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Friday, 25 March 2011

25 March 2011

Can the way you define a word make the difference between war and peace? If the word being defined is in a UN Security Council resolution, well, the answer is Yes.

You probably remember the famous passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master – that’s all.”

So here are two words that we need to try to define before we can pass judgement on the current military operations over Libya.

First word: “necessary”, as in Security Council resolution 1973, which “authorises member states … to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”

Dictionary definition: “Necessary -- essential, indispensable, requisite, something vital for the fulfillment of a need.” So who decides what is essential, or indispensable, or vital to protect civilians? Is it essential to kill Muammar Gaddafi? Vital to destroy his every last artillery piece or tank?

Second word: “threat”, as in “civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”

Dictionary definition: “Threat -- something that is regarded as dangerous or likely to inflict pain or misery.” So, again, how do we decide when the likelihood of pain being inflicted has been lifted? It’s not as if a likelihood is something you can photograph from a spotter plane: one day it’s there; the next day it’s gone.

But of course, it isn’t about dictionary definitions at all, is it? I don’t envy the poor lawyers going through the military target lists, deciding line by line, yes, this target is covered by the UN resolution, and no, this target isn’t.

As always, it’s about political will. So the real decisions will be taken in Cairo (headquarters of the Arab League), Brussels (headquarters of NATO), London, Paris and Washington.

There’s really only one big decision they need to make: when to stop. Is Gaddafi’s defeat, overthrow, or death deemed to be “essential, indispensable, vital” to the protection of civilians from the threat of attack? Or would a negotiated ceasefire do?

If civilians are killed by allied military action (and it should be noted that so far, there’s been no credible, verifiable evidence that any have been), are the terms of the UN resolution still being adhered to? Can you claim to be protecting some civilians while killing others?

Those who argue in favour of the current military action say that the cost of doing nothing would have been far higher than the cost of enforcing Security Council resolution 1973.

The Middle East academic Professor Juan Cole wrote yesterday: “Pundits who want this whole thing to be over with in seven days are being frankly silly. Those who worry about it going on forever are being unrealistic. Those who forget or cannot see the humanitarian achievements already accomplished are being willfully blind.”

Those who take the opposite view argue that it is always a mistake to embark on military action without knowing how to get out of it; and that pledging to protect civilians in one country will inevitably lead to demands that you do the same in other countries as well (Yemen? Bahrain? Syria? Ivory Coast?)

Last night, NATO finally came up with a formula that will enable the alliance to take over control of at least part of Operation Odyssey Dawn within the next few days. But Turkey is clearly still deeply unhappy about it, and the Arab League is jumpy.

Unless something dramatic changes on the ground, we could well be in for a long haul. And it’s not going to be easy keeping this hastily-constructed coalition together.

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