Friday, 25 March 2011

Libya and the Anti-War Left!

It is striking how similar the reactions of the left to the emerging crisis in Libya have been to the wests initial response to the Egyptian uprisings. At first, the west seemed confused about how to interpret the emerging events in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. Now, it is the global 'left' that mirrors this uncertainty and hesitation. When it came to Egypt the left firmly held the view that Mubarak was a western stooge, and deserved his come-uppance for his tresspasses against the greater 'solidarity' of the Arab world by making peace with Israel and embarking upon a close alliance with imperial powers. It is almost as if there wasn't an equal and opposite player in the cold war, that didn't create monsters of it's own ... a selective blindness of the left allows it to disappear from their vision and to slip through their fingertips. Gaddafi, on the other side of the cold war divide, still has his sympathisers on the left and in this respect the left ultimately mirrors the right that it so desperately tries to outdo.

Yet the illusory safety of old arguments provides little comfort to the left where the unfolding crisis in Libya is concerned. A vast range of theories prevail. NATO is oil greedy and - as in Iraq - have taken advantage of the opportunity in a quest for oil resources. Alternatively, it is the techno-industrial-military complex at work, stimulating war during a recession to create more weapons sales to sustain the complex itself, or it is an attempt to reassert western power as policeman of the world, a mafia godfather attacking a villain to reclaim a tenuous moral advantage over the rest of the world. NATO, vilified by the left, now proceeds amidst a storm of criticism, initially with the US as leader, in reality, a reluctant leader of the military operation to enforce a no-fly zone. 

Yet when one witnesses a Gaddafi speech, imploring the world to believe that the youth are out on the streets because Al Qaeda has drugged them with ecstacy that their coffee and milk has been laced with, even the most ardent lefty must lose confidence in their arguments? Gaddafi might be smart, but he is also senile at best and mad at worst and there is no way around that. And while lefties celebrated the 'revolution' in Egypt openly, they are reluctant to cheer on the UN and especially US and NATO forces in their attempt to intervene upon Gaddafi. After all, Gaddafi might have been a crazy dictator, but he was 'their' crazy dictator, not as bad as the others who worked for the west.

The brazen and violent words and actions spouted by Gaddafi, and his son Saif El Islam, seem to have fallen on the deaf ears within the left, and the grassroots and leadership level calls for action to be taken against the ever-looming purge that Gaddafi was embarking upon also seem not to move the left. They are too busy watching what America and the US are up to, fixated on their old enemy rather than the menace that has emerged within Libya, brought on by its illegitimate regime after 42 years of dictatorship. The conspiracy addicted left, ironically seem unable to hear the calls that have emerged from the Libyan people and their now defected leadership, and many within the left now suggest that a negotiated settlement with Gaddafi would have been more appropriate. Yet again, the left comes to the afterparty with 20-20 hindsight, an easy enough position to assume - a safe moral highground that has nothing to do with what is transpiring on the ground in Libya. Who indeed, can guarantee that Gaddafi - having broken every promise he's made (including self-declared ceasefires), would simply roll over and play dead because he was honoured with negotiations and asked to go nicely (pretty please with a cherry on top)? Who can guarantee that? 

And there is more that the left ignore in their never-ending quest for conspiracy. The US military has consistently bucked Obama on every suggestion he has made since he came to presidency, presumably because one of his campaign promises was to close down Guantanomo Bay, and to pull out of Iraq, into which America should never have gone. The US military did not want to have any part of Libya. They are already overstretched and seem to be trying to concentrate efforts for success in Afghanistan in particular, and are reluctant to disperse their efforts over the globe. Robert Gates, essentially the leader of the US military, has contradicted Obama too regularly for comfort, so the techno-industrial-military complex, if it is represented by the actions of the US military, seem not to be too interested in Libya, and neither are the oil industry, who are also closely linked to the US military.

And this is not all. While Libya was being put under the sword (or more accurately; sniper rifles acquired from South Africa in December, and automatic and anti-aircraft gunfire) by Muammar Gaddafi, another drama was unfolding in Bahrain that has far more significance to regional security that Libya ever could have, no matter how much oil there is in Libya. The movement of Saudi forces into Bahrain to quell uprisings against the Bahraini monarchy raised the eyebrows of Iran, whose government met to discuss unfolding events in Bahrain. Shiites under attack in the middle east, and a vacuum of international action, may have opened the way (justifiably) for Iran to take action. Indeed, Iran could well have cited Kosovo, where it took 7 years before any kind of intervention occurred to put an end to widespread genocide - as an example of the historical failure of the UN to do anything other than make resolutions when people were dying. Rwanda is also a case in point.

