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Thursday, 28 April 2011

A very bloody Royal wedding

On the eve of the Royal wedding, the British establishment seems to have finally seen sense and renounced the Syrian ambassador’s invitation. The Foreign Office said his appearance would be ‘unacceptable’, and Buckingham Palace has followed by removing him from the guest list.

What’s perplexing is that this treatment hasn’t been handed out to anyone else, for make no mistake, this will be a wedding attended by torturers, murderers and despots with blood on their hands. According to St James’ Palace the reason for this is that it’s simply a case of ‘protocol’. However, in response to the lack of invitation to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown it said “This is a private wedding and not a state occasion…so there is no protocol reason to invite former prime ministers.”

This historic protocol then dictates then that while it’s unnecessary to extend invites to former democratically elected prime ministers, it is necessary to invite the Crown Prince of Bahrain. Indeed of all the horrific images to have come out of the Arab Spring, perhaps the worst comes from Bahrain; a video of a young man being carried into a hospital with no brain inside his head, surrounded by screaming onlookers. Most people would consider it ‘unacceptable’ to invite the people responsible for this and other actions. Not Buckingham Palace however, not Prince William, and not the Foreign Office either.

All were apparently happy for Prince Salman and his ambassador to enjoy the lavish Royal wedding celebrations, while in Bahrain masked forces shoot unarmed people, takeover hospitals, arrest bloggers and democracy activists, and torture people in prisons and police stations. Also invited is Prince Mohamed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, whose forces currently occupy Bahrain and suppress dissent there. The Prince is no doubt having a wonderful time enjoying the freedoms of the United Kingdom, while back home in Saudi protest is banned and the country is run with an iron fist.

Other royal representatives from the dictatorships of Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Brunei and Abu Dhabi will also be present. While Africa’s last absolute monarch Mswati III of Swaziland is already spending huge sums of money in London in preparation for the event. He’ll reportedly be staying in five star luxury with an entourage of 50 people, while at home his people live in abject poverty with no political freedoms, in a country riddled with Aids.

Mswati III will be joined at the wedding by the ambassadors of Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and North Korea, which itself makes the Syrian situation even more perplexing. How exactly is this being judged? Perhaps by some sort of ‘body count’? Kill 400 people and that’s just not acceptable, kill 350 and you are welcome to attend. This isn’t just an affront to the people who’ve lost their lives in these countries; it’s an affront also to British people who futilely expect the country to stand up for human rights and democratic liberties.

I understand the need for Realpolitik, the need to deal with unsavoury characters, but is it necessary for a wedding that we’re repeatedly being told is a private occasion? If the risk of ‘snubbing’ people is seen as so great, then don’t invite any foreign dignitaries. It’s another sad day for British democracy when those who torture, murder and crush dissent are deemed as suitable guests. If anyone had any hope that Prince William would breathe new and credible life into our staid royal sideshow, then think again.

And if as we are being told this charade is all about protocol, then here’s a novel idea…change the bloody protocol. Or even better, get rid of this irrelevant royal family all together, because they do absolutely nothing to promote the human rights and liberty that the majority of the British people stand for.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

How the Left got it wrong on Libya

I initially intended to post this in separate parts, though decided in the end the need to publish as one whole piece.

I write this as a leftist myself. One who is deeply embarrassed by the politicking that seems to have almost completely absorbed some on the Left, regarding military intervention in Libya.

I aim to look here at a number of the main arguments against military intervention, and show that by and large they are not based on insight or careful analysis, but instead on familiar leftist dogma. And further, that a section of the Left has tried to create a narrative on Libya that simply doesn’t stand up to reality or logic, and more importantly holds ideology above any concern for the Libyan people.

‘If I was a Libyan…’

First amongst armchair revolutionaries is former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who said the following it is important to note, after Col. Gaddafi’s forces had reached Benghazi:

If I was a Libyan I would be out there demonstrating with the Libyans to get rid of Gaddafi, the last thing I would want is the stain of having America and Britain and France…getting involved because you look like stooges of Western oil companies.

Apparently if Ken was Libyan the last thing he would want is Western involvement. Has he seen the interviews with Libyans on the ground? Has he seen the mass rallies in Benghazi praising and calling for Western intervention? Has he actually spoken to any Libyans? Whether he has or has not, it is exactly because Ken is an ideologue that he can’t imagine what it would really be like to be Libyan.

I’m not Libyan myself, but common sense says that the last thing you’d want is to be hunted like a ‘rat’, house by house, room by room. The last thing you’d want is to be rounded up with hundreds or thousands of others, by Gaddafi forces. The last thing you’d want is to be imprisoned and tortured and hanged for daring to counter the Great Jamahiriya.

