Stark Realities

Wednesday, 16 March 2011 00:00 GFP Columnist - Helen Briton Wheeler
Today stark realities are all around us - especially if you are a Libyan freedom fighter opposed to Muammar Gaddafi. As the anti-Gaddafi forces rose in Libya to fight for freedom and democracy, they put their lives on the line. They also put all the major Western democracies – 'we in the West' – on the line too.

Here we are, champions of freedom and democracy, the supposed guardians of moral rectitude and responsible government. But now we have questions to answer. Do we put our principles into action here? Or not? Do we support this flowering of freedom? Or is there a five-out-of-ten response to moral challenge? This is where the rubber meets the road, where moral principles meet political savvy, practical possibility and the ultimate bottom line: how will this affect us and our economy?

Thus far 'we in the West' seem to have got about five out of ten. Many Western leaders have spoken out clearly against Gaddafi and his use of overwhelming military force against a helpless civilian population. Indeed, it is a truly disgusting spectacle.

Western leaders’ words of condemnation came swiftly and were quickly followed by sanctions. Both these were good reactions. However, neither of them helped the Libyan rebels in any practical way. The anti-Gaddafi leaders in Benghazi asked for the protection of a no-fly zone to be established over their country to help them.

This was not a simple request. I’m not a military person, but I would believe that establishing a no-fly zone over Libya is a military possibility, though it would require organisation to set up. However, that may be simple compared to the political organisation required.

Political action calls up really tough questions for Western leaders. Should we risk our own pilots and aircraft? Would there be a popular backlash at home? How would other Arab leaders in the Middle East react? Would they cut off our oil? Would our economies be under threat? Would we get the UN backing that would make such an intervention proper and legal?

Those are major political questions and can’t be dismissed lightly as having no validity. Obviously Western leaders have to be realists.

But that is why, right now, political and practical realism is crunching up against our consciences and our moral values like tectonic plates on a collision course. “We in the West” stand on a line and are trying to do the right thing. If our position were part of a school report card, it might be said of us: “Trying hard but could do better.”

It’s very encouraging to know that leaders of the Arab League support action against Muammar Gaddafi. But the tide of the conflict is changing very fast. The revolutionary leaders in Benghazi must be worried men. There is real danger that any united military action – a no-fly zone or something else –could come too late to help the brave but outgunned fighters for a free Libya.

And if this movement crumbles and the freedom fighters come under the crushing brutality of Gaddafi’s vengeance, “we in the West” will have blood on our hands. That’s because when the time came, we could not act swiftly and firmly enough in support of the values we believe in.

There would be a scary corollary to a win by Gaddafi’s forces. Other harsh dictators in the Arab world and beyond would look at Gaddafi’s example and say: “Just use overwhelming force against dissidents in your own backyard and you’ll have nothing to fear from the West. They may bark, but they can’t bite.”

Image Courtesy of DayLife - A man holds a Kingdom of Libya flag as he celebrates on a street, after Western forces launched military action against Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi's troops, in Tobruk, east of Tripoli March 19, 2011. Western forces hit targets along the Libyan coast on Saturday, using strikes from air and sea to force Gaddafi's troops to cease fire and end attacks on civilians. - Reuters Pictures

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