The Foreign Policy pendulum risks a Libyan massacrePosted on March 3, 2011
It can be too easy to spot patterns or cycles in human history – the flow of events is so hectic and massive that they can trick the eye into seeing predictable patterns that aren’t there.
In foreign policy, though, there is a fairly discernible pendulum. A period of nervousness or isolationism tends to lead to an atrocity going ahead unhindered, which then inspires a period of more muscular interventionism – until a foreign adventure becomes a painful blunder, at which point the pendulum swings back.
There are a number of examples of this. The muscular foreign policy of the early 20th century fuelled the First World War, the slaughter of Flanders inspired the excessive timidity of appeasement in the 1930s, the disastrous failure of appeasement led to World War II and allowed the Holocaust, which made the UK and France overconfident to the extent that they blundered into Suez and so on and so on.
That’s obviously a massive simplification, and I’d characterise this as a very broad trend rather than a set pattern, but there is clearly an interplay between the two contrasting extremes of foreign policy – interventionism and non-interventionism.
I fear that we’re seeing the results of this pendulum yet again in Libya today. The severe problems suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the vast unpopularity of both ventures at home, has made the international community either wary or downright hostile to the idea of risking any sort of intervention – particularly in the Middle East.
As a result, despite it having been obvious for a week or more that Gaddafi does not care how many of his own people he slaughters with any means possible, we are only in the very first stages of mulling the very possibility of a no-fly zone. I could understand wariness about putting “boots on the ground” (not least because we have a very limited number of available boots at the moment), but a no-fly zone should be uncontroversial – a simple guarantee that fighter-bombers will not be allowed to slaughter civilians, and air transports full of sub-Saharan mercenaries will not be able to ferry a new army for Gaddafi into Libya.
We may yet get such a no-fly zone, but the gears are grinding horrifyingly slowly. While the loyalist army is driving East through Libya, recapturing territory and doing god knows what to the rebel populace, the post-Iraq nervousness of the West is plain for all to see. Gaddafi will rely on it lasting long enough for him to deal the opposition some heavy body blows and to stabilise his position.
In the same way that our current wariness was inspired by the pain suffered along an interventionist road over the last ten years, we should not forget that those interventions – including Kosovo and Sierra Leone, as well as Afghanistan and Iraq – were themselves inspired by a horrifying failure to act to stop several atrocities in the 1990s, most notably in Bosnia and Rwanda.
We must learn from the setbacks we suffered in Basra and Helmand. It would be madness not to do so. But that is no excuse to forget Srebrenica or the villages of Rwanda. If, in 2011, we allow the the events of the 2000s to petrify us into total inaction, then we risk visiting the horrors of the 1990s on the people of Libya. That must not be allowed to happen.