Western military intervention in Libya: There. Is. No. Alternative. Or is there?

by · March 24, 2011


Egypt’s revolution — why has Libya been so different?

If there is one thought experiment that liberal supporters of Western military intervention in Libya ruled out of court (even forbade) it was the possibility that there were other social actors and strategies that could seriously affect the outcome of the battle between forces loyal to Gaddafi and the revolutionaries. For days we were told that a “massacre” or even “genocide” was imminent and that it could only averted by giving a vacillating United States some backbone to start a war help establish a no-fly zone. All considerations of the history of such actions had to be dismissed because of the urgency with which “something must be done” (the “something” meaning only one thing).

There were two groups who stood to benefit most from embellishing accounts of the impending humanitarian disaster in the most alarmist way possible: Western powers keen on intervening and the leadership of the uprising who saw this as the best option in their struggle. Our rulers have a long track record in propaganda designed to stoke popular passions for war, unafraid to tell plain lies if need be (the “Kuwaiti babies torn from their incubators” story was a prominent myth used to build support for the 1990-1 Gulf War).
A credible, pro-war Time report has pointed out that the talk of “genocide” was part of an Obama Administration attempt to “rehabilitate the doctrine of humanitarian intervention eight years after the Iraq war discredited U.S.-led military actions abroad.” The problem, however, is that “Gaddafi hasn’t done enough to justify humanitarian intervention—despite their rhetoric to the contrary, the administration and human rights organizations admit that reports of potential war crimes remain unconfirmed.”
The ability for the U.S. to muster international force to prevent thugs from killing innocent people is important. But the president and some of his advisers are so eager to rehabilitate the idea of preventive intervention that they’re exaggerating the violence they say they are intervening to prevent in Libya. “The effort to shoe-horn this into an imminent genocide model is strained,” says one senior administration official.
Indeed, Obama’s speech announcing US participation in the no-fly zone was phrased very much in the terminology of preventive war so favoured by Bush Jr.

Contradictions of the Libyan revolution

But the question of why the Libyan rebels, initially over-certain in their claims to represent the national-popular collective will, turned to such apocalyptic language more befitting the likes of Gaddafi himself is more interesting.
Libya lies geographically between Tunisia and Egypt, the sites of the two most advanced and complex revolutionary processes to have arisen in the Arab world in recent months. But its rebellion, while quickly achieving control of large parts of the country, didn’t play out the same way. Instead, there were rapid defections of significant sections of Gaddafi’s state structure (including many ambassadors) to the opposition. But the country remained geographically divided, in part because Gaddafi had cannily built networks of patronage through such mechanisms as provision of state employment in Tripoli, funded by oil revenues.
At this point the radicalisation hit a crossroads: To find a way to foment an urban uprising in Gaddafi’s strongholds or to pursue a more conventional military strategy. The directions chosen reflected not just the politics of the revolution’s self-proclaimed leaders (some until recently were key players in the dictatorship) but the response they received from the “International Community”:
Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), the body that grew out of the revolution, made a series of simple demands in the first crucial days of the uprising. It asked for the recognition of the TNC, access to the billions in sequestrated regime funds in order to buy weapons and other crucial supplies, and an immediate halt to the “mercenary flights” that provided Gaddafi’s regime with its foot soldiers.
For all those who argued that “something” must be done, such concrete steps could have made a massive difference to the balance of forces. So what was the response?
Western governments refused to accept even one of these demands. They even objected to weapons sales as they said these could fall into the hands of “Islamist terrorists.”
Instead, Western powers put a number of conditions on the revolution.
They demanded that any future Libyan government would honour all contracts signed by Gaddafi, including oil concessions.
They demanded that the strict repression of “Islamist” movements continue, and that any future government maintain Libya’s role as a guardian against African migration into southern Europe.
The West, in effect, blackmailed the revolution.
It is little wonder that the more conventional view of military engagement began to exert a greater hold on the revolution, especially once Gaddafi started to stage a serious fightback. Unlike Egypt, where the generals didn’t feel confident they could mobilise their troops without risking a military rebellion along class lines, in Libya a significant section of military leaders felt confident to throw their lot in with Gaddafi. In such a situation, a much more radical politics from below would be necessary to overcome the impasse created by a military asymmetry.
The seeking of an alliance with the West itself then creates new pressures on what type of politics the revolution’s leaders can pursue. As the rebellion’s foreign representatives rushed about from Western leader to Western leader, they would have had to adapt their message to get support.
With Western bombs smashing into the country, the performance of Libya’s former US ambassador on Al-Jazeera last night was ugly to watch. From the 19:00 min mark of the video he first dismisses a question about why Arab nations rather than the West can’t get involved (because Arab nations could never succeed) and then downplays the level of violence in US-backed Bahrain and Yemen, to make the case that Libya is an exception on moral grounds. Not much revolutionary solidarity at play there.

No-fly zone achieving what, exactly?

The disturbing thing for pro-interventionists is that the West’s war effort has so far not produced anything resembling a clear cut advantage for the rebels, apart from obligatory TV footage of them welcoming the fighter jets with cheers. A detailed report from Time suggests that Gaddafi has so far made substantial advances even while the no-fly zone operates, and that cracks are opening inside the revolutionary camp between more grassroots activists and ex-regime leaders. Already there is talk of the West settling for a partition as the best outcome, and one can only imagine how that will be policed in the long term. It is uncertainties such as these — coupled to the fear of mission creep and quagmire — that have exacerbated tensions within the Western camp.
More broadly, the immediate effect of Western intervention on the Arab revolutions has been to send the message to US allies that they can crack down harder on protest movements. For all its talk of moral purpose in Libya, the US continues to let atrocities occur in other states with barely a word of public criticism. This is not just a case of gross hypocrisy (although it is that). The double standard arises because the various moves and counter-moves being played out are part of Western efforts to reassert hegemony in the region through a mixture of outright force and “soft power” to shore up favoured dictators and/or pliant reformists. But the fact that they are so weakened — not just by the Arab uprisings but the grinding global recession of the last two years — means that their attempts to get back on top are fraught with massive risk. The high-stakes nature of the game also means that the human toll of their actions is likely to be much greater.
So if we’re not demanding more bombs be dropped on Libya, how might an anti-imperialist Left define some things “our” governments could do that would really help the rebellion? We could start with the TNC requests that the West refused, but Jamie Allinson has some other suggestions that I thought we should be raising.
Release the Gaddafi regime funds to the revolutionaries and allow them to buy weapons

Condemn the Saudi (GCC) invasion of Bahrain, cut ties with both regimes and with Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh — removing also the military aid to his regime. Cancel all military contracts with them.

Allow Benghazi to become an open port for Arab — or other — revolutionary volunteers to join the fight.

Of course these won’t satisfy those on the Left who equate “doing something” with raining death and destruction on MENA countries, but they would be far more useful to both the Libyan rebels and the Arab revolutions more generally. 

Filed under: Egypt, imperialism, Libya, revolution