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Armchair Anti-Imperialism

Armchair Anti-Imperialism and Libya


Foreign Policy in Focus
By Ian Williams, April 4, 2011
In the first part of a new FPIF Strategic Dialogue on the Libyan War, Ian Willia
ms argues that the choice is clear: to support the popular uprising and not the
unpopular tyrant. See Robert Naiman's anti-intervention argument here.
Ian WilliamsIt is a particularly pernicious form of cultural imperialism for com
fortable Western leftists to disregard what the actual Tunisians, Libyans, Kosov
ars, or Bosnians themselves have asked for - intervention to stop “their” rulers kil
ling them. This setting aside of the wishes of people threatened with massacre i
n favor of Western armchair anti-imperialism is all the more remarkable coming f
rom the left, which once swore by internationalism.
The calls to respect national sovereignty echo those of the despots of Africa an
d other regimes around the world who believe that it’s nobody’s business what a rule
r does in his “own” country. Or even worse, such calls emulate the know-nothing isol
ationists on the right who do not care what happens to foreigners.
The ad-hoc arguments marshaled against the intervention in Libya have included:
The unconstitutionality of the president ordering military action
The expense of military action at a time of cuts
The invalidity of a UN resolution passed with abstentions
The Security Council exceeding its authority by violating Libyan sovereignty
The self-interested motives of those intervening
The “discovery” of ex-al-Qaeda supporters among the rebels
The failure of the West to intervene in other places where civilians face potent
ial massacres such as Bahrain, Gaza, Ivory Coast, and Yemen
Many of these arguments are deployed to flesh out an otherwise bald and unconvin
cing narrative that evades the crucial question: should the world let Libyan civ
ilians die at the hands of a tyrant?
Gaddafi’s heavily armed forces were headed to Benghazi, in defiance of Security Co
uncil resolutions, to carry out acts against international humanitarian law. In
fact, they had already started bombing and shelling the city indiscriminately an
d had a track record of massacres, mass arrests, and brutality in cities they ha
d already occupied.
Intervention: Always Wrong?
Opposition to interventionism has sometimes been muted in other circumstances, f
or instance Vietnam s invasion of Cambodia and Laos, Tanzanian intervention in U
ganda, or indeed India s military incursion that gave birth to Bangladesh. In no
ne of these cases was the result utopian, but in each case it certainly improved
the situation. Indeed Cuban intervention in Africa and Che’s disastrous guerrilla
escapades in Latin America are the subject of reverent leftist legend rather th
an calumny.
Perhaps the archetypal case, in leftist lore, is the Spanish Civil War. Few of t
hose opposing intervention in Libya are likely fans of George Orwell who, after
returning from Spain, commented that “there is hardly such a thing as a war in whi
ch it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more of less f
or progress, the other side more or less for reaction.” Orwell and many others wen
t to Spain to fight Franco and supported calls for intervention by the Western p
owers to help the Republic.
Orwell was also well aware of the imperfection of the side he was fighting for,
since he not only witnessed the repression of dissidents on the Republican side
but barely escaped with his life from KGB agents. Of course, the Spanish Republi
cans should have refused aid and weapons from the Soviet regime, which was alrea
dy killing people in quantities that at the time exceeded what the Nazis were ac
complishing. But nobody else was offering.
However, all the bluster notwithstanding, intervention, as now enshrined in the “R
esponsibility to Protect,” is now an established part of international law. The in
tervention in Libya is legal. Whether it was the right thing to do, or whether t
he United States should be involved, is a separate issue, as indeed is the perma
nently debatable but entirely domestic issue of presidential versus congressiona
l prerogatives on the matter of war powers.
A British or European might want to point out, however, that many of us are glad
that Franklin Roosevelt did an end run round Congress in the years leading up t
o Pearl Harbor, even if his clear aim was to grab the British Empire before it f
ell into Axis hands. Indeed, the non-intervention rule is particularly ironic fo
r the United States, which owes its independence to the timely intervention of a
reactionary French Royalist regime.
There would be more consistency, and indeed humanity, if protestors refined thei
r arguments so they did not oppose intervention in general, but specified why th
ey opposed intervention by particular countries, which in this case means the Un
ited States.
Should We Oppose the U.S. Involvement?
