The Blog

The Dark Shadow of Tyranny

Tyranny, tyranny, tyranny. It seems to echo from every direction like old church bells. Newspapers headline it, broadcasters auto-cue it, and party-goers celebrate the end of it - and they are right to. In his statement on Muammar al-Gaddafi's killing, Barack Obama said "the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted". Now there's a sound-bite.

Tyranny, tyranny, tyranny. It seems to echo from every direction like old church bells. Newspapers headline it, broadcasters auto-cue it, and party-goers celebrate the end of it - and they are right to. In his statement on Muammar al-Gaddafi's killing, Barack Obama said "the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted". Now there's a sound-bite.

A good deal of Libya is celebrating, and who can blame them? Gaddafi's crimes are well known. The hanging of dissidents in the 1970s, the expulsion of 30,000 Palestinians in 1995, the simultaneously bloody, autocratic and incompetent rule - few will miss this Libya. Few will miss this tyranny. But, slowly, another voice is joining the 'tyranny' choir. Just as when commentators declared that "the critics had been silenced" at the fall of Tripoli, some have decided that the Colonel's death is the consummate defence of NATO's campaign in Libya.

The Independent today features the descriptively titled article "Vindication for Cameron over the 'arm-chair generals'". Clearly some arguments require iteration. Did those of us who argued against NATO's military campaign in Libya do so on the basis that it would fail to capture Tripoli? Was the argument founded on the belief that 'we' would be unable to kill Gaddafi? No, these were not the arguments.

First, we argued that the military campaign was illegal. UN Security Council resolution 1973 mandated the establishment of a no-fly zone over Benghazi, and authorised measures for the protection of civilians. No effort was undertaken to establish an internationally imposed no-fly zone. On the contrary, NATO (not an organization representative of the world by any means) joined one side of a civil war. This involved extensive use of air-power, including tens of thousands of sorties, and the explicit bombing of civilian areas. Britain's 22 SAS regiment even fought directly on the side of the rebels.

Second, we argued that the motive could not be humanitarian. Britain, as well as the United States and France, supported Muammar al-Gaddafi's regime before declaring war on it. In 2010, Britain sold £215 million in 'controlled products' - including tear gas - to Gaddafi's Libya. He was once our "safe pair of hands" (a phrase now used to describe new Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, I might add). Our military also armed and trained Saudi special forces used to crush Bahrain's contribution to the Arab awakening - hardly humanitarian. Furthermore, on June 16th Saif al-Islam Gaddafi signalled that the regime was willing to hold internationally monitored elections in Libya. That offer was simply ignored. Were NATO's campaign in Libya humanitarian, as it claims, none of this would be the case.

The true motives aren't difficult to decipher. Gaddafi had become a crazed and unstable client. Libya is the largest single provider of European oil and potentially hides vast untapped reserves. It is also extremely rich in natural gas. The NTC was willing to overthrow the Gaddafi regime completely, and just as willing to co-operate with the Obama-Cameron-Sarkozy triumvirate. Oh what fickle friends we are.

The end of Gaddafi, which regrettably came not in a court but a clumsy shooting, does nothing to reduce the relevance of any of this. None of the arguments against the Libya campaign are negated by the realisation of its goals. And now that the ragged dictator - who was so obsessed with his face that he was still searching for a cosmetic surgeon after February 17th -- is gone, a new Libya will start to emerge. The Benghazi-based NTC will have to navigate a relationship with Tripoli and Sirte. For this, we are now responsible - and easy it will not be.

The legacy of Libya must also be faced in Britain. Already the notion of "a model for liberal intervention" is finding a voice. If the Libya campaign makes illegally overthrowing governments seem acceptable again, the results could be catastrophic. Is that a "dark shadow" I see on the horizon?