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On the intervention in Libya

March 25th, 2011

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Illustration by Tim Denee –

Was the intervention in Libya justified – and if so, does that mean the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified? The conditions laid down by the French for their participation in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libyan air space go some way to answering those questions. Before they would join in any military action in Libya, the French were asking for (a) a clear UN resolution for the intervention(b) it had to be a UN operation, not one led by NATO (c) there would have to be some Arab involvement in the force, however token and (d) there would have to be a direct request and support for that intervention from a significant part of the civilian population.

France’s stance is relevant not simply because it is one of the three main partners in the military force now attacking Libya. In 2003, it had been the most articulate opponent of the US invasion of Iraq, for reasons set out in this speech to the UN in 2003 by its then Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. All the conditions France have asked for in 2011 stand in striking contrast to the Iraq situation – which had no valid UN mandate, was a unilateral American-led adventure, had no Arab participation, and was in response to no direct threat to the people of Iraq, unlike the direct threat being posed to the people of Benghazi.

The immediacy of the murderous threat that Colonel Gaddafi posed to the civilian populations in the Libyan towns and cities that contain the rebels mark the main difference from the situation in Iraq. Without that immediate threat, the rationale for military action to topple the tyrant in Libya sounds almost identical to the Bush administration’s justification for intervening to topple the tyrant in Iraq, as Glenn Greenwald has eloquently argued in his Salon column comparing the two situations.

I understand — and absolutely believe — that many people who support the intervention in Libya are doing so for good and noble reasons: disgust at standing by and watching Gadaffi murder hundreds or thousands of rebels. I also believe that some people who supported the attack on Iraq did so out of disgust for Saddam Hussein and a desire to see him removed from power. It’s commendable to oppose that type of despotism, and I understand — and share — the impulse.

But what I cannot understand at all is how people are willing to believe that the U.S. government is deploying its military and fighting this war because, out of abundant humanitarianism, it simply cannot abide internal repression, tyranny and violence against one’s own citizens. This is the same government that enthusiastically supports and props up regimes around the world that do exactly that, and that have done exactly that for decades.

By all accounts, one of the prime administration advocates for this war was Hillary Clinton; she’s the same person who, just two years ago, said this about the torture-loving Egyptian dictator: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” They’re the same people overseeing multiple wars that routinely result in all sorts of atrocities. They are winking and nodding to their Yemeni, Bahrani and Saudi friends who are doing very similar things to what Gadaffi is doing, albeit (for now) on a smaller scale. They just all suddenly woke up one day and decided to wage war in an oil-rich Muslim nation because they just can’t stand idly by and tolerate internal repression and violence against civilians? Please.

Right. But even if we acknowledge some of the nauseating moral posturing about the intervention in Libya, the differences between the two situations are still important. Yes, Saddam and Gaddafi both headed murderous regimes – but Saddam’s heinous crimes of gassing the Kurds in the 1980s and slaughtering the Shi’ites in the uprising after the first Gulf War had occurred a decade or more beforehand. Unlike the case in Libya, no mass atrocity against Iraqi civilians was imminent – and was thus forestalled by the Iraq invasion. (If anything, the immediate threat faced by the Iraqi population in 2003 came not from Saddam, but from the starvation and malnutrition caused by the UN’s own sanctions regime, which had done severe damage to the health of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.)

Yet even if action against Gadaffi is morally justifiable, isn’t there a selective morality at work ? If Libya, why not a UN intervention also in Ivory Coast, Bahrain, Yemen, Gaza, Zimbabwe or Iran ? Retrospectively, why did the same UN ignore the genocide in Rwanda, while acting now in Libya? That last one cuts both ways of course. If, as most people would now agree, a UN intervention in Rwanda should have occurred – then armed with that knowledge, an intervention to prevent civilian massacres in Libya has to be applauded.

In a perfect world, there would be a case for saying the UN can only take up arms against one murderous tyrant if it agrees to do the same against them all. Certainly, the UN charter principles – the closest thing we have to an international moral code – are weakened when they are selectively applied. However, they are weakened even more if they are never applied. For now, selective application may be the best we can get, while pushing for more. In the meantime, the rules of international law have to be used to constrain the UN’s most powerful members – despite the fact that in 2003 they were ignored by the Bush and Blair administrations.

We also have to try and ensure that the cynical pragmatism served by the Security Council veto will – occasionally at least – be a restraint on the cynical self interest of the other Council members. In the course of that balancing act, some human rights outrages will not be acted upon. That doesn’t make them acceptable.

Talking about the wider context… bizarrely, some in the Obama administration have argued that action needed to be taken against Gaddafi because of the ‘wrong’ signal that his bloody triumph would have sent to other tyrants in the region facing campaigns for greater democracy. Well, one can only say that our good friends the Saudis seem to be getting on with that job at home and in Bahrain, with no need to look to Gaddafi as a role model.

Finally, some people have criticised the coalition’s actions because the final outcome in Libya remains unclear. Unfortunately, the Gaddafi forces enjoy a superiority in military hardware (tanks mortars etc) and in military training that goes well beyond their air strike capacity. Even a military stalemate and a civil war of attrition should play out in Gaddafi’s favour – unless a palace coup among his own supporters can create a basis for political compromise. All these reasons suggest that the fighting will continue for weeks and months and will be finally determined by troops on the ground, not in the air.

