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

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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

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