When the green shoots of the “Arab Spring” first sprouted in Tunisia (in late 2010, despite the media-embraced “Spring” descriptor) and quickly spread to Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, scattering seeds across the entirety of North Africa and the Middle East, one of the favourite games of international observers was to argue over which historical revolutionary era this new crop of rebellions would most closely resemble. Would it be Europe 1848 all over again? Or would it be more like the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, or the Prague Spring of 1968? Probably not England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, given that the pundits have yet to drag James II and William of Orange into this business. Still, as a model for a revolution that didn’t descend into bloody civil war, King Billy’s invasion of England showed he was sometimes capable of peaceful protest(antism).
Speaking of bloody civil war: Libya’s populist uprisings are quickly heading in that direction, and the conflict has become internationalized. At the request of the Libyan opposition, a U.S.- and French-led coalition (including Canada) is enforcing a no-fly zone over parts of the country and attacking pro-Gaddafi ground troops in an attempt to not only protect civilians but also take away one of the dictator’s main military advantages over the armed opposition.
As to the quasi-burning question of which historic Western military intervention the Libyan campaign will most resemble, consider the following three choice candidates. Here’s hoping that the military strategists and empire (re)builders can learn from them, because repetition is boring.
Operation El Dorado Canyon (1986)
The U.S. launches air attacks against Libyan air defences and other military targets, in retaliation for Gaddafi-sponsored terror attacks in Europe. The attacks may have targeted Gaddafi himself; regardless, he escaped harm. The Libyan government claimed that the attacks caused heavy civilian casualties, though the claims were mostly unsubstantiated. The attacks were limited, and Gaddafi stayed in power and continued to sponsor terrorist plots, including the notorious 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Depending largely on the success or failure of the Libyan rebels in 2011, we could see Libya return to a Gaddafi-led status quo.
Bombing of Yugoslavia (1999)
Two and a half weeks of air strikes against Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, designed to end Serbian military actions and atrocities against Muslim Kosovars. Alas, in this case, the sustained air campaign seemed to initially increase the severity of attacks against Kosovars, although hostilities did eventually cease. NATO claimed that an independent Kosovo was never the goal — but that’s what we have today. A split Libya could well be the result of the 2011 campaign.
The Iraqi No-Fly Zone (1990s – early 2000s)
After the expulsion from Kuwait of invading Iraqi forces, the U.S.-led alliance enforced no-fly zones over the northern, mainly Kurdish part of Iraq, and the mainly-Shia south. Again, the stated aim was protecting civilian populations from attacks by the government (led by Saddam Hussein). The northern no-fly zone helped establish a de-facto Kurdish state in the north of the country, which continues to prosper (by Iraq standards) to this day. On the other hand, the southern no-fly zone did little to protect Shia populations — at least, not according to the excellent ’90s war flick Three Kings. The 2011 Libyan no-fly zone could turn out similarly, with the area around the opposition stronghold in Benghazi basically becoming a separate state, and Gaddafi remaining comfortably and defiantly belligerent in Tripoli and environs for years. That is, until some external force decides that getting rid of the despot is worth the price in blood and treasure of a full-scale invasion, followed by a prolonged and difficult occupation (see: Saddam Hussein).
Of course, the air strikes could prove to be effective and accurate enough to turn the war against the pro-Gaddafi forces. Democracy, human rights and prosperity could sweep across Libya in the wake of opposition victory. The coalition’s air strikes could serve as a stern warning to tyrants worldwide who would crush their own people rather than give up power. All of this could happen, and we in fact hope it does. But it would certainly be unprecedented.
Image courtesy of americanistadechiapas.