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The case against bombing Libya

The Arab Spring has given way to a cold snap: Tiananmen Square-style massacres of protesters in Yemen, the Saudi invasion of Bahrain and full-blown Western intervention in Libya. Of course, it was never going to be easy. The Middle East is the most strategically important region on Earth, and also boasts the biggest concentration of brutal dictatorships: no coincidence, of course.

With United Nations approval, Western bombs are now raining down on Libya. The stated aim is to prevent Gaddafi from massacring his own people. In practice, of course, supporters of the campaign hope that it fatally undermines Gaddafi’s current military superiority and ends with rebel forces sweeping into Tripoli, thus freeing Libya from four decades of tyranny.

Let’s be clear. Other than a few nutters, we all want Gaddafi overthrown, dead or alive. In both his anti-Western and pro-Western incarnations, his record is that of a brutal and unquestionably slightly unhinged dictator.

I will not caricature supporters of the bombing campaign as frothing-at-the-mouth neo-cons or born-again Paul Wolfowitzs. There are those who otherwise sing from the same hymn sheet as me on the other side of this debate. Similarly, I hope I’m not caricatured as a Green Book-reading Gaddafi lackey, or as a heartless cynic who is indifferent to mass slaughter.

I’m aware of all the arguments in favour of intervention. Even if you support this war, I think it’s important to at least be aware of some of the key arguments against. So, here they are.

The history of Western intervention in the Middle East

Pro-interventionists shrug this argument off. Forget the past: judge this intervention on its own merits. But there are 360 million Arabs living daily with the consequences of a century of Western interference in the region.

Western power has a long and sordid history in the Middle East: overthrowing unsympathetic governments (like Mossadegh in Iran in 1953); backing Israel to the hilt as it oppresses Palestinians, wages brutal wars of aggression and flouts international law; taking Iraq’s side in the bloody war with Iran in the 1980s; launching a spectacularly catastrophic war with Iraq in 2003 (after over a decade of sanctions which inflicted a terrible human toll); and, of course, arming, funding and supporting dictatorships across the region – including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain and, until recently, the toppled regimes of Egypt and Yemen.

You might not think this is relevant. It’s certainly relevant to the people who have suffered, and continue to suffer, because of the largely destructive role played by the West in the Middle East.

The West cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East

Western civilization as we know it depends on oil from the Middle East. Even if (God forbid) a government of my politics came to power, it would face tough choices dealing with regimes ruling over countries which supply us with oil. Given the West’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil, it simply cannot be trusted to prioritise the future of the people who live there (and, as we’ve noted, there’s no evidence it ever has).

Take Italy and Libya as an example. The planes dropping bombs over Libya are using Italian bases. Italy depends on Libya for a quarter of its oil. Do we really think Italy – which until very recently backed Gaddafi to the hilt because of this very reason – is acting without this in mind?

Managing the Arab revolution

Like all of us, the Middle Eastern revolutions took Western governments by surprise. We can be sure that, in capitals across the Western world, policy-makers held emergency meetings discussing all of the possible outcomes. Entirely plausible scenarios will have included the coming to power of governments hostile to the West, or protracted periods of chaos which would wreak havoc with the oil supply and bring the global economy crashing down.

So let’s not pretend that the West is not determined to try and manage the Arab revolutions. The bombing of Libya opens the way for further Western interventions in the turmoil sweeping the Arab world.

A war for democracy and human rights?

We’ve heard much boasting about Arab League support for this intervention, supposedly conferring it with legitimacy it would not otherwise have.

But the Arab League is the biggest cartel of despots on Earth. Many of the regimes now backing the bombing of Libya on the basis of defending the rebels are massacring protesters in their own countries. Do we really think that they are motivated by democracy and human rights?

And what’s the position of neighbouring revolutionary Egypt? “No intervention, period.”

Full-blown military intervention beckons?

By the time you’re reading this, Gaddafi might have been Ceaucescued on Libyan television and the war will be over. But there is a real danger of a protracted military conflict. Originally, the talk was of just a No Fly Zone: but what we’re witnessing over the skies of Libya goes far beyond that. The Kosovo bombing campaign went on for 78 days, for example. Or we could end up with a long-term partition of Libya: after all, Saddam Hussein looked like toast when the Shia and Kurds revolted in 1991, leading to the No Fly Zones in the north and south, but his regime lasted another twelve years.

Playing into Gaddafi’s hands?

Gaddafi is already predictably playing the anti-colonial card. It may well be that Libyans who would otherwise be sympathetic about overthrowing the regime will now mobilise behind it. Libya has a long tradition of providing recruits for anti-Western jihad. Presumably this means there is a wider pool of people with hostile feelings towards the West – and that means a possible new constituency for Gaddafi to fall back on.

The West’s recent love-in with Gaddafi

Even the most dedicated pro-interventionists must be appalled at the cynicism of the recent history of Western-Libyan relations. The countries now bombing Libya provided it with hundreds of millions of pounds worth of arms, which it is now using to slaughter rebels. To go from courting and arming a regime to bombing it – in a matter of weeks – looks absurd, at best.

Elements of the regime have a prominent role in the rebel command

A number of leading figures in the rebellion were, until a few weeks ago, elements – sorry, pillars – of the old regime. The military chief is Abdul Fattah Younis al-Obeidi, effectively Gaddafi’s former number two. He is undoubtedly complicit in many of the crimes of the dictatorship. What if the West is helping to bring power a part of the regime that has fallen out with Gaddafi?

What about tribal divisions?

