Monday, 21 March 2011

As Iraq Was To Blair; Libya Is To Cameron

I imagine I am not the only person making this comment, but you know me, as I read in 'The Guardian' yesterday when it was talking about bloggers, 'I would rather be right than read'.  I guess most (political) commentators would feel that.  In a world where I feel, like most people, utterly powerless to alter anything about my own life let alone broader society, at least I can testify that 'I contested, I did not collaborate' and that is probably all we can do in the fixed-up society we live in.

For a brief moment it seemed, last week, that David Cameron had retained some standing, that, at last, he appeared to be a world statesman.  It appears, though perhaps less obviously than Tony Blair (though these are still comparatively early days) that our present prime minister yearns for that international recognition that his predecessor-but-one battled so long to achieve.  In addition, Cameron is from a political party which has always drawn strong support from the armed forces, and, in general, has supported them in return.  It is different at present because of the severe cutbacks in the armed services that are already upsetting traditional Conservative supporters and closes off a source of employment for many young men and women in hard economic times like these.

Soldiers like to have a clear purpose, this does not mean a war, but something that gives them action and credit.  The UK has been at war constantly since 2001 and having managed to extricate ourselves from Iraq after seven years, we are down once again to participating in only one war at the moment, Afghanistan.  The casualties seem tolerable, and keep the public in a military frame of mind.  Public support for injured soldiers and families of those killed has reached an all-time high.  Thus, military action is a good way to distract the population.  Margaret Thatcher did this spectacularly well with the Falklands Conflict of 1982 at a time when unemployment was spiralling out of control and many were suffering from her regime.  The battling won enough of the population to her side that she could increase her majority at the 1983 election.  It seems that prime ministers since then, whether John Major in 1991 or Tony Blair in 2001 and 2003 have sought, in vain, to replicate that experience.

Situations like that in Libya always put liberals like myself in a dilemma.  On one hand, clearly I want to see the end of Colonel Gaddafi's 42-year long authoritarian regime and the installation of democracy in a country which has basically gone from being a colony under the Ottomans and the Italians, through a brief period of constitutional monarchy 1951-69, it fell under an indigenous dictator who has held power ever since.  Of course, it was hoped that Gaddafi would fall the way the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, lying to the West and East of Libya had done.  However, Gaddafi has managed to retain the loyalty of sufficient forces to bring about the civil war he had warned of earlier.  Of course, western states have complicated the situation.  With Algerian oil effectively under the control of the French, Libya is the key short-haul oil supplier for Europe.  The relationship with Gaddafi has been confused, ranging from bombing of the country by US aircraft in 1986 to Tony Blair trying to foster good relations.  In the meantime the West has often sold arms to Gaddafi, to some extent pleased that he was not an Islamic fundamentalist, much as they were with Saddam Hussain before 1991.  With China's quest to secure raw materials around the world and its willingness to support dictatorships, the situation has changed again and the West might be hoping for a more liberal regime in Libya which will look to the West, despite the turbulent history of the relationship, rather than to China as Sudan has done.

Intervention in civil wars is always complex.  It is always a gamble.  Of course, most people in the West do not want to see the rebels crushed as this week seemed very likely.  There will always be a humanitarian aspect too.  The view of China and Russia is simple, that no outside power should interfere with internal suppression of uprising, even if the peoples being suppressed claim they are not a true part of that state, as the Tibetans and Chechens do.  For the West it is not so simple.  This is why states hang on for a United Nations resolution, a permit for them to intervene.  This allows governments to appear strong, yet spreading the blame if it all goes wrong.  They also adopt a staged approach.  Remember that no-fly zones preceded intervention in Iraq.  To some degree this is fair as it balances the conflict between government and rebel forces.  There is a value judgement.  Imagine if the situation was reversed and, as in 1969 (and, of course, in Spain in 1936), the rebels were authoritarians seeking to overthrow the constitutional government?  Then, I suppose money and oil access would be the judgement.  There seem to be rules, but it is more a kind of shouting match between the various world powers and sometimes it falls one way and sometimes the other.

Stepping back from the international dimension, this posting is focused on the impact for the UK government.  Like Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, it seemed David Cameron was eager for an international distraction from domestic economic difficulties.  Controversy over the US arms company brought in to run the census, revelations that the new approach to local authority funding will shift millions from the poorest councils to the richest, concerns over damage to the National Health Service and ill-conceived ideas in education, meaning Cameron and his government remains unpopular across the board.  A friend of mine argued that allowing local authorities to keep their business rates rather than send them to central government will encourage 'lax' councils to put more effort into generating business in their area.  This is fine in principle, but neglects the uneveness of the playing field.  Business will boom in areas of the South East, possibly the West Midlands and the Manchester-Liverpool and Tyneside regions, but more peripheral regions are going to suffer.  Many parts of South-West England lack even a decent dial-up service for internet connection, let alone broadband, so what company will want to locate in those regions.  Other areas have high unemployment, greater numbers of poorly qualified population, higher levels of asylum seekers, poor infrastructure and other issues that may make it hard to compete with the already rich areas of the South East, this approach will simply widen the divide.

