Will Australia go to war in Libya?

As I write this, my RSS feeds and Twitter timeline tick over with reports of fierce fighting between Libyan and rebel forces, news of the Paris summit for world leaders, and speculation on the fighting to come. Gaddafi has undeniably broken his own ceasefire. A Libyan warplane has been shot down. This will get messier still with the involvement of foreign forces, not only from enforcing a no-fly zone but also from the ground level troops required to provide tactical intelligence in support of air assets.

With Britain, the US, Canada, France, Spain, Denmark and the UAE readying their fighter jets for the Mediterranean, I can’t help but wonder when Australia’s military will be dragged into the fight for Libya.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd today ruled out the possibility of RAAF aircraft being used to enforce the no-fly zone, however I’m still not convinced that denies future involvement of Australian forces in other Libya-related operations. The Australian public would be forgiven for resisting the thought of sending our troops on other far-flung coalition conflicts, but best we consider the possibility now, and there are a couple.

The first and most likely of these scenarios involves Australian troops deployed as a part of an international stabilisation force after Gaddafi’s forces are pushed back swiftly. Both Foreign and Defence Ministers Rudd and Stephen Smith are correct in pointing out that this is a matter ostensibly for NATO, however, as part of a UN or coalition mission, Australia may be requested to send troops.

The second and more ominous scenario envisages a more protracted engagement with NATO and other foreign troops. President Obama will have to make good on his promise that military action will ensue if a cease-fire is not immediate; given Gaddafi is currently pushing into Benghazi, I’d say the President has few choices. While President Obama has asked for military action to exempt ground forces and be “finite”, there is still the possibility that the situation in Libya could take a turn for the worst. The UN resolution, based on Chapter 7 provisions on the responsibility to protect, mandates the protection of Libyan civilians; the door is left open for a more active intervention. In this scenario, although considerably less likely, Australian troops may contribute a small contingent for heavier fighting and more surgical tasks.

While crystal-ball gazing is an undertaking fraught with danger (and I’m happy to be wrong on these points), perhaps the Australian public, wary of political underselling of conflicts such as Afghanistan, should begin considering whether some 70 years later there might be a second coming of the Rats of Tobruk.

Photo courtesy of AFP.

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This entry was posted in ADF, Australia, Libya, NATO by Natalie Sambhi. Bookmark the permalink.

About Natalie Sambhi

Natalie Sambhi is co-editor of Security Scholar. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre, a think tank based at the University of Western Australia. She was formerly an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Managing Editor of The Strategist. She is a Hedley Bull Scholar and graduate of the Australian National University.

7 thoughts on “Will Australia go to war in Libya?

  1. Great insights Nat, I do have to put my two cents and state that Libya is not similar to any other conflicts. While I won’t say it will be a “Cakewalk”, but it will certainly be the closest there is to it. Libya is a mere six million, a large segment of the armed forces have defected to the rebels, and Libyan towns are sprinkled away from each other thus making Libyan govt coordination all the more difficult, and on top of that, Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy of the majority of the Libyan people, and the Arab League resolution’s anti-Gaddafi stance has provided France and the UK with the political cover it needs to pursue the decrepit Gadaffi regime. It’s also impressive given that the EU has not gone to the US for leadership, but has taken the initiative, it may have finally recognised that Libya is in its backyard. And a crisis in Libya, can send waves of refugees to their shores. I’m not optimistic about Gaddafi’s future 🙂

  2. Thanks for the comment; a few points. First, population size is not a useful determinant of campaign ease. Let us also not forget that East Timor is a “mere” one million in population and required a 2006 intervention to stabilise it. We should be prepared for mission creep that once Gaddafi is gone, the international community will be obliged to clean up.

    Second, I agree that Gaddafi has lost legitimacy, but in a post-Gaddafi environment, coordinating amongst a geographically-disparate population, as you pointed out, will be difficult. What happens if there is little consensus between rebel groups?

    Third, I’m sure the EU leadership has more to do with the US’ experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq and less to do with the EU recognising Libya as in its strategic neighbourhood.

  3. Personally, I would love to see Australia take part. Sending a country into a war is always a sensitive issue, especially if it’s “someone else’s” war that doesn’t really affect AUS itself. With that being said, Gaddafi is the text book example of a leader that should not be in power. He’s been a dictator for 42 years, carried out attacks against the international community. Even other Arab countries don’t like him (Lebanon has a beef with him over the disappearance of two of its citizens, I believe Qatar is joining the coalition, and the Arab League quickly approved the no-fly zone). Hence, there is some legitimacy that this is not another West vs. Muslim world kind of a war.

    We can discuss forever the issue of what precedent this intervention will leave, but there is also the question of what precedent would the “free” world make if it does NOT intervene. No one is saying to send AUS troops on the ground, but any air/missile cooperation would help. Hell, they don’t even need to attack Gaddafi’s forces, just dropping water/food/weapons from the air to the opposition (they’re not rebels in my view) would be a lot.

  4. Hey you guys down there, I’m not sure how I wound up on this site but as a Brit, it’s fascinating reading opinions from the other side of the planet. I won’t even pretend to understand your relationship to the UK, US, EU, NATO, UN or any other nation, body or alliance, but it seems to me like this really isn’t your fight or your concern, no offence at all meant by that, it’s just whats the point of dragging your troops into someone else’s war ? Risking lives and costing you money? This war is not at all popular in the UK, EU or US, it’s so blatantly an oil crusade and political posturing. I do fear that the whole situation is about to get messy I mean world war three-messy. China and Germany both have vested interests in Libya both abstained and both countries are holding private talks today in Beijing about the West’s intervention in Libya and probably what they can do about it. If China does become hostile towards those who have intervened, you have to ask yourself do you want to anger China? China is closer to you than it is us. I don’t know if Australia has nuclear capabilities. If not, I’m sure you don’t need an angry nuclear neighbour. I hope your politicians aren’t as short-sighted as ours and don’t drag you into this mess.

    Much love from the UK :+)

  5. Thanks Alex and xena for your comments and perspectives. Being a NATO-led conflict, I think the chances of AUS troops being deployed are still slim; aside from upholding international norms such as R2P, as Andrew Carr points out, Australia has little strategic interest in going to Libya. However, my point is that the possibility still exists; we are not only in the early stages of the conflict but also in the early stages of a stable and conflict-free Libya. And no, Australia doesn’t have nuclear capabilities.

  6. I’m an Australian high-school student, though by most adults standards, I have no place in these matters, it affects my country, I will have my say…
    First of all, Xena, thank you for your insight. I myself believe that Australia should stay out of it unless we are dropping supplies, unfortunately our government doesn’t have enough back-bone to go against what the US or British government. I believe it is inevitable that Australia will join the war.
    After the embarrasment and tradgedy of Afghanistan, the pointlessness of our involvement and the risk of angering other countries I believe it would be a stupid idea to get involved. I also think the idea of sending ASIO agents is not wise, Mossad I understand… look at their track record.
    As you have pointed out, angering a nuclear rich China when we are supposedly completely against it, is not such a brilliant idea.
    The chances of WWIII are low, but I have considered the possibility. After the repercussions of most other wars, especially the World Wars, I hope this doesn’t happen, and inspite of the military actions of some countries I should think most governments should be trying to prevent this.
    Either way you can’t please everyone, someone is going to complain no matter what happens. And Gadaffi’s future is not bright.

  7. I’m from Berlin, Germany, and several persons right here are really ashamed that Germany is not fighting coupled with NATO in Libya. We would not comprehend the mindset of our authorities. When talking about the armed forces, Germany is solely ridiculous.

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