Mar 22nd 2011

The Dangerous Intervention? Libya and the Coalition Attacks

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

The Dangerous Intervention? Libya and the Coalition Attacks

In Albert Camus's notebooks, one finds a confession that strikes a chord. One is always caught in the vice of doing something and the helplessness of doing nothing at all. In between, the human being is permanently stuck on a fence, pondering the next moral action that might negate the very thing he or she seeks to protect. The moral is, however, to act, but to do with the most minimal of intrusions.


The intervention in Libya has the hallmarks of the military actions of 1999, when NATO intervened, without UN Security council authorization, to quell the efforts of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to crush the Kosovo insurgency. There were murderous hiccups to the operation: the slaying of 70 refugees who were mistaken for being Serb paramilitaries, to name but one notable incident. Then, there was the extreme reaction on Serbia proper itself. Little wonder that this was deemed by various members of the left, notably such figures as Noam Chomsky, as yet another notch on the imperialist belt, another example of smug Western powers gone wild. The age of 'humanitarian imperialism' was upon us.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 did not stem from an entirely united front. There were five abstentions, with ten members of the Council voting for the intervention. The resolution did involve Arab support, though again, the degree of such involvement will only become apparent as the conflict takes shape. At this point, Qatar has a presence, and is readying itself for military engagement from Italy, but that is hardly significant in the broader scheme of things. Other Arab states, wedded to a brutality that has had backing from the oil-dependent west, have kept silence. The Russians and the Chinese decided not to go along with the veto power, but both countries continue to insist on a cessation to hostilities.

Indeed, the attacks have already caused concerns amongst Arab states, and will continue to do so. Criticism has been made by head of the Arab League - the Arab Secretary General Amr Moussa. 'What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians' (Dawn, Mar 20). This is somewhat disingenuous, considering that the same organisation insisted on the imposition of a no-fly zone in March 12 to deal with the regime.

To use the humanitarian line of intervention in any situation is deeply problematic. It is deceptively consoling. It will be particularly more so given the nature of the technology used. Such involvements are 'clean' in the way they minimise human casualties.

There is much to suggest that the rhetoric of a humanitarian intervention is often that of a trick, where humanity, or the idea of humanity, is a resounding joke, or at the very least a crutch designed to support other motivations. There is much juggling as to what this intervention might do. Do we start talking about a 'pragmatic interventionism', the middle road between those who prefer to not intervene at all and those who, without much contemplation, charge head on into the quagmire?

Colonel Gaddafi will hope to mould this intervention into every conceivable image, borrowing from the richly stocked cupboard of stereotypes. With the generous use of human shields, and the inevitably high casualties that will follow on attacking various weapons sites, he will be able to point his mocking finger back at his opponents. He will continue to insist, as he has been for some time, that his opponents are none other than thinly clothed fundamentalists. (On that score, sketchy knowledge about the leaders of the rebellion is troubling.) The murderous tragic may well find himself claiming that he is fighting the oppressors of the West.

The Camus dilemma remains: how does one minimise harm in making a moral decision? Such statements as those of a British Lib Dem member are infuriatingly simple. 'We have taken as forward a position as the Conservatives. We have argued the same way Paddy Ashdown did over Kosovo. To stand aside in this sort of situation would have been unconscionable' (Observer, Mar 20).

The result then, is to intervene - and be damned.


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