The outcome in Libya remains uncertain, but what seems clear beyond reasonable doubt is that military intervention has not saved the day for either the shadowy opposition known as ‘the rebels,’ and certainly not for the people of the country. It has seemingly plunged Libya into a protracted violent conflict, with the domestic balance of forces tipping decisively in favor of the Qaddafi regime, despite a major military onslaught managed by the American-led coalition, which in recent days has been supposedly outsourced to NATO. But since when is NATO not an American-dominated alliance? The best that can be hoped for at this stage is a face-saving ceasefire that commits the Libyan leadership to a vague power-sharing scheme, but leaves the governing process more or less as it is, possibly replacing Qaddafi with his son, who may offer the West the cosmetic trappings of liberal modernity and may exhibit a genuine interest in reform.
President Barack Obama has chosen Libya as the place to draw a line in the sand, although it is a rather wavering and fuzzy line. It was finally drawn in response to what was two weeks ago being called an imminent atrocity about to be inflicted upon the people of Benghazi, although the evidence of this prospect of dire bloodletting was never present much beyond the bombast of the dictator. Obama stopped what the more ardent interventionist in his camp were derisively calling his ‘dithering.’ Heeding these criticisms, Obama on March 28 came out clearly in support of military action, although carefully circumscribed in scope and nature by reference to its supposedly narrow humanitarian undertaking of protecting Libyan civilian. The futility of preventing a Qaddafi victory on the ground by establishing a No-Fly Zone, even as inappropriately expanded to become a No-Drive Zone, should have been obvious to anyone conversant with the course of numerous political struggles of recent times being waged for the political control of a sovereign state. What the world actually witnessed was mainly something far different than an effort to protect Libyan civilians. It was rather a an unauthorized attempt to turn the tide of the conflict in favor of the insurrectionary campaign by destroying as many of the military assets possessed by Libya’s armed forces as possible, clearing the path for a rebel advance.
The campaign and character of the opposition has never been clearly established. It is still most accurately described as a motley gathering of opposition forces mysteriously referred to as ‘the rebels.’ In contrast to the seeming failure and ineptness of its military challenge, the public relations campaign of the rebels worked brilliantly. Most of all, it mobilized the humanitarian hawks inhabiting the Obama presidential bird nest, most prominently Samantha Power, Hilary Clinton, and Susan Rice, as well as the recently departed former State Department Head of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Samantha Power in particular has long called upon the United States Government to use its might wherever on the globe severe human rights abuses should occur (unless in a large country beyond interventionary ambitions), apparently analogizing every humanitarian crisis to the totally different circumstances of Rwanda (1994), where a small effort to mitigate major genocide was inappropriately blocked by the Clinton White House. And in the media the celebrants of this intervention have been led by the New York Times’ pious stalwarts, Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman. At least Friedman, the patron saint of ‘wars of choice’ was sensible enough on this occasion to acknowledge that Obama would need major help from Lady Luck if his Libyan policy would have any chance of a happy ending, which is welcome contrast with his cheerleading of the Iraq intervention. If lives were not at stake, it might be amusing to note the new cosmic humility of this most arrogant of journalists, who in the past was forever fond of addressing world leaders by their first names in his columns while dishing out his unsolicited guidance, now being reduced to treating the Libyan intervention as the equivalent to a night out in Las Vegas!
The PR full-court press by the rebels, aided by that high-flying, publicity-seeking French enthusiast for intervention, Bernard-Henri Lévy, also misleadingly convinced world public opinion and several Western political leaders that the Qaddafi regime was opposed and hated by the entire population of Libya, making him extremely vulnerable to intervention. This encouraged the belief that the only alternative to military intervention was for the Western world to sit back and bear witness to genocide against the Libyan people on a massive scale. This entire portrayal of the conflict was at best premature, and likely misleadingly intended to make it appear that the only choices available to the UN and the global community was to intervene militarily or sit back and take the consequences. Among other options, diplomacy and the search for a ceasefire was never seriously embarked upon.
Even without the spurious wisdom of hindsight, the international undertaking could be criticized from another angle as having been designed to fail: a questionable intervention in what appeared increasingly to be an armed insurrection against the established government, yet falling far short of what would be needed to secure the only outcome proclaimed as just and necessary—the fall of the Qaddafi government. How can such a struggle, involving one more paternalistic challenge to the dynamics of self-determination, be won by relying on the bombs and missiles of colonial powers, undertaken without even the willingness to follow the attack with a willingness to engage in peacekeeping on the ground? Had this willingness been present, it would have at least connected the dots between the interventionary means adopted and the political mission being proclaimed. Even with this more credible posture, the odds of success would still remain small. If we consider the record of the past sixty years, very few interventions by colonial or hegemonic actors were successful despite their overwhelming military superiority. The only ‘success’ stories of interventionary politics involve very minor countries, such as Grenada and Panama, where organized resistance was absent, while the failures were in the big and prolonged struggles that took place in Indochina, Algeria, Indonesia, elsewhere.
