What is the left’s answer to military intervention in Libya?

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Is it the Sarajevo debate of the 90s all over again? The rightwing and liberal interventionists know what they think should be done in Libya: the United States should bring gunboats to the coastline and fighter jets to the Libyan skies. Some even suggest another invasion. What is the left saying?

Sanctions, investigate violations of international law, bring in the U.N., but avoid military action. Below are portions of pieces by Asli Bali and Ziad Abu-Rish at Jadaliyya, Phyllis Bennis at Alternet, and a blogpost by Jerry Slater going after Leon Wieseltier, interventionist. Bali and Abu-Rish:

The first test of any would-be interventionist is this: do no harm. And there is very little evidence that direct intervention in the Libyan case could meet this test. For instance, calls for a no-fly zone by Libya’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. (drawing on the Iraqi precedent of the 1990s) and an air campaign by others (drawing on the Kosovo precedent from 1999) would surely fail this test. Neither option would shield the Libyan civilian population from the regime’s coercive apparatus (which is not principally aerial) and both options may entail serious costs to civilians by freezing or exacerbating the situation on the ground. Beyond raising questions of enforcement (would international forces fire on Libyan aircraft?), a no-fly zone might well block one method of escape for Libyan civilians or close an avenue for defections by members of the air force, such as the four pilots that are known to have flown out and defected in disobedience of direct orders to bomb civilians. Alternatively, air strikes run the risk of serious damage to both the civilian population and infrastructure. In short, any intervention must be crafted to offer real support to the civilian population of Libya, which direct forms of coercive intervention like no-fly zones or air strikes would not. But are there other forms of intervention that would be better suited to the task? Given limited knowledge of Libya’s internal dynamics at present and the heavy-handed interventionist toolkit developed to date by the international community any such option must be approached with caution.

Coercive options should be taken off the table. Absent the political will to commit ground forces to serve as a meaningful buffer between the regime and the population, any coercive intervention will do more damage (particularly to civilians) than good…

he Libyan regime’s position is at best isolated and at worst adversarial with respect to the West. The difference this makes in the risk calculations of the regime and the dangers associated with calls for intervention is significant. Intervention in support of regime change in Libya presents the West with a window of opportunity to shape the transition of a relatively oil-rich North African country, potentially replacing an irritant with a new client. Where the emphasis of Western interests in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases has been on stability, in the Libyan case the goals will likely be rapid transformation. For instance, in a post-transition Libya, individuals with ties to the West or experience with energy markets might emerge as favored interlocutors, identified with international approval as “moderate” and “appropriate.” To invite forceful international intervention in the last days of the current regime might empower external interveners to make such choices, potentially at the expense of the preferences of the Libyan people….

We neither advocate abandoning the Libyan people to the violence of the regime nor protecting al-Qaddafi from accountability. But as calls for international intervention grow, we must worry about the risk of counter-productive results for Libyans on the ground of some of the options being considered. A combined strategy of humanitarian assistance, severing existing military ties with the regime, and generating exit options for al-Qaddafi and his family may well be the best course for accomplishing the goal of supporting Libya’s civilian population. An exit strategy for al-Qaddafi in the short-term does not foreclose the possibility of accountability thereafter. While this course may seem less satisfying in terms of an immediate answer to calls for international justice, a grounded understanding of the humanitarian costs of other strategies of intervention should counsel against appeasing our (international) conscience at the expense of the lives of those we purport to save.


If the Council had decided, for instance, to hold Libyan officials and soldiers directly accountable for alleged war crimes against a civilian population by referring the issue immediately to the International Criminal Court, what kind of a precedent would that set, and what other political leaders or soldiers responsible for civilian deaths might face that same method of accountability — in Afghanistan or Pakistan, for instance? If the Council had passed a resolution stating that top officials of all governments and corporations who provided weapons to the Libyan regime should be held accountable for how those weapons are being used, what precedent would that set for the powerful weapons-exporting governments and corporations now arming military forces and thus enabling the barrage of human rights violations and war crimes in places such as Sri Lanka or the DRC, or perhaps Israel?

