We must act fast and decisively to save Libya’s rebels

Allister Heath
YET again, we are at war. By the time this newspaper hits the streets this morning, airstrikes against Libya may already have started, led by the UK, France and perhaps others, including the US, members of the Arab League, and Canada. Just after 10:30pm last night, the United Nations Security Council voted 10-0, with five abstentions, for Resolution 1973. It goes substantially further than merely imposing a no-fly zone and calls for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. What it doesn’t allow is occupation – but this is a hugely significant moment for the world, for global markets and of course for the population in the rebel town of Benghazi. We can only hope that their moving celebrations last night were not horribly premature.

While the world media was obsessed with Japan in recent days, for good reason, the situation in Libya had started to look desperate for the rebels, who were being massacred by their genocidal and blood-thirsty dictator Muammar Gaddafi and their strongholds retaken one by one. Earlier Western assessments that Gaddafi would crumble quickly – including a preposterously ill-informed comment by William Hague, the foreign secretary, that he was on a flight to Venezuela – were entirely off the mark.

Almost as unedifying was the inability of the main military powers, in the absence of American leadership, to come to a consensus on what to do. After days of dithering, Barack Obama finally decided to intervene, supporting David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy’s UN Resolution. What will happen next is hard to predict; the vote last night could easily be a case of too little, too late. We don’t really know how the mission to protect civilians will be interpreted; but heavy military action from the air is inevitable. Whether that will be enough to destroy Gaddafi is unclear; and while the resolution had the strong backing of Lebanon and some other Arab nations, support could easily ebb away if there is too much collateral damage or if the operations trigger more unrest in Arab League countries. There is a real possibility that the refugee crisis and exodus from Libya could intensify; the rest of the world must ready itself, especially Southern European nations. Perhaps most intriguing is how the UK armed forces will cope: they have been decimated and are already terribly over-stretched.

It is astonishing how fast the global geopolitical situation has deteriorated in recent months. First, it was the European sovereign debt crisis, which has only been temporarily contained with a combination of bailouts and obfuscation. Then came what was optimistically dubbed the Arab spring: an almost completely unpredicted popular uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. Then came the earthquake in New Zealand – merely a dry run for the far worse catastrophe which has befallen Japan, and which has mutated from humanitarian nightmare into a nuclear disaster with far-reaching consequences on markets, the international supply-chain and the future of the nuclear energy. The chaos triggered massive, coordinated intervention in the global forex markets late last night, with the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and others all acting in concert.

The Arab uprisings have now turned into international conflicts. First it was the UAE and the Saudis who sent troops into Bahrain, turning up the pressure on Iran, an ally of the rebels – then it emerged that Egypt has started supplying Libya’s rebels with weapons. Last night’s move was the real game-changer, however.

It is increasingly likely that the world could face a massive, double-edged energy shock. Crucially, it is not just the price of oil that is shooting up: the catastrophe in Japan has been a bitter blow for the global nuclear energy industry. Even China has halted its massive investment, while Germany and others have halted plants. More coal and gas will have to be used instead. Their prices will go up, as will the cost of carbon credits as a result of stringent green rules.

Now that the UN has agreed to act in Libya, there is no time to be wasted. Strikes must be swift, powerful and well-targeted, and inflict as much damage as possible on Gaddafi and his henchmen. The mass murder of his opponents must be stopped. The world’s credibility is on the line; we cannot afford to fail.

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