Thursday, 17 March 2011

No to a No-Fly Zone

Coalition ministers are forever moaning that the economic situation, (created by Labour!) requires them to make "difficult decisions." In fact there are no difficult decisions to be made on the economy. Britain is a wealthy country, vastly richer than in the days of our parents and grandparents, and all that is needed is a bit of generosity on the part of the haves to compensate the have-nots who are bearing the brunt of the recession created by the greed and insufficiently regulated market forces. All that is lacking is a bit of political honesty and courage.

The question of a no-fly zone over Libya poses genuine difficulties. On the one hand it is callous to stand idly by while a murderous dictator slaughters his own people. On the other hand "Western" involvement on the side of the rebels will probably strengthen Gaddafi's hand by substantiating his claim that the uprising is inspired by foreigners anxious to get their hands on Libya's oil, and a no-fly zone will almost certainly be insufficient and lead to the involvement of troops on the ground, for which the precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq present a frightening warning.

Whatever the pros and cons, no "Western" military intervention should be made without a UN mandate. It is alarming to hear British politicians blatantly ignoring the lessons of Iraq.

In the short term the best solution is to persuade the Arab nations, probably led by Egypt, to take the intervention necessary to bring a cease-fire to the civil war. In the long term we should stop supplying such regimes with arms in the first place.


  1. Isn't the danger that we're so hung up on Iraq, we're actually failing to learn the lessons of say, Bosnia? Or a dozen other countries in the world where we have allowed the latte-drinking, Swiss-watch wearing pontificating bureaucrats at such international institutions to sit and have coffees with their personal translators, talk in a bland-speak to their counterparts and generally fiddle, whilst a nation burns and people are butchered en mass?

    If this flame of liberty is extinguished in Libya, it will prove once again why these supranational institutions are not worth the paper their consitutions are written on; I'd wager more lives have been lost as a result of UN rules than have been saved. Autocratic regimes like Russia and China will permanently veto action for fear that the clamour for human rights and democracy reaches their own shores, and will thus continue to look out only for their own narrow ruling elite's interests.

    I think this is a huge opportunity to send all the right messages: to the Arab people, that whatever mistakes we have made in the past in their region, we stand with them to help deliver them the ultimate gift of freedom and self-determination, and help undo some of the damage we have caused; that we will not perpetuate the reign of individuals like Gaddafi or Saddam Hussain, who we have been perceived to support; to the brutal dictators, that they cannot initiate genocide or war on their own people and expect to retain power; to the entire region, that if they want to ride themselves of brutal regimes, that it is within their grasp.

    Already Gaddafi's forces have regrouped and turned the tide on a rebellion that a mere week or two ago was at the gates of Tripoli; now they look days away from defeat as Gaddafi imports brutal mercenaries and commands his weaponry with a renewed confidence that he can do so undisturbed by the West.

    I say call up the French, as Sarkozy is the only leader other than Cameron to show any real leadership on this issue, and let's go in and help these people before the talking shop that is the UN condemns them to death and destroys the hopes of people across the region (and indeed the world). If Russia and China wish to object, let them do so in the old-fashioned way.

  2. You put the case for intervention very powerfully, Chris, and you may well be right. The arguments are very finely balanced. We shall now see. At least, we have a UN mandate, although Gaddafi could reasonably argue that it is Western inspired with a view to getting our hands on Libyan oil. The dangers are:

    1. Libyan civilians will be killed in enforcing the no fly zone, thus turning public opinion against the intervention.

    2. Credence will be given to Gaddafi's claim that the "revolution" is not domestic but externally inspired.

    3. Land forces will be required in order to complete the mission (however it is to be defined) and we shall be drawn into a prolonged conflict as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    I agree that it seems wimpish to stand aside while people butcher each other in a civil war, and we must try to develop measures to legitimise international intervention.

    It doesn't help to sneer at international organisations: they are our only hope. At the moment they are slow and inadequate and we must work to improve them. In the long run I'd like to see national armies disbanded and all armed forces assigned to the UN as an international police force. But that's a long way in the future. In the slightly shorter run we should stop supplying arms to dictators and then complaining when they use them. In the very short run we must keep our fingers crossed that the present intervention works our well as you hope, and does not degenerate into yet another counter-productive stalemate with horrendous loss of life on all sides

  3. I agree with you that Gaddafi could play the oil card; so I suppose that it's good news that the resolution prohibits and occupying force, and that players such as Russia and China have at least abstained, suggesting that they are satisfied that it is not serving some of our more basal interests.

    Your three points are very concerning hazards, but I think there are thankfully counters to each one that are in our favour (and that of the people of Libya):

    1. Gaddafi has of course already slaughtered the rebels in large numbers, and decimated the towns he has taken. Whilst the loss of even one human life is tragic and making it a 'numbers game' is often a vulgar perspective, it is to be hoped that if there are civilian casualties in the fight for freedom, that they are seen as preferable to the exterminations that will take place should Gaddafi's forces reach Benghazi.

    2. It will always be the recourse of any dictator under peril - but unlike Robert Mugabe, say, whose rhetoric has been consistent and is widely accepted in his country, Gaddafi was only a mere month ago blaming the uprising on "Al-Qaeda and young people on drugs". Hopefully a combination of his low credibility and our insistence on not sending in armies will put paid to such claims.

    3. A difficult suggestion strategically - however, if our forces are used to merely repel and weaken Gaddafi's military each time he strikes, it would allow the rebels to entrench their position, and build up popular support for regime change from within their own populace. It's an admittedly optimistic viewpoint, but given the impressively non-partisan and mature nature of the rebels to date, I hope it might be a possibility. Certainly ground troops from ourselves would be a huge mistake, especially in light of the UN resolution.

    I take your point on sneering at international organisations. I actually agree with you that in the far future, I hope that we have insufficient differences in morality, wealth and attitude to render the need for unilateral action a thing of the past. These organisations are clearly sprung from Nobel ideals; I think what concerns me is that whilst I hope that they get progressively better at taking these hard decisions (and this instance has been a surprising and positive step), I fear that their inertia and the inherently conflicting needs of some of their more powerful players (such as China's desire to quell dissent rather than encourage debate) will continue, as it has done for some time, to see more lives sacrificed in the name of those ideals than are saved.

    We only need to think of the Hungarian uprisings in the 1950s; the revenge attacks by Saddam Hussain on his populace in 1991 for their protests; Srebrenica in 1994 or Darfur more recently, to see that multilateral decisions frequently come far too late if they come at all, with hundreds of thousands of casualties or more. I want to work to improve these systems so that they can respond reactively; but whilst they are still relatively sluggish I'd have to say that I would back unilateralism all the way if there is a clear moral imperative to save civilian lives.

    One thing that has fascinated me in this whole conflict is the lack of American leadership on the issue; nay, even the lack of American commitment or decisiveness of any sort until the eleventh hour. It's certainly not the first time Barack Obama has been accused of dithering and indecisiveness in times of peril. What do you make of it?

  4. I do hope you're right, Chris. A success in this area will be a significant step forwards for a more comfortable and less frightening existence for the people of Libya, and may do something to improve the credibility of international co-operation and the UN.

    I suspect that Obama has held back because he's seen what harm hasty action under Bush has caused in the region. The reports of his speeches on the BBC sound measured and sensible. Please don't join the right wing "Tea Party" campaign to discredit a man who is clearly trying to promote a more responsible view of the US's place in the world.