FOREIGN Minister Kevin Rudd's recent National Press Club speech on our foreign policy in the Middle East argued vigorously that Australian interests weren't only regional but global. Rudd stressed the benefit to Australia of pursuing an activist middle-power diplomacy in world affairs.
This approach underpinned his energetic push to secure international agreement on a no-fly zone in Libya's civil war. The Arab League resolved to support intervention on March 12 and the UN Security Council on March 17. Few people, however, have speculated publicly about preparing for the Libyan endgame and a possible role for the UN in a post-conflict situation.
UN peacekeepers are only too familiar with the task of helping clear up civil wars on the African continent. Since the Cold War, peacekeepers have been on the ground in many countries, including Angola, Rwanda, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mozambique and the Central African Republic.
In these situations, UN missions have embraced three types of assistance. First is promoting military stability by helping negotiate a ceasefire, monitoring that ceasefire and the disengagement of forces, supervising the decommissioning of weapons and excluding mercenaries from the conflict zone.
Second is helping restore the social order by, for example, protecting humanitarian assistance, training police and helping rebuild or create social and economic institutions.
Third is supporting the holding of democratic elections, often in countries in which this is a novelty. If the rebels in Libya take over, they will be in need of such support, being probably less prepared for government than the Timorese in 1999.
Many of these post-conflict roles are likely to be relevant to the endgame in Libya. We don't know whether Muammar Gaddafi will negotiate, whether he will disappear from the scene, whether the civil war will lapse into stalemate or be rapidly resolved, or how deeply involved the international community may become in the fighting.
But all wars end and the UN is likely to be called upon to stabilise the situation after the fighting stops, or when Gaddafi (or his successor) strikes a deal with the rebels.
There is no other choice. The Arab League lacks the resources to do it alone and isn't exactly familiar with democratic processes. It is also unlikely to want to become embroiled in potential political and religious disputes within another Arab state by organising a post-conflict stabilisation force.
NATO is divided, with Germany distinctly lukewarm about the no-fly zone, while the more enthusiastic Britain and France may be unwilling to commit already overstretched military forces. US President Barack Obama will be especially wary of committing ground forces in North Africa, if only for domestic political reasons. A Western-run force wouldn't be a good look, anyway.
A UN force would have the added benefit of being able to include substantial numbers of troops from Arab states, such as Egypt, while providing international cover. Prospective UN involvement, if seriously planned, could in fact contribute to ending the war. Both sides may be more willing to negotiate if they know that UN blue helmets will step in as a buffer. Many Libyans may prefer UN involvement to a free-for-all at the end of hostilities.
Given UN involvement, it's likely to look to Australia for a significant contribution. Last month's Press Club speech by Rudd referred to this country's proud record in peacekeeping; participation in 50 operations employing a total of 65,000 troops. He also expressed Australia's interest in obtaining a seat on the Security Council in 2013-14. The speech seemed to be inviting the UN to ask for a contribution to any peacekeeping mission that may be needed in Libya.
Within six months perhaps, Australian forces may return to North Africa and the familiar ground of Tobruk and Benghazi, where they distinguished themselves some 70-odd years ago.
Hugh Smith is a visiting fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Anthony Bergin is director of research programs at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.