Fri, Mar 25, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The case for intervention in North Africa remains a strong one

By Jonathan Freedland  /  The Guardian, LONDON

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 Qaddafi from choking Benghazi.

However, the goals are unclear, hence the split between politicians and the military in both Britain and the US over whether Qaddafi himself is a target. The initial talk of a no-fly zone has proved irrelevant: The Qaddafi 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 the UK 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 Qaddafi.

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 Qaddafi’s lead, and kill enough of your own people, then you can stay in power?

However, 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 US President 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 trash 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 British 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 Qaddafi out.

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