Thursday, 17 March 2011

Might / Might Not


We hear that Gaddafi's troops might or might not take Benghazi today. We hear that there might or might not be agreement to provide a no-fly zone. We hear that a no-fly zone might or might not help the rebels. We hear that whatever we do now might or might not do anything to prevent carnage. So we might or might not stand helplessly by while Gaddafi's forces take revenge in the manner generally expected, and we might or might not hear that the voices we heard being interviewed during the rise of the rebellions might or might not have been silenced by killing, torture and imprisonment.

Human responsibility is never as clear as the conscience might hope. Whatever new regimes may emerge out of similar regional rebellions that might or might not be successful, might or might not be more fundamentally Islamicist, or might or might not be more democratic than what preceded them. The calculations of realpolitik - which is to say the politics that actually happens almost all the time, as opposed to the rhetoric and the drama - are not about abstractions: they are about possibilities as large and as dramatic as the events of this or that specific moment. If 'The West', meaning primarily the US and the UK, followed, with a show of reluctance, by the rest of Europe and the rest of whatever remains of the Commonwealth, intervenes in an area that is already deeply suspicious of it, possibly in a state of loathing of it, the chain reaction of events might head towards more confrontation (or might not).

Nevertheless, I for one, will feel a kind of despair when I hear that Gaddafi has suppressed the revolt, killed a vast number of people in the process and will go on killing more of them over the next few years. And I will feel very much like a hypocrite when the dust settles and everyone will have to go on talking to Gaddafi again as if nothing had happened.

It is not because I think 'The West' is the model of righteousness, but because I, like most people I imagine, do feel a sense of involvement with others, a sense that is, in some ways, a product of democracy, meaning the enabling of individuals and groups to influence decisions taken at remote levels. That is what being in a democracy entails. And that is why any movement towards genuine democracy is so moving, however it turns out in the end.

The balance of forces in the Middle East and North Africa - indeed anywhere in the world - is realpolitik. Realpolitik is that which we cannot help happening, whether it goes one way or the other. All politics, once out of the heat of the moment, is realpolitik. Realpolitik can save lives as well as destroy them in the long run. Realpolitik is what is possible to be done: it is what we do.

But the lives of those living that realpolitik through are a matter of human conscience. And it isn't the newspaper cries, the storming editorials or opinion columns that gnaw at the heart. It is the knowledge we cannot help knowing.


Anonymous said...

Uprisings and rebellions don't always work. The dictators often have more money and infinite resources whilst the people rebelling are caught up in the heat of the moment and probably haven't planned for all eventualities. Then there is the issue of outside help and whether to ask for it or accept it when offered. I mean look how well Iraq worked out and don't even get me started on Afghanistan, and then there is Vietnam, and so on. It all looks so simple now but as soon as foreign powers get involved the simplistic emotive tabloid story dissolves.

George S said...

I am quite aware of that, Anon, though I note the 'always' in your first sentence. Presumably the word is doing some work there, implying that sometimes uprisings do work. I am myself the refugee of an uprising that didn't work. On the other hand, after the initial repression and reveneges, it led to a long period of liberalisation within the country. So the uprising wasn't in vain. And personally I am not inclined to write Iraq off in any case. I suspect it is in better condition now than it was and would have been under Saddam. History is longer term, as all those who rise in uprisings, know. Nor has it a clear end, unlike individual human life. The lives they are willing to risk.

I don't feel I am being simplistic or emotive in a tabloid way - though perhaps you could point out where I am being simplistic, emotive and tabloid - when I consider the fate of those 'caught up in the heat of the moment' in light of the statements made by Gaddafi. I think the UN has taken a very good decision today - aerial cover, no troops on the ground. I do believe the move has Arab League support. Ideally, of course, the Arab League would take the action themselves, but they have their internal politics to think of.

Aerial action is a policy that carries risks of course - see all I have said about realpolitik in the post - but then such risks aren't 'always' unsuccessful (it isn't in fact hard to think of examples of success) and sometimes one thinks better of people for taking them.

Anonymous said...

