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Armchair Anti-Imperialism and Libya
Ian Williams
Foreign Policy in Focus
April 4, 2011
Ian Williams, senior analyst and long time contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, is a New York-based author and journalist. He is currently working on a new edition of his book, The UN For Beginners.
In the first part of a new FPIF Strategic Dialogue on the Libyan War, Ian Williams argues that the choice is clear: to support the popular uprising and not the unpopular tyrant. See Robert Naiman's anti-intervention argument here. Also see the two contributors respond to each other's arguments here.
(…) The calls to respect national sovereignty echo those of the despots of Africa and other regimes around the world who believe that it’s nobody’s business what a ruler does in his “own” country. Or even worse, such calls emulate the know-nothing isolationists on the right who do not care what happens to foreigners.
•The ad-hoc arguments marshaled against the intervention in Libya have included:
•The unconstitutionality of the president ordering military action
•The expense of military action at a time of cuts
•The invalidity of a UN resolution passed with abstentions
•The Security Council exceeding its authority by violating Libyan sovereignty
•The self-interested motives of those intervening
•The “discovery” of ex-al-Qaeda supporters among the rebels
•The failure of the West to intervene in other places where civilians face potential massacres such as Bahrain, Gaza, Ivory Coast, and Yemen
Many of these arguments are deployed to flesh out an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative that evades the crucial question: should the world let Libyan civilians die at the hands of a tyrant?
Gaddafi’s heavily armed forces were headed to Benghazi, in defiance of Security Council resolutions, to carry out acts against international humanitarian law. In fact, they had already started bombing and shelling the city indiscriminately and had a track record of massacres, mass arrests, and brutality in cities they had already occupied.
Intervention: Always Wrong?
(…) However, all the bluster notwithstanding, intervention, as now enshrined in the “Responsibility to Protect,” is now an established part of international law. The intervention in Libya is legal. Whether it was the right thing to do, or whether the United States should be involved, is a separate issue, as indeed is the permanently debatable but entirely domestic issue of presidential versus congressional prerogatives on the matter of war powers. (…)
Should We Oppose the U.S. Involvement?
As a rule of thumb, one should always be wary of U.S. intervention, and it is indeed always worth questioning both Washington’s motives and its methods.
But the positions of many of those who have reflexively opposed the implementation of the UN resolution on Libya do not really involve questioning. Rather they consist of a series of dogmatic assertions, which tend to distill down to the assertion that the United States is always wrong. Even a stopped clock is right occasionally, and their assertion of perpetual American malice and greed is a form of metaphysical mirror image of the equally untenable premise that the United States is always virtuous and right.
In the case of Libya, as in Kosovo, the United States was dragged unwillingly into its role by the Europeans and others and by the events on the ground, namely Gaddafi’s murderous threats and actual behavior. The United States had developed cynically good relations with Gaddafi. The West had no problems gaining access to Libyan oil. Regime change puts these relationships at risk.
Above all, the Security Council mandated this intervention, fulfilling its mandate to preserve peace and security, as interpreted by the General Assembly, which decided that that remit includes the failure of governments to protect their own people - or their persistence in attacking them.
The UN Resolution
UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was the classic smorgasbord that comes out of negotiations, with potential vetoes lurking in the background. To assuage the fears of those opposed to U.S. imperialism rightly concerned about what happened in Iraq (without a UN mandate), the resolution precluded troops on the ground. Sadly that left air operations as the only weapon. U.S. affection for massive fire power and force protection perhaps led to the unnecessarily massive bombardment of the first days. But on the other hand there has been no significant anti-aircraft action from Libya. Libyan geography has also lent itself to attacks on military columns strung out along the few roads with less risk of civilian casualties.
The mandate to protect civilians is at once limited - and flexible. If a regime shows no intention of stopping its repression and bloodshed, the mandate can't be fulfilled without getting rid of him.(…)
Why Libya?

(…) Frequently, opposition to intervention has depended, oddly, on the traditional “Israeli defense” at the UN. Israeli diplomats often argue that no one should criticize Israel when there are so many Arab states guilty of similar or worse atrocities. In this context, the West's silence and inaction – indeed, the complicity in the repression in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria – preclude any action in Libya.
In the real world, of course, such an all-or-nothing approach translates into “nothing.” In Libya, the deployment of aircraft, tanks, and artillery against civilians certainly goes a stage beyond the admittedly pernicious use of small arms in those other countries - not of course in Gaza, but we know the circumstances there.
In fact, the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya seems so far to have fulfilled the promise of the Responsibility to Protect. It averted the threatened massacre of the citizens of Benghazi by Gaddafi’s supporters. It has so far crippled the regime’s main strength, its heavy weaponry, so that the local Libyan opposition has been driving the former government forces out of city after city.  So far, unless you take the word of the mendacious Gaddafi regime, there have also been minimum civilian casualties.

Humanitarian intervention under the auspices of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is indeed a dangerous tool, subject to expedient abuse. Which is why its proponents insisted it needed a UN mandate. The Libyan intervention has that. The Security Council needs to monitor its execution carefully, and it could do that much more effectively if Moscow, in particular, would stop flip-flopping.
Behind Russian discomfort over R2P is its all-too-apparent relevance to Chechnya. But Moscow could have vetoed the resolution. Its abstention implicitly went along with the wording of the resolution, and its experience of the Gulf War resolutions taught it what to watch out for in terms of mission creep. If it stopped grandstanding and got more actively involved, it would be a better watchdog.
Gaddafi’s is clearly a failed regime. Its collapse in almost every population center when challenged demonstrates a lack of popular and institutional support. The provisional government in Benghazi has claimed democratic principles and has so far lived up to them. (…)

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