As the Arab Spring gives way to autumn, it has claimed another tyrant’s head for the mantle. Muammar Gaddafi is now dead—dragged like a dog from a drainpipe and killed by a mob. But the way he died—not unlike the way Saddam Hussein was executed—has exposed the West’s bloodied hands, and its selective squeamishness. By RICHARD POPLAK.
You had to laugh. William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary—one of the country’s ruling toffs surely conjured by Maggie Thatcher in a midnight laboratory session—watched the images of Muammar Gaddafi’s final seconds, and he did not approve. The shaky cam footage is destined to be one of the lasting digital moments of our age—the classic Middle East strongman, bloodied and confused, right before one of his brothers plugs a bullet in his head. From Hague’s perch in Downing Street, this must have seemed very unsanitary. “We don’t approve of extra-judicial killings,” sniffed he.
On the fact that Gaddafi’s convoy was bombarded by Nato missiles as it tried to smash its way out of Sirte, and the point that The Colonel was effectively killed by a unmanned drone popping off Hellfire missiles, there was no mention. What was it, one wonders, that Hague found so offensive about this particular brand of extra-judicial killing? Would not The Colonel have been extra-judicially killed if he were burned to carbon like so many of his fleeing comrades?
It could be that Hague understood, as that shaky footage unfolded before him, that The Colonel’s blood was on his hands. Britain’s postmodern belligerence in the Middle East dates back unbroken to the first Gulf War invasion, and they haven’t stopped bombing the joint since. During the nineties, there were daily bombing sorties along the Iraqi no-fly zone, held in consort with the Americans. The extra-judicial killings have been plentiful. What was it that rankled about this one?
Perhaps his statement represents a sort of Western political second nature—a way of differentiating the more civilised developed world from the nuttiness of the rest of the planet. There was very little of the usual lefty handwringing in Britain over the bombing campaign in Libya, and certainly nothing like the opposition to the second Iraq invasion. (We should note that South Africa’s official position would be that Britain had no business in either country, but we’ll leave our own foreign policy, insofar as it exists, out of it for the moment.) The antiseptic nature of the bombing campaign in Libya, despite a few minor disasters here and there, seemed to confirm that it was a sound decision.
It ended messily, as it always does—a prelude, perhaps, to the industrial scale messiness to come. It is immensely convenient to the Brits and their allies that Gaddafi was killed extra-judicially; nothing could have been more unseemly than a rushed Saddam Hussein-like trial—recall, for a moment, the protestations that followed his execution, where he was taunted from the gallery and photographed in his last moments. Worse, Gaddafi could have ended up in The Hague (no relation to the toff), which might have satisfied those looking for solid answers on the Lockerbie bombing, but would certainly have embarrassed Ghaddafi’s frenemies, including numerous members of Britain’s political elite.
No, no—it was for the best. But The Colonel’s dénouement, especially placed alongside Hague’s denunciation thereof, puts things in a significantly different light. Let’s weigh the events of the past six months against Hague’s own rhetoric, and see where we come out. In August last year, he offered up the following: “[Britain] cannot have a foreign policy without a conscience. Foreign policy is domestic policy written large. The values we live by at home do not stop at our shores. Human rights are not the only issue that informs the making of foreign policy, but they are indivisible from it, not least because the consequences of foreign policy failure are human.”
Read through the prism of hindsight, factoring in Britain’s a la carte approach to the Arab Spring and their own homegrown riots, Hague’s speech is nothing more than blather. While this is far from uncommon for a politician, it does take on an aura of tragedy when we consider it against the larger picture: That Britain and her allies in the West have played elements of the Arab Spring for expediency. Libya proved to be a safe bet, and those Nato nations who stepped up will be first at the trough when the oil taps are turned on again. The situations they could not inveigle or influence—like Syria or Bahrain—have exposed their weakness, which is a direct result of their fine work in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that served only to strengthen the hand of hostile parties. (Stand up and be counted, Iran.)
Hague speaks of a foreign policy with a conscience, but there really is no such thing. Along with the US trifecta of Clinton, Bush and Obama—who have turned national self-interest into a fine art—Britain is really just winging it. There is no consistency, and more disturbingly, no soft-power influence to go along with the high-altitude bombing campaigns. As squeamish as he is about The Colonel’s grisly demise, Hague may find himself doubly revolted by his new friends in Libya, who are not as practiced in the art of dissembling as he is.
“We are not going to mourn [Gaddafi]”, continued Hague, “the fall of Sirte and Bani Walid is a major opportunity for Libya to be able to move on to what they’ve fought for all this year, into a free and democratic future.” But what does a “free and democratic future” mean, especially when the beacons on the hill have proved so craven, and so inconsistent? This has been the year of extra-judicial killings. It’s rather late in the game for William Hague and his ilk to start worrying over it. DM
Photo: British Foreign Secretary William Hague (L) receives a gift from Chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdel Jalil after their meeting in Tripoli October 17, 2011. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem.
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