Italy's invasion of Libya, ten years into the war on Afghanistan, and exactly 8 years after the Iraq War, the West has launched yet another "humanitarian intervention", again in Libya. These have been justified on the basis of tyrants slaughtering their people, the West having a “responsibility to protect”, sections of the resistance calling for or supporting intervention, and support by the United Nations Security Council (except for the Iraq War). The past decade of experience shows the limits of these justifications, while exposing the real context of these various interventions: growing inter-imperialist rivalry, sharpened by the economic crisis, and threatened by popular movements.
2001 Contradictions of US imperialism, and complicity of the UN
Project for a New American Century put the case like this:
Just 9 days after the 9/11 tragedy, this group called for war against Afghanistan and Iraq, attacks on resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine and threats to Syria and Iran--outlining the next 5 years of US foreign policy. But it was dressed up as humanitarian intervention with arguments that sound rather familiar:“There are potentially powerful states dissatisfied with the current situation and eager to change it, if they can, in directions that endanger the relatively peaceful, prosperous and free condition the world enjoys today. Up to now, they have been deterred from doing so by the capability and global presence of American military power. But, as that power declines, relatively and absolutely, the happy conditions that follow from it will be inevitably undermined. Preserving the desirable strategic situation in which the United States now finds itself requires a globally preeminent military capability both today and in the future.”
Through the 1990s the US supported the Taliban for oil pipelines, but turned against them when they couldn't maintain stability. The war in Afghanistan was then justified by the horrible record of the Taliban and by appealing to women's rights and democracy (both of which had been ignored, and neither of which have materialized after 10 years of occupation). Meanwhile others supported the war for more traditional reasons. As Michael Ignatieff argued,“The United States must provide full military and financial support to the Iraqi opposition. American military force should be used to provide a 'safe zone' in Iraq from which the opposition can operate. And American forces must be prepared to back up our commitment to the Iraqi opposition by all necessary means.”
"Imperialism used to be the white man's burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn't stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect...[Afghans] understand that their best hope lies in a temporary experience of imperial rule."
The distinction between a US and UN intervention has been irrelevant to the experience of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. For more than a decade, Iraq was under UN sanctions and a US/UK "no-fly zone", which British Prime Minister Tony Blair described at the time as "performing vital humanitarian tasks". This twin intervention killed half a million Iraqi children, strengthened the grip of Saddam Hussein, and spread cancer through depleted uranium (which is currently being used on Libya). Meanwhile the war and occupation in Afghanistan has been administered through a combination of US, UN and NATO.
2003 Iraq War, imperial rivals, anti-war movement
2003 Iraq War, imperial rivals, anti-war movement
Through 2002 and 2003 the case was built for another war against another former Western ally, where "no-fly zones" paved the way for "shock and awe". The war was justified not only with the lies of WMDs and links to 9/11, but also the true record of Saddam Hussein gasing the Kurds (when he was ally of the West) and appeals by opposition forces. But the anti-war movement knew--and has been tragically vindicated--that military intervention would only make things worse, and that the best way to show support for Iraqis was to stop our own government’s from attacking. There were huge demonstrations peaking on February 15, 2003: the largest mobilization in human history.
2004 Support for Gaddafi, coup against Aristide
The year 2004 showed the commitment to freedom and democracy by those currently intervening in Libya. On the one hand, Gaddafi was brought back into the "international community", and the West sold the Libyan dictator weapons with which to oppress his own people. The same year the US, France and Canada overthrew Haiti’s democratically-elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for trying to improve the standard of living of his people. The occupation became a UN mission headed by Brazil to give it a veneer of international and regional support, while ignoring Haitians.
2006 Proxy wars and a return to multilateralism
Zbigniew Brzezinszki argued, fearing the revolutions that are now unfolding:
2008 Economic crisis, rivalry, and militarization“The president, and America’s political leadership, must recognise that the US role in the world is being gravely undermined by the policies launched more than three years ago. The destructive war in Iraq, the hypocritical indifference to the human dimensions of the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the lack of diplomatic initiative in dealing with Iran and the frequent use of Islamophobic rhetoric are setting in motion forces that threaten to push America out of the Middle East, with dire consequences for itself and its friends in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.”
