Monday, March 21, 2011

The Intervention in Libya

The place for a moral man is never on the side lines. It is always better to take a position, have it not work out right, and learn from it, that it is to never take any positions at all, and enjoy the comfort and praise of never having been wrong.

These past several weeks and months, as I have been closely following Mid East politics, every night I've gone to bed with a heightened sense of emotion. Due to the time change... while I sleep everything will happen... and increasingly... I know that many people will die. Then when I wake up I will read about the outcome of the protests, street battles, or increasingly, real battles. It is an unnerving routine... though not nearly as unnerving as it is for those actually living in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or Bahrain.

Lately the center of gravity of the Arab Revolution has shifted to Libya. The pro democracy movement has there encountered a dictator more entrenched, intelligent, and crafty than so far they have met elsewhere. Key to Ghadaffi's battlefield successes of the past two weeks has been his decades long policy of keeping the national army weak. Instead he has crafted a state that relies on it only partially. The role of armed force is shored up by tribal alliances and separate pro-regime military forces, all designed in order to forestall the threat of coup attempts.

This is a key difference between Libya and Egypt. When it was clear Mubarak's regime was isolated, discredited, and could no longer rule, there was a strong central military to step in and tell him it was time to go. In Libya, despite the overwhelming marginalization of Ghadaffi, and despite the complete insanity and baselessness of his propaganda ("The rebels are on hallucinogenic drugs given to them by Al Quaeda"), he has been able to reorganize his remaining supporters and mercenaries into a counter attack that for the past two weeks has regained momentum.

The pro democracy movement is wide and it is deep. But when it comes to strict military engagements, it is hopelessly outgunned, out trained, and out organized. Which brings us to the current intervention.

There have been debates online and articles online and much deep suspicions of any Western Intervention on the part of most intelligent, thinking people I am in regular communication with. I share these suspicions. The credibility gap is jaw dropping, while we have killed many civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we support autocratic regimes who repress pro-democracy fighters elsewhere (notably Bahrain, though the deaths of a few dozen or hundred protesters there are nowhere near the scale of thousands of deaths Ghadaffi is now inflicting), we are now supposed to trust a combined Naval and Air Force that includes the US and its cruise missiles as a strong component as it seeks to "humanitarianly" intervene in Libya.

I went searching online to read more. This article on Al Jazeera put together a case against intervention. Here is another by American socialists I am usually in complete agreement with. What SW does very well that, say, mainstream pro-intervention papers have not, is point out the hypocrisy of opposing Ghadaffi now, after only recently selling him weapons.

Most media reports now describe Ghaddafi as a long-time nemesis of U.S. foreign policy-makers. But this flushes down the memory hole more than a decade, in which the Bush and then Obama administrations viewed Qaddafi as a madman-turned-ally and an essential component of the U.S. "global war on terror."

The SW article expresses fear about mission creep to a ground intervention. I worry a ground intervention may do more harm than good, particularly if it becomes a protracted occupation a la Iraq or Afghanistan. As with other humanitarian interventions, most politically messy, reprehensible, and at times rather unhumanitarian activity tends to occur after the first strikes, when "the focus shifts from addressing an immediate crisis to achieving the longer-term goals of the most powerful governments [involved in the intervention], especially the U.S."

The same article offers some useful historical examples to distrust "humanitarian interventions" from Somolia in the early 1990s and the Bombing of Serbia in 1999. This all brings us to what I think is probably the most genuine potential risk that may backfire from intervening:

Qaddafi is hoping to do something similar in Libya, and U.S. and European bombs are giving him an aura of legitimacy he couldn't have claimed a week ago--by allowing him to act as if he is a staunch opponent of Western intervention in North Africa.

Broader analysis is useful... but if you are a citizen of a place like Benghazi or Misrata, and the artillery of your dictator is falling amid your outskirts, you tend in the immediate term to value, say, an Air Force a lot more than a well written article of broader analysis. Rightly, the SW article admits as much, that "Most people facing the bombs of the Qaddafi government will have been happy to see that bombardment stopped or slowed, no matter how."

