Just bomb it anyway…

‘[Migration] is not only a humanitarian emergency, but also a security crisis, since smuggling networks are linked to, and in some cases finance, terrorist activities, which contributes to instability in a region that is already unstable enough’

Missing the wood for the trees: EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini
Missing the wood for the trees: EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini

“Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” 

“What the heck, just shoot it down anyway…”

Those, as I near as I recall, were the words on the cover of the July 1988 edition of satirical newspaper ‘Private Eye’. I remember that edition distinctly: the words emanated in speech bubbles from the bridge of the USS Vincennes, which had just shot down an Iran Air civilian plane over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers and crew.

The incident itself I remember less clearly, except that it dramatically heightened tensions between the USA and Iran, at a time when the Cold War was about to dramatically and abruptly end. The official excuse was that the USS Vincennes – a guided missile cruiser deployed to the Persian Gulf – mistook Iran Air Flight 655 for an incoming F14A Tomcat fighter. Needless to add, Iran never accepted the official version, and to this day maintains that the plane was deliberately destroyed as an act of premeditated hostility.

The rest is history – or rather, a compendium of conspiracy theories which I do not intend to bring up again here. The reason I was reminded of this incident this week does not concern the actual downing of Flight 655 itself, but rather the way it was perceived at the time. 

The Private Eye cover embodies more than just a satirical reaction to a single tragedy… it also reflects an entire popular stereotype of the Americans as a trigger-happy, “shoot first, ask questions later” sort of nation. Implicit in the above words are two distinct attitudes we tend to associate with this particular stereotype: a willingness to resort to physical force as an option of first resort; and a general disregard for the possible consequences of one’s actions.

Is this an unfair generalisation to make of Americans? Of course it is. It’s a cultural stereotype, after all… by definition it is too broad a sweep to be accurate in the detail. But it is (let’s face it) a stereotype the Americans often like to project about themselves: just look at the Hollywood tradition of gun-slinging monosyllabic heroes pioneered by John Wayne (and kept alive ever since by Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis et al).

And the Americans are also very often the first to parody themselves on this score… in movies like ‘Team America’, for instance, where the (hilarious) response to a North Korean terrorist threat involves ‘accidentally’ destroying every major historical and cultural landmark from the Great Pyramids to the Panama Canal. (Not to mention South Park: the Movie, with its rousing refrain of ‘Blame Canada’…)

Meanwhile, recent history has strongly reinforced the same perception, too. The 2003 US-led Iraq invasion seemed to cement a reputation for knee-jerk military response with little regard to the possible aftermath. In fact, it was precisely the unforeseen aftermath of this decision that has directly and dramatically destabilised Iraq, with repercussions (among them, ISIS) that have since spilt out into other countries and regions… including Libya, just 270 miles away from where you are sitting right now.  

But a lazy stereotype it remains, and one that is almost exclusively reserved for the actions of the United States on the international stage. Or at least, until the last few weeks… when the European Union seemed to suddenly start acting according to the same Hollywood script: 

“Brussels, we have a problem…” 

“Is it a fishing boat? A human trafficking vessel?” 

“What the heck, just sink it anyway…”

OK, perhaps the EU’s official plan to counter the ongoing Mediterranean migration crisis is a little more complicated than that. They do at least talk about the need to save a few lives, while engaging in a little low-level naval warfare here and there. And to give it its full due, this is how EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini levelled her pitch at the United Nations Security Council, where she requested a resolution to justify international military action against Libyan coastal targets:

“[Migration] is not only a humanitarian emergency, but also a security crisis, since smuggling networks are linked to, and in some cases finance, terrorist activities, which contributes to instability in a region that is already unstable enough.”

