Libya, US intervention & the myth of the tail that wagged the dog

by · March 21, 2011


Fissures emerge: abstentions in the Security Council
One of the justifications used by liberal and Left supporters of Western intervention in Libya is that the United States has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into this conflict. It is part of painting a picture that here, if only just this time, the situation of a revolution under siege and global humanitarian outcry is forcing the world’s largest military power to act for a good cause.
Sure, the argument goes, the US acted poorly and in self-interest in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, NATO went outside the law and made matters worse by bombing Serbia in 1999. Sure, the West was slow to support the people of Tunisia and Egypt against their American-backed dictators even as revolutions were unfolding before everyone’s eyes.
But Libya is different: Here we have a democratic rebellion begging for help and an overstretched imperial power reluctant to help but having its hand forced.

Indeed, for days those of us opposing intervention heard we must exert pressure on “our” leaders to convince a dithering Barack Obama. It appeared that while some European leaders — especially Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron, the latter recently back from a major arms sales tour of the region — were keen for a no-fly zone the Americans were highly reluctant. There was even the need to get the Arab League, that highly representative group of local despots, to provide its support before the motion could go to the UN Security Council. The word was that cautious voices like that of Defence Secretary Robert Gates were holding back US enthusiasm. Even after the Security Council gave the go-ahead, Hillary Clinton claimed that while the US was supporting the NFZ, “We did not lead this. We did not engage in unilateral actions in any way”.
But, as the Washington Post has reported,
… her modest words belied the far larger role the United States played as international forces began an open-ended assault on Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s military capabilities. U.S. warships fired more than 110 Tomahawk missiles into Libyan territory to disable air-defense systems. And the French and British warplanes that began to enforce the emerging no-fly zone operate under U.S. command.
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, described the U.S. role to reporters at the Pentagon: “We are on the leading edge of a coalition military operation.”
But U.S. diplomats were key in broadening and securing a United Nations resolution authorizing military force in Libya, and U.S. military power proved essential Saturday in preparing the battlefield for a no-fly zone to be enforced by European and possibly Arab nations.
As much as Obama has sought to strengthen the international organizations that the previous administration disdained, the United States remains essential to the operation in Libya, despite the president’s and Clinton’s efforts to play down the American role.
A US strategy, but not very grand
That the US dog is clearly wagging a global pro-intervention tail should not be surprising as there are clear reasons why it is in the interests of the United States and its allies to reposition themselves at head of a deeply damaged system of regional domination. The revolutionary process caught Western ruling classes on the hop and they’ve struggled to harness the popular movements into any kind of limited, liberal democratic model along the line of the “Colour Revolutions” of the last decade (no matter what fantasies are concocted by some liberal writers desperate to salvage a neoliberal kernel from social revolution).
It was a letter from leading neoconservatives last week that provides the clearest picture of the strategic import of US actions here:
As protests continue against repressive regimes around the world, the message currently being conveyed by our inaction is that killing and repression will go unpunished and are the best option for despots seeking to postpone reform. 
For the sake of our security as well as America’s credibility with people who seek freedom everywhere, we ask you to act as quickly as possible to ensure that the people of Libya — and the world — know that we are willing to back up our principles with action.
By choosing Libya, where the regime was less associated with US patronage and leading elements of the rebellion were seeking intervention, here was a way to put the US at the heart of the democratic uprisings as the only guarantor of a swift and stable outcome in favour of Western-style freedom. Indeed, it fits with the rapid rewriting of regional foreign policy that has been occurring in Washington — reining in radical popular aspirations in order that Western interests can be safeguarded and the whole mess once again brought to heel.
One could be forgiven for seeing a double standard in attacking Libya while simultaneously turning a blind eye to brutal repression of other democracy movements around the region — such as by the Saudi military in Bahrain and by the Yemeni government — but the issue here was of the opportunity the Libyan circumstances provided, and not some general humanitarian or revolutionary principle.
As British Marxist Alex Callinicos has argued, the intervention opens a new stage in the revolutionary process where geopolitical factors enter the calculus. For the Left to support the intervention would be to support US efforts to get its neoliberal plans for the region back on track, but the manoeuvre is also high risk for the US, potentially creating unexpected new regional instability and exacerbating tensions between established Western allies. Even matters as simple as how Gaddafi’s forces and rebels can be told apart from inside Western fighter jets can create a situation where many more innocent people are slaughtered, although now at “our” hands.
Revolution and anti-imperialism not separate
The problems with such an aggressive move could soon erupt and in the middle of this it is vital to be clear that the fight for revolutionary transformation in individual Arab nations cannot be separated from a clear opposition to Western imperial attempts to hijack the process.
Such an intertwining of forces was discounted by many on the Left who succumbed to the NFZ mania whipped up by the media and mainstream politicians here. Unable to imagine how cross-border solidarity could be delivered by Egyptian workers, for example, they have looked to Western states to save the Libyan rebels from an apparently inevitable “massacre”. In part this is perhaps due to the so far limited nature of the formal gains won in Tunisia and Egypt, and also rooted in the idea of revolutions as singularities rather than complex and often contradictory processes that can take months and even years to unfold, with different actors and groupings taking centre stage in response to events. Yet in Egypt, despite the limits of the constitutional reform process and the continuation of military rule, the workers’ movement continues to grow and radicalise — transmuting the political gains of the revolution into economic advances and then feeding back into the political. Indeed, much of the MSM coverage downplays the central role of the working class in the revolution.
This has similarly been downplayed in relation to Libya, but it is an urbanised country with a significant working class (including substantial numbers employed in the public sector using money from oil sales to create stability for Gaddafi’s rule). In some ways the revolution developed more dramatically in Libya than in Egypt or Tunisia, with a situation of dual power created and Gaddafi being forced to fight to try to reunify a state so closely identified with his rule. This meant that demands for social justice soon got subordinated to a more conventional military conflict.
By “picking winners” in Libya, Western powers hope to stamp their authority on the situation, push demands for social justice further into the background, and prevent any further fracturing of Arab states. Yet by unleashing military power they will do more than create suffering on a greater scale — they will also provoke more radicalism and more hatred for their foreign policies.