Friday, April 01, 2011
Let's recall that the express motivations for the intervention were two-fold; one was humanitarian, to which we'll return; the other was securitarian, pivoting on the concern that Libya would if the rebellion continued become a 'failed state', ungovernable, ungoverned, and providing a gateway for immigration and 'jihadism' to Europe. In this sense, the intervention followed the logic both of the 'war on terror' and of its cousin, 'Fortress Europe'. This justification has always been dubious, and politically ambivalent in its effects. If the claim that 'jihadism' would find a friendly home in a free Libya was always alarmist, it has nonetheless been susceptible to criticisms from within the usually loyal press that the war is just encouraging 'Al Qaeda'.
And setting aside the political objections to such logic and the intellectual objections to concepts such as 'failed states', how were the indicated ends supposed to be accomplished? Through a land invasion and a process of 'state-building'? Not if the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had his way. By overthrowing Qadhafi and bringing the National Transitional Council to power? Not according to British military top brass. Well, then, a no-fly zone and a bombing campaign. And yet, what is the bombing campaign supposed to achieve in the long-term? No one argues that this of itself this will lead to Qadhafi's overthrow, or even his replacement with a stable, pro-'Western' regime. And, true enough, it has not. It has altered the balance of forces, but in such a way as to prolong the war rather than settle it. Qadhafi's recent recovery in some parts of the country may be reversed, but he is unlikely to lose the core western territories that he now commands. Is this the kind of stability that is sought? A constant war of attrition between two slightly better matched forces? What's the alternative, apart from a land invasion? Something like the Afghanistan campaign, involving special forces, and the arming and training of rebels? Well, think about that: the early 'victory' in Afghanistan was achieved because the Taliban fled, and the ground army used by the current occupiers was a reasonably long-standing, numerous, well-trained and politically disciplined outfit with some social base in the Uzbek north of Agfhanistan. The rebels in Libya are not that numerous - not the armed rebels - politically heterogenous, not subordinated to a centralised leadership, and mostly very recently acquainted with weapons. Qadhafi's forces are not going to melt away. And even if they did, remember how the Afghanistan campaign actually turned out? I'm not sure that even in the grammar of imperialism this intervention shows any sign of coherence. I can well imagine that if you're a state planner looking at this back-and-forth charade, you would start to question your sanity in having undertaken such an intervention in the first place.
What of the humanitarian remit? We shall skate lightly over civilian casualties that have been incurred by the bombing. Suffice to say that we are being exposed to the usual routines on that front. In one such routine, all claims of civilian deaths are attributed to the target regime, thus implying that they have no credibility. In another, they are caused by the regime using civilians as human shields, by refusing to camp out in a glow-in-the-dark tent in the middle of nowhere and thus make an easier target. In a third, slightly more baroque, Qadhafi is accused of digging up bodies and strategically arranging them to create the impression of a massacre. The truth is that we will not know, until some sort of retrospective excess mortality survey is carried out, what the human cost of the bombing is. And at any rate, one is reluctant to be drawn into the gruesome calculus of war - which, by implication, is that if 'they' kill more than 'we' do, then 'we' win the humanitarian argument.
I also think it the height of bad faith to ground an argument for intervention of this kind on the premise that a massacre in Benghazi was forthcoming and this was the only way to stop it. To begin with, if that was the case, and the massacre was stopped, why are the bombs still falling? I'm afraid the logic of this kind of intervention, of indeterminate duration, with indeterminate goals, extends well beyond the management of an immediate emergency, even assuming that the intervention was genuinely motivated by this and that it made all the difference in that respect. There has to be a longer term objective - but what is it? Is the humanitarian argument that Qadhafi should be overthrown, or that there should be a partition, or that Qadhafi's forces should just be prevented for now from finishing off the rebellion? Obviously, supporters of 'humanitarian intervention' would prefer the former, but as they've hitched their wagon to the NATO military coalition, they are trapped in the logic of military action: and they are largely not prepared to support the kinds of military action, such as invasion and heavy bombing, and subsequent occupation and 'state-building' that overthrow would entail. Quite rightly too - people learn, slowly. Partition is the next possibility.
