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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.

Friday, 18 March 2011

18 March 2011

Same date, different prime ministers, different Arab dictators.

18 March 2003, T Blair: “This is not the time to falter. This is the time for this house … to show that we will stand up for what we know to be right, to show that we will confront the tyrannies and dictatorships and terrorists who put our way of life at risk, to show at the moment of decision that we have the courage to do the right thing.”

18 March 2011, D Cameron: “We should not intervene in other countries save in quite exceptional circumstances … (but) we cannot have a failed pariah state festering on Europe’s southern borders.”

So have we embarked on another war without end? More than nine years after British forces joined the US-led intervention in Afghanistan, and eight years to the day since Tony Blair delivered his passionate defence in the House of Commons of his decision to commit UK forces in Iraq, are we once again going into battle with too many questions unanswered?

It has become a cliché to observe that all wars are easier to start than to end. UN security council resolution 1973, approved last night by 10 votes in favour with five abstentions (Russia, China, Germany, Brazil and India) states the objective of the Libya intervention clearly enough: to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.

It authorises member states to use “all necessary measures” with the exception of a foreign occupation force – which is universally understood to mean Yes to air attacks, but No to troops on the ground.

Over the coming hours, we – and especially the people of Libya – will wait anxiously to see what happens next. Maybe some of those around Muammar Gaddafi will turn against him – but the key remaining figures in his regime are members of his own family, so it seems unlikely.

Maybe his forces will halt their advance towards Benghazi, at least for the time being. A siege is just as much an option as an assault.

Maybe US, British and French warplanes will start bombing his tanks and artillery pieces along the coast road. Maybe by mistake they’ll hit civilians as well as military targets.

Maybe, maybe.

But I was struck listening to David Cameron’s statement in the House of Commons this morning (apart from the fact that, this being a Friday, the place was virtually deserted) by how careful he was to spell out that this is a very different kind of operation, under a very different kind of prime minister, from the one we embarked upon eight years ago.

He emphasised the degree of regional support for military intervention – both the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council have backed the idea of a no-fly zone. Not like 2003.

And he spoke of the “clear legal basis” for the action – an unambiguous Security Council resolution, with clear advice for the British cabinet from the attorney-general, which he said had been “read and discussed” by ministers this morning. He didn’t need to spell out to MPs the differences from eight years ago.

So how will this end? No one knows. How long will it take? Same answer. If Gaddafi is defeated, overthrown, or killed, what or who will take his place? Answer as above.

Last Friday, during the discussion on the Arab uprisings that we recorded at Chatham House, I asked Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who had been the UK ambassador at the United Nations in the period leading up to the Iraq invasion: “As you watch events unfolding, do you say to yourself: ‘Here we go again’?”

We didn’t know then that within a week a strongly-worded Security Council resolution would have been approved – but Sir Jeremy replied without a moment’s hesitation in the affirmative.

Friday, 4 March 2011

4 March 2011

I want you to avert your gaze for a moment from Libya – and try to focus on two much smaller countries further east.

Unlike Libya, they are not blessed with vast oil reserves. Unlike Libya, their leaders have names that ring few familiar bells in Western living rooms. But like Libya – and like many other Arab nations – they are now aflame with popular protests.

These two little countries are Bahrain (you’ll need a magnifying glass to find it on a map), and Yemen. And when you’ve found them, you’ll notice that they share a giant neighbour.

That neighbour is Saudi Arabia, which of course just happens to be the world’s biggest producer of oil and is therefore of crucial importance to anyone who owns a car. That’s why what’s happening in Bahrain and Yemen is important – because what matters to the Saudis should matter to us.

So, what’s happening in Bahrain? It’s a tiny island off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, linked to the mainland by a 25-kilometre causeway that enables thousands of Saudis to stream across every weekend to enjoy Bahrain’s much freer atmosphere.

For the men there is alcohol, for the women there are shopping malls galore, and for the children there are cinemas. But Bahrain has a problem: its royal family, which holds virtually all the power (about half the members of the Cabinet are royals), are Sunni, whereas most of its people are Shia.

President Bush used to talk of Bahrain as a model Arab democracy: after all, it has a parliament, with an elected lower house, and a government which – at least in theory – is answerable to MPs. Women are allowed to vote and run for office.

But when I was there five years ago, I discovered that behind the gleaming glass and steel Gulf office blocks and the wide boulevards, there are ramshackle, fly-blown Shia villages, with pot-holed roads and rubbish piled on street corners. Young men hang around with nothing to do – because, as throughout the Arab world, youth unemployment is a major problem.

For the past month, thousands of protesters have been gathering in the streets to demand political reform. Some opposition groups are pressing for the resignation of the cabinet and a new
constitution – others want to go much further and get rid of the monarchy all together. The government has offered talks; so far, no progress has been made – and there are more protests planned for later today.

In an ominous development, last night there were, for the first time, sectarian clashes between groups of Sunni and Shia youths.

As for Yemen, where do we start? Yemen is where Osama bin Laden comes from and where al Qaeda was born. It’s where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged would-be bomber of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009, was apparently recruited and trained.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for more than 30 years, and, according to one recent analyst, presides over a government that is so corrupt that it would make the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, blush.

Opposition protests have swept the country – the most recent development is that opposition groups are proposing a negotiated transition to a new government that would see President Saleh standing down before the end of this year.

Here’s the point: if either Bahrain or Yemen descend into anything like what has happened in Libya – or if a Shia uprising in Bahrain, or a tribal revolt in Yemen, succeed in toppling the current leaderships – the Saudis will be terrified.

Today, Friday, is another key day. If there is serious trouble in either of Saudi Arabia’s neighbours, watch out for a crackdown in Saudi itself.

I’m not saying you should ignore what’s happening in Libya – but you should also be keeping an eye on what’s happening elsewhere. In a special extended edition of the programme next Friday, we’ll be trying to pull together some of the threads and attempting a preliminary assessment of this unprecedented wave of popular protest sweeping through the Arab world.