On March 17, 2011 the UN Security Council overwhelmingly passed resolution 1973, authorizing “all necessary measures” short of a full military ground invasion to protect Libyan civilians from further aerial attacks by Qadafi forces. NATO has since responded by carrying out air strikes in both eastern and western Libya, quickly becoming part of the war itself and bringing additional risk to the very same civilians whose lives they are supposedly there to protect. Whether we happen to like it or not, in reality the decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya is, by default, a declaration of war. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested as much weeks prior to US involvement in the operation, stating bluntly: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya.”
Does the threat of massacres of civilians by Qadafi forces justify the current Western military intervention? This is a serious political and ethical question.
In answering this question, it first needs to be emphasized is that Western powers do not carry out military operations for humanitarian reasons. If the purpose of the NATO operation in Libya were genuinely humanitarian the priority would be to evacuate civilians from major battlezones rather than simply adding to the ongoing bombing assault. Since NATO has assumed full control over military operations in Libya, several civilian centres have already been bombed at will with little, if any, regard for the toll on civilian life. We would also do well at this time to remember that in Iraq in 1991 and Yugoslavia in 1999 not only did we see civilian casualties continue to soar following foreign military intervention but, in fact, some of the worst atrocities occurred directly under the cover of no-fly zones.
It should also come as no surprise that a no-fly zone was so readily agreed to in Libya but not in Lebanon in 2006, Gaza in 2008-2009, or Pakistan where a US drone attack killed another 40 innocent civilians just last week. This illustrates the blatant hypocrisy of Western foreign policy. The Qadafi regime was just as morally insupportable in the 1980s when it was an official enemy of the West as it was in the 2000s following a rapprochement with these very same Western powers. In return for acting as a bulwark against the rise of anti-Western Islamist movements in the region and helping keep undocumented migrants from Africa out of Europe, Qadafi has been able to enjoy years of Western financial, diplomatic, and military support that allowed him to consolidate his grip on power.
Why then intervene in Libya now? Imperialist powers are not guided by morality but political and economic interests. NATO forces have not entered the war in Libya out of any particular concern for civilian life but rather to advance their own given strategic objectives in the region. One is to gain a semblance of Western legitimacy that can compensate in some small way for the damage done by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and by Western foreign policy in Israel/Palestine. Another is to establish close relations with the National Transitional Council government so that foreign oil interests in can remain protected. A third is to secure a carefully guided transition to a “democratic” regime that will leave no room for an independent course of action led by Libyans themselves. UN resolution 1973 is, in effect, a rubber-stamp policy for “regime change.” If imperialist powers are able to impose their will in Libya, it will be a blow to the revolutionary wave in the country and beyond.
Explicit calls for a no-fly zone by elements of the anti-Qadafi forces on the ground have influenced the attitude of some on the Left to the Western military intervention. Although under the current circumstances it is perfectly clear why many rebel forces and even civilians have supported the no-fly zone, very little is actually known about who comprises the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, what overall level of popular legitimacy it can justifiably claim, and if it can indeed speak on behalf of the majority of civilians across the country. In any case, people in solidarity with the struggle against Qadafi do not have to align ourselves with any specific Libyan political faction or their demands. Unconditional support of the popular uprising against Qadafi does not require us to support Western military intervention.
We also need to consider the political consequences of this intervention. It may still very well produce the negative outcome of only further entrenching Qadafi’s power as the situation on the ground transforms itself into a scenario of civil war between his regime and its opponents backed by imperialism. This could play directly into Qadafi’s hands, strongly reinforcing his attempts to win wider support among people in his stronghold of Tripoli. If anti-Qadafi forces backed by Western military power defeat the regime and the rebels take control of all of Libya, the ability of the Libyan people to reshape their society will be constrained by imperialist influence. Political movements in the Global South that accept the support of imperialist powers always pay a high political price.
Most of the ongoing debate about the intervention has been falsely polarized between an “internationalist” tendency that advocates Western military intervention and an “isolationist” tendency that advocates leaving the Arabs to fight for themselves — in other words, using military force or simply doing nothing. Neither of these options represents a position of solidarity with the struggle for progressive change in Libya and opposition to imperialism. People who want to both oppose Western domination of the Global South and support the struggle for a Libya in which workers and oppressed people can organize independently of any ruling-class faction to fight for radical social change should not support military intervention by Western powers operating under the guise of humanitarianism.