Oh, what a liberal war!

We all want to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s murderous wrath. But is there a contradiction in ord

What is to be done about a murderous dictator in Africa who has lost the support of his people, a tyrant who is bombing and shelling rebel areas with impunity and forcing thousands of innocent civilians from their homes? His neighbours have called for him to be removed from power, and the United Nations has described his attacks on his own citizens as a possible crime against humanity.

This isn't Libya, it is Côte d'Ivoire, the dic­tator not Muammar al-Gaddafi, but Laurent Gbagbo, who has been clinging to power since losing last November's long-delayed presidential election. On 17 March, troops loyal to him shelled a market in the city of Abidjan, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 40. Nigeria has demanded that Gbagbo step down; the Kenyan prime minister, Raila Odinga, has called on the international community to use force to eject him from office.

In the past week, however, British, French and US jets have headed to North Africa to bomb Gaddafi, rather than the west to blitz Gbagbo. Referring to events in Libya, President Barack Obama said that we "cannot stand idly by" as "innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government". Yet, in Côte d'Ivoire's case, that is exactly what he is doing. "We were in a race against time to avoid the slaughter of civilians in Benghazi," said David Cameron, defending action against Gaddafi's forces in the House of Commons on 21 March. But, again, what of the slaughter of civilians in Abidjan? No race? No clock?

In the words of Odein Ajumogobia, Nigeria's foreign minister: "These contradictions are impossible for us to ignore." Dead civilians are dead civilians, whether Libyan or Ivorian. To intervene militarily in one (oil-rich) African country on humanitarian grounds, while ignoring the killings and violence in another (not yet oil-rich) African country raises troubling questions about the motives and intentions of the so-called liberal interventionists.

The same applies in the cases of Yemen and Bahrain - both long-standing allies of the US and Britain - where autocratic rulers have cracked down over the past few months on peaceful pro-democracy protesters who have gathered in their capital cities. In Sana'a, on 18 March, Yemeni government forces killed

52 unarmed protesters, shooting many of them in the head. In Manama, Bahraini opposition leaders were rounded up by police, and soldiers from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (that bastion of Middle Eastern democracy, and another US ally) were invited into the country to fire live ammunition and tear gas at demonstrators.

Meanwhile, Israel has used the crisis in Libya as another opportunity to bomb the besieged residents of the Gaza Strip following a round of rocket attacks on southern Israel. Palestinians in the occupied territories have been waiting for a UN no-fly zone for 44 years.

Threaten a massacre

The interventionists dismiss outrage at such glaring contradictions as "whataboutery", a term said to have been coined by the Northern Irish politician John Hume to describe the practice of deflecting attention away from a particular crime or outrage by bringing up an equivalent crime perpetrated by others.

“The fact that you cannot do the right thing everywhere does not mean that you should not do the right thing somewhere," a defiant Cameron told the Commons on 18 March, in response to a question about hypocrisy and inconsistency from the anti-war Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn. The Prime Minister makes a good point - but he also glosses over some pressing questions: is intervening in Libya "the right thing" to do? Does the military action there constitute a legitimate intervention? Is Britain best placed to lead such military interventions, or should other countries be at the forefront of such campaigns?

From the outset of the Libyan crisis, the debate in the west over military action has been couched in the language of liberal interventionism. On 17 March, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, observed that Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorises military action against Gaddafi's forces, "affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community's determination to fulfil its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government".

“Responsibility to protect" (or R2P) is a doctrine that was formulated by the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001, after the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans; the doctrine was embraced unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 2005. The principle behind R2P is simple, argues Gareth Evans, the Australian former foreign minister and co-chair of the commission. "Every country has the responsibility to protect its own citizens from mass killings and ethnic cleansing.

If a country is unwilling or unable to do so, the international community has a responsibility to launch military intervention." The commission set out six criteria for such intervention: just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, reasonable prospects and right authority.

Yet criteria for military intervention abound and are not limited to those under R2P. In April 1999, in his much-lauded speech on foreign policy to the Chicago Economic Club, Tony Blair outlined five considerations: "First, are we sure of our case? . . . Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? . . . Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? . . . And finally, do we have national interests involved?"

At the Commons debate on 21 March, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, embraced liberal interventionism and cited his own three criteria for military action. "It is a just cause, with a feasible mission, and it has international support," he said.

But consider the rules governing R2P. Interventionists could argue that the bombing of Libyan army columns outside rebel-held Benghazi, with the support of a UN resolution and the Arab League, and which aimed to protect the residents from a threatened massacre by Gaddafi and his sons, satisfied five criteria - just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means and right authority. What about any "reasonable prospects" for success?

The allies (why do we always get to be the "allies"?) have yet to explain the endgame, the exit strategy, the metrics for victory in Libya. And as for Blair's five tests, are we "prepared for the long term"? Resolution 1973 rules out an "occupying" force, but if Gaddafi falls and the rebels take revenge on his forces, will we "stand idly by" as a civil war erupts? Humanitarian interventions tend to be long-term operations. Nato troops were active in Bosnia for 12 years, and 8,700 foreign troops remain in Kosovo.

Then there is the question, raised by Mili­band, of "international support". Support for the Libyan intervention has been exaggerated. Cameron and Obama may have obtained a Security Council resolution, succeeding where Blair and Bush failed, but five countries abstained, all of them major world powers: Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia. Within a day of the first military strike, the Arab League (whose initial support for a no-fly zone had prompted a reluctant Obama to support military action against Gaddafi) began to backtrack. So far, no major Middle Eastern nation has participated in the bombing, and Turkey's reticence is preventing Nato from playing a role in the conflict. Meanwhile, the African Union has called for an end to the intervention, and South Africa, which voted for Resolution 1973 under intense pressure from the US, is now criticising the air raids and accusing the west of seeking "regime change".

Arms tour

Why didn't Cameron, or Obama, put greater diplomatic energy into urging Libya's neighbours - post-Mubarak Egypt, with its sizeable US-funded air force, springs to mind - to enforce a limited no-fly zone over Benghazi? The failure to persuade the despots of the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to take responsibility for affairs in their region may have doomed this operation from the outset.

The Prime Minister, however, has been much praised for his role in securing the UN resolution and for providing MPs for the first time with a note on the legal advice issued by Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, authorising military action. His openness and multilateralism are to be applauded.

But our memories are short. Last month, the Prime Minister went on a much-mocked arms tour of the Middle East. Last year, the Cameron-led coalition government issued £231m worth of export licences for arms to Libya, including tear gas supplies, small arms ammunition and sniper rifles. The year before last, members of the British government sat on their hands as Israel bombarded Gaza, killing 1,400 Palestinians. And eight years ago this month, members of the House of Commons - including David Cameron - voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the torture scandal of Abu Ghraib and the destruction of Fallujah.

The innocent people of Benghazi deserve protection from Gaddafi's murderous wrath. But it is a fantasy to believe that, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the British government has the moral authority to lead this latest military intervention in the Middle East.

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 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?