The democratic Arab revolts are redrawing political, diplomatic and ideological boundaries in the Middle East. Repression in Libya threatened this dynamic process, and we do not know where the UN-approved actions of western forces in support of the Libyan rebels will lead
Even a broken watch tells the right time twice a day. So a UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force against Libya is not necessarily wrong just because it was a US, French and UK initiative. Unarmed rebels facing a reign of terror may have to seek the assistance of an international force; preoccupied with their own sufferings, they will not refuse help just because the force may be deaf to appeals from other sufferers (for example, in Palestine). They may even forget that the alliance is better known for repression than aid.
But reasons that make sense to Libyan rebels in extreme danger cannot justify yet another western war on Arab land. Intervention by Nato member states is not an acceptable way to topple Muammar Gaddafi. If intervention seems the obvious solution – insofar as we are required to choose between western bombardment and the crushing of the Libyan uprising – that is only because other solutions, such as a joint intervention by UN, Egyptian or pan-Arab forces, have been dismissed.
Going by past record, it is impossible to believe the generous motives for sending in western troops that are currently being claimed. In fact, it is hard to believe that any state anywhere would spend money and deploy forces to achieve democratic goals. And recent history shows that battles fought for those goals may have widely acclaimed initial success, but what comes after is chaotic, more dangerous and less spectacular. The capitals of Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq fell years ago, yet the fighting goes on inside those countries.
The Libyans would have preferred, like their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbours, to end Gaddafi’s despotic rule without outside help. The intervention of external forces places them under an obligation to powers that never had any real interest in Libyan freedom. Gaddafi is primarily to blame for this regional exception. Without 40 years of his violent repressive regime (which shifted from an anti-imperialist dictatorship to a pro-western despotism), without his diatribes against the “agents of al-Qaida” and “rats in the pay of foreign intelligence services”, the Libyan people alone would have been able to determine their own destiny.
Security Council Resolution 1973 authorising the bombing of Libya may have prevented the crushing of a revolt with military means too slender to succeed. But it has opened the door to much hypocrisy. Gaddafi’s troops were not bombed because he was the most vicious or bloodthirsty dictator, but because he was the weakest, without nuclear weapons or powerful friends to shield him from military reprisals or speak for him at the Security Council. The decision to authorise intervention confirms that international law has no clear principles whose violation is subject to universal sanctions.
Gaddafi’s close friends
Diplomatic whitewash is like money laundering: one good action covers decades of wheeling and dealing. So President Nicolas Sarkozy could order air strikes against Gaddafi, his former business partner, whom he received in 2007 although the nature of Gaddafi’s regime was evident. (We can count ourselves lucky, though, that Sarkozy didn’t offer Gaddafi the “French security forces’ expertise” that he extended to Tunisia’s now ex-president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.) And Silvio Berlusconi was a “close friend” of the Libyan Guide, who visited him in Rome 11 times, yet Berlusconi managed reluctantly to join the coalition.
The Arab League, full of old men who dread democracy, welcomed UN action but were horrified when the first US missiles landed. Russia and China could have opposed the Security Council resolution or introduced amendments to define the action and reduce the risk of escalation, saving themselves from having to “regret” the use of force later. The rectitude of the international community is also clear from the text of Resolution 1973, which condemns “arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions” in Libya. Of course, these things don’t happen in Guantanamo Bay, Chechnya or China.
No one questions the imperative of protecting civilians. But in armed conflict that means bombing military objectives, including troops, many of them civilian conscripts, mingling with unarmed crowds. Aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone may be shot down, their pilots captured, and special forces will then be sent in to release them. However much the vocabulary is doctored, there is no euphemism for war.
War is in the hands of those who declare it and conduct operations, not those who believe in short wars with happy endings. It is fine to draw up plans for a conflict without hostility and no collateral damage, but the military forces that execute these plans will follow their own inclinations, use their own methods and have their own agenda. The consequences of Resolution 1973 may include retreating Libyan troops mown down by machine guns, as well as crowds rejoicing in Benghazi.
Progressive opinion on Libya is divided, according to whether it stresses solidarity with an oppressed people or opposition to a western war. Both objectives are legitimate but cannot always be reconciled.
Forced to chose, there is a decision to be made on what an “anti-imperialist” label gained in the international arena authorises by way of daily suffering imposed on people.
Many leftwing governments in Latin America, notably Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia have maintained a dignified silence about Gaddafi’s repressive measures, which seems all the more bizarre since his opposition to the West is pure facade. He claims to be the victim of a “colonialist plot”, after having assured the old colonial powers: “We are all embroiled in the fight against terrorism. Our security services cooperate. We have helped you a lot these past few years” (1).
Like Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro, Gaddafi claims the attack on him is “all about oil”, although Libyan oil is already controlled by the US, UK and Italian companies Occidental Petroleum, BP and ENI (see The subtleties of Libyan crude). Just a few weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund had welcomed Libya’s “strong macroeconomic performance and the progress on enhancing the role of the private sector” (2). Gaddafi’s friend Ben Ali was paid a similar compliment in November 2008 by IMF director general Dominique Strauss-Kahn – who had just returned from Tripoli (3).
Anthony Giddens, theoretician of the Blairite ‘Third Way’, also seems to have overlooked Gaddafi’s old revolutionary, anti-imperialist veneer, carefully restored in Caracas and Havana, when he observed in 2007 that the “ideal future for Libya in two or three decades’ time would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking” (4). Gaddafi has duped many impressive people. He may not be quite as mad as we thought.
There are many reasons why leftwing Latin American governments misjudged Gaddafi. They hoped he was the enemy of their enemy, the US, though that was no reason to believe he was a friend. They didn’t know much about North Africa – Chávez phoned Gaddafi to find out what was happening in Tunisia – so they were against what Castro called “the colossal campaign of lies unleashed by the mass media”.
