Intervening in Libya

On March 19, 2011, the United Nations Security Council voted for Resolution 1973 to establish a “no-fly” zone over Libya. The violence against civilians and media personnel is cited as the reasons for the new resolution (an earlier one, 1970, languishes). The Council authorizes a ban on all flights over Libya (except for humanitarian purposes), freezes selective assets of the Libyan high command and proposes that a Panel of Experts be set up to look into the issue within the next year. Even as  members of the Council raised their paddles to indicate their votes, French Mirage fighters powered up to begin their bombing runs and U. S. ships loaded their cruise missiles to fire into Libyan targets. Their bombardments were intended to dismantle Libyan air defenses. This is the prelude to the establishment of a “no-fly” zone.

To create the “no fly” zone, the Council allowed member states to act “nationally or through regional organizations,” viz. NATO, “to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights.” It is the “all necessary measures” that allows the member states (the U. S., the U.K. and France) to extend the zone at will, and to push from enforcement of a “no-fly” zone to the removal of Qaddafi, including by the targeting of his compound in Tripoli. For Obama, the war aim is to remove Qaddafi, which exceeds the authority of UN Resolution 1973. US cruise missiles struck Libyan armed forces units and Qaddafi’s home (what the media call his “compound”).

The murkiness of the mission perplexes General Carter Ham of the U. S. African Command. He acknowledged that many of the rebels are themselves civilians who have taken up arms. Resolution 1973 does not call upon the member states to assist the rebels, only to protect civilians. Would the “no fly” zone give an advantage to the rebels, and so violate the mandate? “We do not provide close air support for the opposition forces,” General Ham notes, “We protect civilians.” However, “It’s a very problematic situation. Sometimes these are situations that brief better at the headquarters than in the cockpit of an aircraft.” If Qaddafi’s forces engage the rebels, the planes and cruise missiles technically cannot interfere. In which case, the call made by the rebels for air support cannot be met by Resolution 1973.

French planes took the lead, perhaps to help bolster President Sarkozy’s anemic party at the Canton level elections (the dog refused to be wagged, as the far right and the socialists made gains). Despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates warnings of an extended conflict, the U. S. war machine followed, and overtook the French bombardments. A hundred years ago, Italian planes inaugurated aerial bombardment over these very cities. The Futurist Tommaso Marinetti flew on one sortie, finding the bombing runs to be “hygienic” and a good “moral education.” The air force communiqué from November 6, 1911 considered the runs to “have a wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs.” The Daily Chronicle hesitated on the same day, “This was not war. It was butchery. Noncombatants, young and old, were slaughtered ruthlessly, without compunction and without shame.” The Italians took cover behind international law. The Institute for International Law in Madrid found that “air warfare is allowed, but only on the condition that it does not expose the peaceful population to greater dangers than attacks on land or from the sea.” Much the same kind of logic floated around in NATO’s Brussels’ meeting.

In the camp of the Left, certainty is no longer an option. Qaddafi’s threats against the much weaker rebellion in the east are hard to ignore. Arrests and assassinations in the west are equally appalling. There is no easy lever to use against Qaddafi’s power. Many who would otherwise stand surely against humanitarian intervention are now not so sure. Much the same kind of predicament stopped liberals and some leftists when George H. W. Bush promised to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime (those of us who stood on vigils for the dead of Hallabja will remember the debates). These are not manufactured discussions. They are real. No countervailing force of the Left is available to defend the rebels. No Vietnamese army, such as entered Cambodia in 1978-79 to crush the Khmer Rouge and save Cambodia from the maniacal policies of Pol Pot. No Cuban troops, such as came to the aid of the MPLA (who can forget the 1987-88 Cuito-Cuanavale siege and the eventual victory of the MPLA and the Cubans against the South Africans, a mortal blow for the apartheid regime). These are episodes of military intervention when the balance of forces favored the Left. Is the current “no fly” zone intervention such a feat?

Few have any illusions about the actions of the “coalition.” Even the guru of liberal interventionism, Michael Walzer, believes that this is the “wrong intervention.” Why does the West seek to bomb Libya and not the Gulf States or Ivory Coast, or Darfur or indeed the Congo is plain to see. The answer to every question is the same: oil. For Bahrain’s democracy activists the authorized intervention came from Saudi Arabia, whose interest is to crush dissent in the peninsula and to preserve the monarchies that encircle the first amongst equals, the realm of King Abdullah and the oil barons. Yemen is on the brink. Deals are being struck. Senior figures in the military and in the political wing who abandon Ali Abdullah Saleh have already been given assurances from their powerful backers. As long as the revolution does not go too far, and as long as the military can contain any move to radical democracy, all will be forgiven. The bogey of al-Qaeda takes care of Washington, and that of radical republicanism takes care of Saudi Arabia. Ivory Coast, Darfur and the Congo remain outside the realm of care.

