Opinion: Has Libya become the next Bosnia?

Men from Bangladesh queue for a bus at a United Nations displacement camp on March 15, 2011 in Ras Jdir, Tunisia. As fighting continues in and around the Libyan capital of Tripoli, tens of thousands of guest workers continue to flee to the border of Tunisia. The situation has turned into a humanitarian emergency as Tunisia is overwhelmed with the workers. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has vowed to fight to the end.
Credit: Dan Kitwood

LONDON, United Kingdom — Some dictators are evil. Some dictators are functioning psychotics. Some are lucky. Muammar Gaddafi seems to be all three.

His 42 years at Libya's helm prove my first two assertions. The third point is demonstrated by the Japan tsunami. That catastrophe has so distracted international attention away from Libya that people can be forgiven for not knowing that Ghaddafi's army — more a ragtag group of militias — has been steadily reclaiming towns in eastern Libya taken by the even more ragtag groups of rebels when the uprising began last month.

While people have been looking at Japan's disaster porn, they may have missed the fact that the Arab League finally called for a no-fly zone over Libya and this call — unique in the history of that organization — has been met with a resounding "no can do" from the G8. A no-can-do from the great powers pretty much kills any momentum for a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Hour by hour, Gaddafi's forces move closer to Benghazi, where the revolt began.

To me, it feels like deja vu all over again. I've seen this before, and reported on it. The place was Bosnia. The results were terrible.

On the surface, Bosnia and Libya don't have much in common except this: There is a clear right and wrong in the situation and the people asking for help from the "international community" are on the side of what is right. The response to that call for help is another similarity.

Earlier this week when G8 foreign ministers met in Paris to discuss imposing a no-fly zone it was the European powers that spoke loudest. Libya, like the Balkans, is their backyard. The refugee problem will have an impact there, as will the economic fallout from the crisis. As at the start of the Balkan wars, the German government has refused to go along with the French and British governments' policy prescriptions. France and Britain want to impose a no-fly zone now. Germany says no. In the Balkans, France and Britain wanted to hold Yugoslavia together, it was Germany that precipitated the wars by recognizing Croatia when it broke away. Within a year the term "ethnic cleansing" had entered the lexicon and concentration camps were open for business in Europe again as the former Yugoslavia collapsed.

Throughout this period the "international community" was unable to agree on when to meet for coffee much less how to force the armed bullies back into their boxes. International groups were hampered by the need for unanimity. One country or another could always be counted on to invoke fear of how an overrated third-party — post-Soviet Union Russia — would respond to intervention.

The American foreign policy establishment was split, between those who agreed with the first President Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, that America did not have a dog in this fight, and those who were not yet called neo-conservative liberal interventionists. Meanwhile the Clinton administration was focused on nursing a fragile recovery from recession into a job-creating expansion.

The result was an extraordinary amount of huffing and puffing with no results.

In the case of Libya it is the same. Unanimity among Europe's Big Three is impossible to find. There is an over-rated third party to worry about: Al Qaeda. The American foreign policy establishment is divided between those who once served the second President Bush and are chastened by what happened in Iraq — including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Council on Foreign Relations' President Richard Haass — and the dead enders of neo-Conservatism fighting from their impregnable positions in the Washington media. The Obama administration is primarily focused on nursing a fragile economic recovery into job-creating expansion.

The lesson of the Balkans and the failure of Iraq cannot have been lost on Muammar Gaddafi. The "International Community" has no teeth.

And if the Colonel hasn't figured it out, his close friend Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, has.

Although Mugabe is much older, the pair have an enormous amount in common. They come out of the same post-colonial revolutionary movements. Both have grown into megalomaniacs in their decades in power. Both survive through a mixture of cunning and loyal, merciless security forces.

The pair have reportedly been in touch during the Libyan's fight to cling to power. One can almost imagine the conversation, with the pair addressing each other laughingly by their honorary titles.

"Hello, Brother Leader," says Mugabe.

"Sir Doctor, my brother, how are you?"

"For the moment I am better than you."

"What should I do? They are threatening me with a no-fly zone, for all I know they have assassination teams on the ground."

"Don't worry. They haven't got the votes and they haven't got the balls."

"But the British and French sound like they really mean it."

"Repeat after me, Brother Leader: 'Just Say No.' That's what I did. Remember a couple of years ago when I lost the election to Tsvangirai? I just said, 'No, I am not going' and I sent the lads out to break some skulls — including Tsvangirai's. Oh, didn't colonial mother Britain get upset with me. Didn't America call me horrible names. I stood firm on the word No! What happened? No one came after me, instead the Africans, led by Mbeki, went to Tsvangirai and said how about a coalition in which you have virtually no power? Poor Morgan, he saw no one would come from outside to enforce the election result so I am still here. Hang on. You want me to see if Mbeki wants to become the African Tony Blair and take on 'peace' missions on behalf of the African continent?"

"Not necessary, I will follow your advice and keep saying no, while cracking rebel heads."

"Don't kill them all, just a few, torture a few more and then be merciful to the rest. That confuses the people."

So it goes. Ghaddafi digs in his heels, the "international community" dithers and now other regimes in the Arab world learn the lesson. The Bahraini government calls on the Saudi Army to help put down the protests. They do so with extreme violence. Who cares?

I turn on the BBC World Service and listen to people in the streets crying for help from the international community. Rescue us from violence and oppression, they beg in trembling voices. Their belief in the United Nations and the righteous power of the west is heart-wrenching. They echo the cries for help I heard from Bosnia on the BBC almost 20 years ago.

Deja vu.

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