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Letter from London / Ray Moseley: Danger of ‘sudden’ regime collapse in Libya?

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Far from a stalemate that will lead to the permanent partition of Libya, the Western military campaign there may be on the point of bringing down the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, a leading British commentator said on Thursday.

Paul Smyth, former program director at the London foreign policy think tank Royal United Services Institute, wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “The real danger. . .is not of a protracted stalemate, but of a sudden regime collapse.” NATO needs to put in place the plans and resources to deal with that eventuality, he said, if it is to avoid “adverse consequences both for the Libyan people and for ourselves.”

Mr. Smyth, a 25-year veteran of the Royal Air Force and current founder of a consultancy group, said outside observers have tended to overlook the steady erosion of regime power and the strengthening of the rebellion.

“With the rebels’ training and organization improving, and NATO’s continued engagement, Qaddafi’s forces will be unable to retake the operational initiative,” he said, predicting there would be a steady sapping of morale of the regime’s forces and foreign mercenaries and a slow erosion of confidence in their leaders.

By contrast with Mr. Smyth’s assessment, the Telegraph editorially endorsed President Obama’s comment in London on Wednesday that success in Libya would likely require a “slow, steady process.”

“We could be in for a lengthy war of attrition,” the newspaper said. “It would have been helpful to have had such a frank, hard-headed assessment from the British government.”

As Mr. Obama flew off to a G8 summit in France, there was sparse editorial comment in Britain on his talks with Prime Minister David Cameron concerning the Middle East and other issues. Most comment centered on the president’s flattering remarks in a speech to Parliament about Britain’s role as a partner of the United States.

But columnist Kim Sengupta, writing in the Independent, suggested that Libyan offers of a ceasefire need to be taken into consideration. “Unless the colonel (Qaddafi) flees or is killed, a time may come when the West and, therefore, the rebels have to accept this option,” he said.

Simon Jenkins, commenting in Wednesday’s Guardian ahead of the Obama-Cameron talks, was highly critical of both men for their resort to military action both in Afghanistan and Libya. “To many in Britain, American foreign policy under Obama has come to seem Bush-lite, while Britain’s seems Blair-lite,” he wrote.

Mr. Jenkins said the efforts of Arab people to free themselves from oppressive regimes are not helped “by grandstanding in Washington and London, by megaphone diplomacy and by blundering military intervention.. .Neither (Mr. Obama nor Mr. Cameron) has shown a capacity to disengage from the drums of war. Until they do, any hope that the West’s leadership might gain traction in the Muslim world is futile.”

Further critical comment about US policy toward the Arab Spring came in Thursday’s Guardian from Soumaya Ghannoushi, a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“The aim is to transform the people’s revolutions into America’s revolutions by engineering a new set of docile, domesticated and US-friendly elites,” she said.

Referring to a proposed $2 billion facility to support private investment in Tunisia and Egypt, she said: “As usual, investment and aid are conditional on adoption of the US model in the name of liberalization and reform, and on binding the region’s economies further to US and European markets under the banner of ‘trade integration.’”

“For the people of Cairo, Tunis and Sana’a the US is the equivalent of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe: it is the problem, not the solution. To Arabs, the US is a force of occupation draped in a thin cloak of democracy and human rights.”

(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East.)