Right now, it is not surprising that very little in the way of an alternative leadership structure exists among the Libyan opposition. As in Egypt, the dictatorship in Libya has spent 40 years in destroying the basic building blocks of civil society. Therefore, the alternative to Gaddafi was always going to be unknown, and unpredictable. What was predictable was that tens of thousands of civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere were going to be murdered – and by preventing that outcome, the US-led coalition has done the right thing, even if it also turns out to be the easiest thing about the whole enterprise.
PS: If the coalition has its problems in Libya, they’re not as severe as the ones the Iranians now face, over their policy in Bahrain. Having encouraged the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain to rebel, the Iranians have had their bluff called by the Saudi military intervention – and right now, its hard to see how the Iranians can do anything at all in response.


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    1. 5 Responses to “On the intervention in Libya”

    2. By Joe Blow on Mar 26, 2011 | Reply

      I guess that’s the nicest thing I’m going to hear from you about the West. Na, good on you for sticking to your gut on this one!

      I think that the inconsistent treatment of different regimes by the international community over time has a lot to do with different US administrations and other factors. Like race played a part in not acknowledging the Rwandan genocide. (i.e. the misconception that because Hutus and Tutsis were both black that what was happening there could not be called genocide).

      Still I think that a good precedent for how a humanitarian intervention should be conducted is also very important and Lybia could be the closest thing we have seen to a truly humanitarian intervention so far. Still, to quote Geoffery Robertson, who incidentally thinks that NATO could have lawfully gone in to Lybia on their own without UN Security Council backing, emphasises four prerequisites to a humanitarian intervention:

      “To be lawful, the intervention must be at the request of potential victims, for the purpose of stopping crimes against humanity and with no ulterior motive, eg obtaining territory or oil. It must be proportionate – no greater force than necessary”

      The last one of proportionality is my concern now. I must admit that Russia and China are right to show concern at the force being used in Lybia at present. It does appear that proportionality is still being used as a principle in this intervention so far though. However, it would make me more relaxed about this, if the International Criminal Court had been given jurisdiction over foreign non-Rome Statute member states, but Resolution 1970 has specifically made such states exempt:

      “6. Decides that nationals, current or former officials or personnel from a State outside the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya which is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of that State for all alleged acts or omissions arising out of or related to operations in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya established or authorized by the Council, unless such exclusive jurisdiction has been expressly waived by the State;”

      So which country involved in this intervention is not a party to the Rome Statute and therefore totally immune to the jurisdiction of the ICC? Yip, you guessed it, the US.

      I still think that this intervention could be the precedent the world has been waiting for. Let’s hope it breeds a new kind of approach to world affairs by a truly international communtiy.

    3. By David on Mar 28, 2011 | Reply

      In 1988 US President Reagan wanted to get the consent of the French leaders to bombard Tripoli and to allow the American planes to fly over the French territory and they refused. Now President Sarkozy is the principal actor in this military intervention but I think his main purpose is to gain more popularity among the voters as the presidential elections in France are approaching.

    4. By Michael Collins on Apr 1, 2011 | Reply

      Excellent analysis. The left and right in the United States are befuddled by Obama’s support of the Libyan revolution. While Gaddafi is a blood thirsty tyrant waging war on his own people, the left (as it were) is stuck in the Iraq-Afghanistan intervention model and cannot see the imperative to intervene in Libya now – preventing the slaughter of citizens seeking universal rights. The right is compelled to oppose all things Obama. At the same time, the right loves war and dislikes Arabs. Their anti-Obama instinct prevailed.

      There should be little doubt that Obama has negative motives for this support. If the administration cared about the slaughter of civilians, it would relinquish that role in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they cared about self determination, they would hold a vote in each country with a two part question: Do you want the US to leave our country? When?

      I support the assistance with full awareness that it will turn into occupation, which is unacceptable. It is still worth that risk.

      One can only hope that the Libyans have some skilled strategists to avoid the fate of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    5. By Matt on Apr 2, 2011 | Reply

      Mickey,( and Gordon did give a great article)
      even a skilled stategists (and here I think you really mean turncoats that surrender all countries assets and sovereign rights on reqest) have no hope of withstanding these violent occupations.
      Over time the war industry has set themselves up as to have unlimited funding for these types of occupations(humanitarian bombing )wars.
      While at home there is a claim there is no money for needs with service cuts growing hunger and homelessness.
      This is a war machine that does not care about the slaugher of civilians.
      Or do you think its the civilians fault that their US funded strategist didn’t stop the “humanitarian killing”/bombing?

    6. By remo on Aug 23, 2011 | Reply

      John KEY has blundered bigtime in offering millions of NZ ‘foreign aid’ money to ‘the rebels’ in this Libyan bay of pigs fiasco. It is not over yet and our news sources better get to look around carefully before opening up on the position.

      By offering OUR money to ‘the rebels’, he has stepped BEYOND ordinary NZ diplomatic response. Whats he going to do. Declare WAR on Ghaddafi?
      There would have to be a clear discussion before such money is forked out, given the state of union back home. This whole thing stinks.

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