Libya: The Dangers of Celebrating Too Soon


On April 4th 2003, I watched transfixed as the news showed Iraqis jubilantly pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein. As an anti-war activist, it was an uncomfortable few minutes. What looked like a historic victory for the rights of the Iraqi people had been brought about by the invasion of Coalition forces. Did this mean that in opposing the war, we had been wrong? Was the future now brighter for Iraq, despite the cost of the invasion?

Later it turned out to be a closely controlled PR event, executed by the American military and wilfully swallowed by the global press. People weren’t out celebrating. They were sheltering in their homes, nursing the wounded, burying the dead.

I felt similar pangs on Friday night, as America, France and Britain launched 110 missiles at strategic targets in Libya. It looked so much like they were swooping in and stopping genocide, derailing Gaddafi just before he committed one of the worst atrocities of the 21st century. How could I possibly have ever been against this?

It is a mistake, however, to look at these events in isolation. Like with Iraq, the issue has not ended, regardless of how the Western media choose to portray it. In many ways it is just beginning.

It could be that Western intervention may solidify Gaddafi’s position. As the bombardment commenced, thousands of Libyans gathered outside Gaddafi’s former home in Tripoli in support of their leader. In bombing the nation, the Western world may be giving Gaddafi the perfect opportunity to paint himself as an anti-imperialist, defender of Libya and steal support away from the rebels, who in turn could be portrayed as stooges of the West.

Into this comes the risk of civilian casualties from the bombardment. A few of the missiles hitting the wrong target, and flattening a home, or a business, or a school, would not only be a human tragedy in its own right, it would also turn people vehemently against the West and the rebels they are supposedly supporting. Libyan television is already reporting the death toll from the bombardment at around 60.

In addition to this, a no-fly zone does not mean the end of Gaddafi. So far, the biggest civilian casualties he has inflicted have been caused by ground based artillery and troops. This threat does not disappear under a no-fly zone. The imposition of one in Iraq from 1991-2003 was relatively ineffective in stopping Saddam’s actions against his own people.

Admiral Mike Mullen

Indeed, the actions of the West may see an escalation of the conflict. Gaddafi has already announced that he will target locations outside of Libya, claiming his right to self-defence under international law. The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, today predicted a long ‘stalemate’ with Gaddafi still in control, and his people still at his mercy. Gaddafi himself was defiant, promising a long war in the face of Western intervention. Talk in the Western media about how he was ready to step down if the West attacked has proved unfounded.

The truth is that the Western world is not as omnipotent as we sometimes believe. Our leaders cannot simply decide to press the stop button on Gaddafi. The possible consequences of intervention are difficult to foresee, let alone control.

A cornerstone of the arguments in favour of intervention is an assumption that the West has a duty to act to protect basic standards of human rights. This idea of the Western world, as a defender of humanitarian values does not stand up to scrutiny. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview with Jeremy Paxman, dictators are tolerated by the West until that position becomes untenable.

It is almost axiomatic that the brutal regimes that have been challenged by popular resistance across the region over the last few months have been receiving aid, arms and support from the Western world through generations of state sponsored killing and disappearance. It is only now that the media lens is focused so strongly on the region that the actions of certain dictators become intolerable (but not all, the repression in Saudi Arabia remains un-condemned).

There is also a tendency to believe, as is often claimed in relation to the Taliban, that previous support for brutal dictatorships are mistakes made by previous Western governments, in past eras that do not affect their credibility and judgement now. This time, that fallacy cannot stand up to scrutiny. The governments that supported Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben-Ali of Tunisia, are the same who now claim to be on the side of the people fighting to be rid of them. The rights and lives of citizens in the Middle East are not what concerns the West.

So what is their motivation? Rather than pure humanitarianism, things like re-establishing US dominance, preventing a potential refugee crisis in Europe and, of course, the effect on fuel markets are reasons touted by those in favour of intervening.

Much is also made of the support for Western intervention from the Libyan rebels and the Arab league. This does not necessarily legitimise it. The Arab league contains many illegitimate, Western backed regimes, many of whom are currently engaged in the brutal repression of their own people. They do not speak for the Arab world.

As for the rebels, who knows what they are saying and what they want? Direct communication is difficult, and gaining a genuine consensus of the opinions of all the groups fighting Gaddafi would be an almost impossible task. Both opponents and supporters of intervention claim they speak with the voice of the rebels. The truth is neither honestly know what that is. I highly doubt it is a completely united one.

