Art, BBC, Colonel Gaddafi, David Cameron, International Brigades, Iraq War, John Simpson, Liberal Interventionism, Libya, Libyan Uprising, Mary Ridell, Muammar Gaddafi, NGOs, No Fly Zone, Opinion, Politics, Sir Richard Dalton, Spanish Civil War, Timothy Garton Ash, Tony Blair, War, Warfare
2011 is shaping up to be a good year. The daffodils are not yet in bloom, and the world is already rid of two dictators, and a third – the prize arsehole Muammar Gaddafi – has been roundly humiliated, losing several cities and the fair-weather echelons of the Libyan establishment. At home, meanwhile, it has been hard cheese on liberal interventionism, the doctrine which has largely informed transatlantic foreign policy since the Cold War inconveniently ended and it became mortifyingly evident that all of those aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines which we had accumulated over decades were now essentially useless. Practically every attempt to interfere in Libya has been repelled, from a glamorous statesman-to-statesman appeal to Gaddafi by Tony Blair to a bungled diplomatic mission, which ended with S.A.S. commandos being handcuffed by the natives. Britain’s “influence” is now reduced to little more than an embarrassing attention-seeking, rather like a wedding guest’s desperate attempts to upstage the bride.
Since the Iraq War, however, the bourgeoisie have steadily abandoned the doctrine of liberal interventionism for a profound and devoted belief in Western impotence: in the emptiness of Obama; in the shrinking and “cutting” of a state which we can no longer afford; and in the paling of our shabby, petty economy before China’s thrusting virility. Liberal interventionism is commonly viewed as being discredited by the Iraq war, when, under its own terms, it had flatly won this debate. Tychy opposed the Iraq war, or at least the interventionist conception of it, in the belief that the Iraqi people should have been alone held responsible for their own destiny. But Blair did indeed, as was always so nakedly his objective, topple a dictator and establish an independent sovereign government in his place. Iraq was a textbook model of liberal interventionism, and whilst this precise surgical procedure was put back by an unexpected haemorrhage of blood, the patient was soon on his feet again.
Ten articles and editorials which warn about the dangers of intervening in Libya can be now found for the one which timidly ventures that we should be doing something. Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya, has urged that “discussion of the options should speed up,” which essentially calls for us to start talking about Libya, although in a momentary lapse from vagueness Dalton alludes tantalisingly to a possible siege of Tripoli. Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian, declares that “the case for liberal intervention” has been reopened, although it turns out that this does not involve anything so crassly unsophisticated as a military invasion, and he instead calls for the renaissance of a “careful” and “law-abiding” interventionism, entailing various subtle diplomatic and economic nudges. The Telegraph’s Mary Riddell describes the world’s “duty to intervene” and she likens David Cameron to a midwife whose job it is to “ease Libya’s safe entry into a post-autocratic world.” The metaphor only works if the infant emerges from the womb toting a submachine gun, whilst the mother tries to throttle it.
Alas, where are our armchair generals? Media commentators do not appear to possess a single thought between them on how to intervene in Libya. This lack of intellectual wherewithal seems surprising in a country which has militarily invaded four other sovereign nations over the last decade. Even the conservative hawk Patrick Mercer can only wring his hands at our impotence, pointing out that the sharpest and brightest tool in our box, that fearsome “No-Fly Zone,” had proved useless against Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, a greater initiative is being taken by the British government, which presumably alone appreciates that a resurgent Gaddafi has the scope to seriously destabilise our ailing economy by wreaking havoc on the oil market. They are working out how to impose their “No-Fly Zone,” which sounds suspiciously like an air war. The “Culture Secretary” Jeremy Hunt has warned that “we wouldn’t have SAS troops on stand-by if we weren’t envisaging the possibility of having to use them.”
Perhaps the case for intervention is like a charitable appeal without a cuddly, photogenic animal at its heart, but one can only grow sentimental at the thought of those plucky, rag-bag “rebels” – with their teenaged soldiers and homespun regime – being executed en masse by Gaddafi’s forces. Tychy is captivated by the figure of the BBC’s sixty-six year old “world affairs editor” John Simpson, who is embedded in the front line of the rebels’ offensive like a seasoned theatre critic reviewing a shambolic student production at the Edinburgh fringe: “The rebels are chaotic and they have no command structure to speak of, but they do have immense spirit.” Simpson’s reporting may inspire us to a visceral identification with what look like adventuring freedom-fighters (although they are probably as destructive as any other army), until we may reason that if these boys got themselves into a fix, then surely helping them out would be a worthy thing to do.
When it is said that “we should intervene in Libya” what is typically meant is that “somebody else, with professional organisation and training, should intervene on our behalf.” It is the height of virtue amongst my generation for a political activist to join a Non-Governmental Organisation and travel overseas to dig wells and rescue animals from circuses, whilst it is unthinkable that activists could volunteer with the same passion and commitment of the men of the 1930s, to fight in a foreign civil war and offer their lives in solidarity with a beleaguered people. Well, we should get serious. Amnesty and Oxfam and People-and-Planet are for old men, like the Dads’ Army. One should give more than a few coins and the occasional afternoon manning a stall outside Tesco for a political cause. One should give blood.
Confronted with an overwhelming military superiority, the Libyan rebels need manpower. The majority of young people in Britain today are unfit for military service, and real physical violence is as unfamiliar to them as lice and cold showers. But they could provide catering for the rebels, they could take in their laundry, and some of the women could offer themselves sexually. The opportunity to lose your brittle and inflated modern identity in a cause which is greater than yourself would be more educational than anything which is presently extended within British civic society.
Once returned to Britain, the survivors would reinvigorate the Left with a newfound militarism, which would be a change from the interminable and faintly mindless henpecking about “Tory cuts.” More imperatively, however, the Spanish Civil War inspired figures such as Orwell and Hemingway and Picasso, and hopefully the Libyan equivalent would set off a few fireworks amongst our present generation of artists, whose response to the Iraq war has so far amounted to a song by George Michael, the silly horror film Buried, and a lot of dreadful state-subsidised theatre.
The government can fade into a distant, impotent neutrality. Invade by sea, sailing from Malta, or else cross the Egyptian border by camel. You will not merely help the Libyan people, but you will learn from them. Imagine meeting people with real lives, whose anger and fears are real, and whose hope for the future is real. Imagine a real comradeship, in which men fight together in bodily brotherhood, if to die piled up in a shallow grave together, their blood mingling within the very soil which they had fought for. How fine to live for something! How beautiful to die for something!