Who still believes the West can bomb Libya to freedom?
Not the Libyan rebels, and not really the rattled Western leaders either. Liberal interventionists remain the last cheerleaders for imperialism.
The debacle of the British SAS team arrested and kicked out of the country by the Libyan rebels they assumed would welcome their expert advice ‘captured’ well the crisis of Western policy towards Libya and the wider Arab uprising. If this gathering storm has exposed the fragility of the region’s alleged strongman regimes, then the agonising over how to intervene has confirmed the parlous state of the West’s old great powers.
Who still really believes that Western imperialism has the authority to intervene decisively in the Libyan conflict and end it?
Not too many Libyans right now, it seems, to judge by the humiliation of the British diplomatic mission to rebel-held Benghazi. The weekend’s news coverage of those events highlighted banners, written in English for the benefit of the international media, declaring ‘No foreign intervention! Libyans can manage it alone!’ The bitter experience of intervention, from the US bombing of Tripoli 25 years ago to the European Union’s more recent courting of Gaddafi and the disaster of the Iraq invasion, means that few in the Arab world today harbour many illusions in the benevolence of Western assistance.
Libyan banner sends a message to the West
Not the leader of the free world either, it appears. The response of US president Barack Obama, aka the West’s commander-in-chief, has apparently evolved from speechlessness to impotence, leading one veteran commentator to wonder, in an ironic reference to the debate over Obama’s ‘true’ nationality, whether he might actually be Swiss. The administration quickly shot down European kite-flying about setting up an immediate no-fly zone over Libya. US commanders pointed out to their European partners that this would involve a full-scale military operation against Gaddafi’s air force. Some might naively wonder why that would pose such an insuperable obstacle to the mighty US air force. But after the damage done by Iraq and Afghanistan, the US authorities lack the political authority and will to impose themselves on Libya and fear getting dragged into another civil war.
Nor do the other supposedly more gung-ho Western leaders appear to have much remaining faith in their ability to shape events in their former Arab colonies. UK prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy were the first to come out for a no-fly zone over Libya, prompting headlines boasting that Britain was ‘prepared to use force’ to end the conflict. Cameron’s dream of his ‘Kosovo moment’, using a small foreign war to compensate for the crisis at home as Tony Blair did in 1999, was soon ended by US opposition. Yet what was he proposing anyway? His version of a no-fly zone sounded more like a verbal warning than a military operation – which is about all it would be if left to the diminished Royal Air Force. And his rhetorical plan for ‘arming the rebels’ begged the questions ‘Who?’ and ‘To what end?’
In real terms, British intervention to date has meant a hyped-up flight to pick up some foreign nationals from the Libyan desert, and the weekend’s SAS debacle in Benghazi. We may well expect to see more of the same from Western powers. But this amounts to little more than PR imperialism, about projecting an image of influence and benevolence rather than exercising real power and control.
Of course, Western leaders have not suddenly become anti-interventionist. Their instinct remains to tell the rest of the world how to run its affairs, assuming the moral high ground and looking down on lesser mortals, as shown in the pious UN resolutions and talk of war-crimes indictments against Gaddafi. At another moment in history, a relatively minor foreign war such as the Libyan conflict, with an apparently clear moral line between the two sides, might have been seized upon as an ideal situation for Western leaders to intervene in order to project their international power and shore up their domestic status. Today, however, the stagnation of the West means they lack the authority and confidence either here or over there to impose their will.
In recent weeks, it has seemed as if the US-led Western Alliance that has dominated much of the globe can no longer speak with a clear voice, let alone act decisively. They may yet be forced to do something more as the situation unravels. Right now, however, they appear clueless as to what that something might be.
So who still truly believes in the capacity and authority of the West? Only, it seems, the supposedly liberal interventionists. These journalists and campaigners are the last devoted cheerleaders for imperialism. The laptop bombardiers who campaigned for US-UK militarism from Bosnia through Kosovo and beyond still believe. Never mind the disastrous consequences of those interventions for the peoples lucky enough to be on the receiving end, never mind the hell-hole that intervention created in Iraq. According to one leading voice of liberal interventionism, ‘we’ must now simply ‘forget’ the embarrassment of the Iraq war and press on with ‘our’ mission to free the world. Let’s learn nothing from history! Pretend reality never happened - the dream lives on! Now let’s get back to the fantasy of Western imperialists fighting for freedom.
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These alleged liberals can sustain their support for forceful intervention because it is a narcissistic act of faith that has little or nothing to do with actual events in Libya – where nobody knows what is really happening - or Iraq. It is about ‘us’ not ‘them’. Those leading liberals who have had all that they hold dear at home destroyed by the bitter let-downs of first the Blair-Brown New Labour governments and now Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems are desperate for a cause on which to hang their hats. They seek it in foreign fields and deserts, where it seems so much easier to identify a clear white line between Good and Evil than in the messy terrain of domestic politics.
Thus Libya becomes the latest mirror which liberal interventionists can hold up to admire their own self-image of muscular humanity. Incapable of imagining that little people like the Libyans might be capable of freeing themselves, they look still to the big angels of imperialism to liberate the world. Such rare blind faith in Western intervention might even be touching if it were not so idiotic and potentially devastating for the Arab world.
The trouble today is that the semi-coherent alternative in the West to the idea that intervention would be a good idea in principle is the sort of pragmatic cynicism that says we cannot afford it when they are closing libraries at home, and anyway the Arabs should be left to clean up their own mess. But passive cynicism is not enough, leaving as it does the authorities and interventionists to dominate the debate and occupy the moral sand dunes, if not exactly the high ground.
If the Libyan conflict drags on as other lower-profile African wars such as the Ivory Coast have done – which seems possible given the apparent absence of a decisive dynamic behind either side – the pressure for the West to do ‘something’ will increase. That is why it is important to make the anti-intervention case now – not on the grounds of cost or temporary pragmatism, but as a matter of both principle and practical politics. As the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan suggests, by the time the fantasists for Western-imposed ‘freedom’ wake up and realise the disastrous consequences of what they have done, it will be too late.
Western intervention is inherently anti-democratic, denying as it does the right of Iraqi, Libyan or other peoples to liberate themselves and decide their own destinies. Democracy can indeed, as Mao suggested, come out of the barrel of a gun – but not one wielded by the forces of imperialism. Intervention is also a practical disaster, which always tends to prolong and intensify conflicts rather than bringing peace and justice. The Libyans fighting hard to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime have raised the possibility of profound change. The outcome of their struggle remains uncertain, but one thing for sure is that they are right to reject Western ‘assistance’.
When US president Ronald Reagan bombed Tripoli in 1986, with the full political and logistical support of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, I recall marching through London behind a banner demanding ‘Hands off the Middle East’. Much has changed in the past 25 years in relations between the West and Gaddafi and the Libyan people, but that spirit of internationalism is worth reviving, at a time when many who despised Reagan and Thatcher are calling on the US and the UK to bomb Libya once again.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.