18 Mar 2011

The No-Fly Zone in Libya: Hijacking the Arab Uprisings

Last night’s UN Security Council’s decision to authorise military action in Libya was greeted with almost universal jubilation revealing how confused the anti-imperialist camp has become. The very same people who had been opposed to the US invasion and continuing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan cheered the decision that will supposedly prevent Qaddafi from massacring his people. This also revealed the left’s lack of faith in revolutionary politics: overnight the Libyans were turned from subjects attempting to take control of their destiny into victims in need of protection. The most troubling aspect of this is the willingness to recognise the West’s moral superiority, failing to acknowledge that Western intervention has been actively propping up authoritarian Arab regimes for decades. The no-fly zone is nothing to celebrate, on the contrary it signals a major turning point that will hand the West the initiative allowing it to ensure its interests are maintained in the region. It will also undermine the legitimacy of the autonomous Arab uprisings as they begin to be associated with Western sponsorship. We have entered a new phase with direct Western intervention that will pose serious threats to the pursuit of freedom in Arab countries.

There is no doubt that many people who support the no-fly zone are driven by good intentions, and it’s tough to watch Gaddafi’s forces regain ground and advance towards Benghazi without feeling the need to ‘do something’. This is particularly understandable given the early success of the Libyan uprising and the sense of expectation it created, contrasted with the current frustration of seeing Gaddafi about to crush the democracy movement. Yet, it is very important to resist the temptation to intervene at any cost. Let’s not forget what the uprisings are about: people attempting to shape their destiny. In other words, they are about autonomy, self-determination and the manifestation of popular will. No matter how well-intentioned outside intervention is, and Western intervention in the region has proved to be far from well-intentioned, it contradicts those principles.

The celebrations that erupted on the streets of Benghazi following the announcement of UNSC resolution 1973 were seen by many as legitimising this intervention, since the people of Libya are asking for intervention then the UN decision becomes credible, so the argument goes. Again it’s understandable that the rebels when facing the prospect of defeat would reach out for any form of help, but this does not justify military intervention, whether sanctioned by the UN or not. The UN and Western governments are deciding for themselves which voices to listen to in Libya in a clear contradiction of the principles of sovereignty and self-determination. The dubious nature of the decision to override Libya’s sovereignty is only amplified by the near-silence over the crackdown on the protests in Bahrain, which has hardly moved Western governments to act. Of course intervention in Bahrain would be equally illegitimate and ill-advised, but it reveals the West’s hypocrisy and opportunism in taking the moral high ground over Libya while ignoring the situation in Bahrain, where the West’s regional allies are actively participating in putting down the uprising.

The astounding aspect of the West’s rush to intervene in Libya, led in particular by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, is how quickly the lessons of the Iraq invasion and its catastrophic aftermath have been forgotten. The UN and Western governments have sought to make distinctions between the two Libya and Iraq by sanctioning all military action but ruling out an invasion, in an attempt to portray this as a humanitarian intervention rather than regime change. But the utter folly of this distinction is remarkable. The most that a no-fly zone would achieve is a stalemate. Gaddafi’s forces would be prevented from making any advance and attacks on civilians would be stopped, but given the meagre military capabilities of the opposition, they will not be able to achieve victory either. How long would be after that when the calls for further intervention would be intensified, in a situation that we have witnessed several times before from Bosnia to Iraq? The West having already committed itself would be unable to withdraw from the situation, eventually making an invasion a very likely prospect. Not that there is a distinction anyway, the UN resolution is a declaration of war on Libya that can only escalate in magnitude.

Already there are voices making the case for such an increased intervention. Today David Aaronovitch, one of the main cheerleaders of the Iraq war, wrote an article in The Times arguing that ‘the price of inaction in Libya is far too high’. Aaronovitch’s article clearly reveals the prism of risk through which the West now primarily regards events in the world, as he put it: ‘if we don’t bomb Gaddafi’s tanks, Europe is likely to face a wave of refugees and a new generation of jihadis’. Like the argument for the Iraq war, this reveals the precautionary approach that drives Western pre-emptive interventions. In the case of unpopular leaders like Cameron and Sarkozy, it’s also about trying to find a moral sense of purpose abroad to compensate for their lack of credibility at home. Obama was convinced to tag along after his earlier hesitation, with the attractive prospect of compensating for his incompetent handling of the Egyptian uprising and his failure to reign in his allies in the Gulf. But, in effect, this is a recipe for disaster as the intervention has neither a clear purpose nor a desirable outcome that could be achieved without further military intervention.

The West was undoubtedly caught off-guard with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and the actions of Western governments over the past few weeks have revealed astonishing levels of incompetence. They also revealed the extent to which their influence in the region has deteriorated, robbing them of the ability to dictate the course of events. Enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya will allow the West to portray itself in a better light and take back the initiative, but in effect it is only likely to complicate the situation on the ground further. The legitimacy of the Libyan uprising can only be undermined through its association with Western powers, while Gaddafi will be able to deploy the anti-Western card that he is so adept at. It will also weaken the autonomous impulse of the Arab uprisings, replacing popular action as a means for political change with Western sponsorship and protection. This can only mean the return of imperial influence under a different guise. The no-fly zone represents an attempt at hijacking the Arab uprisings and opposing it should become a political priority.


