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Libya: The case for non-intervention

Gavin Hewitt | 09:47 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

As I was leaving Malta for Brussels the buzz on this tiny island, that has witnessed so much history, was whether it would be used to provide a platform for enforcing a no-fly zone against Libya.

Two American amphibious assault ships, the USS Kearsarge and the Ponce, are heading into the Mediterranean. One is capable of carrying 2,000 Marines.

David Cameron has ordered his defence chiefs to draw up plans to see whether Britain's soon-to-be-depleted armed forces can be involved.

USS Kearsarge - file pic

All of this talk took my mind back to when I witnessed outside intervention first-hand. It was back in 2003 and I sat on a Bradley as the American Third Infantry rode into the Iraqi city of Karbala.

This is what I wrote back then: "We patrolled. They waved. But there was a space between us. The American soldiers did not want the people close. They were liberated but not trusted. The people also held back. They were restrained, guarded, a half-smiling crowd... The men on the tanks had the power and the street knew that. What they did not know was what the Americans would do with their power."

That was the point: the overthrow of Saddam was "Made in America". There was no coherent plan for what came after. Out of terrible violence a democracy of sorts eventually emerged. But the Iraqis could never pretend this was their uprising.

The key fact about the Arab Awakening is that it is the work of Arabs themselves. It started with a street vendor in Tunisia who simply refused to be pushed around anymore. His sacrifice released a tide of anger across North Africa and the Middle East. It was rage against corruption, against leaders who enriched themselves and were bent on establishing dynasties. Crucially it was rage against shame.

As Fouad Ajami wrote in the New York Times this week: "There is no overstating the importance of the fact that these Arab revolutions are the works of the Arabs themselves. No foreign gunboats were coming to the rescue, the cause of their emancipation would stand or fall on its own."

The outcome of the Jasmine Revolution is far from certain, but it is Made in North Africa. From what I have heard, the opposition don't want foreign intervention. They are gradually putting together units that over time may be able to take the battle to Tripoli. They are forging the destiny of their own country. It is empowering, the moment that years of servitude are being thrown off.

However well-intentioned, any outside military intervention would rob the protesters of ownership of their future. If democracy emerged it would have been partially delivered by outsiders.

In Pakistan I am always struck by the politics of victimhood. I have listened to numerous politicians who say that all would change if only the Americans left their neighbourhood. It is, of course, a convenient excuse. It absolves them of taking responsibility.

Now the Senate in the United States has passed a resolution urging the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone zone. Others are much more cautious. The new French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is among them.

Most European nations would only contemplate action if there was a clear UN resolution, although the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said "there have been occasions in the past when such a no-fly zone has had clear, legal, international justification, even without a Security Council resolution".

It is tempting for leaders to intervene. Sending in the military seems to flow in the life-blood of power. David Cameron, having previously opposed the liberal interventionism of Tony Blair, is now urging his defence chiefs to draw up plans. Military action may become necessary if Gaddafi threatens to use chemical weapons. The Italians believe he might do something desperate to defend the regime. Slaughter may reach a point where it becomes morally impossible to stand aside.

But overwhelmingly those who know the Middle East argue that this is a time to let them carve out their future.

There is much that Europe and the EU can do, particularly with its "soft power". Next week the EU will hold a summit where it can sketch out what it might do for those countries on the Mediterranean's southern rim.

The UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is coming to Brussels. He will say all of this is "happening in our backyard". It is "a defining moment for Europe". His vision is of a Europe offering advice to build civic institutions, using trade to bolster democracy. It is less dramatic than patrolling the Libyan desert or Marines shipping arms to the opposition, but it enables the young men and women of North Africa to retain ownership of their revolution.


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