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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ad Libya

Libyans; a rum lot, what? The people of that benighted land clearly show scant regard for script reading, that’s for sure. Why won’t they just walk like Egyptians? Since the  euphoria of the halcyon days of a few weeks ago, when our media platoons were all looking for trips abroad, the deafening sound of nothing happening has been ringing out from all points Mediterranean and Middle-eastern. From Morocco, Algeria and Bahrain? Silence. Syria, Iran and Jordan? Silence. Kuwait and Saudi? Silence, please. A lack of interesting footage has helped Tunisia and Egypt slip off the news agenda while they perform their own administrative Feng shui. The only revolutions occurring there seem to be in government building doorways.

In this land of ill-defined borders and disputed jurisdiction, the West, we have been all too readily swept along by our own media talking breathlessly of "revolutions brought about by Twitter and Facebook" - a pig ignorant conceit that has done  a few billionaires no harm at all - and predicting "a domino effect throughout the region" as if a logical sequence of events with a beginning, middle and happy ending was in train.

Worse still, shamefully duped by the myth of social networking as democracy in a cape sweeping in to oust the bad guys, young, desperate but naïve  North Africans got swept along too, believing that all they had to do was tweet and the formless notions of "change" they believed would bring them prosperity, the wish for which lies at the bottom of all this, would materialise overnight. Of the many examples of post-colonial bad faith in our portfolio, wilfully allowing these people to infer  that we would come to their aid when we had not the intention, the resources or the stomach to do so must count as the scum floating on an ocean of perfidy. All we have done is let our hyperactive media play Chinese whispers, encouraging fire-raising and letting the wind do the rest. If the smoke blows our way, we have only ourselves to blame.  

Predictably and irrelevantly, the fall of the Communist Bloc was cited as a blueprint for how it would all pan out if they just pressed the right buttons. Oil, arms deals and the concomitant corruption are, as ever, at the bottom of much of this, but a new phenomenon has had a far more insidious influence; the raising of oppressed peoples' expectations to unattainable levels by dint of our woefully credulous, infantile awe for instant media. Children know that events on their X-boxes are illusory. It seems, though, that after adolescence, this insight goes and people who should know better will believe pretty well anything if it is repeated often and rapidly with lots of shaky cellphone footage. By the measures used to appraise events in Libya, by Government and media alike, the recent student demonstrations in London, viewed from another land and through another culture could easily have passed as mass sedition; there was no footage of the massive amount of riots not happening. Marshall McLuhan would be 100 this year. It would seem what he expressed as cautions have been taken as instructions. Media savvy, eh?  

This eagerness for voluntary electronic tagging has other ramifications, too, and existing and aspiring dictators will be making full use of these the next time the natives get restless. "Oh my. That's handy. Some of these kids have provided pictures." I heard one clown saying that Eastern Europe's communist regimes would have fallen faster and sooner if only they'd had "social media". I aver that they wouldn't have fallen at all. Gimlet-eyed despots from Zimbabwe to China will have taken note of Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali being slow off the mark here and won't make the same mistake. Future revolutionaries pay heed: avoid over-reliance on "Organise your own demo" apps and accept that rebellion can be hard work. 

Western governments, now comprised almost entirely of career politicians desperately looking for something to pontificate on, for which "spreading democracy" is always a winner - unless, of course, this conflicts with certain business aspirations - have gone along with this simplistic one-eyed view of events without bothering to pause, let alone think things through. Proof of this is, as they say, out there. The "inevitability" of Gaddafi's downfall set against his self-evidently continuing grip is a fairly damning indictment of frantic, disjointed and unco-ordinated chatterbox diplomacy.

Nobody is going to say that Gaddafi is anything other than a dangerous mentalist, but, similarly, nobody is in any kind of position to assume that there aren't 100s of 1000s of mentalists in Libya ready to jump into his shoes. We hear about the U.N., et al "talking with opposition leaders." Which ones? In the cacophony of a civil war, moderate voices are seldom heard, let alone listened to. If the West is talking to anybody, these realities suggest that it is almost certainly the wrong anybody. Just now, Gaddafi's former Justice Secretary has assumed the role of leader of the opposition. Show me the unsullied ballot box that made him so and then talk, if you can, about political legitimacy. After any battle, the guys with the guns get first dibs on everything. One has to ask whether our geopolitical geiger counters are functioning properly.
 I don't know about you, but the sight of a pick-up overflowing with wild-eyed, hyperactive teenage boys with AK 47s shouting Allahu Akbar does not instantly induce in me a warm glow and sense of common cause with my fellow man. "Democracy" is not the first thought that springs to mind. "Mob rule" and "barbarism" are definitely amongst the front runners, though.

