In Afghanistan we were told the Taliban, by aiding and abetting Al Qaida’s leadership had indirectly contributed to the attacks of 9/11. Months later, US-UK unilateral intervention in Iraq, motivated by the presumed, now categorically disproved, presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, left a nation already scarred by internal divisions and the rule of a ruthless tyrant in utterly devastated.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO and American forces carry the burden of a ghastly legacy. Millions have died to achieve objectives we have yet to fully comprehend, let alone see on the ground. Nonetheless, the dawning of a ‘limited’ intervention in Libya over the past week through the enforcement of a ‘no-fly zone’, tells us that little from these past two experiences seems to have been assimilated by Western capitals.
The rise of the Arab spring has given observers in the Arab world hope that Arab populations themselves could finally be the actors of the change they so desperately needed. As autocrats in Tunis and Cairo fell within less than six weeks, it seemed only a matter of time before Muammar Gaddafi announced he was retiring to any African state willing to welcome him.
As days turned to weeks, a peaceful revolution turned into a protracted battle with each side aiming to control key cities of the country. As Gaddafi began to regain the upper hand, the international community found itself between a rock and a hard place. Though his departure seems to be the only thing anyone can agree on, the methods through which this is accomplished is far from generating any consensus. In the midst of all of this, Libyans seem to be the ones held hostage, between the gluttony of their leaders and that of outside powers with unclear intentions.
The reality is that Libya, like Iraq, is a nation with a highly diverse ethnic and tribal landscape. We are told by the French they are coordinating their efforts with ‘rebels on the ground’. Who are these men of the ‘free rebel’ council the coalition says it’s dealing with as partners on the ground? Who has given them such a mandate? What do they stand for?
Local envoys of international media organisations point to similarities between the rebel council and the Gaddafi clan’s methods of governance. Though only in its early days of existence, the armed rebellion’s leadership is already a divided one; rife with nepotism and tribal connections, its authority is bound to erode in the coming weeks.
What’s more , as divisions within the coalition as to whether or not Gaddafi himself was a legitimate target were laid bare, I was of those to wonder just what on earth was going on within the higher echelons of NATO’s hierarchy. Surely one must ensure a workable political agenda is intertwined with military objectives to ensure Libya, in a post-Gaddafi era (if indeed this is what NATO is aiming for), is stable.
In its suspicious rush to go to ‘war’ the coalition has failed to spell out its objectives, the time frame in which it hopes to operate, who will head its military operations and worst of all, any politically viable exit strategy.
With Russia, China, Brazil and Germany opposed to the Security Council’s resolution on military action in Libya, France, in a role almost contradictory to its foreign policy traditions, emphatically led the charge as it hammered through to a start to operations against key Gaddafi targets. One can only explain such enthusiasm by President Sarkozy’s faltering domestic standing.
Overwhelmed (willingly) by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, facing public anger over his handling of the economy and confronted with what looks to be brutal electoral losses ahead, it seems the French president has gone so far as to launch a foreign intervention to shore up his approval ratings.
What is one to say of David Cameron, whose campaign to 10 Downing Street championed fiscal restraint and blasted foreign military intervention as costly luxuries the United Kingdom could not afford? It seems the temptation to appear a world statesman was too great for the conservative.
Surely Barack Obama, concerned ‘above all’ with America’s standing in the region, should know that the very idea of American fighter planes carrying tomahawks anywhere near an Arab conflict is an image to be avoided at all costs? Finally, the Arab league, needless to say, served as the eternal rubber stamp to validate NATO’s intervention only to condemn it days later, realizing that Arab public opinion was hostile to the idea.
In the longer run there exist two major risks that NATO leaders must immediately examine if they are to bring any sort of legitimacy to their actions. There is the imperative to avoid the death of innocent civilians, which needless to say will only antagonize local populations and harvest support for Gaddafi as a ‘hero’ resisting imperialism. Furthermore, should the coalition fail to maintain any consensus amongst the country’s major tribal leaders, it runs the risk of reshaping Libya’s and indeed the region’s delicate power balances, thereby creating a chaos of greater proportions. Though there is a necessity to remove the Colonel and those loyal to him from power, are the methods being used tailored to the country and can they avoid the risks I have pointed to?
Therein lays the problem. Whilst we cannot and should not ever condone foreign military intervention neither should we support inaction. The world simply cannot stand by and watch as a population faces the full force of Gaddafi’s military arsenal. It’s hardly a secret to anyone now that neo-liberal, humanitarian interventionism is held hostage by geostrategic and political objectives which often render it illegitimate and certainly counter-productive. Though I am the first to understand and defend such a noble idea of aiding those unable to defend themselves, I certainly am all too aware of the real imperatives and double standards surrounding interventions’ modalities.
These double standards have left a well-wishing public opinion, myself included, skeptical of Western powers’ good faith in undertaking such interventions. Ivory Coast, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria are currently the theatre of blind murder by the authorities, and yet not much as one word is being said to remedy these injustices. Israel is a nation that has never heard so much as one condemnation for its aerial bombing of innocent civilians in Gaza and yet this is something Gaddafi will now pay for, and at a very high price.
Certainly all the states I mentioned earlier should be held accountable for their disproportionate use of force against their own and/or occupied populations through the creation of a no-fly zone. Or is it that some states are more sovereign than others? In short, it is far too evident that Western powers are only ready to act decisively when it suits their interests and those of their businesses and, sadly enough, at the expense of their own citizens’ taxes/opinions.
To paraphrase a friend’s wry comments, perhaps we are witnessing nothing more than a well conceived and well executed business plan. Step 1: Sell tyrant countless weapons, Step 2: hope or make it so that he becomes a threat, Step 3: destroy the arsenal just sold to him Step 4: provide the new regime with new weaponry. Step 5: reap the financial and geostrategic reward of being the ‘liberator’.
Imad Mesdoua writes weekly on African and Maghreb affairs for Ceasefire Magazine.