What is the objective of the British, French and US NATO military intervention in Libya? The UN security council resolution under which it operates, sanctions the defence of civilians against attacks by Gaddafi’s armed forces. It does not sanction regime change. At the time of writing (15 April) it is apparent that the divisions within the NATO camp have not been resolved. Neither is there any unity about objectives amongst the countries of the Arab League or the African Union. Until a few days ago it looked as though the Obama administration was determined to scale back US involvement, but this has now changed. Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron have declared that they will pursue military action until Gaddafi is toppled. It is almost certain that their declaration will further fracture this fissiparous alliance. When security council resolution 1973 was passed on 17 March, those promoting it seem to have imagined that a short, sharp shock aimed at Gaddafi’s forces then poised to capture the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, would suffice to turn the fortunes of war quickly in favour of the insurrectionists who would then resume their triumphant march on Tripoli. It was assumed that the ”no fly zone” would be enough to tip the balance and enable the rebels to deliver the coup de grace against the regime. It has not turned out that way.
It is not possible to predict how things will turn out in Libya. The various pressures on the regime may still hasten its downfall in the shorter rather than the longer term – within weeks perhaps. But this is far from certain. Particularly in light of the Iraq debacle it is going to be difficult for the Anglo-French-US protagonists to convince the more skeptical amongst their associates that the terms of resolution 1973 can be stretched to support regime change. Should they fail to do so, they will require another resolution from the security council and it is unlikely that the Russians and the Chinese will be prepared to support this. Then there is the question of the organization, unity and capacity of the rebels. Even if they receive the arms they need, are they capable of using them to the necessary effect? There is some indication that that underground oppositionist forces in Tripoli are stepping up attacks on the regime there, but the reports are unreliable. It is difficult to assess how much real support Gaddafi still enjoys in the capital. It is certainly a lot less than the regime’s propagandists would have us believe, but it is hardly negligible. Unless there are further large-scale defections, including from the armed forces, Gaddafi appears to be capable of sitting it out for quite some time. And that poses a real problem for the rebels and their NATO supporters. In openly committing themselves to regime change they are delivering a hostage to fortune. Should they fail to gain the degree of support they need in NATO and if the UN fails to deliver a second resolution, are the British, French and the US prepared to proceed regardless? If so, how will they proceed? Air power alone cannot achieve the desired objective. It is already apparent that the NATO strikes have resulted in growing numbers of civilian deaths, including amongst the rebel fighters they are supposed to be defending. Will combat forces be sent in to support the rebels? If so, it will be in breach of resolution 1973. Following Iraq and Afghanistan, how will this be received in the Arab and Muslim world?
The perception that the Western intervention is motivated by the need to ensure continued control of Libya’s oil resources is already widespread. When Gaddafi asserts that this is indeed the case, he speaks to a sympathetic audience beyond his frontiers. Libya’s experience of Western colonialism stretching back over one hundred years, may not be of much concern to Europeans or Americans, but it resonates with many in the former colonies of France, Italy and Britain. The claims of “liberal interventionists” to be motivated solely by the need to protect the innocent from the brutalities of rampaging dictators, or from the stifling repression of autocratic despots, seem completely hypocritical given the selective nature of their interventions. It is reasonable to ask, why Libya? Or, if Libya, why not Yemen, or Syria – or, indeed, Saudi Arabia? And, of course, if the answer should be that it is all a matter of degree and the urgent need to prevent a bloodbath, or genocide, then the obvious response is, why (as in the case of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere) continue to supply arms to the despots, enabling them to snuff out any hint of dissent from their long-suffering people. It is crystal clear that the choice of candidates for “liberal intervention” is primarily a matter of “realpolitik”: we intervene when and where it is considered to be in our national interest to do so. This goes back a long way. In the 1870’s Disraeli’s realpolitik trumped Gladstone’s moral-liberal appeal to intervene against the Ottomans’ massacre of Greek Christians in the Balkans. Turkey was a bulwark against Russian expansion, which threatened the British Empire, so it was necessary to turn a blind eye to the atrocities.
