If Colonel Gaddafi’s regime looks relatively easy meat for Western intervention, so should the half-cocked, half-arsed wholly lamentable war that the West has launched against him present a sitting target for anybody with an anti-militarist bone in their body.
Yet despite many quibbles, what is striking so far is the lack of serious opposition in the West to this bombing campaign - and the politically dud content of what resistance there is to the war. The UK parliament has just voted to support David Cameron’s war by a bombtastic majority of 557 votes to 13 – far more than might have voted with the British government in the early stages of the war against Hitler. So much for this being ‘Britain’s most rebellious parliament since the Second World War’. If Western liberal elites are wrestling with their consciences, it looks like they are winning.
There should be no shortage of ammunition for an anti-war movement here. As Brendan O’Neill explains on spiked today, this Libyan adventure looks like a war without clear ends or strategy, sketched out on the back of a United Nations envelope by Western leaders desperate to get some good PR for imperialism, to save their own worthless political hides at minimum personal risk.
What is the aim of the campaign? Apparently it depends who you ask. Who are the Good Guys that the West is championing? Good question. Where will it end? Who knows – let’s blindly lob missiles into Libya from the middle of the Mediterranean, drop bombs from a great height, and hope for the best. And who is in charge of the clattering train of intervention, with the US not wanting to play leader of the free world this time and the French and British reduced to job-sharing aircraft carriers? The West is desperate for the Arabs to assume a leading role to avoid accusations of colonialism. But as the assorted tyrants of the Arab League get cold feet over bombing their neighbour, only Qatar has so far confirmed it will send, er, four planes. The Qataris might have got the World Cup, but assuming the role of World Policeman is a slightly taller order.
And it is not exactly hard to see through the high-blown rhetoric of leaders such as President Sarkozy who ludicrously expect us to believe that they have transmogrified from friends of the north African dictators to peoples’ champions overnight. Nor does it take much nous to question the double standards of Western governments that will bomb Gaddafi ostensibly to protect the Libyan people, while backing the Bahraini monarchy against its revolting subjects.
Little wonder then that, even as the bombing campaign began amid a chorus of self-congratulation, questions were already being raised in the normally patriotic parts of the UK media. Yet the most striking thing has been how many politicians and observers are supporting this pathetic excuse for a war, with varying degrees of enthusiasm – a ‘coalition of the reluctantly willing’ as one headline has it. Perhaps even more important is the politically feeble state of what opposition there has been. From America through Britain to Germany those questioning the war in the West have mobilised the combined forces of pragmatism, cynicism and a fear of commitment with a notable absence of anti-war principles – worrying about ‘mission creep’, or the cost of bombing Libya when you’re closing libraries, or terrorist ‘blowback’ etc. That sort of rag-tag opposition can quite easily be turned around.
The truth is that most mainstream Western questioners of the Libyan campaign are really pro-interventionists at heart who have been scared off by the experience of the Iraqi debacle. Thus they talk less about what is happening in Libya – about which we know little – than about what happened in Iraq after the 2003 coalition invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Many of these prominent people were enthusiastic about the first Gulf War in 1990-1, the Bosnian interventions of the mid-1990s and the 1999 war over Kosovo. Some even initially backed the 2003 Iraq War. But the bitter results of that ‘liberation’ of the Iraqi people made them temporarily less gung-ho.
Now, however, some of the leading Western critics of the Iraq War are embracing the cause of bombing Libya, seizing upon the anti-Gaddafi moment as an opportunity to regain some credibility and moral authority by intervening on the side of the angels. Thus the UK Liberal Democrats, who pride themselves (with no discernible justification) on being the only party to oppose the Iraq War, are now part of the government making war in Libya. Not a single Lib Dem MP voted against the bombing of Libya; even the Tories managed one dissident. And Dominique de Villepin, a fierce critic of Sarkozy who as French foreign minister denounced the Iraq War at the UN, has now declared that ‘In this instance, France has lived up to its ideals’. Others with concerns about a ‘slippery slope’ towards ‘another Iraq’ are showing signs of being won over by talk of a ‘good war’ in Libya – ‘you know, like Bosnia’ – with ‘clean’ air strikes and local support and little risk (it says here) of getting bogged down in a ground campaign.
