It detracts nothing from the hair-raising accounts pouring out of Libya to say that the idea of overt foreign military intervention, even to end the slaughter, is unrealistic and unwise. I wish it were not so, but all the lists of possible actions by the United States and the Europeans that I have seen suggest that the correct course for them is not to transform the current civil conflict into a war between the existing Libyan government and the West. Instead, there are indirect options that make sense: humanitarian assistance, continued blockage of Qaddafy’s access to money and arms and, and possibly some turning of a blind eye to arms acquisition by the popular militias. As William Pfaff says on Truthdig:
‘The essence of the general Arab uprising is that it has been popular, authentic, spontaneous, democratic and (with respect to established international political and economic interests) disinterested. This has been its marvel and the source of its strength’. Any open role by the Western powers, says Pfaff, will only discredit all that and ‘could be a bloody blunder’.
Obama and the Americans generally would have a much greater margin of maneuver had the Bushite lunatics not blown U.S. credibility beyond repair with the Iraq conquest of 2003, not to mention decades of enabling of Israeli expansionism, theft and abuse of refugees. Dressing up the Iraq invasion as humanitarian intervention convinced no one but gullible voters at home, and the debacle unfolding since means Obama can never be seen as a neutral player.
Obama’s thoughtful Cairo speech in 2009 looks more and more astute in hindsight, and it’s a shame he didn’t stick to his guns but instead buckled to Republican pressure to drop the expressions of respect and the appeal to a fairer relationship with the Arab world. Given the decades of support for all the reactionary, kleptocratic regimes in the Arab world, including Washington’s ongoing marriage with the corrupt and reactionary Saudis (from whence sprang the 9/11 gang), there is no future in turning the Libyan uprising into yet another war between NATO and an Arab country, no matter how much people hate Qaddafy.
Meanwhile, Juan Cole reports that Tunisia has just dismantled its secret police, making that country freer than the United States in important aspects. There is no longer any NSA-like entity legally permitted to listen in to Tunisians’ telephone and Internet communications—a right we no longer have here at home—and we can look forward to Tunisia restoring the rule of law and legal protections for detainees just as Obama is pounding the last nail into that coffin here at home with his decision to make the crimes of Guantámano permanent.
That’s a good illustration of why although the Libyan drama is heartbreaking, the Arab world’s revolt against tyranny is their business, and they have to manage it for better or for worse. The United States has no moral and very little practical standing to try to turn its outcomes to western advantage and should take this opportunity to defend universal human rights as best it can by matching the statements emanating from the State Department with any measures to that end that circumstances allow, short of military action.
Pfaff advises that ‘western policy planners, military men and even humanitarian enthusiasts do well not to blunder into things they know nothing about’ and reminds his readers that W had to have someone explain to him the difference between Shiites and Sunnis as he gave the order to spend our retirement money on his vanity war. Or as the Hippocratic Oath commands, First, do no harm.