Humanitarian Intervention: A Reprise? – 23 February 2011

The democratic contagion spreading across the Middle East has raised some interesting questions for Western politicians (mostly the challenge of balancing ideals against realities). In the case of Libya these ideals have converged with the realities, and now Britain and America have begun to vocally align themselves with the fledgling opposition movement (a disparate network of disaffected military personnel, and protesters). For America, this would represent a moment of catharsis for the Lockerbie attacks (which today are ‘proven’ to be the work of Gaddafi), and for Britain a reversal of the cynical policy of cuddling up to Gaddafi for mineral wealth and arms export contracts after the disavowal of the Libyan nuclear weapons programme. It’s interesting to note that the vocal support for the Libyan opposition is far stronger than for the Egyptian and Tunisian opposition movements, whilst this appears to be the stickier of the situations.

In the 1990s humanitarian intervention became the key modus operandi for western states looking to ensure stability in the Balkans (and parts of Africa), but it became notorious because some tried to link it to the action in Iraq in 2003.  The democratic contagion across the Middle East should be the moment when a principle of humanitarian intervention should re-emerge: it would be a validation of fine western rhetoric for the last twenty years and a reinvigoration (and perhaps reappraisal) of the Bush democratisation era. The naysayers will say this is colonialism by the backdoor, but not if the sensible lessons from Iraq are learned – decapitate the head of the regime and rely on the pragmatism of the bulk of the bureaucracy to follow a new and democratic way. We don’t need to force these countries to be our trading partners, in a competitive global economy this will happen naturally anyone. In the case of Libya, Gaddafi looks determined to pull the palace down around his head, and thousands may perish on the way. Is the Obama administration ballsy enough to bring this show to end from the air?

This might be one issue in which the KoW correspondent known as ‘gunrunner’ and I might finally agree, but I wonder whether humanitarian intervention or a version of preventive conflict has become beyond the pale, even in cases like Libya? (As a final aside it’s interesting to note that the Zimbabwean government has banned live feeds of the protests being shown in their country… I simply cannot imagine why.. )

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