One of the oldest cliches of political life is that we always end up fight the last war. When it comes to the rare moment of the UN utilising its chapter VII provision last night and enforcing a No Fly Zone, with additional ultimatums for Gaddafi to withdraw his forces from the several heavily bombarded towns in Libya, it cannot be emphasised too much: this is not a ground invasion or regime change from above
Unlike Iraq, President Obama has insisted the US is providing support to the UN, but not proposing an invasion:
“I also want to be clear about what we not be do – the US is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force beyond a defined goal, specifically: the protection of civilians in Libya.”
As I said in my previous diary today, this is NOT about declaring a unilateral pre-emptive war. Nor is this a punitive war for attacks on Western interests. It is a response to a looming humanitarian crisis, especially with the regime’s threat to invade Benghazi, a city of 1 million people, and show “no mercy”.
Despite all this, there are two responses (audible both from the Chomskyite left and Neo Realist right) that this is a return to Neocon values of regime change imposed from above. Andrew Sullivan, articulate as ever if (in my view) completely wrong, puts the case most succinctly:
But it seems clear enough: exactly the same alliance that gave us Iraq is giving us Libya: the neocons who want to see the US military deployed across the globe in the defense of freedom and the liberal interventionists who believe that the US should intervene whenever atrocities are occurring. What these two groups have in common is an unrelenting focus on the reason for intervention along with indifference to the vast array of unintended consequences their moralism could lead us into. I do not doubt their good intentions and motives. No human being can easily watch a massacre and stand by. Yet we did so with Iran; and we are doing so in Yemen and Bahrain as we speak, and have done so for decades because we rightly make judgments based on more than feeling.
I happen to believe the better analogies are with Kosovo and Bosnia, the No Fly Zone that successfully protected the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein for 12 years, because there you also saw the vast mass of the civilian population held at bay merely by one side having a preponderance of military power – especially heavy weapons, tanks, and airplanes.
I also believe the “What about Yemen and Bahrain” to be something of a canard. Those two countries are in a position of civil unrest, as Egypt was for many weeks. Many died under the terror of internal security forces in Egypt too – but the army did not take sides. The variety of other tools – diplomatic pressure, sanctions, withdrawal of trade deals and military co-operation – have not been exhausted there.
Yet in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi has unleashed his paramilitaries and foreign mercenaries against his own people for several weeks. Thousands have died. Cities have been turned to rubble. The rebels took over towns all across the country – west and east – this is no civil war. The only reason they have lost control of them is Gaddafi’s ruthless use of military power against civilian targets. He claims this is a tribal conflict. But he also claims the rebels have been led by a coalition of Al Qaeda and the West. This is regime that only clings to power through the monopoly of violence. Anything that undermines that monopoly will soon see his power base disappear.
This is not regime change from above. This is allowing the Libyan people to take their own regime change.
And as always, whether its in Darfur or Rwanda, the hypocrisy of ‘not doing EVERYTHING’ is not answered by the defeatism of ‘so let’s do NOTHING’.
Did we hear the same speech? What I heard is a President joining the international community in this effort not unilaterally going to war as Bush did. They were the ones beating the drum for this, not the administration, as Bush did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I also heard that we would take a subservient role to Britain, France and the Arab League. I am not seeing the imperial presidency that you are seeing.
What is at stake here is the standing of the UN, and difficult, protracted and sometimes failing attempts to create international laws and institutions post World War II.
This is not just some moral handwringing. The consequences of brutal crushing of Benghazi would have long term effects on the stability of the whole region. Just as the West’s failure to act in Bosnia recruited many Jihadists, blocking Arab League calls for a No Fly Zone would open up the US and other security council allies further charges of supporting Arab dictators at the expense of their people.
Events in the Mashriq and Maghreb have been compared to 1848, and the year of revolutions that swept through Europe. To be on the wrong side of this, to not unequivocally support calls for more democracy and less repression in the Arab world, would put us on the wrong side of history, and lose us an historic change to make some kind of amends for all the colonial exploitation, meddling, unnecessary invasions and authoritarian figures we have imposed on the area for the last hundred years.