A Humanitarian Intervention?

by Richard Seymour, Edward Lewis

Richard Seymour writes the blog Lenin’s Tomb and is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and The Meaning of David Cameron. Following the onset of military intervention in Libya, he spoke to NLP’s Ed Lewis about the motives underlying the operation and whether or not it can be justified.


The professed rationale for the intervention in Libya is of course a humanitarian one, as is to be expected given the way Western powers (if not all states) portray themselves. The work of writers such as Noam Chomsky, Mark Curtis, yourself and a host of others has, however, shown that Western foreign policy tends to have as its primary concern the power and privilege of domestic elites. What, then, is the real motive of those backing the intervention in Libya? What, fundamentally, do you think they are seeking to achieve?

I think there are various motives.  One is to re-establish the credibility of the US and its allies by appearing to side with an endangered population and thus partially expunge the ‘Iraq syndrome’ as well as efface decades of arming and financing dictatorships to keep the local populations under thumb and permanently endangered.  But a more fundamental motive can be inferred from the context: the region is experiencing a revolutionary tumult, and the revolution in Libya is no less genuine than those in Tunisia and Egypt (and the uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen).  The thrust of this revolution is not just anti-dictatorship, it’s also anti-imperialist, against the IMF and alliances with Israel.  So I would hypothesise that the US and its allies have been desperate to find a way to halt this revolutionary process somehow and, where they can’t do that, shape it in a direction more favourable to continued American hegemony in the region.  The former regime elements in the leadership of the Libyan rebellion have been more open to an alliance with the US than other revolutionary movements partly because of the particular history and nature of the Qadhafi regime, whose legitimacy continued to rely somewhat on his past standing as a regional opponent of imperialism.  This has given the US and EU a unique opportunity to stamp their authority in the process, even if they can’t control it. 

That said, it’s a gamble on the part of the US: there’s no guarantee they can control this revolt, and the political forces, particularly in the east of Libya, are not favourable to imperialism.  There’s an assumption that because the transitional council has called for a no-fly zone, that must be a demand shared throughout the revolutionary movement.  I’m not so sure.  The transitional council has little real authority over the movements it is trying to represent.  They have more or less admitted that while in theory local revolutionary councils are supposed to send delegates, this has not really happened.  The revolution is not a centralised univocal movement, and the transitional council is not the Viet Minh.  It is ideologically disparate, organisationally disarticulated, and spatially dispersed.  So, while the revolutionaries will undoubtedly try to take advantage of any possible breathing space and turn this intervention to their advantage, there are millions of people whose views have not been canvassed in this campaign and could thus turn against it very quickly if it doesn’t go well.  Perhaps the best outcome the US and EU can achieve from their perspective is a de facto partition, between a ‘pro-Western’ east and a rump dictatorship in the west of Libya.  The UN resolution seeks a negotiated outcome to the conflict based on bolstering the position of the insurgency to produce a stalemate.  Given that Qadhafi would be unlikely to cede power in that circumstance, partition looks like a very plausible outcome.  And that would be very bad for Libya, given the regional and ‘tribal’ divisions, partially rooted in the colonial history of Cyrenaica, which Qadhafi has deliberately exacerbated with his policy of underdeveloping the east.  It could lead to a degeneration of the revolution and a civil war.  Divide and rule is not exactly an unfamiliar strategy in the annals of imperialism.

Some will argue that even if the belligerent states have nefarious motives, if it leads to the downfall of Gaddafi or the saving of life then it is justified - these kinds of outcomes being more important than whatever motives may lead to them. What do you make of such arguments?

