Libya: interventionism or isolation?


by James Maxwell

The case for a UN backed, US enforced no-fly-zone over Libyan territory is gathering pace.

Last week’s events reveal just how far Muammar Gaddafi is willing to go to avoid sharing the fate of Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali.

The latest reports suggest that in addition to his forces ruthlessly bombing rebel strongholds with an abject contempt for civilian life, they are also systematically torturing prisoners and attacking journalists.



The prospects of a Srebrenica style massacre on the North African coast are real. If the uprising is defeated, Gaddafi will exact a bloody revenge on those sections of the Libyan population that defied him. The leader of Libya’s rebel council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has warned that up to 500,000 could die in the aftermath of a victory for the regime.

Even in the Middle East pressure for Western military intervention is growing. The Arab League has offered its full support to a NATO led aerial operation and voices are emerging from among the Libyan people which demand robust American and European action to counter Gaddafi’s advances.

If such action is taken, there is a good chance his poorly equipped, under-motivated conscript army would capitulate quickly in the face of the West’s overwhelming firepower.

There is an obvious precedent for a campaign of this kind. Over Balkan skies in 1999, American and British fighter jets stopped Serbia’s ultra-nationalist militias dead in their tracks, thereby rescuing ethnic Albanian Kosovars from probable genocide at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic.

At the time, some leading figures in this country described the campaign as “unpardonable folly”. But it has in the long-run proved a qualified success. At present, Kosovo is a largely democratic, peaceful state on the road to full European integration.

Why should Libya not similarly benefit from our martial strength?

Well, partly because the Kosovo example in fact represents an incredible historical fluke – a rare instance of the interests of large Western states coinciding with those of a small, geo-politically insignificant people.

But Tripoli at the start of the 21st century is not Belgrade at the end of the 20th.

Even a cursory review of the West’s recent and ongoing involvement in Arab lands – from its unconditional support for Israel’s colonial project to the aborted attempt to impose liberal democracy on Iraq – suggests that what occurred in Eastern Europe a decade ago will not be replicated in the Middle East today.

Further, Europe and the US have for years drip fed authoritarian regimes in the region with a steady diet of arms deals and oil contracts without ever raising protest against their treatment of dissidents and opposition activists.

It seems somewhat implausible that these hitherto indifferent global powers have suddenly developed a humanitarian conscience.

But if the consequence of Western intervention, whatever its motivation, was to prevent the slaughter Gaddafi is evidently planning – he has pledged to “cleanse Libya, house by house” – would the ends, in this instance, not justify the means?

And at any rate, surely our shameful disregard for the suffering of Arabs in the past doubles or triples our moral obligation to help them in their current struggle for freedom?

In rhetorical terms, these arguments are quite persuasive, not least because they echo some of the best traditions of progressive internationalism.

We have, however, heard them before.

Pro-war liberals used exactly these lines in 2001 and 2003 to justify their support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both which turned out to be colossal mistakes.

After ten years the Afghanistan conflict remains in deadlock. As Hamid Karzai’s administration slowly rots with corruption, the Taliban consolidates its control of areas outside of Kabul and Washington searches frantically for an escape route.

Iraq meanwhile fares little better. Ba’athist military repression has been replaced with parliamentary-civilian repression. Last week Iraqi soldiers killed 29 pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Baghdad.

It is hardly surprising then, given their recent record of spectacular strategic incompetence, that our leaders equivocate over whether or not to intervene in Libya and the Libyans themselves still prefer to go it alone.

But are there any conditions under which intervention might be permissible?


First, an explicit request would have to be made by the rebel council in Ben Ghazi for the West to enter Libyan airspace. Without it, any operation would fail to satisfy even the basic pre-requisites of legitimacy.

Second, the precise details of and limits to the operation would have to be set by the rebels and stringently adhered to by the foreign strategists. Gaddafi cannot be allowed to cast the rebellion as some sort of elaborate Israeli-American conspiracy.

Third, there would have to be a UN Security Council resolution. Further unilateral US action in the Middle East will look like a nakedly imperial manoeuvre, which the Libyan people would not accept. A genuine coalition of the willing, drawn together from countries in the Middle East and Africa as well as Europe and the Americas, is necessary.

Nontheless, even if all these conditions were met significant questions would remain. If the no-fly-zone fails, could we countenance a ground invasion? If there was a ground invasion, how many troops would it take to be effective? How long would it be before Gaddafi’s high-ranking officials abandon him? And on and on.

The central question, though, for Libyan and Western reformers alike is this: just what is it that Washington, London and Brussels might hope to gain from spilling yet more blood in another Arab war?

The answer depends on how much trust we are willing to place in Western governments professed support for the rights of Libyan people.