There is much that could have been done by Western governments to support the people of Libya. A corridor for refugees, and sanctuary in Europe for those fleeing the brutality could have saved many lives. Tactical support for the rebels, or creating mediation processes for Gaddafi to leave peacefully are avenues that have not been pursued with genuine vigour. Of course, the action in the best interest of the Libyan people would have been not supply Gaddafi’s regime with the aid and arms it needed to sustain its rule and suppress its people.

The consequences of Western intervention will not be known until much later. As in April 2003, when Saddam’s statue was being pulled down for the benefit of American TV audiences, we should be wary of jumping to conclusions. To blindly assume that what is happening is for the good of the Libyan people places too much faith in self-interested Western government.

It is only when this latest crusade in the name of human rights has run its course that judgements can be drawn. It may transpire that the actions of the West, despite questionable motivations, saved many lives. But personally, I will celebrate when the Libyan people are free to choose their own government to act in their own interests. And that is something unlikely to be delivered by the dropping of Western bombs.


Discussion6 Comments

  1. avatar

    Articulate as always Pete.

    You’re right to say that it is too soon to say anything with certainty but what was missing is the fact that this intervention is under a UN mandate which is a good change of pace considering past inaction. This does add an element of legitimacy to multilateral intervention.

    As for the hypocrisy of Western governments, well it’s always nice to see a change of policy even if it is just in reaction to these events. Rather that than consistent support for contemptible regimes as can be seen China (Burma, N.Korea). What is really going on amongst Western leaders canoot be really known (not as true thanks to wikileaks) but right now cries of ‘imperialism’ and ‘it’s all about oil’ are knee jerk reactions that are just too easily hurled at the West without any evidence.

    What can be stated plainly is that due to the intervention the rebellion was not crushed and a potential slaughter in Benghazi was prevented. What is disturbing though, is that not too much has been said about the rebels and who they are. Simply having a revolution is not enough, what matters is the nature of that revolution.

    I agree with a lot of your points though. I know that you shiver at the idea of intervention by Capitalist states but it seems that the only way the people of Libya can have a say in the running of their own country is through military assistance. As long as that assistance doesn’t stays within reason.

    Last thing I will say is thank (some) God that Qaddafi gave up his nuclear and biological weapons program back in 2003 in response to the Iraq intervention. The nature of this conflict in Libya could have been entirely different if Qaddafi had WMDs at his disposal. Although I did read somewhere that he may have mustard gas stowed away somewhere.

    • avatar

      You’re right about omitting to mention the UN. Although I do feel that given its a security council resolution, with the composition of the security council in mind, its more representative of the will of the dominant powers than the global community.

      Do you believe the West has changed it’s policy? I feel it has more to do with the high status of the situation means the support for the dictators is embarassing to the West. It undermines the image they promote for themselves. Have they really changed their policy?

      While imperialism and oil are often knee jerk reactions, the way I look at it is genuinely what is more unrealistic? Knowing what we know about Western governments, does it make more sense to believe in the humanitarian motivation or the economic and political motivation?

      It may turn out that this intervention saved a lot of lives and turned the tide against Gaddafi. It may be that he eventually wipes out the resistance and we return to the status quo. It might be that the West have something else planned… a no fly zone was the legal hook which Britain and America used to justify invading and occupying Iraq. Cliched as it may be, only time will tell, and for the time being, I definitely don’t trust the west, so I’ll hold off before singing their praises.

      Take your point about Gaddafi and nuclear arms though. I’m not biased enough to ignore every positive outcome of the war in Iraq, and the less WMDs in the world the better. Particularly if they might have been at his disposal. We can only thank Zeus that never happened.

  2. avatar

    Something I would like to add, which has just occurred to me:

    I know it sort of invalidates any argument against the no-fly zone by saying why wasn’t it done in another scenario, but I think a point that has not been made is the fear with Gaddafi was that he would commit mass, indescriminate slaughter from the sky.
    This exact act was done by another state in the middle east in January 2009: the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Where were the calls for a no-fly zone then? Where is the desire to see the perpetrators tried as war criminals?
    The west will not have any credibility in the west until it acts consistently with regard to the behaviour of Arab states and the behaviour of Israel. This is a case in point.

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