In 2008 Barack Obama was catapulted to the White House by two contradictory forces demanding change: on the one hand the anti-war, anti-racist, labour and other progressive movements fighting against what Bush had done at home and abroad, and on the other hand the US establishment eager to rehabilitate US imperialism. While Obama spoke out against the Iraq War, in foreign policy circles he reflected Brzezinsky's analysis--saying to a AIPAC what he meant by "change":
In 2008 the start of the economic crisis heightened the contradiction between America’s economy and its military power, and sharpened inter-imperialist rivalry, while growing anti-war movements won a majority of people against the Afghanistan war. General Jim Jones, former NATO commander and current US National Security Advisor, authored the Afghan Study Group, noting with alarm that
“strong public opposition to the Afghan war has grown in Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany, among others, threatening to fray the coalition. An increasingly unilateral mission will be politically vulnerable in Afghanistan, the US, and NATO. A failure of the NATO mission in Afghanistan would also damage the future prospects of the organization itself.”
In response the Canadian government ignored the anti-war majority, extended its presence in Afghanistan for the second time and quietly launched the $490 billion Canada First Defense Strategy). The US sparred with Russia in the proxy war between Georgia and South Ossetia over Caspian oil, and developed an African Command (Africom) to compete with China and others over the continent’s resources. As J Pham from the American thinktank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies explained, one of the goals of Africom is:
2009-2010: Palestine, Tamil Eelam, Pakistan, Haiti
These years brutally clarified the role of Western "humanitarian intervention", or lack thereof. There were no "no-fly zones" when Israel launched air strikes including chemical weapons on Gaza, when Sri Lanka carried out war crimes on Tamils, or when the US launched drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was intervention in Haiti after the earthquake, but it was a very specific kind. While Haitians looked for help and ordinary people around the world opened their hearts and their pocket books, the same powers that had overthrown Haitian democracy used the cover of humanitarianism to further their control of the country and the region. Camille Chalmers from the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development, described the role of "humanitarian intervention" in ways that could be applied to current intervention in Libya:
“What the US is doing, the militarisation of Haiti with the pathetic excuse of humanitarian aid, is unacceptable. This is part of a strategy to militarise the Caribbean region, as a way to confront the people’s awakening in Latin America and to also threat the Bolivarian Venezuela Republic. This is no isolated action. There is the military base set up by US imperialism in Curacao, with the complicity of the Dutch government. There are the military bases in Colombia. And now we have this military response to a fundamentally humanitarian problem.”
In 2009 Europe sold Gaddafi the weapons he's currently using against the Libyan people: aircrafts from Italy, electronic jamming equipment from Germany, anti-personnnel chemicals from Belgium. Last year, as Britain sold sniper riffles to Gaddafi, Obama sold $500 million of military equipment to Egypt, Tunisia and Oman, $60 billion worth to Saudi Arabia. When there was a genuine humanitarian intervention to break the illegal siege of Gaza, Israel attacked the aid flotilla killing many of those aboard. Meanwhile Obama added 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and Harper and Ignatieff extended Canada's involvement in Afghanistan for the third time--against the vocal protest of some military families.
2011 Revolution and Counter-revolution
attacks on Afghan civilians (and emerging horrific photos of troops posing with dead civilians) finally caused president Karzai to ask NATO to leave. This is the context for the war on Libya: a decade of growing inter-imperialist rivalry over other people's resources, sharpened by the economic crisis, and threatened by popular movements. There is a people's awakening across Africa and the Middle East that “threaten to push America out of the Middle East, with dire consequences for itself and its friends in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia”. Our dream is their nightmare.
So a week into the Libyan revolution, when Gaddafi was on the defense and there were not yet calls from some rebels for a “no-fly zone”, some of the same strategists behind Project for a New American Century issued another call for war, against another former Western ally, again under the guise of humanitarianism. Declaring that “we may be on the threshold of a moral and humanitarian catastrophe” the open letter called on Obama to ask NATO to “establish a presence in Libyan airspace to prevent the continued use of fighter jets and helicopter gunships against civilians and carry out other missions as required”. The Brookings Institute described how a "no-fly zone" would actually play out in Libya:
“There is a very considerable danger of escalation or mission creep from a NFZ. The imposition of a NFZ is not going to prevent Qaddafi’s ground forces from continuing to kill people and, especially if the opposition is unable to hold off his counteroffensives, there could be tremendous pressure to turn the No-FLY Zone into a No-DRIVE Zone—to go after his tanks and other armored vehicles. That is a much, much more demanding mission for U.S. and NATO air forces. Moreover, we should remember that most of the killing is likely to be done by infantry—guys on foot with rifles. They are always the ones who inflict the most casualties in civil wars, and it is effectively impossible to prevent them from doing so with only air power. If you are serious about that, you need boots on the ground.”
