NATO’s mission slowdown

NATO’s mission slowdown


These are confusing times for supporters of NATO, Paddy Ashdown said the other day. The former leader of the British Liberal Democrats and then a proconsul in Bosnia is right about that, though he might have thought twice before adding that “the alliance has completed its mission in Libya without a single casualty.” That presumably means British and French airmen, not counting Libyans.

“Confusing” is a good word more broadly for Western policy throughout the Middle East. Our dealings there have been a welter of confusion, contradiction and dishonesty, from Egypt and Libya to Syria and Iran. And whatever else is said of the late Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, their shades are entitled to complain about Western hypocrisy.

When the claims about weapons of mass destruction collapsed, the invasion of Iraq was retrospectively justified as having at least got rid of Saddam, which raised the obvious suspicion that such regime change had been the real objective all along. Now Libya is bombed, initially if improbably as a “humanitarian mission.” In no time at all London, Paris and Washington openly admitted that we were taking sides in a civil war and helping insurgents destroy Gadhafi.

Once again “liberation” is proclaimed, but after the event. “Sentence first – verdict afterward,” says the Queen of Hearts to Alice. In our own political Wonderland, the military intervention comes first, the justification afterward.

We were repeatedly told after Saddam’s fall that he had been a brutal tyrant. But there is another logical problem there. Human rights organizations observed that his regime was much less bloody in its last phase, before the invasion, than it had been after the first Gulf War when he butchered Marsh Arabs and Shiites, or earlier.

A stronger case for “liberal intervention” in Iraq might have been made decades before he was toppled, when he was slaughtering Kurds. Unfortunately that was also the time when Washington leaned toward Saddam in his appalling war with Iran, the British government eagerly sold him arms and Donald Rumsfeld was an honored guest in Baghdad.

Now the pattern of contradiction is followed in Libya. On the day Gadhafi was killed, David Cameron spoke from Downing Street. With London papers gloating – “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” “Gunned down in a sewer” – over the lynching of a man who had first been savagely beaten, Cameron tried to strike a restrained note. But he emphasized Gadhafi’s crimes, from arming the IRA to blowing up airliners.

What Cameron says is quite true: the blame for the destruction of the Pan Am flight in 1988 lies with Gadhafi, just as he undoubtedly also provided the IRA with guns and Semtex explosives. But he only supplied the Semtex. It was used to kill many innocents by the IRA, whose “chief of staff” used to be Martin McGuinness. He is now deputy first minister in Northern Ireland, has just run for the presidency of the Irish Republic and is a welcome guest in America.

That has not gone unnoticed in the Middle East. In a CNN interview in 1997, Bin Laden spoke of American double standards verging on racism: “At the same time that they condemn any Muslim who calls for his rights, they receive the top official of the Irish Republican Army at the White House as a political leader.” He had a point.

One man who knew all about Gadhafi’s connection with Lockerbie and the IRA, was Tony Blair, just as he knew about the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996 and other atrocities Gadhafi committed inside his own country. In 2004, Blair nevertheless went to Libya, where he was pictured grinning as he shook Gadhafi’s hand. With this “deal in the desert,” Gadhafi renounced terrorism and his alleged program of nonconventional weaponry, on a promise that he would be rehabilitated and brought back into the comity of nations.

So what happened to him afterward, and what are the implications? There is now renewed concern about the Iranian nuclear program, which, unlike Saddam’s or Gadhafi’s, actually exists, and the British government is reportedly making contingency plans to assist an American preemptive attack on Iran. That is a most unhappy prospect, which Western governments would prefer to avoid if inducements to Teheran might work instead.

But then look at Gadhafi’s fate. It’s hard to think of anything less likely to persuade the Iranians to negotiate.

Now Syria produces yet another contradiction. Bashar al-Assad clings to power and warns the West to leave him alone. Syria is the fault line, he says, and an intervention “would burn the whole region.”

But the NATO powers evidently feel they have done enough intervening for now. Syria will be left alone, although the killing of insurgents in Homs strongly resembles the killings in Benghazi that supposedly provoked the NATO bombings.

This is only one more case of the confusion and illogic that Western responses to the Arab risings have shown this year.

* Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a veteran British journalist and writer.