It has been relatively easy for NATO to violate UN Resolution 1973 in part because of the splits of the peace movement worldwide. While the resolution clearly calls for a no-fly zone to protect the Libyan opposition from air attacks from Gaddafi’s air force and has a vague provision to do whatever necessary to implement the no fly zone, there is nothing in the resolution that supports the bombing of Gaddafi forces positions, arming the opposition and providing military advisors, or, as it has evolved, calling for the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime itself.
This is a classic case of ‘mission creep’. NATO used the UN Security Council resolution to provide a pretext to open the door to Libya militarily and then has gone on its merry way in violation of much of its framework. They were able to do so in large measure, especially in Europe and North America, due to the manner in which the media pulled on the heartstrings of the public with respect to the fate of the Libyan rebels. Some of it was true: the rebels certainly looked about to be crushed. Some of it was embellished: true enough Gaddafi’s regime was repressive and tolerated no opposition, but the social and economic achievements Libyans have enjoyed over his forty-year rule are not insignificant. Some of it was fabricated: for example, that the wave of repression Gaddafi would have unleashed against his adversaries would have amounted to nothing short of genocide.
There were other issues too for which there was little or no time for reflection
- that the rebels were poorly organized and had a weak social base (even if some of the issues fuelling their opposition were legitimate)
- that the rebel weakness provided an opportunity for NATO powers to manipulate not only the Libyan opposition movement to their own ends, but also potentially the broader Arab Revolt in Tunisia and Egypt,
- that countries which a half century or more ago led the colonial charge into Africa and the Maghreb, are now, under NATO’s banner under the heading of humanitarian intervention, portraying themselves as the champions of human rights concerns. This is particularly ironic for Italy which a century ago, fearing it might be left out of the African colonial frenzy gripping Europe, invaded Libya, killing more than a quarter of a million Libyans with napalm, poison gas and the like - one of the less reported chapters of colonial savagery in the twentieth century
By the time peace movements began to think through these more cynical goals of the NATO intervention, NATO’s plans were well under way. Did NATO move as quickly as it did, with hardly any public discussion, virtually no involvement of parliaments or the US Congress, precisely to co-opt and divide possible opposition? The speed with which the Libyan operation was set in motion suggests an underlying nervousness to get on with it, as if presenting the case in a more orderly and open fashion could have undermined it from the beginning.
Peace movements divided almost immediately over the Libyan operation, with many of the human rights organizations supporting if not pushing for intervention on humanitarian grounds. The voices of the skeptics, often motivated by an anti-imperialist reflex suspicious of the NATO end-game in Libya, were drowned out, largely isolated. Such splits in the peace movement over western intervention in the Third World, especially here in the United States, are nothing new. They have characterized post-Cold War era military operations be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen. The pretexts of either countering terrorism or support for `humanitarian intervention’, especially in regions of the world somewhat obscure to Americans (which unfortunately turns out to be most of the world) have worked well. The most radical of these interventions – the US-led 2oo3 invasion of Iraq – had as a goal nothing short of a complete restructuring of economic and political structures along neo-conservative lines. In all cases, pretexts for intervention covered up hidden goals. So it is shaping up with Libya.
Actually in the case of the 2003 Iraq invasion, opposition was considerable, but didn’t translate into an effective political movement for nearly four years when Cold War Democrats understanding that the winds of war had shifted, came out of the woodwork and joined the growing US anti-war movement. Whatever he has done since to renege on his commitment to ending Middle East wars, Barack Obama was very much the anti-war candidate in 2008.
With the Libyan intervention, US peace activists remain divided and probably will be for some time. No less an important figure than Juan Cole, University of Michigan professor and one of the few genuine experts on Middle East affairs strongly supports the NATO intervention. He is not alone. Key human rights organizations in the US – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International are essentially on the same page. Despite Congressional annoyance at not being consulted beforehand about the Libyan intervention, at the present moment, Obama enjoys bipartisan support for his Libyan war policies.
