Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A vicarious potency

In the case of Libya, liberal interventionists ignore the history of imperialism and the realities of power, writes Mike Marqusee

April 3, 2011
10 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


  share     tweet  

The hypocrisy, double standards and selectivity displayed in the western military action in Libya defy enumeration, but just for a start….

In Yemen and Bahrain western-backed regimes are violently repressing the democracy movement the west claims to back in Libya. In Iraq a US-sponsored regime protected by 47,000 US troops is trying to do the same – shooting demonstrators, detaining thousands and subjecting many to torture. The ‘urgency’ of the response to Gaddafi is in marked contrast to the infinite patience extended to Israel. No one proposed a No Fly Zone when Israeli aircraft were pummelling Gaza. Nor did they when the Sri Lankan government killed some 20,000 civilians in its final assault on the LTTE.

In Burma condemnation has never been matched by the merest hint of military action, while millions have perished in a war in the Congo financed and armed by western corporations. Had the Egyptian army jumped the other way and repressed the uprising, would western powers have treated them as they’re treating the Gaddafi regime? Not a chance. And then there’s the flip-flop over Gaddafi himself, from pariah to partner and back again in record time.

‘So what?’ some will respond. If the western powers are hypocritical and selective, that doesn’t mean that in this instance they’re wrong. Our guilt elsewhere is not an excuse for failing to protect the innocent in Libya. We cannot cure our governments’ double standards with double standards of our own.

But what are these ‘double-standards of our own’? We don’t demand the invasion of Burma or the bombing of Tel Aviv and no one called for NFZs over the townships during the apartheid years. We want an end to western support for repressive regimes everywhere, we stand in solidarity with democratic struggles, but our solidarity is not expressed at the tip of a Cruise missile.

The critical point about the hypocrisy, double-standards and selectivity is that they unveil the real motive forces driving the intervention. And motives here are anything but incidental factors; they guide and shape the intervention and therefore tell us a great deal about its likely impact. What the double standards reveal, ironically, is a very clear and consistent policy standard, i.e. western elite interests (or lack of them). Where oil is at stake, behaviour is strikingly uniform – whatever is necessary to control and/ or keep others from controlling its supply.

This helps explain why the western powers are throwing caution to the wind, jumping into a conflict for which they are even less well-prepared than they were for Iraq. The Libyan crisis is too good, too rare an opportunity to pass up. It offers them the chance to insert a pro-western regime in an oil producing nation, to reassert their role in the region after a series of setbacks and to renew their prerogatives as world policemen in the wake of the catastrophic performance in Iraq. There is also a pressing need to realign and channel the Arab popular movements, which have defied so many western assumptions. Crucially these movements have combined demands for political rights with demands for economic and social justice – the part of the movement that is a revolt against neoliberal rule has to be diverted.

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes that liberal interventionism is ‘fine in theory’ but goes wrong ‘in practice’. I’d suggest that it goes wrong in practice because it’s deeply flawed in theory.

If liberal interventionists were consistent, they would advocate similar Western military action in relation to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Congo, Kashmir, Iran, Israel, Burma, etc. etc. etc. This would not only be wildly impracticable but deeply undesirable. It would lead to chaos and escalating violence on a global scale, overwhelmingly detrimental to the poor and vulnerable and fatal to the cause of democratic advance. A policy that if applied consistently and universally would result in disaster is best not applied at all.

Liberal interventionists treat great powers as neutral agents, disinterested entities that can be inserted into a situation for a limited purpose and time, like a surgeon’s knife. In reality, however, these powers have clear and compelling interests – in Libya as elsewhere – and their deployment of military force will be guided by those interests. In action, western troops are accountable not to the people they’re supposed to be protecting but to a chain of command that ends in Washington, London and Paris.

The unleashing of the great military powers undermines the universalism the liberal interventionists claim to honour: outcomes are determined by concentrations of wealth and power remote from the scene of suffering. If we’re to build any kind of just, sustainable world order, then we must (at the least) restrain and restrict great powers, not license them to act where and when it’s convenient for them.

The incompatibility between democratic development and great power intervention may seem obvious but it seems to escape the liberal interventionists. Their approach is ahistorical, as if somehow the entire record of western imperialism could be suddenly overturned, self-interest magically transformed into humanitarian interest. In the name of pluralism they endorse a uni-polar world, governed perpetually by a few great powers. In the name of universalism, they support an exercise of power that has always been and must continue to be selective in the extreme when it comes to human rights.

