THE DAY THE WEST WENT BACK TO WAR
Shadows of western intervention hang darkly like vultures over Middle Eastern skies. Or tornado jets. And 110 tomahawk missiles.
As Qaddafi murders his own people, the rest of the world has watched for almost a month, freshly timid after the failed missions that cling, claw-like, to Iraqi and Afghani soil. As much as Obama doesn’t want to be the old Bush, Cameron is delighted to be the new Blair. Determined enough to speak out early on the no-fly zone, to the guffaws of those around, this is the same man who went to the Middle East to sell arms “in the British economic interest” amidst the upheaval of Arab Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, even as Bahrain and Yemen were beginning to uncurl their lips and unleash their own weapons. It is too early to praise Cameron’s insistence on the no-fly zone, and much too early to have any sense of what is actually being discussed behind the scenes. But, with the deep unease that this conflict is causing in so many people, it is what is behind the scenes that ultimately will decide whether this action should have been taken at all.
I have been deeply conflicted over this military action for days. Almost everyone with whom I speak agonises over wanting the massacres to be stopped whilst failing to trust the coalition forces to stop either it or themselves. There is none of the moral certainty of Iraq in 2003. The mania unleashed by the Mad Dog on his people has caused the world to want to find an urgent way for it to stop. Military intervention has seemed to be the only way to prevent an immediate brutal massacre in Benghazi, so perhaps there was no alternative for a responsible international community, equally mindful of the consequences of inaction. Lessons learned from sitting idly on our haunches in Rwanda, particularly, as a nation was slaughtered under the shaded eyes of the international community, brought new purpose to liberal interventionism.
But then Afghanistan and Iraq tore every shred of trust and moral fibre from the politics – and those who report on it daily – in the West. It is impossible to trust the sanctimony being squeezed out of those same lips now. Watch them all cross their fingers behind their backs as they promise Operation Odyssey Dawn has nothing to do with economic interest, or that the goals of the operation are clear, limited and achievable. Still, Qaddafi is crossing his own fingers as he declares a ceasefire whilst wreaking murderous revenge on his people, and kidnapping journalists so that nobody can see the truth anywhere. And all of us are crossing our fingers when we say that this is not really a war that will take civilian casualties, or play into the propaganda-stained hands of a despot, ready to hostage his entire population.
Saturday was the day the West went back to War. This time it is sanctioned by both the United Nations and the Arab League, who unacceptably have failed to commit their own forces to match their words. Watching cruise missiles and aerial bombardments light up the night skies of North Africa brings back stark memories of Tony Blair’s opening gambit against Iraq in 1998 as well as haunting echoes of the Balkans, another humanitarian crisis that was unfolding rapidly and murderously. But even as Qaddafi fires forwards and retreats backwards, the coming days and weeks will become harder by the hour, short of a surprise assassination attempt from the inside imminently.
What is the endgame, I keep asking myself? A no-fly zone cannot exist in a pacific bubble – it needs enforcement and military might both to create and to police it. Nonetheless, both Amr Moussa’s domestic political pressures and inevitable civilian casualties could lead to a sudden turnaround in Arab public opinion, which will matter increasingly as the attacks from Western bombing campaigns continue. How deeply did the UN consider the potential consequences of its cleverly drafted paragraph 4? How many “necessary measures” will be taken to enforce the UN Resolution? And, critically, who decides what those “necessary measures” are, or should be? These difficult questions need answers, and whilst the situation is evolving by the hour, the politicians need to have worked out these answers before their planes took off from European bases. The mission ostensibly is to stop war crimes being committed on the Libyan population by their despot leader, but this has a frightening potential to end up as a major own goal.
As Qaddafi murders his own people, politicians and people alike have been praying that an Egyptian (or a Tunisian) solution can be found. The hand-wringing and delay that accompanied such entreaties were understandable, commendable even, for this was the sign of an alliance which finally understood that people could bring democracy to themselves, in time, un-imposed and without the strings of friendly puppets dancing to a master’s tune. The West’s interference in the Middle East has a long and sordid history, tied up with colonial domination, Israeli politics, arms sales and oil. It is not easy to shrug that reputation off, as the politicians who daily cry wolf well know.
But the same hand-wringing and delay gave a tyrant -armed by Blair, Berlusconi, Sarkozy and also by Cameron – valuable time to unleash his ammunition and fire power so that the embers of revolution might be quickly swept away. The UN Resolution almost certainly came too late, but reports from Libya suggest that the fact of it was well-received, giving the desperate a tiny glimmer of hope. This, then, is the principal reason to support this action. Libya is not owned by the Qaddafi clan, but it is ransomed by it now. People need help, and they need it now.
It is too easy to dismiss this mission as being hypocritical, or purely oil-driven. Both of those statements are invariably true, particularly in the immediate wake of brutal suppression in Bahrain and Yemen this weekend which is extremely unlikely to be the subject of Western intervention. Italy, for example, relies on Libya for a substantial percentage of its energy output and it would be naive in the extreme to ignore that as it offers out its bases for French, British and American warplanes. There is little doubt, however, that if Libyans had been slaughtered in Benghazi by Qaddafi this weekend, most of us would have condemned our own governments in countries who could have stopped it for their inaction. Criticism also ought to be meted out unreservedly right now to the Arab League right now for failing to commit its own troops to the actions which it requested in its own backyard.
Whatever the true motive and success of this military action, it is worth remembering a few facts whenever Cameron, Sarkozy and Berlusconi mutter platitudes about the abhorrent human rights abuses being committed by the man who, by 2004, had become Europe’s favourite cuddly dictator. The EU granted export licenses for €834.5m worth of arms exports to Libya in the first five years after the arms embargo was lifted in October 2004. Now, they are shooting him down for using those same weapons.
The echoes of former failures ring loudly in the world’s collective eardrum. The world want to believe this military action could prevent massacre in Libya. It wants to believe this war could right atrocious wrongs committed on the Libyan people. Every sane person must be hoping it does so. But, deep down, there are too many questions about where it will end, and what can even be achieved without intelligence on the ground. When the aerial bombardments have no military targets left to pinpoint, what will they bomb when Qaddafi takes refuge amongst his civilian population, fist raised in triumph against the United States? And do they even know the rebels they don’t yet wish to arm, but may have to in order to avoid an ‘occupation’? What will be the impact of arming an untrained, un-politicised and undefined population of rebels? Could a split Libya be acceptable to Libyans, and how could such a split even happen when the majority of the Libyan population are terrorised by the Qaddafi clan? Will the warplanes pull out if Qaddafi outplays them all but remains ostensibly in power? What are the real intentions behind these actions, and when will we see them play out? What will happen if Bahrain explodes next weekend, or thousands of protestors emerge on the streets of Jeddah only to be shot down by the same troops now advancing in Bahrain? And, just what if Israel unleashes firepower on Gaza again, or Lebanon? And, and, and.
Like almost everybody I know, I remain deeply conflicted over this intervention, nay war. There is almost certainly not a singular definitive answer, and if Qaddafi is gone within a matter of days, the spirit of the Resolution may have been successful. But, in truth, I fear the weekend’s action was too much, too late. I fear the tragedies of what has come before. And, I cannot help but remember that on the most Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, the many UN Resolutions on Palestine remain unfulfilled and strictly unenforced.
For the sake of the people of Libya, I hope that my worst fears are proven wrong.
20th March 2011.
For details of arms exports to Libya from Europe see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/mar/01/eu-arms-exports-libya