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Libya: war is not the answer

Phyllis Bennis argues that foreign military intervention in Libya has little to do with humanitarian concerns, and protracted militarization could threaten the country's chance for real democratic development.

March 23, 2011
9 min read


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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Libya’s opposition movement faces a ruthless military assault. They have already paid a far higher price in lost and broken lives than activists in any of the other democratic uprisings shaping this year’s Arab Spring. They are desperate. So it is not surprising that they have urged, demanded, pleaded for international support from the powerful countries and institutions most able to provide immediate military aid, even if it threatens their independence. Last week the UN Security Council gave them what they asked for.

Or did it? The legitimacy of the Libyan protesters’ demand does not mean that the decision by the United Nations and the powerful countries behind it was legitimate as well. The Libyan opposition, or at least those speaking for it, asked for a no-fly zone, for protection from the Qaddafi regime’s air force, to allow them to take on and defeat their dictatorship on their own terms. Many of us opposed that idea, for a host of reasons including the dangers of escalation and the threat of a new U.S. war in the Middle East. But whatever one thinks about that demand, the Security Council resolution went far beyond a no-fly zone. Instead, the United Nations has essentially declared war on Libya.

Protecting Civilians or Ousting Qaddafi?

While the UN resolution was taken in the name of protecting civilians, it authorizes a level of direct U.S., British, French, NATO and other international military intervention far beyond the “no-fly zone but no foreign intervention” that the rebels wanted. Its real goal, evident in the speeches that followed the Security Council’s March 17th evening vote, is to ensure that “Qaddafi must go,” — as so many ambassadors described it. Resolution 1973 is about regime change, to be carried by the Pentagon and NATO with Arab League approval, instead of by home-grown Libyan opposition.

The resolution calls for a no-fly zone, as well as taking “all necessary measures… to protect civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” The phrase “all necessary measures” is understood to include air strikes, ground, and naval strikes to supplement the call for a no-fly zone designed to keep Qaddafi’s air force out of the skies. The U.S. took credit for the escalation in military authority, with Ambassador Susan Rice as well as other Obama administration officials claiming their earlier hesitation on supporting the UN resolution was based on an understanding of the limitations of a no-fly zone in providing real protection to [in this case Libyan] civilians. It’s widely understood that a no-fly zone is most often the first step towards broader military engagement, so adding the UN license for unlimited military escalation was crucial to getting the U.S. on board. The “all necessary measures” language also appears to be the primary reason five Security Council members abstained on the resolution. For Russia, China, Germany, India and Brazil, that phrase meant giving the Pentagon and NATO a blank check backed by UN legitimacy. Unfortunately, their unease was not strong enough to result in opposition to the resolution; the collective abstention of the five still allowed the resolution to pass with a ten-zero vote in favor.

Some supporters of the resolution (which sadly included South Africa) insisted on explicitly excluding a “foreign occupation force.” But in the real world, that prohibition means little. Any U.S., British, or French troops arriving in Libya could easily be disguised as an “assistance team” or “training mission” or any of a host of well-honed diplomatic pseudonyms for what would otherwise be easily identified as foreign occupation forces. The language was designed to assuage regional and international concerns that the UN resolution threatened to turn the Libyan opposition’s struggle into a third US-NATO war in the Middle East.

But in fact the UN resolution threatens exactly that. The resolution’s focus on immediate military engagement on behalf of the rebels (exactly what led to a deafening celebration in opposition-held Benghazi when the vote was announced) threatens to sideline the referral of the Qaddafi regime’s crimes to the International Criminal Court and other potential pressure points, in favor of escalating the militarization of the entire region and internationalizing the military battle. Imposition of a no-fly zone will not have any impact on the regime’s tank and artillery assaults currently underway, but it is likely to be the first international engagement. That means the first U.S. (or French or British, both of which are rumored to be trying to out-run the Pentagon as first to engage in Libya) military action will likely be bombing Libyan air defenses. If one of those U.S. or British or French planes is shot down, leading to a NATO pilot or bomber team ending up in Qaddafi’s custody, it’s a pretty good bet that special forces or other ground troops would quickly be deployed to rescue the captured airmen. Under those circumstances, the claim so often heard that this resolution “allows everything except boots on the ground,” will be quickly proven untrue. U.S. or other NATO boots on the ground may yet be in store for Libya.

