Saturday, 19 March 2011

Excuses excuses.

Eight years after the start of the Iraq war, International forces (surely calling them, "Western forces" is nonsensical while Qatar is considering getting involved?) have become involved in Libya. Precipitated by the breaking of a declared ceasefire, both Barack Obama and David Cameron have emphasised the unilateralism of the action, the latter stating, "British forces...are part of an international coalition to enforce the will of the United Nations." He also underlinedthe legality of the action, presumably to head off any comparisons with the Iraq war. He mentioned the support of the Arab league, as well as the UN.

So is this wide-ranging agreement the tipping point? Cameron postured but didn't interfere when Gaddafi's troops marched steadily eastwards, with the Colonel talking about taking Benghazi (the heart of the uprising), "house by house". But nobody has interfered in Bahrain, in spite of Saudi and UAE troops being brought in to suplement the Bahraini military quelling protests against the regime. The UN human rights chief has condemned the reported "arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centres by various security forces", but there has been no emergency summit to draft resolutions. Neither has anyone interfered in Ivory Coast, where President Laurent Gbagbo who lost a democratic election has refused to step down. His supporters recently shelled a market killing dozens of civilians, an action with the UN has now called a "war crime".

So if the condemnation of the UN isn't the green light, what is? Cameron has further justified action in Libya by saying, "We have all seen the appalling brutality meted out by Col Gaddafi against his own people", adding that it is a "just cause" and in "Britain's best interests". I'm not convinced that the "appalling brutality" has much to do with it. Where is the action against North Korea, which has a ridiculously long list of human rights violations, including (according to Human Rights Watch) "routine public executions [and] the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people, including young children"? What about a country whose treatment of asylum seekers is so bad that it has to use tear gas to subdue their protests, as Australia did this week? What about countries which stand accused of colluding in the torture of its own citizens, like the UK? Do we really believe that we are fighting in Libya because it is a just cause, and we are not fighting elsewhere because there are no others?

Which leaves us with this conflict being in Britain's best interests. Both Obama and Cameron were elected on a promise to withdraw troops from existing theatres of war, so this long-range support for an already existing military force is an easy way of being the good guys. The UN resolution does not talk about regime change, but about enforcing the will of the Libyan people, and while Hilary Clinton has talked about a "unified" Libya, and Cameron about getting rid of Gaddafi, the military means to carry this out has not yet been discussed (publicly at least).

Perhaps we shouldn't be interfering at all. We've supported militia groups from a distance before, whether the defeated Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War or the victorious Taliban in 1980s Afghanistan, and to say that it turned out well would be something of a lie. But if we are going to get involved we have to know why we are doing it, and what we are doing. Hypocrisy has been a terrible sin for thousands of years, and life being unfair is almost the first complaint we learn as children.

In the meantime, my thoughts and prayers will be in Libya; not so much with the foreign military in their modern technology and at their great distance, as with the people on the ground, who will care about the long-term political implications of what is happening as much as we will care who buries them.

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