Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Of Revolutions and Realpolitik. (Part 2)

The more I think about the situation in Libya in the past 36 hours, the more I think we are seeing a repeat of events in Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991. Back then, the Iraqi Shi'a and the marsh Arabs, who lived in the south of Iraq, along with the Kurds, who lived in the north, rose in revolt on the presumption, backed by radio broadcasts from the US, that American troops would intervene in support.

That didn't happen and Saddam Hussein was able to rally his forces and attack the rebels from the air using helicopter gunships, unmolested by allied forces. The retribution was savage - thousands were killed and the marsh Arabs saw their ancient homeland drained and destroyed.

It would be many years before Saddam was finally removed and the legacy of that failure left a bitter taste in the south of Iraq and undoubtedly contributed to the problems faced by British forces in Basra which turned out to be a less than glorious episode.

The failure to intervene in support of the Iraqi rebels in the spring of 1991 was caused by a number of factors - the Arab nations who were willing to support and be part of the liberation of Kuwait as backed by the UN were not prepared to intervene and overhrow Saddam Hussein, for which there was no UN mandate.

However, there was a second crucial calculation. The West, though initially supportive, backed away from the rebels when it became clear Saddam would not be toppled. Paradoxically, the West came to believe that a coherent whole Iraq under Saddam Hussein's repression was a better option in terms of regional stability than a fragmented country with ongoing violence.

In addition, the West and neighbouring countries came to have serious issues with the Iraqi rebels. The northern Kurdish rebels would, if successful, have encouraged Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Syria and elsewhere to rise up safe in the knowledge Iraqi Kurdistan would be a base to which the rebels from other countries could retreat, regroup and organise.

The Shi'a rebels in the south were considered too close to Iran and if there was one thing feared by the US more than Saddam Hussein running Iraq, it was a pro-Iranian Government running the oil installations of Basra and Abajan.

In the end, the rebels weren't the right sort of rebels and they were abandoned.

Now, in Libya, we have a similar situation. Gaddafi has been driven from the east and other parts of Libya - Benghazi and Tobruk and other major towns are unde rebel control but Gaddafi remains entrenched in Tripoli. Oil production has been interrupted with a consequent rise in world oil prices and the equally not-insignificant concerns nfor the fledgling and weak economic recovery in Europe and the US.

Equally, there is concern over who these rebels are and what kind of Libya they want post-Gaddafi. The vox pops from Benghazi and Tobruk don't paint a picture of a pro-western future for this vital part of North Africa. Yes, the rebels want a say, they want democracy but they also hold the West responsible for the perpetuation of Gaddafi's terror and that won't easily be forgotten.

The final calculation is humanitarian - the breakdown of Gaddafi's rule has prompted tens of thousands of Libyans to flee the country, mainly through Tunisia. Apart from the immediate humanitarian crisis on the Libya/Tunisia border, there is the longer-term concern that a destabilisation of North Africa might send tens of thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean toward Italy, Malta and ultimately France where their arrival would have huge social, political and economic ramifications.

The calaculations of realpolitik therefore offer the possibility that it might very well be in Europe's interest to maintain Gaddafi in power, albeit weakened, with the oil flowing and repression in place. The alternative - a bloody struggle for Tripoli, protracted civil war, huge waves of refugees and a post-Gaddafi Libya not wholly favourable to the West, are all options with problems.

I fear then that the Governments in the West are preparing to abandon the rebels of Benghazi and Tobruk to their fate at the hands of Gaddafi, his odious son and his repellant followers. There will be much wringing of hands about no-fly zones, there will be humanitarian efforts in Tunisia and eventually Egypt but Libya and its oil will remain united and flowing under the murderous hand of Gaddafi.

There is a line about not letting go of nurse for fear of something worse and Gaddafi functions as nurse. He is odious to his own people but internationally, he is valuable as a unifying factor. The Chinese and Europe will continue to do business with him and eventually his son and the nightmare won't end for the Libyan people.

We won't intervene and will wring our hands when the Gaddafi tanks drive back into Benghazi and elsewhere.

That's realpolitik - it's not nice but it's how the world works.

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