A general consensus seems to have emerged in the middle ground of British politics in favour of the UN-approved coalition air attacks on Gaddafi’s forces. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband took their positions on the frontbenches as moderates who wanted anything but another Iraq; events have turned them into multilateral hawks. As a Young Turk I was sceptical of the idea that the thugs of Moscow, or the waxworks of Beijing, could confer legal or moral legitimacy on any military act; but the hatred the world felt towards the West for our bungled invasion of Iraq means that, if nothing else, it can no longer be in our national interest to act in the Arab world without Security Council approval. Thankfully the new leaders of our warmongering political parties seem to have agreed.
There’s no need for me to repeat the arguments in favour of intervention: you’ll have read little else all week. I’ll also leave aside Sarkozy’s Napoleonic motives, and the legitimate question of whether a US President is in breach of their Constitution by acting without Congressional approval (having dragged his heels for a fortnight, he can’t say he didn’t have enough time). In this country (as, it seems, in the US) this is one of those issues that divide the centre-left and centre-right from the further left and further right. On this position (unlike, say, the EU) I’m on the side of the centre, as it were.
On the left, we constantly hear the refrain: “What about Bahrain/Yemen/Saudi Arabia/Zimbabwe/North Korea/China?” I would argue that just because it isn’t always practical to change the world doesn’t mean we never should. Our policy should be one of liberal realism: deal with the world as it is but, without getting ahead of ourselves, try to make it more like what we would all like it to be when an obvious opportunity to do so presents itself (such as when a nearby dictator is hours away from completing a massacre). But, of course, your leftist sees the world in binary terms, and rejects any possibility of incremental improvements: for him it must be all or nothing, and we must either use force against everyone or no-one.
Thinking he has thought of something very original that can’t possibly have occurred to you, he then retorts that the real reason we intervene in Libya, and not in the others, is to get our hands on its oil. But why does it follow that just because a policy is in our national interest it must necessarily not be in the interests of the other party? It doesn’t follow at all. If we help the rebels to overthrow their dictators, thus helping them into power, one would hope that they would then return the favour in some way. Everyone’s then happy, except the old regime and their pals in China/Russia/Germany/wherever. What’s wrong with that?
On the right we see a different variant of this ‘splendid isolationism’. Kelvin MacKenzie says on Question Time that “Libya is not worth one ounce of British blood”. I would say that anyone joining our armed forces knows the risks perfectly well — and if they have a profound aversion to the idea of shedding their blood then perhaps they should consider an alternative career — and that preventing the torture and murder of large numbers of civilians is as good a use of their bravery and our resources as any. Meanwhile Peter Hitchens writes that we should leave them to fight it out and make a deal with the winner. For a man who argues that the Christian faith should be taught as truth in schools, this seems a pretty unchristian position (and, I am certain, not one that his, his brother’s and my hero Orwell would have taken). He rightly admits his policy is “heartless”.
The left fall back on their two most feeble arguments; the right think compassion and the rule of law should stop at our borders. Blair tried to draw Gaddafi in from the cold after he gave up his nuclear programme, but selling him the tools to brutalise Libyan citizens (I refuse to use the phrase ‘his own people’) was a step too far. The SNP gave him back al-Megrahi while his appeal was pending; it may be that they did so for compassionate reasons, and it may well be that he was innocent, but thanks to Salmond and MacAskill we’ll never know. So far, then, I prefer the new policy.