It has become clear that the UN resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya is essentially a mandate to oust Gaddafi. There are three major problems with what is going on, from my point of view.
First, is the dishonesty.
Second, is the hypocrisy.
Third, is the imperialist tone to the move.
First, we are not talking about a “no-fly zone.” If we were, then it would make the very first action, i.e. taking out a column of Libyan tanks, nonsensical. What do tanks have to do with no-fly zones? Nothing.
What has happened is both a natural confusion and a deliberate misinformation campaign.
The natural confusion is simple enough: there had been much initial talk about a no-fly zone; the talk got increasingly serious, then the UN Security Council sat down and finally passed a vote to action. What they agreed upon was a somewhat open mandate to “protect civilians,” – basically an authorization to do anything it is possible to do from the skies – which is to say, anything at all. This is why the very first attack was on a column of tanks, which were apparently headed to Benghazi to shell the city, killing both rebel forces and, very possibly, civilians.
Protecting civilians is a very convenient mandate, since it is rather open to interpretation, and difficult to pin down or verify. Who is a civilian, exactly? Are all of the rebel forces counting as “civilians?” If so, the mandate is a closet attempt at regime change, and not actually about civilians at all, a point practically everyone already concedes anyway.
So the no-fly zone invisibly morphed into a mandate to use (unspecified levels and kinds of) force to go about the ambiguous task of “protecting civilians.”
But the US spokespeople have carefully unclear in specifying what we’re doing or not doing; instead they have focused on the fact that Gaddafi is indiscriminately targeting civilians. (1)
It seems alright to let Americans think their country is involved in something as seemingly simple as a “no-fly zone.” Most of us think of this as something like being traffic cops in the sky, telling everyone they can’t take off right now.
In reality, the mandate has involved over a hundred US cruise missiles (at a million dollars each, no less) and dozens of fighter jet attacks, including on Gaddafi’s personal compound. I guess killing Gaddafi’s generals probably helps protect civilians? We’re hardly just playing traffic cop.
But the second most important part of war (the first is winning) is what people think about it. Back home, it is essential that they don’t get a bad idea of it, lest they mobilize against it (think Vietnam). Abroad, it is important that the narrative received paints the US as a good guy to the extent possible.
Hence, the next set of falsehoods: the US is only part of a coalition. In reality, the US bullied its way around the UN, strong-arming reticent parties into cooperation. It is telling that the very next day, some of those parties were already backing away from the project. The Arab League, one of the parties, was the first to distance itself. Amr Moussa, the sitting president of the Arab League, essentially said: “But that’s not what I thought we were doing! I thought we were just keeping bad planes out of the sky, not bombing people!”(2)
It is incredibly problematic that some major parties to the UN Security Council refused to be on board (Germany, Russia, China, India, et al.). By abstaining, they didn’t block the measure; but they were none too happy about it, and actually protested vocally about the strikes. What behind-scenes measures were used to strong-arm them into not vetoing is unclear, but what is clear is that they went along against their will.(3)
Who is in charge of this? Well, in answer, AJE’s blog recently announced the following:
12:16pm President Barack Obama says the United States expects to transfer the lead military role in Libya to other allies in a matter of days.
So the US is unequivocally in charge of this, and the primary instigator behind the decision to act. So we must conclude, despite what Obama and co. would like, that yet again the US is attacking an oil-rich Arab country, that yet again it is manipulating the system in order to cloak naked US political interests in the guise of multilateral legitimacy.
We can read Obama’s insistence on this point as a symptom of his anxiety: he is desperate not to give the impression that the US is anything more than an unwilling defender of desperate civilians. (4)
It’s about protecting civilians? Really? Well then, where is the no-fly zone for the following countries, please:
Cote d’Ivoire (the government committed what will likely constitute a crime against humanity last week when the state was ordered by its military dictator to shell a marketplace) (video on situation here) (discussion of media and history here)
Bahrain (the government has been violently suppressing protests for weeks now; most recently it called in Saudi troops and tanks to put down the protests) (also see this)
Yemen (civilians and protesters have been suppressed and killed for weeks now, in a situation that overlaps closely in many ways to Libya) (see comments from zunguzungu and intensive reporting from Nir Rosen)
As Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is keen to point out, one major and perhaps most significant difference is that Libya is one of the top ten oil producers in the world. There are other differences as well. The US keeps its 5th naval fleet at Bahrain, so it is not keen on that government getting all democratic on us – they might vote to kick out our fleet!
p.s. These critiques should not be confused with any reticence (on my part) about helping civilians to the extent possible. I am not against helping civilians; and civilians are certainly at serious risk. That makes this situation morally ambiguous for me; even if I condemn what is happening, I am pleased to see some rebel troops and civilian supporters react with joy to the help their side is getting from French fighter jets and US cruise missiles. What I react strongly to, however, is that we are being *sold* a civilian humanitarian mission as a means to manipulate public opinion into supporting an ambiguously defined mandate, in an oil state, with the US in the lead – a situation that seems as fishy as it gets.
(1) Obama: “The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya. These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.”
(2) Whether or not this is true is highly questionable. My guess is, Amr Moussa knew full well the extent of the carnage to come, but desperately needs to not be seen as backing yet another US-led “coalition” to kill Arabs. And we should not forget he’s about to run for the Egyptian presidency in a few months, so his PR campaign is in full swing. This may have also been a useful means for US carrot-stick measures to pressure him into signing up initially.
(2) On the US bullying of the UN Security Council, to get its way while appearing to be merely “acting in concert,” or part of a true coalition, see for Phyllis Bennis on Democracy Now today.
We should also be extremely wary of the term coalition. Bush Jr. successfully emptied that term of any political meaning when he referred to a coalition as essentially “us plus anyone else who wants to come along.”
(3) If this were the case, however, then why could an agreement not be reached with the likes of Germany on board? China and Russia I might understand as being lukewarm for fear of an increased US hegemony in the area; but Germany? Their abstention is a sign to me of some very fishy things that they did not want to be party to.
The first two minutes of these videos gives plenty of examples of Obama’s current rhetoric:Vodpod videos no longer available.