Monday, 14 March 2011

When Gaddafi wins

Andrew Rawnsley asks if we are "content" to let Muammar Gaddafi triumph in Libya. Clearly he thinks not. The liberal interventionist instinct remains as strong as ever, despite what we learned (or ought to have learned) in Afghanistan and Iraq. But let's face the possibility - which increasingly looks like a probability - squarely in the face. Let's grant that Gaddafi's willingness to shed blood in order to cling onto power is contrary to most people's idea of decent dictator-behaviour when faced with popular demonstrations (which is, Mubarak-style, to accept the inevitable and go with a modicum of grace). Let's admit that morally (and, as Alex Massie points out) aesthetically, sitting on our collective hands and letting him get on with whatever he needs to do to stay in power is not a particularly attractive option. Practically, politically, financially there may be no other choice. And doing nothing is less embarrassing than doing something only to find out that it is not enough. In any case, even with his tanks and aerial bombardments, even without the no-fly zone, Gaddafi's ability to kill people looks somewhat puny compared with what a big wave can accomplish in Japan. As the world's media has quickly discovered.

Here's a question our armchair warriors should be considering. Would Gaddafi's survival and victory actually be such a bad thing? Would it really be worse than the alternative - which might just be the glorious and trouble-free dawn of democracy but could just as well be a messy, drawn-out civil war?

Gaddafi, eccentric and occasionally unpredictable as he undoubtedly is, is a known quantity. The world has had 42 years to get used to his foibles - and in his post-Iraq incarnation has been an increasingly useful business and intelligence partner for the West. Even during his days of IRA-supporting international roguery, his oddly-constituted regime was relatively stable and (thanks to oil) prosperous. We laughed at his drag-act costumes, his revolutionary pretensions and his female bodyguards - but such peculiarities made the international community a more colourful, less conformist place. And is not Gaddafi's insistence on surrounding himself with gun-toting Amazons a more progressive, forward-looking gesture than the fully elected Berlusconi's desire to surround himself with an altogether different sort of female corps de garde? Tony Blair may have ingratiated himself with the Tripolitan Tinpot - but his other friends included Nelson Mandela, a man whose judgement is usually deferred to in such matters. Gaddafi, in short, was never entirely mad, not inequivically bad, and rarely dangerous to know. He was a man with whom we could, and did, do business, and will do so again.

It's been said many times over the past week or so that if Gaddafi prevails, the region's other despots, dictators and autocrats will take the message that the way to prevail is to employ overwhelming force against one's own people, to win through intimidation and violence, to face down the posturing of the "international community." Not to go quietly, as Mubarak did. But what dictator worth his salt has ever thought any differently? Mubarak stepped down, it's true - but he was told to go by Egypt's real power-brokers, the generals, who calculated (rightly, as it will probably turn out) that the both their power and their international credibility could best be preserved by giving the crowd an easy sacrifice. Nor did he want to be remembered as the man who bathed Egypt in blood. Very different considerations obtain in Libya. Besides, the message was already clear after the brutal suppression of Iran's Green Movement in 2009. Most attempted revolutions fail. Only regimes that are already tottering, that have already lost the will to rule, fall to "people power". A regime that wants to stay in power, that is ruthless enough to enforce its will, generally can - or at least, like Apartheid South Africa, survive long enough to negotiate the most favorable terms of surrender.

Gaddafi's survival will not be a betrayal of Libyan rebels of whose existence the world was unaware until a couple of weeks ago. It will be little more than the reassertion of international normality. And it will go some way towards restoring stability to a region vital to the world economy. If it stalls the toppling of the Arab dominoes, it wil also help to stabalise the oil price. It will be bad news for Al Qaeda and others who dream of a religious caliphate, who have in Gaddafi an effective opponent. It will save the need to rewrite foreign policy or redraw the map of the Middle East - especially if its effect is to embolden the even-less-democratic governments of other key players in the region (many of whom are now hypocritically denouncing the Libyan regime as "illegitimate").

No-one, of course, wants to see a massacre. But the way to prevent one is to offer Colonel Gaddafi carrots instead of sticks, to promise him the unfreezing of his assets and a swift return to business as usual provided he shows some measure magnanimity in his triumph. Perhaps his friends in South America are better placed than Western governments to appeal to his better instincts. But since the world community will soon be welcoming him back - if not with open arms, then with a forced smile - it is in all our interests (and especially those of the Libyan people themselves) to ensure that the process is as made pain-free as possible.