The strong case for the Libyan intervention, and two reservations

OpenDemocracy has published online two excellent articles stating the case for the current humanitarian intervention in Libya from a left-of-centre, reasoned and humane point of view: one by Anthony Barnett (the founder of openDemocracy and now the Co-Editor of its UK section, Our Kingdom) and the other by Professor Juan Cole, entitled “An Open Letter to the Left on Libya“.  Both should be required reading for anyone, especially anyone on the left, who has misgivings about this operation. Some, but not all, of the comments appended to them are also helpful and informative. I have two reservations about their comprehensively argued case for the defence, which I have set out in the following comment on the articles:

These are two excellent and persuasive articles, if I may respectfully say so. I offer just two reservations. First, I see no reason why Britain needed to take part in this particular military intervention. The facts that the UK is a permanent member of the Security Council and co-sponsored and voted for the UN resolution can’t imply an obligation to take part in every activity approved by the Council; we were major contributors to the Iraq intervention (unfortunately!) and are still major contributors in Afghanistan; our defence resources are badly over-stretched already; and the most vulnerable people in our own country are being subjected to an almost unprecedentedly savage programme of cuts and retrenchment by a cynically ideology-driven government. Against that background, for us to spend millions of pounds on an open-ended commitment in Libya seems to me impossible to justify, and quite unnecessary. There are plenty of other countries willingly taking part in the Libyan intervention and our contribution is very far from being crucial to the success of the operation (whatever ‘success’ might mean).

Secondly, I have a nasty feeling that the very first operative paragraph of the UN Security Council’s authorising resolution, UNSCR 1973, is in danger of being overlooked in the coalition’s enthusiasm for knocking out Gaddafi’s tanks and guns in support of the rebellion:

“1. Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians; …”

What steps are we taking to seek a settlement involving the departure of Gaddafi, a ceasefire and the establishment of a transitional authority for the whole of Libya including representatives of Gaddafi’s tribe (and perhaps even of his existing government, other than himself) as well as of the rebels, so that the killing can stop sooner rather than later? The Turks are said to be trying to mediate with Gaddafi, and I suppose the UN Secretary-General must be doing something to try to implement the primary purpose of the resolution — a cease-fire and end to attacks on civilians — but I haven’t seen any UK or US government activity in that area. If there’s even the faintest possibility of a settlement (perhaps with a UN-sponsored peace-keeping force from middle eastern and African countries, predominantly Muslim) instead of continuing the bombing and rocketing until there’s no-one left standing, we surely should be making every effort to explore it. Meanwhile the mission to protect civilians is visibly morphing into a military campaign in support of the rebels. This risks losing the invaluable support, or anyway acquiescence, of much of the Arab world as well as imposing strains on the cohesion of both NATO and the EU.

But I salute both the Barnett and the Cole articles as definitive and watertight statements of the case for this particular humanitarian intervention.


2 Responses

  1. Brian says:

    Anthony Barnett, author of the first of the two articles referred to in my post (above), has posted the following comment on openDemocracy in reply to mine:

    Thanks very much Brian. I suspect that those at today’s London Conference are going for regime change as fast as possible to save getting bogged down in a stalemate. If the Italians could get the Gaddafi clan a safe, warm bolt hole and persuade them to go I suspect everyone would be relieved. But the clan may well sense that reluctance to carry on is their opportunity to secure a stalemate. On the other hand if they run out of munitions a collapse could be quite rapid.

  2. Phil says:

    Like Anthony Barnett, I remember the invasion of Democratic Kampuchea; the invasion of Amin’s Uganda by Tanzania, too. Sometimes regime change is a damn good thing, and international law just has to catch up. But I’d be a lot happier about the current operation in Libya if it followed that template rather than being another US-led Western intervention. Egypt’s refusal to get involved, in particular, rings a loud warning bell. Similarly, I felt Juan Cole’s piece was undermined by his indifference to the ‘anti-imperialist’ argument – invoking the International Brigades was just silly.
    On a more positive note, I recommend Mary Kaldor’s piece, which combines support for the principle of humanitarian intervention with a recognition that what’s going on now doesn’t have the characteristics of a humanitarian intervention – and, sadly, is unlikely to produce the results of one.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Phil. I don’t, though, agree that the invasions of Cambodia and Uganda, in plain breach of international law even if eventually beneficial in humanitarian terms, would have been a better model for Libya than the intervention authorised by UNSCR 1973. The claim that there’s some kind of moral rulebook which supersedes the legal rules governing the use of force in international relations as laid down in the UN Charter strikes me as extremely dangerous. Every would-be aggressive predator will always claim to be acting in obedience to some higher moral imperative, exactly as Blair did when cheer-leading the attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 and as Blair and Bush jnr. did in attacking Iraq in 2003. It’s no more acceptable for a country’s government to resort to the use of force without the authority of the Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter (other than in self-defence) than it is for you or me to break into a neighbour’s house and take away her computer without a legally issued search warrant, or to kidnap a stranger on the grounds that you reasonably believe her to be a burglar without immediately calling the police. In both kinds of case the rule of law is and must be sacrosanct. Otherwise we’re back in the jungle and the weakest go to the wall.

    On a different point, I agree that Mary Kaldor’s preferred alternative to the Res. 1973 action (which you quote with approval), namely a UN peace-keeping force on the ground in Libya comprising mainly or only peace-keepers from Arab and other regional countries, would have been far better than an almost entirely western intervention; but I’m afraid there was never the slightest possibility of such a thing happening in time to save Benghazi, and almost nothing could have been worse than NATO troops on the ground in Libya.

    It seems to me that intervention to pre-empt a probable blood-bath in Benghazi was right and necessary (although there was never any need for Britain to take part in it); that the form it is taking, as prescribed by the UN resolution, is probably the least bad that was available; that to allow mission creep to turn the intervention into a campaign to remove Gaddafi (and the whole of his clan and all his supporters?) will be a disaster of Iraq-like dimensions; that there is no evidence so far for Mary Kaldor’s claim that the rebels are pure-hearted democrats or that if they were to gain control of the whole country (which looks increasingly unlikely), their treatment of those they have defeated would be any better than that which Gaddafi’s forces were about to mete out to the Benghazi people; and that continuing (mainly western) military intervention to the point where it freezes the civil war into a stalemate with indefinite low-level violence and de facto partition will be a thoroughly bad outcome; and that the time has probably come for NATO to report to the Security Council that the mission to protect civilians from attack has been accomplished and that it’s now for the Libyans themselves, with whatever help they can get from their Arab and other Muslim brothers, to work out their own salvation. If this means the survival of Gaddafi with some degree of power and control, it just goes to show how foolish certain western leaders have been to demonise him and commit themselves to securing his removal while lacking the wherewithal to achieving it.