Time to support the Libyan revolution

There are those, such as Stephen Kinzer, who regard this as “a highly obscure conflict” — as though we really don’t know enough to judge what’s going on.

When journalists are getting arrested, beaten up and tortured, it does indeed get hard to know what’s going on, but it’s not hard to take sides.

And for those of us simple-minded observers who see what is happening in Libya as just one current in the rising tide of the Arab democratic revolution and who see this trend as historic and inspiring, in spite of the fact that we do not know what it will lead to, it’s not hard to support the Libyan revolution — even though Libya after Gaddafi seems likely to involve a measure of chaos.

The alternative — that Gaddafi might succeed in crushing this popular uprising — would not only be bad for Libya, but bad for countless people across the Arab world who currently dream of the possibility of liberating themselves from the suffocating grip of autocratic power.

Anti-interventionists argue that Libyans can and must win this fight on their own. Self-appointed saviors from the West would indeed be unwelcome. But is that really what’s on the horizon? Is President Obama or anyone else currently recruiting support for a coalition of the willing, eager to liberate Libya and cast out the tyrant?

To intervene is “to interfere, usually through force or threat of force, in the affairs of another nation.”

Libya’s revolutionaries have made it clear that they don’t want a direct military intervention on Libyan soil. But that’s not a rejection of all outside support. Indeed, the Interim Transitional National Council in its founding statement said: “we request from the international community to fulfil its obligations to protect the Libyan people from any further genocide and crimes against humanity…”

How can that request be fulfilled? Would a no-fly zone help? If that is what is explicitly requested, then it does not constitute a form of interference. Assistance in response to an appeal for help is not an imposition.

Instead of pro- and anti-interventionists indulging in an ideological debate, what is called for right now is dialogue — not between these two camps but between representatives of the Libyan revolutionary movement and those national and international bodies which are ready to offer assistance.

Still, there are those who want to draw a sharp divide between military and non-military aid. Food for the hungry but no guns for the fighters. And what about medical assistance for those injured on the battlefield? Or intelligence information? Or jamming communications?

There are all sorts of ways of supporting the fight without dropping bombs, but first you have to take sides. If you’re not willing to take sides, the question about intervention is moot, but if you support the revolution, the only question is: how can Gaddafi be defeated?

Update: CNN now reports:

The head of the interim government in eastern Libya pleaded Wednesday for the international community to move quickly to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, declaring that any delay would result in more casualties.

“It has to be immediate action,” Mustafa Abdul-Jalil told CNN in an exclusive interview in this eastern opposition stronghold. “The longer the situation carries on, the more blood is shed. That’s the message that we want to send to the international community. They have to live up to their responsibility with regards to this.”

Anti-interventionists might prefer to turn a deaf ear to this appeal, or perhaps question Abdul-Jalil’s authority to speak for the revolution, but I’d say it’s time to set aside this outworn debate. It’s time to support the Libyan revolution.

Add your name to this appeal to the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

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  1. Gads Paul I think you’re lost your perspective and become emotional. Me I’m deeply suspicious of any so-called humanitarian bullshit which I actually view as nothing more than the West’s newest form of imperialism. Awful shit happens & mostly under our West cloak of secrecy so nice we now want to send in NATO and the moronic marines why now why not a few years ago & why now to real hell holes. Oh because there is no OIL in most real hell holes.

  2. If the past was such a reliable way of predicting the future, there would be no such thing happening as the Arab democratic revolution. The lesson of the last decade has been of the United States’ spectacular impotence — not its ability to control the Middle East. If or when a no-fly zone gets set up (a very big if because the Pentagon insists its overstretched wasting its resources in Afghanistan), then maybe – just maybe – it will help tilt the balance in favor of the rebels. As far as imperial interests go, they already made it perfectly clear they were quite happy doing business with Gaddafi.

  3. Unless I heard wrong, I believe the opposition has already asked for a no fly zone of the U.N. as well as NATO. I do agree that the U.S. needs to stand clear, as its made enough mess in the M.E. already. As for Medical & Humanitarian aid, does it really make a difference where it comes from?