And indeed the last thing you’d probably think about is oil companies, the dangers of imperialism and the arrogant self-serving nonsense being spouted by people like Ken Livingstone.

Libyans don’t want foreign intervention

Ken Livingstone’s statement was just one of many suggesting that Libyans do not want, or should not want, foreign intervention. And it’s this arrogance of dictating from the safety of the West, to those under threat in Libya that has characterised the debate coming from the Left.

It’s a line that’s also been taken by the Stop The War Coalition, the organisation that argued so passionately against war in Iraq. I agreed with them then, I marched with them. However, the events in Iraq have left them almost completely unable to look at Libya objectively.

In the early days of the revolution, when things were going well, the Opposition was strongly against foreign intervention. They didn’t think they needed it, after all, towns were falling, and regime figures were defecting. They even put up a huge banner in Benghazi saying ‘no foreign intervention’, and this is the picture the STWC uses to this day on its website.

What they make little mention of is that in the run up to military action, the Opposition was literally crying out for a no-fly zone and strikes against Col. Gaddafi. If you look at scenes from Benghazi now, flying amongst Free Libya flags you’ll see the flags of Britain, France, America and Qatar...a positively nightmarish vision for some on the Left. Of course it’s fair to say there have been anti-Nato protests in Benghazi, though here the accusation is that the intervention does not go far enough…

So let’s stop pretending Libyans don’t want foreign intervention.

The prospect of a Benghazi ‘bloodbath’ was overstated

This argument has been commonly touted since military action began; for instance Seumas Milne writing in the Guardian said the following,

The main evidence was Gaddafi's threat to show "no mercy" to rebel fighters who refused to lay down their arms and to hunt them down "house to house". In reality, for all the Libyan leader's brutality and Saddam Hussein-style rhetoric, he was scarcely in any position to carry out his threat.

While it’s obvious that Col. Gaddafi would have had a big problem definitively taking Benghazi, Milne negates to mention what he has been able to do thus far. The threat to hunt people house by house is not an idle one. This has been a documented practice by his forces in Al-Zawiyah and even rebel-held towns such as Misrata. Human Rights Watch has documented disappearances and even the arrested BBC Arabic crew saw people being detained in appalling conditions with visible signs of torture. Moreover, already there are reports of hundreds missing from the East of Libya, presumably being held in Sirte and Tripoli. Their fate unknown.

The head of the PCS Union, Mark Serwotka, takes the same position as Milne, but takes it further with a ridiculous imaginary scenario, suggesting the Arab League somehow could have come to the rescue,

There is a debate about whether Gaddafi would have gone into Benghazi and massacred the people, the Arab League would have made it clear that they would have had things to say,

The truth is no one knows exactly what faced Benghazi, but what’s happened to Misrata certainly gives us a clue. Maybe the city would have held out for weeks or months, maybe Gaddafi forces would have tried to cut off the head of the rebellion, going straight for the leadership. But Milne’s piece shows a familiar trademark of leftist anti-interventionist commentary; he makes almost no mention of the danger posed to Libyan citizens by the Gaddafi regime. Instead he talks of civilians being killed by Western bombs, and regime soldiers being ‘incinerated’ by those same bombs.

It’s a line of argument that has in part possibly been subconscious, but so desperate are some to find arguments against the intervention, that they’ve overlooked the true horrors of what Col. Gaddafi is doing.

The Coalition is ‘a joke’

Maybe the Coalition is a joke, at least in terms of its military support from the Arab and Muslim world. However at the same time it cannot be fairly characterised as the UK/US going it alone. On this subject, Len McClusky, General Secretary of the Unite union, says:

It is now clear that, despite the initial spin, the military action has little or no Arab involvement (Qatar aside). It is also opposed by, among others, Russia, China and India. This leaves it dependent on those western powers whose policies have already aroused deep hostility throughout the Middle East and will inevitably arouse memories of colonialism.

The answer to this is simply that, if you believe Libyan civilians faced a grave and immediate threat from Col. Gaddafi and his forces, the make up of the coalition really isn’t as important as some would like us to believe. Would people have objected to Western unilateral action in Rwanda in 1994? Probably. Would they in hindsight? Maybe not. I’m not equating the severity of threat here, just making the point that the makeup of the coalition has a far greater importance to armchair revolutionaries, than to those actually on the ground.

Moreover the much-vaunted idea that the West should have sat around waiting for the Arab League or Egypt or Turkey to take action independently is simply ridiculous. Like it or not, this predominantly Western coalition was the only viable entity to immediately act. And the same people criticising the dictator-led Arab League’s support as meaningless, should at the same time stop using the argument that China and Russia abstained from the UN vote; these two countries are not exactly renowned moral arbiters either.

