My piece in Online Opinion on the notion of legitimate foreign intervention, case study: Libya.
Posts Tagged ‘Libya’
For some, Western intervention in Libya is the nail in the coffin of the Libyan Revolution.
It has been contended that this no longer a domestic uprising, but a war that now includes foreign powers with a set of interests at the forefront.
Maximilian Forte, for example, claims that the Libyan rebels have erroneously surrendered their revolution to the West by requesting military intervention.
Forte, echoing a regular argument of anti-Imperialist Leftists, highlights Western hypocrisy in selectively choosing which conflicts to intervene in.
Whilst Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama beat the drums of humanitarianism, evoking the “responsibility to protect” slogan in justifying their intervention in Libya, there remains a plethora of conflicts and human rights abuses both past and ongoing that have received the West’s cold shoulder. Forte mentions Uzbekistan 2005, whose dictator brutally killed hundreds of his own people in a crackdown on opponents, but received little reprimand as he enjoys the special status of being a close and crucial US ally.
The list can go on, from Israel and Bahrain to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Western intervention depends entirely on which side of the fence you sit on in international relations and a cost-benefit analysis.
However, left-leaning supporters of the Western strikes in Libya do not discount Western hypocrisy. No one expects the US or the EU to strike Israel the next time the Jewish state decides to kill 1,000+ Palestinian or Lebanese civilians.
Rather, the focus is not necessarily on the actions of the West, but that of Gaddafi and the pro-democratic movement in the Arab world.
Gaddafi is a brutal dictator, as repressive as all authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. Indeed, I will not cry if the King of Saudi Arabia fell tomorrow in a wave of pro-democracy protests. However, neither will I mourn the loss of Assad of Syria or Gaddafi, despite what some would deem admirable and audacious foreign policies that have been confrontational to global powers.
Anti-Imperialist Leftists are quick, and right, to accuse the West of hypocrisy, but are we not also hypocrites if we pick and choose which dictators should stay and go?
Do Assad and Gaddafi win extra points for standing up to the West (although Gaddafi has recently changed his tune)?
No, they do not.
This strikes at another core argument of the anti-Imperialist Left, which is that much of the Arab world’s stagnation is due to Western – American in particular – interference in the region.
The West indeed has its fair share of responsibility when it comes to the failure of the Arab world to develop post-Cold War along the lines of East Asia or Latin America. However, one cannot ignore agency, and the role it plays in determining the shape of the region. This is particularly true of the few regimes in the region that have chosen to compete with American regional interests, and are thus not contingent on them.
The US may have leverage over Saudi Arabia and Morocco (and even that is questionable), but very little over Syria, Libya and Iran. The Assad regime does not require approval from Washington to embark on internal democratic and economic reform.
Instead of being a pioneer for change and progress in the region, the Syrian regime has benefited from a US-backed regional system of despots to solidify and justify his own power in Syria.
Thus, whether democratic reform is pushed in Egypt, or Syria, or Libya, it matters little to those who are vociferous in their support for change in the region.
Western powers may pick and choose which reformist movements they intend to support, but that luxury is not available to human rights activists. For to be a human rights activist, we recognise the aspirations of all suppressed peoples in the world to enjoy the same democratic freedoms, with the same opportunities as a citizen of the UK or Norway.
Western political support for the Libyan rebels does not negate our support for the same team. The role left-leaning activists have to play is to ensure the Libyan Revolution does not become hijacked by the West. Indeed, there are strong arguments within the military camp of the US that equally do not wish to be burdened by another Middle Eastern conflict.
This is a case of ideals and interests converging in support of action in Libya.
Forte claims the Libyan Revolution is dead and dusted as a consequence of military action. What he fails to acknowledge is that Gaddafi was a few hours away from not only destroying the Libyan Revolution, but empowering dictators in the region to do the same.
The pro-democracy momentum would have evaporated across the region had Gaddafi been allowed to enter Benghazi, but seeing Western powers react has inspired suppressed Syrians, for example, to challenge their own authorities.
The revolution can only be claimed dead if the West take charge of the revolt, which by all indications, they are reluctant to do. The Libyan rebels need to ensure they remain the face of the revolution.
The role of local dissidents is crucial to ensure Libya does not turn into an Iraq. Many have made a false analogy between Libya 2011 and Iraq 2003. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was an entirely external attempt to impose democracy on a foreign country alien to the concept. The entire project was initiated, drafted and implemented by the Bush administration.
A system imposed on another state and society, with little involvement from domestic agents, is often doomed for failure.
Ironically, Assad accurately argued at the time that democracy has to emerge from within the Arab world, not from abroad. And that is exactly what is occurring today, and it is an important distinction that needs to be recognised.
The Libyan people initiated the call for change, and by their own blood attempted to take Gaddafi down. This is entirely their project, it is the emergence of a democratic movement from within Libyan society.
The West’s role in the current situation is not to reset such a drive, and replace it with its own agenda, but to ensure the challenge does not lose momentum. Of course, the French may have a hidden agenda in acquiring a greater slice of Libyan oil, and no one assumes the West is not intervening for certain interests of its own. However, if the pursuit of such interests empowers the Libyan Revolution – not undermine it – then it is a win-win for all, perhaps an uncomfortable reality for some in the Left and Right.
Anti-Imperialist Leftists remain adamant in their opposition to the imposed Libyan No Fly Zone, with the usual arguments that such action equates to aggression, and not revolution.
Liberal Leftists – those that believe human rights supercedes the sanctity of a state’s sovereignty – are clearly supportive of the intervention on humanitarian grounds, and in sympathy with the democratic aspirations of the Libyan people. The latter also fits neatly with traditional right-wing values, in addition to knocking out an old foe in Colonel Qaddafi.
And thus my Twitter has become polarised between left-leaning activists of the two opposing views.
However, whilst I am supportive of intervention on humanitarian grounds, the anti-Imperialist contention that Great Powers only ever intervene when it serves their national interest – and are often entirely cynical of such measures as a consequence – holds some merit. It reflects a realist and pessimistic view of world affairs where humanity simply has no role in international relations, and state decisions are calculated purely on self interest.
Indeed, one can see a plethora of Western interests at play in Libya:
Oil – that lucrative black resource that the West can’t get enough of. World energy supplies are becoming less available to Western markets as emerging powers demand sufficient oil imports to support their growing economies. Much of Libya’s oil reserves lie in the east of the country, where the West has drawn the red line for Qaddafi. Will they exploit Libya’s wealth, even if it means a long-term division of the country?
Qaddafi - No friend of the West, and an erratic figurehead leads to unpredictable behaviour. When sovereignty rests with a sole leader, the importance of the personality of such a leader magnifies in determining that state’s policies and behaviour in the international community. Think Kim Jong-il.
Replacing Qaddafi with a stable form of governance that the West can rely on will ensure smooth relations, and a steady and secure flow of oil without the threat of an eccentric dictator changing tune at the flick of a switch.
Legitimacy – Following the debacle of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the subsequent decline of US global power, legitimate intervention in Libya via the UN and in the name of humanitarianism is a significant step towards regaining global legitimacy. Much political analysis has foreseen the decline of the West in international relations. As emerging powers push forward competing foreign policy agendas, the West’s flexibility to operate as a world’s policeman – as it has for the past four centuries – is curtailed.
A demonstration of military power and projection, whilst upholding liberal democratic values to justify its intervention, signals that the West is still determined to ensure its values define the norms of 21st century international relations.
Nevertheless, with such interests in mind, it is necessary to redress the pessimistic realism that anti-Imperialists often seek to draw upon to justify their cynicism of military action.
The argument that states function purely on national interest is one that is accepted across most international relations theorists. However, what determines such interests is often a source for contention. Anti-Imperialists and realists each assume that national interests are a given for every state, and thus all pursue the same goals (greater power) in the same manner, if given the opportunity.
I do not share such a reductionist view of international affairs. National interests vary considerably between states, and are often contingent on the identities within the state, and thus, the domestic arena plays a significant role in determining the shape and behaviour of a state.
Universal values underpin Western societies. The age-old Christian notion that one must help a man in need lies at the heart of Western thought, even if – admittedly – Western policies seldom reflect such compassion.
That such a conscience exists, however, incredibly influences how the West perceives its role in the world. Whilst many rightly label the West as hypocrites for their inconsistent approach to human rights, it is also true that the West’s self-perception of holding superior moral values grants it – in the West’s views – the legitimacy to police a world where its values are not entirely shared. In 19th century terms, it is the distinction between the civilised, the barbarian and the primitive. The West still retains this view – although in less direct terms – of the world, and adjusts its policies accordingly. The Arab world is still the barbarian other in need of further civilising.
This may appear, and for many it is, a racist outlook. But – and this is entertaining right-wing thought – do we not consider the Western form of governance that upholds the liberal democratic values of freedom of speech superior to the repressive dictatorships of China, Iran and Libya? Does the West still have the right to retain such a distinction between itself and the world, thus giving it the legitimacy it is using today to intervene in Libya?
Indeed, if we are to accept that national interests determine state behaviour, we must also be open to the domestic agents and identities that determine such interests, for the state system is not filled with like-units.
Whilst, yes, the West will intervene in Libya for the benefit of its resources, it is equally simplistic to ignore a humanitarian imperative that lies within the West’s identity and image. That is, the legitimacy the West awards itself, courtesy of its self-perceived view of holding the higher moral ground vis-a-vis other states for the reasons aforementioned.
Libya is a rare case of the Left and Right aligning in pursuit of the same goal: to remove a repressive dictatorship to permit the emergence of a revolutionary liberal democratic Libya that respects human rights. It is the unique occasion where Western ideals and interests coalesce to enable an intervention without much dissent and soul-searching, as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Indeed, enthusiasts in both camps believe that such an approach should be extended to the Gulf, where Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia deploy similar brutal measures to contain pro-democracy protests.
However, where ideals and interests clash, one can expect the West to shelve its rhetoric to safeguard core interests. The Gulf is simply too precious and fragile to tinker with. Intervening in the Gulf is not a question of Western legitimacy, but of Western capability. Can the US – in particular – cope with a revolution in the Gulf? If Egypt is any indication, it would seem not.
Failure to support the democratic uprisings in the Gulf is more a signal of America’s declining ability to influence states to accede to its interests.
But if we can take one, Libya, then it is better than none.
On the Listening Post again, discussing Libya. Our segment starts at 8m15s.
Although the media coverage on Libya has been substantial, both in the West and the Arab world, it’s still incredibly difficult getting the stories out from the ground. We don’t have the continuous footage that came out of Egypt or Tunisia. Most of what we’re receiving – social and traditional media – is from improvised technology (video phone recordings) and word of mouth on Twitter.
Libya is a relatively closed society, and we had similar difficulties getting accurate details of what was transpiring on the ground in the Burma protests of 2007.
The camera is a powerful tool that can constrain forces of belligerence simply through the outrage images of carnage causes around the world. It’s often said that if we had the communications technology in the 1940s that we do today, 60 million people probably wouldn’t have been killed.
Gaddafi has effectively shut out the media. Yes, we’re receiving the sporadic YouTube clips and images on Twitter, but none of it is all that coherent. We still have no real idea of the death toll, we’ve heard over 1000, we’ve heard several thousand. Massacres take place when the cameras aren’t watching, and I fear we will be discovering many corpses when the Gaddafi nightmare is over.