The Libya reader

A round-up of the day’s commentary on Libya.

Andrew Sullivan is furious with the Obama administration for not consulting Congress before agreeing to carry out air strikes on Libya.

When will the US Congress be able to debate and vote? When will the congressmen and senators actually take a position for the record? Or is that kind of democracy the kind of thing we only export and don't actually follow ourselves?

The National Interest argues that the days of hawks and doves are over – it's all about the Valkyries now.

[A] troika of female advisers – Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power – are, by and large, responsible for persuading President Obama, against the advice of Robert Gates and other members of the military establishment – that bombing Libya is a good idea. Power has condemned American foreign policy for failing to intervene sufficiently to avert genocidal wars, particularly in Bosnia and Rwanda. Bill Clinton has himself said that his biggest regret was not intervening in Rwanda to stop the carnage.

While the memory of Rwanda lies heavily upon the Clintons and US policy, it is Bosnia that dominates the thinking of David Cameron and the coalition, according to Ian Birrell, the Prime Minister's former speechwriter.

[O]ne of the books that left its mark on the Prime Minister recently is Unfinest Hour, a howl of moral outrage against Britain's failure to intervene amid the bloodstained break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The book, which argues Bosnia ranks alongside Munich and Suez in the litany of Conservative foreign policy disasters, underlines that doing nothing can be a fateful choice

The author of Unfinest Hour, Brendan Simms, argued in last week's New Statesman that the Conservatives have made a "fundamental break" from the realist policy approach that blighted the government's policy in Bosnia in the 1990s. However, away from Cameron and his hawks (or should that be Valkyries?), many in the Conservative Party are more cautious.

Rory Stewart, writing in the London Review of Books, argues that the decision was taken in spite of Iraq and Afghanistan and the neocon agenda, rather than because of it. Stewart errs on the side of intervention, with a caveat.

But today, though I am in favour of the no-fly zone, it seems as though the real danger remains not despair but our irrepressible, almost hyperactive actions: that sense of moral obligation; those fears about rogue states, failed states, regions and our own credibility, which threaten to make this decade again a decade of over-intervention.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, also offered cautious support for the intervention – but left himself space to wriggle and revert to a realist stance, should it all go wrong: "The best we can say of this venture is that it is the lesser of two evils – or so it seems at the moment."

Both Stewart and Johnson are tipped as potential prime ministers as often as they are labelled pompous buffoons. If Libya goes wrong, then Cameron will have no shortage of critics within his party ready to say, "I told you so – sort of."

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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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