The EU was “finally ready to take its own responsibilities: saving lives, welcoming refugees, addressing the root causes of the phenomenon, dismantling criminal organisations…”

Please note: “addressing the root causes of the phenomenon”… which is of course the one thing that the actual EU plan of action itself does not even try to envisage. Instead, we are narrowing our focus only onto the tail-end of the phenomenon: totally ignoring the fact that the migration process actually begins thousands of miles south of the Libyan coast… across deserts, through various countries, all the way down to the countries of origin of most of the asylum seekers who end up drowning in the Mediterranean. 

Addressing this phenomenon at source would surely also mean looking into the problems that drive millions of people to risk their lives for a stab at a better future somewhere else. It would entail increasing diplomatic and emergency peace-keeping presence in some of those countries, for instance. We might want to discuss the possibility of emergency debt relief to stimulate economic activity… as we are now doing in the case of one of our countries, Greece. Heck, we might even plan a global summit to finally look into the one global problem we have so studiously avoided for years: third world poverty.

If that’s too ambitious, how about tackling the entire structures of the criminal organisations this plan is supposed to ‘dismantle’? We know from the testimony of migrants that such organisations span all the countries between sub-Saharan Africa and Libya; they are interconnected, operate through banks in several African (and even Middle Eastern) countries and territories; they are even active on social networks such as Facebook, openly advertising a cheap trip to Europe directly in the migrants’ own countries of origin.

The EU’s plan to dismantle this enormous, well-organised transnational criminal network? – to target only one small facet of the entire operation… the one closest to its own doorstep. Will this make life difficult for human traffickers on the last leg of the journey? Quite possibly, yes. It might also expose thousands of asylum seekers to additional dangers, on top of the ones they face already.

But what effect will it have on the ongoing human trafficking operations in countries thousands of miles away? Will it stop traffickers from luring in victims from countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, etc., with the promise of a better life in Europe… only to ensnare them into a complex web of extortion and slavery?

Looked at from this angle, the most stunning achievement of the European Union’s response to the crisis is the fact that it doesn’t even mention any of these factors at all. It admits that the measures contemplated – which might extend to bombing ports and coastal activities in Libya – are short-term in nature… but offers absolutely nothing in the way of a long-term vision to actually home in on the real root causes of the emergency. 

Not even a measly little media strategy to counter the ongoing campaign of misinformation that entices so many people to embark on the journey in the first place. Even here in Malta, there is at least one person attempting to restore balance to the airwaves, by relaying information about the trafficking network to people at home in Africa. He is himself an immigrant from Somalia, and works with limited resources out of a dingy apartment in Hamrun.

If one 27-year-old Somali can try it, what’s stopping the EU from flexing its considerable IT muscle to bombard those countries with information that could significantly “address the root causes of the phenomenon”? It doesn’t involve military action; it doesn’t necessitate UN Security Council approval; it doesn’t even cost very much… and it may even have a greater long-term effect on the situation than sinking the occasional smugglers’ boat. 

So of course we’ll just limit ourselves to sinking the occasional smuggler’s boat, and to hell with the consequences…. Even though these might incidentally be kind of serious.

This is how the EU plan was reported in The Guardian this week: “Libyan militias, jihadi groups, and Islamic State affiliates believed to be in cahoots with the trafficking networks are said to have heavy artillery and anti-aircraft batteries deployed close to the coast. Attacks on EU vessels and aircraft could trigger an escalation and force Nato to get involved, said policymakers in Brussels.”

Even the unofficial government in Tobruk has declared it would “not accept” any military action targeting Libyan territory, and warned of possible retaliation. There is, in brief, the possibility of precipitating a full-scale escalation into open war on our own doorstep.

All of which raises the question: how much thought has been given to the possible repercussions of the course of action the EU is now pursuing at UN level?

Hopefully, a little more than was given in the case of the Iraq invasion of 2003… or even the Iran Flight 655 disaster of 1988, for that matter. But it doesn’t look that way to me. On the contrary, the whole affair smacks decidedly of a panicky and poorly-thought-through exercise in ‘shooting first, asking questions later’…

And ironically, it comes from a Europe that has traditionally poked fun at Americans over precisely the same cultural stereotype.

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