Brian Stewart: Are more Libya-style mini-wars in the cards?

Ten years of indecisive combat has soured the West on sending its armies abroad, Brian Stewart writes. But are risk-averse bombing campaigns, as in Libya, really the answer?

These are murky times for Western militaries, and I'm not just talking about the confused events underway in Libya.

New paradigms are arising for limited warfare and no one's sure where these will all lead.

"We're in a strategic never-never land" one military strategist, a friend of mine, admitted recently.

Indeed, we seem to be entering a phase of historic global change as dictatorships topple and Western governments face immense pressure to cut budgets and, pace public opinion, get their armies "back home."

Think of NATO's scramble to depart Afghanistan as quickly as it decently can, coinciding with the U.S. attempt to further reduce its residual force in Iraq.

Confronted with the challenge of Libya, NATO limited itself to a largely safe bombing campaign from above, and an even safer missile bombardment and blockade from the sea.

Tellingly, fewer than half of NATO's members even agreed to go along with this limited campaign, which they had voted for. Even the mighty United States, seeking to minimize its involvement, sought near anonymity behind Britain, France and Canada. Surely a first.

Mind your own business

I'm not criticizing or demeaning this risk-averse strategy. I've covered too many bad wars in my time to hold much nostalgia for boots-on-the-ground tactics.

Rebel fighters, aided by Western air power, celebrate as they stand on top of the monument inside the main Moammar Gadhafi compound in Tripoli on Aug. 24, 2011. (Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press)

But I am wondering what we are going to see arise from this modern disillusionment over the use of force.

Whether it's Canada, the U.S., or our allies in Europe, 10 years of indecisive combat has soured attitudes against sending our armies overseas.

This mood change is remarkable. As our combat troops left Afghanistan this summer only 30 per cent of Canadians believed our sacrifice was worthwhile, according to a Leger poll.

These attitudes are strikingly similar to those in the U.S.

A recent Pew poll shows most Americans not only want their soldiers out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, but nearly half of all Republicans (45 per cent) and Democrats (43 per cent) feel the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally" from now on.

Significantly, most Americans (65 per cent) agree it's time to start cutting defence spending (and this poll was done in June, before debt reduction became a daily obsession).

The utility of force

More importantly, perhaps, mindsets have changed.

As the departing defence secretary Robert Gates warned earlier this year, "any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined."

What's more if America does launch another campaign anywhere, it would almost certainly be alongside even fewer allies.

In Europe, governments are slashing military budgets with a gusto born of financial desperation. Germany, for example, is cutting its military by 21 per cent over the next five years. Britain has already reduced its army's size to the lowest point since Queen Victoria's reign.

No one knows how long this retrenchment will last but one might suspect a generation at least. That's because war-weariness is so strong, and also because the nature of the risks we face is now so much more clear.

Six years ago, a remarkable military work by a British general and intellectual, Rupert Smith, coined a striking phrase "war among the people" to describe the campaigns that NATO has faced in recent decades.

His seminal book, The Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World, became a must-read among diplomats, generals and foreign correspondents. It argued that conflicts are now waged not to conquer states, or territories, but to target civilians and win over the will of populations to ensure political aims.

It is a battlefield that conventional forces are ill suited for, and the core problems lead inescapably to the frustrations we feel today.

Timeless conflict

As Smith wrote: "We fight amongst the people, not on the battlefield; our conflicts tend to be timeless, even unending; we fight also to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain the objective."

It would be hard to find a more succinct description of Afghanistan.

It always struck me when I was there that, among non-U.S. forces at least, the overwhelming military effort was dominated by a desire to avoid taking casualties, rather than to pursue the Taliban in costly actions.


'We fight amongst the people, not on the battlefield; our conflicts tend to be timeless, even unending; we fight also to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain the objective.'—Rupert Smith

No mystery why. For Western governments know public opinion at home would simply never support high casualties in conflicts that looked to be "timeless, even unending."

Today, events in Libya suggest we may be moving beyond Smith's version of war to something very different, perhaps a war that is above and beyond the people. That's as close as we want to get to raging conflicts.

Among the officers I talk with, the strategic thinkers are straining to better understand these scenarios, and what they will mean for Canadian and other forces.

No one knows the future, but critical spending decisions have to be made.

The current mood strongly suggests that should we again become involved in foreign actions, we will want to rely more on airpower and naval supremacy, while the armies stay home. (Diplomats may also discover their talents are again in high demand.)

New approaches

Libya, of course, is not the only hot spot that Western governments want to approach from a distance. In East Africa, Somalia is a horror far worse than even Libya under Moammar Gadhafi. Yet no Western military wants anything to do with trying to end that nightmare through direct intervention.

A steady stream of NATO and other national frigates sail forth to the glittering Indian Ocean on piracy patrols and yet sea attacks soared to record highs this year.

Piracy's secure base within the anarchy of Somalia and the failure to find a solution for that remains one of the great military/security fiascos of our time. Yet we endure the humiliation, largely by trying to ignore it.

Western governments may feel they are out of military options at this point. But when it comes to resolving the world's problems, there is almost less faith in the UN and the G-20 than in the generals.

The organic mobilizing of people power in the Arab Spring offers hope, but these uprising are probably only feasible in a few countries, and even there outcomes are far from clear.

So as we sigh in relief over the return of our combat veterans, we still need to discover new approaches to the perils of the real world. Trouble won't go away just because our troops do.