I think you have to take such arguments seriously, but their proponents all too often do not.  Taking them seriously means trying to judge whether or not the nature of the powers supposedly bringing about this deliverance will affect how they behave, and thus the outcome.  We’re being asked to bet on the idea that either the interests of the imperialist states will coincide with those of the revolution - which, given their counter-revolutionary posture in the region is vanishingly unlikely - or that they will, quite unintentionally, produce a genuinely free Libya.  What if they don’t do that?  What if, as I’ve suggested, the coalition of states involved in the bombing actually works to prevent a revolutionary victory by creating a stalemate?  What if the air war escalates and creates massacres?  There can be all sorts of restrictions applied, ‘rules of engagement’, but these are subordinate to the military logic, and tend to be ‘relaxed’ when things don’t go according to plan.  Recall that weeks into the war on Yugoslavia in 1999, also fought ostensibly on a humanitarian pretext, the US started to expand the bombing into a war on the civilian infrastructure, including a notorious massacre in a television station.  And that was a short, relatively low-intensity war.  In the parts of Libya that Qadhafi controls, there are millions of people who would potentially suffer if such a tactic was deployed, and bitterly oppose the intervention.  And this relates to the question of civil war again - if these civilians blame the revolutionary leadership for visiting this upon them, they may become willing executioners of the counter-revolution. 

These are fairly huge risks that we’re being asked to take with the lives and well-being of Libyans by endorsing military intervention by the imperialist states, and they’re plausible enough to demand a serious accounting in the war stakes.  But I haven’t seen anyone who favours intervention conduct such an audit seriously.

Is there an alternative approach that states outside of Libya could realistically have taken, or be taking, that would be better?

States in the region were already intervening in various ways.  Egypt has been supplying weapons and training soldiers for some weeks.  The regime in Egypt is still a military one and a capitalist one, and it will pursue its own interests.  But it isn’t an imperialist state, and its efforts may involve trying to position Egypt as a leading power in a new regional configuration of forces that are more independent of Washington.  But I don’t think we should invest our hopes in that, as the Egyptian military leadership hasn’t yet broken with its backers, and I tend to think we should avoid state-centric answers.  Just because states tend to have all the guns doesn’t mean they provide a clean short-cut to a revolutionary outcome.  I think we should look to the revolutionary forces in the Middle East.  Volunteers from surrounding states have already been joining the Libyan revolution (eg:http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/7689.aspx), and people have made comparisons to the Spanish civil war.  That’s a model of solidarity and ‘interventionism’ that has a proud history on the Left. 

One way we could help in this would be to build practically relevant solidarity movements with the revolutions, all of them, raising money and political support.  We could pressure our governments to release Qadhafi’s frozen funds to the revolution, to let them purchase whatever weapons they need.  But we should not allow them to try and determine the nature and pace of this revolution, which is for the people of the region to decide, which is why we really have to argue against any reliance on the false ‘aid’ and promises of the ‘West’.

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First published: 20 March, 2011

Category: Foreign policy, International

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9 Comments on "A Humanitarian Intervention?"

By Mark, on 21 March 2011 - 11:35 |

I’m impressed you managed not to mention oil once, but while being a depressing cliché, it’s absolutely and inescapably a big part of the intervention.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_reserves_in_Libya

By BrianO, on 21 March 2011 - 16:45 |

A much better piece, Richard, than I have read from anyone else on the left. For one thing it largely avoids the economistic and static concept of imperialism that can’t see any further than the next oil well. You at least have an understanding of imperialism that incorporates the centrality of political and strategic considerations. But you still insist on treating “imperialism” as if its some sort of homogenous agent, rather than a structure which shapes the conduct of the real international social actors - which are first and foremost states. As a result you are unable to deal with the frequent confusion, incoherence, and hesitation that characterises imperialist state behaviour just as much (if not more) than cunnning conspiracy,  wilfull plotting and strategic goal- seeking. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the Libyan crisis.
You are spot on in your analysis of all the dangers and twists and turns that western intervention will draw us into, and generally correct in the key issues and variables you want us to focus on.  You state: “But I haven’t seen anyone who favours intervention conduct such an audit seriously.” Absolutely right - but its been difficult to find interlocutors with whom one could work through such an audit with the debate on the left being dominated by the “reflex anti-imperialism” of Stop the War. And where, might ask is your audit of the consequences of doing nothing in Libya?
The second part of your piece I find much less satisfactory.I have heard these reports of Egyptian arms going into Libya, but I’d like to know the chapter and verse. I have seen no signs of a significant enhancement in rebel military capacity - except perhaps in the recent shooting down of of a rebel jet by its own side. If Egyptian assistance is arriving it seems to have been too little too late. But as you say, dependence on Egypt would be a highly problematic solution.
The penultimate part of your argument seems to consist of the sort of fantasies that people like George Gallloway use to hide their nakedness (now there’s a thought) when confronted with the thorny “what’s your alternative question. The link to Al-Ahram is very interesting, but in fact what it mostly describes are the cases of Egyptian migrants settled in Libya who have decided to stay and fight in there; the one exception is someone involved in humanitarian aid. I have seen no other reports of youth from Egypt or Tunisia crossing the borders to join the Libyan fighters. And for good reasons -they are almost totally preoccupied with their own internal situation, and the need to complete their own revolutions.
By the way, if you are going to dispatch an international brigade I would suggest you get them some guns first, which kind of brings us back to where we started! In evoking Spain you overlook the parallel campaign that the left mounted against the Non-Intervention Committee.
You final paragraph I intend to frame and mount over my bed.
Again - despite these many disagreements, thank you very deeply for taking this very urgent debate onto a higher plane.

