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It may be goodbye to Gaddafi, but it’s far from Mission Accomplished, says Mehdi Hasan

Those who suggest Libya could be a template for intervention are deluded. War should be a last resort.

Asked in 1971 for his opinion on the French Revolution of 1789, Premier Zhou Enlai of China is said to have replied: "It is too soon to say."

Those laptop bombardiers who have rushed to celebrate the fall of Tripoli, congratulate the Libyan rebels, eulogise Nato and mock the critics of military action against Muammar al-Gaddafi would do well to heed Zhou's words. The fighting in Libya is far from over, and a secular, liberal democracy isn't - yet - on the horizon. It is too soon to rush to judgement, too soon to declare victory and move on.

Let me be clear: I despise and loathe Gaddafi, a vile and vicious dictator. In fact, I loathed him in 2004 when Tony Blair was hugging him in the desert and bringing him in "from the cold"; I loathed him in 2009 when Senator John McCain was shaking his hand and, according to US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, promising to "provide Libya with the [military] equipment it needs"; I loathed him last year when David Cameron was selling him sniper rifles and tear gas.

So I won't be shedding any tears for the brutal colonel as he flees the advancing rebels. The question now is: what comes next? The imminent demise of Gaddafi might be the beginning of the end of this conflict, which began in mid-March. But, on the other hand, it might only be the end of the beginning. Indeed, recent history suggests it would be wise for the interventionists to refrain from triumphalism.

Bush misfire

Allow me to take you on a short trip down memory lane. Let's start with Afghanistan. "Support for the Taliban is evaporating . . . they are in total collapse," a jubilant Blair told the House of Commons less than 48 hours after the fall of Kabul in November 2001. Three hundred and seventy-nine British troops have since been killed in Afghanistan by the Taliban-led insurgency. A decade on, we have been forced to switch from war-war to jaw-jaw: on 23 June, Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that the UK had made "contacts" with the evaporating Taliban.

Next up, Iraq. On 1 May 2003, three weeks after the fall of Baghdad, George W Bush arrived on a US aircraft carrier in a flight suit, stood in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner and smugly proclaimed: "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." But most of the hundreds of thousands of military and civilian deaths in Iraq occurred after Bush made his hubristic statement - as did the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the siege of Fallujah, the 2006 sectarian war and the 2007 surge. Violence continues to blight Iraq. This month, insurgents launched a wave of co-ordinated and deadly attacks across the country, killing at least 89 people and wounding more than 300.

And dare I mention Kosovo, long mythologised as a model of liberal intervention? "Unnecessary conflict has been brought to a just and honourable conclusion," declared Bill Clinton on 10 June 1999, the day the Nato bombing campaign came to an end. Yet, in the subsequent months and years, hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Roma were driven out of the province in acts of "reverse ethnic cleansing" by the newly empowered Albanian majority. In December 2010, Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaçi, a darling of Nato and friend of Blair, was accused in a Council of Europe report of having exerted "violent control" over the heroin trade and dabbled in organ-trafficking.

Unlike in Kosovo and unlike in Iraq, the US and UK governments secured UN backing - and the support of the Arab League - for the bombing campaign against Gaddafi. Civilian casualties were minimised; a ground invasion was avoided.

Nonetheless, those who suggest Libya could be a template for intervention are deluded. It was sold to us as a short, sharp, humanitarian intervention to protect the innocent inhabitants of Benghazi; it then morphed into a political intervention to force regime change. The US president, Barack Obama, promised that it would last "days, not weeks"; but the bombing campaign against Gaddafi's ragtag army dragged on for six months. The Chancellor, George Osborne, promised that the cost of military action would "be in the order of tens of millions of pounds, not hundreds of millions"; the MoD now says it has spent £200m.

Bloody backlash

The costs could continue to rise. Evidence is mounting that western governments may do a U-turn on the question of ground troops - or "peacekeepers", as they will now be called. In May, in little-noticed remarks to a security forum, the US admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of Nato's Joint Operations Command, suggested a "small force" might be necessary following the collapse of Gaddafi's regime.

On 23 August, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Financial Times that Obama might have to "reconsider his assertion there would not be any American boots on the ground". Yet such a move would risk provoking a bloody backlash from the rebels - especially those of the Islamist variety.

But there is another, bigger, more long-term danger. This "victory" for Nato in Libya will only embolden those hawks - both neoconservative and liberal-interventionist - who have been licking their wounds since they pushed for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. I expect there will be renewed calls for Nato to intervene in other conflict-ridden parts of the globe. Patient diplomacy, economic carrots and "people power" revolutions will once again take a back seat to US-led military action. The default response to a foreign crisis will be to send in the bombers. Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to believe that war should be a last resort, not the first or only option.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the NS

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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She’s leaving home: the women who left North Korea

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea, as these two books reveal.

Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee were born more than a decade apart and spent much of their early childhood in Hyesan, a North Korean city on the banks of the Yalu River, which separates the “hermit state” from China. Both women are strong-willed and resourceful and share a flair for fashion ­inherited from their mothers, who worked as smugglers and rebelled against North Korea’s strict dress codes whenever they could by buying knock-off Chanel handbags or perming their hair. Yet while Lee was born to parents with high songbun (“status”), Park’s parents fell close to the bottom of North Korea’s rigid caste system. Lee remembers “idyllic summers” picnicking in fields and watching children catch dragonflies; Park was so hungry that she caught them to eat.

A few weeks before Lee turned 18, she walked across the frozen Yalu in her fashionable new red shoes, hoping for a short adventure in China. She has never been able to return. Park was just 13 when she fled Hyesan, starving and desperate, with her mother. They are among the 25,000 or so North Koreans to have escaped successfully from one of the most repressive regimes in modern history and two of only a small number of female defectors to tell their ­stories. Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names and Park’s In Order to Live describe their difficult and very different journeys to freedom and offer an unusual insight into the secretive country that they left behind.

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea. The government-sanctioned haircuts, the camp gymnastics displays and the state media’s ridiculous rhetoric linger in the public consciousness much longer than reports of executions and gulags. Both books contain titillating details of the country’s weirdness. Park recalls a campaign for patriots to donate their poo during a fertiliser shortage. At her school, a typical maths question went like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?” Any child who referred to US citizens without using one of the official descriptions – “American bastard”, “Yankee devil” or “big-nosed Yankee” – was punished for being soft on the enemy.

The most revealing passages describe the rare moments when the alternate universes of North Korea and the rest of the world collide. Park describes watching a bootlegged copy of Titanic and marvelling that “Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were”. The film gave Park her “first small taste of freedom”. That North Koreans would risk imprisonment or death for pirated video games and Hollywood blockbusters shows how strong the desire for entertainment and novelty can be. Yet Park’s memoir also illustrates the strength of propaganda – how else could you “believe that North Korea is a socialist paradise . . . while devouring movies and TV programmes that show ordinary people in enemy nations enjoying a level of prosperity that you couldn’t imagine in your dreams”?

In some ways, Park and Lee were like teenage girls anywhere – falling in love, mooning over romantic pop, discovering pornography, rebelling against their parents – except that their thoughts, movements and even ambitions were regulated by the regime and the threat of violence was ever present. It was “normal, like air pollution”, Lee writes. Her descriptions are brutally matter-of-fact. She attends the execution of a well-liked smuggler; she writes: “When the shot hit the popular guy’s head, it exploded, leaving a fine pink mist.” In North Korea, she explains, most people try to avoid watching executions unless they know the person, in which case it is customary to attend, as they would a funeral.

To the regime, individuals’ lives might be considered worthless; for human traffickers, however, they have a price. After she crossed the river to China, Park was sold for $260, and her mother for $65. The traffickers wanted to rape Park but her mother offered herself up instead. Later, although still only 13, Park was forced to become the mistress of a trafficker and helped him collect, clean up and sell the women in his charge. There was no opportunity to complain of mistreatment to the authorities, because in China North Korean defectors are routinely arrested and sent back home to almost certain death in a prison camp. Her story sheds light on the dark mechanics of the trafficking industry and the chilling consequences of China’s forced repatriation programmes.

Lee’s journey seems to have been driven less by desperation and more by her irrepressible desire for a better life. What kind of teenager would cross one of the world’s most dangerous borders in her cool new shoes, hoping for a holiday? A naive one, certainly – yet her determination and independence are also remarkable. In China, she chooses to go on the run rather than accept the safety of marriage to her boyfriend, a wealthy if dull Chinese-Korean gamer. By the time Lee makes it to South Korea, she has so effectively adapted to Chinese society – she has acquired Chinese ID, speaks Mandarin fluently and is earning a good wage as a translator – that it takes her a long time to convince officials that she is a North Korean defector. As soon as she is safely in South Korea, she risks everything to help her mother and brother escape.

In publishing their memoirs, Lee and Park are taking yet another big risk. Last year, the UN noted how difficult it was to keep witnesses safe. Many North Korean defectors feared speaking to it, even confidentially, for fear of reprisals. Both Park and Lee are hoping that by going public they can expose human rights abuses in their country and increase the pressure on China to change its policy on its neighbour. Yet their stories also tell of the vulnerability and resilience of refugees all over the world. What despair and courage it takes to wade through the freezing water of the Yalu River, or march unguided across the icy border between China and Mongolia in the dead of night, or clamber into a crowded Jeep traversing the Sahara, or cram your children on to an overloaded boat on the Mediterranean, in the faint hope that anything must be better than what you have left behind.

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Tale by Hyeonseo Lee with David John is published by William Collins (304pp, £16.99). In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers is published by Fig Tree (288pp, £18.99).

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide