achievable goals, concentrating on what our troops are actually excellent at doing: helping others in fighting, capturing and holding ground. This is not a grand ‘solution’ – that is not in our gift – but part of a long-term strategy to contain the Islamic State while it slowly destroys itself. This would serve our security interests, while giving Libyans a chance to breathe and negotiate their own political future.





Appearance before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

February 11, 2016 - Comments Off on Appearance before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

On Tuesday 9th February, I appeared before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, for their session entitled ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options – oral evidence’.

The video is here, and the transcript of the hearing is in pdf here.

To help inform debate, I drew upon some earlier research and thinking about strategic problems, in my RUSI article on geography and security here and my forthcoming article on uncertainty and classical realism in the European Journal of International Security, the final draft of which I have posted on ‘’ here.

Some further thoughts to follow!

Article in The National Interest on Grand Strategy

December 11, 2015 - Comments Off on Article in The National Interest on Grand Strategy

Hal Brands and I have just published an article in The National Interest, defending the concept and practice of grand strategy against the charges of David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs.

Here it is.

This draws from Hal’s excellent book, What Good is Grand Strategy, and from a current article I am working on, ‘Is Grand Strategy an Illusion?’. Stay tuned!

Appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee

December 11, 2015 - Comments Off on Appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee

On 24 November 2015, I appeared before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee along with a colleague (Dr David Blagden), to comment on the recently issued ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’ of the UK. Our comments build on our published work, on great power rivalries in David’s case, and my work on the themes of uncertainty and geopolitics:



Twilight Struggle

August 13, 2015 - Comments Off on Twilight Struggle

My latest monthly column is here, ‘Twilight Struggle: The Cold War was neither Simple nor Stable.’ Enjoy!

A Speech, A Post, and Two Articles

August 1, 2015 - Comments Off on A Speech, A Post, and Two Articles

Its been a busy few months, starting work at the Strategy and Security Institute, at the University of Exeter which has proven to be an exciting place.

For Offshore Balancer followers, I’ve written an article in the RUSI Journal on ‘Why Distance Matters: Putting the Geo into Politics.’

I’ve also written a short cautionary piece on the debate over the No Fly Zone proposal and intervention in Syria here.

I’ve also started a monthly column at ‘War on the Rocks’, a great site helmed by Ryan Evans. The first column is here, ‘Was Paul Kennedy Right’, a qualified defence of Kennedy’s arguments about the gradual decline of the American superpower.

And there’s been a talk at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, about my book The Global Village Myth, here is a long clip:

Inaugural Lecture, 29th April 2015, All Welcome!

March 23, 2015 - Comments Off on Inaugural Lecture, 29th April 2015, All Welcome!

Inaugural Lecture of Professor Patrick Porter

“The Fog of Peace: Defence and Uncertainty”

DATE:              Wednesday 29 April 2015

TIME:               6.15pm, followed by a drinks reception in Xfi

VENUE:           Moot Room
Amory Building
University of Exeter
Rennes Drive

Again and again, stuff happens that shocks us. Despite investing in intelligence, contingent events catch us off guard, from disorder in the Ukraine, to revolutions like the Arab Spring. Experts and planners have a bad record of forecasting. So if we can’t reliably predict the future, how can we be wise in preparing for it?

This problem attracts a contradictory response from planners. They say life is unpredictable, but they predict it, claiming their states have the prescient capacity to prevent crises upstream. Some realists struggle with uncertainty too, treating the world as inherently uncertain, yet also patterned and scientifically legible. Regarding ourselves as bringers of order into chaos, we are bound to be shocked.

Wisely preparing for the unknown goes beyond ‘predicting better.’ Two classical thinkers, Carl von Clausewitz and Hans Morgenthau, offer a resource for handling the problem. For both, preparation meant not technocratic risk management, but a political struggle to define and rank the national interest as a compass and it meant educating people to cope with unique situations, only then could states navigate the fog of peace.

Click here to find out more about Professor Patrick Porter.

If you would like to attend please email to Places will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

George Kennan on credibility and retrenchment

March 21, 2015 - Comments Off on George Kennan on credibility and retrenchment
Testifying about America’s war in Vietnam, George Kennan argued
‘there is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives.’
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings. Supplemental Foreign Assistance Fiscal Year 1966 – Vietnam (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1966), pp. 335–36.
This ran counter to part of the general Cold War consensus among policymakers, that failure to commit fully to an ally, even in a peripheral war outside the ‘core’ military-industial power centers of East Asia and Western Europe, could erode credibility, induce a crisis of confidence in allies, and weaken the web of alliances that were essential to US national security.
As Peter Beinart notes, there was a tragic irony:

As a general rule, the men who led America into war did not see Vietnam itself as of great value. What haunted them was the fear that if America did not uphold its commitments there, it would demoralize America’s allies, and embolden the Soviets, in places that really mattered, like Central Europe. “Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand,” declared Lyndon Johnson in April 1965, “are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word.” If the United States did not uphold its guarantees to Saigon, added Secretary of State Dean Rusk, its “guarantees with regard to Berlin would lose their credibility.”