Do you know anything about tribal politics in Libya? No, neither do I, and I suspect neither do many of the supporters or instigators of the bombing campaign. So I was alarmed to read an article by Robert Fisk, pointing out that the red, black and green flag of the rebels (i.e. Libya’s pre-Gaddafi flag) is a flag of the Senoussi tribe. The Senoussi is the most powerful of the tribal families of Benghazi. But Fisk asks – what will happen if they reach the capital? Will they be welcomed by the other tribes of Tripoli? Or are we laying the foundations for an all-out sectarian war?

Civilians will die

It’s easy to call for bombing campaigns: those who will die as a result will remain faceless to us. But civilians will inevitably be killed in these campaigns, and almost certainly already have been. Look at the number of civilians being slaughtered by US air raids in Obama’s undeclared war in Pakistan. Supporters of intervention will hope far fewer will die than if the West refrained from getting involved, but if the war escalates this may not be the case.

What about Bahrain and Yemen, for example?

The Yemeni dictatorship is waging a campaign of terror against the democratic opposition. Dozens of protesters were shot dead – with bullet wounds to the head – on Friday. There is no international uproar, let alone talk of Western intervention. Why?

Or take Bahrain, which is also violently repressing its protesters. The Saudis last week invaded the country, much like the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 (also at the “invitation” of an illegitimate government). Former British diplomat Craig Murray has good reason to believe that this invasion was sanctioned by the US government.

So while the West intervenes in Libya, it is complicit in – or even in support of – violence being committed against protesters by Western-backed dictatorships.

Why no No Fly Zone in Gaza?

Gaza was pounded by Israeli bombs in 2009, leading to 1,400 deaths. Again, the sort of example many supporters of intervention in Libya will dismiss out of hand. It certainly won’t be in the Middle East, however.

What about other examples – e.g. the Ivory Coast?

Weren’t you horrified by the murderous shelling of a market in Abidjan by Ivory Coast’s dictator, Laurent Gbagbo? Didn’t even know it had happened? I don’t blame you: because there has been no international uproar over what has been going on in the Ivory Coast. And no-one called for a No Fly Zone over the Ivory Coast when its government bombed rebels a few years ago.

Pro-interventionists dismiss this argument as ‘whataboutery’. Just because we don’t intervene everywhere, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene at all, they say. But if they are selective about intervening – hysterically demanding it in some cases, remaining completely silent in other near-identical situations – then they should expect to be scrutinised.

Other than trying to shut the question down, pro-interventionists should at least try to explain why the West gets involved in one case but not another.

Equally, pro-interventionists simply can’t fall back on the ‘So you’d just let them die, would you?’ argument against opponents of the Libya bombing campaign. You could ask them the same question about the Ivory Coast, unless they are going to start yelling for bombs to fall there equally as vocally.

How much support will Western intervention get in Libya?

Originally, when the rebels seemed to be on the march, there was widespread opposition to foreign intervention in Libya (see the photo above). Understandably, when they began to be routed, the mood became desperate. But will their position change again? The Catholics of Northern Ireland initially welcomed British troops in 1969 because they thought they were being saved from a loyalist pogrom. That jubilation didn’t last long. Similarly, some of the Shia who welcomed Western troops into Iraq ended up taking arms in the Mehdi Army uprisings.

The derailing of the Arab revolution

A big danger is that despots across the Middle East will warn their people: revolt, and you will invite Western bombs. In a region which regards Western interference with justifiable suspicion, this may well discourage many from taking to the streets. I certainly hope not: but it is difficult not to have deep concerns for the future of the Arab revolution.


  1. Darrell says:


    Hardly any of these arguments is actually relevant to the issue at hand which some might say is indicative of how weak this case is when applied to concrete reality. Alot of it is pure speculation or else a tangential issue which I may well agree with you on but has no bearing on this decision.

    Let’s deal with the relevant points only then.

    1) Full blown intervention. Not likely since both David Cameron and Barack Obama have quite publicly and categorically said they wont be committing ground troops. People aren’t that short-term in their memory. If such a thing were to happen it would only be possible flying the UN flag realistically, following a second resolution, when the fighting was by and large over and I suspect both the US and UK wouldn’t be a part of it; France maybe but we wouldn’t.

    2) Playing into Gaddafi’s hands. Possible but as long as the cards are played right unlikely. What I do find more likely is that doing nothing would have actually fanned the flames of terrorism given the fact that the rebels wanted this for some time.

    Your last point is nonsensical. As you said the thaw has already begun and it begun before yesterday and it actually begun in Libya when the rebels started losing ground to Gadaffi.

    What about scrutinising yourself first? When will you be writing an article calling for the ground invasion of Bahrain or the Ivory Coast? The answer is of course you wont so you have no real right to even raise this as a substantive point. Its hypocritical in and of itself to raise it in fact.

  2. John says:

    We can all see that there is slaughter going on in those countries and that this is total hypocrisy but what are you doing about it? What do the public actually get from the wage we pay you?

  3. Gary Elsby says:

    We support the Libyan citizens of Benghazi walking around with AK47s shooting the place up and we acknowledge that the Colonel is not a target for assasination.
    But we just took out his bedroom with a Tomahawk missile from a British submarine.
    His death would have been a ‘War Crime’ punished by the Hague (but not William).

    In Bahrain, we don’t support gun carrying citizens mimicking Bebghazi and we support Saudi Arabian Military invading the Country at a King’s bidding.
    This would not be so comical if we hadn’t actually cut our own King’s head off for doing similar.

    The action in Libya is beneath contempt, the actions of the West regarding Bahrain is probably true to form and we should ask ourselves how two neighbours pre-emptied it all.

    They’ve learned to issue no dossiers in their dodgy and illegal activities in our Foreign Office.

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