Interventionists: the biters bit?
Our intervention against Gaddafi seems to gain ever more significance at the same time as the questions about why Libya increase with time. How, when we have failed to intervene in Syria despite three years of brutal, horrific civil war, did we end up backing the Libyan rebels in the space of three weeks? The stated reasoning, that Gaddafi was threatening a bloodbath in Benghazi seemingly carried enough cachet for both Russia and China to abstain on UNSC resolution 1973 and so allow what turned into NATO effectively acting as the air support for various militias. Those militias duly summarily executed Gaddafi after NATO "protected" his fleeing convoy from the air, with the country remaining in utter turmoil a couple of years on, although it seems we don't much care any more.
The obvious answer is because we could. Libya's military apparatus was in a far worse state than Syria's; we had significant business interests in the country whereas China and Russia had relatively few; Gaddafi had little in the way of actual support, relying on a hardcore of supporters backed up with hired mercenaries; and the military themselves it seems felt it was doable. Despite seeming a success though, even if what actually happened went far beyond what UNSCR 1973 authorised, it also exposed a number of problems. First, the Americans were not pleased at what they saw as having to do the heavy lifting when it had been the UK and France who had pushed for action with the most vigour. Fatally for the Syrians perhaps, second is both Russia and China felt fooled by what NATO decided the resolution authorised, despite it calling for a ceasefire and negotiations. While Russia would always have been more inclined to oppose action in Syria considering her long term ties with the Assad family, it emboldened opposition to any repeat.
My opinion remains that had we really wanted to intervene against Assad, we would have done. By any measure there was a far stronger case for doing so as the civil war began in earnest, as compared to Libya when the action was meant to prevent a massacre, the Assad regime had already carried out mass killings. It would have been far more difficult to be sure, and there has never been anything approaching a serious plan set out for how such an intervention would begin, but that has never stopped us in the past. Indeed, as we came so close to doing something, although it was explained precisely what, there must have been contingencies in place. The decision instead seems to have been made to do just enough not to invite the accusation of indifference while at the same time keeping up a false level of rhetoric: sort of arming the sort of moderates, and not a lot more. Our real attitude was summed up by how the government had to be all but humiliated into allowing a tiny number of Syrian refugees into the country, the impossible aim of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands being far more important to the Tories than relieving incredible human suffering.
Which brings us to the Crimea and the truly laughable sanctions that have been imposed today after the weekend's phony referendum in the province. For all the talk of illegality and standing in solidarity with the Ukraine, what it's amounted to is freezing the assets of a whole 32 people. Taking the likes of Bill Hague at their word that more will follow if Russia continues to destabilise Ukraine or goes further and attempts to repeat the Crimean action in the east of the country, it still makes a mockery of how our leaders have puffed themselves up in ever greater flights of rhetorical fancy. True enough, the media more than anyone else have tried to turn this into Cold War 2.0, but it doesn't excuse the nonsense we've heard or at times, the hypocrisy, even if the real hypocrites reside in Moscow.
It might be this is the best approach: Russia is isolated, China abstaining on the vote at the UN at the weekend, and the economy looks likely to continue to suffer. The threat of far more stringent sanctions could well deter Putin from any repeat in the restive east, and the last thing we need at this point is an overreaction that would threaten the (slight) Eurozone recovery. It does however stick in the craw: far from this being an example of what happens when we are weak, it's rather a perfect example of what happens when you abuse the sound in principle but unworkable in practice notion of responsibility to protect. The west has spent the 2000s intervening wherever it feels like, most egregiously in Iraq, but has also had no qualms about violating national sovereignty across the entire globe under the pretext of rubbing out terrorists wherever they're to be found. The US/UK actively encouraged Israel to decimate the south of Lebanon in 2006, and now have the temerity to complain when Russia stages an all but entirely bloodless annexation of a highly sympathetic area of a neighbouring state. We also aren't averse to staging pointless referendums when it has come to both Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands: in the case of the 2002 plebiscite in the former, 98.48% rejected the notion of sharing sovereignty with Spain, an absurdly high percentage that obviously didn't come close to reflecting real opinion.
One suspects that in a genuinely free vote not held under such intimidation and where the status quo had been offered an an option, the result would have been far closer. A poll last month suggested only 41% wanted union with Russia, but whether the number of respondents from Crimea was statistically significant enough to make that an accurate barometer of opinion is open to question. When it comes down to it, we're right to impose sanctions, and right to denounce what is a flagrant breach of international law by an aggressor state made to look foolish by the people of a nation who want to take their own path. Our politicians though would do well not to make promises they cannot keep, while they should also take a long look at themselves and think about whether the positions they have taken over the past few years have encouraged others to also see the treaties of the 20th century as there to be broken without consequences. Our own interventionists however tend to see no such shades of grey.