I write this article on a morning (11 March) that is bringing depressing news from Libya, with Zawiya back in the hands of Gaddafi's thugs, who have used a devastating array of weapons against lightly armed revolutionaries and civilians, with total disregard for the lives of anyone in the town, be they doctors working in hospitals, women or children. Young people are being rounded up to be imprisoned, tortured, or "disappeared". Ordinary people watching this tragedy on their television screens feel compelled to ask their governments to intervene to stop the carnage. My worry about a military intervention is put succinctly by Simon Tisdall in the Guardian (11 March):
" If the great powers do intervene militarily, the Libyan revolt may swiftly be transformed into a western war in the Middle East. Freedom from oppression, democratic self-determination and the defenestration of a hated dictator could take second place to western imperatives: ensuring regional stability, pursuing counter-terrorism, safeguarding oil supplies, and stemming a new surge of sub-Saharan immigration into southern Europe. This would be less a revolution, more a recolonisation. Gaddafi's (and al-Qaida's) propagandists would have a field day."
The tyrannical regimes in the Arab world have served the interests of the West; western powers would have been happy for them to continue until they reached their sell-by date. It is time, then, to get rid of them and move to a new model. This explains the initial western confusion and hesitancy over the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt with Jo Biden remarking that "Mubarak is not a dictator", or the French initial response to the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, offering to send him equipment and riot police to help in crowd control. It has slowly dawned on them that the situation is far more serious, and the revolutionary youth are more politically savvy than they envisaged, and that empty rhetoric about stability and peaceful transition are not going to be adequate. They have realized that this is an important juncture in the future of the Arab world, and they need to make the right choice if they want to keep some influence in its future development and its oil. Their rhetoric has changed. This brings us to Libya. The West assumed that Gaddafi would quickly be removed from power and would go the same way as the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt. William Haig, the British Foreign secretary, at the start of the uprising said he believed Muammar Gaddafi was already on his way to Venezuela or some other South American country, wishful thinking. The West underestimated his savagery, and his determination to do anything to stay in power, whatever the cost to his people and Libya. They are now finding themselves stuck; they have declared their hand too quickly, and now they must somehow find a way to remove him without the danger mentioned by Simon Tisdall above. The western powers have come to the conclusion that the old model of exercising control over the Arabs and their oil through despots and dictators is no longer viable. However, if they intervene militarily, they are likely to undermine the noble aims of the revolution, which may prolong and deepen the instability in the Arab world. The Arab masses need to be vigilant to ensure the sacrifices they have made and are making are not for some cosmetic changes. The signs are good that the youth are equal to the task they have set themselves, and are fully aware of the pitfalls.
The question then, is how to stop the carnage and hasten the departure of the dictator? Everyone agrees, the Libyans, right wing politicians such as John McCain, and left wing commentators and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, the thought of western soldiers on Libyan soil is out of the question. Amen to that.
What about the no-fly zone? Robert Gates says that this has to start with bombing Libyan air defences, which may entail the loss of civilian lives, which may result in a backlash against the revolution, and may well end shoring up Gaddafi's position. He would have no compunction in moving these defences nearer to schools, hospitals etc., to ensure civilian casualties. There are others who argue that jamming electronic communications, radar etc., without bombing air defences, would help without the attendant risk above. Such action, I believe, would have widespread support. Additionally, Arab countries should be encouraged to supply the revolutionaries with the military hardware they need in their fight with the forces of tyranny. The Foreign Ministers of the Gulf States in their meeting on Thursday (10 March) have affirmed that the Gaddafi regime has lost it legitimacy, and that they should establish contact with the revolutionary council in Benghazi. Will the rulers of the Arab world for once demonstrate that they are capable of taking independent action to contain a problem in their region, and solve it without outside interference? Such action would be a popular move among the Arab masses, who feel anger, frustration and impotence at the savagery of Gaddafi's regime. Egypt and Tunisia could additionally send military advisers to help the revolutionaries.
If the West has really turned a page and wants to deal with the Arabs on the basis of mutual respect and a genuine shared interest, they could do no better than to urge and cajole the Arabs to take control of their own future and destiny.