Historical Parallels
The debate in the European Union, in NATO, and in Washington about how to respond to the unfolding civil war in Libya has multiple historical parallels to it. One prominent recollection is the struggle over a decade ago to respond to the crisis in the Balkans during the late 1990s. That struggle was a major milestone for Germany, and the current challenge is an equally important one for Germany, the EU, and NATO.

While a direct comparison between the two situations comes up short on many counts, Gaddafi’s actions against his own people in Libya reminds us of the genocidal killing sprees in the hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina and then in Kosovo. The Balkans conflict was ended after heavy bombing in Serbia forced Serbian President Milosevic to capitulate, similar to military action being discussed now by the likes of French President Nicolas Sarkozy It also recalls thousands of refugees which poured out of the Balkan violence and sought asylum, especially in Germany. Libyan refugees have largely remained in Africa for now, but as the violence continues, this will likely change.

Since the military actions in Kosovo were largely successful, many voices have argued that the same tools should be employed to stop this dictator from murdering people in a desperate effort to save himself. On the other hand, others argue that by stepping up the engagement in Libya we will only further complicate the situation on the ground and lead to yet another quagmire.

What Else Can Be Done?
Beyond calling for Gaddafi to step down and yield to the demands of his long suffering citizens for an end to his reign, the question remains: What else can be done by those not directly engaged in the fight against the dictator? Impose sanctions, isolate Gaddafi, confiscate his bank accounts, help refugees seeking to escape the violence, and perhaps help the rebels. But going beyond that by imposing no-fly zones for Gaddafi’s military, bombing his airport runways, or shooting down helicopters firing on the rebels – that is where the consensus breaks down in Europe, in NATO, and within the United States, even among the chorus of cheerleaders for change in Libya. Simply by proclaiming that Gaddafi should go does not mean he will. And should he defeat the rebels and begin a campaign of murderous retaliation, would that generate a stronger consensus on either side of the Atlantic to take steps as was done in the Balkans? Or would indecision continue and allow the situation in Libya to unfold with all of the fears associated with it?

Chancellor Merkel, President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, and President Sarkozy are all on the same rhetorical page in shouting that Gaddafi must go. But the citizens of all their respective countries will not want to take on another war in the Middle East to enforce that demand. Indeed, any European or U.S. military engagement against Gaddafi’s military is tantamount to a declaration of war with or without a UN mandate, should that even be possible.

Egypt as a Potential Model
Many Germans look at the developments in Egypt over the last few weeks and see in the departure of Mubarak a model for the way these revolutions should be handled. The expectations for that new government – generated on its own and able to establish new opportunities to engage with the West – are high, even though the eventual outcome of a post-Mubarak Egypt remains unpredictable. The goal would be to pour massive amounts of aid into this new Egypt as it transforms itself, along the lines of a Middle East Marshall Plan.

Such a scenario appears less discernible in Libya. The contours of the rebels fighting Gaddafi are fuzzy, as are the possibilities of forming a viable decision-making force with which the outside world can deal. Nevertheless the calls for recognizing the fledgling forces in Benghazi are gaining momentum with France now leading that initiative – much to the dismay of Berlin, which does not appreciate such unilateral moves.

For its part, Germany has now frozen Libyan state bank assets while Merkel has loudly called for Gaddafi to step down. And even the usually-inert Arab League maybe now actually calling for a no-fly zone against one of its own former members.

The Slow Movement of International Efforts
NATO is still not saying what it will do beyond flying AWACS missions over Libya to monitor troop movements, repositioning its ships, and planning humanitarian aid efforts. The United Nations is still talking about sanctions but securing a consensus within the Security Council for more aggressive steps is bound to be blocked by China and probably Russia.

The questions about what to do remain mired in a combination of debates over securing legal backing for steps, logistical capabilities, and of course political support in the domestic framework of those nations willing to consider taking on new burdens. This is especially of concern at a time when there are major economic constraints as well as doubts about the wisdom of Western engagement in another Muslim country.

Germany faces this debate with trepidation. Popular support for the German engagement in Afghanistan remains low, and plans to withdraw German troops are to begin this year. Any discussion of military steps against Gaddafi even under NATO with a UN mandate would not be an easy sell in Germany.

But it will not be an easy sell elsewhere in Europe either. In Washington, the message is that a unilateral U.S. move to take steps toward a no-fly zone is not going to happen, even though it is primarily U.S. military capacity which would make it possible. If any action is to be taken, there will be a need to get beyond the “after you, Alfonse” attitudes circulating in the halls of Brussels, Washington, and other national capitals if we are to accomplish anything useful in the limited time that remains.

Human Rights Over Sovereignty Rights
When one thinks back to the decisions being made in the spring of 1999 around the Kosovo war, the set of challenges were similar and also very difficult. The massive human rights violations in the Balkans eventually drew NATO into its first broad scale military engagement and Germany into its first Bundeswehr military deployment. While there was no UN mandate to accompany the NATO engagement, the fact that there was a clear picture of the immediate barbarism emerging in the Balkan fields of Kosovo caused the decision to be taken to overrule sovereignty rights in the name of human rights.

One sobering reminder is that the campaign to stop Serbian aggression, mostly waged from the air, took over seventy-eight days to accomplish – much longer than was expected. And when one compares the strategic setting of Serbia versus the enormous terrain in Libya, the military requirements are multiplied by huge factors.

Yet in the end the need to act is going to be a political decision which in many ways will be a test for the resolve of NATO and the EU. After all the fanfare of a new mission for NATO following the Lisbon Summit last November, the question is how that mission will find practical use in this crisis. The continuing search for a common EU foreign policy position remains plagued by the inability to reach consensus, demonstrated once again at present. Similarly, yet on a different scale, the UN remains hostage to the lack of a consensus and to the blockades in the Security Council; which of the EU or UN logjams will be cleared first is virtually impossible to know.

The West vs. the Muslim World?
There is the additional objection inserted into this debate that the West cannot become embroiled into another war in a Muslim country. Yet, just as the West became embroiled in a war in the Balkans where thousands of Muslims were being killed, the situation today now sees Muslims being killed as well, this time by another dictator. The fact that there is more reference to the need for the Arab League and the African Union to step up to this crisis and engage in its resolution is a sign that Europe and the U.S. should not be dealing with this crisis in this turbulent region on their own. Yet the urgency of the emergency is certainly equal to what was happening in the past.

Not that long ago, on the doorstep of Europe, thousands of innocent people lost their lives while such deliberations rambled through their slow process for years before action was taken to stop the bloodshed. It has happened many times before – in Biafra, Rwanda, Srebrenica. What will it take to form a common response now and prevent history from repeating itself in Libya?


This essay appeared in the March 11, 2011, AICGS Advisor.