When France intervenes militarily in an Arab state, in the words of Dr. Emmett Brown from Back To The Future, “this is heavy”. And I think it’s the right decision, too. Couple of questions, though. How will it all end? Will we do this every five minutes?
I made the point here that, as a general rule, the rest of the world should not be intervening in the democracy movements edging across the Middle East, and I still believe that’s the right default position.
The situation in Libya is different, though. In Tunisia and Egypt, although there was violence, there wasn’t a massive humanitarian crisis or the systematic oppression by the armed forces of the civilian populations. On the contrary, in Egypt, the army played a critical and admirable role in keeping order and protecting lives.
On 17 March 2011, Gaddafi basically said to the people of Benghazi (his own citizens), “My dogs of war are coming to fuck you up good and proper, and they will show you no mercy.” And then the world said right back to him, “Not unless we come to you first, mate.”
I agree with David Cameron that, if the world does not intervene when there is a clear humanitarian crisis, and when the international institutions agree to intervene, and when there are solid legal grounds to intervene, when exactly does the world intervene? And I would also add to that, “and what the hell is the use of those international institutions otherwise?”
So I think the situation in Libya can be differentiated easily from Tunisia and Egypt. I think it can also be differentiated easily from the Iraq war on the basis of a clear UN mandate and legal grounds, as well as support from the Arab League.
At the time of writing, though, the Arab League is having second thoughts and saying, “We didn’t realise you were actually going to use bombs”. Perhaps they thought a No Fly Zone literally meant that absolutely no-one would fly, and that was it. This just demonstrates their military naivety because taking out various military installations (with big bombs) is a key part of establishing a No Fly Zone. It also demonstrates incredible political naivety on their part because it plays right into Gaddafi’s hands: this escapade can be portrayed by him as a Crusade with no legal or moral justification.
Arab League stupidity/naivety aside, there are two important questions: how will this end, and where else will we intervene?
Although Gaddafi was brought in from the cold for a few years, historically his main function in international politics has generally been as Public Enemy Number One, and it’s a function he performs diligently and competently. In fact, he seems to prefer it that way. When the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen interviewed him recently, during the current crisis, he remarked how Gaddafi seemed to be genuinely “enjoying the challenge”. You didn’t really get the picture of a man whose entire world was falling to pieces around him; more that of a man going through a difficult period at work on account of hostile corporate takeover activity but rolling up his sleeves and having no intention of resigning. He’s way too professional for that.
Gaddafi is a survivor of the highest order, but this is likely to be his final high-stakes political game (though it could drag on for months, if not years) and in his quieter, reflective moments, lying awake in his tent in the desert and scratching his Arab balls, I’m guessing he probably knows that. He’s crazy, sure, but you don’t hold power for over four decades by being stupid. And although it’s probably inconceivable that he will voluntarily throw in the towel, it’s not inconceivable that when he decides it really is Game Over, he will finish the game on his own terms.
I don’t see a clear exit strategy for Gaddafi. It’s worth reminding ourselves who this guy is and what we are doing to him.
He is a murderous bastard, a former generous benefactor of international terrorism and, to use an Australian phrase, mad as a shithouse rat. Even by his own screwed up standards he is displaying strange and extreme behaviour (I loved the interview where he was perched inside an old car, holding an umbrella, as one does), and we are pushing him into a corner, bombing him, and making it clear that the future of Libya, whatever the hell it looks like and whatever the hell it’s called, won’t have any place for Gaddafi & Sons (Est’d 1969).
Let’s also remind ourselves how this guy thinks. When this crisis started Gaddafi said, “My people will die for me”. That’s not strictly true, is it, Muammar? At best, they’ll die because of you; at worst because you’ll kill them. Both of those are different to dying for you, no?
What does someone like that, in a situation like that, do? Does that person behave logically or does that person behave illogically? More to the point, in Gaddafi’s case, would anyone actually be able to tell the difference?
Up until now the final stopover of choice for exiled, bloodthirsty, dictatorial headcases was Saudi Arabia, but even those monsters won’t take him. I also doubt whether he’d get through Venezuelan Passport Control. If he really has nowhere to go, maybe the final chapter of his contribution to Arab history will be entitled, A Bedouin, a Blaze of Glory and the Unfeasibly Large Dirty Bomb.
As well as operationally managing the final, volatile stages of the life cycle of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, the West has another, more difficult conundrum: justifying what will most likely be non-intervention in other countries, in particular Saudi Arabia.
There is no satisfactory way, morally or intellectually, of justifying that lack of consistency other than to say that each of these democratic movements will have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account our own national interests. Yes, that’s right: our own national, and therefore selfish, interests. Would we intervene in Saudi Arabia tomorrow? Not unless we had an overwhelming curiosity to see what a proper global economic meltdown looked like and not unless we wanted to pay £5.00 a litre for the privilege of getting to work – assuming we had work to get to.
In some ways all these events playing out in the Middle East are incredibly complex. In other ways they are incredibly simple: what we decide to do or not to do will be determined by what is in our own national interests. Same as it ever was.
In the past it might have been in our national interests to support Mubarak. A month or so ago it sure as hell wasn’t. And although it’s definitely in our long-term national interests to support democracy in the Middle East generally, the precise method of that support – either inactive, as in Egypt and Tunisia, or active, as in Libya – will have to be determined by the particular intricacies of each situation.
In order to achieve our long-term aim of democracy across the region we will have to manage that aim in as smooth and orderly a way as possible, and that will inevitably mean picking and choosing exactly where and when we intervene. Deciding where and when we intervene won’t be the hard thing – it will be coming up with coherent, sellable, political reasons.