Why I Oppose the US-led Intervention in Libya


March 24, 2011 at 10:55 am

Some days before the U.S.-led intervention in Libya began; I was forwarded a copy of an open letter directed to President Barack Obama urging him to work in concert with U.S. allies, NATO, and the United Nations to immediately impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The organizers, a group of courageous individuals risking their lives to assist the rebel cause, were collecting the signatures of scholars and academics from the around the world, especially those studying Islam and the Middle East.

After considerable deliberation, I decided not to add my signature to the letter because I could not lend my support to this particular plea to President Obama. I believed that even a limited U.S.-led intervention would still be an intervention, and I was troubled that it would take on a life of its own once it began—something that the League of Arab States, whose vote helped legitimize western intervention, now realizes.

Still, my decision may be perceived as an unpopular one, not least because the Libyan rebels themselves called for - and have now received - military assistance from the West. This call has been consistently echoed since the initial gains of the rebels were rolled back by a punishing counteroffensive by pro-Qaddafi forces. It was further intensified as Libyan government forces were poised to attack the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

One constant refrain accompanying this rebel call has been the insistence that, “We do not want any boots on the ground.” This qualification is understandable as “boots on the ground” could imply that the forces battling the Qaddafi loyalists, far from being revolutionaries ushering in a new dawn for their country, are nothing more than the junior partners in a US-led invasion of another Muslim country. I contend that the bombs we see today raining down upon Libya could well serve the purpose of boots in this regard. They could serve to delegitimize the Libyan revolutionaries.

The Inconsistent Pattern of US Interventions

Should the U.S.-led bombing campaign accomplish its objective, a result that is far from certain, the rebels will not be credited with saving Benghazi. Rather, U.S., French, and British bombs and missiles will have saved the city, possibly only temporarily. The history books will not record a Stalingrad-like rebel defense of Benghazi. They may well record the U.S.-led intervention as the event that consolidated the idea that the United States, under the legality provided by a United Nations resolution, can, unilaterally, or in collaboration with its western allies, militarily intervene in the affairs of a sovereign nation that poses no military threat to America in order to stave off a humanitarian disaster.

This idea would be welcomed by many were not its implementation to date so tellingly inconsistent. There has been no direct western intervention in the Congo, the scene of the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster in recent history. When the people of Gaza were being pulverized by the Israeli Defense Forces, there was no intervention. Even in Darfur, the scene of an awful humanitarian crisis where the rebel forces once enjoyed immense popular support in the West, there has been no western military intervention. Similarly, in Somalia, which three years ago was the scene of a grave humanitarian catastrophe, there was no intervention. In fact, the American-encouraged Ethiopian invasion of Somalia helped precipitate that disaster. It should be clear from these examples that the protection of civilian life is not an operative principle in US foreign policy.

The current intervention in Libya establishes a dangerous precedent in the context of the popular uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. If we accept intervention in Libya, what prevents us from accepting intervention in places like Iran? If demonstrators in Iran are violently suppressed by the regime tomorrow, what consistent moral argument can we forward to prevent an American or Israeli-led attack to pacify an Iranian regime deemed to be threatening its civilian population? The assessment of the circumstances of what qualifies for intervention will become arbitrary and will make a mockery of international law.

Moreover, direct foreign intervention in Libya will likely lead to far more civilian deaths than would have occurred had the conflict remain a strictly Libyan affair. The ongoing bombing has already resulted in civilian deaths. This number will likely rise dramatically as the campaign is expanded to include civilian infrastructure deemed critical to the survival of Qaddafi’s regime, such as electrical generation stations, communication infrastructure, factories, and other installations more likely to be located near civilian neighborhoods.

Yet more civilian casualties could result in the aftermath of the bombing campaign, when the desire for revenge by Qaddafi loyalists will likely lead to blind and bitter reprisals against civilians thought to be supportive of the rebels. The columns of burned out tanks, personnel carriers, pickup trucks, and other vehicles conveying Qaddafi loyalists towards Benghazi were not driven by robots. They were manned by human beings with friends, relatives, and tribesmen who will not take kindly to their deaths via western projectiles.

