Loosening the Libyan Gordian Knot

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-785-0290-14 / Koch / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Italy is going to take part in the coming Libyan military expedition. It is hard to find anyone in Italy who is sincerely enthusiastic about this military adventure, to the point that it can be described, at best, as most undesirable. Conversely, it is quite common to find military and political pundits who harbour serious doubts about it and are ready to anonymously whisper their misgivings. Italy is reportedly “forced” to fall in with the US-led military intervention because the Italian government cannot afford to be sidelined by British and French ambitions: both the UK and France, in fact, are known to be coveting Italian assets in the North African country, particularly the oil fields and infrastructures, which they have been planning to seize and exploit since they first decided to oust Gaddafi from power in 2011; today, however, the value of these resources appears to have been greatly diminished. On that occasion, the plan for swiftly toppling the Libyan tyrant badly misfired, to say the least. A bitter and largely uncontrolled civil war ensued, showing the world how a mismanaged subversion operation can throw an entire country into chaos and leave the reputation of former Western colonial powers in tatters. Berlusconi’s naivety and ineptitude, bordering on political idiocy, added to British and French incompetence to turn an operational blunder into a strategic disaster.

At present, the Italian political, diplomatic and military position is undoubtedly quite weak, because Italy’s most favourable prospect could only allow to recover just a fraction of the influence and economic power the Italians commanded before the 2011 upheaval, and even that would only come at a heavy price: a relatively large military presence in Libya would be needed, under most exacting conditions, for at least a decade, coupled with an expensive financial commitment to help stabilising the new regime, which could be only partially pro-Italian; much of this financial aid would possibly be supervised by the UN, thus further reducing the direct Italian influence that such investments, laboriously scraped together by an already heavily indebted Italian government, are likely to yield.

The worst possible scenario is too terrible to contemplate: in essence, it could be succinctly described as that of a failed Libyan state within striking distance from Italian southern islands and coasts, a hotbed of terrorist and guerilla groups, providing relatively safe harbours for pirates attacking ships in the Southern Mediterranean and securing the means and logistics for a steady and increasingly uncontrollable stream of migrants from Africa, Middle East and Southern Asia; this centre of political and social instability would likely cause the collapse of Tunisia, a heightened military tension with Algeria and Egypt and a destabilising influence throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Such a dystopian end result would only come into existence after Italy had sustained a disproportionate share of the costs associated with a military operation promoted by the United States but soon taken over by French and British commands, whose spectacular military and political failure will only be equalled by the tragic toll of human lives it will exact.

How is Italy to avoid such a catastrophe? The advice given by diplomats and military experts is unsurprisingly simple: we can’t help but participate in the military intervention and in the peace talks in order for Italian interests and views to be properly taken into account; however, our participation should be sanctioned by the UN, thereby hopefully curbing British and French ambitions and restraining the Americans from escalating the allied military commitment in case the operation went “south” – which, in this instance, is a most appropriate idiom, since the operation is likely to meet stiffer resistance should military contingents of ground troops be deployed deeper into the Libyan desert. The notion that Western military involvement should be confined to air attacks and stealthy (i.e. politically deniable) SOF actions is soon to be discarded as wishful thinking.

For Italy to join the Us-led operation, together with France and the UK, is the easiest choice, largely because being led by others has become second nature to most Italian “statesmen”, who can thus blame the leading countries for any mistake and relieve themselves from any responsibility: one should never underestimate the overwhelming importance of home problems over foreign policy in the eyes of Italian politicians.

This easy path is unlikely to give Italy any certainty of success, yet it can offer the prospect of placing the onus of difficult decisions on someone else’s shoulders. It also implies that Italy would choose to comply and hope for the best. Hope, however, is no strategy, as the saying goes. Though the Italian government will possibly be able to lay the blame of a probable and tragic failure at the allies’ door, it is highly improbable that it will as easily dodge the consequences that such failure will inevitably bring about. This, in turn, will only add distrust and grudge to the already strained relations between Rome and Washington, and the two European powers.

Another path can be chosen, far less comfortable to follow and much more dangerous. In desperate times, however, desperate measures are needed. Italy should hedge against the risk of a catastrophically negative outcome and bet on the US-French-UK intervention in Libya ending in a resounding disaster. Although this may sound outrageously cynical to neophytes’ ears, it is, in truth, a much sounder and consistently accurate political calculation than that made by the French and British cabinets in 2011.

If we can make some sense of the information provided by interviews, analyses, rumours and warnings that are preceding the actual commencement of the military endeavour in Libya, we can surmise that the general plan the Pentagon has been drawing during the past months is somehow halfway between the plans that had been laid to engineer a follow-through and a pacification process to the initially successful operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the much vaguer and non-committal general design behind the military intervention in Syria: air strikes are politically safer than ground operations, so they will be, as usual, the opening move; targeted killings are the necessary complementary measure and this time they will be hopefully guided by a more sophisticated intelligence analysis about the political consequences triggered by each elimination – such sophisticated analysis being provided by the Italian intelligence, the better equipped to correctly sort the “bad guys” out. Unfortunately, since each of the four powers seems to have chosen its own pawns on the Libyan chessboard, this is most unlikely to happen. The killings will therefore contribute more to the problems than to the solutions of the Libyan conundrum. Sooner rather then later, a strong ground force will be deployed, ushering in a more complex level of conflict. This force will try to protect the people, but will soon need protection from the usual array of enemies, including a growing number of foreign fighters. Nothing truly new under the sun. If Italy will take part in this doomed operation, it will not be able to play a crucial role in the B-plan. This is exactly the plan we are suggesting: a second military operation under the UN, with a strong military commitment of the neighbouring countries, four Arab states – Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – and Italy: they are the only regional actors who share a serious political interest in stabilising Libya and they can swiftly seal the borders off, the very first measure that is necessary to take control of the country and the very same measure nobody has managed to achieve in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. This option, if put forward at this early stage of the American intervention, might stem a good number of the most intractable problems such US intervention will inevitably cause, for it would provide an alternative to the deployment of a “Crusader” Desert Force consisting of US, French and British troops. Who will oppose such a scheme? Paris, to be sure, possibly London, certainly the Gulf emirs and Riyadh, who support Daesh. If Washington can be persuaded to see the merits of such alternative – and undoubtedly less hazardous – course of action in the cold light of day, however, Britain would back down, leaving the French in the lurch. This, by the way, would save France, too, the humiliation of a military adventure doomed from the start: something they should have seen by themselves in the unfolding of the Libyan civil war since 2011.

Should the United States fail to acknowledge that their plan is ominously following the same path that has led them to a dead end in Iraq and Afghanistan, then Italy should make any effort to stay out of the conflict, confining herself to the most perfunctory logistical support: France and Britain could be more than glad to keep Italy out of the game, even if that will compel them to provide a more onerous military contribution. This will be the hardest choice for Rome. US-Italian relations will consequently suffer a painful blow, more likely than not, but, in the end, Italy could offer the US an exit strategy, right at the moment when the situation in Libya will have become all but impossible to control. Once this will be clear to even the staunchest supporter of this foolhardy expedition, only then will Italy be able to most tactfully offer the US to step in and replace American, British and French ground forces with a coalition of troops from Italy (mainly air, intelligence, and naval support), Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. The only inconvenience, so to speak, is that by that time the pacification of Libya will have been delayed by several years, and the amount of suffering and death immensely increased, to our great sorrow.

Daniele Zotti copyright – tutti i diritti riservati – 2016