Back to the state of nature

AL JAZEERA

US commando raids in Libya and Somalia show American power, and its limits, where anarchy rules after state destruction. 

Recent events in Libya and Somalia have brought into focus some of the grimmest aspects of destroyed state structures, and consequences thereof. In Tripoli, US commandos seized Abu Anas al-Liby, al-Qaeda’s man described as a mastermind of the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In the Somali coastal town of Barawe, an attack by American commandos failed to kill or capture the leader of al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, and the Americans were forced to withdraw.

Several days after came the audacious kidnapping and detention of the Libyan Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, by armed men in the capital. Zeidan was later released, but together these events inform us a good deal about failing states.

Coming immediately after the Westgate massacre of shoppers in Nairobi, the US commando raids were certainly dramatic, exhibiting America’s ability to project military power in distant lands where order is fragile. The raids enabled the Secretary of State John Kerry to proclaim that they, meaning terrorists, “can run but they can’t hide” – words that echoed the language used during the George W. Bush presidency in the previous decade.

However, Kerry’s remarks also reflected the new reality after Iraq and Afghanistan – reality in which the world’s sole hegemon, the United States, is no longer capable of staying and nation-building.

America has been forced to change warfare. Its goal now is to economise in terms of money, and reduce its military casualties. Libya and Somalia illustrate this reality, but the new type of warfare also involves risks. After America’s commando operation in Tripoli, Libya demanded that Washington explain the attack on Libyan territory, insisting that any Libyan citizen should be prosecuted in Libya. The United States is surely not going to heed that demand.

There are dangers, however, as the kidnapping of Libya’s prime minister in his own capital has shown. In a country divided into many fiefdoms under the control of rival warlords, America’s seizure of al-Liby, and his flight out of Libya, may encourage potential recruits.

The Western “humanitarian” military intervention in Libya on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces two years ago has clearly brought a string of unwelcome consequences. Gaddafi’s warnings that al-Qaeda was behind the Libyan uprising, whose success would make the country a hub of the organization, were dismissed as propaganda. Gaddafi’s fears were, in part, based on a long history of repression under his own regime, and his cooperation with western governments in the “war on terror”. Libya today shows that his warnings had some merit.

The reasons of al-Liby’s capture by the Americans go beyond the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania. Washington’s concerns include expansion of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Libya – and radical fighters, weapons and expertise reaching extremist groups in Syria, enlarging the threat to Western interests in the region. Libya after Gaddafi has become a key source of weaponry to armed groups in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Mali and other countries which are unstable.

The collapse of order in Libya is part of a phenomenon seen far and wide in the region. From Afghanistan to the Arab world, including Libya and its North African neighbours, and from Somalia in the east to Nigeria in the west of the African continent, a growing number of states have suffered catastrophic failures. Still others are on the edge.

There is a sense of return to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature (Leviathan 1651) in which legitimate governance and positive law are absent. Hobbes said that in such a state there is “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The development of conditions which are akin to Hobbes’ 17th century nightmare is a remarkable occurrence. The peculiarities of each failing state may vary today. The trigger of upheaval may be unique. The victor and the vanquished, and the scale of lawlessness, may be different. But the pattern is consistent.

Often, that pattern involves a population revolting against despotism or dictatorship, prompting external players to enter the conflict, escalation of violence and breakdown of institutions that leads to a state of nature. It is a condition in which people live without a common power which keeps them in awe, self-preservation is their only goal, and they are in a state called war.

The end of World War II in 1945, and freedom for old colonies thereafter, generated relief, happiness and excitement, but there were to be other consequences, most seriously the Cold War. The Germans and the Japanese were defeated. Instead, the Americans and the Soviets emerged as new global masters, and the competition for resources and influence continued.

For more than four decades, a tenuous peace existed in Europe, but savage proxy wars were fought in other continents. The aim was to control resources, and land and sea routes for trade. After World War II, the Cold War fuelled regional conflicts along the Silk Road, the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal and in the Indian Ocean while Europe enjoyed a shaky peace. The Soviet Union’s demise as a superpower, marking the end of the Cold War around 1990, was thought to end the era of destructive wars. Today, such claims would be a misrepresentation of history.

