JR Max Wheel
18 March 2011
This is a mess. Libya has been an unstable autocracy for decades, not merely in terms of repressing its own people, but in its support for terrorist and irregular movements in Ireland or Sudan. There has been much hand-wringing in Western capitals today in the wake of the UN resolution about any intervention at all, neatly summarised by Max Hastings in an opinion piece in today’s FT, who has argued that the no-fly zone is both too late and not enough, without boots on the ground: moreover he argues that intervention should be based on proper assessment of self-interests, not some emotional lunge.
The confusion here arises unsurprisingly from the ongoing struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have only marginal significance to this decision and are not comparable. Hastings makes the point that strikes against Libya could end up with Western and Gulf forces becoming bogged down on the ground- a risk but this conflict is on Europe’s doorstep.
It is certainly true that democracy cannot be imposed/enforced from 14,000 feet. It is also true that the UK’s defence review has exposed inconsistencies in UK foreign policy. This is still missing the point. Cameron’s first instinct was correct about acting decisively against Gaddafi, as we have seen by the playing out of the attacks on the rebels. This “rebel movement” is however a sea-change in the Southern Mediterranean, with implications going well beyond to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Given the concentration of energy sources in Libya and the region and whether one “buys” the Hastings realpolitik view, if this was not to large degree in Western ( as well as certain Arab States) self-interest, I do not know what is.
For too long we have failed to look beyond the Government autocracies and evaluate the undercurrents of large disenfranchised Arab youth, with poor access to education, health and opportunities. Richer oil States have of course tried to neutralise this by Government hand-outs, notably in Saudi and in many of the Emirates, but it is not enough. This is (another) costly misjudgement and failure of recognition by the West.
That there has been a near total failure of leadership in the West, US & EU is also no surprise. Opposition to the Iraq inavsion was apparent right from the outset: the initial moves by the coalition on Afghanistan to eliminate a massive Al Queda trading camp less so, in the light of 9/11. The big mistakes though were made much earlier, by failing to press home military success in the first Iraq war and then by indulging in “nation-building”, which we were spectacularly unprepared and ill-equipped to do. If Saddam had dropped dead, rather than been deposed, there would still have been a blood bath in Iraq, given the fractured nature of its ethnicity and religious divides, let alone its ill-considered borders, drawn up in the aftermath settlment of the Great War.
US policy is both the easiest to understand given its current military commitments, but the hardest to understand in terms of consistency. The President both supported the Tunisian “Rebels” and the removal of Hosni Mubarak, and then dithered about the equally unlovely Libyan regime, which has been a thorn in the US flesh for decades, not to mention the outrage of PanAm flight 103.
The US Administration needs to rapidly reassess the rapidly unfolding changes not least with Saudi Arabia and Israel. It looks totally flat-footed. No plaudits are due to for the EU either; Sarkozy condemned the Tunisian revolt, then did a volte-face over Libya. The Germans have backed off completely and voted against the resolution. The EU position has been equivocal and useless which makes the prospect of any EU foreign policy or an EU army a near joke.
The UK used to have a good grasp of the shifting sands of what was going on the Middle East, it no longer does so. We have also run down our services to dangerously low levels and urgently need a re-think in an increasingly dangerous and unstable world. For all the diplomatic reversals, Cameron has shown an instinctive grasp of what was needed: he deserves to be commended on this, not thrown brickbats, otherwise we risk another Bosnian style policy failure. What political outcome is achieved is not in the West’s gift, and no longer the subject of some realpolitik self-interest, but up to the people of Libya and its neighbours to work out.