  4. Great post Paul. It takes guts to leave behind the baggage of so many misadventures of US power and see the difference between a delicate new hope and blatant opportunism.

  5. There are so many reasons to resist the siren calls of intervention. It would be most unfortunate if the rebels fail, but no good can come of intervention. See my detailed reasons on http://jnthnwrght.blogspot.com/

  6. Jean-ollivier says

    Hello, I herenunder forward a dispatch from Stratfor. I understand that I am authorized to do so, as a subscriber to Stratfor.
    Tou may hHow a Libyan No-fly Zone Could Backfire
    March 8, 2011 | 1550 GMT George Friedman

    Calls are growing for a no-fly zone over Libya, but a power or coalition of powers willing to enforce one remains elusive.

    In evaluating such calls, it is useful to remember that in war, Murphy’s Law always lurks. What can go wrong will go wrong, in Libya as in Iraq or Afghanistan.
    Complications to Airstrikes
    It has been pointed out that a no-fly zone is not an antiseptic act. In order to protect the aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone, one must begin by suppressing enemy air defenses. This in turn poses an intelligence problem. Precisely what are Libyan air defenses and where are they located? It is possible to assert that Libya has no effective air defenses and that an SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) attack is therefore unnecessary. But that makes assumptions that cannot be demonstrated without testing, and the test is dangerous. At the same time, collecting definitive intelligence on air defenses is not as easy as it might appear — particularly as the opposition and thieves alike have managed to capture heavy weapons and armored vehicles, meaning that air defense assets are on the move and under uncertain control.

    Therefore, a no-fly zone would begin with airstrikes on known air defense sites. But it would likely continue with sustained patrols by SEAD aircraft armed with anti-radiation missiles poised to rapidly confront any subsequent threat that pops up. Keeping those aircraft on station for an extended period of time would be necessary, along with an unknown number of strikes. It is uncertain where the radars and missiles are located, and those airstrikes would not be without error. When search radars and especially targeting radars are turned on, the response must be instantaneous, while the radar is radiating (and therefore vulnerable) and before it can engage. That means there will be no opportunity to determine whether the sites are located in residential areas or close to public facilities such as schools or hospitals.

    Previous regimes, hoping to garner international support, have deliberately placed their systems near such facilities to force what the international media would consider an atrocity. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi does not seem like someone who would hesitate to cause civilian casualties for political advantage. Thus, the imposition of a no-fly zone could rapidly deteriorate into condemnations for killing civilians of those enforcing the zone ostensibly for humanitarian purposes. Indeed, attacks on air defenses could cause substantial casualties, turning a humanitarian action into one of considerable consequence in both humanitarian and political terms.
    Airstrikes vs. Ground Operations
    The more important question is what exactly a no-fly zone would achieve. Certainly, it would ground Gadhafi’s air force, but it would not come close to ending the fighting nor erode Gadhafi’s other substantial advantages. His forces appear to be better organized and trained than his opponents, who are politically divided and far less organized. Not long ago, Gadhafi largely was written off, but he has more than held his own — and he has held his own through the employment of ground combat forces. What remains of his air force has been used for limited harassment, so the imposition of a no-fly zone would not change the military situation on the ground. Even with a no-fly zone, Gadhafi would still be difficult for the rebels to defeat, and Gadhafi might still defeat the rebels.

    The attractiveness of the no-fly zone in Iraq was that it provided the political illusion that steps were being taken, without creating substantial risks, or for that matter, actually doing substantial damage to Saddam Hussein’s control over Iraq. The no-fly zone remained in place for about 12 years without forcing change in Saddam’s policies, let alone regime change. The same is likely to be true in Libya. The no-fly zone is a low-risk action with little ability to change the military reality that creates an impression of decisive action. It does, as we argue, have a substantial downside, in that it entails costs and risks — including a high likelihood of at least some civilian casualties — without clear benefit or meaningful impact. The magnitude of the potential civilian toll is unknown, but its likelihood, oddly, is not in the hands of those imposing the no-fly zone, but in the hands of Gadhafi. Add to this human error and other failures inherent in war, and the outcome becomes unclear.