As a rule of thumb, one should always be wary of U.S. intervention, and it is in
deed always worth questioning both Washington’s motives and its methods.
But the positions of many of those who have reflexively opposed the implementati
on of the UN resolution on Libya do not really involve questioning. Rather they
consist of a series of dogmatic assertions, which tend to distill down to the as
sertion that the United States is always wrong. Even a stopped clock is right oc
casionally, and their assertion of perpetual American malice and greed is a form
of metaphysical mirror image of the equally untenable premise that the United S
tates is always virtuous and right.
In the case of Libya, as in Kosovo, the United States was dragged unwillingly in
to its role by the Europeans and others and by the events on the ground, namely
Gaddafi’s murderous threats and actual behavior. The United States had developed c
ynically good relations with Gaddafi. The West had no problems gaining access to
Libyan oil. Regime change puts these relationships at risk.
Above all, the Security Council mandated this intervention, fulfilling its manda
te to preserve peace and security, as interpreted by the General Assembly, which
decided that that remit includes the failure of governments to protect their ow
n people - or their persistence in attacking them.
The UN Resolution
UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was the classic smorgasbord that comes out o
f negotiations, with potential vetoes lurking in the background. To assuage the
fears of those opposed to U.S. imperialism rightly concerned about what happened
in Iraq (without a UN mandate), the resolution precluded troops on the ground.
Sadly that left air operations as the only weapon. U.S. affection for massive fi
re power and force protection perhaps led to the unnecessarily massive bombardme
nt of the first days. But on the other hand there has been no significant anti-a
ircraft action from Libya. Libyan geography has also lent itself to attacks on m
ilitary columns strung out along the few roads with less risk of civilian casual
ties.
The mandate to protect civilians is at once limited - and flexible. If a regime
shows no intention of stopping its repression and bloodshed, the mandate can t b
e fulfilled without getting rid of him.
Frankly, Libya and the world would not suffer from Gaddafi s departure.
Why Libya?
Frequently, opposition to intervention has depended, oddly, on the traditional “Is
raeli defense” at the UN. Israeli diplomats often argue that no one should critici
ze Israel when there are so many Arab states guilty of similar or worse atrociti
es. In this context, the West s silence and inaction – indeed, the complicity in t
he repression in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria – preclude any action in Libya.
In the real world, of course, such an all-or-nothing approach translates into “not
hing.” In Libya, the deployment of aircraft, tanks, and artillery against civilian
s certainly goes a stage beyond the admittedly pernicious use of small arms in t
hose other countries - not of course in Gaza, but we know the circumstances ther
e.
In fact, the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya seems so far to have fulfilled
the promise of the Responsibility to Protect. It averted the threatened massacre
of the citizens of Benghazi by Gaddafi’s supporters. It has so far crippled the r
egime’s main strength, its heavy weaponry, so that the local Libyan opposition has
been driving the former government forces out of city after city. So far, unles
s you take the word of the mendacious Gaddafi regime, there have also been minim
um civilian casualties.
Endgame?
Humanitarian intervention under the auspices of the Responsibility to Protect (R
2P) is indeed a dangerous tool, subject to expedient abuse. Which is why its pro
ponents insisted it needed a UN mandate. The Libyan intervention has that. The S
ecurity Council needs to monitor its execution carefully, and it could do that m
uch more effectively if Moscow, in particular, would stop flip-flopping.
Behind Russian discomfort over R2P is its all-too-apparent relevance to Chechnya
. But Moscow could have vetoed the resolution. Its abstention implicitly went al
ong with the wording of the resolution, and its experience of the Gulf War resol
utions taught it what to watch out for in terms of mission creep. If it stopped
grandstanding and got more actively involved, it would be a better watchdog.
Gaddafi’s is clearly a failed regime. Its collapse in almost every population cent
er when challenged demonstrates a lack of popular and institutional support. The
provisional government in Benghazi has claimed democratic principles and has so
far lived up to them. There are some strange stirrings of Islamophobia among an
ti-interventionists who claim either that intervention is anti-Islamic or that t
he new government will be fundamentalist Islamic.
In any case, the rebels seem to have popular support. Those who respect popular
sovereignty, as opposed to state sovereignty, should really let the Libyans deci
de whether it is better to die in a flood of tanks and rockets, or overcome them
by calling for international aid.