2 April 2011

We need a No Fly Zone

by Trevor Phillips

At around 11.30 yesterday while in my garden in Norwich, I heard at short intervals - three times - the deep vibrating roar of a jet aircraft passing somewhere overhead. It was not like the sound of regular scheduled or tourist aircraft from Norwich airport so I imagined it might be military planes on their way from RAF Marham to bomb something or someone in Libya.

The noise filled the air in every direction as if it was being captured in a confined space, exploding off transparent but solid walls of a tomb. Clouds made its origin impossible to determine. As the sound approached crescendo, there was a brief moment when I wondered if the volume would ever peak. Has something gone wrong? Should it be so close? It maintained that heightened, rumbling rage for a disturbingly long time. That’s the moment when the hair raises on your neck and the noise is frightening in reality as well as by association. And then the all consuming roar diminished, though retaining its guttural, animal threat which you know could return, still hiding its location and direction. It eventually declined as if a volume control was being manipulated - the bass being faded more slowly, reminding you of its continuing presence. And then it was gone. Afterwards, the birdsong in my garden seemed somehow fresher and more innocent than it had sounded before that invasion.

A couple of thousand miles and a few hours away, someone else may hear that roar approach and with similar trepidation, wonder if it will cease or intensify. Wonder if the target is some miles away, or much closer. And suddenly the awful thought: ‘Perhaps it’s here?’ Perhaps the French or the Americans or the British – whichever it is this time – have made a mistake. Why here? WHY HERE?

For some it could be the last thing they hear. It won’t be the sound that kills them but the ‘precision’ bombs. Perhaps not targeted at civilians but that won’t matter to the victim. This sound, we are told by UK and US military public relations people across East Anglia, and by the arrogant bumper stickers on black-windowed gas-guzzlers, is the ‘Sound of Freedom’.

It’s not of course. It’s the sound of war. It’s the sound of death. And all too often the sound of unnecessary and counterproductive death. To Al Qaida and other extremists wanting to find new excuses for barbarity, it is the sweet opening bars of another recruitment refrain.

I hold no brief for Gaddafi and his regime. I hope the Libyan people win their freedom from him and from others who would control them, some of them gathering now. I feel as much concern as anyone for the vulnerable rebels and others in Benghazi. I felt the same way for the children of Iraq when the US led coalition tried to weaken Saddam Hussein’s regime after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The comprehensive UN sanctions which they obtained denied Iraq almost every possible import and contributed to the premature death of half a million Iraqi infants, according to UNICEF, the UN children’s organisation. I have spoken with Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq (1997-98) who resigned from that role not wanting to administer ‘a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide.’ Other officials said the phrase was inappropriate because there had been no intent to cause suffering. But the sanctions continued. Military hawks even used the suffering to justify war and invasion as a more ‘humane’ option which would protect the civilian population. War followed, shrouded in this and other lies, with even more devastating consequences for millions of innocents.

We are again hearing of the ‘humanitarian’ case for war. Yes the innocent will be protected. Our intentions are honourable. No, we are not after resources or power for our own benefit. Our fighters are compassionate. Gaddafi is a monster using his own people as human shields. All so familiar. It’s the subtle softening up of public opinion, harnessing the excitement of conflict and exploiting the concerns of decent people while intensifying their sense of loyalty to region, nation and their local military forces.

Witness some recent local coverage: Bombers from RAF Marham, we were told (EDP 22 March), declined to release bombs in a raid on Libya because they were somehow informed at the last moment of ‘a number of civilians within the intended target area’. A senior military figure is quoted saying: ‘We don’t want to fall into the propaganda trap that Mr Gaddafi is obviously trying to set us’. Explaining the pressures of quick decisions to avoid innocent victims, a pilot added: ‘Your whole career can be on the line in those 30 seconds’. Well we certainly don’t want to damage anybody’s career, do we.