Finally, there is no guarantee that Qaddafi’s forces will be repulsed by the rebels, even with western assistance. If a lengthy stalemate ensues, we can easily see Libya follow in the footsteps of the Congo, Darfur, and Somalia as it experiences its own war-related humanitarian crisis. Should such a stalemate be broken by a full-fledged western invasion and occupation of Libya? No one claims to want that. However, it is a prospect that has to now be realistically entertained in aftermath of the ongoing western intervention.

If Not for the People, Then Why?

If, as I am arguing, the U.S.-led intervention in Libya is not ultimately intended to protect civilians then what might the real motive be? For the United States, the answer is clear. President Obama said unequivocally that Qaddafi must go, making regime change the ultimate American objective. It is clear that way the conflict in Libya has unfolded provides an avenue for the United States to initiate a policy calling for the ouster of Qaddafi.

Why would the ouster of Qaddafi be such a high priority for the United States? One reason could be that Qaddafi has been leading a Pan-African movement under the auspices of the African Union, similar to the unification effort spearheaded by Hugo Chavez in South America. Libya’s oil revenues have played a large role in supporting Qaddafi’s African initiative, which aims for Africa’s economic empowerment by breaking the vestiges of European economic control of Africa. This is a key reason why Qaddafi enjoys varying degrees of popularity in what is sometimes called “Black Africa.”

Qaddafi’s Pan-African effort coincides with the rising economic role of China in Africa. Since 2001, trade between Africa and China has increased from $10 billion to more than $110 billion. The United States has noticed the growing influence of Libya and China in Africa and has responded, in part, by establishing a new American military command for Africa (AFRICOM) in 2006. A critical objective of AFRICOM is to unite the continent’s 53 countries into a unified, pro-American strategic and economic zone, which would involve both regime changes and “humanitarian” interventions to stabilize the continent. Some critics of U.S. policy in Africa say the ultimate objective of AFRICOM is to ensure that America—and not China—becomes the principal foreign beneficiary of Africa’s tremendous wealth.

To date, no African nation has agreed to serve as the hosting country for AFRICOM’s primary base. All of that could change with the emergence of a post-Qaddafi regime in Libya that owes its existence to the US-led intervention. It should be noted that Libya was the home of Wheelus Air Base, the largest American military installation in Africa, before the coup orchestrated by Qaddafi against King Idris in 1969.

While nationalization significantly curtailed the development of Libya’s petroleum and gas resources, Qaddafi has sought to expand exploration and production in partnership with major western oil companies in recent years. The Libyan national oil company, however, still controls the terms of trade, which most western companies view as prohibitive. Western energy companies consider Libya a risky investment climate and are seeking better terms from the Libyan regime. Optimal terms could only be obtained by something similar to an “Iraq oil law,” which remains unlikely in Libya while the Qaddafi-led regime is in power. A regime change is likely viewed by many foreign firms as a means to completely opening up access to Libya’s petrochemical resources.

For France, the conflict in Libya offers an opportunity to reassert its control over Niger’s uranium deposits, a critical goal for a country that relies on nuclear power as its primary source of electricity. For decades, France had a monopoly over Niger’s uranium production. Today, France still imports 40% of its uranium from Niger, where it is currently completing the world’s largest uranium mine.

A recent development that has raised the concern of the French and the Americans has been an effort on the part of Iran to gain access to Niger’s uranium. Although this Iranian initiative was terminated in 2010, the current conflict in Libya provides France with an opportunity to reestablish its control over Niger’s uranium, and to rekindle its neocolonial ambitions elsewhere in Central Africa, particularly in Chad, which like Niger, is a former French colony.

Libya, which has lengthy borders with both Niger and Chad, has been steadily seeking to expand its influence to the south. The French have always been wary of Qaddafi’s ambitions in the region, and have intervened to save anti-Qaddafi forces in Chad, Libya’s southern neighbor, several times between 1978 and 1986. Hence, we should not be surprised to see France eagerly intervening in Libya. One could also see the French intervention as a means to gain easy access to Chad’s proven oil reserves of 1 billion barrels, although this likely would not be the most important factor motivating the French. In any case, with the elimination of Qaddafi, France would have an unhindered hand in the region.

