An ethical question raised by Mark Thatcher’s exploits

Richard Ingram at the Observer finds an intriguing political and ethical question in the story of Margaret Thatcher’s son Sir Mark Thatcher and his attempted coup d’etat against the thuggish government of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.

“Listeners to the BBC’s Today programme voted last week that philosophy should be taught in schools. They might usefully begin by considering whether there is any moral distinction to be drawn between Sir Mark Thatcher and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

As far as one can see, both men had precisely similar aims – i.e., to rid the world of an evil dictator who was causing his subjects a great deal of misery. In the case of Saddam Hussein, Blair insists that he did the right thing when he and his friend, George Bush, overthrew the tyrant.

Sir Mark, who was arrested, has yet to give the world the justification for his alleged role in the attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. But perhaps he, too, would maintain that the world would be a better place without President Teodoro Obiang, a man who, like Saddam, has a contempt for civil rights and a liking for torture and execution.”

Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber puts it plainly. “The serious issue raised by this [Ingram’s] joke is, if we accept the logic of the ‘strong version’ of humanitarian intervention, then why should we also say that it is only the job of states to carry out such interventions? Since, ex hypothesi, any special position for states is ruled out by the strong pro-war internationalist liberal stance, why shouldn’t groups of private individuals take action? For example, Harry’s Place has five main contributors, each of whom could probably raise about $200,000 if they took out a second mortgage; maybe they should be ringing up Executive Outcomes and getting a few estimates in on smallish African states. Why leave this to the government?”

Certainly, the non-Spanish volunteers who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War didn’t leave it to government and are largely seen as heroes for not having done so. (To the extent that it was left to government, in the form of Soviet support for the Spanish Republic, it was a disaster. Enough betrayal and authoritarianism to disillusion thousands of members of the left and disabuse many more of the Soviet illusion.) And until we (here in this part of the world) realized that they were crazy, the foreign mujahadeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan were given more accoladdes than one thought imaginable for politicized reactionary Islamists.

My own guess is that the fact that there’s not really an “A” for effort in politics leaves the outcomes as the basis of assessment for the most part. If Mark Thatcher had managed to get rid of Teodoro Obiang and the population of Equatorial Guniea consequently had been grateful, the act would’ve validated itself. But I’m not sure.