Libya and the Politics of Intervention

March 28, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Human Rights, International Relations, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, World Politics | 2 Comments
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US-led attacks appear to have turned the tide against Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s counter-revolution in Libya. Attacks by some 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles–each costing $575,000–and some eight days of air raids have established a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya and US, French, British, Danish, Canadian, and other air forces have also targeted the Libyan government’s ground forces to deadly effect. The Libyan rebels, who had been virtually encircled in Benghazi have, as a result been able to roll back the government forces from Brega, Ras Lanuf, Ajdabiyia, and other towns in the east and are now attacking the town of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birth place.

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How are we to react to this exercise of Western military might against a state of the Global South? People like Gilbert Achcar and Juan Cole have vigorously defended the intervention in Libya. To them, the alternative would have been a brutal massacre of Gaddafi’s opponents by the better trained and equipped militias of the regime. For them, there were no other countervailing forces capable of intervening–not the African Union or Arab States. Western intervention was the only available option to stop a murderous dictator. It was sanctioned by the Arab League and the rebels themselves had pleaded for a ‘no-fly’ zone–a plea from a popular movement that could not be ignored. This was, a humanitarian intervention and not an attempt to secure access to Libya’s oil resources. After all, as Achcar points out, virtually all Western countries had oil companies operating in Libya already: “Italy’s ENI, Germany’s Wintershall, Britain’s BP, France’s Total and GDF Suez, US companies ConocoPhillips, Hess, and Occidental, British-Dutch Shell, Spain’s Repsol, Canada’s Suncor, Norway’s Statoil.”

There is of course the obvious objection: the West applies double standards, not only to Israel’s murderous assault on the Palestinians in Gaza but also to the brutal repression of protest movements in Bahrain and Yemen. As Richard Falk puts it:

How is this Libyan response different in character than the tactics relied upon by the regimes in Yemen and Bahrain, and in the face of far less of a threat to the status quo, and even that taking the form of political resistance, not military action. In Libya the opposition forces were relying almost from the outset on heavy weapons, while elsewhere in the region the people were in the streets in massive numbers, and mostly with no weapons, and in a few instances, with very primitive ones (stones, simple guns) that were used in retaliation for regime violence.

Indeed, almost from the very beginning of the protests, the rebels had taken arms and before Colonel Gaddafi’s forces launched a counter-assault, ragtag rebel militias had taken towns militarily from the regime’s gendarmes. Claiming that the regime was using African mercenaries, the rebels targeted anyone who looked “African’ including members of Libya’s African tribes because it is both an African and an Arab state.

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Analogies are often drawn to the situation in Rwanda but as the allusion to the African tribes in Libya suggests, no binary ethnic divide exists in Libya. There are many tribes and the confrontation between the regime and its opposition does not fracture along a single overriding ethnic divide and there is no genocidal intent in what is essentially a civil war between the regime and its opponents.

The character of the opposition also remains ambiguous–they include former members of the regime, local notables, radical Islamists, and eastern tribes opposed to western tribes. This was not the democratic movement that had swept autocrats from office in Tunisia and Egypt. The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council may have supported the imposition of ‘no-fly’ zone but they do not speak for the Arab street and many of their members–Bahrain, Yemen–are actively engaged in brutally repressing democracy movements in their own states, and Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have intervened in Bahrain to help the al-Khalifa family crush its opponents.

The United Nations Security Council authorized the intervention–but only because the five members who abstained (Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany) did not exercise their responsibilities. If they did not have enough information as the Indian delegate said–they should have abstained. The Russian Foreign Minister has subsequently said that the US-led air raids have far exceeded the Security Council’s authorization: this had been also raised by Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League before he was pressured to retract his words.

Moreover, since Gaddafi has paid off many tribes, especially in the west, with oil revenues over the last 40 years, he has a solid core of support. What happens when the rebel forces attacks these population centers? Does the Security Council resolution to ‘protect the civilians’ not apply to them?

As also mentioned in an earlier post, if the regime follows through on its promise to arm its supporters, it could lead to a prolonged period of civil strife if Gaddafi is ousted as remnants of his supports could mount an armed resistance. This could lead to a new flow of African asylum-seekers to Europe. After all, as Achcar notes, a deal struck between Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi reduced the flow of asylum-seekers to Italy from 36,000 in 2008 to a mere 4,300 in 2010. A prolonged stalemate or civil war in Libya, moreover as Vijay Prashad has written would constrain the West’s “ability to transit the oil that sits under its soil, and so dangerously harm the “way of life” of those who matter. Events had to be hastened.”

Intervention in Libya also raises a question: if Gaddafi had not abandoned his nuclear program in 2003, would the West have intervened in its civil war. Even though Gaddafi had sided with Idi Amin, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda harshly criticizes “by now habit of the Western countries over-using their superiority in technology to impose war on less developed societies without impeachable logic. This will be the igniting of an arms race in the world.”

Finally, to the argument that there was no alternative to Western intervention in preventing a blood bath, the African Union had created an ad hoc commission to negotiate between the Libyan regime and its opponents but it was not allowed to begin its work on account of the air strikes and missile launches.

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It is also perhaps worth wondering whether the United States which had been opposed to the French and British clamor for intervention, suddenly changed its mind just as Der Spiegel published photographs of grinning American troops posing with Afghan corpses–an event that got scant coverage in the event of the war against Libya. Otherwise, it may have got as much coverage as the atrocities in the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. So much for humanitarian intervention!

