Will the EU win glory on the shores of Tripoli?

Western military planners are examining options for deposing Gaddafi. But somebody also needs to think about an international peace operation to stabilise Libya, whether to oversee the dictator's negotiated exit or clean up afterwards. Could this be a role for a UN-mandated EU?

Senior Policy Fellow

Who will keep the peace in Libya if Gaddafi falls? Western military planners are starting to look at options – mainly involving airpower – for deposing our erstwhile friend in Tripoli. But there are also mounting calls for some sort of international peace operation to stabilise Libya, whether to oversee a negotiated end to Gaddafi’s rule or to help clear up after a violent conclusion to his time in power.

Such a peacekeeping force would require broad-based Libyan and regional consent – not to be confused with a western intervention force tasked with fighting its way to Gaddafi's headquarters, an option the Arab League has rejected. In Tuesday’s International Herald Tribune, former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler and Jared Genser, an American academic, called for “the rapid deployment of an African Union-European Union force to the country.” Although they didn’t spell it out, the force would presumably assist in humanitarian relief, secure vulnerable oil installations, and possibly help disarm pro-Gaddafi forces.

Is this a credible option? European politicians and generals are reportedly very jumpy at the thought of deploying to Libya, and would probably ask why Cotler hasn’t called for Canadian troops to deploy to Benghazi and Tripoli under a UN banner. But Cotler and Genser are right: this is the EU’s problem.

European forces should be able to deploy rapidly to Libya, just as they did to Lebanon in 2006 to help end the war between Israel and Hezbollah. The Europeans can utilise NATO bases and assets in the Mediterranean, which are vastly superior to what the UN is usually able to bring to bear at the start of an operation. But an EU-flagged force with a strong humanitarian mandate from the UN would be more politically palatable than a NATO-led intervention. Nobody wants this to look like “Afghanistan II.”

That is one reason that the US, while potentially ready to help get other nations’ troops ashore, is unlikely to get into peacekeeping itself, even if the Marines’ Hymn celebrates past glories on “the shores of Tripoli.” In fact, the US might well encourage Europeans to help stabilise Libya as quid pro quo for drawing down in Afghanistan – just as many Europeans sent troops to Lebanon as an alternative to Iraq.

What about mounting the mission in tandem with the African Union? This has attractions in terms of both political legitimacy and price. AU troops cost less than a fifth of EU ones per capita. But the AU has moved more slowly than the EU, UN, and Arab League in censuring Gaddafi and already has heavy military commitments in Somalia (where more troops are required to secure Mogadishu) and Darfur.

The AU is also mired in efforts to resolve the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, where tensions between the rival governments of Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo are increasing, risking full-scale civil war. It might be best for the AU to focus on these crises – as well as supporting the independence of South Sudan – rather than getting deeply involved in Libya. Are there alternative partners for the EU? Daniel Korski, my colleague at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has argued for a UN-mandated mission led by Arab militaries. It’s possible that countries like Jordan and Morocco could send troops.

Egypt is also a big player in peacekeeping operations – with more than 5,000 troops in blue helmets at the start of the year, it’s the fifth biggest contributor to UN operations. However, many Libyans might worry about an Egyptian deployment turning into a permanent zone of influence as the mission unfolds.

The best option might be for the EU to mount an initial deployment under a UN mandate and then gradually hand off to a UN-commanded force. Similar “green-blue” transitions from non-UN to UN forces (named after the different colours of the forces’ helmets) have taken place in Haiti and Chad.

A surprising number of countries might be willing to join a follow-on UN mission. China, which has taken an increasing role in African peacekeeping in recent years, has major oil interests in Libya. And perhaps Cotler will persuade his fellow Canadians to deploy with the UN on the shores of Tripoli.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow