Steve Bell’s If…
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Steve Bell’s If…
The attacks on Libya risk a bloody stalemate and are a threat to the region. The alternative has to be a negotiated settlement
It’s as if it’s a habit they can’t kick. Once again US, British and other Nato forces are bombarding an Arab country with cruise missiles and bunker-busting bombs. Both David Cameron and Barack Obama insist this is nothing like Iraq. There will be no occupation. The attack is solely to protect civilians.
But eight years after they launched their shock-and-awe devastation of Baghdad and less than a decade since they invaded Afghanistan, the same western forces are in action against yet another Muslim state, incinerating soldiers and tanks on the ground and killing civilians in the process.
Supported by a string of other Nato states, almost all of which have taken part in the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, the US, Britain and France are clinging to an Arab fig leaf, in the shape of a Qatari airforce that has yet to arrive, to give some regional credibility to their intervention in Libya.
As in Iraq and Afghanistan, they insist humanitarian motives are crucial. And as in both previous interventions, the media are baying for the blood of a pantomime villain leader, while regime change is quickly starting to displace the stated mission. Only a western solipsism that regards it as normal to be routinely invading other people’s countries in the name of human rights protects Nato governments from serious challenge.
But the campaign is already coming apart. At home, public opinion is turning against the onslaught: in the US, it’s opposed by a margin of two-to-one; in Britain, 43% say they are against the action, compared with 35% in support – an unprecedented level of discontent for the first days of a British military campaign, including Iraq.
On the ground, the western attacks have failed to halt the fighting and killing, or force Colonel Gaddafi’s forces into submission; Nato governments have been squabbling about who’s in charge; and British ministers and generals have fallen out about whether the Libyan leader is a legitimate target.
Last week, Nato governments claimed the support of “the international community” on the back of the UN resolution and an appeal from the dictator-dominated Arab League. In fact, India, Russia, China, Brazil and Germany all refused to support the UN vote and have now criticised or denounced the bombing – as has the African Union and the Arab League itself.
As its secretary general, Amr Moussa, argued, the bombardment clearly went well beyond a no-fly zone from the outset. By attacking regime troops fighting rebel forces on the ground, the Nato governments are unequivocally intervening in a civil war, tilting the balance of forces in favour of the Benghazi-based insurrection.
Cameron insisted on Monday in the Commons that the air and sea attacks on Libya had prevented a “bloody massacre in Benghazi”. The main evidence was Gaddafi’s threat to show “no mercy” to rebel fighters who refused to lay down their arms and to hunt them down “house to house”. In reality, for all the Libyan leader’s brutality and Saddam Hussein-style rhetoric, he was scarcely in any position to carry out his threat.
Given that his ramshackle forces were unable to fully retake towns like Misurata or even Ajdabiya when the rebels were on the back foot, the idea that they would have been able to overrun an armed and hostile city of 700,000 people any time soon seems far-fetched.
But on the other side of the Arab world, in western-armed Bahrain, security forces are right now staging night raids on opposition activists, house by house, and scores have gone missing as the dynastic despots carry out a bloody crackdown on the democratic movement. And last Friday more than 50 peaceful demonstrators were shot dead on the streets of Sana’a by government forces in western-backed Yemen.
Far from imposing a no-fly zone to bring the embattled Yemeni regime to heel, US special forces are operating across the country in support of the government. But then US, British and other Nato forces are themselves responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week more than 40 civilians were killed by a US drone attack in Pakistan, while over 60 died last month in one US air attack in Afghanistan.
The point isn’t just that western intervention in Libya is grossly hypocritical. It’s that such double standards are an integral part of a mechanism of global power and domination that stifles hopes of any credible international system of human rights protection.
A la carte humanitarian intervention, such as in Libya, is certainly not based on feasibility or the degree of suffering or repression, but on whether the regime carrying it out is a reliable ally or not. That’s why the claim that Arab despots will be less keen to follow Gaddafi’s repressive example as a result of the Nato intervention is entirely unfounded. States such as Saudi Arabia know very well they’re not at the slightest risk of being targeted unless they’re in danger of collapse.
There’s also every chance that, as in Kosovo in 1999, the attack on Libya could actually increase repression and killing, while failing to resolve the underlying conflict. It’s scarcely surprising that, outgunned by Gaddafi’s forces, the Libyan rebel leadership should be grateful for foreign military support. But any Arab opposition movement that comes to power courtesy of Tornadoes and Tomahawks will be fatally compromised, as would the independence of the country itself.
For the western powers, knocked off balance by the revolutionary Arab tide, intervention in the Libyan conflict offers both the chance to put themselves on the “right side of history” and to secure their oil interests in a deeply uncertain environment.
Unless the Libyan autocrat is assassinated or his regime implodes, the prospect must now be of a bloody stalemate and a Kurdistan-style Nato protectorate in the east. There’s little sympathy for Gaddafi in the Arab world, but already influential figures such as the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have denounced the intervention as a return to the “days of occupation, colonisation and partition”.
The urgent alternative is now for countries such as Egypt and Turkey, with a far more legitimate interest in what goes on in Libya and links to all sides, to take the lead in seeking a genuine ceasefire, an end to outside interference and a negotiated political settlement. There is nothing moral about the Nato intervention in Libya – it is a threat to the entire region and its people.
Turkey calls for an alliance-led campaign to limit operations while France seeks a broader ‘coalition of the willing’
A flotilla of warships has begun patrolling the Mediterranean under Nato command to block attempts by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to replenish his combat forces with arms and mercenaries.
But the attempt at a Nato show of unity in policing a UN arms embargo was undermined by a third day of squabbling at alliance headquarters in Brussels over who should be in charge of the air campaign.
Amid arguments over the scope and command of the air campaign against Tripoli, Turkey both blocked Nato planning on the no-fly zone and insisted that Nato be put in control of it, in order to be granted a veto over its operations, senior Nato officials said.
“Turkey blocked further planning while the coalition [of the willing] continues,” said a senior official. Ankara wants the broad coalition involved in the air campaign to cede control to Nato in order to limit its operations, the official added.
The Turks specifically called for a halt to air attacks on ground targets in Libya and signalled that agreement on this would be the price of their assent.
Germany, meanwhile, Europe’s biggest opponent of the Libya campaign, promptly pulled its Mediterranean naval forces out of Nato’s command.
The Turkish position put Ankara at odds with France, which has successfully thwarted strong US and British pressure to put Nato at the political helm of the air campaign overseeing the UN-decreed no-fly zone over Libya. Paris insisted that the governments of the “coalition of the willing” taking part in the strikes against Gaddafi’s military infrastructure would lead and make the decisions.
“It is important to make clear that the leadership is not Nato,” said Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister. “We see this as a UN operation under a UN mandate. It is implemented by a coalition of European, North American and Arab countries.”
Nato’s policy-making North Atlantic Council, grouping ambassadors of the 28 member states, met in Brussels for a third day to try to hammer out a facesaving deal amid frantic transatlantic diplomacy.
“We’ve not yet decided to go for a no-fly zone,” said a Nato official. “We’ve moved on from planning. That’s complete. But now the allies have to decide what decisions to take in terms of next steps.”
“Nato is ready to act if and when required,” said Oana Lungescu, the alliance spokeswoman. “These are difficult discussions on very difficult issues.”
Diplomats were optimistic that a deal would eventually be struck giving Nato military planners power to mastermind the operational side of the air campaign, while the strategic and political decision-taking on the aims and direction of the military effort would rest with what Paris called a “contact group” of participating governments. Officials from the countries involved are to meet in London next week.
“A wide and inclusive range of countries will be invited, particularly from the region. It is critical that the international community continues to take united and co-ordinated action in response to the unfolding crisis. The meeting will form a contact group of nations to take forward this work,” William Hague, the foreign secretary, said.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy, repeatedly accused of seeking to hijack the Libya operations for personal political reasons, maintains that handing political leadership of the campaign to the Nato alliance would alienate the Arab world.
Despite a green light from the Arab League for the UN decision on the no-fly zone, David Cameron admitted to MPs that Arab engagement in the anti-Gaddafi effort had been less than had been hoped.
“I can confirm that yesterday the Qataris deployed the first of their contribution – Mirage aircraft and other support aircraft – and we will get logistic contributions from countries such as Kuwait and Jordan,” he said. “I hope that further support will be forthcoming but I would like to be clear that because we had to act so quickly on Saturday it was not possible to bring forward as much Arab support as might have been welcomed.”
Since France carried out the first air strikes against Libya at the weekend, the US has been commanding the operations, in consultation mainly with the French and the British. President Barack Obama has made it repeatedly clear, however, that his interest in taking the lead is very short-term and that the best option would be for Nato to take over – a position strongly supported by Cameron but opposed by Sarkozy and also, for different reasons, by Germany and Turkey.
The US and British governments, following telephone diplomacy between Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy late on Tuesday, are stressing that Nato is to be given “a key role” in the air campaign, signalling a partial climbdown away from granting the alliance the lead role.
Senior European diplomats argue that there is “no crisis of leadership” yet over the prosecution of the Libyan war effort. But the US impatience to surrender its lead role is exposing big divisions among the Europeans.
While Cameron and Sarkozy are the west’s leading hawks in the war effort against Gaddafi, they are seriously split over who should run things.
A European summit dinner on Thursday tonight in Brussels is to focus on Libya, with the British and French leaders expected to face a grilling from European sceptics, led by Germany, over the strategy, aims, and future course of the military effort.
Steve Bell’s If…
• Nato to assume day-to-day military command in Libya
• Obama and Cameron: Substantial progress made
Britain, France and the United States have agreed that Nato will take over the military command of the no-fly zone over Libya in a move which represents a setback for Nicolas Sarkozy, who had hoped to diminish the role of the alliance.
Barack Obama agreed in separate phone calls with Sarkozy and David Cameron that political oversight would be handed to a separate body consisting of members of the coalition, including Arab countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates that are outside Nato.
The agreement, which will have to be put be to all 28 members of Nato, indicates that the alliance has resolved one of its most serious disagreements. Countries had been splintering as they tried to comply with Obama’s demand that Washington be relieved of command of the air campaign.
Sarkozy moved to portray the agreement as a Franco-American success. In a statement the Élysée Palace said: “The two presidents have come to an agreement on the way to use the command structures of Nato to support the coalition.”
But the agreement represents a blow for Sarkozy, who had tried to persuade Britain set up an Anglo-French command for all military operations in Libya. This was strongly resisted by Britain, who said Nato was best placed to run the military operations.
Cameron – who also spoke to Obama – prevailed, as Britain, the US and France agreed that:
• Nato will assume the day-to-day military command of the no-fly zone, using the alliance’s usual military structures. The operation could be run by Admiral James Stavridis, the US supreme allied commander in Europe, who works from the Nato’s military headquarters in Mons, Belgium.
• Political oversight will be provided by members of the coalition and not by Nato. Sarkozy will say this shows Nato is not in complete command of the operation, as it was in the bombing campaign against Serbian targets during the 1999 Kosovo campaign. In a traditional Nato-led operation, political control would be provided by the North Atlantic Council, which is the main political decision-making body of the alliance.
The plan will be put to the council on Wednesday, which will hold its third meeting in as many days at ambassadorial level.
All 28 members of NATO will have to agree on the proposal.
The breakthrough emerged when the Élysée hailed Sarkozy’s agreement with Obama. Downing Street adopted a more cautious approach when it confirmed that Cameron and Obama had agreed that Nato should play a key role.
A spokesman said: “The prime minister and the president agreed that good progress had been made, that Nato should play a key role in the command structure, and that these arrangements now need to be finalised. The prime minister and the president agreed to stay in close touch.”
Diplomatic sources said that progress on the new structures for the no-fly zone emerged as France and Turkey started to give ground. France softened its stance after Britain and the US agreed that the interational coalition would have political oversight, but that Nato would have to assume military control. London and Washington were supported by newer members of Nato, such as Romania and the Czech Republic, who said they could only support the campaign if it was run by Nato.
A phone call between Obama and the Turkish prime minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan led to what was described as a more pragmatic approach in Ankara. “Turkey has become more flexible in the last day or so,” one diplomat said.
Turkey, the third largest member of Nato, and which has a predominantly Muslim population, had highlighted tensions within the alliance when it launched a strong attack on France. Sarkozy had tried to reach out to the Muslim world by playing down Nato’s role in Libya.
Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s Europe minister, accused the French president of exploiting Libya for his own electoral needs. Sarkozy has been the biggest opponent of Ankara’s ambitions to join the European Union.
“A European leader began his election campaign by organising a meeting that led to a process of air strikes against Libya. He acted before a Nato decision, and his act was based on his subjective evaluation of a UN resolution,” said Bagis.
The intense diplomatic discussions took place as key military figures expressed dismay at Downing Street’s handling of the Libyan conflict. Senior defence officials make it clear they deeply resent the way Downing Street appeared to undermine General Sir David Richards, the country’s most senior military officer, who rejected ministers’ claims that Gaddafi might be a legitimate target.
Defence officials said that by identifying Gaddafi as a target, Britain laid itself to the charge that “if you kill him, it was premeditated, and if you don’t, you have failed”.
Not to respond to Gaddafi’s chilling threats would leave us morally culpable, but action in Libya is fraught with danger
Newton’s law applies to geopolitics as much as it does to physics: every action causes an equal and opposite reaction. So the failure of the US military intervention in Somalia in 1993 haunted the Clinton administration, making it recoil from action to halt the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Guilt over that inaction prompted Bill Clinton to commit troops to halt Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo five years later. The lessons Tony Blair drew from that conflict led him, in turn, to pursue the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Which brings us to Libya, and to today.
Once again we are living in the shadow of our most recent military experience. Much has been made of the impact of this on our leaders: David Cameron has been determined to present Operation Odyssey Dawn as the unIraq, different in every way. So his 2011 war has the backing of a United Nations resolution, promises not to end in foreign occupation and comes furnished with the legal advice of the attorney-general, conveniently seated next to him in the Commons. See, Cameron says, nothing like Iraq at all.
Such distancing is necessary because the public, in Britain and beyond, clearly feels chastened by the Iraq experience (and by Afghanistan too). One poll shows less than 50% backing, unusual for the start of an intervention when patriotic support is traditionally at its height. That expresses a mood I’ve encountered even among those who were strong advocates for military action to halt the atrocities of the 1990s, whether in Bosnia, Rwanda or Kosovo. Iraq has made them sceptical, if not cynical – confirmation that Iraq poisoned the notion of “liberal interventionism” for a generation.
Most have not turned sour on the principle that underpinned that ideal: that in a global, interdependent world we have a “responsibility to protect” each other. It is how that principle has been, and can be, implemented in practice that troubles them. And that’s where I stand, too.
In the case of Libya, the principle stands as clear as it ever did. A dictator had announced that he planned to slaughter his own people. Colonel Gaddafi threatened to attack the rebel city of Benghazi with “no mercy, no pity,” adding in chilling words, “We will come. House by house, room by room.” If those nations with the power to stop these pre-announced killings had stood aside, they would have been morally culpable. Benghazi was set to become another Srebrenica – and those that did nothing would share the same shame.
This is the principle that underpins the case for intervention, and it is too easily brushed aside by those who oppose the current operation, as they channel the spirit of Douglas Hurd in the Balkans: we should avert our eyes from the killing, it’s no business of ours. Such a stance indicates how deep the post-Iraq poison still runs.
Others however still cling to the principle. That’s what the 557 MPs who backed the government in Monday’s Commons vote were chiefly endorsing, as were the UN security council and the Arab League, when they too voted for military action to save civilian lives. It was the principle they were backing. The UN resolution was so broad it didn’t express much else.
And that’s the problem. The trouble with this intervention, and with liberal interventionism itself, is not with the abstract principle but the concrete practice. Yet to this, those deliberating in New York and Westminster could give all too little time. The effect was most visible in the Arab League. Ready to endorse force in theory, they balked the minute they saw what it looked like in practice.
The problems are legion. The effort is too rushed, with key operational decisions – including command – not fixed. That’s understandable given that, as Cameron put it, he and his allies were in “a race against time” to stop Gaddafi choking Benghazi.