What I don't like about this article is that, though the authors offered much useful background info, warned about some possible negative outcomes, and listed some of Europe's long term interests and ulterior motives in Libya, they conspicuously avoided taking a stand, one way or the other, on whether the airstrikes of the past 24 hours were worth doing or not. I just sent them a letter addressing this point and I hope to see it printed or posted online soon.

That's something I see a lot of people doing. Many say they don't like interventions, point out how screwed up the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are, talk about oil interests and ulterior motives, but DON'T TAKE A STAND on the pressing issue of the immediate hour! Ghadafffi's armies are at the door step of the last rebel outposts. They are shelling them. Soon they will invade with tanks and a massacre will occur. You are the president of the United States. You have an Air Force. You have international authorization to use it to prevent a massacre. What do you do?

It's easy to say you "oppose" this or that policy or decision when you are not the one having to make it. Courage means having the guts to go on the record and make a difficult decision one way or the other- whether or not you will be proved wrong later. When you are in the Gates of Lodore and your raft is heading right into Lucifer rock you have to do something now. Immediately. Because if you don't you are going to be fucked. So use your oars. Do something. Even if it's wrong it's better than doing nothing, or than standing on the shore criticizing someone in the situation you are not in who is forced to make decisions that you are not forced to make.

The Al Jazeera article that listed "The Drawbacks of Intervention in Libya" also made for some interesting reading. But not so interesting as the 90+ comments readers made after it! All of which I read. Some excerpts from the discussion:

"I wonder if those in Bengazi would appreciate a fine piece of writing or say an F16????"

"...That sounds like a great research project for a doctorate if you have fours years to burn under the California sun, but not when Gaddafi is slaughtering your brothers and sisters now."

"A lot of strange bedfellows doing a lot of strange things right now. "

‎"I hear of the Arab League's dissent over the "No-Fly" zone and going too far??? Where are THIER jets? Why don't they Lead The Way? It sounds a little "two-faced" to approve the help, but criticize execution when they offer no blood or mon...ey in this effort. I would be ashamed to be in the Arab League... Another question, what were the U.N. forces to do? Taking out the aircraft capability of the Loyalists, but leaving tanks and rocket launchers to finish a little less quickly what the air-force was doing is a mistake? This is the frustration with dealing with the Arab League..."

"It is always fun to second guess what 'should' have been done, but what this cowardly author didn't do was say what 'they' would have done in the light of not only the Libyan opposition forces asking.. pleading... begging for assistance, ...but Arab voices all over the world demanding "Where is the West, where is the U.S.". Would this author been happier to see the opposition be crushed? This is exactly what would have happened and no amount of meetings, or sanctions or political statements would have changed that. This author should have the courage to come out and say that is what they want and not hide behind the clever execution of criticism of those trying to help.

Life is full of inconsistency..."

One interesting parallel on the discussion was non-intervention against the Khumer Rouge, and the hesitancy of intervention in Libya. The starting point today is that there are a lot of effective weapons and advanced aircraft in the US and in Western Europe. It's a good human instinct to stand up for underdogs, particularly when forces are grossly disproportionate, and autocrats use overwhelming military force to target civilians. The reason for non intervention in Cambodia was the disastrous failure of the war in Vietnam and the political fall out from it (though we might also mention that the Khumer Rouge probably would not have come to power if American actions in Cambodia and neighboring countries were not so destabilizing to the Cambodian government!).

The reasons for hesitancy in Libya are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current US support of Israel's occupation and periodic bombardment of the West Bank and Gaza, and to a lesser though still significant extent our support of many still existing autocrats throughout the Middle East who are right now faced with their own pro-democracy rebellions .

Eventually, through long and bloody struggle, Imperialism can burn itself out. At great human cost it can be fought off (for a time), discredited, and forced to return home for a while to lick its wounds while the leaders try and plan new ways to maintain "influence" and access to resources and markets without armies, or to at least conduct military operations on a small scale and behind the backs of their own citizens. For examples, see Britain and France after WWII, Russia after 1989, or America after Vietnam.

