Sunday, September 4, 2011

Libya: waiting for the 'fog of war' to clear

Libyan rebels enter a suburb of Tripoli on 22 August
Libyan rebels enter a suburb of Tripoli on 22 August. Photograph: Hamza Turkia/ Hamza Turkia/XinHua/Xinhua Press/Corbis
At lunchtime yesterday I had the good fortune to catch the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy holding forth on Radio 4's World at One (you can catch him here at about 1m 20s) about the Libyan rebels' triumph over Muammar Gaddafi and his own role in the affair.
What a treat, I thought, before thinking: "I wouldn't be in too much of a hurry to claim this one, matey." Overnight confusion about what is going on in Libya, who is winning and where exactly the Gaddafi family is – we were told Said had been arrested, but Chris McGreal reports that he's driving around – reinforce my wariness.
It may soon be over for the regime, but it certainly isn't over yet and Tripoli folk driving around making jokes about "Mr Fuzzy" (Gaddafi's nickname, according to the Times reporter there) may be unwise.
Nor do Libyans or the watching world know what may come next. Do any of us ever learn from experience? Listening to George Osborne sounding cockily like Gordon ("no more boom and bust") Brown, I sometimes wonder.
Today's reports suggest the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy is also claiming the alleged conquest of Tripoli as his triumph (he is standing for re-election next year) in rivalry with David Cameron, who can also lay claim to fatherhood of Nato's bombing campaign in support of the rebels.
But, as Allegra Stratton reports today, the PM is actually being more cautious, sensible chap. He's not planning an election any time soon.
But back to BHL, as the French call him. You can check Wiki's version of his CV here. Jewish and from a wealthy family which moved from the then-colony of Algeria in 1950 when he was two, he's a classic product of the French fast-track for clever people, the "republican elite" as they call it in Paris.
Like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whom I heard another French highbrow defending on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, he sports lots of hair and likes to wear his shirt unbuttoned.
But BHL has been both a political activist and campaigner as well as a philosopher. This being France, he is also well connected with the business world which has, it is alleged by his critics, promoted his career.
Let's stick to the World at One – Wato as they say in the trade. The drift of BHL was that the world will now have to realise that "the rules of the game have changed". In other words it is OK to intervene in the affairs of other countries if human rights are seriously threatened. He hopes the Assad family in Syria is taking the hint.
BHL is keen to contrast the Libyan intervention – he proposed it to his chum Sarkozy early in the uprising – with the US-led invasion of Iraq, which sought to impose democracy and occupied the country by force of military arms. In 2011 Nato responded to the call of the Libyan people for help, he argues.
OK, if you say so, though calls for help elsewhere in the Middle East were not all so actively received. Libya is close to Europe, Gaddafi has always been a loner and weirdo and Libya's oil helps keep Europe warm in normal times which may – just may – now return.
BHL is not a man for doubt. The rebels (when do we stop calling them rebels?) have had six months in which to mature their politics, Libyan society is no longer tribal. They may need help in the transition to democracy, but certainly not Nato boots on the ground.
The Guardian's Jonathan Steele, who has seen a lot more wars than BHL (who has seen several) is warier here: remember Iraq and Afghanistan, he says.
Listening to Wato I was struck by the contrast between this glamorous thrice-married intellectual in action and the interviewee who followed him. Our own shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander would not call himself glamorous and probably unbuttons his shirt only on the beaches of western Scotland in August, provided the rain has stopped. But he spoke a good deal more common sense.
There has been insufficient post-conflict planning (that sounds familiar), he warned. Libyans need the Transitional National Council (TNC) to provide three things: stability and security; the basics of life restored to ensure that people – soon to be voters perhaps? – don't start feeling things were better under Gaddafi, not to mention jobs; and a process of political reconciliation that leads to a more prosperous and stable future.
Good stuff, I'd say, and one can hear the former international development secretary re-thinking the experience of Iraq as he speaks. One could add Libya's neighbours, Egypt and Tunisia, where the "Arab Spring" is yet to deliver more than show trials and differently authoritarian regimes.
As Steele pointed out last week when he interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev on the 20th anniversary of the Moscow coup attempt (Jonathan's biggest scoop), Russia's post-Soviet experience and that of its ex-satellites is also pretty mixed.
In taking a sunnier view of Libya's prospects, BHL is simply repeating the mistakes of men he purports to despise, low-lifes like George W Bush and Tony Blair – though he left Blair out of yesterday's exchanges because he realises the Brits are on the right side this time, ie the French side.
