libya - AP - August 26 2011
A rebel climbing on the sculpture of a fist with an airplane − symbolizing American attacks on Libya in 1986 − this week in Tripoli. Gadhafi’s collapse was a happy surprise. Photo by AP
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LONDON - England was very merry indeed this week. It had notched up a huge success, and no less importantly, a cheap one. Its five-month investment in Libya, which had threatened to balloon and even affect the 2012 Olympics, bore fruit sooner than expected. Without troops on the ground, without losses, without making Britain look like a fossil dragging behind the real powers.

Such elation had not been seen since Margaret Thatcher ordered her subjects to rejoice at the end of the Falklands War, at least not in the media or at Whitehall, the seat of the prime minister, the Foreign Office and the Defense Ministry. The locals and the tourists could hardly miss the huge headlines. Especially notable for her determination to get ahead of her competitors - or to prove she was meeting the terms of her insurance policy - was the Sky News correspondent wearing a blue helmet, strapped under her chin, sticking out among bare-headed Libyans.

The collective emotional pendulum had swung back only two weeks after Britons were left depressed by their large-scale local riots. This situation is the embodiment of the slogan "defeat into victory," printed on the monument to Field Marshal William Slim. Slim commanded British forces in Southeast Asia in World War II - and he is one of the three generals from that war commemorated with a statue opposite the Defense Ministry on Whitehall, along with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery from North Africa and Europe and Chief of Staff Lord Alanbrooke. "Defeat into Victory" was the title of his book.

Since the end of World War II, the British have known very few victories. The Falklands War could be considered one; it meets the formula of defeat first. And now, Libya.

On November 2, 2010, on the eve of the ferment that eventually swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a security cooperation treaty. Its purpose was economic: to save on expenditures on weapons and to form joint expeditionary forces. Officially, the two governments said the bilateral agreement would not erode the strength of the NATO and the European Union. Practically, Cameron and Sarkozy created a mechanism to circumvent these organizations' clumsy procedures, to address threats against Britain and France speedily.

"Migration and terror," a Foreign Office official said this week, when asked what the reasons were for Britain's intervention in Libya, after Muammar Gadhafi cracked down on popular protests against his four decades of tyranny. The Germans balked. Britain needed a UN Security Council resolution, a call from the Arab countries and NATO's mandate. Even then, the Western "car" was still stuck on the Benghazi-Tripoli road. U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to start the engine, so long as he could sit in the back seat and let Cameron and Sarkozy steer.

'Option 1-A'

The details that have engaged international commentators - such as whether the rebels' success should be attributed to a mix of air power (and what were the respective contributions of the fighter planes, helicopters and drones ), intelligence cells, and weapons supplies, have been given prominence only because times have changed. In the summer of 1969, the coup by Gadhafi and his colleagues, all between the ages of 24 and 28, was fundamentally different from the many other military coups in Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s. It too would have been relegated to a footnote in the history books had the Americans and the British dared to employ "Option 1-A." This was the refined name for the plan to stage a counter-coup, drafted by the CIA and its partners in London with the support of Western oil companies, which rightly feared their operations would be nationalized.

Secret documents published in Washington during the past decade, after Gadhafi was no longer being called "the Mad Dog of Tripoli" and before he reverted back to being considered a murderous tyrant, documented the discussions among the Nixon administration's intelligence, defense and diplomatic establishments. They debated whether to support forces seeking to restore King Idris' regime or to gamble on key members of Gadhafi's junta - chiefly, his deputy Abdelssalam Jalloud. They wondered how skilled the conspirators were and how an attempted counter-coup would affect the United States' image in the Arab world and Africa. The ambassador in Tripoli backed Gadhafi, while officials at the Benghazi consulate felt otherwise.

While Henry Kissinger and the CIA had to take into account the Wheelus Air Base, the sale of F-5 fighter planes promised to the previous regime, oil facilities and Gadhafi's support for his Egyptian neighbor Gamal Abdel Nasser. While they were trying to make up their minds, they learned that British and other mercenaries, fed up with American foot-dragging, were preparing a different plan.

In the end, the White House decided to pass up a Bay of Pigs-style intervention between Tripoli and Benghazi.

Four decades later, the West is intervening in domestic conflicts between rulers and their opponents - a rare thing nowadays - as it did in the past, by helping internal elements arm themselves, train and gain intelligence. The innovation is in the open use of air power, through the UN and NATO. Libya's geography and logistics have helped: It is easy to get equipment and ammunition there, from the sea and from the air, "and the long coastal road through the desert plain is very convenient for aerial and satellite photography," as a British official said this week.

Upon seeing the rebels, a British businessman who had flown to Libya to look after his interests there at the start of the NATO operation called a friend at Whitehall and said with concern: "This is an army of dentists." Dentists' ability to also cause severe pain did not comfort him.

Medium-sized power

A week ago in London, officials thought that things were going well but that a breakthrough was still distant. Gadhafi's collapse, even if it did not astonish, was a happy surprise. The NATO planes were essential for intercepting Gadhafi's planes, for attacks and for intelligence, but were not decisive. The rebels would have had both hands tied behind their backs were it not for the aerial help. NATO's aerial intervention tied Gadhafi's hands too, and left the two sides to slug it out on the ground.

Diplomatically, Britain is still the medium-sized power it was on the eve of the Libyan revolt. Its assets, one of its spokespersons admitted Wednesday, are "a permanent seat on the Security Council, an independent nuclear force and the status of being one of three leaders of the European Union," along with Germany and France. In actuality, and as U.S. power wanes, London is aspiring to lead "the Commonwealth of European republics," reinforced by its special relationship with the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the rest of the British Commonwealth.

For the British, the transition from defeat to victory relates to the idea of the few versus the many. Strange as this may sound, given their empire's former supremacy, the British see themselves as the few. This is exemplified in Winston Churchill's words, "Never was so much owed by so many to so few," and by a monument on the banks of the Thames to the handful of Royal Air Force pilots who overcame the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940.

Churchill found the idea of the few in Shakespeare's "Henry V." Who were the happy few, Henry's faithful officers, fighting against, if not the French? The British-French partnership, then, is the most intriguing aspect of the Libyan story. The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was the core of the two countries' joint naval expeditionary force, for lack of a budget that would have allowed for separate forces. Churchill would not have believed it.

The current generation of British leaders are in their 40s. Unlike their predecessors, they did not go through the world wars. They came of age with Iraq and Afghanistan. More than anything, this generation is deterred by the political fate of prime ministers who went too far and too much on their own, like Anthony Eden in the Suez Operation in 1956 (then too in an alliance with the French ), in the hope of toppling Gamal Abdel Nasser. The parsimony with which the Libya campaign was managed elicited rare public criticism of the elected echelon from top British military officials, whose funding was cut in order to fight the deficit. London police commanders have spoken out lately with similar harshness about the politicians who abandoned them in the streets while they clucked their tongues from their vacation venues.

The prime minister is winning very meager respect. The ceremoniousness has remained, but the hypocrisy has died. The dark service vehicles in the Foreign Office parking lot are no longer Rovers and Bentleys; now they're Toyotas.

The Libyan story isn't over. An important chapter was written this week, but it's not the last one.

"We will apply what we have learned in Iraq, from the folly of the de-Baathization and the dismantling of the army," a British official promised on Wednesday. "We will keep the frameworks and the institutions."

They do not have any guarantee that the next regime will not be as bad as its predecessor or will not be vulnerable to international jihad, he admitted. In the meantime they will toast it with goblets of oil.