Libya Intervention – An Audit

In his recent interview with the New Left Project, Richard Seymour argues that, while an assessment of the costs and benefits of military intervention in Libya “must be taken seriously”, the supporters of such interventions generally fail to produce any “serious accounting” or “audit” capable of this task. What follows is a fairly rough-and-ready attempt to conduct such an audit. It is thoroughly provisional and incomplete, and would benefit from additional input: comments clarifying or qualifying the points raised here are particularly welcome.


I come to this topic without any firm or decisive opinions of my own. Both interventionist and non-interventionist positions – when properly qualified – appear to me to have valid and compelling points in their favour. Resolving these conflicts – if this is indeed possible – seems to require a number of things. Firstly, a clarification of which relevant principles should be brought to bear. This is undoubtedly easier said than done, as many morally-relevant factors impinge on one another, or cannot be weighed against each other on the same scale. Secondly, a review of the evidence – made harder by the sheer extent of available information, and by its relative inaccessibility: important pieces of information are routinely buried rather than foregrounded. Thirdly, some accommodation between varying interpretations of this evidence, in particular regarding levels of likely risk.


Questions of principle


The relevant questions of principle considered here draw on various lines of ethical thought: the criteria for just wars; intended, likely and risked consequences; rules of thumb; and current preferences – among others.


George Monbiot and philosopher Paula Casal list the following criteria for the legitimate use of force:


“The violence contemplated must be a response to a life and death situation: in which death or grievous bodily harm is threatened by a failure to act. All other means of achieving your objectives must have been exhausted. The violence used must be the minimum necessary to achieve your ends. It must have a high likelihood of success. It must reduce, rather than increase, the sum total of violent conflict.”


To this we can add some other serious morally relevant considerations. How much control do we realistically exercise over the perpetrators? What are the motives of the perpetrators? What is the track record of the perpetrators? How much reliable knowledge of the situation is realistically available to us? Do we have the consent of the people whose lives we may be putting at risk? Is it legal? Does it preclude other actions, or divert resources from other areas?


From this we can derive ten broad, morally-relevant areas to consider:


    1.  Ultimate motives of perpetrators


    2.  Specific intended consequences of perpetrators


    3.  Likely and risked consequences


    4.  Consent of the victims


    5.  Legality


    6.  How much we can control


    7.  How much we can really know


    8.  Questions of last resort


    9.  The minimising of violence


    10. Opportunity costs


Clearly these areas can often relate to one another in significant ways. The limits to our knowledge of the situation may preclude firmer judgments of likely consequences, for example; risked consequences might be overruled by the consent of the victims.


Having acknowledged these difficulties, let us take each of these areas in turn.


1. Motives of the perpetrators


i. human rights?


This is one of the easiest considerations to clarify: noble or benign motives can be ruled out from the start. The failure to intervene – as well as active intervention to exacerbate and enable atrocities – in similar cases indicate that human rights do not motivate the perpetrators. Massacres are currently being visited on their people by US-supported regimes in Bahrain and Yemen. The US client state in Israel has launched indiscriminate attacks on Gaza in recent days, while a recent US drone strike in Pakistan killed at least 40 civilians. At the height of the protests sweeping the region, David Cameron accompanied arms dealers flogging their wares to despotic regimes across the Middle East, in the face of reports that many were using arms previously supplied by UK and Western companies. No intervention is currently being suggested in the case of the Ivory Coast’s escalating violence.


Perhaps the starkest example of rhetorical double-standards is the Israeli massacre of over a thousand Gazan civilians in 2008-9, for which the US provided arms and diplomatic cover. As journalist Howard Friel points out, Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice has continued to provide cover for Israeli crimes throughout 2009-10, including voting against a resolution “deploring those policies and practices of Israel that violate the human rights of the Palestinian people and other Arabs of the occupied territories”.