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Living With the Hegemon: Extending the Empire to New Frontiers

CounterPunch, July 17, 2012

Extending the Empire to new frontiers

Recent wars from Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region of vast natural wealth and strategic importance highlight a phenomenon as old as humanity. Iraq and Libya had oil, but their leaders were longtime foes of the United States, now the world’s lone hegemon. Saddam Hussein allied with the Soviet Union before its demise, so did Muammar Gaddafi. They both displayed stubbornness. They were ready to drop the American dollar as the oil currency before bigger players like China and India dared. Saddam and Gaddafi ruled with an iron hand state systems that were brittle. They were too independent for their own good.

Saudi Arabia and tiny Arab emirates such as Bahrain and Qatar, on the other hand, are punching above their weight. Wealthy and dictatorial, their rulers accommodate the hegemon’s interests. These rulers sell their oil and amass petrodollars which they spend in vast quantities on weapons and consumer goods from the industrialized world led by the hegemon. Their relationship is far more agreeable.

The hegemon is thus left with states of two more categories of significant kind. In one category is Iran since the 1979 Revolution, Syria since the 1963 Ba’athist coup, and Sudan. The hegemon intervenes seeking to overthrow uncooperative regimes by diplomatic, economic and military means. In the second category are China, Russia and, to a lesser degree, India, where even the world’s lone hegemon has limits. Beyond these categories are the discarded––completely failed entities like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, where utterly poor and miserable people live.

The hegemon and satellites have not a care in the world for the welfare of such people, except sending drones or troops from neighboring client states to kill those described as “terrorists.” What desperate poverty and misery lead to has no space within the realm of this thinking.

Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how a society develops from primitive to higher levels of civilization. Trades and occupations multiply and population grows. The next stage of development, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that results in war, because an enlarged society wants even more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to understanding the causes of war. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims. A relevant section in the Republic reads:

We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries. There will be hunters and fishermen, and there will be artists, sculptors, painters and musicians. There will be poets with their following of reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and producers; there will be manufacturers of domestic equipment of all sorts, especially those concerned with women’s dress and make-up. 

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their core argument in the book published in 2001 was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Negri and Hardt, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire now is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication. It has no definitive political center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system––a “terrorist” entity to be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as subsequent events testify.

The United States occupied “a privileged position in Empire” depicted by Negri and Hardt. Its privileges did not necessarily arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” They derived from the assertion of  “American exceptionalism.” From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea had become global. The presidency of George W. Bush was a powerful militaristic expression of America’s will.

Like terrorism, the term “empire” is often used disparagingly by those on the left and the right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting models. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.

Different concepts of empire have existed through history. For centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of ruling an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades later, the West was to hit the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. It was brought about by a combination of impudence after the West’s Cold War triumph, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.

Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term “empire.” He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the U.S. empire “provides a complete configuration, articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner.”  The Pentagon planner in question was Lt. Col. Ralph Peters:

The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. (Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? 1999, 141)

The American defense planner’s confession was as revealing as it was terrifying. Economic interest and cultural domination are interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources––energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior drives a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military and other means to territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater the cultural symmetry, the better for the hegemon.

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On Exceptionalism and Deviance

The Wall Street Journal recently carried a speculative article by Ian Tally suggesting a link between the International Monetary Fund’s bailout loans to the European Union’s worst hit economies and sanctions against Iran. In essence, the article said that the Obama administration would likely support bailout loans to Greece, Italy and Spain in exchange for the EU agreeing to an embargo on Iran’s oil.

The source of the WSJ article was Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. Kirkegaard speculated that the timing of the European Union’s “newly-proposed ban on Iranian oil imports” was too fortuitous to be purely coincidental. Greece, Spain and Italy are all heavily dependent on Iranian oil and therefore most resistant to an embargo. According to the WSJ, they are no longer resisting a ban. Italy says that it would support the measure “in principle” while Greece and Spain have indicated that they would not veto the idea.

What has changed? First of all, both Italy and Greece have new prime ministers, installed as part of an understanding with external rescuers, notably Germany and the IMF. The new prime ministers are not politicians, but technocrats, who took office within a week of each other in November 2011. Mario Monti of Italy, a former EU commissioner, became the prime minister, as well as the minister for economy and finance, replacing the colorful and highly controversial Silvio Berlusconi. The new prime minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, was formerly the vice president of the European Central Bank.

