Monday, March 21, 2011

The ‘Bigger Picture’ in the Middle East and the War in Libya

above: Many Libyan rebels and their supporters question intervention

In this article Tristan Ewins explores the complexities of the crisis in Libya, and the broader strategic issues that are driving 'great powers' in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere. Debate at Left Focus is welcome as always.

By Tristan Ewins, March 21st 2011

A week can make a great deal of difference in international politics. Whereas only a short time ago world leaders were ruling out any kind of direct intervention in Libya now ‘it’s on’: not only a flight exclusion zone, but cruise missiles and who knows what else…

World leaders behind the intervention are reminding us – as might be expected – that this is a violent and repressive government. Amnesty International in its 2010 report on Libya noted suppression of freedom of speech, and a great many “unresolved” “disappearances” going back to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s”. Dissidents have been imprisoned, and corporal punishment has been enforced against women having sexual relations out of wedlock.

Many also feel strongly that the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 – with the deaths of 270 people - is an out-standing atrocity for which ultimately there was not justice.

Those of us with good memories, however, might also recall the litany of crimes of which Saddam Hussein was accused of; gross human rights abuses, war and mass murder -which were put forward as a rationale for war. Opponents of war questioned this rationale for intervention then; and we should be looking more deeply now also.

It’s interesting that the case for intervention against Libya is being made at the same time as severe repression in Bahrain and Yemen; with Saudi intervention in Bahrain to prop up minority Sunni rule (mainly the Bahraini royal family), and a massacre of at least 40 protestors in Yemen – with some claiming more.

And yet there is no call for Western intervention in defence of human rights for either Yemen or Bahrain.

To understand what motivates the ‘Great Powers’ – and why there is support for rebels in Libya but not elsewhere - it’s probably appropriate to consider the realities of geo-politics; and the broader strategic outlook in the region.

The US government is making the necessary noises about democracy and human rights with Yemen and Bahrain to maintain legitimacy - just as occurred with Egypt.

But behind the scenes there is desperate and ruthless geo-politics on all sides. The US and its allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government are concerned about Al Qaeda influence in Yemen; or the prospect that human rights for the Shia majority in Bahrain could lead to co-operation with the Shia-dominated Iranian theocracy – threatening the status of the US 5th Fleet based there.

Strategists will be considering the possible future scenario of war with Iran and other countries. They will be considering the importance of possible sea-lane ‘chokepoints’ such as the Straits of Hormuz; the Suez Canal in Egypt; and the Bab of Mandeb – a strategically crucial strait located between Yemen and the Arabian peninsula.

Even Afghanistan has been mooted as a possible future ‘transport and logistical hub’; and apart from the poppy trade the mountainous country is highly defendable in the sense of a conventional conflict. Afghanistan also borders Iran and could provide access to Russia via Central Asia. In a future war Afghanistan could be crucial – as the Russians realised in the 1980s.

After Kosovo’s secession from Slavic-dominated Serbia was recognised by much of what is referred to as ‘the international community’ largely Slavic Russia was appalled at this move against what it sees as a ‘natural ally’. Then in 2008 Russia invaded Georgia; ostensibly to achieve self-determination for the Ossetian minority.

In the ‘global game’ it is within the realm of reasonable conjecture to suppose that –in part – Russian intervention against Western-allied Georgia was a ‘tit-for-tat’ reprisal for the Kosovo secession and Western recognition thereof. (although in the context of acting upon a genuine sentiment amongst Ossetians in the region; as was the case with NATO intervention in Kosovo as well) 

It’s also within the realm of reasonable speculation that Russian arms trade with Iran may have been a ‘bargaining chip’ in the context of the implementation of the proposed ‘missile defence shield’ in Eastern Europe; and Russia’s fear of a downgrading of its own nuclear deterrent.

A similar logic may be at play in the Middle-East and North Africa today with the demise of Western-friendly authoritarian governments in Egypt and elsewhere. But the strategic significance of Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen in particular means a lot more is at stake than many realise.

The Iranians are certainly sceptical about the justification for intervention in Libya being made by the Americans, British, French and others under the banner of UN Security Council support.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi from ‘Iran Review’ has observed that:

There is a growing sentiment in Tehran that the West's real intention in Libya is to capitalize on Gaddafi's repressive gains over the opposition to generate a region-wide counter-momentum vis-a-vis the popular upsurge throughout the Arab world that has destabilized the US-backed status quo.”

There may be some truth in this. Importantly, though, Gaddafi and the Egyptian 'Muslim Brotherhood' - which rose to prominence with the struggle in Egypt - don’t seem to see ‘eye to eye’. Gaddafi has repressed the organisation in Libya in the past, and leading Muslim Brotherhood ClericYusuf al-Qaradawi has called for Gaddafi to be shot: put to death.

So what’s going on in Libya specifically doesn’t look like ‘retaliation’ in that context. But again – lack of US and UN intervention in Bahrain and Yemen show that strategic questions are taking precedence over immediate issues of human rights.

