David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have adopted their very own belligerent Arab city, along with several belligerent Arab towns; in total, the entire population of eastern Libya. Whether they like it or not, if they walk away from the situation now, they will be responsible for every act of the regime’s retribution, every arrest made and every life taken.
For Britain and France, to turn their backs on the people of Benghazi, would be the equivalent of a mother who refuses food to her baby, or a doctor who refuses treatment to his patient. When a politician starts a war, he is responsible for those on the ground, who will suffer the consequences of the military action.
If this were a movie, the tragic-comic premise would be that the central characters are now stuck in a situation of their own making. Unable to negotiate a truce between Tripoli and Benghazi, and unwilling to lose face, their only option is to Carry on Bombing. Perhaps Sid James would play Sarkozy and Hattie Jakes would play Cameron as Matron.
They are publicly angered with the NATO partners who have not been pulling their weight. It’s not the provision of jets, at the forefront of their concerns, but the laying off of responsibilities, the sharing of the burden, and the consequent reduction of their own embarrassment.
Cameron and Sarkozy are telling everyone else, “We’re all in this together”, while desperately trying to play down who led the way in this inadvisable adventure. They want Italy to share the blame of a war gone wrong.
Meanwhile in the Carry On film, William Hague is played by Kenneth Williams as a sorcerer staring into the future with his crystal ball. He loves to tell us that the military action has avoided genocide. If Tony Blair had the brilliant talents of Mr Hague, then surely the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo would never have happened, as we’d have intervened before.
The fact is that civil uprisings in Libya are a fairly regular occurrence. On the first day of this uprising, two police stations were burned down by demonstrators. Last year, in Benghazi, a mass demonstration against the Danish cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, quickly transformed into a riot against the police. It didn’t result in genocide.
It has now become apparent that the British diplomats who were sent into Benghazi to appreciate the situation, only reported on the quality of the rebel council as a potential government. They were never instructed to make an assessment of military potential of their army. If they had, they would have found a rabble. The army is mostly made up of young men provided by various tribes, each tribe wishing to make a claim on any military victory that may result.
There is a long list of British government incompetency on this business. The failure to evacuate British subjects for fear of offending the regime, the realisation that the evacuation procedures cannot be out-sourced to EasyJet, the bungled attempt at creating a glamorous media story of an SAS incursion, when the airport would have sufficed. The latest incompetence to add to this impressive list is the failure to make an assessment of the military capability of the ally we are going to war over.
The only positive aspect of this business is the realisation that a consensus to intervene can be achieved, in the wake of the Iraq tragedy. This led to the quick response of France and the UN to the crisis in Cote D’Ivoire. But there is a big difference in terms of moral authority between Libya and the Ivory Coast.
I’m not writing this in order to apologise for dictators, I’m just looking at the situation from each player’s point of view. Gaddafi is reported to be completely baffled by the manner in which the world has turned against him.
Only a couple of years ago he had Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi as guests. He came in from the cold, turned his back on terrorism, opened up his country to weapons inspectors and did what was required in order to establish diplomatic relations with the west. Then they attacked him. He is baffled.
Laurent Gbagbo, on the other hand, lost an election in Cote D’Ivoire and decided to remain in power by using violence. Unlike Gaddafi, he knew that he was in the wrong.
The other day, Jonathan Freedland tweeted this photo of Gbagbo under arrest, commenting that the expressions of the faces of the various characters, especially the wife, make it a great picture. He’s right; it is a fascinating moment.
But if it was a photo of Gaddafi and his family, the expressions would have been defiant and bitter. Gaddafi and his family believe themselves to be victims of the west. They are not motivated to surrender or to flee and this is a problem. If this war had been waged against Gaddafi twenty years ago, either he would have fled, or we would be planning a ground invasion.
The war was justified on an Arabic consensus formed during a time of stress and uprisings in the Arab region. The fact that he is a dictator and an incompetent dictator are not justification, certainly not for the Arab League. The fact that he is no longer a threat to the west makes our justification confused and morally ambiguous.
William Hague should put away his crystal ball and the UN should negotiate a return to the status quo on condition of no reprisals and with undertakings of internal reform.
If this can be achieved then the Benghazi council need to accept that in politics we work with people we don’t like and we get on with it. They are not in a position to dispute the existence and political power of Colonel Gaddafi.
This principle does not just apply to politics in Arabia, but also in the UN General Assembly, in Washington and in Westminster. It’s the same wherever you go. We suffer the people we object to, and we get on with it, because we have to.