The West has not intervened in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Israel, Saudi…

This is perhaps the most frequent case made against intervention, stated regularly by the likes of George Galloway and others. In and of itself there is no denying it’s a cogent statement. The claims of double standards by the West are true. We won’t intervene in Bahrain et al because they’re Western allies and/or of strategic importance, and it’s true that the silence of the UK and US has been nothing short of despicable.

Let’s not forget also that Nicholas Sarkozy supported Zine El Abidine Ben Ali almost until the end, while Joe Biden claimed Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator. Just two of an endless number of examples of stark Western support for dictators in the region.

However, the question remains as to what bearing this should have on Libya? The idea that because the West doesn't act coherently or fairly, then we should oppose its actions everywhere, is nothing but illogical.

It’s also an incredibly confused argument; it seems to suggest that we should intervene in some of these other places, yet because we don’t then we shouldn’t intervene in Libya. It’s a ‘playground’ argument. Would Ken Livingstone and George Galloway be up in arms if someone intervened militarily to protect Palestinians? I for one seriously doubt it. After all, it’s not only ‘Imperialists’ that can have double standards.

A footnote to this point on Western double standards, is the worrying lack of criticism from the Left aimed at Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega. The active support for Col. Gaddafi by these leaders has been if anything more disgraceful than the silence of the West on Bahrain and Yemen. In turn the silence from the Left has been deafening, and the reason for it glaringly obvious.

Lastly, if we’re talking comparisons, we should not forget that whatever the actions of other countries, Col. Gaddafi has taken the repression of opposition to his rule to new levels.

There’s the evidence of a shoot to kill policy decided before protests happened. There’s the demonisation of opposition as ‘rats’ by state media, and the terrifying [enable subtitles to see the English translation of this video] knock-on effect this has for those caught by regime forces. People appear on state TV confessing or newly declaring loyalty to Col. Gaddafi, having clearly been tortured into doing do. There’s the shelling of hospitals. There’s the bulldozing of opposition graves in Al-Zawiyah. There’s the hundreds of disappearances. The list literally goes on and on and on and on…

There are alternatives to intervention

On March 22 the Socialist Worker newspaper said:

Instead of bombing Libya, Western governments could hand all the assets they have seized from Gaddafi’s regime to the revolutionary forces. This would make it possible for them to acquire the means to buy arms, food and other resources essential to their offensive against the dictator.

This may be a nice idea, but it ignores the fact that when it was written air strikes had already saved this revolution. Even if you disagree with that assertion, it’s indisputable that regime forces had cleared Ajdabiya, and therefore had a route to the Egyptian border. It would have been extremely difficult to send the rebels heavy weapons by either land or sea.

Even if we look at the case for it to have happened weeks earlier, it doesn’t really stand up. What has become increasingly clear is that the opposition needs military training, tactical help and communications more than arms. Moreover, these things take weeks to have a genuine effect, weeks in which the revolution would have likely been crushed.

The paper goes on to say that in Egypt, Mubarak was brought down by the split in the ruling class, and that:

The same can happen in Libya if the uprising is allowed to spread and deepen, but foreign intervention makes it more difficult.

Unfortunately this is pure fantasy that again takes the needs and desires of the Libyan people, and tries to frame them as per the needs and desires of the Left. Firstly there is no ruling class in Libya like there was in Egypt, it is ruled by what amounts to a Mafia family. Secondly, compared to the Gaddafi regime, Hosni Mubarak was in charge of a ‘soft’ dictatorship.

Make no mistake, as we have seen in Tripoli and Al-Zawiyah, this uprising wouldn’t have had the chance to ‘spread and deepen’, it would have been extinguished with utter brutality. Once Col. Gaddafi had Benghazi surrounded, those that didn’t manage to flee or hold out would of course have been rounded up. Is it really believable that after the greatest challenge to his regime, Col. Gaddafi wouldn’t do everything in his power to make sure it never happened again?

Intervention in Libya may derail the Arab Spring revolutions

In his article that has featured on the Stop The War Coalition website, Owen Jones writes,

A big danger is that despots across the Middle East will warn their people: revolt, and you will invite Western bombs. In a region which regards Western interference with justifiable suspicion, this may well discourage many from taking to the streets. I certainly hope not: but it is difficult not to have deep concerns for the future of the Arab revolution.

This in my mind is possibly the weakest of all the arguments, chiefly because the exact opposite of this argument is far more likely to be true. The greatest danger to the Arab Spring was in fact the potential success of Col. Gaddafi in crushing a revolution with brute force. His success would have been the ultimate blueprint for others, in stark contrast to the comparatively limited force used by Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali.

Now I’m not suggesting the action against Col. Gaddafi will seriously worry countries like Saudi Arabia, however it may worry others, and at least gives some warning, however minor, to dictatorial regimes considering the levels of force used in Libya.