The "completely untenable position" of friend Gaddafi just a fortnight ago seems to have been predicated  on little more than the snapshot impressions gleaned from our own media while it struggled to frame a narrative from a series of random riots in a way amenable to a 24 hour rolling news agenda. Mad he may well be, but Gaddafi knows how many beans makes five and, more importantly, how much riot control gear, fighter aircraft and sundry munitions it takes to quell a people he has over 40 years experience quelling. On this point at least, the West is up to speed; we sold the bastard the stuff. The darkly comic speeches he has given recently seem to have blinded the West’s critical faculties. Psychosis should not be construed as stupidity. 

Now, the U.N., N.A.T.O. (we'll leave this rather abstract grasp of geography aside for now), the E.U., the African Union (whose biggest donors by far are China and a chap called Gaddafi; like I said, he's not stupid) and the Arab League are all gazing into fluff-filled navels wondering what not to do and when not to do it, but at the same time, by agency of the rambling platitudes of William Hague, the vacilation of Sarkozy and the career point-proving of Hilary Clinton are working themselves up to such a frenzy, the desire to do something, anything, could very easily break the dam. The only thing we can be sure of, if we are to pay any heed to history, is that no military intervention has ever gone to plan; the fact of it even being discussed is evidence enough if one accepts, as we are asked to, that military intervention's raison d'etre is its own redundancy.

Arming the rebels sounds all well and good, if arms are your thing, but which ones? Whatever way one looks at it, we are talking about facilitating regime change, which is not our job and, if recent expeditions in “the region” are anything to go by, quite evidently not our forte. And who’s to say that the rebels have a more legitimate mandate than Gaddafi? Much of the rebel base is quite clearly comprised of opportunistic and wilfully capricious wind-sniffers anxious to be on the side that wins and to automatically assume that they are all fun-loving liberal types desperately trying to introduce Western-style democracy – itself an inexact science - gives naivity a bad name.

As nobody has any figures or verifiably reliable information here, let's join the fray and posit some idle speculation and conjecture. It is not at all clear just how popular this revolt is. If we are talking about bringing democracy to Libya - it's good to talk, easy too - then we have to establish the strength of opposition before we go arming one side or another. Is it 30% or 70%? 49% against 51%? Or, not unlikely in a country with deep tribal divides, 22%, 18%, 43%, 17%? We don't know, though it is a fairly safe bet to say that a significant number of Libyans are, or were, content with their lot. Whether or not they were right or justified in feeling that way may be moot, but this doesn't diminish its relevance. As we (should) all know, creating the impression of widespread revolt is very easily contrived in the news room. Governments now seem to slavishly follow these agendas (which makes you wonder why we elect the damned things, but, there you go) and proceeding to getting it spectactularly wrong is often the result.

And it is probably worth pointing out that in Free Britain, a few hundred unarmed students is enough to bring twice that number of punch happy Met. riot police on to the streets for kettling practise. We may not be best placed to pontificate on how others respond when these students have bloody rocket launchers.

At times like this, having no answers may seem like a cop out, but the alternatives, from no-fly zones that somehow don’t entail or suggest military intervention (the Arab League yesterday called for a U.N. sanctioned no-fly zone, wait for it, with no foreign intervention; these guys are sure catching up with us in the diplomatic bullshit stakes) to arming the first revolutionaries in the queue  strike me as the wrong answers. Any intervention by the U.N./U.S./Nato, etc. - hardly an exemplar of consensus in aspiration or deed themselves - can only bring more bodies and weapons into the fray, which is seldom an antidote to escalation and carries the potential for mission creep the way a camel carries its hump.  And how would we contrive this? Somehow select our friends and arrange for a fleet of Ford Transits to rendezvous with them undetected somewhere in the desert? The process of arming the revolution/insurrection will itself involve military back up, which sounds awfully like war to me.

It looks like a lot of Libyan blood will be spilt whatever. The volume will be directly proportional to the number of combatants and how long they fight for. A crackdown by Gaddafi may seem anathema to us, but would our fomenting and facilitating unrest really be better? Harsh though it may sound, our choices seem to come down to how much of this is spilt - that old chestnut - in our names.

The next time dissatisfaction in a foreign land spills over into unrest, the West should be careful what it wishes for.

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