Libya brings out the pointless graphics

Peter Wilby on humanitarian principle, inconsistent foreign policy, financial self-interest and gung

Our intervention in Libya feels quite different from that in Iraq. There is no US president blathering about an "axis of evil", no "shock and awe" and no patently false claims that the enemy tyrant could wipe us all out in 45 minutes. Western leaders have learned to mind their language: they call their new military operation Odyssey Dawn, which sounds like the title of a poem by Shelley. They have also learned to observe the legal niceties.
But I am reminded of Lord Melbourne's observation that "nobody ever did anything very foolish except from some strong principle". Humanitarian principles easily slide into wider commitments. If Gaddafi is expelled from eastern Libya but clings on in the west, apparently with popular local support (the most likely outcome, according to many analysts), what then? Do we tolerate the survival of a wounded and resentful dictator who may sponsor terrorists again? Do we stop him denying power and water supplies to the east? If so, how? Will our pride and self-respect - and our desire to impress on potential enemies that we are as powerful as we say we are - allow us to accept Gaddafi's survival in any form?

If, on the other hand, the opposition conquers Tripoli and launches revenge attacks on civilians perceived as Gaddafi supporters, do we accept a new "responsibility to react"? If I may be truly heretical, what's so special about "civilians" anyway? The Gaddafi soldiers killed in the desert by western bombing were almost certainly conscripts, as innocent in their way as the doctors and lawyers leading the revolution in Benghazi.

Guilty by omission

As several MPs pointed out in the Commons debate on Libya, the west struggles to find the moral high ground because, to quote Labour's John McDonnell, its involvement in the Middle East over the past century is "steeped in blood, murder and maiming". This is axiomatic to most Arabs and, far from assisting their spring, our actions may discredit it by associating it with imperialist meddling.

To Arab eyes, our concerns for peace, freedom and democracy emerge only selectively and spasmodically. Nobody called for a no-fly zone when Israeli jets killed hundreds of civilians in Gaza.

Oil-gotten gains

Nothing, we are told, can be done for the rebels in Yemen and Bahrain who are also being murdered. Nor can we help anyone opposing the monstrous Saudi Arabian regime. But that is wrong. We can refrain from selling military equipment, including the personnel carriers that took Saudi Arabian troops to put down the uprising in Bahrain. We can also freeze tyrants' ill-gotten assets. Indeed, the almost universal equation of oil with dictatorship - based on rulers having no need of democratic consent if they have oil revenues behind them - would be broken if western banks and governments blocked investments from corrupt non-democratic leaders and their cronies.

Such measures may sound absurdly impracticable and idealistic, as well as potentially ruinous. But if we want to convince the world of our moral probity, we should sacrifice money before blood. To a shameful extent, western economies are propped up by funds from regimes, not only in the Middle East, that deny freedom and prosperity to their own people.

Hacks on auto pilot

At times like this, no newspaper can resist impenetrable graphics detailing tanks, planes, warships and missiles. The Daily Mail shows something called a Brimstone missile, along with an arrow helpfully pointing to a "programmable fuse [which] allows pilot to select blast pattern". This will be useful guidance if I ever find myself flying a Tornado but I'd rather learn about the country we're attacking (or perhaps defending): its history, tribes, culture and economy. A quick trawl of the internet tells me Libya has three regions with largely separate histories until independence in 1951: Tripolitania, most of which Gaddafi still controls; Cyrenaica, mostly held by the rebels and presumably the birthplace of Simon of Cyrene who, according to three of the Gospels, helped Jesus carry His cross; and Fezzan, which is mainly desert and has only 450,000 inhabitants. Historically, France's interest was confined to Fezzan, which it administered after the wartime allies seized Libya from the Italians, its rulers from 1911 to 1943. The British ran the other two regions. All this may have some bearing on the current conflict, but no newspaper offers any enlightenment.

Horrible histories

With only 13 MPs opposing the government on Libya and even the Independent expressing firm support, I feel rather out on a limb. But my instinct is always to question a consensus. I was fairly isolated - even among New Statesman staff - in opposing Tony Blair's wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The former, though it lacked a UN mandate, is often quoted as the closest parallel to Libya. In fact, I think the case for intervention in Kosovo was weaker than all the others (including Libya), partly because there was no conceivable national interest at stake and partly because there seemed to be as many atrocities on one side as on the other.

I am not a pacifist, but believe wars are so horrible - and risk making horrible situations more horribly complex - that they should be undertaken only for the most compelling reasons. Even in the best cases, I cannot share the gung-ho relish of many press colleagues. What I find impressive about the anti-fascist opposition of the 1930s is that so many young Britons, some from privileged backgrounds, volunteered to fight and die for their cause in the Spanish civil war. How many of our missile-toting commentators would make the same sacrifice or would wish their sons to do so?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?