Before posters point out that I supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, albeit unenthusiastically as the least worst option in the unheroic winter of 2002-3, yes I did, horribly handled though the occupation was, not least in unleashing a savage Sunni-driven civil war backed by all sorts of western progressives who should have known better.
But we're all supposed to learn from experience. So I was wary about the scale and scope of Nato's goals over Libyan skies and in trying to shape its future. If Mr Fuzzy falls and succumbs to one or other of the obvious options – is he a martyr or a wannabe accused at the ICC in the Hague, I wonder? The latter, I suspect – we will be lucky to have achieved Nato's declared goal.
We should also note in passing that the Arab League, African Union and others are cross: they accuse Nato of mission creep in their territory. The proverbial "fog of war" can be used to confuse and cover up all sorts of things, but once the fog burns off we will have to see what's actually happening on the ground.
Is Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the TNC's senior man, really in charge? This month's mysterious murder of Gaddafi loyalist-turned-rebel commander General Abdul Fatah Younis suggests otherwise.
The Guardian's editorial this morning strikes a cautiously optimistic note, making many of the points Douglas Alexander made. Easterners who dominate the TNC must bring in westerners to sustain unity, there must be proper justice, not rough justice, the oil industry – which sustained Gaddafi to the tune if $500bn over 40 years – must be modernised and jobs found for Libyans rather than foreigners (that sounds familiar too). As Malcolm Muggeridge, once a Guardian leader writer, used to put it "men of good will must come together".
If you want a gloomier assessment Martin Chulov has one here. If you want an even gloomier one John Bradley, author of After the Arab Spring: How the Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolt (Palgrave Macmillan), offers one in the Daily Mail which, as I never tire of explaining, is a better read than you may think.
Behind its subscription wall the FT is also cautious. The rebels couldn't achieve much without Nato air cover and whatever covert expertise and weaponry were also provided. But Nato also under-performed. Not in the way the rebels wanted – that it should get more involved – but in that it took six months to achieve what we hope is a result, in contrast to the two it took to bring more powerful Serbia to heel in 1998. "Nato has staggered across the finishing line," one military man tells the FT.
Why so? Because the US, overstretched and enfeebled by its own economic woes (and the rise of China), took a back seat and let the Brits and French do the work. And why not? It's their back yard and the policy was their idea. But we ran out of ammo and had to buy it from the US at a time when our own economies are under severe strain.
Did someone mention the Islamists? Alas, yes. You don't have to be a depressive to wonder whether they will prevail in the long game across the Arab world, simply because they are organised and disciplined and also have a long game – unlike the well-intentioned forces of modernisation, pluralism and liberalism trying to control the tide of history with the help of French intellectuals.
No, I don't claim to know the answers either, though it is always better to travel in optimism, hope that order will quickly return, that the oil will flow normally again (helping us) and that ordinary Libyans will share the benefits of oil wealth more than many did before. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, as a long-dead Italian intellectual once put it.
Talking of intellectual optimism, I cannot resist drawing your attention to this morning's Today programme interview – you'll find it here at 7.16 am – with former French culture minister Jack Lang about the political prospects of his friend Strauss-Kahn now that the US district attorney in New York is about to drop charges against the ex-IMF chief and ex-future president of France. After all, he is "innocent", he explained.
This is not the place for detail. Suffice to say that Lang doubts if his friend Dominique can now stand for president (hey, it's past the deadline for socialist candidates), but a man of his talent and experience should not go to waste on the campaign.
On the programme with Lang, French journalist Benedict Paviot suggested he might end up as prime minister yet, despite what she called a "sea change" in French attitudes towards the incident with the chambermaid at the Sofitel on 14 May. It is no longer seen as an American plot.
Be that as it may, students of the eternal battle between France and les Anglo-Saxes might want to savour Justin Webb's last question, which suggesed the affair showed US justice in a good light after all.
Well, replied Lang, we found the brutality of their procedures "very strange and shocking". At the same time "I am obliged to say the prosecutor realised his duty with great honesty."
The US has a very good system whereby you have to prove things in court. "In France it is decided on feelings, it is not a good system," Lang acknowledged. A rare moment of intellectual humility. Let us hope the Libyan opposition was listening.


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