But the goals are unclear, hence the split between politicians and the military in both Britain and the US over whether Gaddafi himself is a target. The initial talk of a no-fly zone has proved irrelevant: the Gaddafi threat did not come from the air but from the ground. So the objective is, in fact, to create a “no-drive zone”. That has entailed an onslaught these last few nights that has shocked those lured by the language of “no-fly zone” into foreseeing a light touch, barely-there military operation – with, perhaps, the Arab League among them.
There are bigger objections. What of the inconsistency, with Britain backing, even arming, regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that are crushing dissent at the very time British troops are intervening supposedly to protect dissidents in Libya? The politicians reply that they will have more sway with Manama or Riyadh if they have taken action for Benghazi. A better answer would surely be to stop lending support or selling arms to those oppressive regimes. What makes no sense is to say that, because our approach to dictators is inconsistent, we should therefore go easy on all of them, including Gaddafi.
Others worry that the western powers are usurping an organic, homegrown revolution in Libya, taking over what would otherwise be a successful Arab-led revolt. Except that the Benghazi rebellion was not about to seize power until the west butted in: it was about to be snuffed out, with many lives lost. That’s why the rebels themselves were crying out for foreign intervention.
It’s also worth considering the effect on the Arab spring had there been no intervention in Libya. Wouldn’t those besieged leaders in Yemen, Syria or Bahrain conclude that if you’re prepared to follow Gaddafi’s lead, and kill enough of your own people, then you can stay in power?
But there are larger objections that cannot be answered so easily. War is not a theoretical exercise in a seminar room: things go wrong, civilians die. There are myriad unintended consequences that are not mitigated simply because the initial intentions were noble. Even if Cameron and Barack Obama are acting from the purest humanitarian motives, it takes just a few stray missiles and this will come to be seen as yet another western pounding of a Muslim country.
Those who still subscribe to the interventionist principle need to take such concerns seriously, not to rubbish those voicing them as moral laggards, callously indifferent to the risk of slaughter.
Above all, they need to think of non-military forms of intervention that might follow the immediate work of massacre prevention. Former foreign secretary David Miliband suggests this in Libya’s case: a combination of arms embargoes, asset freezes, cuts in the supply of African mercenaries, logistical help for the opposition and the emergence of a democratic Egypt, acting as a model to the region – taken together it would amount to a “big squeeze” to push Gaddafi out.
It won’t happen immediately: the dictator could remain in place, ruling over part of a divided Libya for a long time to come. But, as Miliband says, “stalemate is better than slaughter”.
These are questions which those who advocate this intervention, and interventionism in general, need to answer. Otherwise too many will conclude that their idea is admirable in theory – but dangerous in practice.
It took just 24 hours for the media to start talking splits and exits over Libya. Cameron’s gamble looks bigger by the day
It is whiz-bang time again, deeply thoughtful whiz-bangs. The prime minister feels he needs a carefully considered kapow. It is a moment for roar, zoom, zap, shock, awe, flames, body parts, front pages, mad dogs, all in sober parliamentary moderation. The boy in the bunker has been told by the boy in the bomber that he can win. The story is the same since time immemorial. The bomber never wins. It delivers death, destruction, mission creep, entrapment, escalation, in that order.
The domestic front is the most whimsical element in any war. Today it cheers, tomorrow it moans. The House of Commons knew what it was doing on Monday night when it voted 557 to 13 to support David Cameron’s war to remove Gaddafi of Libya from power. It was saying, we are behind you, but a long way behind. You are on your own. The press did the same. It gave Cameron 24 hours of jets, bangs and glory before talking of scepticism, exit strategies and splits in command and control.
This is the most “political” war since Gladstone was goaded into sending Gordon to his death in Khartoum. The tabloids were universally enthusiastic. Blown to Brits, cried the News of the World. Top Guns I: Mad Dog O, said the Sun. Gaddafi on his knees, echoed the Daily Star. The Times was gung ho: “No time must be wasted in halting him … the coalition has made a good start.” Barrack Obama was castigated for “missing his moment”. The Telegraph was supportive, with a soldierly concern for the viability of a no-fly zone. The Guardian was more sceptical but not dismissive, adding “it may not be pretty“.
