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Success in Libya will not come through betraying our principles

Dear IJ Editor,

I wish to offer a brief perspective on Olivier Schmitt’s recent IJ Exclusive, ‘France in Libya: A Strategic Perspective on Opération Harmattan’, which I believe makes several vital errors in its prescriptions.

First, the value of the first half of the article should be noted. The author is broadly correct in his summary of the intervention thus far. His criticisms of the initial absence of strategic thinking are entirely valid (though I would argue that the coalition has since coalesced around an unstated but clear aim of creating a NTC-led Libya, with the interim goals of removing Col. Gaddafi while publically demonstrating leadership by the NTC in the war). The difficulties of coalition warfare, especially where the US is not the acknowledged leader, are well observed.

However, in the second half of the article, Schmitt succumbs to several militarist fallacies in his frustration at the lack of military progress. Though my patriotic pride bridles at the suggestion that France is the only credible military actor in Europe, of rather more importance is his prescription that the Libya intervention may be hurried along by looser rules of engagement. The advantage Western militaries have is not overwhelming firepower, but rather supremely well-targeted distance firepower. That permits us to fight with remarkably few civilian casualties. This is good in itself, but also instrumental to our strategy; if we create a Libya in which Gaddafi is dead but the new regime has to deal with a virulently anti-Western population, we will have failed.

Similarly, of course European forces are held to a higher standard than a dictator so murderous we have had to invade his country to protect the population. We should be. Communications are vital in war, but one of the key things we wish to communicate – to domestic, international and Libyan audiences – is our accountability and our morally just conduct. It is precisely this that neutralizes the accusations that we are merely returning colonialists.

As for the idea that politicians should not meddle in the lower levels of war, I agree that politicians ought to remain humble (a problem for many), and respect the accumulated knowledge of military commanders. Yet in the final analysis, they have an absolute right to interfere at all levels of war. If they usually delegate those tasks to uniformed personnel, that is for convenience, and does not constitute an abdication of their right. As Feaver puts it, they have the right to be wrong.

I agree that the Libya intervention is at times frustrating. But the solution is not bombing civilians, carping at the media or excluding politicians. If we are to succeed, we must exhibit strategic patience, confident that the modern Western way of war, with ROE, journalists and civilian control, remains as effective as it ever was.


Yours faithfully,

Tom Wein