War in the age of 24/7 television broadcasting makes for very compelling viewing. As NATO airstrikes began targeting Libyan military assets two months ago, rolling satellite news offered clips of bombing and attacks as they took place, and newspapers and websites filling pages with graphics of military hardware.
The tabloid press, at least in the UK, were filled with gung-ho, chest-thumping nationalism, egging on continued intervention. All was good from the comfort of British sofas – until a few weeks ago, when refugee numbers from North Africa heading to Europe, largely through Italy, began to rise. Refugees and immigration being another pet issue for right-wing tabloids, The Sun, in a leader comment about three weeks ago tried to have it both ways: ‘The Libyan people must understand that the reason we are attacking the Gaddafi regime is to make it safe for them to remain in their homeland’ (a paraphrased version, due to my being unable to locate an original online). So stay in Libya, tough it out. It’ll be all right in the end, thanks to brave British and French pilots that will topple the Gaddafi regime. Or something along those lines.
After the UN resolution authorising a no-fly zone was agreed in March, I expressed scepticism that Western publics really were willing to bear the cost of war. My thought then was concerned with the ‘body bag effect’ of Western military casualties upon any degree of domestic public support, but an influx of refugees illustrates the same theme, even if differently. War in distant lands seems all well and good, enabling a self-satisfying ‘doing the right thing’ claim – until it costs anything.
‘Spectator sport’ was the rather catchy term that Colin McInnes, an Aberystwyth University academic (where I studied as an undergraduate), coined, to describe the increasing disconnect between domestic publics and war-fighting in the 1990s. War, the argument goes, had become something experienced through a TV rather than something that societies were fully immersed in. You went about your day job, put the TV on, saw the pictures of bombed-out buildings, planes taking off – and then went to make dinner.
And now, North African refugees putting their lives in danger to make a dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean have ended early illusions that the West’s involvement with the Libyan rebellion could be, and would be, limited to bombing missions and cruise missile strikes. The European Union’s passport- and border control-free travel system, known as the Schengen agreement, is looking decidedly shaky as a result. Fears of refugees and immigration trump those of bringing an autocratic regime to an end.
Gaddafi’s trump card may lie in encouraging the flow of migrants to Europe, disregarding the previous agreement made with the EU to effectively prevent migrants from elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa from using Libya as a jumping-off point. As enthusiasm for continuing NATO bombing cools as a result, no wonder Western leaders are contemplating more aggressive steps to speed up the process of toppling Gaddafi, not least in making him a direct target and military objective. The hope is that a new regime, grateful to the West, will reintroduce controls on migrants. But for those European leaders who were most keen on NATO intervention, if they didn’t realize it before, they certainly do now – Libya is no longer on the other side of a TV screen.