David Blackburn

Toppling Mad Dog

Toppling Mad Dog
Text settings

Should Gaddafi be pushed? That is the question diplomats and policy makers are beginning to ask. The UN has imposed travel restrictions and frozen Gaddafi’s assets. But Gaddafi is resisting the hangman’s noose; the loss of his Mayfair property empire is the merest of inconveniences.

And still he fights on. There is now a growing humanitarian case for direct military intervention by Western powers. However, there are plenty of arguments against even introducing a no-fly zone. Gideon Rachman makes some of them in today’s FT:

‘A few of the problems are practical. Some military observers say that a no-fly zone would be of limited use in Libya, since Col Gaddafi seems to be mainly relying on ground forces. It is also probable that China or Russia would veto any UN resolution that prepared the way for the use of force. But the US and the Europeans should also have their own justified reservations about armed intervention.

The problem is that the Libyan crisis confronts two sorts of “never agains”. There is the “never again” to mass atrocities and war crimes that came out of experiences such as Rwanda and Srebrenica – and which led to the birth of R2P. And there is the “never again” to armed western intervention to overthrow an Arab dictator that came out of the Iraq war. At the moment, the Iraq experience is proving more powerful. And, as events unfold in Libya, that is still the right call.

The bloodshed in Libya is appalling – but it is not yet comparable to the Rwandan genocide, where 800,000 died. If the levels of violence in Libya increase sharply, outsiders may yet feel compelled to intervene. A no-fly zone would be a first step, although it might be largely symbolic. But, as the situation stands, foreigners are right to hang back from sending in ground troops. There is still a strong chance that the Libyans themselves will get rid of their own dictator.

The contrast with Iraq would be enormous and beneficial. Saddam Hussein was, if possible, an even crueller dictator than Col Gaddafi. Few people, outside his own tribe, mourned his passing. But the fact that Saddam’s downfall was caused by an American-led invasion, which lacked proper UN backing, damaged the internal and external legitimacy of the new Iraq. The US and its allies were blamed for the bloodshed and chaos that followed the fall of Saddam and still feel a responsibility to try to put things right.

By contrast, the current popular uprisings in the Middle East derive their power and legitimacy from the fact that they are home-grown. These are societies and populations regaining control of their own destinies.’ The British government has retreated from yesterday’s sudden stridency, relegating the no-fly zone to the status of a contingency plan. Perhaps it has recognised that it can assist without polluting the uprising’s democratic purity - upon which the legitimacy of the next Libyan government will rest, as the country begins to recover from Gaddafi's tyranny.

The West has options. Already, African aid and human rights organisations have urged the African Union to assert itself against Gaddafi, while the nascent rebel administration in Benghazi provides a focal point for international powers to aid the rebels. Given the fluidity of the situation, aid is likely to be limited to medicine, food and so forth; it is unlikely that substantial military hardware will be leased to rebel forces.