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Whether declared or not, we are at war in Libya

By Gary Brown - posted Tuesday, 5 April 2011

“War”, wrote the famous early nineteenth century military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, “is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” Notwithstanding the fundamental changes in warfare since Clausewitz’ day, this statement remains true, and its truth is being demonstrated every day on the battlefield of Libya.

Libya is in a state of civil war between the noxious Gaddafi regime and rebels who (we hope) are seeking the establishment of a society with institutions reflecting the freely expressed will of the people. Not just because the Gaddafists appear willing to commit large-scale atrocities against the people but because the regime has made itself an extraordinary number of international enemies during its inglorious history, it has proven possible to put together a political coalition which obtained UN authorisation for limited intervention there.

Russia and China, the natural friends of authoritarian regimes, opted not to veto the resolution, in part to avoid the odium of being seen to support so disreputable a government but also no doubt hoping that the intervention will fail, damaging the credibility of those involved. They think they are giving the west just “enough rope” to nobble the intervention, and if we are not careful, they could be right.


To assemble the anti-Gaddafi political coalition significant concessions had to be made. Of these the most important was the over-arching justification: to protect civilians from Gaddafist massacres. Regime change is not a UN-approved motive here, so direct tactical co-operation with the rebel forces is not explicitly authorised.

What is the result of these political compromises? We have seen the rebels, close to defeat when intervention began, sweep westward along the coast road only to be halted and bundled back in apparent disarray. It seems that only with coalition aircraft overhead to suppress Gaddafist firepower are the rebels anything like a match for their opponents.

More important still, it appears that Gaddafi’s forces retain considerable mobility, and that he retains effective command-and-control over them. This demonstrates that Coalition air power is not being used effectively to cut Gaddafist lines of supply or, equally significant, to destroy Tripoli’s ability to communicate with its forces at the fighting front.

In military terms, these are gross errors or omissions. I have no doubt that, correctly employed, coalition air forces could prevent any significant movement or concentration of Gaddafi’s forces in the Libyan desert environment. Likewise, it is certain that properly utilised coalition airborne electronic warfare (EW) capabilities could stop Gaddafi communicating securely with anyone at all beyond Tripoli except by carrier pigeon. It could also prevent even local tactical control of his forces at the front. Yet we see that neither of these things have been achieved. The reasons can only be political.

Of course, Gaddafi isn’t having it all his own way. As evidenced by the flight of its (now ex) Foreign Minister to the UK, the regime is under heavy pressure and shows some signs of internal fragmentation. And it appears to be depending on mercenary soldiers, reliable only so long as they are paid and – unlike many among the rebels, who are fighting for their own freedom – notoriously reluctant to become dead heroes, to supplement its own limited forces. It is only in comparison to the rebels that Gaddafist Libyan ground forces are well trained and equipped, and it took the UN coalition only a week to effectively destroy Gaddafi’s Air Force. The Gaddafists are vulnerable and properly exploited their vulnerabilities will result in their defeat.

I believe that, while paying whatever lip-service is required to the political sensitivities, the coalition needs to employ its unquestioned air and EW superiority in direct support of the rebels. It also needs to arm the rebels and to persuade other Arab states (Egypt would be my pick) to send a few well-qualified military personnel (in civvies, of course, and fully “deniable”) to provide the rebel forces, who are very brave but quite incompetent militarily, with military advice on tactics and operations.


I believe this for three main reasons. First, the coalition powers are now committed. If Gaddafi survives this war in power, it will be exactly the reverse those like Putin in Moscow and Hu Jintao in Beijing are hoping for. The only people who will benefit from such an outcome are authoritarian regimes. The west simply cannot afford such a result.

Second, a Gaddifi victory will create a significant increase in the number of refugees worldwide, as with good reason people flee his vengeance. The last thing the world needs right now are more refugees from conflict. Far better, for all concerned, that they be enabled to stay home in a country where mass murder is no longer an instrument of state policy.

But the last reason is the most important. The Gaddafi regime is a brutal tyranny. If it wins it will take a terrible revenge on every oppositionist it can find. Simple humanity – and here we return to the core of the UN resolution – demands that if we can help the Libyan people free themselves from Gaddafi’s rule, we should do so. If we don’t, we will carry the guilt for years to come. I have not forgotten how the Americans, having encouraged their uprising, then abandoned the Iraqi Shia population to Saddam’s butchers in 1991, preferring “legality” to humanity. I myself argued against wider intervention at that time; never was I more mistaken.

It is the nature of democracies and diplomats to dither, procrastinate and explore non-violent means to resolve difficult questions, and this is no bad thing. Nevertheless, some decisions can only be put off for so long, or the result can be a Rwanda, a Srbenica, an Auschwitz. In Libya we waited almost too long. Now that we are committed, we need to use the full measure of our air, technical and logistical superiority to ensure the speedy removal of the Gaddafi regime. If we drop this ball, we could yet stand indicted before the whole world as big on talk, but lamentably short on action. In this case humanity demands action, and so does political interest.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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