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In the Shadow of the Gun

20/03/2011

It looks as though, once again, the Scottish elections will take place against the backdrop of military action: the 1999 Elections were overshadowed by Kosovo, and the NATO action against Slobodan Milosevic; the 2003 Elections saw Tony Blair drag the country kicking and screaming into George Bush’s war against Iraq; and even 2007 saw the surge in Iraq, and increased violence in Afghanistan. Now, UK forces, along with those from France, Italy, Spain, Canada and the US, are in action again – this time in Libya.

Kosovo was derided as an act of unpardonable folly by Alex Salmond. I disagreed then, and I still think it was right to act: the world has turned a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide and seemed impotent in the face of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, so my belief then was that the international community had to finally make a stand and say that enough was enough. That’s still my belief today, and that action paved the way for the independent Kosovo now on the maps.

That said, there was a lot wrong with the action. It was never going to be possible to get UN support as long as the Russians had a veto, and the operation had its weak points. The targetting of sites in Montenegro, bombing of civilian targets – and in one spectacular blunder, the Chinese Embassy – eroded the moral high ground; the fact that the air strikes went on for weeks before people finally realised that a ground force had to be in place. The confrontation with the Russian army when KFOR was established, which could have ended in a firefight around Pristina Airport had wiser heads not prevailed.

And of course, while the bloodshed was halted, nothing was really resolved by the strikes: Milosevic was finally pushed out by his own people after he tried to rig the election against his opponent, Vojislav Kostunica, and it took ten years to finally settle Kosovo’s status. Even now, ethnic tensions remain and a number of nations refuse to recognise the new state. All the same, the violence ended and there is a peace, of sorts.

Iraq, of course, was a calamity. Yes, the world is better without Saddam Hussein being in it, but that’s all that can be said for the conflict. We were dragged in on fabricated evidence of WMD that did not exist, and the aftermath of the war was to create a vacuum in Iraq which was initially filled by al-Qa’ida, then by Moqtada al-Sadr. The West was close to detente with Iran under President Khatami, and George Bush’s bellicose rhetoric collapsed that process, culminating in the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The nations in the Coalition became pariahs in the Islamic world, with more and more Muslims radicalised and moved to terror attacks such as the Madrid Train Bombings and 7/7. And even now that there is a democracy in Iraq, it’s telling that the protests which have raged across the Middle East this year have seen Baghdad caught up. We got rid of Saddam, but the WMD we used to justify that were nowhere to be found, while Iraqis have been passed from pillar to post: first Saddam, then al-Qa’ida, then the risk of a new Fundamentalist regime, to an apparent democracy which is meeting the population’s needs so poorly that there are now protests against it. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan became the forgotten conflict.

The worst part is that in 2003, Colonel Gaddafi met the criteria for moving against Saddam better than Saddam himself did. He brutalised his own people (as did Saddam), was a menace to regional stability (years of sanctions and the no-fly zones had weakened Saddam’s ability to cause chaos); actually sanctioned acts of international terrorism and had an active WMD programme. Yet Tony Blair went to Gaddafi’s tent, fawned over him, and despite Gaddafi’s open mockery of the PM, all of a sudden, Libya was our friend – just as Iraq had been in the 1980s.

So now, here we are. There is still a lot that troubles me: Operation Odyssey Dawn got off to a less than auspicious start when it seems that the French jumped the gun in attacking a military convoy (the people of Benghazi, however, won’t be complaining), but that’s the least of our worries. Firstly, this relegates Afghanistan back to forgotten conflict status; secondly, this potentially overshadows any aid and logistical support we can give in the ongoing crisis in Japan; thirdly, the participation from “our Arab allies” in Libya might be along way off while they’re busy putting down a pro-democracy rebellion in Bahrain: while we’re trying to support and protect civilians in Benghazi, they’re enforcing a crackdown at the Pearl Roundabout.

But most importantly, my concern is that sooner or later, ground forces will be needed. The question is, in what capacity? If the air strikes bring about a stalemate, Libya will be riven in two and Gaddafi will be back to acts of aggression against the West. Combat forces will be needed to finish the job, or we’ll end up with another Iraq, and a leader willing to carry out another Lockerbie. If the action does succeed in pushing out the regime, then there’ll be a power vacuum that will need to be filled: Benghazi and Tobruk will be secure enough, but what about Tripoli? And Sirte? In that case, peacekeepers will be required, and the African Union is under enough pressure as it is.

Nevertheless, something needs to be done and this is the only something we have at this time. The people of Libya need us now, particularly in light of Gaddafi’s threats that he was coming for them, house by house, room by room and would show no mercy. The Arab League all but pleaded with the West to help. Even the UN agreed that this was the time for action: when even Russia and China are willing to put aside their opposition, it’s time to act.

Let’s just hope for a quick, clear and successful end.

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