Libya, Chess, Life, Risk, Analysis

Former British Ambassador Charles Crawford discusses the fluid situation in Libya where a gruesome stalemate, that appeared so likely, looks to have given way in favour of the rebels.

Months of fighting appears to have paid off for the rebels.
Charles Crawford
On 22 August 2011 10:18

Sometimes good chess games get into a phase where few pieces have been exchanged and the board is full and hard to fathom. Any non-expert looking at the position would be dismayed: it’s a quagmire!

Yet within the position are all sorts of pent-up dynamic possibilities. The players see deeper patterns, getting more tense as the painstaking positional manoeuvring continues.

Suddenly, things change. In a series of dramatic forcing exchanges many pieces disappear, creating an end-game: far fewer pieces and still with myriad subtleties and hard work to do before the game is won, but much clearer in principle.

Thus with Libya. For months it has looked as if a gruesome stalemate was inevitable: the ‘rebels’ were not strong enough to topple Gaddafi, Gaddafi could not defeat the rebels. Hence the usual siren moaners, using the drama of this incredibly complex problem to make the usual sneering domestic political points. Late last night as anti-Gaddafi forces took control of parts of Tripoli, Norman Geras (@normblog) did a handy public service by linking to a few of them (Guardian leaders, Seumas Milne and Simon “Bar death, what do we achieve?” Jenkins).

When the allied forces invaded Iraq in 2003, I was amazed that so many pundits were so ignorant in their assessments of the balance of military forces. Within hours of the invasion we saw BBC journalists stunned by sand-storms and breathlessly predicting protracted quagmiristic military disaster. The famous all-time high-water mark of Western journalistic ideological self-delusion was, of course, Robert Fisk on 3 April 2003:

Anyone who doubts that the Iraqi Army is prepared to defend its capital should take the highway south of Baghdad. How, I kept asking myself, could the Americans batter their way through these defences? For mile after mile they go on, slit trenches, ditches, earthen underground bunkers, palm groves of heavy artillery and truck loads of combat troops in battle fatigues and steel helmets.

It took all of 100 hours or so for allied forces to take Baghdad and see Saddam’s statue topple. The media use experts to talk about football and snooker. Why do they resort to powder-puffs primly to lecture us on warfare?

Unless you are right in there reading the military/intel reports every day, it is impossible to know what is really happening. I myself have had doubts about Libya. In a piece in Diplomat magazine in May I noted how David Cameron asked and answered important questions in Parliament when the NATO support for the Libyan freedom-fighters began:

• Has the use of force been reasonable?

• How is this in our national interest?

• Is this another Iraq?

• Will we be shouldering an unfair burden?

• Are the risks too great?

• Are we stirring up trouble?

I said that unfortunately these were not the key questions:

• Do we know what defines success for this intervention?

• Even if the intervention is needed, has regional support and is legal, will it in fact be done properly?

• What if – in the terms we ourselves define for success – it doesn’t work?

• Why are we intervening to stop the brutal Libyan regime killing freedom-loving Libyans, but not the brutal Syrian (or Iranian) regime killing freedom-loving Syrians (or Iranians)?

• Where does the Israel-Palestine problem fit in?

• All in all, is this policy wise?

The studied lack of clarity on these questions explains why almost within hours of the Western warplanes zooming off to attack Libyan tanks, unseemly disagreements were evident. Is the plan to topple or even kill Gaddafi? Or not? Who are these rebels anyway? Do the interveners want to win? Or is ‘winning’ an old-fashioned and politically incorrect idea these days? Is it a war? A conflict? Or a ‘kinetic military action’?

Hours slide into days; then weeks and months. As this piece is being written, the intervention in Libya is looking uncertain and unconvincing…

That’s how it looked. But slowly and surely and with a lot of pain the capacity of the Gaddafi loyalists to hold out was being degraded. And now after a series of thumping moves by his opponents Gaddafi’s position has abruptly collapsed.

Already the professional moaners are out there, left and right, desperate to deny Cameron/Sarkozy/Obama and (above all) the very idea of ‘the West’ any sort of success. What if there is chaos after Gaddafi falls; more blood-letting and violent score-settling? Can the new Libyan leaders hold it all together?

Oh, and in any case it was nothing but a cynical greedy imperialistic policy aimed at screwing the Libyan people all over again: All About Oil. Nothing good or important to see here folks. Move along.


It has taken Libya over 40 years of wretched, vicious dictatorship (much of that period gushingly supported by sundry ‘progressive’ forces in the West and around the world) to reach this point. Having failed to rise up against their own oppressors for decades, Libyans now must pay a price. It necessarily will take several decades to put right the damage. So don’t be surprised if the first few years are indeed messy and unpleasant – even ‘chaotic’. That shows success, not failure.

Yet there are grounds for hoping that it may not be too bad in, say, ten years’ time. Libya has oil and is close to good friends in Europe. It’s a fairly small country by population (smaller than London). There is huge potential for building quite fast a new sui generis albeit probably idiosyncratic form of politics, where human rights and modern Arab-style pluralism have a good chance of taking root.

Next stop Syria? Not so easy.

Syria, as the quintessential modern ‘national socialist’ Arab state, has always had close friends in the post-KGB elites in Moscow: there would be no UN Security Council consensus in favour of outside military intervention, the more so since Gaddafi has now lost, thanks in part to unrelentingly accurate NATO attacks.

Moreover, for reasons which are not easy to pin down the Obama administration has been reluctant to see the Assad regime toppled. Even in Libya, President Obama’s curious ‘lead from behind’ strategy has felt unconvincing. Obama pinned such high hopes on his flawed Cairo Speech to the so-called ‘Muslim world’ in 2009: are his heart and mind really behind bombing Arab countries, even for the best of reasons?

Back to chess. The legendary Bobby Fischer summed it all up:

I don't believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.

Politics is not like that. A lot of what counts for ‘success’ in modern democracies is (alas) more about psychology and projecting confidence than it is about good outcomes.

Yet as the Gaddafi regime enters its death-throes, we must congratulate David Cameron and William Hague on taking a bold, risky decision on Libya, then making a series of very good moves - many of which may never emerge into the public domain.

Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He is now a private consultant and He tweets @charlescrawford

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