As mentioned, the air strikes, are unlikely to overthow the Qadhafi regime. Absent a ground invasion, which would be catastrophic for all sorts of reasons which I hope I don't have to spell out, the most likely result was a stalemate, tending toward de facto partition, with an east loosely governed by a pro-US elite composed of former regime elements concentrated in the coastal towns and cities, and the rump dictatorship in the west being able to rally its forces under the banner of resisting imperialism. Given long-standing regional divisions in the country, such a result would not only be a terrible betrayal of the emancipatory impulse that produced the uprising in the first place, but also potentially catastrophic, prolonging not only the conflict itself but also NATO's aerial bombardment. I suppose it's worth elaborating on this point a little, as I had occasion recently to 'debate' the subject of intervention in Libya with someone who confessed to not being an expert about Libya - this was an understatement, and a peculiar one, as I think if you're going to support bombing a country you ought at least to know something about the people upon the bombs will be falling - yet insisted that it would be no bad thing if Libya was partitioned because it was an artificial, rather than an organic, state. Lest you, reader, were inclined to be as blasé, I would just remind you that all states are artifices, that the idea of an 'organic' state is itself a fanciful artefact of 19th Century blood-and-soil romanticism, and that the break up of such artifices - consider Yugoslavia - is usually no picnic, particularly if effected through civil war. The de facto partition of Libya may or may not happen, but it's increasingly recognised as a logical prospect given the continuation of air strikes, and the ongoing stalemate which the air strikes seem almost designed to produce.
The last option I mentioned, simply delaying the repression of the rebellion, is obviously ridiculous. By that I don't mean to say it's impossible. It's just that it would make a mockery of any humanitarian remit. Yet, if a ground invasion is ruled out, for good reasons, and partition is unappealing, for reasons which ought to be obvious, what does that leave? A negotiated settlement perhaps? You don't say! Oddly, such diplomacy - even if it's for show - usually precedes an extension of military force. You have to wonder, if the argument is humanitarian, and the end result sought a pacific one with as little bloodshed as possible, why such an option wasn't even entertained for a second before the air strikes began - despite the fact that there were several long weeks in which the powers hitherto allied to Qadhafi could have broached such possibilities. What? "We don't negotiate with terrorists"? Get real.
However, this just reminds us that the humanitarian argument presupposes the foreclosure of options that was built-in to the intervention in the first place. It's quite right that opponents of the war have pointed out that there were a number of alternatives to a bombing campaign from the start, if the motive was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Those being, as I review the antiwar blogs, columns and newspapers: the handing over Libya's frozen funds to the Transitional Council to enable them to arm themselves; a regional intervention building on extant support provided by Egypt; a diplomatic settlement, in the event that outright military victory on the part of the rebels was out of the question. But when people ask what your alternative to bombing is - "what would YOU do?" - they are asking us to hypothesize, to speculate, and to do so in a terrain in which most people, including the advocates of humanitarian intervention themselves, have no experience whatever. That is, they're asking for a speculation concerning military logic, in which most are not trained, as it might play out in a situation where do not have intelligence, or networks of associates or informers. And such hypotheses are necessarily less immediately compelling than the seeming obviousness and corporeal bluntness of imperialist solutions. The question, once addressed, should be reversed: the burden of justification is on those who are doing the bombing or supporting it. The option that needs to be interrogated is the one being pursued: bombing. And it won't do to justify it on the basis of abstract humanitarianism. Humanitarianism is a contested, political term, and arguments predicated on it can only be assessed and settled in the political sphere.
And the fact is that the political bases for such a war are hopelessly confused. It can't be justified on the ground of liberal internationalism, since we're not talking about spreading democracy or promoting a liberal world order - that idea has taken a serious knock in the last decade. But the Realist grounds for the war seem even more incoherent. This is hardly a power-balancing operation, and any 'security threat' that can be conjured up is both less than convincing and potentially liable to fly back in any scaremonger's face if the same 'threat' is imputed to the rebels themselves. As for any attempt to justify the bombing on leftist internationalist grounds, of supporting the revolution, that is perhaps the least convincing of all. The logic of this, if taken to its conclusion, is that should air strikes fail to result in Qadhafi's overthrow, then the US and its allies should invade and finish the job. Any ideas where that might lead to? The US has a long history of intervening in revolutionary situations: the Spanish-American War, the Mexican revolution, the Russian civil war, the Greek civil war, the Vietnamese revolution, indeed a whole series of anti-colonial and leftist revolutions in Latin America, Africa, South-East Asia and the Middle East. In not one of them has the United States military been a pro-revolutionary force. In this case, the US and its European allies have been consistently intervening in the region on the side of the counter-revolution. Expecting such forces to be part of any revolutionary transformation of the Middle East is frankly unworldly. In the last analysis, there seems to be no coherent, intelligent way to defend this war.