Dangers: dividing Libya, military stalemate, or…?

There is a significant danger that the engagement of international military forces in what is shaping up as a civil war in Libya could result in a longer-term stalemate, perhaps based on the division of the country between the regime-controlled western sector, and the rebel-held east. In fact, the text of the UN resolution seems to anticipate the likelihood that international military involvement will go on for a long time. It calls on governments participating in the military attacks in Libya to keep the UN secretary-general informed of their actions, and asks the SG to “report to the Council within 7 days and every month thereafter” on implementation of the resolution. That is not how you describe a short-term effort to help end an urgent crisis.

There continues to be breathtaking hypocrisy from the U.S. and its allies in responding to the disparate Arab movements. The U.S. demanded not only that the Arab League endorse any authorization to use force in Libya, but also that Arab countries agree to actually participate in any UN-authorized or NATO-led military action. Apparently at least two governments from Arab Gulf states have agreed. Qatar is one of them. The other likely one is United Arab Emirates, who along with Saudi Arabia, just sent hundreds of troops into democracy-shaken Bahrain, to help the king there keep his monarchy’s hold on absolute power. The U.S., fearful of losing Bahrain’s strategic port as home for the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has yet to condemn the foreign troops imported to Bahrain to suppress the democracy protesters. So far, the Obama administration’s only response to the soldiers pouring into Bahrain has been to urge the heavily armed foreign troops to support dialogue between the Bahraini people and their discredited king.

Learning from history

Thirty years ago the U.S. decision to arm and strengthen Saddam Hussein’s weaker Iraqi side against the stronger Iranian side kept the Iran-Iraq War going, U.S. war profiteers wealthy, and young Iranians and Iraqis dying, far longer than might otherwise have been the case. Soon after, the U.S. bribed and threatened Security Council members to get most of them to endorse a U.S. war against Iraq. Then in 1991 George Bush used a false humanitarian claim to justify imposing a “U.S.-UK only” no-fly zone in already war-ravaged Iraq, without even bothering going to the UN..

Today is not quite 1991, and Libya is not quite Iraq. The decision made in the Security Council yesterday may not lead to a third U.S. war in the Middle East. It may not even lead to a long military stalemate or a permanent division of Libyan territory. But the new resolution brings all those dangers closer.

The Libyan opposition, or at least much of it, has made a legitimate demand for international support; for all the right humanitarian reasons, many people in many parts of the world have supported their right to some kind of support. Governments, however, are not people, and do not make strategic decisions for humanitarian reasons. Governments do not use scarce resources and most especially do not deploy military force, to achieve humanitarian goals. So the cold strategic calculations of powerful governments cannot be viewed as a legitimate response to the humanitarian needs of Libya’s people or the humanitarian impulses of international civil society.

The Libyan opposition faced – and faces – a brutal regime willing to risk international opprobrium to escalate military force against its population. One wishes that there was a global, civil society-based protection force, perhaps modeled on the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, capable of responding and providing serious protection to civilians facing such an assault. But such a force does not yet exist. One might wish that regional neighbors such as Tunisia and especially Egypt, where new governments struggle to gain and keep the support of their newly empowered populations, were willing and able to provide sufficient military assistance to Libya’s democratic forces, putting their military power, now at least partly under popular control, at the disposal of the regional democratic movement rising across the Arab world.

There may be new, not yet thought of ways of providing real solidarity to desperate movements, that do not threaten the authenticity and independence of the Libyan – and other – branches of these expanding Arab democratic revolutions. But yesterday’s UN resolution is not the way. The UN Charter calls for ending the scourge of war, not globalizing it.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Transnational Institute and is republished under a Creative Commons License

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Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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