Libya: Military Intervention Thwarts Humanitarian Objectives

Many years ago, in a situation that still produces much pain, close friends were thinking through treatment for their gravely ill child. They had exhausted conventional and experimental therapies; their doctors were urging them to do what they could to make their son feel comfortable and loved. Then, suddenly, after years of suffering, our friends had smiles on their faces. A cure was available! For a brief moment, I shared their joy but then realized that we were victims of quackery. I had no reasonable alternative to offer them, but I knew that the quacks and their expensive cure would only rob our friends of their last memories of their son. That pain has resurfaced as I contemplate how to respond as a progressive organizer to the recent events in Libya.

More directly, I believe that armed Western intervention in Libya will come to no good, but have no alternative to offer other than for a firm belief in a non-military course. Again, I can only offer the sure knowledge that Western quackery will result in more investment in military solutions, alter the strategic calculus in such a way to promote violence, and foreclose on non-military alternatives. There are inherent failures, serious institutional logics and relationships that contradict the outcomes that “humanitarian” military interventionists say they want.**

The peace-movement conversation is made difficult by the fact that real lives are at stake. Just as I am certain that intervention will ultimately cost more lives, it is pretty clear that Kadafi has few qualms about vanquishing and exterminating his compatriots. The arguments that follow are based on my reading of the institutional dynamics and self-interested choices of the different parties. It does not take another obvious and valid entry point into this discussion: the hypocrisy that selects Libya for armed intervention over say, Bahrain, the Congo or elsewhere.

Failure One: Military Intervention Promotes Brinksmanship Rather than Reconciliation

Contending forces—be they from the ruling class or activists organizing from below—make strategic choices based on the quantity and type of the resources they have at their disposal. If they cannot count on military mechanisms, then they will pursue a path that favors people’s power and negotiation. If instead they believe that they have the military assets of the superpowers backing them, they will likely choose an adventurist course. A perverse logic is set in motion: endangered civilians make the propaganda case needed to increase the likelihood of military intervention.

Imagine instead another set of expectations were that military intervention is unlikely. The incentive is for an opposition to shift towards the building of moral power, the fostering of people-to-people relationships, and seeking mechanisms for long-term, non-violent resistance. Indeed this has been the long, albeit uncertain, arc of Palestinian resistance. This kind of challenge to dictatorships favors accountability of the resistance movement to the people.

In contrast to this model, elite-led breakaways most often do not have a relationship with the grassroots and are more likely adept at the ways of power—accustomed as they are to “seeing like a state”—and find it easier to marshal the resources available from foreign powers. This is more likely to see the imposition of a very limited, “low-intensity” or neo-liberal democracy that is more responsive to the foreign patrons than the people. Think of Hamid Karzai, the Somali government, or even Aristide’s second coming courtesy of Bill Clinton. It is instructive that even the uncertain prospect of eventual American withdrawal from Afghanistan has Hamid Karzai engaged in negotiations with the Taliban.

Moving from the contending parties to the global level: imagine that there is a responsible international community that familiar with the regional, clan and sub-national cleavages in Libya; it is aware of the African Union’s interest in preserving national boundaries drawn by the colonialists; it knows that Libya is home to both Libyan nationals and refugees from all over Africa; it recognizes the regional interest in the Maghreb of building peaceful solutions, especially given the conflict of the Saharawi people. This situation would have quickly produced a serious attempt at achieving a mediated solution.

Indeed, one such solution was dramatically offered by Hugo Chavez. It was accepted… by Kadafi but not by the Bengazi Council. Now it should be noted that the Bolivarian president was seen by many as an ally of Kadafi. However, deeply knowledgeable of international politics, Hugo Chavez was not offering a personal intervention but the building of a contact group consisting of many parties, presumably among them governments hostile to Kadafi. At the same time that the Chavez initiative was being aired, the US was moving in precisely the opposite direction: encouraging an end-game mindset in the Bengazi Council; positioning its military assets off Libya; crafting a Security Council coalition to seek regime change in the name of protecting civilians.

