Propaganda may prove crucial

Propaganda may prove crucial

From Gadhafi’s point of view, the battle for hearts and minds may offer him his best hope of political survival.

Perhaps because it was created at such short notice, the multinational alliance is struggling to speak with one voice as it explains its aims to sceptical Arab and domestic audiences. The information war is an urgent priority for Western powers because the policing of a UN-mandated no-fly zone inevitably places lives on the ground at some degree of risk.

Inadvertent killings of civilians by the very force deployed to protect them would be exploited by Gadhafi to shore up his domestic support and divide allies jittery about using force. Analysts say Libya’s leader is seeking to ensure a starkly different storyline emerges internationally than the one sought by the West—that despotic and greedy powers are trying to recolonise Libya for its oil, killing civilians in the process.

“Gadhafi is no fool,” said Richard Holmes, professor of military and security studies at Britain’s Cranfield University.

“He is surrounded by bright men whose lives and liberty are at stake, and so they will try to unhinge the coalition.”

Holmes said the alliance must not interpret its mandate aggressively, for example by arming the rebels or using ground forces: This would probably be illegal, would certainly alienate Arab allies and provoke a nationalist rally in Gadhafi’s ranks.

Instead the allies should start an information drive to gather support for the sole aim of protecting civilians, forging a united front Gadhafi would find hard to divide, he said. It should also focus on his repression of Libya’s popular uprising.

“Gadhafi’s is a shocking regime that is killing people under vile circumstances. We need to keep coming back to that. But that bad behaviour does not justify illegality.”  Four days in to the bombing, evidence abounds of allied fractiousness over the legitimacy of the operation.

On Tuesday US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to Moscow that some people in Russia seemed to believe what he termed Gadhafi’s “lies” about civilian casualties.

Hours later a note of Arab dissent emerged when Algeria called for an immediate end to Western military intervention.

There has also been bad-tempered debate inside Nato  about who should command the military campaign once the United States steps back from leading the operation.

Even inside Western governments, disputes have rumbled. A case in point was a moment on Monday of open disarray among British officials over the legality of killing Gaddafi.
Ali Adullatif Ahmida, a Libya expert and political scientist at the University of New England, said such moments of discord provided a vivid demonstration that the conflict was “a symbolic and information battle” as well as a military one.