Sunday, 20 March 2011 08:04

Libya, Germany, and the tyranny of definition

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Whilst you read this, there will be British and French planes flying over and bombing Libya. Last night alone 112 Tomahawk missiles were fired into Tripoli and surrounding targets. The UN has endorsed "all necessary measures short of an occupation force" to prevent Gaddafi's forces attacking civilian and rebel groups and this was officially supported by the EU's foreign affairs representative. Germany's abstention in the UN security council therefore represents a division in Europe's response and raises serious questions about how each of the three main states understand the Libyan case and what underlying domestic interests they have brought to their respective decisions.

The tyranny of definition

There is a small but significant distinction between Germany's understanding of Libya at the moment and that of France and Britain. The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said in a telephone interview with a radio station on Thursday, "I do not want Germany to be part of a war in Libya, a permanent civil war in Libya." This civil war is a very different image to the one invoked by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who has described the conflict in terms of "the people" versus the regime and argued that the "people's will" resides in the rebels and by implication that there is no "legitimate" Gaddafi supporter, aside from regime "apparatchiks." This can be seen in Britain and France's highly symbolic and questionable recognition of the Libyan national council (the major opposition) as legitimate leaders in Libya.


Calling it a civil war may in fact have some real basis and has serious implications for the scale and type of intervention that is needed in Libya. As argued here: Libya is no Egypt. It has strong tribal and sectarian loyalties that are being antagonised by the political, social and economic upheaval. Articulating the conflict in terms of a dichotomy between regime and 'people' does not give enough credit to the way in which local loyalties, exaggerated by an expansive and divided geography, could also be fuelling violence and support or opposition.

Furthermore, despite a horrific human rights record there may still be some popular and uncoerced support for the Gaddafi regime itself. This is now nearly impossible to discern accurately in such a great moment of flux. But ignoring it would be a terrible example of western hypocrisy because this support was almost certainly garnered from the redistribution of oil revenue given by the West to the Gaddafi regime. In a relationship that began as far back as 2003 Gaddafi's great coming 'in from the cold' and continued until just a few weeks ago, Gaddafi traded a nuclear arsenal for income and investment, strengthening Libya's economic position and imbuing the regime with a sense of legitimacy which it did not deserve.

It is clear that there is the threat of terrible atrocities against Libyan civilians. Yet without recognising the sheer over-simplicity of the regime vs. people explanation of this conflict the West seriously runs the risk of prioritising regime change over humanitarian intervention. Without long term commitment to Libya they run the risk of allowing chaos to emerge from the removal of Gaddafi, with one group of Libyans killing and enforcing retribution against another group during and after the battle for the control of the state. The direct refusal to commit ground forces, peace-keeping troops, which could actively stop conflict emerging from both sides, protect civilians, and open up channels of dialogue for a long term peaceful transition is damning of their intervention. As it stands, the no-fly zone does not resolve the problem, but rather represents the fact that the West, with tacit approval from the Arab League, is content to aid regime change collaboratively with minimal effort.

As it stands, the no-fly zone does not resolve the problem, but rather represents the fact that the West ... is content to aid regime change collaboratively with minimal effort.

Domestic roots

A French friend of mine has suggested that the French domestic scene may hold the key to explaining Sarkozy's extremely strong support for the Libyan opposition and no fly-zone.  Languishing in the polls and with a presidential election next year, his position is comparable to that of President Chirac in 2002. In that case Chirac's strong opposition to Iraq war had a dramatic effect on his poll ratings, raising 10 points in a week, and turning him into the most popular president since Georges Pompidou in 1969. It is likely that Sarkozy is hoping to do a 'reverse Chirac' by becoming involved and claiming a great humanitarian victory in Libya. This leadership posturing seems to be corroborated by Sarkozy's alleged blocking of NATO action until the Paris meeting and the fact that he conducted unilateral air missions over Libya before that international meeting had even finished.

In Britain, Libya is being seen as the first real foreign policy test for David Cameron. Libya presents a prime opportunity for him to position himself as a strong international leader through coalition building, and to gain positive press with an active foreign policy. With a number of difficult domestic issues currently challenging his coalition government, including heavy spending cuts, a rise in unemployment, lingering allegations of phone hacking against his (now former) director of communications, and an impending vote on changing the British electoral system, this would not be an unwelcome time to do so. His highly commendable justification for intervention through International Law can also be recast as an attempt to distance himself for the grim legacy of Tony Blair's 2003 Iraq invasion, still fresh in the British political mind.

The domestic reasons for Germany's refusal to become involved are the most interesting. Article 87a of the German constitution states that the army can only be deployed in cases of defence and whilst this has been flouted multiple times, including Afghanistan, it has not been done easily and without controversy. Comparisons with the German humanitarian intervention in Bosnia fall drastically short. In Libya, there is little ethnic dimension to the violence, no genocide, no claim for national secession, no particular historical complexity in comparison with Eastern Europe. It seems that in the year before the German national elections, Merkel and Westerwelle have chosen to maintain a traditionally popular no-go approach to engagement in military operations.

The question is, how long will NATO powers tolerate a Germany incapable of acting directly on its values and partaking in a global responsibility to protect the innocent and those under threat.

However, the idea that Germany is not participating in this Libyan operation is false; Merkel was present at the Paris convention and immediately promised to take up AWACS reconnaissance flights in Afghanistan. This enabled American planes to travel and participate in the Libyan operation; it is in effect participation by other means. Furthermore, Westerwelle has strongly praised the economic sanctions placed on Libya as part of a concerted effort to stop Gaddafi. The rejection of military action by Germany is not a sign of its hesitancy on the Libyan issue but rather a reflection of its unique paralysis over using its army. The question is, how long will NATO powers tolerate a Germany incapable of acting directly on its values and partaking in a global responsibility to protect the innocent and those under threat.  

a Long term problem

Gaddafi cannot be allowed to perpetrate a humanitarian disaster, but if the EU States are to become involved, then it must be both coherent and based on a genuine commitment to solving the threat to all Libyan people, not the selected few. Their response so far does not address either the complexity of the situation or the difficult reality that removing Gaddafi is only half of the problem. What would happen, for example, if the rebels began killing Pro-Gaddafi supporters? The lack of interest in the difficult commitment to enforcing peace on both sides and guiding the recreation of stability through UN peacekeeping troops highlights a worrying willingness to prioritise regime change over the humanitarian cause. As it stands, the self-interested domestic reasons in Britain and France driving intervention, and the German case for non-intervention, provide compelling reasons to explain why there is no firm and committed European response to the Libyan crisis.

Last modified on Sunday, 09 December 2012 22:33
Matt Shearman

Matt Shearman, Brain of E&M, is originally from Yorkshire, UK, but now lives in London, having arrived there via Berlin and Oxford. He holds an MSc in International Relations and is into E&M because he is fascinated by identity, nationality and transnationality. For more political commentary on Europe / Germany / international relations, follow him on twitter: @shearmanm

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