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The Pottery Barn Rule applies to Libya: We broke it, now we own it...

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Col.Muammar Gadaffi

There must be cheers all 'round tonight, not to mention a palpable sense of relief, among the senior officers of the air forces of NATO.

After all, their six-month bombing campaign to assassinate Libya's unsavoury dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, was becoming an embarrassment, an advertisement for the ineffectiveness of bombs and aircraft against even the weakest of opponents.

The Libyan "no-fly zone" was supposed to be inexpensive, quick and painless, and it proved to be none of those things. As a result, before the latest developments, U.S. President Barack Obama was reported in some circles to be considering pulling the plug on the bombing as potentially fatal to his re-election prospects.

However, with the homicidal rabble that the so-called North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been backing for the past half year now poised to replace Col. Gadaffi's homicidal regime, success after a fashion for NATO's air forces at last appears to be at hand.

The rebels are in the streets of Tripoli -- and therefore, thankfully, there will be no need to the U.S. Marines to stage a messy return engagement there -- so it can be conveniently forgotten that NATO's air power never really succeeded at either its principal tactical goal, killing the Libyan leader, or its claimed strategic goal, protecting Libyan civilians.

As of this moment, Col. Gaddafi is still holed up in his compound, presumably preparing either his final stand or pondering his last-minute exit strategy, but his presidential guard is said to have surrendered, so things don't look good for his prospects. However, before we fly back to our NATO air bases and start lobbying for expensive new bombs to replace the ones we've just exploded, let's think about the next steps in North Africa.

Because what comes next won't simply be a matter of ensuring that Western companies, and not the Chinese, get to tap Libya's oil reserves, that the royalties charged by the new Libyan regime are now reduced to embarrassingly low Alberta-like levels, or that a safely market-fundamentalist economic regime is quickly established.

For while NATO partners like Canada and the United States can safely shirk some of their duties on this one -- owing to the strategically convenient location of the Atlantic Ocean between them and the problem in North Africa -- the financially strapped European members of NATO's southern flank are about to experience all over again the reality of Gen. Colin Powell's Pottery Barn Rule: "If you break it you own it!"

First of course, there is the matter of preventing an embarrassing massacre in tribally-divided Libya. NATO has decreed that the transition must be peaceful, so -- whatever actually happens on the ground in Tripoli over the next few days -- that is presumably what we will be told before the cell-phone videos start leaking out.

Longer term -- and more significantly -- is the reality that someone is going to have to maintain order in the North African country, and it seems highly likely that the rag-tag and disorganized rebels backed by NATO and slavishly praised by Canada's foreign minister, John Baird of Benghazi, are not up to the job.

The alternative to maintaining order is neither practical nor palatable to southern Europe, because with either an ongoing war in North Africa or no effective government in Tripoli, the region would be bound to become the centre of a massive people-smuggling operation as economic refugees from throughout Africa use it as a jumping off point to stream into southern Europe.

This is simply not on, politically speaking, for the governments of Mediterranean Europe, including France and Italy.

The brutal fact is that however this order is achieved, it's going to cost pots of money and tie up many military and civilian resources. Moreover, if all NATO members do not share the costs -- and it’s hard to imagine the likes of Canada, Iceland and Latvia rushing to pony up -- the strains on the alliance will increase.

But for good or ill, NATO's campaign has "broken" Libya. So NATO owns it now and the results of not paying the price have the potential to be catastrophic.

Just remember what happened in Afghanistan -- which unlike Libya is not a convenient boat ride away from Europe's southern shore -- when the West walked away from the problems it created there!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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