In Libya, the prospects were further worsened by the incoherence, inexperience, and lack of discipline exhibited by rebel forces. This effort of a weak and unorganized opposition to induce foreign forces to secure for themselves an otherwise unattainable victory is reminiscent of the bill of goods that wily Iraqi exiles sold to neoconservative operatives such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz during the lead up to the Iraq War (2003). Remember those promises of flowers greeting the American troops arriving in Baghdad or regime change being ‘a cakewalk’ that would be achieved without notable American casualties or costs. As in Libya, the case for intervention rested on the false assumption that the foreign occupiers would be welcomed as liberators and that the Saddam Hussein regime lacked any popular base of support. Obama sang this interventionists’ lullaby when he lauded the villager who thanked an American pilot whose plane crashed accidentally over some rebel held territory.
Such a negative assessment of the Libyan intervention seems clear enough. Such an assessment was offered at the outset of the crisis by the most qualified high official in the Obama inner circle, Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense. Why did Obama not heed this sensible advice? Unfortunately, every Democratic president, and none more than Obama, struggle to maintain their image as willing to use force in the pursuit of national interests whenever the occasion arises. We must pause to give credit as Obama has pursued a generally militarist foreign policy while still managing to collect a Nobel Peace Prize, something that W’s handlers could never have achieved, and likely didn’t seek. And here in Libya, the risks of inaction must have seemed too great to bear. Instead, Obama attempted to have it both ways: lead the diplomatic effort to obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council, provide most of the military muscle for the initial phase of the operation, and then hastily withdraw to the background while NATO supposedly takes over. This middle path is littered with contradictions: to convince the Security Council and avoid a Russian or Chinese veto, it was necessary to portray the mission in the most narrow humanitarian terms as being only for the protection of civilians, while to protect the rebels (who are not ‘civilians’ as legally understood) required a much more ambitious scale of attack than is implied by establishing a No-Fly Zone; beyond this, if the unconditional goal was the elimination of the Qaddafi regime, then the intervention would have to go far beyond the boundary set by the Security Council decision. It would have to tip the balance in the conflict. As has become clear, the approved military objectives have been dramatically exceeded in the flawed effort to protect the rebels and help them win, but seemingly to no avail.
Of course, the abstainers also have blood on their hands, and share some of the responsibility for what has gone wrong. These abstaining members of the Security Council went along with a mandate to use force that seemed inconsistent with the Charter assurances of refraining from UN intervention in matters essentially within domestic jurisdiction, as this struggle surely was and is. They also allowed the backers of the Security Council to twist enough arms to get their mission creep hopes raised by inserting the permissive clause ‘by all necessary means.’ China, Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa should be ashamed of their posture, criticizing before the vote, abstaining so as to assure that authorization would be provided, and then resuming criticism afterwards to undertakings that should have been anticipated and precluded by much more constricted language in 1973. The vote was 10 in favor, none opposed, and five abstaining.
Such disregard of the limits of the UN Security Council authorization, awkwardly reinforced by the failure of the Security Council to play any subsequent supervisory role to ensure that its approval of force did not go beyond what had been agreed, has once again weakened the UN as a body operating within the constitutional framework of the UN Charter. It makes the UN in the peace and security area appear to be more an agent of geopolitical and neoimperial forces in the West than an objective body seeking to implement the rule of law in relation to the strong and weak alike. We all should remember that when the UN was established in the aftermath of World War II it was assigned the primary responsibility of minimizing the role of war in human affairs. The inspirational opening words of the Preamble to the UN Charter should be recalled and solemnly reaffirmed: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” To allow these words to be selectively overridden by the recently endorsed norm of ‘responsibility to protect,’ or R2P, is to provide a selective tool that shamelessly exhibits double standards. Where were those humanitarian and paternalistic voices when the civilian population of Gaza was subjected to a murderous attack from land, air, and sea for three weeks by the Israeli Defense Forces (Dec. 27, 2008-January 19, 2009)?
Throughout this period of revolutionary ferment in the Arab world, Obama’s paternalism has been pronounced. While intermittingly celebrating these popular risings, Obama has unblushingly felt entitled to pronounce on which leaders should stay and which should go, as if he is indeed the first designated global chief executive. And these pronouncements lack even the pretense of coherence and consistency, unless measured from an exclusively geopolitical standpoint. The White House was fine with Mubarak until the popular movement made his continued presence untenable, and then he was instructed to leave. In Yemen, the leader is told to step down after he failed to quiet the protests, while in Bahrain the Al Khalifa royal family is supported by Washington despite governing as an absolute monarchy that has not only recently relied on extremely violent means to quell unarmed demonstrators, but has even inviting its stronger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to send military forces across the border to help restore order. Restoring order in Bahrain is a matter of making further repressive moves to thwart robust popular calls for a new political order based on democracy and human rights.
Obama’s maneuvers in and out of the limelight during the unfolding of events in the Arab world reveals the two sides of the current American dilemma: it is not yet ready to shed the mantle of imperial overseer in the post-colonial regions of the world, but it is faced with the contradictory pressures of imperial decline and overstretch. The ageing patriarch can lecture the world, and even manage a military thrust or two, but nothing is sustained, and little achieved. Obama seems to be auditioning to play Hamlet in this unfolding global tragedy.