Friday, March 11, 2011

Doomed to repetition

The currency of 'humanitarian intervention' has always been urgency. We must not think, we have no time to think, we must only act - or rather, beg others to act, beg NATO or the UN or the US to morph into something it never has been and will never become, an agent of solidarity with the oppressed.

Avaaz has raised some eyebrows by organising a petition campaign in favour of a 'no fly zone' over Libya. The campaign may successfully channel some popular sentiment into backing an extant policy, as the Avaaz position is echoed by 'hawks' in the US and Europe and is bolstering an ongoing campaign in the United Nations to impose just such a policy. France, having recognised the Libyan National Council as the legitimate government of the country, appears to be tag-teaming with the United Kingdom to draft a 'no-fly zone' resolution. Sarkozy appears to be prepared to call for air strikes, which is a logical corollary of a 'no-fly zone' - since to maintain control over airspace you have to bomb the air defences. It's also congruent with a sustained media campaign, with those oh-so-familiar articles and their oh-so-familiar complaint that the 'world' will not act to stem the murder - as if the 'world' gives an Aylesbury.

Avaaz's campaign director explains that his organisation believes that the "international community" - in this case meaning the UN Security Council, the target of the Avaaz campaign - has a "responsibility" to protect civilians threatened by repressive governments. So, this is 'R2P' in action. Now the point about discourses of responsibility when applied to imperialist states is that they also amount to rights. A responsibility to act is also, de facto, a right to do so. By simply assuming this right, and re-stating it in the more acceptable idiom of responsibility, Avaaz sidesteps a whole series of potentially difficult, complicating issues. We acknowledge that there are members of the resistance leadership have called for a no-fly zone, and that it appears to answer a grave problem, that of the repression of the revolution by Qadhafi with the use of superior air power.

But have Avaaz, or anyone else in that camp, taken the trouble build links with those struggling in Libya, through exiles or otherwise? Have they undertaken the patient work of building a transnational solidarity campaign, exhaustively analysed the situation alongside their Libyan brothers and sisters, and decided to voice their appeal on that basis? No such thing. No one is forming an Abraham Lincoln Brigade or an International Brigade. No one is forming an International Solidarity Movement. No. They are responding to media reports, and their response is not to get in touch with Libyan revolutionaries, but to get in touch with the United Nations Security Council. And they demonstrate no sign whatever of having given serious thought to the consequences not just for Libya but for the region as a whole if US and European military power is given a new lease of legitimacy for deployment in the Middle East, even under the rubric of the UN - he UN having sanctioned and perpetrated the recent slaughters in Haiti, and retrospectively blessed the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to name just two recent outings.

What vexes me here is the unwillingness of liberal activists to learn from experience, and their seeming determination to remain trapped in the same useless intellectual clutter, passing off questionable concepts (like "the international community) as commonsensical. Instead of political analysis, wherein we might broach the question of why the US and Europe - whose regional interests are counter-revolutionary - should be the privileged agent of emancipation here, we are left with categorical imperatives. Instead of historical analysis, wherein we might consider the recent history of US-led interventions in the Middle East, or of 'humanitarian interventions' in general, or of 'no-fly zones' (eg, the murderous aerial bombardment of Iraq throughout the 1990s, the brutal complement to the genocidal sanctions campaign), we are left with disembodied slogans. Instead of treating Libyans as equals, in solidarity, we are left treating them as supplicants, dependents of 'the West'. And ultimately, such intervention may just be designed to reproduce the relation of dependency that the Middle East has been held in by means of violent coercion since the first British gunboats sailed into the Gulf.