A Humanitarian Intervention?


Edward Lewis of New Left Project interviews Richard Seymour

Richard Seymour writes the blog Lenin’s Tomb and is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and The Meaning of David Cameron. Following the onset of military intervention in Libya, he spoke to NLP’s Edward Lewis about the motives underlying the operation and whether or not it can be justified.

The professed rationale for the intervention in Libya is of course a humanitarian one, as is to be expected given the way Western powers (if not all states) portray themselves. The work of writers such as Noam Chomsky, Mark Curtis, yourself and a host of others has, however, shown that Western foreign policy tends to have as its primary concern the power and privilege of domestic elites. What, then, is the real motive of those backing the intervention in Libya? What, fundamentally, do you think they are seeking to achieve?

I think there are various motives.  One is to re-establish the credibility of the US and its allies by appearing to side with an endangered population and thus partially expunge the ‘Iraq syndrome’ as well as efface decades of arming and financing dictatorships to keep the local populations under thumb and permanently endangered.  But a more fundamental motive can be inferred from the context: the region is experiencing a revolutionary tumult, and the revolution in Libya is no less genuine than those in Tunisia and Egypt (and the uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen).  The thrust of this revolution is not just anti-dictatorship, it’s also anti-imperialist, against the IMF and alliances with Israel.  So I would hypothesise that the US and its allies have been desperate to find a way to halt this revolutionary process somehow and, where they can’t do that, shape it in a direction more favourable to continued American hegemony in the region.  The former regime elements in the leadership of the Libyan rebellion have been more open to an alliance with the US than other revolutionary movements partly because of the particular history and nature of the Qadhafi regime, whose legitimacy continued to rely somewhat on his past standing as a regional opponent of imperialism.  This has given the US and EU a unique opportunity to stamp their authority in the process, even if they can’t control it.

That said, it’s a gamble on the part of the US: there’s no guarantee they can control this revolt, and the political forces, particularly in the east of Libya, are not favourable to imperialism.  There’s an assumption that because the transitional council has called for a no-fly zone, that must be a demand shared throughout the revolutionary movement.  I’m not so sure.  The transitional council has little real authority over the movements it is trying to represent.  They have more or less admitted that while in theory local revolutionary councils are supposed to send delegates, this has not really happened.  The revolution is not a centralised univocal movement, and the transitional council is not the Viet Minh.  It is ideologically disparate, organisationally disarticulated, and spatially dispersed.  So, while the revolutionaries will undoubtedly try to take advantage of any possible breathing space and turn this intervention to their advantage, there are millions of people whose views have not been canvassed in this campaign and could thus turn against it very quickly if it doesn’t go well.  Perhaps the best outcome the US and EU can achieve from their perspective is a de facto partition, between a ‘pro-Western’ east and a rump dictatorship in the west of Libya.  The UN resolution seeks a negotiated outcome to the conflict based on bolstering the position of the insurgency to produce a stalemate.  Given that Qadhafi would be unlikely to cede power in that circumstance, partition looks like a very plausible outcome.  And that would be very bad for Libya, given the regional and ‘tribal’ divisions, partially rooted in the colonial history of Cyrenaica, which Qadhafi has deliberately exacerbated with his policy of underdeveloping the east.  It could lead to a degeneration of the revolution and a civil war.  Divide and rule is not exactly an unfamiliar strategy in the annals of imperialism.

Some will argue that even if the belligerent states have nefarious motives, if it leads to the downfall of Gaddafi or the saving of life then it is justified - these kinds of outcomes being more important than whatever motives may lead to them. What do you make of such arguments?

I think you have to take such arguments seriously, but their proponents all too often do not.  Taking them seriously means trying to judge whether or not the nature of the powers supposedly bringing about this deliverance will affect how they behave, and thus the outcome.  We’re being asked to bet on the idea that either the interests of the imperialist states will coincide with those of the revolution - which, given their counter-revolutionary posture in the region is vanishingly unlikely - or that they will, quite unintentionally, produce a genuinely free Libya.  What if they don’t do that?  What if, as I’ve suggested, the coalition of states involved in the bombing actually works to prevent a revolutionary victory by creating a stalemate?  What if the air war escalates and creates massacres?  There can be all sorts of restrictions applied, ‘rules of engagement’, but these are subordinate to the military logic, and tend to be ‘relaxed’ when things don’t go according to plan.  Recall that weeks into the war on Yugoslavia in 1999, also fought ostensibly on a humanitarian pretext, the US started to expand the bombing into a war on the civilian infrastructure, including a notorious massacre in a television station.  And that was a short, relatively low-intensity war.  In the parts of Libya that Qadhafi controls, there are millions of people who would potentially suffer if such a tactic was deployed, and bitterly oppose the intervention.  And this relates to the question of civil war again - if these civilians blame the revolutionary leadership for visiting this upon them, they may become willing executioners of the counter-revolution.

These are fairly huge risks that we’re being asked to take with the lives and well-being of Libyans by endorsing military intervention by the imperialist states, and they’re plausible enough to demand a serious accounting in the war stakes.  But I haven’t seen anyone who favours intervention conduct such an audit seriously.

Is there an alternative approach that states outside of Libya could realistically have taken, or be taking, that would be better?

States in the region were already intervening in various ways.  Egypt has been supplying weapons and training soldiers for some weeks.  The regime in Egypt is still a military one and a capitalist one, and it will pursue its own interests.  But it isn’t an imperialist state, and its efforts may involve trying to position Egypt as a leading power in a new regional configuration of forces that are more independent of Washington.  But I don’t think we should invest our hopes in that, as the Egyptian military leadership hasn’t yet broken with its backers, and I tend to think we should avoid state-centric answers.  Just because states tend to have all the guns doesn’t mean they provide a clean short-cut to a revolutionary outcome.  I think we should look to the revolutionary forces in the Middle East.  Volunteers from surrounding states have already been joining the Libyan revolution, and people have made comparisons to the Spanish civil war.  That’s a model of solidarity and ‘interventionism’ that has a proud history on the Left.

One way we could help in this would be to build practically relevant solidarity movements with the revolutions, all of them, raising money and political support.  We could pressure our governments to release Qadhafi’s frozen funds to the revolution, to let them purchase whatever weapons they need.  But we should not allow them to try and determine the nature and pace of this revolution, which is for the people of the region to decide, which is why we really have to argue against any reliance on the false ‘aid’ and promises of the ‘West’.

The photo is by BRQ Network.