Saturday, 26 February 2011


US Marines spearheading a small army of Arab and Berber soldiers attacked Darnah in Cyrenaica early in the afternoon, after American warships had bombarded the town's defences. By four o'clock the city had fallen, the American flag flew over its ramparts, and the force was preparing to march on Tripoli.

This was of, course, in April 1804, not in March 2011, but there is no doubt that the means exist today to repeat that victory – the first ever land engagement of United States troops outside the American continent – and on a much larger scale.

American and other western forces in the Mediterranean area, working with military units from Arab countries, could probably destroy the Gaddafi family's ramshackle legions in about the same amount of time it took over 150 years ago. When sniper fire rakes crowds outside mosques and when ill-armed fighters face machine guns, the temptation to reach out for a quick military solution is strong. Yet even in 1804 it was not so simple. America's quarrel with the rulers of what was to become Libya was in the end settled diplomatically and Hassan Bey, the enemy in 1804, continued to rule in Tripoli. The use of force in north Africa in those years was hampered by diplomacy, complicated by the presence of nationals who were real or potential hostages of local rulers, and inclined to backfire in unexpected ways.

These are the factors which constrain organisations like Nato and the UN, both meeting yesterday to consider measures designed to persuade or coerce the dying regime in Libya to give up before it does any more damage. First, we haven't got all our civilians out yet. Second, international agreement on the use of force, even in the limited form of a no fly zone, is notoriously difficult to achieve.

Third, it would be better if Libyans won their battle with the regime on their own: even Arab, let alone American, help could be problematic. These considerations might in time fall away, and it is right to make the technical preparations. Meanwhile, the most effective measures are likely to be those that go with the grain of what is already happening in Libya. Economic sanctions, asset freezes and the like are gesture politics. They matter only as signals. The encouragement of defections and the threat of punishment to come for those who use deadly force seem, as William Hague stresses, the best instruments. Fragmentary reports on the state of mind of officers in the Gaddafi enclave suggest a tipping point is not far off. As for mercenaries, they are said to worry most about two things, whether they will get killed and whether they will get paid. They have ample reason now to be concerned about both.

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