The question whether the UN ought to authorise the imposition of no-fly zones over Libya has answers for and against, cynical and principled. It is a case study in realpolitik, and the extent to which we should moderate it by any kind of ethical stance.
Reading some of the traffic in the media, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two pairs of argument either way. Take the argument against no-fly zones. The principled stance would be to say that we should not intervene because the Arab world is fed up with our neo-colonialist habit of smashing into every situation in the Middle East. Why don’t we stay out of it, is the cry. Let the Arab people work it all out for themselves, for good or ill.
The cynical version of this argument would be (is?) that the outside UN world is fatigued by having to fight every fire out there, from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan, nor does it want to inflame any more angry young men stockpiling fertiliser in inner city flats and composing farewell videos.
As for the argument that we should impose a no-fly zone, the principled amongst us would say that we must not repeat our abject failure to rescue and protect the people of Srebenica and Rwanda when we had the chance: we have a moral duty to prevent tyranny massacring its own people, wherever they may be. The cynical view would be that we need to assert outside control because it is in our own selfish interests to do so; we need to protect our own; we need the oil to keep flowing.
It happened before
At a diplomatic cocktail reception in 1977 or so, in Addis Ababa, I was given an earful by a professional man in his late thirties who reminded me that Ethiopia had been given a brief window of freedom in 1961 when he and other democratic students marched and demonstrated against the oppressive regime of the emperor Haile Selassie. Security forces attacked them; there were many deaths. The brief flame flickered out.
When the revolution eventually happened, it did so as a Stalinist anti-liberty despotism and he and his like were the first to be arrested. Why, he demanded of me, hadn’t the West intervened in 1961? Why hadn’t we protected that flame?
I could not answer. He and I both knew the reason but it remained unspoken: the fact that in those Cold War years the West saw Haile Selassie as an impressive strongman on ‘our side’ who had to be sustained and protected. We probably got it wrong then, and millions suffered over the years that followed. Are we getting it right now?