We are already at this point, as the “no-fly zone” has destroyed Gaddafi’s small air force but ground attacks are continuing. Obviously the "no-fly zone" has not removed Gaddafi; if anything it has strengthened him, as it strenghtened Hussein and Milosovic, by giving the dictator the chance to portray himself as the defender of the nation. This wasn't helped by the first encounter between US troops and Libyans: when a US jet crashed and Libyan civilians including children went to help the pilots, Americans opened fire on civilians. Meanwhile, the narrow focus on military intervention has silenced the demands of Libyan revolutionaries. While some sections of the Libyan revolution called for “no-fly zones”, it was qualified with opposition to military intervention, and was not the only demand. As Simon Assaf points out:
“Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), the body that grew out of the revolution, made a series of simple demands in the first crucial days of the uprising. It asked for the recognition of the TNC, access to the billions in sequestrated regime funds in order to buy weapons and other crucial supplies, and an immediate halt to the ‘mercenary flights’ that provided Gaddafi’s regime with its foot soldiers. Western governments refused to accept even one of these demands. They even objected to weapons sales as they said these could fall into the hands of ‘Islamist terrorists.’”
partitioning Libya--against the expressed wishes of Libyans. This is not surprising if you consider those who are actually enforcing the "no-fly zone": the UN Security Council is made of the same powers that armed Gaddafi and are competing for Libyan resources, and the Arab League is made of the Western-armed dictatorships trying to contain the revolutionary wave. There are also local politics at play. France is looking for lucrative oil contracts and it’s President Sarkosy is using military invasion to boost his sagging popularity in the lead up to an election. Canada has billions invested in oil and prisons, Prime Minister Harper is facing opposition to $30 billion earmarked for fighter jets, and is eager to join the war to defend both while distracting from the war in Afghanistan. Britain’s David Cameron has been boosting arms sales and oil contracts abroad (including a contract for BP to drill off the Libyan coast) and attacks on multiculturalism at home, and has framed his opposition to Gaddafi in anti-immigrant terms:
“If Gaddafi's attacks on his own people succeed, Libya will become once again a pariah state, festering on Europe's border, a source of instability, exporting strife beyond her borders. A state from which literally hundreds of thousands of citizens could seek to escape, putting huge pressure on us in Europe.”
If the West supports Libyans so much, why isn't it opening its borders to refugees and war resisters, which would save civilians and undermine Gaddafi's forces? Why was it so eager to arm Gaddafi but so timid to allow the revolutionaries access to weapons? Meanwhile Obama is trying to chart a multilateral approach to US imperialism, provide a cover for the militarization of Africa (Africom has seized on the war in Libya as its first test), distract from the decade-long war in Afghanistan, and bury the memory of the Iraq. While facing criticism from within his own administration over the torture of whistleblower Bradley Manning and denying the visa to Afghan women's rights advocate Malalai Joya, Obama chose the anniversary of the Iraq War itself to launch air attacks on Libya—hiding any mention in the press of his failed promise to end the Iraq War. The war in Libya is also providing a cover for counter-revolution in the region, as Bahrain (along with Saudi troops), Yemen, Syria and Egypt's military rulers lashed out at demonstrators, while Israel launched an air attack that killed children in Gaza.
In the contradiction lies the hope
In the contradiction lies the hope
But the new “coalition of the willing” is proving even more unstable that the last one, and revolution can't easily be contained. The African Union refused to participate from the start, and Turkey and the Arab League have vacillated. Inter-imperialist tensions, sharpened by the economic crisis, are rapidly provoking a crisis in the coalition: German abstained from the vote and has now pulled out (under pressure from the anti-war movement, though Merkel shifted more troop to Afghanistan), Italy has accused France of trying to secure oil contracts, and the US has for the second time had to tone down British Prime Minister David Cameron’s aggressive words. At the same time the people of Libya, inspired by their own courage, will not let their revolution be hijacked so easily, and could be get fresh wind if other regional tyrants topple.
It should be obvious from the past 10 years, let alone the past 100, that Western powers are a band of warring brothers competing for the resources of the region, who armed Taliban/Hussein/Gaddafi and are then used military intervention to reassert control. The past decade, especially the past few months, also shows that only the people of the region are willing and capable of liberating themselves from Western-backed dictators. The best way for those in the West to show solidarity with those in the region is to keep depleted uranium bombs and Western corporations off their land and let them determine their own future. That means joining the many Libya solidarity rallies, demanding an end to military intervention in Libya, and building the April 9 demonstrations in Canada and the US against the war in Afghanistan. As Malalai Joya reminds us:
"No nation can bring liberation to another nation. These are nations that can liberate themselves. The nations that pose themselves as liberators to others will lead them into slavery. What we have experienced in Afghanistan and in Iraq prove this point.
If the US and its allies let us have a little bit of space and peace, then we know what to do with our destiny. The people of Afghanistan don’t want occupation. They need honest support, they need educational support, they need your powerful voice—which means, first of all, international solidarity against the warmongers of your government."