Characteristically, the liberal interventionists omit from their equations the realities of unequal power. Their approach to crisis is managerialist. Problems will be solved by the implementation from above of sound policies. They see the masses as passive recipients of democracy, not the creators of it. Those who believe democracy can be imposed by military assault have surely missed some of the basic stuff of democracy itself, not to mention the powerful lessons of Tahrir Square. For them military intervention is an act of noblesse oblige – but like all such acts, it re-enforces the subordinate status of the alleged beneficiary; it reminds them who’s boss.

It’s argued that badly motivated actions can still have unintended positive consequences and that Libya may be a case in point. But it’s much more likely that such actions will have unintended negative consequences. This argument from serendipity – that good will accidentally flow from bad – was advanced in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. It seems a flimsy basis for a geo-political philosophy. Most importantly, it ignores that intentions, however contradictory or confused, shape outcomes.

Liberal interventionism is underpinned by a lack of sensitivity to the inevitable costs of warfare and in particular warfare waged by one country on the soil (or airspace) of another. It ignores the vast range of unpredictable ramifications. It treats military intervention as if it were the same as raising or lowering taxes, a mechanical incentive to a desired form of behaviour.

Liberal interventionism is entirely dependent on the great powers. There’s no other way the policy can be implemented. It relies on a coincidence of western and humanitarian interests, one that has been a historical rarity at best. In the end, the liberal interventionists have no agenda or standard of their own.

The current intervention ensures that if Gaddafi falls, his replacement will be chosen by the west. The new regime will be born dependent on the western powers, which will direct its economic and foreign policies accordingly. The liberal interventionists will say that’s not what they want, but their policy makes it inevitable.

The problem is not the ambiguities of the UN mandate. ‘Mission creep’ is inherent in the process. The mission will become what the major powers want it to be, according to their own agendas, not least their interest in Libyan oil.

‘What about Bosnia? What about Rwanda?’ One significant difference is that in Libya we’re faced with an attempt by an authoritarian state to crush a popular uprising and the ensuing civil war – not an ethnic assault. The lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda are indeed powerful but they do not include the one that the question usually supposes, i.e. that western military intervention should have taken place.

In Bosnia a western-imposed NFZ and Dutch troops on the ground failed to stop the Srebrenica massacre. When the full scale intervention that the liberals had been calling for finally took place in 1999, it precipitated a massive escalation of the ethnic cleansing it was supposed to stop and stymied the anti-Milosevic movement in Serbia (which succeeded without western help a year later). Eleven years on none of the underlying issues have been resolved, the victors have engaged in their own ethnic cleansing and the Kosovo statelet is a corruption-riddled western dependency.

In Rwanda, there were French troops on the ground, defending their national interests and nothing else. In the end, the genocide was stopped by an African intervention. Western powers are unlikely to have been any more effective and their presence on the ground as a military force would have profoundly skewed subsequent developments, in all likelihood hampering the progress that Rwanda has been able to make in their absence.

‘So do we do nothing?’ The question is undermined by the selectivity of those who ask it. Their indignation may be sincere but it is intellectually contrived. Not wanting to do the one particular thing (using military force) that they fix on is not the same as ‘doing nothing’. We do what we can do, what contributes most and destroys least. There is ready to hand an alternative model of global intervention in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign aimed at Israel, which is opposed by most liberal interventionists.

Western presence in the region is not the solution but a major part of the problem. This is not a presence that can be restricted to policing the rights of civilians (and I can’t think of a single instance in modern times where it has actually performed that task). It’s a presence that shapes the region’s economy, society and political institutions according to its own priorities. Getting rid of that interfering hand is a necessary step towards democracy and development.

Finally, this debate has reminded me of the gulf that separates my politics (and most of us on the left) from this type of liberalism. For me this gulf first opened when as a youngster I watched liberals launch the Vietnam War on a sea of ‘good intentions’. The gulf widened when, despite the ensuing nightmare, liberals continued to believe in the benign nature of US (or British or French) world intentions.

In Libya, once again, they have been seduced by a vicarious potency. And they have always failed to recognise that vast disparities in wealth and concomitant concentrations of power are themselves the greatest threats to democracy and human rights. Liberal interventionists may not like the disparities, the inequalities, but they regard them as inevitable and tolerable. Mass economic immiseration, it seems, is never grounds for ‘urgent intervention’.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power


2