It’s hard to know the exact moment when Hugh White’s justification for inaction on Libya published today in the Fairfax press goes from being merely facile to outright nauseating. But either way, it’s classic foreign policy establishment stuff — albeit, in White’s case, Foreign Policy Establishment – Slavish Grovelling to Beijing sub-branch.

White finds himself with some rather mixed company in the NFZ camp. Guy Rundle has put together an excellent dissection of the local anti-imperialist Left’s opposition to action to aid the Libyan uprising, one that bears close reading. White can count on John Pilger for company as well — last week Pilger slotted Libya into his standard anti-neo-imperialist template (oil, blood, murder, conspiracy, rinse, repeat) and accused the US and the UK of looking for an excuse to invade Libya.

But unlike his left-wing colleagues in the sit-back-and-watch camp, White would have us believe he writes strictly from the realist point of view about how a NFZ may not work and why we haven’t learnt the lessons of Iraq.

The Iraq line is meant to scare off everyone, Left and Right, and relies on  lazy equivalence that NFZ opponents hope will slide by unchallenged. Apart from the murderous sociopath of the dictator, and being vaguely in the same part of the world, there’s no equivalence. An uprising had succeeded in wresting significant sections of Libya out of the regime’s grasp. It has established a provisional government.

It is calling for international support to remove the air power advantage of the monstrous regime it is trying to throw off. The contrast with the confected basis for the Bush Administration’s attack on Saddam Hussein, in fact, couldn’t be greater.

But under White’s “Iraq” logic, there’s only massive intervention employing combat troops, or nothing. Zero or one. It doesn’t matter that “interventionists”, as he calls us — and I’ll get to that term — only want a NFZ. For White that’s just a slippery slope into an Iraq-style mire. There’ll be sectarian bombings and Apaches over Tripoli before you can say “Curveball”. But if there’s anything increasing the likelihood of, as White warns, the NFZ not being enough, it’s NFZ opponents themselves.

The French — and Kevin Rudd last night on Lateline — are right, the moment to act is passing. A NFZ imposed when Gaddafi’s forces were in disarray, that could have grounded his air force and stopped him flying in mercenaries, would have been highly effective. But the longer the delay in international action lasts, the more likely it is that Gaddafi’s forces will exploit their position to defeat the rebels outright.

White’s piece relies on another piece of sleight-of-hand common to NFZ opponents, the suggestion that the choice for the West is between intervention and non-intervention. It’s a straw man. We’re already intervening in Libya, as we have done throughout the Middle East, for generations. What weapons is Gaddafi using to attack rebel positions and slaughter civilians? Since the arms embargo on his regime was lifted in 2004, European countries, led by Italy, France and the UK have sold him more than €800m worth of weapons, including nearly €300m worth of aircraft.

Gaddafi is relying on our hardware for his military advantage. And it was George W. Bush and Tony Blair — ably supported by the clown prince of the Mediterranean, Silvia Berlusconi — who rehabilitated Gaddafi and indulged his family and cronies. Unlike his decades as the mad dog of the Middle East, Gaddafi realized there was a good life to be had being a murderous dictator backed by the West, rather than one at odds with the West.

Maybe White doesn’t think that’s “intervention”, but Arabs would have an altogether different view. In effect, White is saying it’s fine to intervene by backing the likes of Gaddafi, but problematic if it involves backing those who want something better than a government based on the last days of Caligula. Let’s not forget, though that White has form when it comes to dictators. He’s the one who demanded a new approach to China involving “no more lecturing China about dissidents, Tibet or religious freedom.”

It seems the good professor doesn’t like even the mildest of Western hand-wringing when it comes to human rights.

The failure of an NFZ would, White insists, “leave the interveners in a very awkward position.” Well, no Prof, it wouldn’t, and not just because we’re all of us “interveners” of one kind or another. No Libyan is calling for foreign troops. Indeed, some rebels have sworn they’ll fight any foreign troops who land in Libya with the same determination they’re fighting Gaddafi’s forces. It is universally accepted that this is a fight Libyans themselves must win, even as Gaddafi relies on foreign mercenaries. The rebel forces want our assistance in nullifying the military advantages that we ourselves have handed Gaddafi. They don’t want us to do their job for them.

But, really, White doesn’t have much use for the rebels. “Who are the rebels and what would their victory mean for Libya?” he asks. We’ve heard this line before, from other parts of the foreign policy establishment. “We don’t know the opposition,” warned Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution last month, when there were first calls for a NFZ.

Well, we know one critical thing — they’re not Gaddafi, we know they’re not a regime that engages in systematic and savage human rights violations as a matter of basic policy, we know they won’t, should they manage to take control of those parts of Libya currently under Gaddafi’s control, systematically butcher the resident populations. Which answers the “who are the rebels” question comprehensively on the issue of “intervention”.

Awkward positions? There’s no awkward position here. “Interveners” can say they wanted to respond to Libyan pleas for help. They can say they wanted to give some substance to the West’s endless prattle about human rights, freedom and pluralism. They can say they weren’t content to conjure reasons why nothing could be done, to explain away the possibility that the West’s incessant intervention in the Middle East could, for once, aid freedom rather than propping up the vilest of dictators.

Kevin Rudd’s concluding remarks on Libya last night are worth repeating, because — unusually for Rudd — they very pithily sum up why the likes of Hugh White are so profoundly wrong.

It’s 2011. I would hope the international community would learn from history, because in a month’s time, two months’ time, three months’ time, if for whatever reason Gaddafi begins to prevail and we see the large-scale butchery of Libyan civilians, I am deeply concerned about how the international community will reflect on itself, and secondly, then explain itself to the Arab countries of the Middle East who have called for this action.

Peter Fray

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