As to the question what strategically is at stake in Libya: It accounts for 12% of EU oil imports, and 27% of oil imports for Italy. Sustained instability could be costly for Europe, but removal of Gaddafi could provide some long term advantage..

More detail on Libya specifically…

From a position where military intervention was ruled out just a short time ago, at this point events in Libya are developing rapidly, and is there is no telling where the intervention may lead..
On March 13th ‘NineMSN’ reported on the Arab League’s decision to recognise the rebel movement as the true representatives of the Libyan people, calling on Gaddafi to “relinquish power immediately”.

Syria opposed this stance, perhaps fearing intervention against its own interests in the future.

And the United Nations Security Council has more recently supported a ‘No Fly Zone’ and intervention in the civil war.

Finally, on March 18th

“the UN Security Council passed a vote calling for "all necessary measures" against forces loyal to the Libyan leader”; “with abstentions from Russia, China, Brazil, Germany and India.”

Earlier on in the crisis the US government and others were reluctant to use the term ‘civil war’ to describe what was going on in Libya. The conflict was depicted as nothing but pure aggression by the Libyan government and armed forces against its own defenceless civilians. While the Libyan government’s repression and violence against its own people is part of the picture, though, it is not the entire picture. As events have progressed it has became clear that civil war and revolution are the context of the Libyan crisis.

Two positions on this question are emerging on the Australian Left.

Recently at ‘Left Focus’, Benjamin Solah from ‘Socialist Alternative’ expressed no doubt that the Libyan government was using “helicopters and fighter jets to bomb and mow down demonstrators”. But regardless of this, Solah argued against intervention on the grounds it would make matters worse. (along the lines of the Iraq war and occupation; with the terror, underground power struggle and strife which followed) Similar positions are held by many on the Australian revolutionary-Marxist Left; although it would probably be incorrect to suppose this outlook is homogenous amongst those of that disposition.

Meanwhile Guy Rundle at ‘Crikey’ contends there has arisen on what he calls the “Anti-Imperialist Left’ “an utter contradiction…between solidarity and anti-imperialism” where “what is unquestionably a revolution is [portrayed as] asking for ‘imperial’ support.” Rundle also notes the Bolsheviks’ dealing with the Germans during the First World War as proof anti-Imperialist politics have never been simple.

In light of such arguments, should we be for or against intervention?

To begin with, considering the stakes, how much do we know about the conflict?;

In the author’s home country Australia it seems there has been little or no detailed treatment of who the Libyan rebels really are. Looking elsewhere, such information was also hard to find.

Eventually the author found a passage in the New York Times depicting the rebel leadership as “a council of opposition leaders made up of lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures”.

Another writer mentions an organisation called the “Libyan National Council” which is organising resistance in the east.

George Joffe - writing for the BBC - mentions opposition from “Tribal leaders from the Sa'adi tribes, traditionally hostile to the Gaddafi regime” as well as defection from army units.

Finally of interest is a website belonging to a group calling itself the ‘Libyan Youth Movement’.

Further questions include how the rebels have organised and prepared for this day. Weapons and training appear to have been provided by defecting military units. Were the rebels receiving outside help, and if so from who? And if agreements were made in that context: to what effect?

As Rundle’s mention of Bolshevik dealings with the German government in World War One shows, revolutionary politics – and politics more generally – is a messy business. Outside support on its own does not invalidate an uprising. But these questions highlight issues of what kind of consequences may ensue should the rebels succeed, or should Gaddafi prevail.

There’s also been very little (perhaps nothing?) in the way of footage of the recent atrocities Gaddafi and his forces are accused of. It’s argued there was a media blackout. And lack of footage is not to say the alleged atrocities against peaceful demonstrators did not occur. The ‘outside world’, after all, knew nothing of Nazi death camps for years. But with the Iraq conflict, and the lies systemically and deliberately told there to provide a rationale for war, it’s difficult to simply take claims of atrocities in Libya purely at face-value without an element of doubt. The lesson for Western powers: Do not be loose with the truth as events such as may be taking place today underscore the importance of keeping the trust and good faith of the public: that there is not such doubt when action genuinely needs to be taken.

Importantly, one website noted that:

“Groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been gathering evidence of human rights abuses, citing sudden arrests, disappearances and deliberate killings of people who joined anti-Gaddafi protests as well as casual onlookers and migrant workers.”,+if+recaptured+by+Muammar+Gaddafi's+troops.html

But in the context of war – with governments acting in our name - we need specifics, and we need them now.

In the author’s home country, Australia, much of the media has moved to mobilise public opinion against the Libyan government and in favour of intervention. It is reasonable to assume the same is the case in the United States and elsewhere as well.

Generally it is assumed that western liberal democracies benefit from pluralism and liberty; and that in the public sphere these influences provide ‘checks and balances’ that help ensure expression of different views, and scrutiny of untruths. While this is theoretically and practically possible – and more the case in liberal democracies than in fascist, authoritarian or Stalinist regimes - this is not to say there is not widespread manipulation of the media in liberal democracies. The power of figures such as Murdoch and Berlusconi illustrate the point; as does the power of figures such as James Packer and Kerry Stokes in Australia.

