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Poor Libya: Seeing Ghaddafi through the prism of Saddam

    Yorick Wilks,Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Insitute and professor of Artificial Intelligence (Emeritus) at the University of Sheffield, watched the Libyan situation unfold while in the US.

    It is interesting to watch the Libyan crisis develop on US TV news: it is all about “the hunt for Ghaddafi” (spell it any way you choose - you cannot be wrong!) and “Where are his WMDs?” He may well have some tons of WWI mustard gas stored and very nasty it is, but as to real modern full-blooded WMDs, I think not! What is clear is that given the old adage of always fighting the previous war - and the US has so many to chose from, as do we - it is hard for US TV commentators to imagine this as anything other than a rerun of the Iraqi search for the fugitive leader and the “missing WMDs”, even though any child knows that the histories, populations and prospects of Libya and Iraq are utterly different. But as George Bush is rumoured to have remarked “Iraq, Iran - they can’t even decide how to spell their damn country” - and mixing up different Muslim desert states is no new thing.

    Once we had experts on Arabia, the St. John Philbys who spoke the languages, hunkered down in blankets, got to Mecca and knew the chaps - but their sons turned out to be unreliable and we have now renounced all forms of expertise, like the TV stations of our close transatlantic allies. It is unclear that our government has any more informed views on the present situation or any clear goals different from those of the US TV networks, now actively seeking the “fugitive dictator’s sons”.

    With his 2009 visit to Berlusconi’s Italy it did seem that Ghaddafi had come in from the cold and that a traditional and mutually beneficial Euro-Libyan relationship could be reinstated. But that is long gone and it has been obvious that Italy wanted little or no part in the current gung-ho assault on Libya. Perhaps they guessed correctly that what is to come cannot be better for them than what they thought they had. None of this is to defend the personalities or methods of Berlusconi or Ghaddafi, but progress and benefit are not about aesthetics or who you want to have lunch with.

    Whatever the arguments against Ghaddafi - and there are many - it cannot be said that the current revolution was to free an oppressed population from grinding poverty: Libya already rated very high on the UN HDI (Human Development Index). Ghaddafi had spread the oil wealth around among his small population and it is unclear that this will continue. The US TV stations with their instant analysis do not have our preoccupations of course: they never mention that he had befriended the IRA and has given or sold them most of the Semtex they still have salted away. That alone justifies our cheers at his fall.

    But the US has also totally forgotten its own long engagement with Tripoli as well: the Barbary War of
    the early 19th Cenurty of the young United States against Tripolitania - still immortalized in the Marine Hymn “to the shores of Tripoli”. Jefferson had found the enslavement of Americans in Tripoli unacceptable - a slave keeper himself, of course, but let that pass - and history records his interchange with the Tripoli negotiator in London who said that the Koran made clear than non-Muslims were sinners and could be enslaved at any time. One can see that no progress was possible there. It was only Mussolini who finally united the Roman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica into the country we call Libya, a country that, alas, has no more raison d’etre than that.

    Italy has now retired from the diplomatic fray, and only France seems to see clear interests in this vast nearby country of Libya, so much larger than itself. They may be right and I wish them luck: would that our own government had some shred of a policy – after all we gave them King Idris, their only King, whom Ghaddafi overthrew so long ago. All we seem to have is some vague wish that the population would be like us and elect a government that Guardian readers could approve of. We can be perfectly sure that will not happen. This is a country created by fascists and which has been at war on and off with the US for 200 years. It is an interesting and important place, quite different from Iraq, and will not conform to our ignorant and uninformed wishes.

    One might as well rely on the US TV bulletins for policy; at least they have no pretensions to influence or information.

    Yorick Wilks is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, and is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. He studied maths and philosophy at Cambridge, where he got his PhD in 1968. He has published numerous articles and six books in artificial intelligence concerned with language processing.

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