Jan Marijnissen: On war, progress and justice

1 April 2011

Jan Marijnissen: On war, progress and justice

The owner of the kebab shop where I sometimes go is an Egyptian. I have often spoken with him about the situation in the Arab world. ‘Jan,’ he says, ‘they’re all dictatorships, and a fat lot the dictators care about the people’s concerns. It’s incomprehensible that the West helps these dictators. It can only be because of the oil.’ I invariably reply by asking ‘why doesn’t anyone rise up against these dictators?’ ‘Because it isn’t easy, and it’s risky.’

After many decades of apparent stagnation, a revolution is now under way in the Arab world. And one thing’s for certain: it will never be the same again, anywhere. Every country will take its turn, and all dictators must fear for their future. Progress has been set in motion, and will not be stopped. The promise of more justice, openness and democracy has provoked an unstoppable wave. The people will no longer let themselves be pushed around.

Colonel Gaddafi is one such dictator who must fear for his future. He’s a bad lot; that much is clear. And this hasn’t been evident merely in recent weeks, but for many years. Clear to you, clear to me, and clear to all those government leaders who throughout those years have been doing business with him. In Libya too, a rebellion has begun. In contrast to the resistance in other countries this is a violent rebellion, one which threatens to degenerate into civil war. There is nothing worse: citizens of the same country who lose all trust in each other and, en masse, resort to acts of violence.

The disaster which occurred in the Balkans during the 1990s is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Extremists from the different sides beat the nationalist drum and thus added fuel to the conflict. Now, in Libya, conflicts between the different tribes seem to be playing themselves out in the background, and because of this a difficult and hard to resolve situation has arisen, as is the case in every civil war.

The question occupying all our minds is, what role should the international community play in this? Till not so long ago the answer was simple: no interference in the internal affairs of another country. After the horrors in Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, we have retreated ever further from this position. The United Nations Security Council decided to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, as well as an arms embargo. Good decisions, but both must then be enforced, raising the problematic question of how this will be achieved, and how far we are willing to go.

In 2000 I wrote, together with the novelist Karel Glastra van Loon, a book on Yugoslavia entitled 'De laatste oorlog'. The book was translated into English under the title 'The Last War of the Twentieth Century'. In order to write it we spoke with people such as Lord Carrington, Sir Michael Rose and Georgi Arbatov. In the chapter which concerns the conclusions of our research we wrote:

Whenever the international community seeks to interfere in internal and regional conflicts, discretion, caution and reserve are called for, certainly in cases where violence is involved. The danger that the cure will turn out worse than the disease is hugely present.

But the disease is so terrible, will come the cry from many. How can we adopt an attitude of discretion, caution and reserve in the face of so much horror?

The question here is, however, not one of morality. It is the question of effectiveness. In other words, . what is it that makes us think that a society elsewhere in the world is indeed malleable when it comes to exceptionally complicated conflicts heavily burdened by history, while we do not believe the same if it concerns our own relatively simple national questions. Those who do not look at the issue of effectiveness and appeal only to moral motives can in the end discover that they have themselves acted immorally. And the people around whom the whole thing began can sometimes end up much worse off than they would have been had discretion, caution and reserve been exercised. Morality becomes cynicism when one's own 'good conscience' is seen as more important than the reality of our fellow human beings. Moral politics without the filter of Realpolitik is mortally dangerous.

It is this passage which I find applicable to the situation in Libya now. For some, the temptation to intervene in Libya’s internal conflict from outside the country by means of massive military action is great. It cannot be ruled out that the consequences of the cure could be worse than the disease. The risk from ever more dangerous bombardments, the risk of ‘collateral damage’, as the cynics are wont to call it, looms large. A no fly zone limits the power of the Libyan army, and that gives the resistance the chance to show how much support the revolt has amongst the people, in the east of the country as well as the west. Fine. But a NATO which seeks to decide the conflict in Libya from the air is stealing the revolution from the Libyans. It’s their future that this concerns, a future which they, and only they, must determine.

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