Yesterday morning along with, I suppose half the world; I gawped in amazement at the news footage of a Libyan jet fighter exploding in a sheet of flame over the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Later in the day I shuddered as ships and aircraft from Britain, the US, France and several other nations launched operation ‘Odyssey Dawn’ with the purpose of bringing the forty two year reign of Colonel Gadaffi to an end.
After a month or more of hand wringing the UN has issued a resolution authorising the use of ‘all necessary measures’, short of an invasion by ground forces, to protect Libyan citizens from attacks by forces loyal to Gadaffi.
Leading the charge for armed intervention has been British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking to the BBC on Friday he said ‘Any decision to put the men and women of our armed forces into harm’s way should be taken only when absolutely necessary’, but that Britain, the United States and other Western powers could not ‘stand back and let a dictator whose people have rejected him kill his people indiscriminately.’
MPs are to be given an opportunity to vote on the UK’s involvement in military intervention during a commons debate on Monday and Cameron has pledged that there will be ‘full parliamentary scrutiny’ on this issue; although how long that survives the fog of even limited warfare is anybody’s guess. Liberal Democrat leader and deputy PM Nick Clegg is expected to support the intervention, even though it will further drive a wedge between him and the grassroots membership of his party, such is the price of power in a coalition, and Labour leader Ed Milliband has also expressed support saying that Britain could not ‘stand by and do nothing’ when faced with the suffering of the Libyan people.
Even without the stirring speeches it would be hard to make a case for not intervening in a revolution that, sadly, never looked like following the, relatively, bloodless course of those in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world this year. There are though nagging questions that will have to be answered once the scream of the fighter jets has faded.
The first is why did it take the West so long to act? Gadaffi was a poster boy to some of the sillier people on the left and a buffoon in a dressing up box uniform to much of the media, and yet we knew all along that he was neither. What he was, and still is, is a bloodthirsty tyrant willing to kill to hold onto power.
Perhaps it was the fear that standing up to him would drag us into another Afghanistan that stayed the West’s hand for so long; that or an unwillingness to abandon our arrogant assumptions that he had changed his spots and turned into someone we could work with. Either way governments across the west will have to answer some awkward questions about their relationship with the Gadaffi regime.
Then there is the small matter of our own dear Prime Minister’s part in this latest conflict, maybe he really does believe in the noble sentiments he has expressed in public, but he can hardly fail to be aware that a little war on the other side of the world can do wonders for a troubled Tory government. The trouble is little wars tend to have big consequences, Margaret Thatcher may have revived her flagging premiership by going to war over the Falklands, but it was the ordinary soldiers, sailors and air crew who paid the price, some of whom have never recovered from the physical and mental wounds they incurred fighting for their country.
Most of all though every country that has sent its forces into action over the past day or so should remember that this action is being taken to free an oppressed people; not to bolster the faltering prestige of western powers who suddenly feel threatened by the new economies rising in Asia.
That means as much effort has to be put into the unglamorous business of building a free democracy in Libya as has been put into snatching fleeting glory from the mouth of a cannon. Power can’t be handed over the sort of ‘strong man’ who often arises in the wake of a revolution because such a person would be more amenable to allowing big corporations grab hold of the oil they crave.
Any other outcome would be a staggering betrayal of the men and women who are risking their lives in action and, more importantly of the Libyan people they are doing so to free.