It has recently come to light – via a senior diplomatic source speaking to Craig Murray, the UK’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan – that the current crackdown in Bahrain, assisted by Saudi troops, was given a green light by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In return, she secured the Arab League’s support for a no-fly zone in Libya.


ii. what we can rule in


If noble motives can be ruled out, what is the motive in the case of Libya? This is hard to pin down at present. Nevertheless, there are some obvious clues. The overall context is quite clear. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “[t]he overriding concern for control over oil has dominated British policy for a century and US policy for almost that long. Of course that will remain.”


Cambridge history scholar Ali Khan notes that “Libya is exceedingly important geo-strategically – it is on the southern borders of Europe – as well as economically – it supplies a large percentage of oil to many European as well as Asian countries.” In 2009, the business editor of the Independent on Sunday noted that oil-related issues of “national security coupled with energy scarcity and price” explain “why bringing Libya in from the cold was, and is, so crucial”. Accordingly, the Guardian reports, Chinese opposition to intevention “reflected genuine unease” about destabilising its major oil supplier. As Owen Jones comments,


“The planes dropping bombs over Libya are using Italian bases. Italy depends on Libya for a quarter of its oil. Do we really think Italy – which until very recently backed Gaddafi to the hilt because of this very reason – is acting without this in mind?”


As Gilbert Achcar of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies observes, Gaddafi was hardly considered hostile to the West, maintaining warm relations with commercial, political and strategic interests. Yet the problem now may be his increasing potential for independence. Chomsky cites the Wall Street Journal’s opinion that the West “hasn’t yet figured out how to control the new rising elements; the assumption is of course that we have to control them”. Gaddafi has now become increasingly isolated in the region and internationally, and the West may have figured that he is both dispensable and more trouble than he is worth. SeveralGuardian writers cite “analysis suggesting that if Gaddafi survived the revolt he would revert to his old anti-western, terrorism-sponsoring ways and become a real threat to US interests” as a major factor in prompting the decision for intervention.


SOAS lecturer in Middle Eastern politics Laleh Khalili comments that:


“The Europeans and North Americans were happy to cooperate with and support Qaddafi as long as he fought Al-Qa’ida (however brutally) and provided access to resources; but he has always proved unreliable and unpredictable and even at the height of the hugging-and-kissing times, the Europeans were wary of him. They would much rather have a regime in power that is more predictable and “stable”, even if it is as brutal as the Qaddafi regime.”


Media Lens cite one 2007 Wikileaks cable hinting in this direction – noting that:


“those who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector that could jeopardize efficient exploitation of Libya’s extensive oil and gas reserves. …”


One oil and gas trade publication supports this – telling readers:


“Libya’s upstream had begun to lose some of its lustre before the onset of violence in the country, and even a swift end to the current rebellion presents risks to foreign operators in the North African state. … Ongoing violence in Libya has begun to raise questions about the way forward for international oil companies (IOCs) in the restive North African state. Operators face an uncertain future even if a swift end to violence sees the Qadhafi regime remain in power.”


According to the Middle East Reseach and Information Project, leaving the situation alone was beginning to look unappealing to Western interests:


“The balance of argument in the corridors of power was shifting to the judgment that neither Qaddafi nor the rebels would triumph: Rather, the most likely outcomes were a war of attrition or a partial regime reconquest bedevilled by a prolonged insurgency. … At the same time, the US was swinging to the view already held by France and other key European Union states: Such outcomes were intolerable, partly because oil flows might be interrupted, but more importantly because migrant flows might spike as Libya morphed into that Washington bugbear, the “failed state.”


The Financial Times has also noted the upward pressure on oil prices if Saudi production falls or “instability” spreads in the region. In the longer term, this threatens Western economic interests, as business reporter William Alden notes:


“If [oil] prices come back down after a short while, the impact on the U.S. economy is relatively limited,” said Gregory Daco, a senior economist in the U.S. macroeconomics group at IHS Global Insight, an economic and financial analysis firm. “However, if prices do stay at a higher level for six months to a year, the impact on growth can be relatively important.”