Intervention in Libya

The United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force by member states in Libya to prevent the Ghadaffi regime from mass murdering its opponents, whom it hitherto had been getting the better of in the battlefield, has given a new dimension to the revolutionary wave in the Arab world. It has united all right and liberal forces in their enthousiasm for yet another campaign of war and intervention under the banner of the ‘humanitarianism’ of our great leaders, a humanitarianism that does not extend to the people of Bahrain or of Yemen, whose equally tyrannical and murderous regimes are even now being actively supported by those same liberal well-wishers. Yet merely pointing out the hypocrisy is not good enough, and the left, recognizing this, has been greatly divided on what to make of this new turn of events. On the one hand, nobody supports ‘Colonel’ Ghadaffi’s idiotic regime, whose socialism is as fake as is his anti-imperialist posture. On the other hand, many on the left think it behooves us to oppose any kind of military action which tends to support or increase the stranglehold of the great imperialist powers over the lesser brethren of our world, in particular in the greater Middle East and North Africa.

This is a real conundrum, and the only way out is if we acknowledge the realities of the situation unflinchingly, without recourse to the usual simplifications and talking points one can expect from the Socialist Worker and the like. Several days ago, the situation was quite clear: the choice was between either accepting foreign intervention, or accepting the destruction of the rebel forces. Ghadaffi had all the momentum and had driven the rebels out of virtually every city and town they had conquered, and had in fact been poised to take the capital of the rebel area, Benghazi. While some have tried to point to Lebanon several years ago as proof that lightly armed forces can ward off an invader with superior firepower, the situation was not at all comparable; Israel’s war there was more of a kind with the classic imperialist ‘punitive expedition’, and there was no serious attempt at maintaining control over Lebanese territory, let alone eradicating opposing forces. There is also no reason to rely on the sense of mercy or justice of our zany Colonel. We can safely say that without the current deus ex machina of a UN-authorized and enforced ceasefire, the Libyan rebels would have been done for. The line of most of the socialist groups opposed to the war has been to suggest a third option, namely a ‘regional intervention’, presumably in the shape of support for the rebels by Egypt and Tunisia’s new popular governments. There is however not the least indication that they are either willing or able to do this, and both governments have rejected intervention in Libya out of hand. The Wall Street Journal was the only source suggesting that Egypt may have supplied the rebels with arms, an otherwise unconfirmed story; however it may be, the rebels with or without Egyptian arms were losing. A more realistic alternative ‘regional intervention’ would be those of the countries with the power and will to wage war against competitor regimes: those can only be Saudi Arabia and Qatar c.s., precisely the same regimes that are drowning the Bahraini revolt in blood. Why socialists are to prefer this to an intervention by France, the UK, Denmark, Canada and so forth is not clear.

This all is not to say that we should enthousiastically share ourselves in the ranks of the interventionists. But the question of why intervention in Libya happens when there is no intervention in Yemen or Bahrain, or for that matter in Zimbabwe or the Congo, is beside the point. While it is important always to demonstrate and underline the hypocrisy inherent in the liberals’ ‘humanitarianism’, which they take from the shelf and dust off as it suits them, in a certain sense the absence of intervention in similar or worse scenarios is a kind of ‘sunk cost’: it does not address for anyone the question of what to do in a present case. This therefore is not as strong an argument as some anti-war activists think. After all, the classic retort is that the folly of World War I in no way historically implies that war against the Hitlerites was equally ludicrous. Another bad approach is the one usually followed by many socialists when a complicated and ambiguous case such as the present one presents itself, namely the understandable reflex to try and cram the facts of the case into the more convenient and politically clear theories of other occasions. This is what happens when for example the current intervention is seen as an attempt to secure Libya’s oil – a ridiculous proposition since Ghadaffi relies entirely on selling his oil to the European Union states to survive in the first place, and either way the obvious response of the Western countries would have been to support Ghadaffi, not to bomb him. Doing so is much more likely to interfere with oil. The same thing goes for a narrative of neoliberal enforcement, since Libya’s economy is already, for all of Ghadaffi’s pseudosocialist posturing, substantially controlled by foreign investment and foreign companies. Many of these are East Asian, but there are also strong Italian and French interests, and yet these countries have supported the intervention from the start.

What then to make of it? There are several considerations worth mentioning. With regard to the motives of the Western powers, this may be a good occasion to throw overboard our usual conspiratorial-strategic analysis of the actions of the liberal militarists and instead rely on Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation might well be the true one: the Western powers intervened because it seemed easy and they have no idea what else to do. Much like the American intervention in Grenada in 1982 and the British war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands, this is an attempt by various Western powers to buy legitimacy and international credibility as protectors of freedom and good order on the cheap. After the fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq, these Western forces and their coalitions have been widely discredited, and given the degree of public scrutiny of their potential response to the Arab revolutions and the short timeframe within which a decision had to be made, this simply seems like a bumbling attempt by these paper tigers to bluff their way into a much-needed success on the international stage. Of course, they will utterly fail at this. The only ones that actually benefit from all this is the despicable dynasty of Saud, which has now been given carte blanche to oppress the people of Bahrain and its own country while ridding itself of a much-despised competitor for the laurels of the ‘Arab cause’. The Western powers will gain nothing, since their campaigns will inevitably force them deeper into the mire than they originally planned. Most likely they will be forced to accept a de facto partition of Libya between the western half and the eastern half, with the latter being a vassal oil state and the former a poor and instable tyranny in the style of Yemen. These results, yet another ‘victory’ for muscular liberalism, will only increase the sense of cynicism and opposition on the part of the peoples of the Arab world, and will not gain any of the Western forces the least bit of credibility.