BBC interviewers invariably showed an interventionist bias, pressing ministers on why they were not doing more, intervening sooner and spending more on defence. I heard none ask what business is Libya of ours. Even the sceptical Independent could only suggest the government “keep in mind” those who questioned the wisdom of the venture.
By Tuesday things were already shifting. The Mail seemed to join the sceptics, asking whether “we may have started something we don’t know how to finish”. The Telegraph was finding Cameron’s case unconvincing, and suggesting that Libya “could indeed undermine our Afghan strategy”. The Financial Times advocated swift disengagement, sensibly quoting Lawrence of Arabia: “It is better that the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly.” But the British media hate opposing wars, until they go wrong. Somewhere in the institutional memory is the damage done to the Observer’s circulation for opposing Suez in 1956.
Cameron is clearly playing this market. His speech to the Commons was a classic in going far enough to win kudos without straying into consequences. He said the war was not about “going into a country and knocking over its government … It is about giving Libyans a chance to shape their own destiny … by all necessary means”. But he rejected the only clear means to that end – invasion or occupation – asserting that “it is all different to Iraq”.
This was the gospel according to St Blair, chapter one, verse one, on mission creep. The prime minister must know that the only way to achieve his stated goal is to topple Gaddafi, and his intelligence will have informed him that the raggle-taggle army in Benghazi cannot do it for him. Yet his ministers have totally confused the public over whether regime change or killing Gaddafi is a legitimate war aim. The army boss and chief of the defence staff, Sir David Richards, was slapped down for dismissing assassination. This was baffling when Britain dropped a bomb on Gaddafi’s private compound at the weekend, blatantly to do him harm.
Unless a drone happens to score a direct hit, Cameron’s only way of meeting his war aim has to be to press for invasion – no big deal militarily, since Libya is a tiny state, half in rebellion and with meagre military resources. It would be far easier than Iraq or Afghanistan. Invasion would enrage Arab opinion, but so will continued bombing. Intervention was never for diplomatic wimps. Only a hypocrite can demand Gaddafi go, get UN permission to drop bombs on him, encourage his subjects not to surrender but die, and then leave him in place. That is liberal interventionism at its most immoral.
In truth, nothing in this bizarre saga makes sense. In the midst of the most exciting, delicate, tentative upsurge in popular activism across the Arab world, the west goes blundering in with the subtlety of Alaric the Goth. Lawrence was right. The west has no moral superiority in telling these countries how to conduct their politics. This is especially so given the chaos and horror the west has inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan. Cameron talks of “brutality”: has he forgotten Abu Ghraib and Bagram?
As it is, every British move must be music to the ears of Osama bin Laden and radicals in Britain’s Muslim community. Why has liberated Egypt gone so quiet, which could run a no-fly zone overnight? Where are the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Turks? Even if Cameron were to get lucky and kill Gaddafi, he would be seen as another Bush or Blair, a western interloper having to prop up a puppet state of his own creation.
When the drums of war are pounding, the still small voice of caution gets no hearing. But already the domestic debate is taking the form no war leader needs, full of reservations as the half-hearted cover their backs and wish him well. When the public puts a politician in “hope” mode he should sense trouble. The Sunday Times compared Libya with Iraq: “We have to hope that this time the prime minister’s diplomatic triumph is followed by a swift military victory.” Most helpful and quite so.
It is a mystery why Cameron chose Libya for his exercise in neocon “destiny shaping”. There are a dozen other candidates that might have succumbed sooner to his aggression. But he should beware of relying on public support. There is no British interest in this war, and opinion will tire of it. No foreign state is threatened. No international treaty or boundary is breached.
A civil war on a distant continent is hardly a casus belli. Cameron may cry like a latter-day Disraeli: “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do / We’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too.” But he has none of these in abundance. His is an already hesitant jingoism. He is prolonging a local war at great expense and without willing the means of its completion. Margaret Thatcher gambled all and won glory. Libya beckons Cameron to the swamps of Basra and the dustbowls of Helmand. Neither he nor his nation needs that now.