This inevitably makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the armies, aircraft, technology, and genuine good will of Western citizens (note: not politicians) to be of timely, politically permissible assistance to conduct a truly humanitarian intervention when the need for one presents itself.

The sooner we get rid of the present system of rule by the few over the many, gross wealth inequality, segregation and massive prison populations, the ruling emotions of fear and guilt (as opposed to the emotions of love and solidarity!), and not least of all the habits of allowing our politicians to use our military for their own adventures and the enrichment of their Wall Street friends rather than only when it is genuinely needed- the sooner we will be able to actually weigh the pros and cons of military interventions on any kind of honest or rational basis.

Until then, situations such as Libya will continue to present themselves.

All that being said...

Western leftists wanting to support the Libyan rebels, and at the same time not wanting Western aircraft to take out Ghadaffi's Air Force (and more importantly) and tanks and artillery, are attempting to have their cake and eat it too. Of course they are right to point out hypocrisies and inconsistencies and to encourage us to exercise scrutiny. But to stand by and not do anything with our military is to allow a massacre, which to me is more morally reprehensible than making the decision to allow people you politically disagree with to use their might for something that will actually benefit a progressive movement- not to mention the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The greatest danger might be Ghadaffi's ability to use Western intervention to paint his cause as "anti-imperialist" and thus retain some degree of support. I do not think the majority of Libyans who have seen his henchmen driving through the streets shooting indiscriminately at civilians will be so naive as to fall for this. Least of all would the people of Misrata or Benghazi, who have been the loudest voices asking for foreign military assistance. Yet it may happen, he may regain some support, that will at least allow him to hold some territory where he can bully everyone else into silence.

At the end of the day, I think the air strikes are worth the risk. There are many times when whatever decision you make you are still going to live with regret. At that point the choice is the one where the regret will be the easiest to bear. Indecision and passivity, however, are at times like these the greatest danger. Yes the French Resistance in World War II was happy to see Allied Troops eventually march in. And yes the bombing of Dresden, the firebombing of Tokyo and the Nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crimes against humanity. But how many of the 50 million deaths from that conflict could have been avoided if the politicians of the world had been men of action before 1939! Would they not still have been imperialists at that time? Would they still not have saved many lives? Do I care if the person saving my life is only doing it to advance their own long term interests?

The only possible anti-intervention argument that I think makes any sense at all is the following one: "Less people will hypothetically die if we allow Ghadaffi to massacre his people now, and then stay in power, than will die if we support the rebels with our Airpower, which runs the risk of dragging the revolution out into a protracted civil war. Therefore we should pull back, tell the people of Benghazi and Misrata and everywhere else that for the sake our analysis of their country's long term future we have decided to do nothing and let them die."

I personally am not prepared to make such a statement and until non-interventionists come out and say that clearly and honestly I am not going to be able to take seriously their opposition to the bombing that right now is the only thing turning back the unleashed armies of a madman.

Long live the heroic people of Lybia. May they have the wisdom and the strength to find their way through the array of friends and enemies.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lybia's Darkest Hour

Will revolutionary Egypt stand by, arms at its sides, while a massacre occurs next door?

Revolutions do not confine themselves to national borders. Despite how many Bonapartist despots masquerading as "revolutionaries" have tried to justify national aggrandizement using this language... it nonetheless remains a fact. Every time, whether through cowardice, indecisiveness, or cynicism, a new revolutionary government attempts to stay within its borders and ignore the plight of its not-yet-as-successful neighbors, the results are always the same: massacres. Often followed by the further isolation, and eventual fall, of the one or few countries where the movement was victorious.

The last century furnished a brutally plentiful series of examples of this phenomenon. What happened to the revolutionary movement in Finland in 1918, or Spain in 1939, or Chile in 1973, is now well on its way to occurring in Benghazi.

Fascism, always, is the price paid by those willing to launch, but unable to finish, a revolution. In the next few weeks, the people of Lybia will furnish more martyrs for the Arab revolution than hitherto have been required. Let all who can assist, assist. Because all who can betray, already have.