Steve Richards: Let the people decide. Unless we decide not to

When Cameron announced the no-fly zone he was hailed for his courage. Then questions were raised

Share

Am I on hallucinogenic drugs? Lord Glasman, an adviser to Ed Miliband, posed the question at an event I hosted last week. Glasman wondered aloud whether what was happening could be happening. He had witnessed the fall of two elected prime ministers, in Greece and Italy, to be replaced by determined technocrats, and noted that instead of alarm across the democracies of Europe there was widespread relief. Glasman could not quite believe it, the casual bypassing of that wretched, awkward process known as democracy.

The financial crisis vividly highlights how impossibly difficult it is for leaders to be accountable to voters while taking nightmarish decisions to avoid economies falling off a cliff. In Germany Angela Merkel cannot quite face the implications, at least before her next election. In the US President Obama has an election to fight and anyway cannot make headway with a recalcitrant Congress, a systemic paralysis that was once regarded as a model of democracy. In contrast markets wreak havoc in a nanosecond.

Few living in democracies seek an undemocratic alternative. Yet as elected leaders agonise over the conflicting demands of winning elections and being economically responsible, while expressing relief as their counterparts are removed, some intervene in parts of the Middle East as crusading evangelists of democracy, as if securing it was as simple as boiling an egg. While Italy and Greece dance to the tunes of suddenly imposed technocrats, the likes of Iraq and Libya are apparently ready for democracy. Before the war in Iraq, Tony Blair made the shallow observation that Iraqis would prefer democracy. No doubt most of them would, but how and in what form were questions too easily evaded. What is happening in Libya and to some extent in Egypt follows a similar pattern.

In opposition, David Cameron seemed to perceive the overwhelming constraints when he argued that western powers could not bomb their way towards imposing democracy in the Middle East. In power he opted for the very short-term Blairite swagger that follows apparent liberation. Indeed the sequence in Libya is starting to acquire an ominously familiar air. When Cameron announced the no-fly zone earlier this year he was widely hailed for his courage. Then questions were raised about the war aims. Was the objective to remove Gaddafi? Well, sort of, but not exactly. How would the military action end? Ah, the aim cannot be defined so precisely, we are there to protect the people of Benghazi from massacre.

Then a tyrant is captured and killed. Briefly the unanswered questions seem irrelevant and the liberating western leaders are heroes. When Cameron and President Sarkozy arrived in Tripoli they were cheered euphorically, as Blair was on his first visit to parts of Iraq after the war, his only tour there when fleeting euphoria played a role.

Soon, though, the questions begin. Who are the rebels who removed the tyrant? United temporarily against a common enemy, can they agree a route to democracy? What form will the democracy take? Do militant fundamentalists detect the space to make their moves as part of the rebellion?

In the latest edition of the London Review of Books there is an important corrective to the orthodox narrative from Hugh Roberts. Reading his long, calmly forensic account of what happened in relation to Libya takes Glasman's near hallucinogenic experience to a new level. In the case of Libya, what we thought was happening was not happening, a slightly different but equally unsettling experience to discovering that what appeared to be happening in Greece and Italy was indeed happening – Glasman's drug-like experience.

Among a mountain of points, Roberts argues that as far as a judgement is possible, Gaddafi was not planning a massacre of civilians in Benghazi, the trigger for the military intervention. In other towns Gaddafi had targeted the rebel leaders, but not the rest of the population. Subsequently Gaddafi offered a ceasefire on four occasions, but leaders in the West behind the key UN resolution only wanted Gaddafi's forces to stop fighting. The rebels could continue. Even though non-violent options were included in the relevant UN resolution, essential to secure the necessary level of support, they were never explored once the resolution had been passed.

On the ground the rebels were "raw" and without a clear sense of what they wanted, therefore making negotiation impossible. The revolt took a violent form more rapidly than in Egypt and Tunisia. Finally, Roberts points out that the Western case was based on the argument that Gaddafi was "killing his own people" and that he had lost all "legitimacy". Both assertions involved what Roberts calls "mystifications", a sinister but effective form of distortion in some western democracies. He points out that Gaddafi was killing those of his people who were rebelling, doing what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion. As for legitimacy, Libyans were divided. Both sides enjoyed substantial support.

This is revisionist history as the events unfold. Unlike historians challenging orthodoxy from a long distance, Roberts has no idea what will happen next. Nor do we. But we know the lessons from the recent past, and indeed the apocalyptic present. Democracy is fragile and challenging for those in Europe steeped in its complex and noble customs. The banal simplicity of those who assert that the West has a duty to intervene in order to establish democracy elsewhere is never more painfully exposed.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there