The events revived irrelevant personal memories, hence Chávez’s comment on Libya: “I don’t know why, but the things that have happened and are happening there remind me of Hugo Chávez on 11 April” (11 April 2002, when the Chávez government in Venezuela was almost overturned in a coup with strong media support).
There were other reasons for the failure to understand events in Libya: decades of US military intervention and domination in Latin America, Libya helping Venezuela to gain a foothold in Africa, Latin American states’ role in Opec and the South America-Africa Summits, and Venezuela’s diplomatic moves to strengthen South-South relations.
Chávez also assumed that close relations between states meant close relations between heads of state: “King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was a friend of mine, King Abdullah is a friend … The emir of Qatar is a friend, and the president of Syria, he came here too. And Bouteflika” (5). When Gaddafi (“my old friend”) and his regime turned repressive, the friendship proved a handicap. Chávez missed the chance to present the Arab uprisings as younger siblings of the leftwing movements in Latin America he knew so well.
It is in the diplomatic arena that one sees most clearly the dire results, in all countries, when power is held by a single individual, and orders are issued without parliamentary control or democratic deliberation. And when, as in the Security Council, diplomats proudly declare war in the name of democracy, the contrast is particularly glaring.
Gaddafi first claimed to espouse the cause of opposing the West and to be defending natural resources; then he played his final card – religion. He explained on 20 March: “The great Christian powers have launched a new crusade against the Muslim people, and the people of Libya first. The aim is to wipe Islam off the map.” Just a fortnight before, he had compared his repressive measures to an action in which 1,400 Palestinians had been killed: “The Israelis had to use tanks to deal with the extremists in Gaza, and we are in the same position … Detachments of the Libyan army had to be deployed against small pockets of al-Qaida” (6). This was unlikely to increase his popularity in the Arab world.
But it has one virtue at least. It makes evident the damaging political effects of language that reflects in reverse the neoconservative talk of crusades and empires. The Arab uprisings with their secular and religious support, and opposition, may end the rhetoric that claims to be anti-imperialist when it is merely anti-West. There may be no more talk in which hatred of “the West” conflates all that is worst (gunboat diplomacy, contempt for the “natives”, wars of religion) and all that is best (from the age of enlightenment to social security) without distinction.
Orientalism in reverse
Not long after the 1979 Iran revolution, the radical Syrian thinker, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm defined, and criticised, an “Orientalism in reverse” that eschewed secular nationalism and communist revolution, and wanted a return to religious authenticity as a weapon against the West.
The principal tenets of this “culturalist” concept, as summarised and refuted by Gilbert Achcar, were that “the degree of emancipation of the Orient should not and cannot be measured by western standards and values, such as democracy, secularism and women’s liberation; that the Islamic Orient cannot be grasped with the epistemological tools of western social sciences and that no analogy with western phenomena is relevant; that the key motional factor in Islamic history, the primary factor setting Muslim masses in motion, is cultural, ie religious, taking precedence over the economic and social/class factors that condition western political dynamics; that the only path of Muslim lands toward their renaissance is through Islam; and that the movements that raise the banner of the ‘return to Islam’ are not reactionary or regressive movements as they are perceived through western lenses, but indeed progressive movements prompted by western cultural domination” (7).
This fundamentalist political vision has not completely disappeared, but the shock waves from Tunisia suggest that its relevance is widely questioned in Arab states where people no longer want to be “with the West, or against it” (8), and where they may be equally critical of a state that is pro-US (Egypt) or against it (Syria). Far from fearing that civil liberties, free speech, democratic policies, trade unions and women’s rights are “western” priorities masquerading as universal liberation, people in Arab states are adopting them as a sign that they reject authoritarianism, social injustice and police states run by old men who treat their people like children. This great drive, reminiscent of other revolutionary movements, these unaccustomed social and democratic victories, this burst of energy all come when “the West” seems divided between fear and apathy, with a necrotic political system, running on automatic toward the same outcomes and on behalf of the same interests, regardless of which coalition is in power.
There is no guarantee that the courage and energy of the Arab people will continue to win easy victories. But they open unknown possibilities. In Article 20 of UN Resolution 1973, the Security Council “affirms its determination to ensure that [Libyan] assets frozen pursuant to [an earlier resolution] shall, at a later stage, as soon as possible be made available to and for the benefit of the people of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” So assets can be frozen and returned to the people. This lesson will certainly be remembered, that the state can serve the people. In the past few months, the Arab world has reminded us of another universal truth: the people can shape the state.
(1) Interview, Journal du dimanche, Paris, 6 March 2011.
(2) “Le FMI tresse des lauriers à Kadhafi”, Le Canard Enchaîné, Paris, 9 March 2011.
(3) See “STRAUSS-KAHN – ou le génie du FMI – soutient Ben Ali !” on Dailymotion.
(5) 25 February 2011. See “Chávez: ‘Nos oponemos rotundamente a las pretensiones intervencionistas en Libia’” on aporrea.org.
(6) France 24, 7 March 2011, “Interview de Kadhafi 07/03/2011 pour france24 part 2/2”.
(7) Gilbert Achcar, “Orientalism in Reverse: post-1979 trends in French Orientalism”, 4th Edward Said Memorial Lecture, University of Warwick, 20 November 2007. First published in Radical Philosophy, London, no 151, September-October 2008.
(8) See Alain Gresh, “‘Neither with the West, nor against it’”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2011. In a speech delivered on 19 March, Hizbullah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah said that “any accusation that the US manufactured and launched these revolutions [the Arab revolutions] is unjust speech toward these peoples.”