I concluded my post on Thursday by reflecting that we had no right to blame God for the deaths of tens of thousands in Japan’s tsunami as long as we went around screwing up the world in manifest acts of evil on our own account. Alas, I had no idea those words would prove so immediately relevant. On Friday, following a frenetic month-long media blitz to convince us that Gaddafi was an evil war criminal exterminating his own people and must be stopped, the US, Britain, and France achieved their ambition–a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire or else our militaries would act to impose a “no-fly zone” in Libya to prevent airstrikes on civilians. The cease-fire was immediately announced, but somehow two days later here we are not merely having established a no-fly zone, but having proceeded immediately to bombing soldiers, convoys, and according to many reports, plenty of civilians of our own.
How on earth could we be pulled into this madness again so easily? With the bitter taste of the Great Iraq Deception and its disastrous effects still in the mouths of the UK and US public, with the memory of the shameless propaganda that led up to it and our shameful capitulation to it still so fresh, how could we possibly let this happen again? Back then, I was young and stupid, and I bought the warmongering hook, line, and sinker…now I know it what it must’ve felt like for the few who kept their senses back then and watched as the godlessness unfolded around them–angry, confused, helpless.
I had hoped that the one good effect of this disaster in Japan would be that the 24/7 media propaganda bombardment about Libya would let up, our focus would shift temporarily to a clear-cut humanitarian disaster, and we would then be able to reassess the Libyan situation with fresh eyes, and ears that were not deafened by the warmongering shouts. But amazingly, even with whole cities leveled and a historic nuclear disaster, the distraction of Japan managed to last less than a week. Within a few days, the Western leaders had regrouped from the public-relations setback and managed to force Libya back onto centre-stage, supplanting a massive humanitarian disaster unfolding in broad daylight in desperate need of aid resources with one as yet almost entirely undocumented.
In the days and weeks leading up to the UN decision, all we heard about, it seemed, was a “no-fly zone” that would be established–patrolling Libya’s airspace, and bombing its airfields if necessary. I wondered how this was going to do anything more than drag out the conflict a few extra days, since most of Libya’s strength lay in its ground forces, and apparently the Western leaders thought so too. The “no-fly zone,” it seems, was a red herring all along; the resolution surreptitiously inserted the ominous “by all means necessary” clause and within 24 hours, the action escalated beyond a no-fly zone to full-scale war, and infliction of mass casualties–bombing convoys, etc.
Even the Arab League, which had lobbied so strongly for intervention, was appalled, with its president Amr Moussa immediately denouncing the violence that had been unleashed, saying, “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.” If even one of the leaders calling for an attack was as taken aback at the scale of it as I was, this suggests deliberate deception of Western citizens by their leaders about what was being contemplated.
It’s sadly ironic that this intervention is being done in the name of freedom and democracy, when a crucial pillar of democracy is the ability of citizens to take part in key decision-making, such as the declaration of war, and that democratic process has been entirely bypassed in this situation. We have effectively declared war on Libya, and yet the American people were in no way consulted, nor the British. This decision was made by politicians and diplomats behind closed doors, and authorized by a body that cannot boast a shred of democratic election. Who are the real dictators in this story?
Perhaps the story we’ve been hearing is all true, perhaps a slaughter of epic proportions would’ve unfolded if we haven’t intervened, perhaps this is all urgently necessary, and has been carefully and wisely considered (certainly I appreciate that for once the US was dragging its heels rather than pounding the war-drum, at least until late last week). But I just cannot feel confident that we are the shining white knights of this story. While avoiding conspiracy theory explanations (although this is one situation where such explanations are disturbingly plausible), I want to raise a few pointed questions about the official narrative:
1. Is Gaddafi really a brutal dictator, hated by his people?
While I’m not wanting to suggest that Gaddafi is Santa Clause or anything, he hardly seems to be a murderous fiend like many of the dictators we’ve seen in the 20th century. Such fiends, for one thing, rarely manage to stay in power for 43 years. Such fiends rarely govern countries with the highest literacy rates and per capita incomes, and the lowest poverty rates in their region, as Gaddafi does. Libya, for all its unfreedoms, is certainly not quite the dystopia that it’s been painted as. And the fact that thousands of Libyans have been spontaneously showing their support for the regime in the last month, and even now many are tweeting their support for Gaddafi, testifies to the fact that many, at least, consider him a good leader. Indeed, in recent years, the Western powers had warmed up to Gaddafi, acknowledging that the worst of his human rights abuses were well behind him. All that seems forgotten now, and the media has painted this as a situation of universal opposition to a bloodthirsty tyrant, who is clinging to power only by brute force, with the aid of mercenaries and the secret police. But the facts on the ground simply don’t seem to bear that out. If he was that bad, one would have expected the protests to become more and more insistent and universal, gathering momentum until the regime crumbled, as in Egypt and Tunisia. Instead, resistance has seemed to center on a specific group of armed rebels, rather than mass civilian protests. What we seem clearly to have here is a situation of genuine internal division over what’s best for Libya–Gaddafi or the rebels–not a situation of a lone tyrant massacring innocent protesters. And if it is the former, rather than the latter, outside intervention is much more dangerous, both morally and practically.
2. How much was he really murdering civilians?
The claim that Gaddafi was targeting and killing civilians has been repeated over and over, more and more shrilly and dramatically, until we’ve heard rhetoric like “Gaddafi is exterminating his own people.” But the evidence for it has remained quite slim indeed. Very little has even been brought forward, much less verified. The key allegation that the West has made has centered on Gaddafi’s use of aircraft to bomb the opposition–even this is not clearly an attack on “civilians,” since the opposition are very much armed. But Russian sources contested even this claim, insisting that they had no evidence for the airstrikes alleged. The International Institute for Strategic Studies have acknowledged that Gaddafi is in fact probably taking careful pains not to kill civilians. He may well be–don’t get me wrong. I’d just like to see some much more careful and objective documentation.
