On Saturday night at the BBC, I bumped into Tony Benn, looking more tired but still with that flame of righteous veracity in his eyes, which never quivers or wavers, a beacon for so many flapping around in this uncertain world. He condemns the Western-led raids on Libya, as he has all other such interventions in foreign lands going through violent convulsions, most arising out of unethical geopolitical moves and bad historical decisions made by the powerful. I envy the moral certitude shared by other venerable names like John Pilger and Jeremy Corbyn. Me? I'm blown this way and that over Operation Odyssey Dawn, and I feel a political anxiety attack coming on – one shared by many, and most intensely by Arab exiles I've been talking to in London.
We felt no such internal chaos or stress when it came to Iraq. It was the wrong war, launched by disreputable, ideological politicians, and illegal too. It was the wrong war pushed by self-serving exiles and the Kurds, though they had good reason to hate Saddam and were also making a bid for self-determination. Our fears then were for the poor Iraqis who would pay the price for the vanity neo-con project. They did and do, everyday still, from the unborn to the old and helpless. The other major conflicts since the Nineties were also less confusing than is Libya today, and arguably ethically more clear-cut – even where things didn't quite work out as we had hoped.
Mr Hamid, once a merchant in Alexandria who now runs a small café in a London suburb, spoke for many of us as we sat around small tables while he served us (free) cups of sweet, black coffee: "Before, we had understood what was right and wrong and it was easy to say. Like Allah whispered to us. When they went into Afghanistan to fight Taliban it was a good thing they were trying to do – but now it is very difficult. In Bosnia and Kosovo, they went to help too late but saved more Muslims dying. Also [it was the] same in Sierra Leone; they stopped cutting off hands and legs. All those citizens, how could they stop the killers without the West? So we can't always be against that. We are people of the West now. Living safely. So we should think really very carefully before attacking Mr Cameron."
He is right that we cannot ignore the pleas of the rebels and most Libyans (not all) who know Gaddafi will obliterate them and their hopes for democracy. The crisis has woken the Arab League from its long nap and for once it makes no excuses for a despot – though on Sunday, members were again copping out. The UN, too, may just be saved from the paralysis that comes from having to please every nation, even the most foul and unfair.
And yet we couldn't do it, couldn't wholly back the Libyan mission, not even on a wing and a prayer. Why? It is to do with trust. As Abdel al-Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper and a friend, wrote last week: "The first reaction was relief ... who would not want to stop a bully intent on 'wiping out' those who oppose him? But any relief should be tempered with serious misgivings. First what motives lie behind this intervention?"
There are the obvious reasons for the hyperactivity around Libya and the concomitant, languid indifference to the agony of people in other places with autocratic rulers. Yemen? Oh, no oil, so why bother? Let the "barbarians" slaughter each other. It's what they do. What about Saudi Arabia, then? As grotesque a regime as you can get. Watch the Newsnight report by Sue Lloyd Roberts tonight on this evil empire which interns its females and decapitates dissidents, which spreads its Islamicist tentacles to Muslims worldwide, including Britain, which has marched into Bahrain to "control" the crowds seeking reform. Ah, but it has much oil and much money to buy our warplanes and guns and mansions in Park Lane.
Arab bloggers are totally sceptical and some furious that the UN and Arab League has validated what is an oil grab by interested, over-armed nations. It is all to do with fuel security – nothing, they say, NOTHING to do with human rights and safeguarding civilians. I believe there is some honourable intent in the battle against Gaddafi but behind that only big, big greed. My ambiguity thus only multiplies.
Look also at who are the people most excited, nay delirious, as the skies over Libya turn black and orange? Worse than tabloid cowboys waving their patriotic guns are fanatical "liberal imperialists" – excitable journalists, think-tank warriors wanting action, Foreign Office wonks, horribly hubristic commentators – jumping at any chance to catch a conflict and bend it to Western will and control. The failure of Iraq, instead of chastening them, has made them frantic for one that will bring glorious victory. M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, an astute observer of the modern Muslim world, blogs: "Some Western pundits have started exercising their shoulders to once again take up the White Man's Burden." Read the well-honed thoughts of ex- British diplomat Robert Cooper and you understand how they long to return to a colonial world order with a modern twist.
Even more disagreeable are the posturing European and US politicians up and about and everywhere. Their swagger and sanctimony should fool nobody. On this, I agree with Pilger, Benn and others including Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi with considerable moral authority. In a letter to a newspaper, they censure Western governments who: "... have prioritised cheap oil, arms sales and support for Israel's oppression of the Palestinians above the rights of Arab peoples." Many of the weapons Gaddafi is using were sold by us to him – thank you very much, Mr Blair. As Tunisians and Egyptians made their bid for freedom, PM Cameron was out there selling to the bastards, colluding with them with a smile on his face. The French have been just as busy. (Their excuse is jobs. If miners and other workers are dispensable, why should those making blood goods be for ever protected? So others will step in to make the devil's tools? Let them.) Now they want to be saviours. Not so fast gentlemen. Could you first apologise? And then promise no more such deals? If not, even if Gaddafi is driven out, Western involvement will be suspect. It will be seen as toxic effluence which contaminated the budding Arab Spring.
At the end of the long coffee-drinking evening, most of us seemed to feel that helping rebels in Libya was necessary. But the real passions were raised over what the West does next. Their movers and shakers cannot go on cultivating hideous leaders and then turning on them when the winds change. They embrace Saudi Arabia and in the same moment shoot down Libya. Such hypocrisies will no longer be swallowed by people who are now globally connected. Realpolitik needs, I know, to prevail over idealism some of the time. However, if the West wants respect for backing democracy and humane standards, it has to put its own houses in order. The Arab revolutions have spread to our shores and are calling out for consistency and honour and for a foreign-affairs reformation. Whatever happens in Libya, our Government must listen or be damned.