Adrian Hamilton: Intervention is never simply humanitarian

International Studies

Click to follow

The conclusion of the Libyan uprising isn't turning out quite as those outside , particularly in the West, expected. The downfall of Tripoli earlier this month proved more sudden and more speedy than even the Nato advisers to the rebels had predicted. The problems of restoring normal life are proving more daunting.

There hasn't been the descent into violence and looting that we saw after the invasion of Iraq, despite some predictions that Tripoli now would prove the equivalent of Baghdad then. But the difficulties of just getting water flowing and the rubbish collected look a lot more difficult on the ground than either the rebels or Nato had prepared for, never mind the continuing challenge of finding Colonel Gaddafi.

But then that is always the problem of overturning authoritarian regimes by military means. Speak to anyone involved in the liberation of Europe in the Second World War about it. If the muddled, uncertain finale of the Libyan uprising has any lesson, it should be to sober up those enthusiastic Western voices that greeted the fall of the Libyan capital as evidence of the virtues of "humanitarian intervention".

David Cameron rushed back from holiday (for the second time) to applaud the taking of Tripoli and to claim part-ownership of the success. President Sarkozy of France was even more hyperactive than usual in proclaiming France's part in the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. Even Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was eager to get to the microphones to take a share in the credit, for all that her boss, President Obama, continues to take a more distanced approach.

We're hearing rather less from all of them now. And for good reason. The UN-backed Nato campaign in Libya may have started as a straight humanitarian act to stop Gaddafi's forces retaking Benghazi and wiping out the revolt. Anyone doubting the brutality of the reprisals that would have happened need only look at the atrocities committed in the last weeks of the regime's hold on Tripoli to understand what might have happened had Benghazi fallen.

But Western leaders – Sarkozy in particular, with Cameron bounding along to keep up with him – wanted more than the "protection of civilians" which was the ostensible aim of air action. They wanted straight regime change, effected by air power alone, and as that proved difficult, they became ever more involved in the rebel fight, picking targets for bombing by putting observers on the ground and aiming the bombs at changing the balance of power on the ground. It worked in the sense of helping – indeed making possible – the fall of Tripoli. But it has come at the cost of embroiling Europe in the reshaping of a post-Gaddafi Libya as a deeply implicated player.

When the leaders and foreign secretaries of the so-called "Friends of Libya" meet in Paris for a summit chaired by President Sarkozy today, the first such summit to be held since Nato became involved in March, they will ostensibly be discussing the future of the country post-Gaddafi and how they can help.

In reality, the 30 countries attending, along with 20 aid agencies and international organisations, will be there to see what they can get out of it. Understandably, the Transitional National Council of the rebels is saying that they don't want troops. What they want is help with preparing for elections and also with establishing an independent police force.

But as it comes to the elections, each candidate will have his (for most will be men) contacts in the West just as Western countries will have their favoured "men". As the mechanics are worked out, will the West pressure the interim government to keep the Islamists at bay? The politics are only made more complex by the degree to which Libya is a tribal society in which tribal support to the new regime will have to be rewarded.

And as far as getting the garbage collected, the water supplies running and the oil flowing to port in a petroleum-rich country, who gets the contracts? The opportunities for Western meddling are endless, which is why so many Libyans and the Arabs more generally remain so cynical about the West's "humanitarian" ventures.

Hospitality Algerian style

One has to admire Algeria's ambassador to the UN, Mourad Benmehidi, for his defence of his country's warm reception of Gaddafi's wife and children as an act of obedience to the "holy rule of hospitality" of the desert. Does anyone seriously think that Algeria would have accepted the rebel leaders as refugees if Gaddafi had won?

The Algerian government always supported the Libyan leader because he approved their actions in Sahara and Africa and worked with them to keep oil prices up. Just as importantly he shared with Algiers the view that any sign of Islamism should be suppressed with the utmost rigour.

The fascinating question is how events in Libya, coming on top of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, will impact the North African countries to the west. Algeria remains an oppressive state which, having fought decades of war against islamists, has built up the security apparatus to clamp down on any sign of revolt.

Further west, the King of Morocco has talked of reform and accelerated moves to democracy. Although still popular, he has so far been slow to act on his promises of change and is still surrounded by vested interests opposing change. But he has the opportunity and a country which would still (as some did in Syria) prefer the stability of a modernising ruler.