Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the conflict in Libya has come from my own friends and family. A group of mostly progressive, well-educated, reasonable people who are now bandying about propagandist talking points and railing against foreign intervention in Libya. They point to Iraq, to Afghanistan, al Qaeda, and draw conclusions to points that simply do not exist. Talking to them over the weekend, I realized there are a number of issues that need addressing before they go the way of myth and legend.
First, I want to point out that there are numerous excellent and pertinent questions to ask when it comes to intervention. Is the U.N. simply trying to protect the civilians or are they supporting the opposition? Are we going to supply weapons? Will we go further than involvement in the air and sea? What are our interests in the region? All of this deserves well-thought-out and investigated answers (a few of which I will do my best to give). But my frustrations are not hinging on the exploration of these ideas. Rather, I find most of my aggravation coming from this mainly Western ideology that always requires a hero and a villain. One side needs to be amazing pillars that embody the revolutionary spirit and the other needs to be dastardly murderers. And if such archetypes aren’t held up to moral inscrutability, then screw those Libyans anyway.
But this is not a movie, this is not entertainment. This is armed conflict.
The West, but particularly the United States, needs to stop treating it as though there is a script it ought to be following. Now of course I understand why it’s easy to fall into such a trap. After all, we had the makings of almost every good war classic at hand: A rag-tag group of rebels take on the Goliath government in hopes of creating the almighty Democracy. What could be more riveting? Then, perfect for an 180-minute format, awful deeds were carried out by said Goliath. But in an upsurge of moxie and character, the Rebels took control of a number of cities and a peace descended on the seaside boardwalks of Benghazi. Roll credits. Claps, laughter, tears, and warm, fuzzy feelings of hope resonate throughout the theatre.
Yet just as quickly as the rebels had seized control, the pro-Gaddafi forces moved in to take it back. Massacres were taking place and Gaddafi, outright flaunting his murderous intentions, promised the U.N. he’d show “no mercy” to a city of 700,000. The Arab League unanimously asked the U.N. for a no-fly zone. The U.N., with the stipulation that Arab states would contribute to the effort, stepped in and just as Gaddafi’s forces had began shelling the suburbs (read: suburbs full of civillians) of Benghazi. Fighter jets appeared in the sky, and suddenly the cheers of Libyans were drowned out by murmurs of concern in the West.
Are we at war again? The sentiment was echoed and picked up by the 24-hour news circus, which, paid in the adrenaline-infused sweat of their listeners, ran like hell with the story. Is this another Iraq? Why are we wasting tax money on Libyans?! Then, suddenly, the bodies of civilians were shown. Sure, they were only really recorded on Libyan State TV, but hey, they could be real, right? Then we find one Libyan rebel saying he has al Qaeda links! So Gaddafi was telling the truth? Then oil. The oil! Then suddenly we’re not sure when the air bombardments will end. Oh sure, the U.N. had initially put an outset date of 90 days, but still, we just aren’t sure exactly when in those 90 days it might happen. And the terror! And the terrorists! Abandon position. Abort! Withdraw support! No war for oil!
This reaction, which was both staggeringly premature, ill-informed and based on conflicting data, has been reverberated around so much on the 24-hour news cycles that most Americans are simply accepting it. Even Jon Stewart seemed to have a strange take on the situation, calling it the war that “just happened.” Perhaps for him and a certain segment of America that is true, but for people with their eyes on the region, it is exactly the opposite. This is an intervention that was slow in coming and thousands were needlessly massacred by a defiant Gaddafi in the weeks leading up to it.
Intervention was approved unanimously by the Arab League, voted on by the U.N. Security Council, and only undertaken with the assistance of numerous Arab States. This level of care, during a frantic time when Gaddafi was lining up at the gates of Benghazi and locals were begging for their lives, was undertaken precisely to thwart those anti-imperialistic rumors that were bound to crop up. In other words: intervention in a massacre was stalled because this mission wanted to make damn sure the world knew it had gone through all appropriate channels. Yet it still garners remarkable levels of derision that completely ignores the multi-lateral nature of the entire process. It is a situation not at all similar to Iraq, nor is it comparable to other areas in the region such as Bahrain, Syria, or Yemen. Libya has its own newly appointed transitional government which has been recognized by outside countries. It has its own armed forces. It has been this battle for weeks on end and has been under significant threat of mass murder. None of these same situations have shown themselves in the region. So to compare operations in Libya to any other country is to be significantly misinformed about regional turmoil.
