The Qaddafi family is apparently about to fall in Libya, and I am still not sure exactly what I think about the Western military intervention to support the rebels.
What does it matter what I, an American citizen with no special knowledge of Libya, think? Libyan citizens are not being asked whether Americans should continue to support Barack Obama in the 2012 elections, turn to the Republicans, or back a third party.
It is a sign of the unjust, unequal world that we live in that my opinion about Libya does matter, and theirs (about the U.S. elections) doesn’t. My government, along with European powers, intervened in the Libyan conflict, using my tax money to support one side. I should have an informed view by now, shouldn’t I?
A huge part of the problem, which is never mentioned on the 24-hour cable channels, is sheer ignorance. Professor Mark Mazower, in a thoughtful article in the Guardian, points out: “It would be reassuring if one thought that policy-makers in Washington and London knew anything about places like Libya; the fact is that there are probably fewer than a dozen people across the university system of both countries who do.” (And Bernard-Henri Levy, the fraudulent French philosopher who claims credit for inspiring the Western military action, is certainly not among the knowledgeable.)
One position is simple: the West should never be allowed to intervene anywhere. This is an honorable and coherent policy, until you come up with even a handful of exceptions. A Western strike force in Rwanda in 1994 could not have prevented but would probably have reduced the genocide. Other successful military interventions, not necessarily by the West, include the Indian invasion of East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971, which ended West Pakistan’s slaughter, and the UN-led military force that stopped Indonesia’s mass killing in East Timor in 1999.
But the skeptics rightly point out that interventions can lead to awful tragedy.
One terrible recent example is the 1996-97 Rwandan invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was endorsed, and probably militarily backed, by the United States. The Rwandan invaders carried out mass killings and helped trigger a wider regional war in which millions of innocent Africans have already died.
Back to Libya. I may not be an expert, but I know enough to regard the Qaddafi regime as a loathsome criminal enterprise, which I’m not surprised has finally prompted an armed uprising. I am not a pacifist. But why not stand back and let the Libyan armed rebels make their own history, without intervening and raising legitimate fears over Western imperialism and Libyan oil?
Not so fast. Again, I’m no expert, but I do think that some of Qaddafi’s more recent weaponry comes from the West (after his diplomatic and military relationship with the old Soviet Bloc ended). Qaddafi kept his people unarmed, and a even a small army can maintain control over demonstrators who can fight with only their bare hands. What’s more, the vital campaigning organization Global Witness has exposed the Qaddafi family’s ties to big Western banks and financial institutions. Can’t we regard the Western air strikes against the family, and the weapons supplies to the rebels, as partial compensation for the West’s recent pro-Qaddafi history?
For myself, I’m still uneasy. But my position as a U.S. citizen obliges me to make up my mind.
One final point. The Western mainstream press has spent plenty of time and energy following the uprising in Libya first hand. But most of the coverage has been what journalists themselves describe as “bang-bang” – the sound of bullets and images of destruction with little genuine explanation. As a minimal first step, couldn’t we at least hear more from those “dozen experts” that Professor Mazower mentioned?