War is no time for political games

Given the seriousness of the situation, the ongoing bickering between government and opposition over the Libyan crisis can only come across as misplaced and unsightly, to say the least.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The events of recent weeks have arguably forced the international community to revisit its impressions of war zones and trouble spots such as (in today’s scenario) Gaza, Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Perhaps because we live in an age of superior communications technology – where images and footage of war and violence may be disseminated across the world within seconds – it seems harder than ever before to simply ignore the horrors taking place on the rest of the world’s doorstep… as was so often the case in years gone by.

Gaza, for instance, is no stranger to war: today’s ongoing military campaign is in fact the third such war since 2008. This in turn means that there are children aged only six who have known nothing but war since birth. Yet it is only now, with grisly images of civilian casualties (one fourth of whom have been children) circulating the world on Youtube, that global public opinion seems to have reached a tipping point.

Reactions of revulsion and horror have forced some Western governments to rethink their own policies on the Middle East. The UK, for instance, has announced a revision of the country’s £8 billion arms trade with Israel in the light of the Gaza onslaught. The high civilian death toll has also forced the United States – a long-standing ally of Israel – to issue its harshest words of criticism yet against the carnage.

But closer to home, there is mounting evidence that the political forces in our own country still seem to view situations of global terror and unrest as chess pieces to be used in their own little political games. Not so much with regard to Gaza, but certainly with regard to another conflict which is much closer to home: the civil war in Libya, in which a number of Maltese nationals appear to have been caught up.

Given the seriousness of the situation, the ongoing bickering between government and waropposition over the Libyan crisis can only come across as misplaced and unsightly, to say the least.

Yesterday morning, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil took the government to task over its handling of the Martin Galea abduction case, as well as its reticence on a full-scale evacuation plan for Maltese citizens in Libya. Certainly, the Galea incident could have been handled better. Mixed messages coming from the Office of the Prime Minister – which seemed at one point to express doubt that Galea had, in fact, been abducted – transpired to be the fruit of a rift between the OPM and the Foreign Ministry.

It would seem that the foreign ministry chose to handle the emergency alone without informing the Prime Minister: a fact which explains the apparent contradiction between the messages emanating from official sources, and also points towards serious shortcomings in the government’s internal communications.

The Opposition is naturally within its rights to criticise such shortcomings, but there comes a point where the national interest – which, in this case, is atypically clear – should trump these seemingly petty considerations. Besides, Busuttil went a step further in his criticism: demanding to know why the government had not ‘ordered’ Maltese citizens to evacuate.

This is a strange complaint to make in a democratic country. The government cannot ‘order’ citizens to evacuate a foreign country. It has no authority to do so; and if it did it would be little better than the dictatorships that have caused so many of these conflicts in the first place.

Even if it had the legal authority, it has no means to enforce such an order. Our logistical capability to conduct an evacuation is hampered by a glaring lack of military assets. Unlike the UK, which despatched a navy frigate to assist with operations, Malta has to rely on charter flights operated by the private sector.

With all this in mind, it is difficult to view the Opposition leader’s interjection yesterday as anything but a transparent attempt to capitalise on the situation in Libya to score political points… which is hardly a symptom of the mature and reasoned approach to politics Dr Busuttil assured us he would take as PN leader. 

On its part, the government retorted that the Opposition’s stance contrasts sharply with its own stance when in opposition in 2011, at the height of the Gaddafi crisis. The reaction is understandable, but again smacks too much of the usual tit-for-tat political exchange we have grown used to from both parties. And absent from the government’s defence was any acknowledgement that the crisis calls for a pooling of national resources, and a cooperative, bipartisan approach.

On both sides there is a clear inability to rise above the pettiness of local politics, and to attune their rhetoric to reflect the maturity demanded by the current, delicate situation. This places both parties at odds with a growing national sentiment that the time has come to make a break with the antagonistic attitudes of yesteryear.

Already there is evidence that the public is tiring of these partisan games. But when the two parties seem unable to put aside their political differences even in a desperate life-or-death gamble involving Maltese citizens… that is when it becomes impossible not to question the maturity of our political leaders.

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