Ironically, the very European leaders whose morale Johnson and Rusk feared undermining if America abandoned South Vietnam—men like British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and French President Charles de Gaulle—privately urged the U.S. not to escalate the war. In the end, after tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese had died, the United States did abandon South Vietnam. And the world shrugged. Yes, communists racked up victories in some other corners of the developing world in the 1970s. But they lost ground in others. And in the heart of Europe, the place American policymakers really cared about, NATO held together and the Soviets stayed on their side of the Iron Curtain.

Book Available for Pre-order!

February 8, 2015 - Comments Off on Book Available for Pre-order!

I have a book coming out in March. The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.

Thanks to the sterling work of Georgetown University Press, it has gotten some very generous endorsements, and the link is here. Thanks too to Michael Dwyer and Hurst, who are publishing it in the UK and Europe, linked here.

The book tackles a subject this blog has considered for a while, the power of distance and the way it still exerts itself even in a supposedly globalised world.

The book writes a critical biography of the overblown and misconceived notion of a small, shrinking world of globalised insecurity.

It examines three ‘hard’ cases (hard for my argument) to show how the idea does badly under interrogation.

And it shows how this mythology encourages threat inflation, utopian liberal wars and other self-defeating behaviour.

Amaze your friends, break the ice at parties, and buy it.

Edward Gough Whitlam: Farewell to the Big Australian

October 21, 2014 - Comments Off on Edward Gough Whitlam: Farewell to the Big Australian


‘You either crash through, or you crash’ was a motto of Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia 1972-1975.

And crash (and crash through) he did. Like an asteroid that smashed its way into Australia’s political cosmos. He only held power for a brief, crowded moment. But after the crash, nothing would ever be the same.

I won’t say his asteroid transformed ‘the political landscape’, because that would be a weary cleche, not fitting the wittiest man ever to have occupied the role, a rhetorician reared in classical history, and a bitchy provocateur who traded in waspish remarks. Once an opponent from the conservative rural heartland – a constituency that never loved this most urban of premiers- reminded Gough ‘I am a country member.’ ‘I remember’, Whitlam replied.

Whitlam’s project, like Whitlam himself, was too gargantuan for the short time it occupied, and every achievement was shadowed by a crisis or failure. In just three years, he brought forth a vast expansion of the welfare state, but also hyperinflation and economic disarray that eroded the very living standards that he tried to lift up.

He launched a reassertion of Australian nationalism and independence (abolishing imperial honours and appeals to the Privy Council, and claiming ownership of Australian natural resources), but he also entrenched the long-standing practice of appeasing Jakarta. And fairly or not his unorthodox efforts to raise international loans through dodgy middle men made his government stink.

He was the architect of a realignment of foreign policy in Asia, withdrawing from Vietnam and recognising Communist China, a move that chimed precisely with the Nixon administration. But his public silence over the Indonesian atrocity in East Timor dogged him ever after.

He got Labor elected into power after two decades in exile. Yet his inflexible commitment to ramming through reforms at a rapid clip, and his literal interpretation of his party’s mandate, meant that he courted a political showdown that left his party decimated at the polls. In the ranks of the Party, Whitlam’s example was invoked just as much as a model to be avoided.

The precedent of Whitlamism, destroyed so quickly after such high hopes, helped drive the shift of future Labor leaders towards political longevity above all, through fiscal discipline, tactical retreats, and the embrace of capital as well as labour. Paul Keating in many ways emerged as the anti-Whitlam. Both had the instinct for the kill, but Keating despised the turbulence and indiscipline of the Whitlam years, and Hawke’s embrace of ‘consensus’ politics was designed as an antidote to memories of the three dark years.

It was Whitlam’s demise, however, his sacking by the Governor General after a parliamentary deadlock, that was also his most immortal hour. His denunciation of Sir John Kerr on the steps of Parliament house, and of the rival who would become a latter day ally of sorts, Malcolm Fraser, will echo through time.

That point of climax was also, necessarily, the point of decline. At a time when most of the electorate worried more about their jobs and mortgages, Whitlam campaigned on the principle of the supremacy of the House of Representatives, of ‘a great wrong that must be righted.’ Unwilling to bend, he broke. It was Whitlam, so there couldn’t be another way.

‘Why do you write so much about Australian history?’ a hapless interviewer once asked. With a glint in his eye, Gough answered ‘Because I’ve made so much of it.’

And so he did, and does. Rest lightly upon him, earth.