  1. Well..a few hours later and i already feel depressed (if that counts as arab youth impulse discouragement and a sense of hijacking their autonomy..)although the syrian uprisings are extremely interesting. This is definitely a display of a new/old imperialist perspective and action and i agree that it should be our top priority to raise awareness (although feeling of hopelessness persists here too)
    There are, as always, factors that are beyond ideology and i think those need to be uncovered too. What is really depressing and what (uninnocently) lead to this resolution is that Gadaffi was able to regain power on most of Libya's cities after his fall seemed imminent and inevitable. I can't believe that this just happened because of internal shifts of power. The obvious question is who are the stakeholders here, and who's benefiting from the stalemate situation. why didn;t anyone go ahead and support the people with weapons at least? When did they ever need a UN resolution for that? I can't help but thinking how certain arab countries have an all-win situation here; First if Gadaffi was overthrown-third arab dictator in a few weeks!- that would have been a major push to popular uprising. Unstoppable i think. But now we have a totally different story, with a foreign intervention face to it, many many deaths, and an uncertain future. Second, with libyan oil economy almost halted, who really benefits? who's gaining upper hand? same old arab super oil powers. And the US of course, since Europe is the main victim of the oil cut especially the ones already facing crisis-they're the only ones really hurting so it's not surprising that they run to offer their military assistance. Then we have smug gaddafi hinting that he is ready to open up for new oil contractors, like russia china germany and japan.. That catches US attention, but they don't really care that much. they're hesitant, they want to keep a hand in it but not deep enough to involve themselves: why would they if there's nothing to gain and there are enough powers struggling against each other already.. the only ironically positive thing that might come out of this is that somehow, this stalemate makes stability in our middle east (alternative oil route to europe) more of an urgent priority and with US and gulf countries regaining upper hand over ever weakening europe, and more internal peace of mind (well maybe not!!), they can pressure israel back into peace talks.. already today Haaretz talks about time up for netanyaho.. p.s. sorry about the inhuman perspective. it is politics after all. of course, the humanitarian situation in libya is unbearable and that justifies the intuitive celebrations in benghazi. But how will a NFZ prevent casualties on ground? the only way would be to dismantle Gaddafi's power structure asap.. but that's not the language we're hearing. What is being said is all about protecting those poor helpless victims (who have BY THE WAY died in thousands and consciously risen against the just as bad situation that everyone was so comfortable with for decades before oil cuts..) So far, it's all culturally romanticized authoritarian agency-robbing inapplicable bullshit

  2. Thank you for putting such a controversial issue in a well rounded analysis. All I can say to everyone reading this blog is.. What he said(KarlReMarks)!

  3. A very informative and sober take on the situation. Thanks for bringing this dichotomy (the need for independence, and the need for foreign intervention) to light. It's confusing times for most of us. And, to think, we were convinced the country with most intrigue in the region was ours.. Excellent blog post.

  4. What principles?

    Here we are criticizing the "imperialist" west for supporting the dictators in the region, and when the freedom fighters in Libya are being massacred by Gaddafi militias, we are sitting behind our computers talking about sacrificing the gains of the Arab revolts.

    It is easy for anyone to say for us to say that. Let anyone of us try and stay one day in Libya and then come back and say "sorry Europe and US, we don't want your help". If Gaddafi is using his people's money to kill innocent civilians so be it. If it takes Satan to come up from the bellies of hell to stop this dictator so be it.

    The issue is to end this genocide, and then it is all up to the Libyans as you are saying. "Thank you world for the help, now it is our turn to run our own destiny, and yes, here's your commission: democracy".

    That is what we should be worried about, not text book principles, but how the Libyans should deal with this help, this precious thankful help. We should also be worried about how late it is, or how effective it is.

    If the west did not intervene in Bahrain and Yemen, I agree about the double standards, and yes, we need to ask for intervention. If not the west, then anything that would help the protests.

    If the west did not intervene, then we would have said that the west is siding with Gaddafi because of oil interests. Did this happen somewhere in the article, and I quote "...while ignoring the situation in Bahrain, where the West’s regional allies are actively participating in putting down the uprising."
    When Hillary Clinton went to Tunisia and Egypt, the Coalition of the Youth of the 25 January Revolution refused to meet her. The Tunisians protested.

    The west should do more than no-fly zone, and the Libyans should make use of this and should follow their own interests the same way the Americans and Europeans are.

  5. Well I reacted more positively than negatively to the news of the no-fly zone. I still think it was not such a bad thing, but years after, it does appear as a masquerade, as there is much more population slaughtering in Syria, and hardly anything close to the no-fly zone, which by the way, in Lybia, was much more than a no-fly zone.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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