I don’t doubt the honest wish of the pilot to avoid civilians (though some of his US peers in Iraq enjoyed their ‘turkey shoots’ immensely). But as for the claimed humanitarian intentions of the politicians, I don’t believe a word of it. If humanitarianism is the aim of these militarised democracies, why did they perpetrate the atrocity of Iraq? Why are drones still destroying wedding parties in Afghanistan? Why were the abuses of favoured dictators indulged for so long – and even now? Why have they tolerated decades of Israel’s impoverishing occupation of Palestinian land? Why no NATO or UN No Fly Zone over the West Bank? Why is there no selective targeting of the Saudi tanks helping to put down democratic demands in Bahrain?

The examples of double standards, hypocrisy and damned lies are just too many.

Now we watch again the ‘mission creep’ as aims shift from the protection of civilians to regime change. And as NATO, with only a Qatar fig leaf, tells us No Fly Zone means arming of the rebels. William Hague adds another aim: the people of Libya ‘want access to free markets’, he says. Has that become a prerequisite for supporting rebels, one wonders? But don’t worry, Qatar is currently managing the oil interests of East Libya, on behalf of the people. At least it’s not the US, where post-war oil concessions in Iraq bring the words fox and hen-house to mind.

No, we don’t want to fall into propaganda traps that Mr Gaddafi is obviously trying to set us. Or anybody else’s traps.

We are told the imperial powers – declined and declining- fear Gaddafi may slaughter the Libyan rebels. But why did air raids begin on Libya just before an African Union delegation was set to arrive, seeking a ceasefire and negotiated settlement? Could it be that the West fears even more the idea that rebels in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere might actually eventually succeed without western support? This would deny the West the opportunity to impose its now familiar Shock Doctrine of economic and institutional rebuilding, which guarantees the safe and profitable incorporation of liberated territories into the western orbit.

Let’s have a No Fly Zone. Let’s start here. Keep the Marham tornados on their home ground. And ship the US planes from their East Anglia bases back to the US. Keep other NATO planes on their European tarmac and get their aircraft carriers out of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. And just possibly, the rebellions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East will be able to proceed without the fear that if they go too far or too fast the ‘Sound Of Freedom’ will come deafeningly to their rescue.


  1. Thanks T. Passionately written.
    I disagree. If you are taking this line, I think you need to come clean about what it would mean: it means you are willing for Benghazi to have fallen and for the revolution in Libya to have been defeated. And Gaddafi promised 'no mercy' to the revolutionaries. So it means you would be prepared to not intervene as he slaughtered and tortured thousands more.
    If you think that a price worth paying for non-intervention, then I hope you will say so.

  2. Anyway: There is lots we can do to help that I'd hope we can _all_ agree on. E.g. Support Avaaz supporting the pro-democracy protesters everywhere: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/blackout_proof_the_protests/?fpbr

    Also, put pressure on our own corporate supporters of the repressive regimes: see my new protest group, here, that I will probably write a future column on: http://ethicalpr.blogspot.com/

    One more point: That the motives of governments in intervening Libya are suspect does not imply that it is wrong to support that intervention. Not at all. That would be like saying that we should not support social insurance programmes that were introduced because governments were afraid of their population rising up against them if they did not introduce them (cf. eg. Bismarck's Germany - lots of great policies introduced for terrible reasons - ...doesn't stop the policies being great!).
    Remember that Western states are afraid of their own peoples, just as Middle Eastern states are. The more afraid they are of their peoples, the more likely they can be to do the right thing. The same with companies being afraid of their customers.
    So, bottom line: Just because a Western government does something doesn't make it bad! On the contrary, the more we call on them to do the right thing and to campaign forcibly for it, the more likely they are to do it, whether they want to or not. (Look at the way that popular pressure clearly helped push the US and UK eventually into acting against Mubarak, and at the way that conservative business interests were moved in the same directio by the popular protests: they cared about their own financial well-being, but the uprisings and Western sympathy for them led them in the direction of turning against Mubarak.)
    Only an SWP-style ideologue or a total cynic or a dogmatic person without hope would take the fact that the West is supporting something to indicate that one must oppose that thing. And they would be wrong.

