Notes From the Margins…

Libya – War Without End?

  • April 21, 2011
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The news that French, Italian and British military advisors will be working with Libyan rebels – only ‘advising’ mind, not fighting – is another escalation of an ‘intervention’ that has already gone far beyond its original remit, and which is unlikely to produce a positive outcome – if it ends at all.

It is clear that Europe and the United States seriously underestimated the base of support for Gaddafi’s regime when they opportunistically decided to ditch their erstwhile ally during the seemingly irresistible rebel advance in February.   Having precipitously given its political support to the rebels in the belief that they were going to win, the NATO-led coalition then found itself unexpectedly confronted with the prospect of a Gaddafi military victory.

Britain and France then took the lead in pushing the UN to support a  ‘ no-fly zone’  – ostensibly to  protect Libyan civilians and avoid a retributive massacre in Benghazi.

Despite the usual humanitarian rhetoric and Blairite moral imperatives about not allowing dictators to ‘kill their own people’ (a principle which is not being applied in Bahrain or Yemen for example), there was never any doubt that the NATO bombing campaign was intended to do more than keep simply keep Gaddafi’s troops away from Benghazi.

As in Iraq, Western governments could not openly call for ‘regime change’, because this objective has no legal basis, and in the new era of altruistic war, that is not how wars are sold to the public.   But even when the ostensible objective of saving Benghazi was achieved,  even when pretty much everything there was to bomb had been bombed, Gaddafi’s forces did not fold.

So in order to achieve their original objective of deposing Gaddafi and still maintain the fig-leaf of legality,  the EU is proposing to send 1,000 ground troops to protect  humanitarian aid convoys – a development which Russia, not without reason, has described as the beginning of a covert ground operation.

Still trying to avoid accusations that these actions may not conform to the original UN resolution,  France, Britain and Italy have now issued a bizarre statement, in which, according to the Daily Mail:

Although the trio insist that they are not seeking to remove Gaddafi by force and that the bombing will continue only to protect non-combatants, they add that it is ‘impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi still in power.

Underlying these contradictions, the intentions are clearly the same – to retain control of Libyan oil, either through partition or by ensuring a pro-Western revolutionary regime; to ensure that Libya plays the role of a migrant barrier in its ‘externalised’ border controls; and to ensure  some level of control over events in the ‘Arab spring’ through selective or belated support for some pro-democracy movements, while effectively siding with tyrannical regimes and autocracies when it suits Western geopolitical interests,  for example in Yemen or Bahrain.

I admit that I was ambivalent about the Libya ‘intervention’ at first.   I don’t like dictators who shoot at unarmed protesters either, and Gaddafi has always been a son of a bitch, nor did I want to see his victorious troops wreak havoc in Benghazi.

But it was not clear that war was the only way of preventing this outcome – let alone that such a war had to be waged by the same countries that would otherwise have been happily doing business with his regime, and which sold him some of the same weapons used to kill protesters.

I didn’t support this campaign for the same reason that I opposed the Iraq and Afghan wars – even ‘good’ wars against bad regimes will rarely produce positive outcomes,  when they are essentially being driven by the same corrupt and cynical geopolitical calculations that led the West to support such regimes in the first place.

And even ‘good’ interventions quickly becomes  justifications for the endless and selective projection of  Western military power in places of strategic interest, and end up justifying the idea that ‘we’ have some inherent moral right to make war on anyone when it suits us.

I’m aware of the argument that was sometimes made by supporters of the Iraq war, that even wars fought for the wrong motives can sometimes have a positive outcome – but that didn’t happen in Iraq and I don’t see it happening in Libya.

Juan Cole and others on the left have also made strong arguments that the Libya ‘intervention’ was different from Iraq, partly because it had the support of the UN. But UN support does not necessarily make neo-colonial warfare legitimate, even if it makes it legal, and it certainly does not mean that such wars will make things better for the people they are supposedly intended to protect.

More often than not, they make things worse.   That’s how it was in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan.   And that is what is happening in Libya

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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