The current popular uprising against Colonel Qadafi in Libya is part of a wider revolutionary wave occurring all across the Middle East and North Africa that deserves our unconditional support. Any victory of the Qadafi regime over the rebellion would no doubt represent a devastating blow not only to Libya’s own future but to the revolutionary process in the region as a whole. As NATO’s no-fly zone over Libya increasingly looks to transform into a long and protracted military operation, it is important now for social justice advocates across Canada, of all viewpoints, to reflect critically upon why the decision to intervene was made, who exactly stands to benefit, and what the likely consequences will be.
On March 17, 2011 the UN Security Council overwhelmingly passed resolution 1973, authorizing “all necessary measures” short of a full military ground invasion to protect Libyan civilians from further aerial attacks by Qadafi forces. NATO has since responded by carrying out several heavy air strikes in both eastern and western Libya, quickly becoming part of the war itself and bringing additional risk to the very same civilians whose lives they are supposedly there to protect. Whether we happen to like it or not, in reality the decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya is, by default, a declaration of war. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested as much weeks prior to US involvement in the operation, stating bluntly: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya.”
Does the threat of an impending massacre of civilians by Qadafi forces justify a Western-led foreign military intervention that is almost certain to only escalate rather than stop or drastically reduce the violence? This is a dilemma of serious moral weight and responsibility that clearly yields no easy or comfortable answers for anyone, including the the radical, anti-imperialist Left. Yet the simple reality remains that a ‘humanitarian’ and a ‘military’ solution are two entirely different objectives. If the purpose of the NATO operation in Libya was genuinely of a humanitarian nature, the priority would be anchored towards evacuating civilians from major battlezones rather than simply adding to the ongoing bombing assault. Since NATO has assumed full control over military operations in Libya, several civilian centres in eastern and western Libya have already been bombed at will with little, if any, regard for the toll on civilian life.
Explicit calls for a no-fly zone by elements of the Libyan resistance on the ground have only compounded the present moral dilemma, further polarizing the ongoing debate in the process. Although under the current circumstances it is perfectly clear why many rebel forces and even civilians have supported the no-fly zone, very little is actually known about who comprises the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, what overall level of popular legitimacy it can justifiably claim, and if it can indeed speak on behalf of the majority of civilians across the country. As such, solidarity with the resistance in Libya should not necessarily mean an alignment with any specific political factions or their demands, especially while so much remains unknown about who they are and what their overall aims and objectives may be once Qadafi is finally ousted from power.
Because no two cases are ever exactly alike, we should be careful not to dismiss foreign military intervention out of hand as an automatic first principle. Instead, we should be willing to respond to each scenario on an individual case-by-case basis. Yet the consequences of this no-fly zone will not be borne by any of us in the West whose governments are involved in the operation but by the Libyan people alone. While we may be able to regret our position in the future, the Libyan people with whom we want to show solidarity will not be afforded the same luxury. Any outside calls for a Western-led foreign military intervention must keep this single fact in mind.
We would do well to remember at this time the recent case studies of Iraq (1991) and Yugoslavia (1999) where not only did we see civilian casualties continue to soar following foreign military intervention but, in fact, some of the worst atrocities in both respective countries occurred directly under the cover of no-fly zones.
It should also come as no surprise that a no-fly zone was so readily agreed to in Libya but decisively not in Lebanon in 2006, Gaza in 2008/2009, or Pakistan where a US drone attack killed another 40 innocent civilians just last week. Whatever your position on the no-fly zone, the blatant hypocrisy dictating when Western powers choose to intervene or not is only too clear. The Qadafi regime was just as morally insupportable in the 1980s while still an official enemy of the West as it was in the 2000s following a rapprochement with these very same Western powers.
In return for acting as a steady bulwark against the rise of ‘Islamic extremism’ in the region and helping keep undocumented migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa out of Europe, Qadafi has been able to enjoy years of significant Western financial, diplomatic, and military support that has allowed him to consolidate his grip on power. The fact that the ongoing operation is currently led by NATO forces who are largely responsible for arming Qadafi is fundamentally part of the problem and should not go ignored.
Why then intervene in Libya now? Western powers are not guided by morality but political and economic interests. NATO forces have not entered the war in Libya out of any particular concern for civilian life but rather to advance their own given strategic objectives in the region: first, to gain a semblance of Western legitimacy that can compensate in some small way for the imperialist policy failures of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine; second, to establish close relations with the National Transitional Council government under whom foreign oil interests can remain protected; and third, to secure a carefully guided transition to a ‘democratic regime’ that leaves no room for an independent course of action led by Libyans themselves. UN resolution 1973 is, in effect, little more than a ‘rubber-stamp’ policy for regime change that seeks to subordinate the revolutionary wave taking place in Libya and beyond to the West’s own sphere of domination.
Arab League participation in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya hardy brings the operation any added measure of legitimacy, as many of these countries are themselves now facing – and violently suppressing – similar popular uprisings at home. As a result, these Arab client-regimes have just as much of a vested interest as their Western benefactors in curbing the revolutionary wave currently sweeping the region – if not more so.
But what if the no-fly zone proves successful after all and Qadafi’s air power is completely defeated, as increasingly looks to be the case? Will NATO terminate the operation or further escalate the war with a ground invasion where Qadafi forces have always been most dangerous anyway? The 1986 US air strikes in Libya under US President Ronald Reagan were supposed to be restricted exclusively to military targets, yet over 100 people were killed – the vast majority of whom were civilians. How can we assume the results will be any different now?
Furthermore, even if the operation remains limited to a no-fly zone it may still very well produce the negative outcome of only further entrenching Qadafi’s power as the situation on the ground transforms from a scenario of civil war into one of an embattled regime versus a rebel force led by a foreign invading enemy. Such a result would play directly into Qadafi’s hands, only reinforcing his appeal for wider support among the people in his current stronghold of Tripoli.
Unfortunately, the ongoing debate about the no-fly zone has been falsely polarized between an ‘internationalist’ tendency that advocates Western humanitarian intervention, and an ‘isolationist’ tendency that advocates leaving the Arabs to fight for themselves – in other words, using military force or simply doing nothing. Neither of these options represents a position of actual solidarity with the Libyan resistance or opposition to imperialism. In reality, there exists considerable space beyond these two unhelpful extremes. Were the global arms trade sufficiently regulated to prevent brutal despots like Qadafi from acquiring such weaponry in the first place, the debate about the no-fly zone would be entirely moot.
While we can by no means sit idly by as Qadafi forces threaten to carry out a massacre, neither should we rush to advocate the use of military force in Libya by Western powers operating under the familiar guise of ‘humanitarian intervention.’ Indeed, the NATO operation already goes far beyond the defined limits of the original no-fly zone, with no clear endgame in sight. A moral opposition to the current operation is one that remains sensitive to the attendant dangers of the reality on the ground while cautioning calls for a course of action that will only bring additional risk to civilian life and continue to serve foreign interests over those of the Libyan people. A consensus in this important ongoing debate may not be possible, but a sound rejection of any path that simply leaves us caught between Qadafi and imperialism is a good place to start.