Then there is the issue of finding actual members of al Qaeda working inside the Libyan revolution. Scandal, right? Hardly. To understand why this is so far removed from an actual news story, you must understand a few things about North Africa (and to an extend the world) and that is: There are extremists and insurgents, both former and current, living there at all times. This story does not revolve around a cell of terrorists but former fighters in the region’s many wars. When the Afghan-Russian war took place, numerous Arabs from around the globe took off to fight with the mujahadeen. It was considered a good and important deed until they stayed and helped fight the American army. Similarly, when Iraq happened (which contrary to Western belief is seen as occupational terrorism by most of the Arab world), plenty of Arabs from around the globe took off to fight in numerous battles there.
To find former insurgents living in Libya is like finding Vietnam vets living in Delaware. Not at all shocking to assume there would be a few. The idea that since they fought alongside terrorist groups or even al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan hardly makes them active members. Nor does it mean that they are currently in touch with base camp (wherever that may be), seeking out orders for what to do next. Most of these men are simply fighters that returned home, back to Libya. If you cruised the Middle East you’d probably find similar men in most of the countries. Furthermore to judge a grass-roots pro-democracy revolution because of a handful of former insurgents is woefully bad form. It would be like judging American ideals on justice by the amount of Linndy England’s walking free amongst society.
Well, but what about oil? However, as pointed out by Professor Juan Cole:
U.S. companies were well represented, along with BP and the Italian firm ENI. BP signed an expensive exploration contract with Qaddafi and cannot possibly have wanted its validity put into doubt by a revolution. There is no advantage to the oil sector of removing Qaddafi. Indeed, a new government may be more difficult to deal with and may not honor Qaddafi’s commitments. There is no prospect of Western companies being allowed to own Libyan petroleum fields, which were nationalized long ago. Finally, it is not always in the interests of Big Oil to have more petroleum on the market, since that reduces the price and, potentially, company profits. A war on Libya to get more and better contracts so as to lower the world price of petroleum makes no sense in a world where the bids were already being freely let, and where high prices were producing record profits.
But even discounting the imperialistic goals of the West (and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and numerous other Arab States involved), and forgetting oil and insurgents: What about an end point? Well, as pointed out above, the U.S. is transferring most operations over to NATO and there are hopes that soon any activity in the area can be halted. Right now, the opposition is on a momentous push west towards Tripoli. Most recently, Gaddafi’s own hometown of Sirte was taken under oppositional control and it looks like major conflict will be coming to a head sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, it would serve the West well to remember that not everything during times of revolution is so easily good or bad. Of course it is important that we ask questions; that we examine the bigger picture and not believe everything that we are told by any particular government or any particular news outlet. However, it is also just as imperative that we remember that what is going on in Libya is never going to be a clear cut case of easy morals and Gandhi-like pacifism. As the Opposition force marches towards Tripoli, many around the world are holding their breath. It is likely that the most intense fighting of this revolution has yet to come. My only hope is that the West can remember the price that would be exacted should they lose.
For me, and for most Libyans I have talked to, limited civilian casualties and controlled foreign intervention is a small price to pay to be rid of the repressive and murderous rule of Gaddafi. Who, if allowed to surge back, would no doubt carry out reprisals of genocidal proportions. This is the one fact I would implore that everybody remember. Regardless of whether you think our interactions with Libya are pure, needed, or contradictory, please keep in mind that without intervention we could be having a very different discussion right now. One that revolved around the decimation of Benghazi and how a dictator was allowed to carry out mass executions while the world stood by and did nothing. Quite frankly, I’ll take intervention-outrage over that any day. Let’s not stop asking questions, let’s keep a close eye on the situation, but let’s never forget the reason why the entire region came together and pleaded for intervention. I know it doesn’t make a great movie ending, but for now it will have to do.