Libya: how the West just made things worse

Sean Collins reports from New York on how the UN’s green light for military action may wreck any hope of freedom for the people of Libya.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics

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Last night, the United Nations Security Council here in New York voted to authorise military action against the Libya regime led by Colonel Gaddafi. Far from rescuing the Libyan uprising, the resolution is a setback for the cause of democracy and self-determination.

The authorisation, thanks to last-minute American pressure, extends beyond the much-discussed ‘no-fly zone’ to include a wide range of military actions, including the bombing of Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery and air-defence systems. It also calls on member nations to take ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians, setting up the possibility of the deployment of ground troops in the future.

This action is a blow to the fight for self-determination for the Libyan people. The rebels have been on the retreat and looked like they were going to lose. But that does not justify Western intervention. The Western powers do not have the interests of the Libyan people at heart; they have their own interests, which are typically in conflict with popular needs. The US state is not in favour of democracy, despite its rhetoric; it did not support Egypt’s protesters until the uprising had toppled Mubarak, and today it looks the other way as its allies in Bahrain’s ruling monarchy crack down, with support from Saudi Arabia, on democracy-seeking protesters. As Iraq and many other wars have shown, democracy cannot be introduced by outsiders, from the top down, at the end of a gun or missile. The act of intervention negates self-determination.

As UK prime minister David Cameron declared when visiting Cairo in February, ‘I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet’. Clearly, the opportunity to grandstand on the world stage was too good to miss.

The UN authorisation now effectively internationalises what was an internal conflict, changing the dynamic in a manner which will not benefit the Libyan people. As we know from other war zones where the West has intervened, local forces often become focused on how best to secure Western funds and assistance. And while the rebellion will now focus too much energy on appealing to the West, the UN resolution has handed Gaddafi the capacity to claim that he is an anti-imperialist fighting outside interference, which might allow him to cohere some support on that basis. The fact that it looks like Italy – the longtime colonial power in Libya – may provide the base for launching some of the attacks will give the Libyan dictator an argument that joining him is a way to defeat their traditional imperialist foe.

Make no mistake, this is a war. The advocates of a no-fly zone argue that such action would be a sanitised version of battle, as if Western powers are just going to help out from the sidelines. However, as mentioned above, the UN authorisation goes much further than this. Besides, even if it had been limited, there is no way it could have stayed limited. The US and other Western powers have taken sides with the rebels. If Gaddafi now survives in power, it would be a humiliation for the West. Could these major powers allow that to happen without sending in ground forces? It is bad enough to intervene, but to intervene now and expect that intervention to be limited to air strikes makes no sense. If Benghazi falls to Gaddafi, there will certainly be pressure to put troops on the ground. Obama’s confused policy on Afghanistan (build up troops so you can pull out) looks logical compared with this Libya initiative.

In all of this, the Obama administration is making George W Bush’s confused administration look like brilliant foreign-policy strategists in comparison. There has been no rationale provided for this action. There has been no real public debate: Obama has spent more time discussing his ‘March Madness’ college basketball picks than the war in Libya. To the extent that Americans have considered the Libya issue, most are – according to polls – against taking any action. Up to now, the rumour was that most of the Obama team was opposed to intervention, with the exception of secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The word being spread around by the administration before Thursday’s vote was that Libya was not a country that fell within the US’s national security interests. Then, like a tiptoeing thief in the night, Obama joined the declaration of war on Libya, and that was that.

Furthermore, the US approach has been cowardly. Obama has hidden behind the skirts of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Cameron, the Arab League and now the UN. It is one thing to put a stake in the ground and then call for others to join in. It is another to stay silent, let the others go out in front, and then decide to just go along for the ride. Whatever happened to the ‘unipolar world’ of undisputed American leadership?

This action against Libya is a direct attack on a principle of national sovereignty. It is a big deal to override sovereignty, and yet it is hardly recognised as such. The moral that other countries will be able to draw is that borders are just lines on a map, easily trespassed – as when the Saudis send troops to Bahrain. As Tim Black points out elsewhere on spiked, for all the huff and puff about freedom, there is simply no way the West is going to criticise the actions of its allies in crushing the protests in Bahrain even as it launches war planes against Tripoli.

This action is a new attempt to revive ‘humanitarian’ intervention, after the idea of Western action became tarnished by the Iraq war experience. But bombing Libya or anywhere else is not humanitarian: if you think that the news reports to date have been gruesome, just wait till the Western powers start to attack. And as prior examples such as Bosnia show, these humanitarian interventions only open the door for Western control at the expense of local democracy. And where does this humanitarianism end? Why intervene in Libya and not in Zimbabwe and other countries?

It is amazing how the intervention in Libya is proceeding as if the Afghanistan and Iraq wars never happened. The opportunity to obtain some moral authority from the ‘do something’ brigade was apparently too great for the West’s politicians to resist. Even too hard for an American President who, as a candidate, claimed his unique ability to lead was evidenced by his foresight to oppose the war in Iraq.

The West is not a force for good in Libya. A civil war in Libya has now become an international war, which can only be bad for the Libyan people.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics Politics


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