3. Why intervene in Libya, specfically?
Let’s assume the worst–a tyrannical regime, determined to cling to power, massacring unarmed civilians. Hm…you mean like the one in Bahrain, where they’ve called in military assistance from neighboring countries to use against their own people? Or the one in Yemen, where they massacred dozens of unarmed protesters on Friday? What’s so different about those two countries, that they get off scot-free, and Libya becomes the focus of a non-stop international outcry, followed by a bombing campaign? The main difference seems to be that Bahrain and Yemen are crucial US allies, while Gaddafi has been a thorn in the West’s side for years (and not always as the bad guy, either).
Or how about the massacres going on in the Ivory Coast over the past couple weeks? Or did you even know they happened? For whatever reason, the Western media doesn’t care about the Ivory Coast. And that’s because Western leaders don’t care about the Ivory Coast. Or to push it back, how about the Congo or Rwanda? Millions of innocent civilians were raped and murdered, and we stood by and did nothing, and did our best to turn a blind eye to it all? If all we care about is really protecting civilians, how come only civilians on top of oil fields owned by US enemies seem valuable enough to protect? Again, perhaps this is necessary, but I’d like a clear explanation of why such a double-standard is appropriate.
4. What’s up with this cease-fire?
Is it just me or did the Libyans not immediately acquiesce to the international demand for a cease-fire? There were reports Saturday morning that they’d violated it–that an opposition plane had been shot down over Benghazi or something. But if they announced a cease-fire, isn’t it worth taking a couple days and doing some careful observation and investigation to see if they’re keeping their word? As it was, the bombing plans simply went right ahead as if they’d just decided to give the UN the finger. Then, this evening, another cease-fire was announced. Without any pause whatsoever to see if it was for real, to see if Gaddafi was going to make good on it, we continued bombing. This seems to me a direct violation of the laws of war. If someone raises the white flag, you quit shooting. If they then then grab a hand grenade and start to lob it at you anyway, that’s another matter, but you have a duty to at least give them a chance.
5. Do the rebels even want help?
I’ve read some articles, and some tweets coming out of Libya, suggesting that even those in the rebellion, even those who hate the regime, want the West to stay out of it. Either they don’t trust the West (who can blame them?) or else they just want to do it on their own. Presumably they feel like a losing basketball team, that would rather lose if they can’t miraculously win on their own, rather than having a thug go into the opposing team’s locker room at half-time and break all their shins. There may be situations where intervention is ethically justified even when unasked for, but they are few and fraught with political and practical dangers.
6. So why might this be happening?
All of this just doesn’t add up. One doesn’t have to be a cynic or a conspiracy theorist to suspect ulterior motives from Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama, et. al. So what might they be? Three suggest themselves–here they are in order from most cynical to least cynical: a) Oil. Whatever you think about Iraq, one can’t deny that oil seems to be awfully mixed up in a lot of the Western military and diplomatic aggression over recent decades. Libya is a huge oil producer, and Gaddafi’s policies keep a lot of the oil money within the country, through the National Oil Corporation. That’s part of the reason for the very low poverty in Libya. But it’s also a reason for ExxonMobil, BP, Total, and the politicians they have in their pockets to really dislike Gaddafi. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’. b) Quelling Arab protests. It has been jolly inconvenient for Washington in recent months that Arabs throughout the Middle East have decided to start listening to all our rhetoric about freedom and democracy and have employed it against leaders who were loyal allies of Washington, however brutal they might’ve been to their own people. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the West has been unable to intervene to prop up ailing dictator-allies. How does Libya help? Well, if the West can be seen coming in on the side of rebels to take down a dictator, suddenly all the freedom-fighting ceases to be an anti-Western gesture, as it has been in several cases. The Arab citizens can’t think of their rebellions as knocking down Western puppets–they’ll be afraid they’re just going to be used as Western puppets themselves. Takes some of the wind out of their sails. c) Declining popularity. This is the most likely part of the explanation, though it may well not be the whole explanation. Military intervention, especially against supposed tyrants, is a guaranteed way to shift public attention away from problems at home and to make maligned leaders look tough, decisive, and morally passionate. David Cameron, who has been under more fire than any of the major leaders in recent months as Britain has suffered from devastating (though perhaps necessary) budget cuts, was in a similar position to Margaret Thatcher on the eve of the Falklands War. He may have recalled just how much that war helped her popularity and helped her push through her economic agenda, and decided that another war might be just the trick. Obama, too, would be merely one in a long line of American presidents who have used foreign military adventures to distract from economic malaise at home and reverse declining approval ratings (Andrew Bacevich has been particularly keen on identifying this pattern in his books). It can only be hoped that this ill-conceived crusade will backfire and bring public ire down on these snakes. I can certainly attest that it has destroyed my respect for both Cameron and Obama, both of whom I’ve many times attempted to defend against their detractors.
I may be proved wrong in all this. It may well be that this intervention is completely necessary, completely well-intentioned, and completely effective. Indeed, I pray that I will be proved wrong. But the signs sure don’t look good so far.
(Note: I’ll try to edit this post later and insert some links to a few of the stories I’ve been reading. For now, this article by Owen Jones is well-worth looking at, as are this discussion on CNN and this article from the BBC).