It is proper for the media in Australia and elsewhere to be pursuing questions of massacres and human rights abuses in Libya. But this does not mean the media should forsake standards, inclusive and contextual representation of viewpoints, and accuracy and objectivity - on the basis of ‘the ends justifying the means’. And where there is lack of competition and real diversity in the mass media ‘mobilisation of public opinion’ is especially problematic. Once the precedent is set, loss of such standards in the mass media becomes a vicious and self-perpetuating circle which undermines the very foundations – and hence legitimacy and meaningful practice- of liberal and pluralist democracy.

In any intervention many lives will be lost. The bottom line is that when our governments act in our name in support of military intervention it is appropriate that we be given the full truth: that we have all the knowledge we need to make a fully-informed choice what policies we support as citizens.

We should be demanding consistency elsewhere as well – with human rights abuses in Bahrain and Yemen. And even if strategic considerations are real, we should nonetheless be demanding the true and full story when it comes to Western interventions in Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere. At this point it does not appear that the United States and other Western powers are even attempting to balance and reconcile strategic and human rights questions in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.

The choices we are faced with

Assuming we were in possession of all the relevant information, though, that’s not to say everyone would be agreed as to what course of action was right.

In this context of ‘specific likely consequences’ a ‘general law’ against intervention ‘anywhere’ or ‘ever’ doesn’t make sense. The bottom-line has to be a realistic and thorough consideration of what the likely consequences of intervening really are – as opposed to the consequences of not intervening.

Should Gaddafi be overthrown, is it likely we will see another ‘dirty war’ with retribution and counter-retribution? Perhaps we should consider the sectarian strife in post-war Iraq. Although it’s notable that
Libya is overwhelmingly Sunni, so it is a significantly different situation.

And should intervention be withdrawn and the rebels fail - what kind of reprisals will the Libyan government make?

Further: if the United States and/or other powers become involved on the ground, what is the threat of ‘mission creep’ derailing the rebels’ objectives anyway? (See: Tom Bramble, also from ‘Socialist Alternative’: )

And if the rebels do succeed is it likely the cause of human rights and liberty will be advanced?; Or over the long term - will one authoritarian government be replaced with another? In the context of an ensuing underground ‘dirty war’ is any other outcome possible?

Finally: Even if Gaddafi is a despot and a murderer: can more innocent lives be saved in the long term through compromise rather than war? If Gaddafi anticipates that compromise or defeat will ultimately see him and his inner circle at the Hague – or executed like Saddam Hussein - it’s likely he won’t be of a mind to negotiate. But a compromise solution could aim for inclusion of all the various tribes and other interests in Libyan society.

If we can avoid a descent in Libya into terror and dirty war, we need to act in the genuine interests of the Libyan people. But the first step in making such a decision is for the United States and its European and Arab allies – as well as for the mass media - to be open, upfront and thorough in presenting us with the facts. And arguments for war or intervention need be tested in the context of presentation of diverse viewpoints. So far that has not happened.

Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer and liberal socialist based in Melbourne, Australia. He maintains and publishes the 'Left Focus' blog

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  1. Latest on Bahrain in 'The Age' 1/4/11 - buried far from the front pages, though.

    Seemingly no concern over human rights abuses there - Possible torture in Bahrain also.

    Shia MPs threatened with trial over dissent.


  2. More interesting analysis - this time anti-intervention - at 'Lenin's Tomb'. Debate here would also be welcome.


  3. And another interesting analysis, this time from Immanuel Wallerstein at Znet - who seems to agree with the supposition the war may be intended to 'take the wind' from the sails of Arab revolt.

  4. It is quite difficult to pinpoint who these Libyan rebels are and if they are really fighting for a good cause. As for the question of foreign intervention, I believe that the people in Libya can solve their own problems. Except when they can no longer solve it then that is when other countries will have to intervene.

  5. I think Kevin Rudd was too quick to throw his support behind the rebels. Whether or not they represent a brighter future for Libya, only time will tell. However, in general I think Australia should keep out of internal conflicts in other countries and focus our taxes on the needs of our own population. Just a few years back Gadaffi was the darling of the west. Now he is a war criminal. Give us a break. Like most people I am totally fed up with politicians who can spend billions of dollars on everything from more foreign aid to a $50 billion broadband scheme but have no money for those who are really disadvantaged. The left needs to tell its gov't - lets start directing money at people who are the most disadvantaged in our community. Lets reduce inequality and above all else give a huge helping hand to people with disabilities and their carers. We need to a huge injection of cash into public health and public education. We need to be putting much more resources into assisting our kids from an early age, but most particularly those with disabilities. If they stuck to the basics: education, health and community services, and stopped wasting their time with middle class greens the ALP would win in a landslide.


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