‘There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” This favorite saying of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, repeated regularly during the terrible challenges of World War II, speaks directly to current efforts to rein in and overthrow Libya’s brutal dictator, Moammar Gadhafi.
Churchill was referring explicitly to the vital importance of having comrades by your side, but his statement also implies the inherent tensions in alliance relationships. Even when partners concur on overall goals, specific disagreements invariably arise. Nations have incongruent interests, reflecting contrasting cultures, priorities and historical experiences.
In Libya, a spontaneous domestic insurrection has been under way for weeks, part of the tremendous turmoil now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as people en masse demand basic human rights and representation. Characteristically, Gadhafi has responded with murderous repression.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizes military force to protect Libyan civilians. The U.S., working primarily with allies Britain and France, is using air power to control Libya’s skies and destroy Gadhafi’s forces, but there is disagreement about NATO oversight of operations. Meanwhile, Brazil, China, India and Russia abstained on the U.N. vote, along with Germany, a principal NATO ally.
World War II was a death struggle among nations, with the highest possible stakes. Yet beyond the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, there was relatively little common ground even among that era’s Allies. The Soviet Union’s post-war goals were fundamentally at odds with Britain and the United States. The Free French, led by imperious egotist Gen. Charles de Gaulle, had constant special demands. Even the close Anglo-American partnership and the essential enduring friendship between Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered strain on a regular basis.
History and contemporary economics inform the current alliance against Gadhafi. Europe, especially France, is far more dependent than the U.S. on Libyan oil. German reluctance to engage directly is understandable, given its forebears’ invasion and then defeat in North Africa.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others rightly emphasize that regime change in Libya essentially is up to the Libyan people. The U.S. in any case has no ground forces to spare. Even hawkish Sen. John McCain feels efforts should be limited to the air campaign.
Gadhafi’s tyrannical rule has endured for more than four decades, and has cost the blood of Americans as well as Libyans and other nations’ people. His terrorism includes the notorious 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. For years, Gadhafi recruited mercenaries to provide military and terrorist training, including renegade U.S. special operations pros. The Libyan leader also developed weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S. and allies have crucial technological advantages. Since the last stages of the Vietnam War, precision-guided munitions have allowed unprecedented weapons accuracy. Today, our high-flying aircraft are virtually invulnerable to ground fire.
Whether Gadhafi stays or goes cannot be confidently predicted, but for the U.S. to have ignored U.N. sentiment and remained aloof from this military initiative would have weakened future as well as current international cooperation. Failure to prevent genocide elsewhere — notably in Rwanda in the 1990s — spurs the current limited intervention.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War.”