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Into a zone of uncertainty

india Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:42 IST

The air war over Libya is a curious battle, being fought in strange circumstances and in an unclear atmosphere. The decision to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya seems to have been driven by two factors. One was emotional, a desire to save the rebels of eastern Libya from being crushed by Muammar Gaddafi's forces. This seems to have moved the Arab League and a fair amount of opinion in the West. Two was political. France, which has led the western effort to enforce the no-fly zone, seems suspiciously concerned about its global gravitas and giving troubled President Nicolas Sarkozy an electoral boost. The most reluctant player has been the United States. It went along because its European allies insisted and because some members of the Democratic administration were worried of accusations that it passively allowed a humanitarian crisis a la Rwanda.

Mr Gaddafi had an opportunity to put forward a vision of Libya that looked beyond the narrow tribal society that he has ruled for years. He failed to do so and thus failed to delegitimise the rebellion. While there are circumstances under which international military intervention is acceptable, it is not something that should be done lightly. It is hard to escape a sense that an insufficient case was made for such intervention in Libya. It was fortunate that the Arab League voted for enforcing the no-fly zone. That provided the West necessary political cover. But far too many unanswered questions remain regarding the goal of the intervention to make even advocates of a post-sovereign world comfortable. It remains uncertain whether the purpose is to overthrow Mr Gaddafi, force a negotiated solution between the fighting halves or allow the de facto partition of Libya. The character of a rebel regime is also unclear. The latter's talk of democracy has not been backed with any blueprint for constitutional reform or any electoral timelines.

India has continued its tradition of pleasing no one and sounding confused. It made sense to abstain in the United Nations Security Council vote over the no-fly zone: New Delhi has marginally more stakes in reinforcing the solidarity of the emerging economies than it does in political events in Libya. However, its subsequent denunciation of the airstrikes made India look naïve. Enforcement of a no-fly zone would always have included bombing and strafing ground targets - and this in turn would mean collateral civilian casualties. New Delhi's only saving grace is that not many capitals in the world paid much notice to either of India's actions. The focus is on Libya and its confusing war.