Coalition of the eager

“Oh, what a lovely war!” The RAF rubs its hands gleefully over the opportunity to try out the Typhoon fighter in real warfare. The French discover a new stomach for surgical intervention as well as an unusual, if ambivalent, enthusiasm for working in collaboration with Americans. We all watch in a kind of guilty delight as Libyan army command and control centres are taken cleanly out, planes forced from the sky and tanks crippled. A new generation, trained on ever-improving battlefield simulators, is finally getting its chance to fight in a just cause.

There’s a gung-ho air of jolly hockey-sticks about this whole undertaking. The man is clearly a bounder and a cad, what? The fellow is a ruthless tyrant and a cheap demagogue. He makes inflammatory speeches, fires on his own people, waves his arms around, threatens dire things and wears silly hats … If we could only manage to paint him in the deadly colours of Doctor Evil, how easy things would become?

Same rabbit, different hats

But there’s a catch. This Qaddafi (with a “Q”) is the same Gaddafi (with a “G”) who constructed the Great Man-Made River and brought fresh water from vast aquifers in the Atlas mountains to his expanding cities, who wrote significant advances for his nation’s womenfolk into law, who built thousands of schools and educated his people to a standard of literacy and numeracy unknown in the region. This blood-thirsty dictator is the same former “great liberator” who disenfranchised the profiteer land and factory owners – a hangover from colonial times – and gave the people back their farms, who sent thousands of young men and women overseas to study on state-funded grants, who preached Arab unity in an unpopular era and African unity when the former ideal was rejected by other states in the pay of Uncle Sam, who saw it as communism in disguise.

No, he doesn’t play by anyone’s rules. Yes, he has tortured and killed writers and journalists. Yes, he did hang hundreds of students in front of their own university dorms to discourage dissent. Yes, he is an utterly ruthless and conniving character bent on survival at all costs. But no, he cannot be easily fitted into a convenient mould and this is most irritating in these jingoistic days, as the tabloids bay for blood and a rag-taggle army of amateurs struggles bravely in the desert. We have niggling doubts. Maybe the old fox has got something. We cannot be really certain as to whether this is a liberation struggle, or merely an ancient tribal war revived. Mr Qaddafi tells us we are opening a can of worms. He insists that he is the sole guarantor of national unity, after whom comes neither democracy, nor peace, nor prosperity, but civil war, desolation and economic collapse. We are afraid he might be right. After all, he’s been right before.

Same hat, different rabbits

There is a hint of Great Expectations to this whole episode. In that book, our hero Pip is convinced his wealth comes from the genteel but ravaged Miss Havisham, who is secretly preparing him to become a suitable partner to her beautiful but chilly ward, Estella. He is horrified and even physically disgusted to learn that the source of all his new-found gentility and affluence is in fact Magwitch, the vicious escaped convict he most unwillingly saved from certain death in the bleak marshes. For “Miss Havisham”, read Gaddafi, for “Magwitch”, read Qaddafi. The only problem is: in the end, Miss Havisham turned out to be a manipulative and malicious irrelevancy, while Magwitch turned out to be the honourable pivot of the entire novel. So where exactly does that leave us now? I don’t have an answer to that one but, my word; it’s a scintillating distraction from having to ponder the equally immediate, though rather boring issue of our common future (or lack of it) in the shadow of defunct nuclear reactors. For a while back there we almost got locked onto a single topic that might have led us to some real and uncomfortable conclusions. Praise be to the media conjurers, their curvaceous spin-doctors and the Arab street for taking back the front page. But, just in case we’ve forgotten, here are the questions the nuclear industry has still failed to answer in any of its clever videos, questions not just for the Japanese, but for all of us:

  • What will they do with the waste (where, how and with what guarantees for long-term safety)?
  • What is their solution to the “human factor” (operator error, corner cutting and corruption in the construction industry, concealed non-compliance with structural and equipment standards, the possibilities for war and civil conflict in the next thousand years)?
  • What is their plan in the event of an “incident” (evacuation and resettlement of entire populations – issues of housing, jobs, schools, agricultural land, ground-water etc. – also the cleanup and decommissioning of the reactor, as well as its eventual replacement on yet another green-field site)?

Who has the most nuclear reactors per head of population? France, not Russia. Who, unlike most European countries, has only suffered well-organized and vocal criticism of its nuclear industry in its press and on the streets for the very first time these last few days? France, not Japan. Who was the first to recognize the rebel interim government in Libya and get its jets into the air and headed for Tripoli? France, not Italy. Don’t you miss the trick, folks! As soon as the current coalition of the rather over-eager has finished with their North-African mad hatter, perhaps we can all get back to the main agenda: the big, black hat steaming away in the red corner and the softly glowing, luridly grinning, giant white rabbit ascending gently from it in silent billows of radioactive vapour.

Edwin Drood

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