A week or two ago, the most urgent and contentious question was whether or not the US and its Western allies should intervene militarily in Libya. Now the missiles have rained down and a “no fly” blanket covers Libya. The possible massacre in Benghazi that Qaddafi threatened may have been averted, but events quickly made it clear that US/ NATO military power is not a solution for Libya any more than “shock and awe” was for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now the urgent question is, can the course of events be altered soon enough to prevent another prolonged war of intervention in the Middle East. How, for the sake of the Libyan people and a war-weary world, can we avoid sinking deeper into the morass of unending wars?
What’s called for, it seems to me, is international intervention, but intervention of a different kind than has been the sad pattern of the past. The UN has been bullied and bribed time and again into providing “sanction” for interventionist “holy” wars. Can that be different now? Can there be intervention for a cease-fire that protects the ability of the Libyan people to pursue their own democratic struggle as part of the “Arab Spring”? I think there are reasons why it can be different now.
Before looking at the reasons, a positive change in the character of international response to the Libyan crisis would have to involve urgent diplomacy efforts by the UN, shifting initiative toward members of the Security Council that abstained from supporting military action. The immediate aim would be a cease-fire that would halt Qaddafi’s military assaults and bombing by NATO. The longer-range outlook would be to secure conditions in which the Libyan people can bring about social change on their own terms without the tragic consequences of foreign military intervention and another prolonged war. However events develop, world opinion and effective international solidarity will be a force in support of the Libyan people against Qaddafi’s tyranny, as it was in the heroic struggle of the South African majority that finally ended the Apartheid regime.
Circumstances are far different today than they were when a triumphalist Bush Administration invaded Iraq in defiance of opposition at home and abroad. Iraq and Afghanistan destroyed the conceit that the US government can determine outcomes and force “solutions” by virtue of its overwhelming military superiority. The American people, like people everywhere, want no part of a third war in the Middle East. Moreover, Barak Obama and Robert Gates have shown great reluctance about being drawn into another disastrous military adventure. (While they are decidedly leery of more land wars, their reluctance does not extend to the widespread use of missiles and drones, as well as the CIA, Special Forces, and killer contractors.)
While views on the intervention in Libya have differed widely, including on the left, UN Resolution 1973 cannot be ascribed primarily to “same-old, same-old” imperialist motivation. Humanitarian concerns about Qaddafi’s brutality were real, regardless of mixed and ulterior motives among “Western” and Arab governments. Strong public support for prompt UN intervention came not only through the pleas of Libyan rebels facing imminent massacre, but from veteran anti-imperialists like Uri Avreny, Israeli leftist, and Juan Cole, analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. At the same time, it would be foolish to ignore the dangers inherent in unleashing US and NATO military power in Libya and possibly wading into another hopeless quagmire. The important governments that abstained in the Security Council vote had good reason to worry about potential “humanitarian” considerations as a formula for intervening militarily in the internal affairs of nations.
As for the United States, its greatest contribution to peace and democracy in the Middle East would be to sharply curtail its military presence. That should be the demand, in the interest of the beleaguered American people as much as in support of new generations of Arabs striving courageously to shape their own democratic destiny. The weapons that we sell and supply are the main instruments of tyranny and violence in country after country in the Middle East.
The uncertainty about Libya and what is happening in the Middle East brings America’s changing place in the world into focus. The US is powerful, but it is not the almighty superpower Bush and Cheney thought it was. The McCann and Lieberman hawks still cling to the deadly illusion, but reality is beyond denial. The serious economic and political decline, pushed into a deepening spiral by the political right and its corporate bosses, limits US influence despite the fact that we still have far more weapons of war than all other nations combined. Ending wars and keeping out of new ones is the imperative for any improvement in the lives and fortunes of most Americans. It would also be the biggest boon to worldwide aspirations for peace and democracy. That’s the big picture, the goal that shouldn’t be compromised in Libya or anywhere else.