To the intense surprise of everyone, the UN has finally voted for a no-fly zone over
. Libya and Russia were at least convinced not to veto. For the first time since resolution 1441 on China – let’s not forget, unanimous and fairly uncontroversial at the time – the international community has decided to do something in concert which has a big impact. Even if even that approach is fraught with dangers and might be seen by some as too little, too late. So, one cheer for the UN. Iraq
Obama’s 11th hour rescue – and, being realistic, it was largely his decision whether it happened or not – should not be underestimated. It was important because
fence-sitting would have sent precisely the wrong message to Gaddafi on both genocide and restarting WMD production, both of which seem almost inevitable if he survives. It was important for progressive politics for Obama himself not to be tarred as an indecisive, weak and disappointing president (although the jury is, at least, still out on this). And it was important because, in many ways, this really was the last-chance saloon for the UNSC to show it could still be relevant and capable of doing something useful. It did. US
So, it’s an important first step. But now what? What do we think will happen if we, and other Western countries decide to take no further action, to collectively to ring-fence the Middle East/North African area and classify their fight for freedom as “quarrels in far-away countries between people of whom we know nothing”? That is, to have a policy of sit tight and hope things calm down, as could still easily happen?
But, as a friend said to me last week, this “wind of change” could well be the major geopolitical event of the decade, and the game is changing. There are two major risks with the sit-tight strategy. One is that any one of these countries is liable to create a dangerous power vacuum or, worse, evolve in a way that we don’t like. This could happen with or without democracy: either the countries vote in a theocracy (certainly possible), or one takes hold without elections (also possible). Either are a bad result, but possibly liveable with, if these countries can stay contained. Note: the precedent of
on this is not inspiring. Iran
The second risk is much more potent. In the comfortable West we sometimes forget that, having lived 66 years without a major war, the geopolitical situation still changes in ways which directly affect us, one way or the other. The most stark wake-up call we had of this fact happened almost 10 years ago in New York, but with the memory fading of this and the London bombings, we start to forget that it was a signal of a substantially changed world. We shouldn’t.
Think about this: in the 19th century, wars were naval and land wars, fought mostly with human and not material resources. The implication of this was, it matters if a country is a long way away from you. Rich countries didn’t really need to worry too much about fighting off long-distance foreign invaders, because it was too hard for them to attack. There was no air bombing, no medium-range missiles and no
GPS localisation of targets. In simple terms, “far away” equalled “not a threat we need to worry about”. It was a comforting and intuitive way of thinking.
Funnily enough, in the 21st Century, the proximity argument for classifying threats has, perhaps counter-intuitively, become rather irrelevant. Because you can be attacked even within your own country, by people from a country on the other side of the world with precious few resources, as we found out to our cost ten years ago. Everyone is now a neighbour, whether we like it or not.
But still we persist in differentiating between an attack on, say, an EU country, which would elicit an immediate response from the international community, whereas one a few miles further away in
North Africa would not. The awful reality is that all these conflicts now have the capacity to affect us, if not in the short term, then in the long. This is not a new argument – it’s something that’s been around for a while – but strangely many of us persist in the “Chamberlain defence”.
Finally try, for a moment, to put yourself inside the twisted mind of Osama Bin Laden. If you were a terrorist leader, where would you be looking as the most fertile ground right now? Of course – where there is discord and instability. You would be training up volunteers to go to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia – just as, in fact, you trained them to go to
, once you realised there was an opportunity there. It’s like an investment in a 12th century future: your little nest-egg against the encroachment of liberty and civilisation. And, be clear, this is not scaremongering: it’s what all the previous evidence, as well as current indications, leads you to expect. Iraq
In the 21st century, anywhere in the world where there are Moslems unhappy with the West, terrorists will be homing in and setting up cells. Count on it. It is just not good enough to think that that doesn’t affect us, and that we will be able to fix it all with a good round of judicious diplomacy.
This post first published at LabourList.