Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the intervention are:
1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)
2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).
3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.
Absolute pacifists are rare, and I will just acknowledge them and move on. I personally favor an option for peace in world policy-making, where it should be the default initial position. But the peace option is trumped in my mind by the opportunity to stop a major war crime.
Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade. That was a foreign intervention. Leftists were happy about Churchill’s and then Roosevelt’s intervention against the Axis. To make ‘anti-imperialism’ trump all other values in a mindless way leads to frankly absurd positions. I can’t tell you how annoyed I am by the fringe left adulation for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the grounds that he is ‘anti-imperialist,’ and with an assumption that he is somehow on the Left. As the pillar of a repressive Theocratic order that puts down workers, he is a man of the far Right, and that he doesn’t like the US and Western Europe doesn’t ennoble him.
The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. Those arguing that “Libyans” should settle the issue themselves are willfully ignoring the overwhelming repressive advantage given Qaddafi by his jets, helicopter gunships, and tanks; the ‘Libyans’ were being crushed inexorably. Such crushing can be effective for decades thereafter.
Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding. Of course he is not to be trusted by progressives, but he is to his dismay increasingly boxed in by international institutions, which limits the damage he could do as the bombing campaign comes to an end (Qaddafi only had 2000 tanks, many of them broken down, and it won’t be long before he has so few, and and the rebels have captured enough to level the playing field, that little further can be accomplished from the air).
Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an intervention could be staged or worrying that Libya sets a precedent. I don’t find those arguments persuasive. Military intervention is always selective, depending on a constellation of political will, military ability, international legitimacy and practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents, and responsible for thousands of casualties and with the prospect of more thousands to come, where aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.
This situation did not obtain in the Sudan’s Darfur, where the terrain and the conflict were such that aerial intervention alone would have have been useless and only boots on the ground could have had a hope of being effective. But a whole US occupation of Iraq could not prevent Sunni-Shiite urban faction-fighting that killed tens of thousands, so even boots on the ground in Darfur’s vast expanse might have failed.
The other Arab Spring demonstrations are not comparable to Libya, because in none of them has the scale loss of life been replicated, nor has the role of armored brigades been as central, nor have the dissidents asked for intervention, nor has the Arab League. For the UN, out of the blue, to order the bombing of Deraa in Syria at the moment would accomplish nothing and would probably outrage all concerned. Bombing the tank brigades heading for Benghazi made all the difference.
That is, in Libya intervention was demanded by the people being massacred as well as by the regional powers, was authorized by the UNSC, and could practically attain its humanitarian aim of forestalling a massacre through aerial bombardment of murderous armored brigades. And, the intervention could be a limited one and still accomplish its goal.
I also don’t understand the worry about the setting of precedents. The UN Security Council is not a court, and does not function by precedent. It is a political body, and works by political will. Its members are not constrained to do elsewhere what they are doing in Libya unless they so please, and the veto of the five permanent members ensures that a resolution like 1973 will be rare. But if a precedent is indeed being set that if you rule a country and send tank brigades to murder large numbers of civilian dissidents, you will see your armor bombed to smithereens, I can’t see what is wrong with that.
Another argument is that the no-fly zone (and the no-drive zone) aimed at overthrowing Qaddafi not to protect his people from him but to open the way for US, British and French dominance of Libya’s oil wealth. This argument is bizarre. The US declined to do oil business with Libya in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, when it could have, because it had placed the country under boycott. It didn’t want access to that oil market, which was repeatedly proffered to Washington by Qaddafi then. After Qaddafi came back in from the cold in the late 1990s (for the European Union) and after 2003 (for the US), sanctions were lifted and Western oil companies flocked into the country. US companies were well represented, along with BP and the Italian firm ENI. BP signed an expensive exploration contract with Qaddafi and cannot possibly have wanted its validity put into doubt by a revolution. There is no advantage to the oil sector of removing Qaddafi. Indeed, a new government may be more difficult to deal with and may not honor Qaddafi’s commitments. There is no prospect of Western companies being allowed to own Libyan petroleum fields, which were nationalized long ago. Finally, it is not always in the interests of Big Oil to have more petroleum on the market, since that reduces the price and, potentially, company profits. A war on Libya to get more and better contracts so as to lower the world price of petroleum makes no sense in a world where the bids were already being freely let, and where high prices were producing record profits. I haven’t seen the war-for-oil argument made for Libya in a manner that makes any sense at all.
I would like to urge the Left to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in their travails in places like Libya. If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the Left. We should avoid making ‘foreign intervention’ an absolute taboo the way the Right makes abortion an absolute taboo if doing so makes us heartless (inflexible a priori positions often lead to heartlessness). It is now easy to forget that Winston Churchill held absolutely odious positions from a Left point of view and was an insufferable colonialist who opposed letting India go in 1947. His writings are full of racial stereotypes that are deeply offensive when read today. Some of his interventions were nevertheless noble and were almost universally supported by the Left of his day. The UN allies now rolling back Qaddafi are doing a good thing, whatever you think of some of their individual leaders.
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