By MC, on 21 March 2011 - 21:05 |

I have not seen much about how problems more close to home and how they appear to the domestic population may have made military intervention attractive to Cameron and Sarkozy.

Sarkozy is facing potentially damaging elections this weekend, Camerons cut agenda is becoming increasingly unpopular, there wont be much discussion about the affect of cuts this week with the bombing campaign in progress in the run up to TUC anti cuts demo this weekend, a war seems like a good way to distract attention away from this. Its not like this has not happened before -Bill Clinton bombing Iraq during his impeachment trials.

Not saying it is the only motivation, but i bet it is one of them.

By Peter C Masters, on 21 March 2011 - 21:15 |

I have to say, that examining this article in depth and reading some of the comments posted on the NLP website in response, I feel that many people on the left are living in the past with talk of ‘imperialism’ (and also with the spurious use of the term ‘revolution’ but that’s another argument).

As far as the Western powers are concerned, ‘imperialist’ is a ham-fisted, outdated moniker given to powerful international elites by commentators and academics on the left who seem to have had their heads in the sand for the past twenty years.

Imperialism, as a term endeared to powerful military and political nations,  should at least suggest some sort of confidence in political outlook and ideology, and strangely enough, absolutely no Western powers at this moment in history have confidence in any long-term outlook,  rather the EU and America have a complete crisis of authority in terms of their own ‘Western’ political project.

This nervousness was apparent as soon as the dust had settled after the fall of Eastern-Bloc and the end of the Cold-War. It then became explicit during the first Gulf War as America began to try and re-shape a new world order.

That war, and the further excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan were an utter disaster. Subsequently, with the paranoia of a post 9-11 international community, confidence within the West plunged the political elite into moral dissonance on one side and clueless military violence on the other.

And this is my point, if you look carefully and soberly at this whole escapade into Libya and the recent history of the Western decline in its belief in itself, it becomes clear that this so-called ‘imperialist’ adventure is not about colonial intervention into the ‘dark continent’ of Africa, or even about ‘oil’, that other rather lazy claim of many critics on the Left. No, this sham is all about the death throes of the mainstream politics we have known (and hated) within, not without, but within Western nations.
And this politics is not dying quietly, it is going with a great big misplaced bang! Nervously dished out by politicians with flagging careers and with no ideas left amongst their wretched selves.  Which is why this intervention is dangerous and deadly for all people in Libya and in no way ‘humanitarian’.

As to what will replace the political void in Libya, a revolution maybe? This I think is premature. Premature because of the lack of any serious and widespread ‘grassroots’ political organisation in terms of new and substantial ideas.

That though, is for the Libyans themselves to fight for.

By Michael Krog, on 21 March 2011 - 22:24 |

My family has been involved in the Middle East for over a century, moving from Baku, to Persia and beyond. Our only concern was oil. That’s why we were there. That’s why the region was important, and what’s really changed?

Why would we be interested in the Middle East if it wasn’t because of its oil?