    A more significant action would be intervention on the ground, an invasion of Libya designed to destroy Gadhafi’s military and force regime change. This would require a substantial force — and it should be remembered from Iraq that it would require a substantial occupation force to stabilize and build a new regime to govern Libya. Unlike in Egypt, Gadhafi is the regime, and sectarian elements that have been kept in check under his regime already are coming to the fore. The ability of the country to provide and administer basic government functions is also unknown. And it must also be borne in mind that Gadhafi clearly has substantial support as well as opposition. His supporters will not go without a fight and could choose to wage some form of post-invasion resistance, as in Iraq. Thus, while the initial costs in terms of casualties might be low, the long-term costs might be much higher.

    It should also be remembered that the same international community that condemned Saddam Hussein as a brutal dictator quite easily turned to condemn the United States both for deposing him and for the steps its military took in trying to deal with the subsequent insurgency. It is not difficult to imagine a situation where there is extended Libyan resistance to the occupying force followed by international condemnation of the counterinsurgency effort.

    Having toppled a regime, it is difficult to simply leave. The idea that this would be a quick, surgical and short-term invasion is certainly one scenario, but it is neither certain nor even the most likely scenario. In the same sense, the casualties caused by the no-fly zone would be unknown. The difference is that while a no-fly zone could be terminated easily, it is unlikely that it would have any impact on ground operations. An invasion would certainly have a substantial impact but would not be terminable.

    Stopping a civil war is viable if it can be done without increasing casualties beyond what they might be if the war ran its course. The no-fly zone likely does that, without ending the civil war. If properly resourced, the invasion option could end the civil war, but it opens the door to extended low-intensity conflict.
    The National Interest
    It is difficult to perceive the U.S. national interest in Libya. The interests of some European countries, like Italy, are more substantial, but it is not clear that they are prepared to undertake the burden without the United States.

    We would argue that war as a humanitarian action should be undertaken only with the clear understanding that in the end it might cause more suffering than the civil war. It should also be undertaken with the clear understanding that the inhabitants might prove less than grateful, and the rest of the world would not applaud nearly as much as might be liked — and would be faster to condemn the occupier when things went wrong. Indeed, the recently formed opposition council based out of Benghazi — the same group that is leading the calls from eastern Libya for foreign airstrikes against Gadhafi’s air force — has explicitly warned against any military intervention involving troops on the ground.

    In the end, the use of force must have the national interest in mind. And the historical record of armed humanitarian interventions is mixed at best.

  7. Jean-ollivier says

    Sorry, I sent the preceding message unadvertently. You may well hate Stratfor’s logic (they are akin to the Pentagon, I guess), but their argument holds water, in my opinion. Gaddafi’s flak within nurseries, it makes “sense”. No-fly zone superfluous as Gaddafi’s planes are out of order, it makes “sense, too, and Gaddafi able to crunch inexperienced youngsters with tanks, it makes sense too, alas. The tragedy is that there are very few reasonable options “on the table”.

  8. I don’t support a no fly zone, I don’t support an invasion. But, if we can get some good intel on Ghaddaffi’s position, let’s drop some heavy ordinance on him. I only say this in light of the hostilities and the mass defections of his own cabinet.

  9. Jonathan – In your post you write: “In the end the conflict in Libya should be decided on the basis of what individual Libyans decide is best for themselves and their country.”

    How loud do Libyan appeals for a no-fly zone need to get before the international community responds? The Transitional National Council is calling for a no-fly zone. Does there also need to be a Gallup poll?

    There seems to be plenty of evidence that the revolutionary fighters are saying two things that are not incompatible: they don’t want foreign soldiers on Libyan soil and they do want a no-fly zone.

