I am probably not the only person on the Left unsure of the correct response to the no-fly zone imposed on Libya. I know many people very strongly oppose it. Among these is As’ad AbuKhalil, who I do not always agree with, but always consider very carefully. In the other camp of supporters of the attack include Juan Cole and Gilbert Achcar, who are also academic specialists on the Middle East. Juan Cole, however, supported the war on Afghanistan, and typically has more faith in US foreign policy than I do.
I think part of the problem may be in how the issue has been framed. A no-fly zone sounds much less problematic than a call for the West to bomb another Muslim country. No one can fail to notice this comes after open support for the Tunisian dictator until he got on the plane, slightly less brazen support for Mubarak until he resigned (which one presumes will shift to support for the military), and now support for the Saudi Arabian invasion of Bahrain, and repression in Morocco (which is cruelly occupying Western Sahara), Bahrain and Yemen. It is hard for anyone to credit Western intervention in Libya to democratic values, because the double standard is so obvious.
So why are we (those countries in NATO) bombing Libya? We will probably find out for sure in 30 years time. For now, we can only speculate. Perhaps the US (and it should be stressed that decisions are made in the US and then followed by international ‘allies’) saw itself losing control over the Arab world and thought this would be a way to reassert itself, regain control. It may also be a sort of high-value publicity stunt: the US loves and supports democracy and freedom, but the path to such achievements lies not in domestic uprisings, but rather in Western bombs.
If Gaddafi is overthrown now, the US is likely hoping to set up a client state. Part of the problem in what comes next for Libya is that Gaddafi was (and for now is) a deranged ruler who sought to suppress all civil society organisations. The problem with a military uprising, as opposed to a civil one, is that it necessarily restricts the realm of struggle to a smaller group – those who are armed and who have some sort of military experience. My suspicion is that this will set up a natural elite who will soon prove useful allies (clients) of the West. As’ad AbuKhalil on his blog has dwelt on the ties between the leader of the Transition Council and Saudi Arabia. He also noted they do not display a great love of liberty.
But then, the bombing of Libya has been backed by … the Arab League. How much can we expect of a war for democracy on a dictatorship led by several vicious and illegitimate dictatorships? Mark Steel wrote:
Isn’t it marvellous that all these governments are determined to do “something” about Colonel Gaddafi? For example Hillary Clinton said she supported military action once the Arab League – made up of countries such as Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia – backed the air strikes. And it is encouraging that the policy of not tolerating a dictator has the backing of so many dictators.
Some people might suggest that one way King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, might reduce the number of Arab dictators, would be to stop being an Arab dictator, but that’s because they don’t understand how complicated these things can be.
The main argument for the bombing seems to be that we have to do something. This suggests that up until now we’ve been doing nothing, which is true if you don’t count drawing the boundaries of Arab countries in the first place, installing an assortment of Kings and helping them to fire on anyone who objected, backing every Israeli invasion, arming the Shah, arming and financing a list of dictators as long as they sent us their oil…
This may explain why most Arabs are reluctant to welcome Western backing, and why they might reply to a question from Britain and America that went “Can we just do nothing?” by answering, “Why don’t you give it a go? For about a hundred years. Then we’ll see how we’re getting on and get back to you”.
So while the people of Benghazi must have been relieved that the UN has forced Gaddafi back, it must be in the same way that if you were being attacked by robbers you’d be relieved to see the Mafia turn up and fire on them.
I don’t know of many polling results, but in the UK at least, the public is quite sceptical about the new war. I think this is reasonable. Whether or not bombing Libya was the right thing to do, certainly the case for it has not been made to the publics of our countries. I think that the burden for bombing another country really should be on those who want to bomb. There are, I think, questions that should be answered before our agreement should be given. For example, why are we doing it? If it’s because we want to support democracy and human rights, we surely could have adopted far less drastic measures in several other nearby countries, such as denouncing the invasion of Bahrain.
Pepe Escobar has reported for the Asia Times that the US promised to back Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Bahrain in exchange for Saudi Arabia organising Arab League support for the bombing of Libya. He notes that all nine members of the twenty-two-member organisation voted in support of the new war on Libya.
Meanwhile, the rebels have secured the main oil fields of Libya, and Angry Arab cites this NYT story: ‘The United States on Monday gave a green light to sales of Libyan crude oil from rebel-held territory, giving a potential boost to forces battling Muammar Gaddafi. A U.S. Treasury Department official said Libyan rebels would not be subject to U.S. sanctions if they avoid entities linked to Gaddafi’s regime, which would allow them to sell oil under their control.’
Will bombing Libya help? I don’t think there is much reason to believe it will lead to a democracy being established. Some may believe that the bombing will prevent a massacre. But it has been argued that other methods than bombing may have better prevented bloodshed (such as peacekeepers, or a negotiating process). It is not even clear that a massacre was inevitable. Vijay Prashad notes that ‘there were troops inside Benghazi. They are the troops that were trained and armed by the Libyan regime. They had repulsed an attempt into Benghazi. The tanks were outside the city when they were bombed by French planes’. It is true Gaddafi has issued vicious threats. So has the House of Saud, threatening to ‘cut off any finger’ raised against it in protest.
It has been said that Libyans requested our support so we were obliged to give it. I hardly think we could seriously be expected to bomb any country on request. I also recall certain Iraqi expatriates supported invading Iraq; that didn’t turn out so well either. If a friend makes a request of me, I should surely not be expected to accede no matter what.
What will happen next? How long will we bomb Libya? Right now, it does not appear the rebels inspire much confidence. What happens if it looks like Gaddafi will succeed in putting down the rebellion, even with no-fly zones enforced? Will we invade? For those who support bombing Libya, I think we should ask: how much involvement would be too much? What sort of limits will you put on this new war?