This maneuvering created the following incentives: For Kadafi – move fast to eliminate the democracy movement and its sundry elites; For the Bengazi Council – quickly consolidate as much territory and spurn any attempts at mediation. Hey presto: humanitarian crisis!

Failure Two: Military Intervention Reinforces Military Institutions

As anti-military-base activists around the world are discovering, US bases are sticky. Once they go in, they stay. The same is true when the US Government organizes new institutions. Indeed, one does not need the insights of the small-government types to recognize this. New bureaucracies create a constituency interested in perpetuating their missions (and therewith, their share of the public largesse). They are also paid to promote their mission to the public. In addition to the people directly employed by the institution, there is a network of lobbyists, suppliers, contractors, governments, and individuals who will also develop a stake in the “mission.” This is the institutional logic that military historian Andrew Bacevich and political scientist Chalmers Johnson have separately recounted for this generation’s peace-movement.

Illustrating this general logic, the Libyan intervention represents expansion of the US Africa Command: turning from the so-called “smart” power of public diplomacy to good old fashioned blood and gore, as the New York Times has observed. However “limited” the Libyan mission may turn out to be, the momentum is shifting toward continued active interventions in Africa. It has added momentum for an ECOWAS intervention in Cote D’Ivoire. Military intervention begets military intervention.

Failure Three: Military Intervention Undermines Rule of Law

George Bush’s and Barack Obama’s shared Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, surely heartened many in the peace movement when he seemed to draw at least a few rational lessons from the Iraq and Afghan tragedies ordered by both of his employers. To be sure it was limited counsel and not a full repudiation of either of these ongoing occupations. His colleague Hilary Clinton however seemed to reprise a predecessor, Madeline Albright, when she engineered a UN Security Council resolution that privileges military force first and negotiation later. Although the resolution does not authorize the occupation of Libya, its economic measures achieve the same impact for a country dependent on its export income rather than a strong domestic market. Further, the country’s future is effectively trusteed to a UN-appointed experts group and not to the Libyan people.

It is worth noting that the resolution does reference measures from regional organizations, the African Union and the Arab League. However neither entity convened full meetings to authorize this resolution.

Furthermore, the most appropriate regional entity, the Maghreb Arab Union, is in disarray over pre-existing conflicts that are of comparable scale in civilian costs, particularly as they pertain to the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and its Western-supported occupier, Morocco.

Barely had the ink dried on the UN Resolution, when both Arab League and African Union presidents began to express their concerns that the Western armed actions were exceeding the scope of their mandate. Even with these doubts about actions, it is worth noting that the resolution provides no mechanisms to hold accountable those parties claiming to implement it. Rather than a resolution to uphold the rule of law, it is designed to grant impunity to the resolution’s self-appointed executioners.

Another obvious irony is that the resolution explicitly refers matters to the International Criminal Court: the same institution from jurisdiction of which the resolution’s lead author and “implementer,” the United States Government, excludes both itself and its armed forces!

Western debates over command structures also make it plain that the resolution does not designate any party to be held accountable. In this sense, George Bush is preferable to Obama in that his occupation of Iraq made clear that the United States should be held accountable for the fate of the Iraqi people.

Rather than representing a return to international consensus-building and UN mandates, the resolution’s cynical origins demonstrates the limits of the emerging Obama Doctrine. It is not “equal partnership,” it is an alliance that pretends that Qatar, a country with 350,000 citizens, is the military partner (representing the Arab world) of the United States, France and the United Kingdom!

Failure Four: Military Intervention Kills… Contradicting Its “Mandate”

If we are to believe the news, not an easy task, civilian casualties have been relatively light so far. Unfortunately, there are no uninterested, let alone definitive, news sources. Furthermore, the reportage that does exist demonstrates that the interventionists have shown no interest in minimizing the causalities among those people it considers to be soldiers supportive of Kadafi. If we are to believe the reports about Kadafi, then many of these people should be considered his victims and not accomplices. In the brutal calculus that the military uses to determine deserving and undeserving victims, many ordinary Libyans will die from both the anticipated sanctions and the grinding warfare that will ensue when armed factions, now too weak to prevail over the other, constantly battle for the upper hand. Remember also that to bring peace, the interventionists are turning to the same people who gave us the “better to have the terrorists fight over there than over here” argument!