However, the case of Libya poses some difficult questions. It is almost certainly true that prior to March 17. Gaddafi was poised to crush the rebels in their Benghazi stronghold. The balance of military forces was decisively in his favour. Everyone who had been inspired by the rolling Arab revolution, which had already resulted in the ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, was filled with apprehension at the very real prospect of the Libyan uprising being crushed. Gaddafi’s eccentricities and self-proclaimed revolutionary credentials could not disguise the fact that his was a brutally repressive regime that tolerated no dissent. His close relations with radical forces and governments in Latin America and his association with left-wing anti-imperialist forces in the Third World, in no way excuses the deeply repressive nature of his regime. Does it follow from this that supporters of the revolutionary movement in the Arab world should have supported the Western intervention?
In attempting to address this question it may be instructive to consider it within a broader context: in what circumstances, if at all, may it be justifiable to intervene militarily in another country’s affairs? One possible answer is that it is justifiable only if such intervention is authorized by the United Nations – that is, by a vote in the security council. An obvious problem with this is that the use of the veto by any of the permanent members can (and frequently has) prevented action. Those who consider the UN to be the only legitimate voice of “the international community” will accept this as the best of a bad job. Opponents of the Iraq war argued persuasively that, in the absence of a UN resolution specifically sanctioning the invasion, the war was illegal. That was the view of the great majority of international lawyers. The mass demonstrations against the war stressed its illegality. It would have not have been so easy to mobilize such a broad-based opposition had there been a clear-cut UN vote for military intervention. It is significant that the Stop the War coalition has been unable to muster any substantial support against the NATO intervention in Libya. An obvious reason for this is that the Left is fully behind the revolutionary movements in the Arab world and supports the opposition to the Gaddafi regime. But this has resulted in a dilemma. It was clear that the internal opposition in Libya was not capable of achieving there what had been achieved in Tunisia and Egypt. By early March there was no doubt that without some form of outside assistance the rebels would be defeated and there could be little doubt about the nature of the fate that awaited them in Benghazi.
In a rare appearance on BBC Television’s Newsnight, Noam Chomsky, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, was asked whether he would support intervention by the Western powers in support of the rebels. He said that he would not. When asked why not, he replied that the rebels had not requested outside support. The implication of his answer was that had they requested it, his answer might have been different. Shortly afterwards, they made clear that they would welcome support from NATO. Almost certainly Chomsky’s view, shared by most on the Left, is that military intervention by US imperialism and NATO should always be opposed because it is always motivated by self interest – that is, the interests of corporate capitalism. This is a very persuasive argument strongly supported by much historical evidence. However, it does not adequately address the situation in Libya at the beginning of March. It can be stated in stark terms: if the alternatives are (a) the complete defeat of the insurrection and a likely counter-revolutionary bloodbath, or (b) a NATO military intervention which prevents this and restores the initiative to the rebels, what should be the response of those who support the Arab revolution? This is the dilemma that faces the Left.
Is anything to be learned from the history of the twentieth century? There have been many situations where the Left has called for and supported military intervention to further progressive causes. In 1932 Leon Trotsky, then in exile after his expulsion from Soviet Russia, argued that, in the event of a Nazi seizure of power in Germany, the Red Army should intervene to overthrow a fascist regime that would be a mortal enemy of the working class and the Soviet Union. During the Spanish Civil War the Left condemned the non-intervention policy of the British and French governments and demanded that they respond to the appeal of the Spanish republic for military aid. In 1978 the Left supported Tanzanian intervention to topple Idi Amin in Uganda and likewise in 1979 supported the military intervention by Vietnam to overthrow the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. The Vietnamese intervention was condemned by the United States. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Cuba sent thousands of troops to fight alongside the MPLA in Angola against US backed mercenaries and South African interventionists. So, non-intervention has never been a universal principle of the Left.
The principle has been that military intervention is justified in specific circumstances where it is in support of a progressive struggle for freedom and democracy against a repressive regime. Military intervention in Third World countries by imperialist and post-imperialist powers is almost always motivated by the interests of the corporate power elites that rule those countries and dominate the military blocs to which they belong. In the case of Libya, the NATO intervention, while it may have provided an opportunity for the Libyan rebels to regain their initiative, will, if it is prolonged, serve only to lock an alternative government into the embrace of the Western powers. Therefore a post-Gaddafi regime must demand the complete withdrawal of NATO forces from the country and insist on complete economic and political independence.