Yes the 'always' is working very hard and my first sentence was meant to imply some degree of sadness, disappointment and of course a western watchers cynicism. I wasn't suggesting that you were being simplistic and emotive- I was commenting on the media coverage. I was simply pointing out that foreign intervention in no way lessens loss of life and sometimes significantly increases it. That repression and revenge can also be acted out by the foreign 'help'.
You talk of risks taken sometimes being successful but every individual tyrant has to be taken case by case. Libya is a very wealthy country, Gaddafi has billions stashed all over the world and for a country in Africa that is unusual these days. Added to this, do we really understand the three tribe system at work in this country. Gaddafi is, I agree a tyrant, I agree he is repressing his people and committing war crimes everywhere his gaze falls. But for the past 40 or so years he has heavily subsidised the lives of the average Libyan to the extent that the average Libyan has a higher standard of living whilst living under a tyrant than the average British person. It is a country that aside from the oil isn't self sufficient, it has to import nearly all the components to support human life and because there is the oil money they can do this. This in itself is an odd way to run a country and requires a huge infrastructure. Libya has a free modern health care system, again something thin on the ground in many parts of the world. I suppose what I am trying to say is that if he has support from his own people that is a very real factor and is probably a combination of tribal loyalty and retaining stability of the life supporting infrastructure, and not simply fear and repression by the despot as some media coverage has suggested.

George S said...

I take all your points, which are well made, Anon, and think the UN might well have left him alone - they had after all, all these years - had it not been for the threat of massacres. It is that threat that inclines me to support aerial power to restrain him. Beyond that, I suspect he has already plunged too low in the world's estimation to survive in the position he has so far, though I bear in mind the position of Robert Mugabe, who has maintained his own loathsome regime and cannot be so easily thwarted..

In terms, therefore, of realpolitik, to return to my current term of choice, intervention is nearly always the art of the possible. Lybia, with Arab backing, is thought likely to be possible. What the outcome of intervention might be is a subject that will have been a matter of complex calculation. The press and media are, as I think most people realize, driven by dramatic stories and I would be very surprised if their views were not regarded with some scepticism by even the simplest of people. Very few people in the UK feel gung-ho about another foreign adventure right now. Same with the US, hence the long American vacillating. Italy is keeping well out of it since it has valuable construction contracts with Gaddafi. These are the ways of the world.

However, pictures and statements from those directly involved do add up to something.

The point I was trying to make is that democratic states of almost any shade engender a sense of obligation to individuals beyond realpolitik, and I think this is to their credit. It is,of course, hard to draw very firm lines between the idea of charitable donation, voluntary aid effort and direct intervention under certain circumstances. (Japan is currently the object of the first two of these.)

As far as I am concerned I support the UN action primarily to prevent a massacre, not for regime change. Regime change might of course be the eventual outcome and I would not be sorry if that happened. But the primary reason is not regime change.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that France has been very energetic on intervention when this is not normally a course they are keen on. Could it be connected to the arrest of Gaddafi's son a couple of years ago in France and the subsequent cooling of relations between the two countries. Gaddafi as a result of the legal actions taken against his son is disinclined to trade with anyone of French descent. Seen in this light, France's support becomes tainted by good old fashioned self interest.
If Gaddafi is defeated and that is a big 'if, I wonder what will become of his secret billions deposited across the world's banking system. Before the uprising, taking Gaddafi's money must have been a pleasurable thing despite his questionable human rights record. In time many countries may find themselves in the same position as Sweden did over the Nazi gold. I doubt Britain's hands will be clean despite their recent refusal to give him funds.

George S said...

In realpolitik hands are always only relatively clean. And frankly I am always surprised that anyone expects anything else. If purity of soul and intent were to be a test of state action, or indeed any human action, no one would ever pass, certainly no state. Hypocrisy is therefore the natural condition of realpolitik and there's no point complaining about it. It is not the rhetoric but the action we have to watch and learn from.

Having said that, there still remains a choice between better or worse action - for whatever reason. If I am drowning I don't worry too much about the motives of the man who throws me a lifebelt. Similarly, if I am the man in possession of a lifebelt, I either do or don't feel an impulse to throw it to a drowning man. At what point do I consider that he might be a murderer or a robber? Or even a known enemy? A certain Jesus Christ had something to say on that matter. And even if I discount him, at what point do I question my own motives in throwing the lifebelt? I just do it. That is irrespective of how clean my hands are.

And of course those who risk their lives, or have their lives risked for them by their society, need a belief, at some level, in the rightness of their actions. They need the rhetoric. Ideally they will use what they need of it, and try to see as clearly as possible through it. I think a poet like Keith Douglas did exactly that in the Second World War.

And that is the human paradox, isn't it? All motives are complex. The drowning man can't afford to wait for the man with a pure heart and clean hands. Let the gods judge of him in their own good time.