Is the Arab Spring already coming to an end? The foreign intervention in the rebellion in Libya has clouded the rosy vision of nonviolent, youth-led uprisings that had enchanted activists around the world. Will the surge of grassroots pro-democracy solidarity hit a dead end in the streets of Tripoli, as a nebulous armed insurrection aligns with U.S. and European forces?
The speech President Obama gave to belatedly justify the NATO-led intervention makes the same appeals to “universal” humanitarian principles that George W. Bush raised to make the case for war in Iraq. Obama’s words also betrayed typical selectivity in Washington’s decisions on whose humanity to protect, and at what cost.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the Arab revolutions would reveal complex fault lines as time went on. Egypt’s democratic experiment is possibly veering rightward and crackdowns on protests in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria portend a battle of wills that could last many more Arab springs. The Libyan crisis now begs hard questions on whether international intervention would advance or stifle a just revolt. Between the lines of Obama’s rhetoric looms the question: is the historically inconsistent, often manipulative application of the “responsibility to protect” in itself a reason to discredit it?
Leftist Middle East scholar Juan Cole argued on “Democracy Now!” that the answer is no. He says the Libyan strike was on balance a legitimate use of force:
[T]here certainly would have been a massacre there in the same way that there was in Zawiyah, if it hadn’t been stopped at the last moment by United Nations allies…. This is not something that could have been done in most situations. I mean, you were bringing up places like Yemen. Bombing Yemen would produce no result whatsoever, and I don’t think anybody has asked for Yemen to be bombed. But in Libya, it made a difference. It saved Benghazi. It saved this popular protest movement, which, by the way, includes so many workers and ordinary people.
If the aim is stability, however, there’s little evidence that aerial raids lead to any kind of durable peace. As Phyllis Bennis of Foreign Policy in Focus argues:
The UN resolution is very clear that military force can only be used to protect Libyan civilians, but the Western powers have simultaneously made clear that their real political goal is regime change—ousting Muammar Qaddafi. Ironically, by stating Qaddafi has “lost his legitimacy,” Western leaders are dramatically narrowing the space for negotiations, which could provide for a more peaceful removal of the Libyan leader.
If the coalition’s aim is to force regime change through the usual Western formula, then the U.N. alliance will be left to justify the deployment of brutal means toward a purportedly noble, though uncertain end.
To Aslý Ü. Bâli, acting professor of law at University of California, Los Angeles, the attack on a pariah dictator like Qaddafi may be justifiable, but it’s also the low-hanging fruit on the Maghreb’s political landscape:
Of course, there was a genuine basis to fear that the Qaddafi regime would resort to mass violence in putting down the armed resistance in Benghazi, and that might have produced very serious civilian casualties. But such humanitarian considerations do not, in and of themselves, distinguish Libya from numerous other places in Africa and the Middle East where there is good reason to fear ongoing civilian casualties resulting from regime brutality. The important factors that distinguish Libya are the following: First, the Qaddafi regime did not have a strong alliance with any great power that would have shielded it from such intervention. Second, Libya is on the Mediterranean and any protracted conflict in Libya creates the risk of migration and refugee flows to Europe. Third, Libya is an energy-rich country and protracted conflict creates a risk of turbulence in energy markets. Finally, Qaddafi was also sufficiently isolated regionally—and particularly in the Arab world, where the regime had been an irritant to many of the leading Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia—that the risk of a regional backlash against an intervention was relatively low.
So there’s more than meets the eye under the banner of our “responsibility to protect.” With this humanitarian intervention, NATO has roped together oil politics, Europe’s anxiety about a pending immigration crisis, and Washington’s desire to rack up pro-democracy credentials without offending anti-democratic allies next door.
If the aim is to advance a U.S.-friendly insurrection, then Washington ought to look back at its history of arming today’s “rebels” and setting them on the path to becoming tomorrow’s despots (see Afghanistan, Honduras, etc.).
Vijay Prashad, professor of International Studies at Trinity College, sees pure cynicism behind the U.N. initiative—a military strike aimed at stoking repressive violence throughout the region. “Qaddafi has in a way made it easy for them to enter with military force to put an end to Arab uprising” anywhere, he told me. Referring to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he argued, “The U.N. was doing what it did in 2003, providing cover for the United States’ armed action.”
Al Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara says that genuine emancipation goes hand in hand with self-determination. Any outside intervention, even if it happens to fall on the “right side” of history, robs revolutionaries of sovereignty over their uprising:
It’s important to look beyond Libya to the greater region where overzealous western intervention could only hamper the spirit and authenticity of the Arab revolution. Be that as it may, the endgame hasn’t changed. Qaddafi must go. Not because Obama or Cameron said so, rather because the courageous Libyans, like other Arab revolutionaries, insist “the people want to bring down the regime.”
What people admired about the young Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries was not just their courage, but the moral integrity with which they broke from the cycle of militarism, autocracy and terror. Though the Libyan crisis may have grown out of similar motives, its course is now being steered and possibly derailed by powers beyond the control of pro-democracy forces.
Whether this uprising succeeds or fails, the rebels’ fate will bear the fingerprints of a superpower driven by its own geopolitical interests. Realpolitik may rid Libya of Qaddafi, but at the same time, it could usher in a new season of disillusion in the region, wilting the bud of peaceful revolution before it even had a chance to flower.
Read all of Michelle Chen’s columns in Global Justice.