Back in 1986, around the time the US was busy bombing locations in Tripoli and Benghazi in response to a terrorist attack in a Berlin discothèque that killed two American military personnel, there was a joke doing the rounds at my school. A kid would approach you in the playground and ask if you’d heard Ronald Reagan’s new song. When you replied in the negative, they would sing – to the tune of Paul McCartney’s Frog Song – “bomb, bomb, bomb, Libya.” For some reason this came back to me as I was watching Muammer al-Qadhafi’s bizarre and babbling speech conducted from the ruins of his Bab al-Azizia barracks in Tripoli – a location hollowed out in that ’86 attack, and therefore pregnant with symbolic meaning.
It occurred to me, watching what I dearly hoped would be the dictator’s last stand, that Qadhafi is someone who seems to have been around forever. Indeed, the old man had been in power for nearly ten years before I was born. Yet even to an easily amused nine-year-old he seemed a figure of bemusement rather than terror – more comical than diabolical. We all knew he was a tyrant, of course, but with his penchant for eccentric behaviour and startling pronouncements, dressed in his military bling or Bedouin chic, Qadhafi has, throughout the years, remained fodder for panel-show comedians as much as he has for grave headlines. Like everybody else, I marvelled at the sight of his ever-changing, extraordinarily rubbery face – the surgically-altered visage dramatically taking on the appearance of his Spitting Image puppet left on a radiator. Like everybody else, I found much amusement in his rambling speech at the UN in 2009. As far as autocratic Arabian leaders were concerned, I was content, like many, to file Qadhafi away under ‘buffoonish’.
One of the most notable and immediate effects of the revolutionary upheavals currently remaking the Arab world is the way in which events on the ground have, as Simon Schama put it with typical grandiloquence, “scrambled all the cliché’s”. Any notion of Qadhafi being a figure of fun among Arab rulers now seems rather nauseating. The ‘buffoon’ of north Africa lies exposed as the ruthless butcher of an unarmed and captive population; one who would turn mercenaries on the Libyan people rather than cede them an inch of power. Any hopes that the relatively bloodless revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt could be replicated region-wide have been rudely disabused by the events of last week, where the death-toll is already estimated to have reached the thousands, and where, despite the defeats and defections, Qadhafi shows every sign of clinging on to till the last drop of blood is spilt.
How much blood that will entail is at this stage terrifyingly uncertain. Although details are conflicting and sketchy, the gains made by the rebels are nonetheless impressive, as they would appear to hold much of the east of the country, including Libya’s second city Benghazi. Whether they can consolidate those gains while lacking the discipline, command structure, and training of a normal fighting force remains to be seen. According to Reuters Qadhafi still commands some 10 – 12,000 loyal troops (including the elite 32nd Brigade commanded by his son Khamis), plus an unknown number of mercenaries bought in from other parts of Africa. We have no precise way of knowing how deep or how shallow his support among the populace really is; whether the division in the country holds the potential for prolonged internecine conflict. Clearly, Qadhafi cannot be allowed to return from this self-inflicted assault upon his own legitimacy. In the absence of a self-imposed exile, that leaves only one option. Qadhafi himself seems to have chosen the Ceauşescu route to oblivion. Should the battle of Tripoli come, however, we cannot predict if it will be as rapid as the fall of Baghdad, or as protracted as the fall of Constantinople.
Given all this, we ought to be asking ourselves some hard questions. The international community was slow to react – it took Obama nine days to utter his first word about the crisis – presumably because they hoped Qadhafi’s regime would be bought to heel as rapidly as Mubarek’s and Ben Ali’s had. Once it got going, though, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a series of sanctions against Qadhafi’s regime with a rare and commendable rapidity. World leaders, their citizens safely evacuated, are now cuing up to condemn Qadhafi. On Monday the US has begun moving warships to the coast. Although Hilary Clinton told the UN Human Rights Council the ships were for humanitarian rescue, stressing “There is not any pending military action involving U.S. naval vessels,” the Obama administration has not ruled out military intervention, and nor should it.
Those who are against Humanitarian intervention in principle will already be lining up to warn of the dangers of western ‘interference’. (I have already seen normally sensible people argue that the US wants to invade Libya in order to steal its oil – you know, like in Iraq.) As with Bosnia, intelligent men and women will be arguing that ‘we’ have no place intervening in a civil war ‘over there’. They will sincerely insist, no matter how gory the battle between Qadhafi and Libya’s newly assertive citizenry becomes, that external force could only make the situation worse. As with Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, they will, in their mistaken assumption of moral superiority, be immune to the idea that not intervening has consequences too. They will also, I fear, have the ear of Obama, a president whose approach to foreign policy seems to be caution bordering on cowardice. Writing recently of the Egyptian protests, I asked, just before Mubarek stood down, how the West would react if the revolution turned bloody. The West is about to meet, or fail, that test. How much bloodshed is the international community willing to witness in Libya before being moved to act? 5000? 10,000? 50,000? Given the precariousness of the situation, these are serious questions that deserve serious thought. I hope it doesn’t come to that, of course, but if it comes to that, I hope Obama has the bottle.
Watching Qadhafi’s bunker rant, it seemed odd to me that the media insisted on calling it ‘defiant’, as it struck me as the bizarre display of a man losing his grip on reality as well as power. Barking a loose string of disconnected tirades at the “greasy rats and cats” leading the uprising, he variously blamed “people of turbans and long beards,” (i.e. Islamists) and “youth” who had been “given hallucination tablets” for sewing insurrection. The ‘speech’ was punctuated with long pauses, licked lips, and references to himself throughout – always a bad sign this – in the third person. “Muammer Qadhafi,” he declared, “is history and resistance, freedom, victory, revolution.” The stench of madness was unmistakable: he seemed as crazy as a box of frogs. This sordid spectacle, as well as reminding me of a childhood joke, also bought keenly to mind the lines of Auden’s August 1968:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among the desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
At one point in Qadhafi’s speech he swore he would not leave the country, and avowed his intention to “die as a martyr in the end.” Let us hope he gets his wish. Sooner than he thinks.