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Jaw-jaw about the Libya war-war

Oscar Reyes argues in relation to Libya, that there is still no way to bomb a country into democracy.

March 23, 2011
3 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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It’s official: the Libyan government is now the “Libyan regime.” The US and NATO are once again “the Allies.” Numerous war planes have been sent to sortie around a “no-fly zone.” And the bombs they are dropping are, invariably, “humanitarian.”

The script for the latest instance of Western military adventurism follows the tried-and -tested pattern. So it’s hardly surprising that the media commentariat is trotting out its familiar lines too: those in favour of bombing talk up the “responsibility to protect”, where questions of sovereignty should play second fiddle to our duty as globalised citizens. This sounds awfully like the Blair doctrine of humanitarian intervention, although the B- word is best not mentioned in polite conversation about Libya, when our beloved ex-leader went out of his way to rehabilitate Gaddafi.

The left’s response, more often than not, gives prominence to cries of hypocrisy. Why a no-fly zone for Libya and not Bahrain? Or Palestine? Why act now, when we were arming Gaddafi a matter of weeks ago in exchange for oil deals and anti-immigration favours? This strikes me as being simultaneously true and irrelevant. Governments are not consistent in their actions – nor, in every circumstance, should they be. If the UK government backed a dictator who served its interests, and had now realised the error of its ways, that should in theory be a good thing. And if the hypocrisy is one of unequal treatment, wouldn’t the right response then be to impose more no-fly zones elsewhere?

The left should do everything it can to resist the Libyan intervention, but calling out Western governments on their hypocrisy is one of the weakest reasons for doing so. Sure, they’re hypocrites, but a more fruitful approach to the same issue would be to unpick the rhetoric of war. We might ask: by what means is a simple imperative to act – the desire of all right-thinking liberals, when viewing atrocities – channelled into a bombing strategy? There’s linguistic trickery at work here, but also a series of military-industrial interests as long as a Lockheed census form.

More importantly, constructing a broader opposition to the bombing would require “flipping the script” on the war – instead of a focus on the motives, it would be worth talking about the likely outcomes. Restating the history of failed “humanitarian interventions” from Kosovo through Afghanistan to Iraq is part of this picture, but the facts need convincing explanations.

In closing, I’d offer the bare bones of such an explanation. Appeals to a generalised humanitarian imperative tend to recast political disputes in a moral register (good versus evil). The resulting simplification abstracts from the local context, which is invariably a far messier reality. That, in turn, has consequences on the ground, the most obvious of which is that it elevates the intervening force into the position of kingmaker. They’ll find new leaders who’s perspective coincide with their own strategic objectives. This is not an accident, but a performative act: for a Western government to recognise you as a leader, you must start to act in ways that conform to Western governments’ norms of leadership in client states. This fundamentally alters the power balance of the situation in Libya, eclipsing the right to self-determination, and claims to democracy that spurred the protests in the first place. Put more simply: there is still no way to bomb a country into democracy.

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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