  3. "Only an SWP-style ideologue or a total cynic or a dogmatic person without hope would take the fact that the West is supporting something to indicate that one must oppose that thing. And they would be wrong."

    \er, that's you the other 99.9% of the time.

  4. Rupert, I understand your point about the moral imperative for intervention in Libya and in lots of ways I agree.

    But in the same spirit as you ask Trevor to be honest about the implications of non-intervention, I wonder if you could expand on the implications of an interventionist approach to global politics - and Libya specifically?

    Where does one - or more particularly where do states - draw the line? Who makes the decisions? Does intervention always need to take the form of military force? Should NATO be bombing air military targets in China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, a handful of former Soviet states etc. etc. ... and if, when the Libyan rebels get to Tripoli there are reprisals against civilian supporters of the regime, who do we bomb?

    I'm not suggesting that we should just stand by while oppressive regimes kill and torture their own people, but all too often the tool of last resort (military force) is used as a first recourse - largely because foreign policy is cowardly and governed by short term comercial interests.

    I think there is something disgraceful and disgusting about governments who have traded with these oppressive regimes for decades patting themselves on the backs for acting extremely violently in order to (at last) protect civilians only when it has become blindingly obvious that business as usual is no longer an option.

  5. I think it is important to recognise that foreign intervention, even under UN auspices is no simple matter of the cavalry riding to the rescue - Trevor is right to be concerned about the mixed reasons for this intervention and we should be asking why not a no-fly zone over Gaza to protect the civilians there, why not a no-fly zone over Bahrain, where President Saleh is brutally repressing his own people, why not a no-fly zone over Yemen - or Zimbabwe or any other country where a ruler is using violence to repress his people because they demand a more democratic political system. Intervention - even for humanitarian reasons - is of course a form of imperialism, given the way the world is currently structured. But it was requested by those rising up against Qaddhafi and was I believe on this ocasion the right thing to do - but in the long run we need to be very careful about simplistic taking sides and supporting armed intervention - anywhere

    david seddon

  6. The Green Party is clearly divided on this issue. Great article Tevor and well done Caroline for voting against intervention - already a disaster for the Libyan uprising and people. Action for "British interests", Rupert, does not a humanitarian intervetntion make - naive politics from you which is a shame.

    Statement on Libya from Caroline Lucas(her website)
    23 March 2011

    Some of the issues raised by the conflict in Libya are clear. Colonel Gadaffi's treatment of his own people is appalling, as is his use of overwhelming force against the protesters and rebels.
    The people of Libya should not be left to face this alone, and there is a duty on the international community to act.

    Other issues are much more difficult: above all, whether Britain, with its colonial past, its involvement in the Iraq war, its demand for oil, its continued sale of arms to the region and its selective approach to UN resolutions, can and should intervene.

    This in part depends on whether our intervention would be counter-productive to the aim of avoiding bloodshed and providing Libyans with a better future.

    There is a strong argument that Britain was right to back a ‘no fly zone' over Libya. We are a rich country with courageous and professional armed forces.

    Preventing the Libyan air force from operating could help avoid civilian casualties from bombing and help reduce Gadaffi's overwhelming military advantage over the rebels.

    That in turn could make a ceasefire easier to negotiate.

    My concern, though, is that Resolution 1973 is dangerously open ended - and is unlikely to deliver the peace and freedom that the Libyan opposition are fighting for. Western nations are already interpreting it to justify an all-out assault on the Libyan armed forces.

    This disproportionate response risks undermining the fragile Arab support for intervention and could make a ceasefire less, not more, likely.

    We would all like to see the back of Gadaffi, but Western-imposed regime change is not the way to achieve it.

    Moreover, the current approach is crowding out consideration of non military strategies.

    In the recent debate on Libya, the Government asked the House for its support for "all necessary means" to enforce the UN Resolution, itself drafted without clarity about aims and means.