But there are the beginnings of movement in the other direction. Republican opposition to the Libyan intervention might very well be yet another attempt to oppose Obama on whatever grounds. But on a deeper level, even the Republican constituency at a time of deepening economic crisis have deep reservations about the Libyan operation. On the left there are a few voices whose opposition to the Libyan operation are gaining a bit of traction
- Dennis Kucinich, one of the most consistent, if not the most consistent, voices for peace in the US Congress has raised concerns (also about a possible intervention in Syria)
At the same time, old factional tendencies, vestiges of Cold War peace politics remain alive and well. The tendencies (liberal democratic vs. more left oriented voices) have yet to learn how to engage in ‘civil dialogue’ – not a particularly well developed tradition here in the United States. Add to this some other examples of social forces who could play a pivotal role in building a counterweight to Obama’s Libya policy either equivocating, or divided. The US labour movement, for all its weakness, still a force to contend with, has played virtually no positive role. In part because important unions are concentrated in military industries, in part because of the old Cold War traditions of the AFL-CIO followed during the George Meany years. There have been some changes over the past 20 years, but overall, where it comes to foreign policy concerns and the creation of an independent labour voice on foreign policy issues, progress is slow. Minority communities – Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans – were important, if not decisive, elements in the anti-Vietnam War movement of a half a century ago. But with so many of them now in some branch of the volunteer armed forces, their ‘peace voice’ is softer today than it was earlier, their communities more divided than in the past.
Bombing Libya but this isn’t war
The US Congress’ informal protest over Obama’s sidestepping the War Powers Act with regard to US participation in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya included elements of the surreal. First, the president was charged with violating the law in what could be classified as an impeachable act; then in spite of this slap in the face, Congress, turned around and voted to approve the funding of the US military action in Libya for the next year, suggesting that when all is said and done, the protest vote didn’t amount to much.
The Obama Administration’s response to the criticism was pathetic. No, the Administration need not get congressional approval, the argument went, because the United States does not have troops ‘on the ground’ and without troops on the ground, the United States is not at war with Libya. It appears that Congress lamely accepted this logic. Actually do we know that the United States do not have troops on the ground? Are the Special Forces, whose mission is secret, involved? Are there US military advisors there? At any rate, the bombing missions are not considered war. But Al Qaeda did not have ‘troops on the ground’ when they sent hijacked civilian airliners careening into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which Congress did label an act of war. Using the cover of humanitarian intervention – it seems to play well in Peoria – the United States has launched deadly airstrikes against the Libyan military; provided military aid to the Libyan rebels; pressed sanctions against Libya and frozen its assets and called for the overthrow of Gaddafi. According to the Obama Administration and the president himself, these acts do not constitute ‘war’, thus the War Powers Act does not apply.
Looks like war. Smells like war, but if Obama says it’s not war, I guess it just can’t be war.
What about ground troops?
But what if the United States and/or its NATO allies bring the air war down to the ground, and introduce ground troops? If they are American, will Obama seek the authorization required under the War Powers Act, or when the time comes, seek another ‘out’ from Congressional scrutiny? Is sending US ground troops to Libya going beyond a line the Obama Administration will not cross? Is it out of the question that what begins as humanitarian intervention will morph into permanent US/NATO military bases in Libya?
Voicing these suspicions is not necessarily to take sides with Gaddafi against the rebels. Many rebel grievances are legitimate. Gaddafi does have some genuine social achievements under his belt but democracy was not one of them. As in Iraq, there was a domestic crisis in Libya. But what is worth remarking on is the manner in which the United States and NATO have ‘embraced’ the Libyan rebellion against Gaddafi and done so in such a way as to control and manage the movement in virtually all its aspects. We can be sure that the rebels’ dependency on NATO will not come without conditions, the main outlines of which will become clearer in the days and months to come.
The United States and NATO understand that such crises can be easily manipulated to reshape North Africa according to their own strategic advantage. The political and organizational weaknesses of the rebel movement, essentially a spontaneous eruption with little planning, is the perfect vehicle for US-NATO plans - a horse they can ride to death.
Articles are beginning to appear in both the German and Russian press suggesting that there might be plans afoot for NATO, through various means, to introduce ground troops in the fall into both Libya and Syria, to accelerate the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya and to ‘support the process of reform’ in Syria. Both US and NATO spokespeople deny these claims as do a number of Middle East experts asked to comment. Given recent history (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia), such denials cannot be relied upon.
Arguments against a more direct US-led military intervention are weighty enough. The US is already overextended with its open military commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq; its less publicized activities in Yemen and Somalia. It cannot afford, either economically or politically, to open another military front at this time, especially with an upcoming presidential election. Recent surveys suggest that here in the United States, people are tiring of US foreign military intervention and their spiralling costs, rightly associating the money wasted on war with funds that could be better used here at home.
But there are counter arguments of what the United States could gain strategically from upping the ante and sending in ground troops to Libya, which cannot be easily written off. There are those within the Obama Administration arguing for a Shock Doctrine approach to the current Arab Revolt i.e. to use the current crisis in the Middle East and North Africa to ultimately reshape and strengthen the US position in the region. According to this argument, the United States might have been caught unprepared for the uprising, but it is still possible to manage it and even to come out ‘ahead’ strategically. The signs that more direct military intervention is at least on the drawing board are growing and with them, increased alarm in the international press.
Deutsche Welle ran a piece on June 27, 2011, ‘Rumors for US plans for Libya, Syria cause concern’ detailing the extent of the US naval build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean, and enhanced activity at Fort Hood, Texas where military preparations are allegedly gathering steam. The article also notes the changing nature of NATO involvement, more ‘mission leap’ than ‘mission creep.’ An article in the Russian press on June 29, 2011 entitled, ‘Democracy by order of Washington’ doesn’t give details but ends with a note of concern: “The next plan of the US is the redrawing of the maps of North Africa, the Middle and Near East. America is counting on the support of its most loyal allies.”
NATO’s role has already morphed from securing a no-fly zone over Libyan air space, a somewhat defensive step to defend civilians, to the more offensive operations of targeting Gaddafi’s forces, attempting to assassinate him by cruise missile attack and the introduction of French and British attack helicopters. The goal of the mission has also shifted from protecting civilians from attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces to regime change – a euphemism for overthrowing Gaddafi. But once wars start, they tend to have their own merciless logic, don’t they?
Not many more conceptual shifts are needed to defend the introduction of ground troops, especially if the military stalemate on the ground in Libya continues. The longer Gaddafi can hold out, the more sympathy he has been able to garner, especially in Africa and the Middle East, complicating the NATO mission and its humanitarian cover. At a certain point, NATO might feel mounting pressure to move towards sending in ground troops to break the stalemate.
Ground troops to what end?
The strategic implications of a ‘post Gaddafi’ Libya are beginning to come into focus. Should Gaddafi’s rule be overthrown one way or another, any rebel government would be exceedingly weak and could not rule without support and ‘supervision’ by its NATO ‘allies’. The end game could, in many ways, resemble what has been played out in Iraq.
- For a start, there will be a much tighter control of Libyan oil and the profits thereof by western oil companies. That has already started. In the areas it controls, the rebels are already selling oil to western companies at rock bottom prices to pay for arms and supplies. Western hold over Libyan oil will tighten. OPEC would be weaker, etc.
- A permanent NATO/US military presence in Libya is a more than likely, regardless of whether ground troops are introduced or not. If NATO ground troops are introduced, there will be some pretext for them to stay, in the name of supporting the rebel government. If NATO ground troops are not necessary to overthrow Gaddafi, the rebel government, almost certain to be shaky could invite them in anyway as advisors in one capacity or another.
- As the Russian press piece cited above suggests, a NATO permanent military presence in Libya could in many ways be the beginning of redrawing the map of North Africa. Such a presence would have a number of potentially profound consequences, among them:
- Within the Libyan context it would prevent any move to re-instate Gaddafi or those close to him to power. Such a presence would go far to ensuring a ‘US-friendly’ government would be ruling Libya and its sizeable amounts of low sulphur oil for a long time into the foreseeable future
- The US and NATO would be in a position to closely monitor, if not manage, the Arab Revolt in its strongest manifestations: in Tunisia and Egypt. Placed squarely between the two countries, a US military presence in Libya could be easily mobilized to counter political developments Washington finds objectionable.
- On a broader scale, a NATO military presence in Libya becomes an important springboard for the alliance in Africa, a continent whose strategic mineral resources, oil and gas cannot be underestimated. Competition for these resources between Europe and the US on the one hand, India and China on the other will only intensify in the years to come. It is noteworthy that Gaddafi’s Libya sells 60% of its oil to China, a situation certain to change should Gaddafi be removed
- There have been strong tensions inside NATO with the United States trying to internationalize security operations (under Washington’s direction), with Afghanistan being a kind of test case for taking the alliance outside Europe and making it into a worldwide police force. Although NATO spokespeople claim the contrary, within the coalition there have been strong reservations and opposition to being forced to fight in Afghanistan. A NATO military base in Libya (or military ‘presence’) would give the alliance another lease on life outside Europe and draw the Europeans into shouldering some of the costs of US security strategy in Europe.
A peace movement here in the United States split over the US/NATO intervention in Libya only makes it more likely for Washington to implement its programme.