The leeches and legalists squabbling over Gaddafi

Neither Western leaders trying to wring moral mileage out of Gaddafi's death, nor UN officials denouncing it as illegal, deserve our backing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

It is hard to know who comes out worse from the grisly aftermath of Colonel Gaddafi’s death. Is it Western leaders like UK prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who are so desperate for some moral momentum, for a shot of adrenalin to their perfunctory political existences, that they will hold up the killing of a has-been tyrant outside a sewer as a great democratic moment? Or is it the UN and its cheerleaders in the liberal press, who complain that the killing of Gaddafi was potentially illegal and will thus have to be pored over for 500 years by a panel of experts to see if he was purposely killed (bad) or accidentally killed (not so bad)?

It’s a close-run thing. We may never decide upon a winner in this competition of degraded responses to Gaddafi’s demise. But one thing is certain: the post-Gaddafi debate has exposed some serious rot at the heart of the Western political class. On one side, we have prime ministers and presidents leeching off the killing of a tinpot tyrant in the hope that it will secure them a paragraph or two, maybe even a mugshot, in future books on world history. And on the other side, we have an army of naysayers, risk-averse pen-pushers dolled up as men of principle, for whom no earthly event can be allowed to pass without becoming the subject of an interminable inquiry.

No sooner had Gaddafi’s heart stopped beating than the first crowd – the leechers – were making speeches about a brilliant new dawn. Cameron was at the forefront, tilting his head for the cameras outside 10 Downing Street as he solemnly celebrated the passing of a wicked man. Cameron’s real emotions, however, his determination to claim moral ownership of the rather chaotic slaying of Gaddafi, were exposed at a later event to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali. He said it was fitting that Diwali, a festival that celebrates ‘the triumph of good over evil, the death of a devil’, should fall today, when, thanks to Cameron, a devil had been extinguished in Libya.

This speaks to the true motivation behind Cameron’s intervention into Libya – a desire for a Blair-style black-and-white standoff in foreign fields that might allow Cameron, temporarily at least, to rise above his domestic travails and pose as Good, even statesmanlike. Yet the idea that there’s a direct link between Cameron’s dropping of bombs on Libya and the killing of Gaddafi, to the extent that Cameron now poses as the architect of the colonel’s downfall, is a myth. Headlines about Cameron’s ‘foreign policy triumph’ give the impression that it was Cameron’s carefully worked-out policy on Libya which led to Gaddafi’s death. It isn’t true.

Cameron didn’t even have a policy on Libya. It is worth recalling, as Cameron, Sarkozy and US President Obama vie to claim responsibility for the end of Gaddafi, that just a few months ago they couldn’t decide whether the toppling of Gaddafi, never mind his execution, should be one of their aims. The lack of any causal tie between NATO’s actions in Libya and what happened outside that sewer in Sirte is brilliantly illustrated by the fact that Western leaders are now squabbling over which of them is the real Gaddafi killer. As one article asks, ‘Who can claim the credit for the success of the intervention in Libya?’. Was it Obama’s ‘cautious, backseat approach’ (that is, the fact that US forces withdrew 48 hours after the bombardment started) that killed Gaddafi, or was it Cameron’s ‘powerful alliance’ with the French that finished him off?

It was neither. Obama’s ‘cautious approach’ wasn’t a strategy at all, but the very opposite: a decision to opt out of this venture just a couple of days after it started. And there was no ‘powerful alliance’ between Britain and France, as evidenced by the fact that they spent most of the time accusing each other of not doing enough and arguing over which of them was in charge (neither wanted to be).

It is because Gaddafi’s death was actually the product of general chaos in Libya, rather than of any strategy drawn up in Washington, London or Paris, that the question of who can wring moral mileage from his death has become so open-ended and testy. The truth is that Western intervention in Libya did not drive events there over the past six months. Rather, the key dynamic has been the disintegration of Gaddafi’s regime – of his political grip, his institutions, his military forces – and both the rebel advances and the NATO bombings were responses to this slow-motion collapse of an Arab dictator rather than being the authors of it. In now claiming to be the killers of Gaddafi, and thus the liberators of Libya, Cameron, Sarkozy and Cameron are doing a political, PR version of what Lynndie England did in that Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq: posing next to a dead body in the hope that it will make them look good.

Yet if there’s one thing worse than these armchair trophy-hunters, it is the other group, the legalists, who insist Gaddafi should have been brought to The Hague rather than being killed. It is testament to the extreme disarray amongst those Western leaders now posing as Get Gaddafi geniuses that even as Cameron talks about killing a devil, his own defence secretary, Phil Hammond, says it would have been better to put Gaddafi on trial: ‘We would have liked to see [him] going on trial, ideally at the International Criminal Court, to answer for his misdeeds.’ Hammond echoes UN officials, who claim the killing of Gaddafi may have been illegal, as well as international lawyers and sniffy editorialists, who gnash their teeth over Gaddafi’s ‘gruesome’ and ‘deeply troubling’ death.

Not only do these people clearly not understand the first thing about war, which, by its very definition, does not play by the same rules as those normal, law-governed areas of life. But also, their motives are not as pure as they would have us believe. Their moral handwringing over Gaddafi is best understood as a kind of lynch-mob envy. They’re actually gutted that the actions of a literal lynch mob have deprived them of the opportunity to enact a judicial lynch mob against a dictator they love to hate. The killing of Gaddafi has upset them primarily because it means they won’t be able to do the thing that they so adore – stick a dictator, preferably an African one, in an air-conditioned court in Holland, and advertise their moral pre-eminence by interrogating him for years and writing endless articles about his evilness.

In the final few weeks of his life, as he moved from his palaces to a bunker and finally into a sewer, Gaddafi was effectively faced with two choices: subject himself to an angry lynch mob in Libya or turn himself over to a judicial lynch mob at the International Criminal Court at The Hague (which issued a warrant for his arrest in June). It is telling that he went for the first option. Perhaps he deduced that death by literal lynch mob would at least be less humiliating and quicker than having to sit in a court for seven or eight years as some floppy-haired QC from Islington made long, boring speeches about the importance of us decent folk over here taking a stand against foreign wickedness over there. How revealing that Gaddafi would rather be shot to death by an angry crowd than bored to death by pompous Amnesty-backers in wigs.

For all its pretensions to ‘justice’, the international court system is really a tool of moralism and realpolitik rather than a properly universal legal set-up. It is designed largely to facilitate the mob-style expression of Western liberals’ moral superiority over messed-up foreigners. Why do you think that everyone who has thus far been hauled before the International Criminal Court has a) been African and b) been black? Both the judicial lynch mob that wanted Gaddafi in court and the literal lynch mob that wanted him six feet under were driven by similar urges: a desire to make an example of a dictator, to let off some inner steam by judging/shooting a man we all recognise as wicked. Of course, Libyans’ desire to do this is far more understandable and just, and the fact that they did it is nothing to cry about.

The post-Gaddafi clash between leeches and legalists reveals a lot about the state of the Western body politic. It exposes our rulers as deeply opportunistic creatures, so desperate for a bit of political purpose that they’ll even try to milk some PR points from bloody events outside a sewer in Libya. And it suggests that the only ‘opposition’ to this weird and aloof meddling in other people’s affairs comes from an alternative gaggle of global moralists, who prefer to carry out cultural lynchings in rarefied courts at home rather than real violence in deserts over there. These people aren’t so far from the sewer themselves.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here

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Topics World


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