Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Farce of Imposed Meta-Narratives

It is a tired narrative that has emerged in rejection of military intervention in Libya. It is typically constituted of a four part meta-narrative that (1) attacks the UN vote for resolution 1973 itself, (2) raises the question of the weapons testing and sales agenda of the military industrial complex of the west, (3) questions the validity of the Libyan rebels as a legitimate opposition, and finally, (4) points out the apparent contradictions in embarking on military intervention in Libya and not in Gaza, Ivory Coast, Bahrain, etc. This four part narrative usually stops there, and offers no alternatives or strategic insights into how the crisis in Libya can be resolved, neither does it adequately deal with why Libyans themselves have consistently and without exception called for help from the international community. Instead, the four part narrative is presented as though it itself is enough of an analysis from which to move forward. It therefore deserves closer scrutiny.

Firstly, that only ten out of fifteen nations voted in favour of the intervention with the five most populous countries in the world (China, Russia, Brazil, Germany and India included) abstained from the vote. Note that these countries did not veto or vote against the UN resolution 1973 but merely abstained from voting in favour. There are many reasons why these abstentions have been interpreted as voting against the resolution but these interpretations are false. An abstention is not a veto, and in most articles I have read these abstentions have been treated as though these countries reject outright the intervention in Libya. If they did, they had a good chance to show it on the international stage and failed to do so. Moreover, countries such as Russia and China have human rights issues of their own to answer for, and do not have a good record of protecting the rights of their own citizens, much less those of other countries. In fact, their actions are driven by their own lust for power.

How quickly one forgets that the Chinese government essentially forced the South African government to refuse the Dalai Lama entry into South Africa, despite the fact that the Dalai Lama was a long-term supporter of the struggle against apartheid who was a signee to the international petition against the Rivonia trial. Looking to China and Russia as moral authorities on human rights is a joke. They are concerned with how their geopolitical power can be strengthened, and furthering their own international and national agendas. Pretending that somehow they have adopted a moral or principled position is a misrepresentation - they are simply playing politics. If they strongly objected to the intervention both could have easily vetoed the action. They chose to abstain rather than to take a clear position. Surely this indicates - at best - that they were unsure about intervention rather than opposed to it.

Secondly, that the evils of the techno-industrial-military complex of the West is a key driver behind the intervention must be collated with reality. The reality is that there are plenty other wars to test weapons in, and with much less international attention and hence more room for error. It does not make sense to test weapons under the watchful eye of the entire international community. Part two of this argument is that the techno-industrial-military complex needs to make sales in a recession. However, the costs of implementing a no-fly zone over Libya are nowhere near the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where one could reasonably argue that weapons sales are keeping the TIM complex alive. On both counts, invoking the familiar spectre of the TIM complex where Libya is concerned isn't completely honest in itself. Indeed, the US military was reluctant to go into Libya, perhaps because an intervention in Libya did not make economic sense or alternatively to flex its muscles to the Obama presidency that has been so critical of Guantanamo Bay and the war on Iraq in rising to the office of president in the USA. The simplistic manner in which this TIM narrative is promulgated in the case of Libya indicates a reliance on knee-jerk analysis rather than analysis that is based on close inspection of the intricate factors that are at play where Libya is concerned.

Thirdly, that the Libyan rebels are rag-tag groups consisting of "radical Islamists, royalists, tribalists and secular middle class activists" that are disorganised in all respects except for the fighting abilities of radical Islamists (as claimed by Mamdani in a recent article on the politics of humanitarian intervention). What escapes me is how this analysis excludes defected Libyan army soldiers and colonels who joined the rebels after being asked to fire upon their own people and defend the regime. In fact, the defected army members are now holding untrained rebels back from the frontlines as they have become an undisciplined liability and put operations at risk. The idea that somehow radical Islamists are the only ones with military training and are leading the charge is rubbish. If there were a significant number of radical Islamists - i.e. especially Al Qaeda members - we would be seeing a much more organised response from the rebels - indeed, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have not seen this. It is largely Libyan army defectors who are the fighting core of the Libyan rebels and while there is plenty of evidence to support this view, there is scarce evidence to support the view that radical Islamists constitute the main fighting force on the ground.

The fourth part of the anti-intervention meta-narrative conflates conflicts from all over the Middle East and Africa and questions why interventions haven't been taken in Syria and Bahrain, and earlier in attacks on Gaza. This narrative itself ignores one simple issue - that in none of these cases have clear calls for international intervention been made by the people who are being directly affected by violence. Libyans called for intervention - not just the rebels or citizens of Benghazi, but defected Libyan diplomats, government representatives, army members and the like. Each conflict must be judged on its own merits and not every situation warrants an intervention, especially when nobody in those countries is calling for intervention.

It was not an isolated call from a disparate group of rebels that led to intervention. On the night that the UN resolution was passed for intervention the citizens of Benghazi were out in great numbers, braving the horrific onslaught that Gaddafi had promised would be visited upon them - ready to die in the streets, so to speak. To pretend that a lopsided civil war wasn't already underway in Libya is a blinkered view of the crisis. Moreover, to promulgate the vain notion that intervention somehow scuppered what would have been a 'natural' revolution is also nonsense - how do the proponents of this view 'know' that we wouldn't have witnessed brutal massacres from an intolerant regime instead, and ended up with a situation where Libyans spend another 42 years under the heel of an autocratic regime. What magical, mystical formula do they use to arrive at a conclusion about what would have transpired? I would like to know, because if this surety can be bottled it will no doubt change the world. You cannot use the future as evidence when the present is so overwhelmingly complex and to make the argument that intervention is getting in the way of a more natural process of revolutionary change is not an argument that can be made with any level of certainty. What is clear, is that Benghazi would have fallen under Gaddafi's then imminent attack - having surrounded Benghazi - and it is equally likely that it would have all ended right there for Libyans.

To my mind, the four part meta-narrative, composed of its subsidiary narratives, doesn't match the full spectrum of observations that can be made on the Libyan crisis. Generally, it tends to discount what current difficulties Libyans are facing - and the help Libyans themselves have appealed for - in favour of a more grand meta-analysis that sees Western intervention in Arab countries as inevitably leading to civil war. Cast within the blinkered visors of the overarching meta-narrative this meta-analysis is so powerful that ordinary people and the specificities of context are glossed over, to the detriment of nobody other than Libyans themselves, whose voices are increasingly being drowned out by the voices of dissent emerging from people who never bothered to provide any kind of critique of Libya or the Middle East before. Indeed, these same academics, experts and activists utterly and completely failed to predict the widespread uprisings in the Middle East - most of their work characterised people of the region as being tribalist, family oriented and hence incapable of secular democratic action at the scales that we have seen emerge. So why should their view be trusted now that the water has broken and the new that is being birthed is something they could never concieve of before? 

Last year in June, I sat through an interesting presentation by Zakia Salim - a Morroccan born sociologist now at Rutgers university - who was investigating the changing identities of Arab and Moroccan youth, and was struck by how traditional notions of identity were being dissolved. She joked in amazement at how much had changed since she'd lived in Morroco herself, asking;

"Who were they to change without my permission?"

Perhaps the tired analyses that paint the Arab world as 'tribalist and Islamist', with no concerns for society, but only for family and clan are themselves quickly being eroded, and without the permission of our esteemed academic commentators whose conception of the Arab world has perhaps become stuck in time and has not moved with the changes on the ground. After all, very few of them actually live and work in the countries that constitute their favourite subject matter - and perhaps that is why their favoured recourse is to the discourse on global hegemony, irrespective of what the specific contextual issues at play might be.

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