For Britain, intervention in Libya can be seen as no more than a repetition of her involvement in Iraq - tagging along to lend an aura of multilateralism to what is essentially a US-led initiative - and the possibility of an expanded role for BP in the energy sector of a post-Qaddafi Libya. Britain could also use Libya as a springboard for expanded trade relations in Africa. However, it is difficult to argue that such a prospect would be a major consideration in undertaking a risky intervention.

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his French counterpart, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who have both vocally echoed Obama’s call for the ouster of Qaddafi, can be viewed as using military action as a means to bolster their waning popularity. Sarkozy is the least popular French president since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and Cameron has orchestrated the deepest budget cuts in modern British history. Both have received a boost in the polls in the immediate aftermath of the western intervention in Libya, but if the conflict is a prolonged one, they may both suffer politically.

Finally, one of the unspoken motivations for European intervention in Libya is xenophobic. The faster Libya becomes stable, the less chance there will be of a massive flow of brown-skinned North African refugees streaming into Europe, especially the southern European nations such as Italy and France.

No Easy Answers

Whatever the motivation, the western military intervention has already gone beyond the establishment of a no-fly zone, and Libya has already suffered civilian casualties as a result of the ongoing bombing. The experience in Iraq has shown that a no-fly zone can actually strengthen the targeted regime. In some eyes, the presence of western bombs raining down on Libyan targets has already transformed Qaddafi from villain to victim, further shoring up the support he has among certain segments of the Libyan population.

To assume that Qaddafi has no support in Libya, an assertion we have heard frequently in recent weeks, is false and potentially deadly. Qaddafi has support among ideologically motivated Arab nationalists, socialists, and many anti-Muslim “progressives.” Many of the poorest segments of Libya’s society, although not attaining a lifestyle anywhere close to that found in some of the oil-rich Persian Gulf Emirates, have experienced improving living standards under Qaddafi and support him. Furthermore, he can mobilize an army of supporters from neighboring African states to the south where many have benefited from his largess.

We should expect that Qaddafi will see the western attack as an existential threat, not just to his regime, but to his very life, and we should expect him to fight doggedly to the end. Under such circumstances history has taught us to expect the unexpected. Libya will likely prove no exception in this regard.

For these reasons, I do not believe western intervention in Libya is solely motivated by humanitarian concerns, nor do I believe it will succeed. I cannot support it. However, I do not want my lack of support for the U.S.-led intervention to be viewed as a lack of support for those segments of the Libyan population who have suffered from Qaddafi’s abuses. It is not constructive to frame the conflict in draconian, zero sum terms, where opposition to the US-led intervention automatically translates into support for Qaddafi.

I have many close friends with family members who are living in abject fear while barricaded in their homes in Tripoli and other Libyan cities. I am well aware of the grave danger they and many other people in Libya face. Still, I reiterate that I am against the current wars and interventions of the American military. These campaigns do not enhance the security of the United States. Rather, they create the conditions that lead more people to desire to harm America, and as has been demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere, they create conditions that eventually lead to great loss of civilian life and widespread suffering.

So what about the segments of the population in Libya facing the fury of Qaddafi’s loyalists? Now that much of the regime’s armor and aircraft have been destroyed, there should be an immediate call for the cessation of all bombing missions by western powers. All warring parties in Libya should accept an immediate ceasefire. The United Nations, League of Arab States and the African Union should send in a joint peacekeeping force to maintain the ceasefire. Furthermore, the countries that are currently spending millions of dollars to bomb Libya should be be encouraged to make equal or exceeding commitments in humanitarian aid to assist the growing number of displaced individuals. Finally, a national referendum could either affirm Qaddafi’s “Jamahiriyya” or create a constitutional committee charged with drafting a new constitution. If the support for Qaddafi is as weak as it is claimed, the rebels should welcome such a proposal.

Many will argue that these proposed measures are unrealistic. That may well be the case. But, I believe it is unrealistic to expect positive results from the intervention of western powers that have long histories of pursuing goals, objectives, and strategies that first and foremost serve their own interests. I hope that I am wrong.