Political Navigation in the Sahara

by Edward Leigh MP

‘Dead Reckoning’ is a term which describes blind navigation by compass, map and various intricate calculations. It is thus possible for a pilot to navigate through mountains in thick fog, although the tiniest mistake early on can be vastly magnified, with disastrous consequences.

Colonel Gaddafi is known for killing his opponents, his numerous incompetent attempts to buy nuclear weapons from other dubious governments, for being friendly with plenty of the wrong sorts of politicians and occasionally even launching terrorist attacks in the West. However, the winds of change are sweeping the Northern Sahara and with the deposition of Mubarak, there is a feeling that Libya too will emerge from a Tyrannical dictatorship. Indeed it may, but it also may not. Any Western support for the rebels assumes that revolution will bring about some superior form of government. It remains to be seen whether this will happen in Egypt, therefore action taken on the basis of that assumption will fly us all into the perilous mists (or sandstorms) of the unknown. Even in Egypt, there was some talk about an alternative leadership (in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood). In Libya, we have no such compass by which to navigate.

The Rebellion is popular in the press at home and it could well pay off in Libya, but we should be realistic about the ramifications of being seen to support one side or another. Already, the expected revolution is dragging its feet and Gaddafi’s credibility grows with each day he holds on to power. Now that we have thrown ourselves in by freezing his overseas assets, we have undermined the Colonel’s ability to surrender and leave Libya even if he wanted to. Our own spending review, meanwhile, has largely scuppered our ability to send humanitarian aid to his people.

I see the popular spectre of the anti-establishment rearing its ugly head both here and in Libya, but barely a whisper of an alternative is coming from anywhere. Usually people understand what they are fighting for, as well as against, before they start a war. We may assume that an alternative will emerge – hopefully a superior one – but until then Libya is at the mercy of political dead reckoning. In the absence of reliable information from that country, I fear our own opinions will be guided by forces at home and in supranational bodies. ‘We must do something,’ is, in this instance, a very dangerous saying.

Backing a good cause for the wrong reasons is one thing, but if we take sides in Libya, we must ask whether the loyalties of British Realpolitik lie with our own Electorate, who may depose their executive on account of their actions, or with Libyan citizens, who may not. If the former, we are obviously hypocrites. If the latter, we will be duty bound to help seek a viable alternative by virtue of our intervention and we will have to be seen to deliver. It doesn’t matter who dictates our reaction –the UK, US or UN – we will be held to account for what we do. By even commenting on the situation, what we gain in political capital now could cost us dear tomorrow.

Our popular reputation is already tarnished in Gaddafi’s neck of the woods by our involvement with Israel and Suez. If we become embroiled Libya, even to the slightest degree, we will have to offer support to the end, further ensuring that we win and further ensuring that we are seen to help deliver a superior society in Libya. A small move now could have colossal ramifications further down the line. The means by which the West could realise the desired ends in Libya would, I suspect, be unviably expensive. It has been bad enough in Iraq, where organised, educated demographics of other faiths and cultures could vie to be heard. The situation there is still worse for many people than before we deposed Saddam.

Humanitarian aid aside, the only course which might just precipitate a situation in which we are no worse off than before is to do nothing. The popular hatred of a man, rather than of his regime, could cloud the West’s judgment when we come to provide backing to one side or another in Libya (if it has not already), and we neither want to lose the support of a nation with Oil, back tyranny, nor be sucked into the vortex of responsibility which arises from ‘having to do something.’

Foreign intervention based on domestic popularity has little place in the modern world and would have been seen as improper even when we were an imperial superpower. The UK government has a duty to UK citizens only. Humanitarian support abroad is one thing, but becoming entangled in the revolutions of others is unlikely to improve anything for anyone. Political navigation must be left to those at the controls of the craft. Failure to realise this leads to what the dossier of avionics jargon would euphemistically term ‘flight into terrain.’


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