The question of western intervention in Libya is not immune from considerations of geopolitical power, where the former possesses immeasurably more of it than the latter. Though the exercise of imperial power is always troubling, to oppose the UN-mandated intervention in Libya is to accept mass killing in Benghazi, Tobruk and other rebel-held towns as an acceptable moral price for impeccable self-righteousness. And to tell the rebels that they are wrong to ask for intervention is to take a naively privileged, if not a culturally imperialistic, view.
The uprising in Libya is a popular one, united by a programme of democratic change. Qaddafi had lost control of more than 80 per cent of Libyan territory including most major population centres before he struck back with the full weight of his military, using tanks and aircraft to massacre once-peaceful protesters. It is estimated that Qaddafi’s military offensive has killed anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 people. Thus, it is not surprising that the rebels themselves called for the imposition of a no-fly zone (NFZ). On the eve of the passage of UNSC Resolution 1973 that authorised an NFZ, Qaddafi’s forces were massed outside the rebel capital of Benghazi. He had vowed that his forces would go “house to house,” tracking down rebel “rats and vermin”. There is little doubt that he would have made good on his word. Even now, evidence of Qaddafi’s brutality continues to mount. Of course, the dangers faced by Libyans are not historically unique. The UNSC has consistently failed to stem other massacres, such as in Rwanda. But for this to be fair criticism, it must tacitly acknowledge that there are situations where imperial intervention may be the lesser evil. Given Qaddafi’s butchery, one can assume that Libya is one — even if not the only — such situation.
There were no realistic alternatives to the intervention that could prevent a slaughter. The Arab League air forces do not have the capacity or command-and-control capability to enforce an NFZ, and there is no stomach, least of all within Libya, for foreign expeditionary forces on the ground.
By contrast, arming the rebels is a worthy goal. But this was not an alternative to Resolution 1973. Even if there had been willing suppliers, getting adequate quantities of heavy weapons into Benghazi on short notice would have been logistically impossible. Moreover, using sophisticated defence systems, much less rolling a tank or handling artillery, is not as simple as driving a pickup truck tricked out with a machine gun.
This is not to give the intervening powers carte blanche in pursuing their ends. One cannot but regard with foreboding the considerable dangers under the Laws of War and the Hague Conventions, particularly in the vast grey area between the occupation force prohibited — on rebel insistence — by Resolution 1973 and an invasion army. There is a need to support, as far as possible, the autonomy of the rebels and the people of Libya who have genuinely risen up to liberate themselves. For those looking to discredit them, there has been a tendency to point to reports suggesting that al Qaeda has now joined their mix. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not. But should a few jihadist hangers-on taint the entire Libyan revolution? Popular movements are joined by all sorts of people pushing their own agendas and utopian ideas. Democratic revolutions — such as what the one in Libya aspires to be — tend to weed out the fringe elements. It is the denial of democratic aspirations that passes the initiative to the ultra-radicals in the wings.
Rebel success in Libya may well depend on avoiding the tendency to view the revolution as a militia engaged in the zero-sum game of armed conquest. The rebels’ struggle must remain a political one, with selective armed force a tool of necessity, not choice. They must continue seeking legitimacy from the people of Libya through the strength of their political organisation and programme, and by respecting human rights and humanitarian norms. They must also seriously turn their minds to a ceasefire and political negotiation rather than hoping that Nato will act as their proxy air force. But, in the end, it is the rebel leadership that must make such strategic decisions, at the pain of being judged by the global community and history.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2011.