As things go, the track record of outside interventions leading to lasting reform of a progressive kind is not good. Unlike many on the left, I do not consider the UN to be a mere form of appearance of American power, and the fact that a UN mandate exists (unopposed by China, Russia, India or any of the other rival powers) is something to take seriously. While the UN is by all means in its political branch a dysfunctional institution, this only reflects the dysfunctionality of the power balance (or rather lack thereof) in the world today; attacking the UN for this is shooting the messenger for the message. In fact, the UN as an idea and an instrument is the best and greatest hope for mankind of ridding the world of the scourges of war and imperialism. Nonetheless, individual resolutions need to be taken as they are, namely products of international power politics. So while the intervention as such is clearly legal under the prevailing understanding, this is not to say that we are bound to support it – after all, e.g. Germany is not taking part either and has explicitly distanced itself from the action. In any case there is not much reason to believe that this intervention on behalf of the Libyan rebels is likely to make them more amenable to their opponents in Libya itself – the danger here is always present that such intervention in fact plays into the hands of the tyrants, who can easily play the ‘defence of the realm’ card against foreign enemies, whom nobody in any country likes.

This means however that we as socialists should be serious about the consequences of our stances. In opposing this intervention, for the myriad of skeptical reasons we might have, it means that we commit ourselves to saying that the Libyan rebellion and all similar rebellions elsewhere must live or die on their own strength. The history of Afghanistan gives us ample proof of the idea that merely support from outside, for example in shipments of arms or fuel, is just as dangerous a course as intervention, especially if we do not know the political color and meaning of the rebellion itself and we do not know which class or interest will prevail if they win. It behooves us therefore to be careful in choosing sides in each and every conflict, and instead to say clearly and without equivocation that contrary to the hypocrisy and opportunism of the liberals, we may or may not sympathize with their cause but the cause must be won by the rebels themselves. If they lose and are destroyed, so be it. We might take a different stance in a situation with a different array of political forces and a clearer knowledge of the consequences of victory or loss, as we did in the Spanish Civil War. We will of course all the more strongly also oppose any outside intervention to support the tyrants and their side, as is the case in Bahrain. But in the end we cannot accept Western leaders posturing their way into a genuine popular rebellion and co-opting it in its hours of difficulty for the benefit of some short term prestige gains. To that we say with Vergilius: non tali auxilio, nec defensoribus istis tempus eget.


I miss a few points in your argument. 1) I fail to see an analogy between e.g. the Falkland invasion and the current action by foreign troops in Libya 2) speaking of parallels: not WWII Hitler-Germany, but rather civil-war Yougoslavia and 1994 Rwanda have been submitted as ‘dire warnings’ where external intervention happened (too) late. Or are you always, on principle, opposed to any intervention? 3) the rebels at Benghazi said they welcomed assistance from the air though they did not want see foreign troops entering Libya. Does this appeal from the Libyan rebels matter to your argument?

Good points from the most welcome of commenters. I will attempt to address them in order:

1) The sole point of analogy with the Falklands is the use of a posture of justified war by a weak government to shore up credibility at home and abroad. Although it is not well remembered now, Thatcher’s government was actually in a fairly bad position in 1982, especially after the success of the first miners’ strike of 1981-1982 despite the rhetorical commitments of her party. I think it is no coincidence that Sarkozy, who is generally considered to be virtually unelectable at this point, hurried to be the first on the scene.

2) It is true that those are the classic cases when humanitarian intervention is argued to have been necessary. Yet it does not seem that there is a known and urgent likelihood of actual genocide in Libya, even taking the brutality of Ghadaffi into account; and to what degree the interventions that did happen in the cases of Rwanda and Yugoslavia did or did not actually worsen the situation is a contested topic in the literature. For example, Alan Kuperman has argued that any intervention in Rwanda (other than the French troops who were there and probably worsened the situation) was not likely to be sufficiently timely to have made any difference: Similarly, our own intervention in Srebrenica and the US encouragement of the Bosniak leader Izetbegovic and the Croatian semi-fascist Tudjman to reject the original, Portuguese-brokered peace plan in 1991 do not make the case for intervention in Yugoslavia seem so obvious. I am by no means against any intervention anywhere in principle; only pacifism can make that a coherent viewpoint. But while that seemed tangential to this article as such, I think it’s important to point out that the case for warlike intervention by Western powers in both these cases is not unambiguously solid.

3) With regard to the invitation, that would definitely make a difference normally, if we had any sense of the representativeness of the people involved and an idea of their politics. Every leftist remembers the case of the International Brigades in Spain, who were essentially a much-lauded foreign intervention, albeit one of individual volunteers. But they were there under the explicit invitation of the legitimate government of Republican Spain, and left as soon as this invitation was withdrawn. In the case of Libya, there have been calls for a no-fly zone or the like on the part of a ‘National Council’, but it is very unclear who they are and how much they represent the general sentiments of the rebels. The journalists on the ground in the various articles I have read seem anecdotally to have found as many opponents as proponents of intervention in Benghazi and other rebel-held towns. Given the situation, we clearly cannot have any certain knowledge about whether most Libyans want it. If there were a clear and overwhelming sentiment in favor, this would certainly much strengthen the case for intervention, since it is hardly imperialism when it’s by invitation or popular will (as in the case of the Allies in occupied Europe, say). On the other hand unrepresentative ‘invitations’ of foreign powers are also not uncommon – for example the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was preceded by an ‘invitation’ of the Warsaw Pact to that country. I’m not arguing the present situation is much like Prague 1968 at all, but it seems the invitation argument can only work in favor of the intervention if it is sufficiently clearly representative of the side supported by progressives abroad.

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