    Further, backing the Government's motion implied support for the continuation of a failing wider Middle East policy.

    Iraq showed us the danger of giving any government - Labour or Conservative - a blank cheque for military involvement.

    The Government's involvement in the region is so incoherent in so many ways, such as its continued sales of weaponry, its support for other regimes shooting down unarmed protesters, and its failure to deal even handedly with human rights abuses in the region, that principled support for it is simply impossible.

    For these reasons, I voted against the Government's motion and will continue to try to keep our involvement limited to a contribution that offers the greatest prospect for a lasting peace.


    Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavilion)

  7. I find Dr Read's line of reasoning somewhat disingenuous - putting words in the mouth of his interlocutor (Mr Phillips) "it means you are willing for Benghazi to have fallen and for the revolution in Libya to have been defeated. And Gaddafi promised 'no mercy' to the revolutionaries. So it means you would be prepared to not intervene as he slaughtered and tortured thousands more". This does not necessarily follow from what Mr Phillips wrote.

    On the substantive issue, the final wording of UNSCR 1973 was embellished (in the sense of bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello) by the USA inserting the wording 'all necessary measures', I believe? We have been here before... I sent the letter (below) to the EDP. It was not published (far too long, as usual):
    "We've been here before... (When forearmed is forewarned). "But not for the first time, the government seems to be pushing against and stretching words in it (a UNSC resolution) that weren't necessarily intended by some of the countries that voted for it ". At the sole insistence of the USA, UNSCR 1973 authorises 'all necessary measures' to protect civilians and to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya. Period. In the Iraq fiasco, UNSCR 1441 did NOT authorise 'all necessary means' (UN-Speak for armed intervention) to force Saddam's hand over WMDs, but warned him of 'serious consequences'. 'Some of the countries that voted for' UNSCR 1441 - for example Syria - would never, ever, have supported it if they had known that it would be subsequently (mis)interpreted to mandate armed intervention in Iraq. "Syria voted in favour of the resolution (1441), having received reassurances from its sponsors, the United States of America and the United Kingdom, and from France and Russia through high-level contacts, that it would not be used as a pretext for striking against Iraq and does not constitute a basis for any automatic strikes against Iraq. The resolution should not be interpreted, through certain paragraphs, as authorizing any State to use force. It reaffirms the central role of the Security Council in addressing all phases of the Iraqi issue." (UNSC PV meeting 4644 page 10, Mr. Mekdad Syria on 8 November 2002). Have we learnt nothing from Iraq? If we are intervening in Libya in tacit support of a popular movement to enable civil society to freely choose some form of 'democracy' as an alternative to a 40 year autocracy, how can we do that (without demonstrable hypocrisy) if we play fast and loose with the very 'rules-based' institution (the UN) which authorises our actions as the 'international community'? We can't. Any substantive deviation from either the letter or the spirit of UNSCR 1973 without the explicit endorsement of the UN will not only be illegal, but will automatically lead to 'the international community' - notably the USA, the UK and France - forfeiting any vestige of respect in the eyes of the Arab 'street' (for example, in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain... and Libya itself). Thereby fatally undermining the 'Arab Spring', and strengthening the hand of anti-democratic elements worldwide. Mission accomplished - for al Qaeda." ENDS

    The deployment of Coalition of the Killing air and naval power to disable/degrade pro-Gaddafi heavy weaponry mustering on the outskirts of Benghazi was justified and consistent with UNSCR 1973 (protecting civilians): its use to repeat the dose to disable/degrade pro-Gaddafi forces investing Mis(u)rata would be justified pari passu under UNSCR 1973. But the overall thrust of the resolution, to interdict Libyan air space to pro-Gaddafi forces, was accomplished several days ago.

    Last word to Trevor Phillips: " To Al Qaida and other extremists wanting to find new excuses for barbarity, it is the sweet opening bars of another recruitment refrain."