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Friday, 27 May 2011

Ratko Mladic reminds me why we are in Libya

I'll always remember their faces when I told them about Bosnia. I once taught a group of boys, the majority of whom were Muslim. We had some fascinating conversations about foreign policy, particularly around the time they were going on the protest marches against Israel's actions in Gaza. They were in the middle of insisting that it was another example of the Christian world sitting back once again whilst Muslims are massacred.

I asked them to explain to me why then Tony Blair and Bill Clinton had intervened in Bosnia to stop the Christian Serbs killing the Bosnian Muslims. They sat, and they stared at me in complete incomprehension. I asked them the question again. Blank faces. It began to dawn on me that they had no idea what I was talking about. Bosnia didn't fit with 'the narrative', so they hadn't been told about it by those in their community who were (for reasons I won't guess) been fuelling their victim complex. It had simply been erased from history as an inconvenient anomaly. Or so I thought.

After the weekend they came back into class with triumphant looks on their faces. "Why Sir did the UK and USA wait until after so many Muslims had been killed before interveneing? Why did the West allow Sebrenica to happen?"

This conversation (and the faces of my former pupils) came into my head when I heard that Ratko Mladic had been arrested in Serbia this week. It was he and Radovan Karadzic who had led the Sebrenica massacre in 1995. It was three more years before the UK and USA intervened.

And this leads to the situation in Libya. It seems the mission has crept, in that the words of Barack Obama and David Cameron this week suggest they will not leave until Muammar Gaddafi is 'removed' as leader of the country. They call this 'removing the war machine' but many call it 'regime change'. The problem, of course, is that the West went into Libya without really understanding what would mark the end of the campaign. That gives useful fuel to those who question why we actually went into Libya in the first place, and why we are there but not doing anything about similar issues in Syria and Bahrain.

The facile answer is that we are in Libya because it has oil and Syria doesn't. (Bahrain DOES have oil but again probably not useful for 'the narrative').  I say facile because it is easy to say but hard to prove. The Arab League itself had asked the Western World to intervene in Libya and Gadaffi and sons had loudly proclaimed their intention to go "house-to-house" killing people in Benghazi.

This put David Cameron in an awkward position. If he believes in muscular liberalism then he had little choice but to intervene in Libya given from what Gaddafi was saying there was about to be a massacre in Benghazi. The trouble was that, had Kosovo and Sierra Leone been the last examples of liberal interventionism it would have been consistent to have also got involved in Libya. Alas, Iraq and Afghanistan had made it far more complicated.

Also making it far more complicated was the inability to understand the consequences of intervention. In one day a few weeks ago I read two articles in different broadsheets. One argued that getting involved in  Libya would be a recruiting tool for Islamic terrorism as we would end up killing Muslims. The other argued that not getting involved in Libya would be a recruiting tool for Islamic terrorism as we would be doing nothing about the killing of Muslims.

If you think that sounds ridiculous, let's go back to the conversation in my classroom over two and half years ago. The 6th form boys I was talking too said that it was as much a problem that the West was killing Muslims in Iraq as it was that the West allowed Muslims to be killed in Bosnia. Damned when we do, damned when we don't.

At the end of the day, there is a reason why most of Parliament (I believe it was less than 10 MPs who voted against) voted for intervention in Libya. It's because of one of the more impressive lines David Cameron has come up with so far. "Just because we can't do everything doesn't mean we should do nothing". We simply can't afford to be in Bahrain and Syria as well, so does that mean we let people die in Libya?

If we had we would have learned nothing from Sebrenica. And that, for me, would have been a worse crime.

1 comment:

  1. But perhaps the worst crime of all is the lack of action over the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which never makes the headlines and is not even part of the intervention debate. In the deadliest war since WWII there are over 5 million dead, with crimes against women that will chill your soul, but just a paltry UN peacekeeping force in place that is totally failing to protect the civilian population. It's not about oil this time, but metals and minerals, most notably the Coltan that is vital to our iPhones, Playstations and Blu-Ray players. More than any other current conflict, western consumerism is directly fuelling this war, and our collective inaction will be judged harshly by future generations.
    The irony that I am typing this on my Coltan-filled laptop is not lost on me...