Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Srebrenica to Benghazi

Somewhat predictably, from the very first mention of military intervention in Libya, the usual suspects were trotting the same old opposition lines.  The Stop the War Coalition hastily organised a rally, the Socialist Workers Party printed out leaflets and George Galloway popped up on Sky News.  However, whilst many of the anti-interventionist concerns are at least partly understandable and in many cases compassion for the Libyan people appears genuine, none of the arguments currently levelled against action really stand up to any scrutiny.

‘The West is just in it for oil’ is perhaps the most fequent  and nonsensical claim, churned out by those who ignore the fact that the most prominent states in the coalition import relatively little of their oil from Libya, with the overall supply of Libyan crude making up just 2% of the world’s total.  Of course contracts in Libya are still worth billions of dollars to many ‘Western’ companies and certain states including Italy are more reliant on these than others, but this is hardly a motive for intervention– after all, he was already providing the oil, working with companies such as BP and showed no signs of cutting it off.  If anything, Libyan oil would have been an incentive to keep Gaddafi in place, just as tacit or active support has been given to other despots in return for their energy supplies.

Which leads us nicely to the anti-interventionists’ next point – ‘hypocrisy!’  They point out that although Zimbabwe, Burma and Tibet all languish under barbaric regimes we haven’t seen any intervention in these cases.  And right now state violence against demonstrators is rapidly increasing in the Ivory Coast, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia but there is no talk of airstrikes or no fly zones over these states.  In fact, in several of these situations ‘Western’ governments and state-supported arms dealers are continuing to prop up the tyrants in power.  These are of course perfectly valid points, that should be loudly articulated by members of the public in democratic states …but they do not explain why intervention shouldn’t take place in Libya.  Just because our governments have left the people of other states to be ruthlessly slaughtered, why should we then try to stop them when they finally do decide to take action? 

A similar rebuff can be raised against the cries of ‘look at what happened in Iraq/Afghanistan.’  Whilst almost no one denies that these ventures – for whatever reason – have proved largely disastrous, they should not invalidate any future intervention.  And by going through the UN Security Council, explicitly rejecting occupation and taking significant precautions in the execution of air attacks, the coalition forces are demonstrating that lessons have been learnt from past mistakes.

So the argument turns to claims that ‘we have enough problems at home and not enough money to spend on intervention’ or in the words of Galloway – the situation in Libya is not tantamount to ‘our justifiable interests.’  Such sentiments are easy to express when you’re sitting in the UK and your biggest worry is the local library closing – they are far harder to reconcile when you’re in Libya with your family facing the full onslaught of Gaddafi’s troops.

And thus we are left with objections based on the risk of civilian casualties and the practical effectiveness of intervention, perhaps the strongest foundation of the anti-interventionist case.  Yet whilst these fears are most certainly justified, the predictions of numerous innocent causalities have so far been unfounded.  As would be expected, Gaddafi has made claims of mass civilian deaths resulting from airstrikes, but despite controlling state television and access to hundreds of journalists his regime has yet to show any evidence of this.  In the East it has been confirmed that a handful of civilians were injured as US troops sought to rescue their downed airmen, yet several of the wounded have openly expressed support for the intervention – stressing that their injuries are a small price to pay for coalition forces halting Gaddafi’s advance.

And it is precisely the halting of Gaddafi’s advance that stands above all arguments in justifying international military action.  In 1995 the fall of Srebrenica, as the world stood by, resulted in the summary execution of over eight thousand Bosniaks (left).  There is no doubt the had coalition forces not intervened in Libya when they did, Benghazi would have fallen in the same way.  Given the live burials, burnings, mutilations and executions (right) that have befallen those resisting Gaddafi so far, his ominous pledge to show no mercy when his forces reached the rebel capital would have inevitably been realised with unrestrained barbarism.  To a great extent this fact alone justifies intervention regardless of the wider context and concerns addressed here.

Of course criticism is important to asses, free speech is a fundamental right even when we disagree with it and the wider questions of long-term strategy, norms of intervention and the situation in other states must be addressed.  But tonight Benghazi is still on the map, its residents are still alive and Gadaffi has been prevented from carrying out the slaughter that he was so desperate for  -and came so near to achieving.  No ill-founded arguments about oil, past-form or domestic supremacy should detract from that.


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