But there is another disconcerting element in the logic of those who would appeal to the United States to minimize civilian casualties. Firstly and notoriously, the US military refuses to provide its estimates of “civilian” casualties in Iraq. Secondly, from Afghanistan and Pakistan, we know that it is willing to kill entire families and clans when it believes that it can kill a foe using a “precision” weapon! In other words, interventionists are asking for the Libyan people to be protected by a country that says, “We will not let you know how many people we kill, but you can be certain that we are willing to kill civilians if we believe it to be necessary!” To the interventionists, we must ask, “How will you know how many people you will have saved, if the people implementing your mandate will not provide any information regarding the numbers they will surely kill?”

Failure Five: Military Intervention is also Destructive of the Truth

In an age where the US military has illegally used government funds to target the American people with its own propaganda (see this SourceWatch piece), we lack the democratic ability to hold the military accountable even if we believed in the efficacy of its deployment.

Under the influence of Joseph Nye’s arguments for “smart” and “soft” power, the government has greatly expanded the gray area between official propaganda and news. From the overthrow of Eastern European governments often using social media and the deliberate creation of phony online personas, the American people cannot distinguish between authentic Middle Eastern voices and US propaganda.

Only the slow building of people-to-people solidarity will allow trust to emerge. For example, if the Libya crisis swelled refugee communities on the Egyptian border, other alternatives to resisting Kadafi would have emerged and grassroots interchanges between these communities and the rest of the world grown. Now however we are dependent on the camouflage-clad soldiers of empire as our envoys.

Failure Six: Military Intervention Drives the Majority Supporting Human Rights toward the Militarists and Away from the Peace Movement

For the peace movement, it should be an empowering fact that most Americans strongly support human rights abroad. Indeed, it is one of the bulwarks that raises the threshold on the use of force abroad. It is one of the few remaining terrains that the peace movement can use to challenge rationales for war. By turning to the US military to protect civilians, we cede the human-rights terrain to a powerful propaganda machine, and restore a measure of nobility to an institution whose Iraq and Afghan adventures have justifiably tarnished.

Ironically, the timing of this turn to the military comes at precisely the moment when politically engineered budget deficits provide grassroots activists with an opportunity to challenge the military budget. Now however, the humanitarian interventionists have provided a justification for the US’s outsized military spending.

Concluding Observations

Many other issues and topics deserve elaboration in this conversation, not the least of which is the racism underlying much of the early propaganda about Libya and “the Africans” but these will be addressed in a later editorial. Unfortunately this conversation is far from over.

In our dangerous world born of corporate globalization, environmental destruction and rampant militarism, the day is not far off when we will have to make common cause with our interventionist comrades. Hopefully the late but furious debate over Libya will not question their intentions but actually help to think through the institutional logics set in motion by our varied choices. For our non-interventionist—but sometimes somnolent—peace movement, the burden is on us to identify, build and adequately fund the work that sets forth a truly global grassroots solidarity capable of challenging dictators and militarists at home and abroad. We have failed so far. As the people of Wisconsin and Egypt have shown us, failure today does not mean failure tomorrow.


Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of Boston-based Mass. Global Action (http://www.MassGlobalAction.org). This note is offered as a response to progressives who are advocating military intervention in Libya. He thanks his friends in the Greater Boston-area peace movement including Ted German, Marilyn Levin, Marilyn Frankenstein, Simon Rios, Weimin Tchen and Charngchi Way for sharing their varied perspectives on this issue. He may be contacted at suren [at] massglobalaction.org.

** By “institutional logics and relationships,” I am referring to the formal and informal “rules of the game” and relationships that create incentives and disincentives for particular choices.

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