‘If you break it, you own it’ - Irfan Husain - Monday 25th April 2011

THE biggest beneficiaries of the UN no-fly zone over Libya must be the leaders of Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and the other Middle Eastern countries feeling the chill winds of the Arab Spring.
With much of the media attention on the Libyan uprising because of the western aircraft operating over the country, despots like Bashar al-Asad, the Khalifah family and Saleh are probably delighted to have international public opinion distracted from their brutal repression of popular revolts.
Meanwhile, there is growing disquiet in the West over the duration and extent of their involvement in Libya. As the British and French governments announced plans to send in military advisers to coordinate the chaotic rebel force around Benghazi, people are asking if this is the beginning of a prolonged armed intervention.
This escalation is in response to the rising chorus of Libyan voices chanting: “Where is Nato?”, as the limits of air power are exposed. In an attempt to break the deadlock in Misrata, the scene of deadly urban warfare, Obama has reluctantly approved the deployment of drones. But it is clear that, barring a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough, the civil war in Libya is going to drag on.
The Ivory Coast is also going through civil strife following the successful deposition of Gbagbo, the incumbent president who refused to hand over power after losing the election last year. The tribal coalition that fought to win the presidency for Alassane Ouattara with the active support of French and UN forces has broken up, and is now busy attacking each other.
There is a real danger of further chaos in this West African state.
This situation underlines the dilemma of foreign intervention. If the UN and France had not stepped in to throw out Gbagbo, the standoff would have continued, and the fighting would have claimed even more innocent victims. But having intervened, foreign forces must bear part of the responsibility for further violence. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Colin Powell voiced his reservations about foreign adventures when he tried to advise Bush against attacking Iraq without making adequate preparations for the post-war scenario with a picturesque warning: “If you break it, you own it.” This alludes to a sign often seen in shops selling china and other breakable objects: if a customer breaks an item, he has to pay for it.
The US is still paying for the damage it has caused in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though most of the billions it has spent on reconstruction have made their way into the accounts of American companies. But American citizens are right to ask what their tax dollars are buying when their armed forces go into yet another foreign country.
So while moral arguments can sustain foreign intervention for a short while, prolonged presence and mounting costs are distinctly unpopular. Hence Obama’s reluctance to increase American involvement in Libya: having inherited two wars, and trying to extricate America from both, the last thing he needs is yet another operation in a Muslim country.
The current euphemism for military action is ‘kinetic operation’, but this bloodless expression cannot conceal the reality of warfare. The truth is that the intervention in Libya may well have prolonged the civil strife. Had the UN not sanctioned aerial support for the rebels, Qadhafi would undoubtedly have put down the uprising by now.
There is little doubt that he would have done so very brutally: you don’t get to be a dictator for over 40 years without inflicting a lot of pain on a lot of people. But in all probability, fewer would have died than have been killed so far in the civil war. And while I would have been the first to cheer at Qadhafi’s downfall, this happy eventuality must be weighed against what’s happening in Libya now.
Should a despot be allowed to crush a popular uprising to prolong his rule? Does the international community have the right and the duty to intervene in a situation like Libya? And if it does, is it then responsible for putting the country back on its feet? Finally, is a uniform policy of intervention to be followed?
This last question raises serious moral concerns: if the Libyan uprising is being supported with Nato planes and bombs, why shouldn’t Syrians, Yemenis and Bahraini opponents of similarly thuggish regimes expect UN support?
Clearly, those supplying the muscle will decide which internal conflict to intervene in. At the end of the day, they will also seek legitimacy in the form of a UN resolution. But having seen how Resolution 1973 has been stretched from being a humanitarian mission into becoming a licence for regime change, China and Russia will be reluctant to allow any such action again.
This leaves us with the uncomfortable possibility of groups of states intervening without UN approval. What happens if the threat of genocide hangs over yet another African country, for example? Would the world stomach another Rwanda or Bosnia today?These are troubling questions, and need to be addressed with the seriousness they deserve.
In a world of mounting tensions and the looming dangers stemming from rising populations and growing water shortages, there is a real risk of increasing internal and external strife.
In the long run, of course, the toppling of despots in the Middle East will be a very welcome development. But until this happy outcome occurs, there will be much blood spilt by vicious dictators who have a lot to lose by giving up their grip on power.
However, while cheering on the rebels, is it our duty to actively assist them? And when does an armed revolt against a legal government turn into a popular uprising?
The popular movements in Kashmir, Balochistan and Chechnya, to name a few, would appear to fall into this last category.
What is the international community’s responsibility in these conflicts under the interventionist philosophy that is now evolving?
Whatever the world’s response, it is clear that the old doctrine of non-intervention in a state’s internal affairs is now dead and buried.

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/04/25/if-you-break-it-you-own-it-2.html

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