Saturday, 19 March 2011

Libya: why do we still look at conflicts through 19th Century glasses?

To the intense surprise of everyone, the UN has finally voted for a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia and China were at least convinced not to veto. For the first time since resolution 1441 on Iraq – 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.

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 US 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.

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 Iran on this is not inspiring.

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 Iraq, 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.

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.


  1. Did you see whom Quadhafi chose to monitor him? Turkey & Italy (both ex colonial powers in Libya) Malta (nearest neighbour and his long time conduit to the west) and China (masters par excellence at genocide in Tibet). As for Al'Quida training it is the Pakistan border, Somalia and a bit in Yemen.

  2. Hmm. It's not looking good so far, is it?

  3. You mean with Quadhafi and his choice of monitors or the fact that every disaffected Asian-Briton wants to go "home" to train with Al'Quida? Or both?

  4. The first. But it looks like events have overtaken us anyway, since the cease-fire is being entirely ignored, so this becomes a non-issue.

    The second is perhaps a *slight* overstatement ;) But anyway, perhaps not as scary as the number of disaffected Muslims there might be across North Africa, not to mention Saudi.

    I think there is ample opportunity for Islamist mischief-making, even in the event that we get to free and fair elections in all these countries without a hitch. We might just get an Islamist government voted in to fill a power vacuum in any of these cases.

  5. 1. dangerous for a bunch of al-salibim to start bombing Libya.
    2. Radical Islam is just another way of looking at things, just the same as Communism was 1917-1991.

  6. 1. You could be right. At the moment no-one really knows how things will turn out. But it's probably better than allowing genocide on the doorstep (IMHO).

    2. It is, but still probably the biggest security threat to the West at the moment, (and perhaps even during my lifetime). That is: is there a bigger one? Discuss.

  7. 1. Agreed.
    2. One always needs a boogey man whether Commie or Islamic. Surely the real battle for freedom will be with out own (born again Christian) extremists?

  8. Amazing this piece comes from someone 'centre Left' what shallow liberal gibberish; maybe I tuned into the wrong station - sounds Like Fox News here.

  9. Allan, er, perhaps you could enlarge on this a little? A slightly more eloquent deconstruction of the argument might help the debate.

    By the way, there is broad agreement across the political spectrum on the need for intervention, this is hardly massively controversial.

  10. Dear Rob, sorry for being so glib but I've read a number of pieces coming from 'left' quarters that seem to me to bereft of a perfunctory analysis of the situation and entrenched in a binary view of events and the players. Words like genocide are tossed around loosely (from all quarters) and all of a sudden we are marvelling at the weaponry at the disposal of the grand coalition; however, I find it difficult to come across some type of description of who exactly the rebels are; that Ghaddafi is despised by many Libyans and countless others is not an issue; that he is brutal is also not an issue; that he is a despot is also not an issue but his sanity (as well as those part of his ruling circle) is not something I can weigh judgement on; but what is blatantly transparent is that 'regime change' has been an operative principle of NATO and its inner circle since the devolution of the Soviet Union (starting with interventions in the Balkans). Once one buys into the 'playbook' of the controllers of the global moral compass anything goes because true north lies wherever Bush, Obama, Blair et al want it to lie. According to this agenda Iran should be right around the corner and then mid-east oil (that great lubricant of Western prosperity) will rest safely in the hands of those who know best how to use it as a political and economic weapon.
    Finally, some basic history tells us that all revolutions are not alike; not all are velvet and not all have a happy ending; and, they don't necessarily happen overnight nor are they always accessible on Al Jazeera. But if they have a chance of being successful, or transformative in advancing the struggle for human dignity and social justice then they have to find their own way and means of assistance consistent with their objectives.

    The "broad agreement across the political spectrum on the need for intervention" is not quite what it appears to be nor is everything that is happening now even consistent with the UN resolution; the viewpoints are in fact diverse all those less gung-ho are not quite so visible.

  11. Well, now I have a little more to go on. I think there are points of truth in most of you say, apart from you generalise a little where I don't believe the politicians involved do (even the "bad" ones).

    Regime change is always, realistically, an option: but it's usually the last option anyone would choose as there is potentially a huge political price to pay, not to mention a moral one.

    All revolutions are not alike, and maybe this one doesn't have a happy ending. They need to find their own way, yes. But neither can most of them do it alone. And certainly not when their erstwhile leader is intent on massacring them. It's not a black-and-white situation. But neither is it Iraq in terms of its being controversial, either at home or in the Arab world.

    However, your comments also display a tinge of "thin-end-of-the-wedge" about them which make me think that perhaps there would be no circumstances where you would approve intervention. My question to you: which of the UK's postwar interventions WOULD you agree with? (NB: I don't agree with all of them by any means.) Discuss.


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