Watching the Arab revolutions from afar has been (and still is) an exhilarating experience. The last few months have completely transformed the Middle East and the Western stereotypes of those who live there. However, as the pictures of the jubilant protesters of Tahrir Square give way to the horrific stories emanating from Tripoli, Zawiyah, Benghazi or Ras Lanuf the West is forced to ask itself the question: what should we do?
At first it looked as if the rebels would be victorious with no outside help and that Gaddafi was going to go the way of Ben Ali and Mubarak. But as his forces begin to make ground, and as the Arab League, Gulf Co-operation Council and the Libyan opposition call for the imposition of a UN-backed no-fly zone, Western powers are forced to think seriously about becoming more directly involved.
The question of military involvement is an extremely difficult one, particularly considering the history of Western involvement in the Middle East, and I do not intend to look at every aspect of the debate. However, there are three points that I think are worth considering.
A common argument that has been made by those opposing military intervention in Libya is that this will inevitably turn into another Iraq, with Western forces being bogged down in an unwinnable and unpopular war with no end in sight.
This is a flawed argument. The Iraq war was a full scale military invasion and occupation. It was an attempt to radically transform an entire country through force. Discussions regarding military intervention in Libya have so far focussed on very limited objectives, ranging from arming the rebels to imposing a no-fly zone.
True, limited intervention can sometimes turn into a full scale invasion. The Iraq war arguably began in 1998 with the imposition of a no-fly zone in the northern Kurdish regions. But this is not always the case. Intervention in Sierra Leone and Kosovo did not result in perpetual war.
However, having said that, maybe Iraq does provide us with some useful guidance on what to do. As John F. Kerry points out in the Washington Post, in 1991 George H. W. Bush exhorted the Iraqi people to “take matters into their hands to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” Iraqi Shiites, Kurds and Marsh Arabs subsequently rose up expecting support from the West but were abandoned to their fate as the Ba’athist forces crushed the rebellion.
Libya is not Iraq. But when considering the question of military intervention this precedent must be considered, especially as twelve years after we allowed the slaughter of Iraqi rebels we found ourselves back in Baghdad wondering quite how things had come to this.
A Clash of Civilisations
Another argument against military intervention is the idea that more Western involvement in a Muslim country would act as a recruiting agent for Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda. The argument suggests that Western involvement in North Africa would be seen as an attack by Christians on Muslims and yet another example of colonialism.
This seems to presume that Muslims the world over think as one; that the umma is a homogenous entity that reacts in a simple and predictable way to Western intervention. This is clearly nonsensical and seems to draw more on Orientalist stereotypes and the wishful thinking of Islamists than it does on the reality of a diverse and complex Muslim world.
It is true that there will be those who reject Western involvement in Libya. Al-Qaeda would no doubt have a field day the moment Western forces go anyway near Tripoli. However, the idea that Muslims who disagree with Western policy necessarily join al-Qaeda is really only true in the minds of those Western commentators who are hostile to Islam.
In fact, failure to act may be more beneficial to radical Islamists. As Mustafa Gheriani, spokesman for the revolutionary national council, points out,
“The west is missing the point. The revolution was started because people were feeling despair from poverty, from oppression. Their last hope was freedom. If the west takes too long – where people say it’s too little, too late – then people become a target for extremists who say the west doesn’t care about them.
Most people in this country are moderates and extremists have not been able to penetrate them. But if they get to the point of disillusionment with the west there will be no going back.”
Also, as Jon Stewart of the Daily Show quite rightly points out, our foreign policy should not be conducted on what extremist groups want. In the case of Libya, the decision to intervene should be decided on what the rebels want and what is practical.
Co-opting the revolution
In a rather predictable piece, Seamus Milne of The Guardian wrote that intervention in Libya would “be a knife at the heart of the revolutionary process now sweeping the Arab world.” The idea (also voiced by others) is that by intervening the West would be co-opting the Libyan revolution, undermining the rebels and throwing water on the revolutionary fervor that is blowing across the Middle East.
I recognise the danger here. If the West gets too closely involved then the story will soon become more about our military forces than the Libyans themselves. If a Westerner is killed then it is very probable that his or her picture will be on all of the front pages while the many Arabs who have been murdered by Gaddafi’s supporters will be relegated to a statistic.
However, it is important to remember that at the moment we are talking about limited military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone or sending arms to the rebels, something that is supported by the Arab League, the Gulf Co-operation Council, and, more importantly, the rebels.
Whatever we do, it must be in a supporting role and Western politicians must resist the temptation (I admit this would be difficult for them) to treat any victory as belonging to us.
More importantly though, the idea that Western intervention in Libya would undermine the revolutionary forces that are taking to the streets across the Middle East is a doubtful one. The peoples of the Middle East have mobilised in unprecedented numbers to challenge the regions autocracies. It is unlikely that they will suddenly stand down. Yes, many of the governments will play the anti-imperialist card. I suspect though that they have played this too many times; it certainly has not done much to help Gaddafi.
If events in Libya have an impact beyond its borders it will be if Gaddafi defeats the rebellion. This will have a demoralising effect on revolutionaries across the region and will no doubt embolden other autocrats who will realise that they can brutalise their own populations without much concern for what the West might say or do. They will learn the same lesson Saddam Hussein learnt once he had crushed the uprisings of the early nineties: that the Western longing for “stability” generally trumps concerns for democracy and human rights.
The question of whether to intervene or not is a complex one. There are many serious and practical considerations to be taken into account. While I support the idea of military intervention as a way of aiding the rebels, I also recognise that this might end up being counter-productive. Whatever we decide we must be as sure as it is possible to be that our actions are of significant benefit to those who have suffered for so long, in part due to the West’s realpolitik stance.
However, what also should be taken into account is what happens if Gaddafi defeats the rebellion. Can we really just stand by and allow him to make good on his threat to “cleanse Libya house by house”? Do we really want Libya to be added to the criminally long list of massacres that we have stood by and watched? I don’t know.