  10. Colm O' Toole says

    Sorry Paul but I think you are being a bit naive. I can see where you are coming from… we have all supported the revolutions throughout the Middle East, maybe its the perspective of someone living outside the US but I just don’t buy this warm fuzzy humanitarian line from an organisation like the US Military (Iraq deja vu?).

    It seems pretty obvious (to me at least) that the US Military doesn’t give a damn about African men and women being killed. Just look at Sudan where al-Bashir has spent the last decade committing Genocide, around 400,000 dead. Where was the no fly zones or SAS troops when those in Darfur were defenseless in their tiny villages? Or the Democratic Republic of Congo where Western Governments either ignored the massacres or sided with whoever controlled the resources at any given time? But wait… all of a sudden around 3,000 are killed in oil rich Libya and the US and EU is “Outraged” and “Must Act”.

    I want this Revolution to succeed as much anyone. Just like I want it to succeed in Bahrain, in Saudi, in Yemen and Oman, in Jordan… hell I want it to spread to Europe and the US. But I also know that the US Military does not want these to succeed so therefore cannot be trusted to defend the revolution in Libya.

    Assuming that the US Military and the Arab Revolutionaries have the same interests, so can work together is 100% wrong. The US Military is a counter-revolutionary force in much of the third world.

    Maybe you should ask Che Guevara if he thinks the US Military would support third world revolutionaries…

  11. Colm it really isn’t up to the US Military. Besides that its clear that the reluctance to act seems to be party based in the apprehension about these movements i the Middle East, so that much I agree with. But it can’t have escaped the strategists that helping the incipient democracy will give Washington more leverage to help shape the government, and give it good will throughout the Arab world for actually doing some good for once. The hypocrisy of the US is on show here and inaction would reinforce that perception.

    We are talking about backing people fighting on the aground against the odds.

    WRT Stratfor and the Western think tank attitudes (seemingly allied with the progressive left against action), see Krystof’s editorial and interview with “… Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff. He flew more than 6,000 hours, half in fighter aircraft, and helped oversee no-fly zones in Iraq and the Adriatic, and he’s currently mystified by what he calls the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” about imposing such a zone on Libya.”

    This liberal guilt over the Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures are actually applying the wrong lessons for a new kind of Middle East and the sooner the West gets it the better for all.

  12. Please people get your heads out of your ass…..there is a huge political/media campaign to convince you that the US can’t and shouldn’t interfere because it would be “too tricky” and you are falling for it.

    I don’t know what the clinical term is for the inability to judge one situation from another or think in the present not the past but I am sure there is one because it’s on full display in some of these comments. Maybe it’s just called knee jerk thinking or non thinking.

    Please don’t any of you ever call on the police if you find a serial killer in your house because the police have a history of shooting the wrong people and causing all kinds of damage…and don’t expect help from your neighbors…just handle it yourself.


  13. Paul, do you seriously think that the US government gives a flying fsck about the Libyan people? Heck, they don’t even care about US people, other than their co-oligarchs. Their concern is for a ‘safe pair of hands’ to ‘ensure stability’ regarding oil. Their intent will be to depose Gadhaffi and install another suitably pliant replacement, effectively turning the clock back on the Libyans’ quest for democracy.

  14. There are cogent reasons for believing that the anti-interventionists are really using the supposed moral arguments (against western intervention) and fear mongering (starting another war we cannot win) to put a lid on the ongoing mood and resolve in the Arab world for the people to throw off the yoke of dictators and kings. It is not a rational argument for calm deliberation but a deliberate plan to use the actions of Qaddhafi’s murder brigades to intimidate all the people of the Middle East and North Africa and prevent further rebellions that might unseat the anti-interventionist’s quislings.

  15. Exactly Christopher. Thank you for taking the analysis to its next level. What better way then end the uprisings and dissent and return the Middle East to its old state than by signalling to authoritarian regimes that the US will not act, nor lead, the West into acting against their apparatuses of control and suppression.

    Meanwhile, the so-called progressives can’t get past catch-all anti-imperialism.