Diversionary war and Libya

There are more winners and losers to intervention in Libya besides Gaddafi, the rebels and anyone in Libya. For the wider world involved in this conflict, all policy choices involve mixed motives, some more honourable, and some more selfishly calculating. For the Western countries in particular, domestic pressures impinge on the foreign policy calculations – staying out, as would seem to be the publicly-backed case for Germany, and getting in, as perhaps is that for Britain and especially France.

For these latter two, the loudest champions of international intervention, there are a more than a few hints of ‘diversionary war’ thinking. At its most extreme, a diversionary war hypothesis suggests that embattled leaders facing domestic unrest and instability may provoke or instigate an international conflict, in order to generate a rally-around-the-flag effect; domestic cohesion and stability is improved by some apparently overarching, immediate threat from another country. (As far as I can quickly survey, academic attention seems to suggest that there isn’t a very strong relationship in the success of leaders to actually win wars of diversion and bolster their position – but there’s an attractively intuitive logic nonetheless).

I’m not suggesting that the Libyan rebellion is one instigated by Britain, France, or, for that matter, any external party. But when the opportunity has presented itself, there may well be some diversionary motives to their enthusiasm in cobbling together an international coalition. The Guardian suggested as much last weekend, with regard to Sarkozy’s domestic position:

“With his popularity at a record low and facing a presidential election next year, France’s diminutive leader was in desperate need of a boost to his political stature. On Saturday he got it…

“…But for Sarkozy himself, Libya is important in a different way. He hopes that – if he can restore French stature in the international arena – the intervention could turn out to be for him what the Falklands war was to Margaret Thatcher: a vote winner.”

And for the UK? Perhaps the spectator sport of televised warfare and battlefield reporting provides a welcome distraction from the hurly-burly and policy minutiae of budget announcements in the past week. It may seem a rather cynical suggestion to make, but perhaps unremarkable when set against that age-old suspicion of a quest for oil driving Western involvement in the Middle East: the former, a motive of domestic political calculation, and the latter, a motive of economics and energy supply.

For in a world of limited attention spans, and the fickleness of what is considered new and newsworthy, war-fighting when it involves one’s own troops is less easily nudged off the news agenda. Other issues, whether home or away, face a greater challenge in getting airtime:

“How happy are the Saudis, that they can stomp their boot on rebellion in Bahrain with cameras trained elsewhere? The Syrians? The UAE that they can support the Saudis in Bahrain but also appear to support the west in Libya? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the world is distracted from his little science experiments in his basement (see below)? Not to mention everyone from the North Koreans to the finance ministers of places like Portugal and Spain who are happy to let Muammar & Co. take the heat for a while.”

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