Furthermore, we have a situation where the coalition is literally safeguarding the Libyan Opposition from attack by Gaddafi forces. The idea that this will persuade other opposition movements to stop protesting is again nothing but a leftist fantasy.

Strategic interest is the only consideration

There is no doubt that strategic interest is playing a part in the coalition, though far more so from countries such as Italy, than from the United States.

However this argument of a Libyan war driven by the US on the basis of oil, is being persistently made. One of those making this argument is John Pilger. He’s been responsible for exposing injustice and abuses for decades and I have a huge amount of respect for him, and yet his position on Libya demonstrates -and I’m not suggesting this is a revelation- just how blindly polarised a certain section of the Left has become:

"What the West should do is absolutely nothing…Stay away from other countries of the world, stay away from their resources, stay away from their people, let countries develop in their own way, let the Libyan people deal with Gaddafi…The US and its allies are not involved to free Libya from dictatorship but to secure their strategic interests in the area…This isn't really about Libya ... it's about the US…If Libya grew carrots there would be no no-fly zone. Libya has oil (and is) a strategic part of the world and is independent ... and that is the reason Libya is being attacked."

This astonishing argument essentially amounts to a doctrine of non-intervention, whatever the scenario. And yet I seriously doubt that John would say the same about the Shabra and Shatila massacre he reported on in 1982. That we should have done absolutely nothing (as we did), while Lebanese Phalangists killed hundreds or thousands of Palestinians under the watch of Israeli forces. It is certainly credible to suggest that at least the same number of people in Libya, if not more, faced this fate. Does the fact it is contained in one country really change the situation? It still amounts to a ruthless war against a civilian population.

The constant talk of US and Western strategic interest of course is based on vast evidence of past actions, however the more credible narrative here is that the US had to be persuaded to act. That action was pushed not by hawks in the regime, but by those with memories of Rwanda and Bosnia. Moreover, the notion that US or Western action is purely driven by strategic interest and nothing else is simply not supported by evidence, and presenting such an argument just diminishes support for the very genuine issue of tackling Western double standards.

The future for Libya

Of all the arguments against intervention, the most persuasive is undoubtedly the mark of history and the question of what will ultimately happen. It’s fair to say of course that the West has no great track record of military intervention in the region, completely the opposite in fact. But inaction based purely on past failures is hardly a strong argument for not stepping in to protect people. Ultimately it’s a doctrine for never getting involved, whatever the risk to civilians.

I’d argue that while there are of course legitimate concerns and arguments from all sides of the political discourse, a section of the Left has found itself floundering when dealing with Libya. It can’t forget the Iraq war, and maybe understandably so, but that leaves it desperately trying to justify a case for non-intervention, based on fatuous reasoning. Indeed some people seem to have literally lost touch with reality, just last week Mark Serwotka said, we don’t need intervention, “what we really need in Libya is a people’s uprising in Tripoli”.

This kind of wishful thinking, presented as a realistic alternative, has marked an increasing air of desperation in the argument coming from the Left. There’s been talk of civilian deaths from Western bombs before any had actually been documented. There’s been a complete lack of consideration for Libyan opinion, or attempts to twist it. We’ve even had George Galloway and Len McClusky saying the UK can’t afford to act. I for one at least don’t wish to live in a world where aid to people facing a grave threat, is withheld by a wealthy country such as the UK on the basis of affordability.

In my mind, there were essentially two choices here. To have supported military intervention and therefore all the risks that go with it. Or to have been against intervention and suggest that in a long term geo-political sense the region would be better off. It’s really not a credible position to have been against intervention, and at the same time suggest Libyan citizens would be safer right at this moment. You can’t have your cake and eat it, however much you might want to.

Nor is it credible to now suggest that the intervention was wrong, and instead efforts to reach a cease-fire should be made. If, and it’s a big If, a cease-fire could be made, it would only be possible because of the initial military action. The idea that Col. Gaddafi would have agreed to any cease-fire while at the gates of Benghazi is simply ludicrous.

As to what will happen, of course…no one knows. No one ever knows what will happen when you embark on such action. Their have been many claims that this is doomed; that troops will have to enter; that any new Libyan government will have no credibility; that Libya will be partitioned. All valid concerns to a greater or lesser extent, but let’s not suggest it’s credible that knowing what we know, the Libyan people could have succeeded alone without a huge loss of life. On the balance of evidence, the initial military intervention was the only viable method of saving lives, and indeed of saving this fledgling revolution.

In this blog I have taken on some of the reasons given for anti-invention. There are many others, and so as not to appear to have been utterly selective I have linked them throughout this piece. I’ve also deliberately tried to avoid the plainly ridiculous, but have a look at points 8., 9., and 11. here for starters.

Thank you for reading, please take the time to comment below