The UN Security Council should reconvene now to pass a binding, enforceable resolution. It should demand an immediate halt to the attacks, call for immediate access for international humanitarian and human rights workers, and refer the issue to the International Court of Justice to initiate on an emergency basis a full investigation and prosecution of those responsible. It should make clear that not only top decision-makers but all soldiers and mercenaries carrying out illegal orders will be held accountable for their actions in the ICC. The resolution should require that governments and corporations with ties to the Libyan regime — especially those in Europe and the U.S. — immediately sever all military ties, cancel all military contracts, and withdraw any military equipment that may be in the pipeline, with criminal liability for those who may have enabled the illegal acts already underway in Libya.

Next Steps for the United States

There has been a growing demand, in the UnitedStates from powerful neo-conservative war-mongers and from some of the most progressive members of Congress, to establish a no-fly zone in Libya. The call has also come from former Libyan officials who have defected from the regime. But at the moment that would be a mistake. There have been no reports of air strikes since February 21; the regime’s current assaults are using land-based heavy weapons. While it is certainly possible a desperate Qaddafy could lash out once again by trying to send his warplanes aloft to attack his own people, it isn’t clear he has loyal pilots left to answer his call. The discussion of a no-fly zone in the Security Council would almost certainly become the sole means of responding to the Libyan crisis – even though it would likely provide little protection against the actual threats facing the Libyan people, especially in and around the capitol – and would serve as a distraction from other actions that might actually help.

The political cost of such a decision, given its likely inability to provide real protection, must be weighed against the lessons of the 1990s-era no-fly zone the U.S. and Britain established in Iraq. The no-fly zone was imposed unilaterally, although President Bill Clinton and other officials often claimed, mendaciously, that it was authorized by the United Nations, and it was in fact never mentioned in any Security Council resolution. As documented by the United Nations, U.S.-UK enforcement of the no-fly zone in Iraq resulted in the deaths of several hundred Iraqi civilians.

And here is Jerry Slater:

Most often bad writing is indistinguishable from bad thinking. Sometimes, though, strong writing obscures and may even contribute to weak thinking. Case in point: today’s biting and eloquent attack by the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier on what he considers to be Obama’s empty if not fatuous demand—unaccompanied by any serious US actions– that Qaddafi’s violence against the Libyan people “must stop.”

What does Wieseltier think Obama should actually do? Well, maybe the U.S. should deploy “the small number of troops that would be required” to end Qaddafi’s rule; and if we are really prevented from doing so by our past history, then “let a multilateral expeditionary force be raised and a humanitarian intervention be launched…. Europeans, Africans, even Egyptians may join the campaign.” At the least, there should be a no-fly zone: “let NATO planes fly over Tripoli to shoot down any Libyan aircraft that make war on the Libyan population.”

Where has Wieseltier been in the last twenty years or so? Hasn’t he heard about the fate of “the small number of troops” that supposedly was going to end the civil war in Somalia in 1993? Hasn’t it occurred to Wieseltier that Obama already has his hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan? What is the likelihood that Europeans, Africans or Egyptians would actually agree to form a multilateral military force to intervene in Libya if so requested—demanded?—by Obama? One percent? If they did, what are the chances that they would get there in time—say, in the next few days– to make a real difference in the outcome in Libya?

As for a NATO no-fly zone, it doesn’t appear that it would have a significant impact, for there have been very few Libyan airforce attacks on the rebels, and today’s New York Times coverage of the fighting mentions none. In any case, if “NATO” was willing to shoot down Libyan planes, why wouldn’t it have acted on its own by now? Is it waiting for a U.S. demand, which would then embarrass the Europeans into a military intervention? Bear in mind that in neither NATO nor the U.S. were willing to intervene militarily in Bosnia, right on the doorstep of Europe, until over a year after the Serbs had begun their campaign of ethnic cleansing if not outright genocide in the spring of 1992.

Not content with castigating Obama for his caution in Libya, Wieseltier adds Cairo and even “Tehran two years ago” to his list of Obama’s “diffidence about humanitarian emergencies” and popular uprisings that we “disappointed.” I don’t recall any U.S. verbal diffidence towards the anti-regime uprising in Iran in 2009; on the contrary, we supported it wholeheartedly. Of course, we didn’t intervene militarily, but I don’t recall Wieseltier or any other minimally sane observer suggesting that we should.

Finally, Wieseltier is quite confident that there would be no anger in the Middle East over yet another U.S military intervention in the region; on the contrary, he writes, “the complaint has been…that the United States has not intervened.” He does not name any states or political leaders who are so complaining.

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Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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