Tuesday, 12 April 2011

On the road to Tripoli and the limits of 'liberal' intervention

Back and forth they go, where they 'll stop nobody knows.

With each swing of the pendulum towns such as Misrata, Ras Lanuf, Brega and Ajdabiya are becoming ever more familiar - helped not least by the caravans of journalists who follow so fast in their own footsteps that they're almost waving at their own shadows.

Reports are that the Libyan anti-Gadaffi faction have recaptured Sirte, again. It is the third time they've held the town, so far. And they will expect soon to be driven back.

So they're not holding the ground, they're engaging in an ongoing cut-and-thrust over the heads and under the feet of the ordinary population who are both the supporters and potential victims of whichever occupier is current.

As the fluid situation is prolonged and drags out with no end in sight so more eyes turn to Libya as symbolic of something deeper.

The Ottoman Turks conquered the country in the...Image via WikipediaThe land is the meeting point of three distinct historical tribal regions - Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and the Fezzan desert confederacy in the south - each of which can trace separate and distinct political cultures back to pre-history and the populations who lived along the ancient trade routes.

So ultimately how this internal confrontation between the three factions plays out reflects a wider political and philosophical battle which will only be decided by the context imposed by the international community.

In many ways for the Security Council to reach agreement on implementation of UN resolution 1973 was a triumph for Britain's David Cameron, however it's vague and general nature is a marked change from previous legal justifications for intervention in essentially internal affairs. Those were clear and clearly broken in equal amounts, a paradox which heralded fears of a renewed imperial age.

Humanitarian intervention in the modern era has undergone a succession of shifts dictated by the global power balance of the times.

As the imperial order collapsed it became clear the established powers could no long justify the capacity to maintain colonies and the ideological superblocs of capitalism and communism stepped into the breach - each arguing they provided a greater common good, but neither attained hegemonic status.

It was only following the emergence of the non-alligned movement in 1961 at the height of the Cold War and the Cuban crisis (coup, corruption, revolution, failed invasion and de-escalation of the nuclear threat) that a progressive way forward became a possibility by re-establishing the principles of self-determination, multi-lateral cooperation, support for human rights and sustainable economic development - and it was this which gradually paved the way for the collapse of the regimes behind the Iron Curtain.

So it is interesting to note the response of the NAM which both condemns the no-fly zone while simultaneously 'silently justifying' it on the basis that internationally-recognised human rights and freedoms are being flouted by Gaddafi.

To critics on both right and left this sounds suspiciously like either a messy compromise or a dirty betrayal, and worse still it suggests a spineless lack of moral leadership on the specific issue of who should be in charge and how government should be organised.

Control is, however, a temporary deceit. For a more profound understanding of the direction of this conflict it's necessary to look beyond the two adversaries to see not just where they are coming from but also what they are really fighting over.

Typically this crisis is mediated for simplification into a battle between the authoritarian militarism of one man and his lineage and the democratic freedoms of the masses, with each side advancing and retreating along the coastal motorway in turn. They say you can't stop the spread of ideas, and it would seem to be borne out by the circumstance, though we have yet to find out whether the ideas that fill the heart to face the tanks or those which fill the tanks to crush hearts and minds will be the ones which prevail. This is the debate which occupies the minds of commentators the world over.

But I beg to differ - except for the violence being committed by both sides I am glad neither is gaining the whip hand with which they would be certain to wreck their revenge with worse reprisals once western and eastern eyes alike are averted. When lives are lost, nobody wins.

The ongoing confusion is forcing the debate to be played out in the open court of public opinion, requiring the eventual victor to concede greater fairness, and implicitly creating a dependence on the widest possible form of participation.

So we return to the fundamental question: what are each side fighting over?

In the political sense they are fighting for protection afforded by a civil order, for economic well-being, for opportunity and jobs.

But in a real sense they are fighting over the roads.

The roads are the physical infrastructure on and along which people, ideas, goods and services are transported. The same ancient routes which were the foundation of Libyan cultures are the cornerstone of modern Libyan society.

Throughout the colonial period to the post-colonial period Africa has traditionally had a poor track-record of cooperation as outside powers discouraged contact between their spheres.

It is only relatively recently that the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank together with the burgeoning African Union and regional communities accepted infrastructural development underpins economic development and trade as the only reliable way to alleviate poverty.

And it is only because the political argument against border restrictions and economic restrictions as a way of aiding mobility, providing choice and combatting corruption has built sufficient political will for greater levels of integration to enable paved roads to be built across the continent.

As the map shows the battle for Libya is being fought along Route 1.


We can only wonder which route it will take next.

If this is to explain anything it is as a criticism of the grand gesture of interventionism: historic routes are the roots of modernity, and it is only by maintaining them to the highest modern standard that civilisation can be prevented from getting stuck in the mire of barbarity - roads are not built overnight, so the relationships which are fostered along them must be continuously cultivated to keep them fresh and relevant.

Instead of aiding Africa to permanently fix political and economic inequality, we should encourage Africa to develop respect for improvements that last. Too often satisfaction at one job done turns to complacency, neglect and corruption: Africans and westerners share the blame for allowing new nations to be born into a vacuum, and now the consequences are catching up with the solutions

Though this is a typically British failing it's not a uniquely British failing. What's not needed is rejection of the temporary occupations which follow military action.What is needed is to head off any need before it happens: integration, not intervention.

And just like the residents along the coast road to Tripoli who see them come and see them go, people in Libya, as everywhere from Afghanistan and Burma to Yemen and Zimbabwe, need to know that their well-being is our security just as our well-being is their security.

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