Europe unties Gaddafi’s hands

Europe’s attitude in response to the vicious repression of the Libyan uprising is reminiscent of its cowardly behaviour during the Bosnian War, writes Italian intellectual Adriano Sofri. While their leaders dither, European governments appear to be washing their hands of a tragedy that is taking place on their doorstep.

Published on 17 March 2011 at 15:33

When you read these lines, Benghazi will have probably have fallen to pro-Gaddafi forces and the much-vaunted international community will at last be able to heave a sigh of relief and announce that it is too late to intervene in the conflict. Thereafter we will simply have to shrug off the memory of the rebels, who were given too much credit and lacked the staying power to resist a few incoming shells. Only at that point, the issue will not be about the rebels military credibility, but about the fate of a civilian population, which by then will be facing reprisals.

In talking about today, I would like to remind you of two relatively recent dates. On 15 April 1986, two SCUD missiles launched by Libya landed in the sea a few kilometres from the coast of Lampedusa. On 26 April, only eleven days later, while the Chernobyl nuclear power station went into melt-down, more Libyan missiles were launched in response to massive US air attack which aimed to kill Gaddafi. Thereafter, Italy imposed a ban on the consumption of milk and vegetables amid fears that they may have been contaminated by the cloud of fall-out from Chernobyl which floated across Europe.

Twenty-five years have gone by and Gaddafi is on the point of reconquering Libya, while the international community is hoping that the disaster in Japan and fears of a nuclear catastrophe will divert attention from its embarrassment. So what has happened in those 25 years? How did we progress from an American military retaliation, which bombed targets in Benghazi and Tripoli in revenge for an attack on a German nightclub, to a point where no action can be undertaken at a time when the same dictator is deploying overwhelming military force to crush a civil uprising? There is a long list of potential reasons — Somalia in 1993, 9/11 in September 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — which to some extent explain but do not justify Obama’s inaction.

Gaddafi may be on roll

But what of Europe? Why is it that Europe, which has a considerable share of the world’s arms market, is suddenly imbued with a pacifism worthy of a Hindu fakir whenever there is any question of military action? Why this urgent need "not to disturb" which led Europe to ignore years of massacres in Bosnia – which is after all in Europe – until Bill Clinton had had enough? The smoke from the fires burning in Sarajevo was clearly visible in Europe, just like the smoke in Benghazi is now.

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Do the democratic powers — if that is what we should call them — not realise that their inertia in response to reprisals by Gaddafi’s militia amonts to an after-the-fact justification for Bush’s unilateral campaign against Saddam Hussein? Like Gaddafi, Saddam was betting on a feeble reaction from the democratic powers. He backed the wrong horse and he lost; but it seems that Gaddafi may be on roll. He has been ostracised and threatened with the International Criminal Court, but the democratic powers still gave time to recover from the revolt and to regroup his armed forces, and now they are content to sit back and watch a campaign that will target helpless civilians. In the exhileration that followed their liberation, the rebels naively advised Gaddafi to give himself up. In so doing they were like a condemned man, who believes that announcing he is a democrat will be enough to convince the firing squad not to shoot.

Europe is washing its hands of the situation

The current dilemma is an old one, only the context is new. In the absence of an international police force, the threat trial by an international court will continue to be laughable. Gaddafi can only be taken into custody if there is a successful revolution, and not before. Some would claim that an uprising that does not succeed on its own strength does not have sufficient legitimacy, and that this principle should hold sway over in notion of right or duty to intervene. Not only is this untrue, but this is hardly ever the case. A modern, dynastic and tribal dictatorship like Gaddafi’s, which has sufficient wealth to buy up political support and maintain a strong praetorian guard, can exploit its citizens to the point where they are transformed into an invisible people who only exist when they make a break for the border.

Europe appears more divided than ever. Nicolas Sarkozy’s recognition of the Libyan opposition may have been over-the-top and impulsive to the point where its appeared to be motivated by electioneering at a time when the country would prefer to forget its losses in Afghanistan and the failed attempt to obtain the liberation of French hostages in Niger, but at least some one spoke out. The same can be said for combative postion adopted by David Cameron, which at other times might have been taken seriously, but now sounds like pure rhetoric. In her response to the situation, Angela Merkel made use of a revealing choice of words: she wants "to wait to see how the situation evolves."

These are clearly bum notes on the part the leaders of peoples who are fully aware of the need for rebellion and freedom. Europe has joined in a cacophonous chorus with the intention of washing its hands of the situation. For its part, Italy does not come into the equation and is happy to stay out of it. Every day that passes makes a positive outcome increasingly unlikely. Persuasion and a few sanctions will not be enough to convince Gaddafi and his entourage to leave. And many are simply hoping that he succeeds in reinstating himself so that we can resume trading with him as we have done in the past, but this too is improbable. But given that time is the decisive factor for a possible resolution of the situation, Europe is taking — or perhaps I should say wasting — its time.

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