What changed in the last few days or even hours to make military action against Qaddafy not only feasible but the right thing to do? Making war against a sovereign state should not be embarked upon lightly, especially when the purported enemy poses no threat to its neighbors. (We’ve seen plenty of misuse of the ‘humanitarian’ intervention trope lately.) But the unfolding catastrophe did merit a response, and no one can fail to heave a sigh of relief that the Libyan people now stand a chance of escaping the despot’s wrath.
Qaddafy’s rapid success in crushing the rebellion against him despite the desertion of substantial numbers of officers and troops meant those who rose up against his tyranny were undeniably exposed to the massacre he openly threatened to carry out. The reversal of fortunes was surprising. Maybe his tactic of murdering troops who refused to fire on civilians was sufficient to get those remaining to obey, or maybe Qaddafy always had a degree of genuine support from his generals especially as they saw the army splintering and their command structure on the verge of collapse.
Next—and probably decisive for Europe and the United States—Qaddafy’s loony-tunes defiance finally went too far. His deputy foreign minister made the fatal goof of threatening to retaliate for any attack by targeting air and naval traffic in the Mediterranean, and given the regime’s obvious indifference to civilian life, that is not a state of affairs that NATO can tolerate.
Finally, the Arab League and the more conservative U.S. allies among them gave the operation cover by endorsing the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. It was an extremely rare move followed by the decision of Russia and China to stand aside and permit the UN Security Council to authorize the intervention. Legally and practically, the decision to halt Qaddafy’s reign of terror is a far cry from W’s solo cowboy act in Iraq.
That’s the political side in which states look out for their interests, and I don’t have illusions about the relative weight of the well-being of the Libyan people in the decision-making processes of Sarkozy and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the human side offers ample motive to endorse the intervention as well as we see the nefarious impact of the Qaddafy strategy on the movement for democracy around the Arab world.
On the same day as the UNSC decision and the arrival of French jets over Libya, the Yemeni regime mowed down civilian protesters in the streets of that capital, and the Sheikh of Bahrain set loose the police once again to crush that popular movement. In my view, these despots took a leaf from Qaddafy’s book (albeit not the Green one) and apparently decided that Mubarak lost because he didn’t go far enough in putting his own people to the sword.
The distraction of the Libyan drama has permitted Obama and his team to avoid acknowledging these uncomfortable parallels with Qaddafy’s brutality, which would be much more difficult to condemn given that the Yemeni dictator is a key ally in the great war on terror and has cooperated with ongoing drone attacks in his territory against alleged al-Qaeda-like figures. It is more than a little disturbing as well to note that dozens of civilians were killed in Pakistan in a disputed attack occurring on the same day. One does not ask for consistency from governments, but it is rather rich that Qaddafy is not to harm civilians and can be set upon by NATO for doing so, but meanwhile NATO permits itself to do the same halfway around the world.
If the Libyan war drags on for any length of time, these contradictions will resurface with painful clarity, and Qaddafy will make hay out of them as resistance to ‘western colonialists’. Hugo Chávez will have plenty to say, too. This Guardian commentator has issued a cogent warning about possible unintended consequences of the intervention, for example, how the enthusiastic ‘Arab street’ eager for freedom might suddenly get cold feet if they see their efforts leading straight to foreign intervention. If the U.S. had not accumulated such a miserable record in the region to date, these worries would be far less.