Sure, we had colonies, there was the Suez Canal, but by far the most important reason for us to be there was oil. To imagine that “democracy” and “human rights” are more important to us than oil and gas, is absurd.

By Chrys, on 22 March 2011 - 04:40 |

If Imperialism is defined as a straw man it is very easily dismissed-such is the nature of debating points. But Imperialism as the system centred on Wall St and the City (but ready to move at a moment’s notice) the Free Trade, Globalisation system with a reserve currency underwritten by oil and other vital commodities is very much a reality. No, of course it doesn’t have a Central Committee but it uses the power of the US State as a matter of course. It is an old Empire which began in Iberia, flitted around Europe before settling in Holland, noving to London and finally renting rooms in the USA.  Reality is a messy business but the reality is that Libya has been attacked on spurious grounds by an Empire which seems to be guided by auto-pilot. It is not a very sensible move,( I take it we are all agreed that it has nothing to do with morality or saving lives.)Those on the left who cannot bear to be left out of things should, when choosing sides be very careful. The old slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” didn’t end there, though many people seen to feel that it did. The punch line was International Socialism. It wasn’t “International Socialism cunningly piggy backed on NATO tanks. ”  As to oil, its importance is that it is tangible and most of the Empire’s ‘statesmen” need tangible things to guide them: all the brainy people in the ruling class are making money, the Camerons, Blairs, Obamas and Sarkozys are the dimwits and they really need simple ideas to guide them.  All their limited intellectual abilities are devoted to political manoeuvring and posturing. Doesn’t it show? Hasn’t the whole Libyan nonsense struck us as ‘amateur hour’ dramatics, cheap propaganda full of contradictions designed just to panic liberals, (addicted to panic and in love with being bullied),  into jumping to attention and saluting the flag. The same old rubbish about genocide spouted from the mouths that remained closed, tight lipped through Fallujah, Gaza, the carpet bombing of south Lebanon. The same people who watched expectantly as Tahir Square was over run by thugs and cavalry, while jets (their jets) circled overhead and gunships stood ready to do on camera what they do every day , now wringing their hands and worrying about the plain folks of Benghazi.  And now, three days later, hundreds of cruise missiles later, countless (but uncounted) casualties later what is clearly a criminal adventure is still the subject of sophisticated discourse.  We are like parasites on the juggernaut’s prow examining its next moves, as if we were driving rather than wasting time better spent sawing into the axles

By Greg, on 22 March 2011 - 15:20 |

and had Gadafi captured Benghazi last week, what then exactly? A civilian massacre no doubt and lots of hand-wringing from the anti-interventionist left. For all of the international solidarity, Franco still won the Spanish war…

By Michael Krog, on 22 March 2011 - 20:24 |

Imperialism, brutal and raw, is alive and well, and has made a spirited comeback over the last twenty years, and it’s getting easier to send our “heroes” abroad to pursue our strategic and commercial interests using force, which surely is close to the textbook definition of imperialism?

For example, in relation to Afghanistan one could say that it we were attacked first and we were defending ourselves. The invasion of Iraq was far more difficult, one could hardly accuse the Iraqis, who were on their knees, of having the ability to attack us, so we invented a raft of lies and claime that we were under imminent threat of attack. Now with Libya, we haven’t been attacked, Libya isn’t planning to attack us, so we invent stories and rumours about “genocide” “massacres” and “mass-slaughter” to justify aggressive war.

What this shows, with crystal clear clarity, is that there is a definite trend at work here, the threshold, the bar is being systematically lowered, with each war we embark on, which is why the majority of the world’s countries is so appalled by our actions, who is next on the list for help and humanitarian war?

By William Bowles, on 24 March 2011 - 13:58 |

Richard Seymour tells us that the Libyan ‘revolution’ is anti-imperialist? How say you? There’s nothing to indicate what the rebels want aside from getting rid of Gaddafi. In fact, these ‘anti-imperialist’ rebels have been singing the praises of Sarkozy for being the first to bomb Libya!

Led by ex-Gaddafi hacks, cia assets and so forth, the rebels have no programme, anti-imperialist or otherwise.

Why does the Western left continue to to delude itself about events?

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