 

Western Imperialism, Libya, and the Arab Revolts

March 22, 2011 at 3:42 am | Posted in democracy, International Relations, World Politics | 3 Comments
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The United States and some of its European allies have once again launched an attack against a state in the Global South–this time as a humanitarian intervention to prevent Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from ‘slaughtering’ his opponents in Libya, and backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution and a resolution by the League of Arab States. Strikingly, none of the combatant governments–the United States, Britain, France, or the lesser European powers–sought legislative approval for before launching missiles and war planes against Libya. For an assault against a third-rate military power, it seems such democratic niceties need not be observed.

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Even if it was a foregone conclusion that their national legislatures would have supported the assault against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces–as the British House of Commons did by a lopsided margin–this was largely due to a blanketing of other options in the mainstream media which made no mention of the ad hoc commission established by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to mediate between the Colonel and his opponents. Equally importantly, in the absence of a detailed debate, there has been little planning on what would happen were a stalemate to develop–a possibility that Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted was a real possibility–or in a post-Gaddafi Libya

Indeed, this is hardly a war against Libya. The superiority of the United States in the air is so overwhelming that as Tom Englehardt has noted there is no element of danger for the pilots of US planes who last faced a serious threat in Vietnam in the early 1970s. The Serbian air force did not even bother to take to the air in the war over Kosovo, and in the First Gulf War, the powerful Iraqi air force flew most of its planes to Iran rather than engage with the US-led forces. For American pilots it is as safe to bomb another country as it is to pilot drones over Afghanistan from the Creech Air Force base in Nevada where “those leaving [the base] pass that warns them to “drive carefully” as this is “the most dangerous part of your day”!

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With the absence of any danger to US pilots, this resembles colonial wars where well-armed European troops mowed down with their repeater rifles hordes of native warriors armed only with spears and bows and arrows. Once American planes have taken out all Libyan air defense systems, British and French planes will enforce a no-fly zone, again at no risk to themselves. Underlining the suspension of the ordinary calculus of war, President Barack Obama embarked on his previously scheduled tour of three South American states even as his planes and missiles were pounding Libya.

For NIcolas Sarkozy of France, after the right wing Front National led by Marine Le Pen made historic gains in the first round of municipal elections, an image as a ‘war President‘ may just be the thing to propel him to victory in next year’s presidential elections–damn the consequences for Libyans, in true imperialist tradition!

 

A Libyan rebel empties th 023But the sheer ferocity of the assault is causing anguish even among those who initially called for the imposition of a no-fly zone. Though the League of Arab States had called for the imposition of a no-fly zone, images of the carnage wrought by missiles and bombs led its Secretary-General Amr Moussa to say after the second day of air strikes: “what is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.” Intense pressure however made him back-track, despite widespread revulsion in the Arab world at the carnage sustained by Libyan civilians. Nevertheless, only two small states–Qatar and the United Arab Emirates–among the 22-member states of the League have agreed to take part in war effort. Russia and China which abstained from the Security Council vote have voiced concerns about the attacks and India, which also abstained from the Security Council resolution, became the first country to call for a cessation of air strikes.

The role of the League of Arab States also appears compromised. First, Robert Fisk reported that Washington had asked Saudi Arabia to furnish arms to the rebels in Benghazi to which King Abdullah, facing his own problems, had failed to respond even though he loathes the Libyan leader who had tried to have him assassinated just over a year ago. Then the Wall Street Journal reported that with Washington’s encouragement and knowledge, the Egyptian military had begun to slip arms to the rebels. This raises the question of whether the post-Mubarak regime is going to play the role of another Western puppet–indeed Amr Moussa sudden back-tracking of his condemnation of the killings of civilians in the Western air raids gives no assurance of an independent regime emerging from the ashes of Mubarak’s autocracy. Indeed, it may well be that as Ali Abunimah wrote in the Electronic Intifada: “The greatest danger to the Egyptian revolution and the prospects for a free and independent Egypt emanates not from the baltagiyya–the mercenaries and thugs the regime sent to beat, stone, stab, shoot and kill protestors in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities– but from Washington.”

Many of the commentators who support the assault against forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi suggest, even if grudgingly, that only the Western powers have the means to stop his slaughter of his opponents. This is not only to conveniently forget that the Colonel has ruled Libya with an iron hand but also that after he agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction and join the war on terror, Western powers cosied up to him for lucrartive arms and oil contracts.

It is also to ignore that the African Union had opposed military intervention in the Libyan conflict and that the AU’s own ad hoc commission which Colonel Gaddafi had agreed to meet was not permitted to work as Western military intervention effectively ruled out a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

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Most importantly, there appears to be no clarity on the goals of the air attacks on Libya. The British and American military leaderships claim that the removal of Colonel Gaddafi is not the aim of the air strikes–and indeed not within the scope of the Security Council resolution–but their political leaderships assert that regime change is indeed the goal. Responding to the attacks, the Libyan regime has said that it would arm civilians to fight against ‘crusader colonialists’–this could lead to a prolonged conflict were the regime to be deposed as what is left of his forces and supporters launch a bloody civil war. A civil war on the footsteps of Europe could lead to a flood of refugees and may well pave the way to occupation. Alternatively, in the case of a stalemate, Benghazi and eastern Libya may turn into a Western protectorate.

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