While world leaders tussle over how best to intervene in the Libyan conflict, the Arab League of rulers has now called on world leaders to impose a ‘humanitarian-based’ no-fly zone, in a desperate attempt by the region’s remaining authoritarian regimes to show that they are on the side of the people. The irony of the Saudis claiming to support action against Gaddafi while sending in troops to help the Bahraini royals put down protests should not have escaped even the G8. Yet the Arab League’s stance has boosted those Western leaders, such as British premier David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who are banging the drum for a no-fly zone, hoping it could air-lift them onto the moral high ground at little risk.
Let us cut out the pious crap and be clear about what these demands for a Western no-fly zone over Libya represent. However it is dressed up as a humanitarian mission to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi’s repression, and however token Cameron might imagine it could be, a no-fly zone would be an act of political and military intervention by foreign powers to shape the fate of Libya. That is anti-democratic in principle, taking the struggle for power out of the hands of the people themselves. History suggests it would also be a disaster in practice that could escalate and perpetuate a civil war. Western intervention by any other name will still risk imposing a no-freedom zone on the Libyans.
The objections to a no-fly zone from the Americans, Germans and Russians have largely been pragmatic rather than principled. They have pointed out that to be effective it would involve not just a verbal warning but a full aerial attack on Gaddafi’s forces; that it would be resource-intensive yet might make little difference to the small-scale civil war being fought on the ground in Libya; and that it could set the West on a ‘slippery slope’ towards full military and political involvement, as happened with the previous no-fly zones established over civil conflicts in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.
In fact, even the demand for a no-fly zone as the limited gesture of PR imperialism which Cameron and Co hope it could be is already having a real impact on events on the ground – and not for the better. It risks shifting the focus of the Libyan struggle for democracy onto the West and international politics, turning the local conflict into an internationalised theatre where all sides are treated as stage armies responding to outside interventions. The danger is that the rebels are reduced to supplicants requesting the West’s largesse. The Western tub-thumping might also risk giving Gaddafi a focus for mobilising his forces to defend Libya against foreigners: nothing consolidates a nationalist dictator like the whiff of colonialism, as seen in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Little wonder nervous Western leaders are unsure of its benefits.
But there is more at stake in this debate than global realpolitik. Against the apparent cynicism of the doubters protesting that we cannot afford it and it’s not in our national interest, the liberal pro-interventionists are able to strike a high moral pose in support of a ‘humanitarian’ no-fly zone. Even if they fail to persuade their governments this time, this influential lobby is using the Libyan case to re-establish the moral case for Western intervention after the disaster of the Iraq invasion. And that is potentially a more dangerous development for the world than anything happening in Libya.
The cri de Coeur of our age is that ‘we’ should intervene to save the Libyans and others in the name of international solidarity. It is a telling sign of the degradation of political language and the defeat of the left that intervention by Western powers in the affairs of Africa and Arabia should now be glorified with the title of internationalism.
In the birth of that modern political outlook in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, internationalism - for the left - meant showing solidarity with those struggling against colonialism. It meant standing against the Western powers’ political and military intervention in the colonial world, and for the democratic right to self-determination of oppressed peoples – including their right to fight for freedom from imperialism.
A key internationalist slogan developed by the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht during the First World War was ‘the main enemy is at home’. Internationalism for the left of the working-class movement meant not siding with ‘our’ rulers in their imperialist war to redivide the world, or against the colonial peoples whom they degraded, in the words of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’, as ‘half devil and half child’. Moreover, it meant understanding that anything which boosted the power of the Western ruling elite in the world would not help those striving for freedom at home.
Of course, nationalist state socialists in the West always tainted the name of internationalism. The British Labour Party, for example, has long had a disgraceful record of launching and supporting colonial wars around the world. But a real turning point in redefining internationalism to mean Western intervention came more recently – 20 years ago, at the end of the West’s first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991.
That conflict began with the left marching against the US-led alliance going to war. Yet as it ended with Iraq in chaos, with the defeated Saddam lashing out against rebelling Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south, many of those same liberal-left voices began shrilly calling for more Western intervention. One moment that crystallised the change was when a spokesman for the charity Oxfam evoked the name of the US general most associated with the brutal war in the Iraqi-Kuwaiti desert, suggesting that what Kurds and the world needed now was ‘a humanitarian Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf’.
The first no-fly zone was born out of that liberal change of heart, as US, UK and French leaders eagerly accepted the invitation to launch a new moral mission to assert their authority over the Middle East. As the liberal demands for ‘humanitarian’ intervention moved on to the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, the next no-fly zone was established over Bosnia. Both of these supposedly liberating low-key operations ended with full-scale military interventions and the imposition of political control by the West, all in the name of the new liberal ‘internationalism’. Listening to former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown calling for a no-fly zone over Libya is a reminder of how the intervention in Bosnia, which began with such an exercise, ended with Ashdown himself appointed as the international community’s High Representative for Bosnia - a sort of colonial governor lording it over a deeply divided state with the power to dismiss governments and ban political parties or views as he saw fit, if they did not suit the West’s idea of liberal democracy. As for the humanitarian no-fly zone over Iraq, that ended only when the US-led alliance built on it with the shock-and-awe bombing and invasion of 2003 which conquered the country and led to disaster.
Having apparently learnt nothing, the liberal interventionists are now back demanding another no-fly zone - and more - in relation to Libya. This should bring home the pressing need to create a genuine spirit of internationalism in the West – the spirit of anti-interventionism. Much has changed since the colonial era of course. Direct oppression of the world has been replaced in some independent countries by democracy, in many others by dictators many of whom have been supported by the West (Mubarak in Egypt, the Saudi royals), and some such as Gaddafi whom the West has first opposed and then sought to co-opt.
Yet it is important to recognise that Western intervention remains the greatest danger. It was what created the divided world of colonial states in the first place, breaking up Africa and Asia into often-arbitrary territories and undermining the prospects of unity. Ever since, Western intervention has acted to keep the masses divided and denied their freedom. Imperialism cannot become the liberator now, whether it is pursued in the name of humanitarianism or nuclear disarmament.
The fact that an international no-fly zone is now being demanded by the Arab leaders and even some Libyan rebel spokesmen does not make it right. Indeed, a ‘humanitarian-based’ no-fly zone could well be the worst thing of all. It effectively provides a blank cheque for further intervention. After all, what if – as seems likely - a no-fly zone failed to end Gaddafi’s repression of his people? Would Western leaders be able to resist the calls to fulfil their humanitarian mandate and go in? And then what? Is the ‘humanitarian’ juggernaut supposed to roll on to intervene in other ongoing civil conflicts, such as that in the Ivory Coast?
In the face of this, a genuine internationalism today must stand in solidarity with the Arab uprising to overthrow the autocratic regimes. But even more than that, our priority over here must surely be to oppose any suggestion that the Western powers hold the solution to their crises – and keep a wary eye on those opposition figures who the West selects to patronise. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost from allowing the pro-intervention lobby to turn a civil war into an international conflict – or allowing them to turn somebody else’s struggle for freedom into a sand dune they can scramble up towards the moral high ground.