Anyway, Cameron has got the war he was seeking.  It seems to be a 'light touch' affair, policing the skies over Libya to stop Gaddafi's airforce bombing the rebels.  However, as was seen with the US intervention in Somalia (and back in Vietnam) these days pilots are not immune to attack from ground forces let alone fighter aircraft.  What will the UK do when downed aircrew are paraded on Libyan television?  Presumably send in George Galloway to negotiate their release? The first British incursion, the SAS team, failed almost immediately, the soldiers being captured, ironically, by the rebels.  Will the UK, France, the USA be able to resist having ground troops sent to the country as well?  It seems likely even if the rebels win, that foreign troops will go in to establish some form of stability.  Islamist groups must already be looking to expand their influence in the country, the one thing the western powers fear.  Once there are ground forces there, then it will just be like Iraq all over again and sometime in 2018 we will be able to bring UK troops home from Libya.

A no-fly zone does not guaratee a rebel victory, and at the end of last week it appeared as if the rebellion was about to be crushed.  Gadaffi controls the bulk of Libya and has extensive armed forces at his command.  Foreign troops above or in the country will play to his propaganda, allowing him to portray the conflict as patriotic.  A victory for him will not only mean the end of the rebellion and presumably refugees fleeing into Egypt, but it will mean that the UK will be spurned by Libya.  In many ways that is no bad thing, I feel we have been too close to Gaddafi in the past decade achieving very little for the UK except more arms deals to equip him with the weaponry to suppress rebellions.  It seems like Gaddafi will turn to China who will have secured their first major supply of oil despite its distance from China.  It will reinforce China's 'footprint' in Africa another level.  As members of the Security Council of the United Nations, China and Russia need to be challenged more.  They need to be involved in peace-keeping, not constantly supporting dictators, pleading poverty (I found it incredible a couple of weeks ago when the Department for International Development said it was ending aid to China; why were we giving aid to the second largest economy in the world anyway?) when they go in afterwards and find a new source of raw materials and yet another market.

I accept that the situation in Libya has put many governments in a difficult position.  However, Camerons bullishness in approach, puts him at the forefront of the blame when things begin to go wrong as so many cases have shown they will.  Remember the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 and how that was supposed to bring Hussain's regime in Iraq to an end?  No, it simply led to even more brutal suppression of Iraqi people exacerbated by sanctions that cut necessary supplies to them.  I can certainly see Cameron before a committee of inquiry in 2019 shuffling awkwardly as Tony Blair did in front of Chilcot.  I guess Cameron saw that and thought 'well, he got off lightly'.  Blair spent a short time answering questions about the intervention in Iraq, got useful publicity for his autobiography, 'The Journey' (2010) adding to his already vast wealth (and he gave £4.6 million to a charity for rehabilitating injured soldiers); he charges US$250,000 (£157,000; €182,000) for a 90-minute speech.  In 2010 it was estimated that Tony Blair received at least £14 million in earnings of all kinds and he bought one house in London for £4.45 million and one in Buckinghamshire for £5.75 million, and, quite accurately is estimated to be the wealthiest former prime minister in British history.

That is the kind of penalty that Cameron can expect when everything goes wrong with the intervention in Libya that he has led.  No charges for war crimes; apparently no cause to regret the ongoing links with yet another regime which has been persecuting its citizens for decades.  The regret will come from those British aircrew and soldiers who are killed or maimed or detained in appalling conditions.  Yet again young British people are going to be sent to die for some ill-thought out cause, poorly planned and even more badly executed.  Yes, it is probably morally correct to intervene in states to help democracy thrive over dictatorship.  However, as yet, the world has not found a method of doing this which does not involve even greate loss of life and hardship lasting for years.  There is an assumption now that the dictatorships of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula will tumble the way that the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe fell so quickly in 1989.  However, while we remember the 'velvet revolution' of Czechoslovakia and the fall of the Berlin Wall, so quickly have we forgotten the model of Romania, which suffered bloodshed in its effort to shake off the regime.

In some ways I am glad Cameron has blundered so badly in this way.  It will provide something to haunt him with throughout this decade.  He has been so active in wrecking so many people's lives in the 11 months he has been in office, it will be good to have something to point the finger at him for, that he cannot squirm out of.  I resent the fact that the intervention will probably do little of benefit for the Libyan rebels.  That will continue to be the case until the United Nations has the funds and the force to oversee countries having experienced regime change, and that is very unlikely ever to happen.  I mourn the ruined lives of British, Libyan and other citizens that can be the only outcome of this current policy.

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