he past month has seen a continuation of instability in the Middle East affecting a number of countries, none more so than Libya. The situation is changing daily, with the rebels on the offensive one day and then in headlong retreat the next. The forces loyal to Colonel Gadaffi have proven to be surprisingly determined in the face of Western air strikes launched under the poetically titled operation Odyssey Dawn, which sounds like the name of a cruise ship rather than a military operation.
6th Apr 2011
The past month has seen a continuation of instability in the Middle East affecting a number of countries, none more so than Libya. The situation is changing daily, with the rebels on the offensive one day and then in headlong retreat the next. The forces loyal to Colonel Gadaffi have proven to be surprisingly determined in the face of Western air strikes launched under the poetically titled operation Odyssey Dawn, which sounds like the name of a cruise ship rather than a military operation.
There were two major diplomatic surprises in the lead up to the operation – firstly, that it was sanctioned by the usually impotent Arab League and secondly that Resolution 1973 passed the United Nations Security Council – albeit with five abstentions. Australia took a leading role in calling for the intervention, with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd a vocal and frequent supporter of military action. Australia then declined to participate, using the argument that Libya is too far away to be of direct interest – which seems to overlook the new global security environment we are now all meant to be living in.
The willingness of the United States to become involved in another Middle East military adventure was initially seriously in doubt and it seems that the first reaction of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton was to keep US powder dry. This was hardly surprising given the burden the US has carried in Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade. It seems clear that world leaders had to do a lot of talking behind the scenes to persuade the Americans that other countries would be prepared to do their share of the heavy lifting and that they would all be prepared to wear the long-term consequences of involvement.
There seems to be widespread acceptance that President Obama is genuinely trying to create a more peaceful world and is a far less belligerent personality than his predecessor. To someone committed to completing the withdrawal from Iraq and starting the same process in Afghanistan, a President who has negotiated a major missile-reduction agreement with Russia and attempted to make progress on the Israel-Palestine dispute – unsuccessfully – the Libyan crisis must have been extremely unwelcome. But with Obama’s positive track record it has been relatively easy for a number of countries with no direct connection with Libya to promise their support to the US, which explains why countries such as Canada, Norway and tiny despotic Qatar have been prepared to contribute forces to Odyssey Dawn.
It does not appear that Australia gave serious consideration to participating in the operation and the public debate has been close to zero. Libya is proudly etched in Australian military history through our participation in Second World War North African campaigns, including the siege of Tobruk – but seventy years later there appears no enthusiasm for re-engagement with that part of the world. In any case, the reality is that the ADF is not in a position to make much of a contribution.
Given that the current orientation of Odyssey Dawn is an air campaign and sea blockade, there is almost nothing that Australia could deploy in a timely manner. To show solidarity with the Obama administration, and to enforce the United Nations ‘Responsibility to Protect’ post-Rawanda doctrine it might have been useful to participate in support of combat operations. However, with AEW&C aircraft still not yet ready and with Multi-Role Tanker Transports sitting on the ground in Madrid and not yet delivered, the other options would have been close to cosmetic. RAAF C-130Js, C-17s and AP-3Cs regularly transit through Doha and so could have been committed to support the Libyan operation but these aircraft and hard-working aircrews are already fully stretched.
However, if the conflict in Libya drags on – as it might – Australia might then come under real pressure from Washington to make a contribution and the ADF should be preparing for that. Having egged on the world community to take action, it will be difficult for us to sit back and watch from the comfort of Parliament House and Russell Hill if Gaddafi and the rebels remain deadlocked or – even worse – attacks on civilians intensify.
An argument can be made that Australia should be prepared to become selectively involved in conflicts no matter how distant, and indeed the ADF recognizes that occasionally it will be required to do so. We have previously deployed troops to Somalia in limited numbers - and of course Iraq and Afghanistan are also a long way from home. When Australia intervened in East Timor in 1999, we welcomed the support of other nations, including Ireland – which is about as far away from Dili as you can get.
Hopefully none of this will be necessary and Colonel Gaddafi and his children will fill their private jets with bullion and head for sanctuary in Harare. However, if the conflict drags on and becomes even messier then it is likely that Australia will be forcefully reminded of our enthusiasm for military intervention. If that happens, we should be ready to make a positive response.