Saturday, April 16, 2011


'Mission creep' is the official euphemism for when a military intervention expands well beyond its original parameters, even having apparently achieved its putative objective. In another vernacular, this would be called escalation. But what we're seeing today is less a military escalation - my impression is that NATO forces are stringing this out, perhaps to avoid giving the undisciplined rebels too much space for movement - than an ideological escalation. To explain. Some weeks ago, a no-fly zone, which rapidly became an aerial bombing campaign, followed by special forces and intelligence-led intervention on the ground, was supposed to prevent a massacre in Benghazi. That massacre supposedly averted, the bombing continued, apparently to continue to protect civilians, even though the killing - of civilians, rebels, and conscript soldiers - does not seem to have abated.

Today, The Observer amplifies calls from "rebels" (in fact, one 'rebel leader') for the deployment NATO "troops on the ground". This is to happen urgently - "now, now, now" - to prevent another "massacre" as Libyan armed forces besiege Misrata. The luckless inhabitants would be in an even worse situation than they are now if left to the care and tending of US forces. So, it is fortunate for them that this invasion is, by all current indications, unlikely to happen. Robert Gates was presumably not kidding when he said: "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined'". Both Obama and Clinton have indicated that they're happy to proceed with the current situation, a manageable stalemate. Far more likely is some sort of settlement which excludes both Qadhafi and the majority of the social forces that were involved in the initial uprisings. Yet, the fact that successive operations seem to segue so plausibly from no-fly-zone to bombing, to special forces and CIA penetration and finally to demands for ground troops should be grounds for alarm.

Historical memory, even recent historical memory, is almost completely excluded from the arid terrain of 'humanitarian intervention'. If, as I've argued, its currency is urgency, its temporal and spatial focus is always narrowly 'here, now'. It cannot afford for us to look beyond this particular emergency and the clamorous demands for its containment through military force. We are expected to behave as if we don't remember that only a few weeks ago, we were all assured that ground invasion wasn't even on the agenda, as there would be no repeat of Iraq. Memory fails us in other ways too. The latest disclosure is that Qadhafi is using cluster bombs as part of his counterinsurgency war. Cluster bombs are a vile weapon, by nature indiscriminate. They are designed and thus intended to spread their lethal punishment over a wide area, and kill the maximum number of people in that radius, while also leaving colourful unexploded treats to be picked up by curious children. Yet that critique, a fairly modest one, would be instantly disdained by the same political alliances now supposedly operating on behalf of the Libyan rebellion. We need not ask, of course, what sort of weapons they prefer to use, unless we crave the unctuous assurances that they are 'precision' (ah), 'laser-guided' (gosh), and 'surgical' (oooh).

Unsurprisingly, the foreign policy 'Realists', such as Stephen Walt and Alan Kuperman, have been most critical of the humanitarian appeal in international relations. Kuperman draws attention to statistics provided by Human Rights Watch which, he says, undermine the claim that Qadhafi is deliberately massacring civilians. He points out that in Misrata, a city of 400,000, the total number of civilian and combatant deaths over the last two months is 257. The great majority of those who died, he vouches, are males, presumably adult males - though as an adult male, I would like to protest most vehemently that they too can be civilians. His wider point is that Qadhafi did not perpetrate an indiscriminate massacre in those cities re-captured by his forces, and was thus unlikely to perpetrate an indiscriminate massacre in Benghazi in the event of its capture. Rather, Qadhafi has been waging a classic counterinsurgency war with predictable 'collateral damage'.

There are a number of ways in which one can and should object to this argument. One should point out that HRW's statistics are unlikely to be comprehensive, their monitors cannot have gauged every last killing, and the tempo of repression seems to be increasing. One should also say that the use of the phrase 'collateral damage' is a grubby evasion. The whole point of counterinsurgency war is that the category of 'non-combatant' is eroded and finally deleted, because the population becomes the enemy. When one embarks on a counterinsurgency war one chooses that civilians will die. Qadhafi responded to a political rebellion by turning it into a military conflict, which he has ruthlessly pursued, and so can't hide behind 'collateral damage'. Yet, the coarseness of Kuperman's war talk aside, there appears to be no intelligent objection to the basic assertion that what Qadhafi has been doing falls far short of the 'genocide' that some have mooted. For example, it is really not at all obvious, as the Triple Alliance of Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy claim, that "tens of thousands of lives have been protected", whatever that means. Even the very large-scale massacre feared by some were unlikely, and smaller massacres were avoidable - if, and only if, Qadhafi was permitted to remain in political control of Libya.

And this is Kuperman's second point. The language of humanitarianism obscured the politics of this war. The issue was never simply one of stopping massacres. If it was about bloodshed, it could easily have been avoided or at least minimised by other means. The issue is 'regime change'. Or to be more precise, it is: should the popular forces in Libya be permitted to govern Libya? Qadhafi's incumbency depended on the answer being 'no'. In a different way, I would maintain, US regional hegemony also depends on the answer being 'no'. This is why the intervention seems to be gradually, though bloodily, cruising (or creeping?) toward some sort of imperial carve-up between regime elements, ex-regime elements, and émigrés retained by the CIA. The current negotiations, and the stance signposted in the Triple Alliance's 'pathway to peace' document, indicate that what is sought now is for Qadhafi himself to be forced out, leaving a conservative, pro-American regime in place. This will be Washington's glittering contribution to the great Middle East revolutions of 2011. And a watchful world will be left to chew on the fact that this is the US showing its better side, and that it could easily have been much worse.