The West had already derived the bulk of Libyan oil contracts (we are far from the days when Qaddafi had removed the Hunt brothers and seized control of the oil fields; he has conducted contortions of revolutionary logic to explain his red carpet for the very oil firms he once reviled). Few advantages are to be gained from the ouster of Qaddafi. What perhaps runs through the DNA of the powerful is that a protracted civil war in Libya would harm its ability to transit the oil that sits under its soil, and so dangerously harm the “way of life” of those who matter. Events had to be hastened. If Qaddafi had become more unreliable, it was time to turn to the Revolutionary Council and hope that it would be as pliant an oil broker but with a better record of human rights.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice did not have an easy time at the UN. South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil and India balked. The Chinese and Russians were not keen. It took fierce arm-twisting of the Arab League to give Obama the lever to move South Africa’s Jacob Zuma in a rushed phone call. India’s Manjeev Singh Puri pointed out that his country could not support the resolution because it was “based on very little clear information, including a lack of certainty regarding who was going to enforce the measure…. Political efforts must be the priority in resolving the situation.” Brazil’s Maria Luiza Riberio Viotti also demurred, largely because Brazil “believed that the resolution contemplated measures that went beyond [the] call” for the protection of civilians. She worried that the actions taken might cause “more harm than good to the very same civilians we are committed to protecting,” and that no military action alone “would succeed in ending the conflict.” Brazil, China, Germany, India and the Russian Federation abstained. Ten voted with the U. S., France and the U. K. There were no negative votes.
The Arab League’s imprimatur was essential, but it was also convoluted. Nawaf Salam of Lebanon, for instance, said that the resolution did not authorize the occupation of “even an inch” of Libyan territory. It seems that the League’s members believed that a “no-fly” zone would be conducted without bombardment. Amr Moussa, head of the League, appeared confused. He first said that the bombardment “differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone,” and then was dragooned to stand beside UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Cairo and recant (Ban’s car was assaulted as he left the Arab League headquarters by protestors chanting, “no-fly, no-fly”). The African Union was also caught between two stools. It seemed to support Resolution 1973, but then hesitated when its ad-hoc high-power committee was prevented from going to see Qaddafi and the rebels in order to broker a ceasefire. What the Arab League and the African Union expected from “all necessary measures” is bewildering if not the typical routine, now well-established after Panama, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The rebels in Benghazi called for the “no-fly” zone. Liberal intervention takes cover behind invitations. The U. S. invaded the Philippines only after being invited to join in the struggle against the Spanish by Emilio Aguinaldo. When the Spanish fled, the U. S. decided to take over. This kind of imperial grammar moves from 1898 to the 21st century with ease. The rebels in Benghazi have also asked for help. But is this the only help possible?

The rebels have been under attack from Qaddafi’s superior firepower. It was clear by late last week that a stalemate was on the horizon and that Qaddafi’s move up the coastline was not going to go very far. More sober-minded members of his government had already made it clear that they would not permit a full-scale assault on Benghazi. Such assurances don’t count for much. Qaddafi is fundamentally weakened, and in time would have had to seek an exit for himself and his family. It was inevitable. The question was how long this would take, and how much suffering he would enforce as the cost of his departure. Qaddafi’s friends on the international stage, among whom one should add both Chavez and Berlusconi, would have had to play a role in convincing him that all was over (David Held and Lord Meghnad Desai might have played a role with Saif al-Islam). Certainly the Arab League and the African Union do not have the military capacity or perhaps the inclination  to open up a front on behalf of the rebels, but they could certainly have sent in peacekeepers to prevent an assault on the eastern cities. As well, the frozen assets could have been turned over to the Revolutionary Council, as a way for them to arm themselves with the same arsenal as Qaddafi’s armies. These might have been ways to buy time for the eastern rebels to find allies in the western cities, particularly in the restive working-class areas in Tripoli (such as Tajoura and Gurgi).

Such options are no longer central, or even on the table. Qaddafi’s rule might fall in a week or a month. In the interim, he is a caged animal, and his loyalists will not dissolve easily. In the short term,  he may conduct some kind of spectacular attack on a tanker in the Mediterranean, or else, as he himself warned, inside Europe. This is precisely the kind of pretext that the warmongers seek. The Gulf of Sidra will stand in for the Gulf of Tonkin. Ships of war will dock at Benghazi, and the ground troops will slide along the road that was once the graveyard of Field Marshall Montgomery  and Rommel (their half tracks and tanks still litter the road outside Tobruk). Such an assault, which might be inevitable, will revive the debacle in Iraq that lasted from 2003 to 2007, with loyalists now underground in a brutal insurgency against the foreign troops and the people of the east, a defense of their realm and a sectarian conflict at the same time. If this were the scenario, then, as Michael Walzer put it, “it would extend, not stop, the bloodshed.”

The forces of counter-revolution line up with the West. The Gulf Cooperation Council hastened to pledge its unequivocal support. The United Arab Emirates is sending twenty-four aircraft and Qatar will send as many as six. They will also help fund the between $1-2 billion/month cost of the enforcing the “no-fly” zone. Saudi Arabia’s troops remain in Bahrain. Their air force is geared up, and it too might fly alongside the French over Libyan skies. No Tunisian and Egyptian planes are on the offer. It is a telling sign that only the counter-revolutionary regimes are excited at the prospect of this battle. They know that it is precisely the best opportunity to stop the tide of the Arab Revolt of 2011.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at:



Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).