As the dreadful human toll mounts in Libya, geopolitical context is beginning to obtrude on the Arab world’s revolt. The suggestions for military measures against the Qaddafi regime started yesterday with a member of Libya’s own UN mission recommending a no-fly zone. This first serious suggestion for a military response to the Arab unrest serves to highlight the fact that there are already some military responses being mounted. Nothing being done today will save imperiled Libyans: Qaddafi is slaughtering them right now, and only immediate intervention with summary force would have a hope of protecting them. But the nations of the region are recognizing military necessity (and, in one case, military opportunity) in the domestic instability of the Arab states.
The EU on Sunday inaugurated a new border-security operation, “Hermes 2011,” to deal with the influx of refugees from Tunisia into Italy’s southern islands. The Italians are coordinating the operation, to which other nations — France, Spain, the Netherlands — will contribute patrol aircraft and ships. Fearing new eruptions from Libya, Italy has put its air force on alert and moved helicopters to its southern airfields. Turkey has dispatched a naval transport ship and two commercial ferries to Libya, along with a warship escort, to retrieve Turkish nationals.
Meanwhile, the Suez Canal authorities finally affirmed on Tuesday that Iran’s warships have finished their canal transit, which raises the curtain on Act Two of this sometimes farcical but nevertheless significant drama. Iran’s tactical use of the warships will depend very much on circumstance; I don’t expect the more dire predictions about them to pan out. One small frigate is overmatched by virtually any navy in the Mediterranean. Certainly the Iranians would lose their warship if they provoked a shooting match with Israel.
But the political triumph of getting the ships into the Mediterranean is the main effort for Iran. Establishing a pattern of such transits would also allow Iran to move war materiel to Hezbollah in the holds of naval supply ships, which would complicate Israel’s security planning by an order of magnitude beyond previous tactical problems. Israeli interdiction of merchant ships carrying contraband to Lebanon is a necessary inconvenience to the shipping trade. Interdicting Iranian naval vessels could be taken by Tehran and the international community as an act of war.
Much will depend on the West’s attitude about maintaining order. History suggests we will react — and slowly — rather than taking the initiative. In the case of the no-fly-zone proposal, Italy is in a predicament: the obvious base for a multinational air force, it has nevertheless been reluctant to condemn the Qaddafi regime, which is its partner in a key natural-gas pipeline to Europe. (There is no U.S. aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean; USS Enterprise moved into the Red Sea last week.) Rome and the EU have had no trouble organizing force for a minimally defensive posture, but when it comes to defending order in the common spaces, or at the untended boundaries where law and central government have broken down, there is no doing it without American leadership.