Britain's responsibility to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi's crack-down is unavoidable. We must not be so fixated on our past mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan that we fail to help Libya to free itself. Let's pressure our government now to back a no-fly-zone and break with Britain's sorry past.
This article was first published in Open Democracy.
The most crucial argument in favour of a no-fly-zone is that it is what the free Libyans, at least as manifested in the Transitional National Council in Benghazi (the fledgling caretaker-government-in-waiting), have themselves called for. Just as we supported sanctions against South Africa because it was what the black South Africans themselves called for, so we should do what the free Libyans are calling for.
I have just been talking with a Libyan friend of mine who is fresh back from Benghazi. I’ve been watching amazing video footage on his mobile phone of the vast pro-freedom demonstrations that took place there while they were overthrowing the regime. He tells me that the people of eastern Libya are strongly united on two points: (1) They oppose absolutely any foreign ground troops in Libya. (It is bad enough having mercenaries there, without having any Western troops to add in to the mix…); (2) They support absolutely a no-fly-zone, to be imposed upon Gaddafi’s air forces, including the necessary attacks on Gaddafi’s ground-based air defences and against the mercenary forces that will enable the no-fly-zone to function. And they want it NOW. Because huge numbers are dying in Libya, far more than has yet been reported: several hundred virtually every day, according to my friend, and that is excluding those who may be dying in the areas still held by Gaddafi.
Of course a no-fly-zone isn’t all that is needed: Carne Ross’s list of other, mostly non-violent interventions that could also be rapidly introduced is welcome. And there is much that we can do as individuals to help: for example, donating to the splendid Avaaz, who are supplying revolutionaries across the Arab world with the resources to document and organise democracy protests. But my friend, like the Transitional National Council, and like the huge coalition of Arab NGOs here, puts a no-fly-zone top of his list. Gaddafi’s air superiority is the only thing keeping him in the game. But it is leading to carnage, and might enable Gaddafi yet to win, which would probably end the Arab Spring, and would send a terrible message to dictators across the world: the message that the way to avoid the fate of Ben Ali and Mubarak is to crack down madly and without mercy, using all the military force at your might.
So: Why are some progressives nevertheless not getting solidly behind the call for a no-fly-zone (join the call, here) to give the free Libyan forces the air-cover they need in order to defeat Gaddafi’s rump regime? Because they are prisoners of the past. They are so fixated on what we did wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are not even willing to consider that we might be able to help the Libyans free themselves, this time. (This is one of the direst consequences of the Bush and Bliar adventures: that they have poisoned the well of humanitarian intervention.) Thus, the UK’s Stop the War Coalition, disastrously, is failing to make the distinction between ground troops (on the one hand) and the air cover (on the other) that the free Libyans themselves are asking for. (If you still doubt this last point, follow the lead Libyan tweeters, such as @ChangeinLibya , and it will become clearer to you.)
The responsibility to protect is unavoidable. This time, we should urge the British government to do what it prevented us from doing in the Spanish Civil War, and in Rwanda: we are going to have to use some smart targeted military intervention to help stop a grotesque ‘civil war’ that would be all over by now if a murderous regime had not been able to acquire fire power thanks to its misuse of oil wealth. We would simply be giving the Libyan people the opportunity to save themselves from genocide and to free themselves. As the people of Egypt and Tunisia have done, but this time, necessarily, by a different route.
It would be an error of historic proportions, an irrecoverable error, if we were voluntarily to make ourselves the victims of our own country’s past failures and crimes and perpetrations of injustice, by refusing to contemplate the swift military assistance that the free Libyans are asking for. My worry about Paul Rogers’s thoughtful recent piece here, is that it may encourage unwary readers to perpetuate such voluntary self-victimhood.
It’s time for all progressives to ask themselves whether they really want their epitaph to be that they helped Gaddafi stay in power and by doing so helped stop the spread of these heroic democratic Arab uprisings. Let’s pressure our government now to break with Britain’s sorry past, and, rather than selling arms to a dictator, help stop that dictator from using those arms to murder his own people.