It is concievable that the 'rushed' (some say it took too long) UN resolution for a no-fly zone and to protect civilians was put into place to anticipate any claim that Iran might have made to the right to take action. By acting earlier, the UN might be anticipating the strategic movements in the region and be trying to pre-empt any moral 'right' that Iran might invoke to intervene on behalf of civilians in Bahrain. Morality as a reason for intervention or action of any kind is always dangerous, as the question of 'whose morality' should dictate the norms comes into play. Action should be based on principle, and while morality is important in one sense, it is far more important for that morality to be bound by principle, which in the case of UN should be humanitarian principles that are agreed upon at an international level. If the UN cannot do anything to instigate actions that are designed to bring about the security of peoples in crisis, then it has no purpose except as a symbolic, post fact first-world guilt alleviation body.

Several left oriented commentators and researchers have suggested that a negotiated settlement with Gaddafi would have been wiser than declaring him under investigation by the International Criminal Court. Yet this smacks of cold war logic, and neoliberal pragmatism - the very things that the left rail against. Moreover, there is no evidence that this works. Zimbabwe is a good illustration of why negotiated settlements with an entrenched regime can fail the opposition considerably. And accordingly, the consistent message that has emerged throughout the uprisings in the Middle East is the call for dictatorial leaders and their entire regimes to be removed. In this sense, the protesters are seeking system revolution, democractic elections and constitutional change that leads to the entire restructuring of insitututions and government, for the benefit of society. They are not interested in negotiations because they have never had any negotiating power within their dictatorship-led regimes, with no lengthy histories of free civil society mobilisation, and want to have the right to determine their own governance and leadership.

There was a clear call for a no-fly zone from Libyans under attack from Gaddafi forces, and the UN has followed suit, at great risk to its own reputation. I never thought the UN would pass a resolution to intervene, but now that they have, some successive phases can be put in place. If the ground battle continues to be a back and forth affair, then prolonged high frequency conflict may result, while if a wall was put up between the east and west of Libya then a low frequency conflict such as that conducted between Palestine and Israel may result.

The ground battle, as  in the Balkans, might prove intense and horrific, but that will only occur if tribes turn against one another and re-create the village-by-village style of ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia and Kosovo - which at this stage seems unlikely. More likely, rebel soldiers and anti-Gaddafi protesters -turned-revolutionaries will experience fierce ground battles, and the eventual result will be subject to the twists and turns that these singular micro-turf wars take during the course of the Libyan conflict. The no-fly zone only takes out one (though very significant) component in the conflict, but does not level the playing fields. At worst, the rebels will lose entirely to Gaddafi's ground forces and a no-fly zone will be meaningless on the ground. 

However, the UN can pull on more of its resources in order to put peacekeepers on the ground to enforce the keeping of the peace and not just keeping a peace in general. The rules of engagement need to be framed around protecting civilians and territory and not just firing back when fired upon, or defending UN bases and compounds. The UN peacekeeping forces can also clear the way for much needed humanitarian assistance to be brought in, and for elections to be held at local council levels in order to obtain some level of representative governance in the new territories.

If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taught us anything it is that UN resolutions that have no teeth are effectively useless pieces of paper that have no real authority in the world. The UN is a heavily funded organisation, and must earn its role through decisive, clear and principled action. Note that I emphasize that principle, and not morality, should govern their actions to a larger degree. Morality is dangerous as the question of 'whose' morality should prevail cannot be given a straight answer - principle, as articulated by Hannah Arendt, should be the backbone of action. The UN is the only organisation mandated with establishing the principles around which global humanitarian values are based - it is not there to argue for or advance a particular morality, but to achieve consensus on principle and then to act upon those principles for the greater good of the globe.

When it comes to Libya the left have chosen a position of convenience and not one of principle, choosing to re-invoke the quest for conspiracy instead of observing what is transpiring diplomatically, politically and on the ground in Libya. What the Libyan people have called for is consistent with calls throughout the middle east, that is; complete regime change and the end of dictatorship. They don't just want elections, they want to start from a clean slate because existing systems are so corrupt and inept that they just aren't good enough. That is revolution - and it doesn't have to follow any kind of marxist-lennist model in order to have legitimacy as revolution.

Negotiated settlements can also sometimes also work out, but there has to be a pre-willingness for a negotiated settlement, as was the case in South Africa. This has not been the case in Libya or in other Middle Eastern countries for that matter, and the spectre of negotiated settlement has only come up when these regimes have been taken by surprise by widespread revolt, indeed, much as Zanu-PF was surprised when it lost the elections in Zimbabwe. Under these conditions negotiations are not made in good faith, they are made purely to retain control through the structural power of the existing regime. Negotiated settlements, however palatable to the peace-loving left, will not lead to any real change and will open the way for widespread purges after the medias interest moves elsewhere, as we have seen in Zimbabwe. That the left is deaf to what Libyans at all levels are requesting is an reflection on how their own prejudices and long held gripes can blind them to the voices of grassroots uprisings, which ironically; they are quick to claim they represent. One might ask the question, are the lefties actually liberals not far beneath their 'down with the people' exteriors?


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