With the debate over Libya apparently restricted to different degrees of pro-interventionism, it is time to make the case for opposing all of these interventions on principle, before it is too late. Not pacifist principles, either; history shows that war can be good for something, whatever Edwin Starr claimed. No, the principle at stake here is that Western intervention, however it is painted in ‘humanitarian’ colours, is inherently anti-democratic and an infringement on the right to self-determination. And if you prefer practical politics, the fact is that it does not work either. There is no space to discuss the experiences of intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo in detail here. But anybody who seriously thinks they were ‘good’ wars that turned out well is suffering either from historical amnesia or wilful self-delusion.
With the Libyan bombing campaign having started on such an uncertain and arbitrary basis, the possibility of a major cock-up or a drawn-out stalemate cannot be discounted. But here is the thing: even if it were to succeed quickly and cleanly in its own terms, with Gaddafi either deposed or dead, the intervention would still be a bad thing in the end for Libyans, the region, and the wider world.
The half-cocked intervention is already shifting the focus away from the Libyan people and on to the West, turning a civil conflict into an international war. The rebels who began with banners insisting that Libyans can fight for their democracy without foreign intervention are now apparently wishing for and cheering coalition bombers, reduced to supplicants and spectators in the midst of their own struggle, playing the victim card for the international audience. If Gaddafi is using Libyans as ‘human shields’ he is not alone – the coalition is also keen to hide behind the rebels, exploiting their conflict in a desperate and misguided bid to rebuild its own moral authority in the world.
This process of intervention also calls the future of the wider Arab revolt into question, threatening to interfere with its regional dynamic. While the world watches Western bombs and missiles falling on Libya, there is far less focus on the protests and repression from Bahrain (where the West’s ‘freedom-loving’ Saudi allies are backing the monarchy) to Yemen. Everything becomes about what the West will do next, and the danger is that the peoples’ destiny is taken out of their hands. Democracy is not a gift to be handed down, but a freedom to be fought for from below; it can come out of the barrel of a rebel’s gun, but not a NATO warplane or submarine.
In the run-up to the British parliamentary vote on the Libyan intervention Douglas Alexander, the opposition foreign affairs spokesman, called on Labour MPs to put aside the disaster that their own government presided over in Iraq, and back the Lib-Con coalition’s intervention in Libya. He declared that the Arab revolts ‘present a historic opportunity for Britain and the West to realign our interests and our values.’ That is true, but not in the way Alexander the conqueror means. It is a chance for us in the West to align ourselves with the people by showing political solidarity with their struggles – and refusing to interfere in their affairs or infringe their democratic right to self-determination, either with bombs or ‘soft power’.
Instead the prevailing mood among UK liberals, whatever their fears, appears to be one of hoping that the bombers of the Western powers can prevail and help ‘liberate’ Libya. There was a telling moment at the end of the Channel 4 topical satire, 10 O’Clock Live, last Thursday night when news broke that the United Nations Security Council had voted to enforce a no-fly zone over Gaddafi’s Libya. The audience and supposedly hard-bitten panellists broke into spontaneous applause and cheers, before trying to crack the obligatory cynical joke. The instinctive response of these radical critics was thus to make themselves feel good by turning into self-righteous cheerleaders for a bit of ‘humanitarian’ imperialism. As I say, wrestling with their consciences, and winning.
Hard as it may be for some over here to accept it, the Libyan conflict and the Arab uprisings are about their future and they are the ones who must shape it. The best contribution we can make in the West is to oppose every bombing mission and every other form of intervention from those who are so vain they think somebody else’s life-and-death struggle is all about us