The case for intervention in North Africa remains a strong one

By Jonathan Freedland  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Fri, Mar 25, 2011 - Page 9

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 administration of former US president Bill Clinton, making it recoil from action to halt the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Guilt over that inaction prompted Clinton to commit troops to halt former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo five years later. The lessons former British prime minister 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: British Prime Minister David Cameron has been determined to present Operation Odyssey Dawn as the opposite to the Iraq War, different in every way. So his war this year has the backing of a UN 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 House of Commons. See, Cameron says, nothing like Iraq at all.

Such distancing is necessary because the public, in the UK and beyond, clearly feels chastened by the Iraq experience (and by Afghanistan, too). One poll shows less than 50 percent 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 skeptical, 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 Muammar Qaddafi 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: 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 British members of parliament who backed the government in Monday’s House of 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 London 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 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.

It won’t happen immediately: The dictator could remain in place, ruling over part of a divided Libya for a long time to come. However, as Miliband says, “stalemate is better than slaughter.”

These are questions that 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.