Saturday, April 02, 2011

Libya: The Left, West and Military Intervention in Libya

By Lance Selfa*

Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

CHICAGO (IDN) - The White House-massaged media spin portrays President Barack Obama's decision to go to war in Libya as a triumph for a triumvirate of liberals -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and Obama adviser Samantha Power -- who have well-established records of advocating the use of U.S. military force for "humanitarian" purposes.

As Stewart Patrick, director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Affairs: The United States and its coalition partners' decision to launch Operation Odyssey Dawn to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya on March 19 was a vindication of the fragile "responsibility to protect" (RtoP) norm. . . .

It's no surprise that many of the most vocal supporters of a military action launched by a Democratic president would hail from the Democratic sector of the foreign policy establishment -- and that a number of these were also critics of the ham-fisted and unilateralist strategies of the Bush administration.

But supporters of one form or another of Western military intervention extend to important figures on the left and the antiwar movement.

Gilbert Achcar, the veteran socialist and respected scholar . . . contended in an interview and a subsequent article published on ZNet: Can anyone claiming to belong to the left just ignore [the Libyan] popular movement's plea for protection, even by means of imperialist bandit-cops, when the type of protection requested is not one through which control over their country could be exerted? Certainly not, by my understanding of the left.

Likewise, Middle East expert Juan Cole added his voice to the chorus in support of the UN-sponsored "no-fly zone" over Libya with an "Open Letter to the Left on Libya" on March 27. It begins: As I expected, now that Gaddafi's advantage in armor and heavy weapons is being neutralized by the UN allies' air campaign, the liberation movement is regaining lost territory...I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed.

Achcar and Cole have made the case for Western intervention in Libya, however limited, for "humanitarian" aims, and they criticize those on the left who oppose it. But their arguments ignore the context in which the attack on Gaddafi's forces took place -- as well as the long and sordid record of such military actions in the past.

The U.S. and its European allies began the year with the Gaddafi regime as an ally in the "war on terror" and Libya a fertile ground for Western investment. Until this month, they were prepared to accept Gaddafi's continued rule in Libya, even at the cost of the rebellion against him being crushed. Only when the threat to regional stability and oil supplies became alarming to the West did they act.

The excuse for intervention has been the call by Gaddafi's opponents -- one call, carefully selected from among others that were rejected by the U.S. and its allies -- for a no-fly zone and other military action.

But even if the intervention plays some role in Gaddafi's downfall -- which is by no means certain -- any regime that comes to power in Libya will be compromised from the start by its dependence on Western powers that aren't concerned at all about democracy and justice, but about maintaining stability and reasserting their dominance in a region that has seen two victorious revolutions against U.S.-backed dictators, and the possibility of more to come.

The history of "humanitarian intervention" by the U.S. government and European powers has produced only greater violence and more injustice -- in Somalia, in Haiti, in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, in Iraq -- but with a seemingly progressive cover of opposition to dictators who were once supported by the West.

Achcar and Cole are wrong to disregard that history by drawing the conclusion that a U.S.-led military intervention in Libya will produce a different result this time around.


Before addressing current arguments on the left, it might be worthwhile to recall just what "humanitarian intervention" is -- and how it developed as an ideological support for imperialist military action in the post-Cold War era.

The rise of "humanitarian intervention" coincided with the end of the Cold War, when the U.S., with its unparalleled military power, was seeking new justifications for its use. The George Bush Sr. administration and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Colin Powell staked out the ideological territory with Operation Restore Hope, the euphemistic title for their 1992 invasion of Somalia.

But what Bush Sr. and Powell started haltingly, liberals turned into a full-fledged case for Western intervention to prevent humanitarian disasters in a number of countries -- from Somalia to Haiti to the Balkans.

With the threat of military intervention escalating into superpower confrontations removed, the U.S. felt less constrained about intervening. In Somalia, Washington invaded under the guise of feeding starving Somalians. The mission morphed quickly into a war with Somalian warlords to impose a U.S.-friendly government. In 1993, forces loyal to the Somalian president succeeded in repelling a U.S. attack and killing 18 U.S. soldiers. Within a few more months, the U.S. withdrew.

Today, the Somalia invasion, memorialized in the film Black Hawk Down, is remembered as a failure. But in its initial stages, the Wall Street Journal hailed it for restoring the U.S. military's "moral credibility."

The Journal added, "There is a word for this: colonialism." The Somalia invasion provided a template for the U.S. and its European allies to justify unilateral intervention in Bosnia (to set up "safe havens") and in Kosovo (to save Kosovar Albanians from attack by the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government led by Slobodan Milosevic).

Of course, liberal champions of humanitarian intervention don't call what they advocate "colonialism." Rather, they invent euphemisms like "the responsibility to protect," the term of choice for a Canadian government-appointed International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) that drew up procedures that the "international community" might invoke to intervene to prevent genocide or other human rights abuses. Under these guidelines, which most world governments agreed to in 2005, a state forfeits its right to sovereign control over its territory if it commits human rights abuses against its own population.

But the experience of so-called humanitarian intervention is anything but the rosy picture its liberal architects claim for it.

During the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, NATO established a no-fly zone over the Bosnian town of Srebenica. That didn't prevent the massacre of thousands of civilians at the hands of the Bosnian Serb military and fascist gangs associated with it.

NATO used the tragedy of Srebenica as justification when it launched its 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. Ostensibly, the NATO war was aimed at protecting Kosovar civilians who faced massacre at the hands of Milosevic's forces.

Yet it was apparent at the time -- and has since been verified by the research of University of Arizona professor David Gibbs--that the bombing actually prompted Serb forces to step up their massacres. And this is not to mention the hundreds -- or thousands, we may never know -- of Serbian and Kosovar civilians killed by NATO bombs.

More than a decade later, Kosovo exists as a ward of NATO and is home to Camp Bondsteel, a huge U.S. base whose 7,000 soldiers support the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although it declared its independence in 2008, its real government is a combination of what remains of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission to Kosovo and the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. These have presided over a massive privatization campaign that sold off formerly state-run firms to European Union investors.

Meanwhile, unemployment hovers around 40 percent while the International Monetary Fund and World Bank collect Kosovo's share of the debt it contracted as a member of the former Yugoslavia. Large swathes of infrastructure remain un-repaired since the war, and electric power supply is spotty. Government corruption is rampant.

Foreign forces in charge of maintaining "security" stood by while Albanian extremists harassed and murdered ethnic Serbs. As a result, almost all Serbs who lived in Kosovo have fled to Serbia or live in a northern Kosovo enclave effectively partitioned from the rest of the province by Western troops.

This is the "success" that today's liberal interventionists want NATO to replicate in Libya.

This historical background may mean nothing to the cruise missile liberals, whose only references to "lessons of history" aren't based on real experiences of what "humanitarian" invasion and occupation have produced.

Unfortunately, in situations like present-day Libya, the liberal hawks are being echoed by people who would normally oppose U.S. intervention in other circumstances.

Many well-intentioned people who consider themselves sympathetic to the Arab revolution see no alternative to the Western attack on Libya, on the grounds that "something had to be done" to prevent Gaddafi and his loyalists from murdering oppositionists in Benghazi. This is the hook on which people who would normally be skeptical of intervention are pulled into support for the action.

*Lance Selfa is editor of The Struggle for Palestine and columnist. IDN is offering an abridged version of an article that first appeared in on March 29, 2011. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IDN Editorial Board. (IDN-InDepthNews/01.04.2011)