These events were the most obvious evidence of an extraordinary shift in power from elected politicians to supranational institutions. There was also a change of government in Spain last November, when the center-right Popular Party came to power, defeating the governing Socialist Party. These changes were a political earthquake in the midst of an economic crisis. It struck in defiance of the popular mood on the streets.

The disconnect between the rulers, including and backed by wealthy corporate interests, and the subjects has consequences for domestic as well as foreign policies of the countries concerned. The mood in the main street everywhere is anti-war. But such sentiment cannot control governments’ propensity to fight foreign wars while corporations are given freedom to operate in an environment with minimal regulation. While the state withdraws from policy making and essential service provision, private corporations are allowed practices which determine employment, wages, and consequently money circulation. The accumulation of wealth by one percent greatly reduces the purchasing power of the 99 percent. High unemployment and depressed economy result in lower interest rates. If banks are threatened with failure, the tax payer is there as the rescuer of last resort.

What does it have to do with sanctions and the current talk of military action against Iran in Western capitals? The economic crisis has made all but the wealthiest countries susceptible to supranational powers. It enables the IMF, and the United States, to exercise control over countries in need, in both domestic and foreign policies.

The Wall Street Journal referred to one issue, that of an embargo on Iranian oil sales. There are other examples where pressure tactics have been used against foreign governments to tow the American line. The increasingly aggressive U.S. campaign against Iran ranges from the European Union to countries in Asia, including India, China, Japan and South Korea to name a few.

The veto powers of China and Russia rule out further sanctions on Iran with the UN Security Council’s approval. So the Obama administration and Congress have adopted the tactic of forcing other countries to obey American law and go along with sanctions imposed by Washington. The temptation to look and act tough from Obama to Republican presidential aspirants, Congressmen and Senators is irresistible as the November 2012 elections approach. American policy of making the world obey U.S. domestic law is blatant and bizarre.

It makes a mockery of other nation-states’ independence and sovereignty and their right to formulate and pursue their own policies. The United Nations is rendered irrelevant while the United States goes Rambo on the international stage. That such behavior is causing widespread alienation among other countries, and ultimately threatens America’s own interests, is a message lost in Washington.

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When Clouds Appear …

When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;

When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;

When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?

– William Shakespeare, Richard III

The year gone by has been one of civil protests, upheaval and violence in many parts of the world. Old wars continued, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peaceful awakening movements that sprang up with much hope in Algeria and Tunisia turned violent as they spread east from North Africa to the Gulf region. A brief and bloody war in Libya, with an overt display of NATO’s military power on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces, resulted in his overthrow and brutal killing. For NATO, the Libya war was over, but not for Libyans. A fledgling government now competes with warlords for territorial control and legitimacy in a fragmented country.

External intervention in Syria is more vocal internationally, but shrouded in secrecy on the ground. Accounts of the conflict are based on claims and counterclaims and not much independent evidence to corroborate. If detractors are to be believed, the Ba’athist regime of President Basher al-Assad is on the brink of collapse. The outcome of the Syrian conflict will have profound consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East, in particular for Syria’s ally Iran, as well as in Lebanon and Palestine.

Human aspirations for liberty and freedom from oppression defined the year 2011. Paradoxically, great powers who played a role in sustaining oppressive systems, and still do where it suites them, declared themselves on the side of liberty in other places. The result is confusion, division, conflict and a more insecure world. Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade were America’s “bleeding wounds,” a term first coined by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. With both Iraq and Afghanistan far from stable, there is an unwelcome prospect of Libya and Syria also extracting a high price in terms of security threats and energy costs in the current decade.

Past events cannot be reversed, nor are their consequences easy to contain. So I have in mind events which I believe the world in 2012 would be better off without. In the United States, from President Obama and administration hawks to his Republican opponents have been talking about punitive action against Iran and others in this election year. Powerful voices in the ruling circles of Israel, France and Britain are egging the American president on. The gap between rhetoric and posturing can lead to something far more serious. How civil movements can be manipulated by external forces for their own interests has been demonstrated during the current upheaval in the Arab world.

The overthrow and killing of Gaddafi may have resolved the conflict in Libya in the West’s view. Now the prospect of real power remaining with the militias, and an ineffective Western-supported government, reminds one of Afghanistan following the 1992 collapse of the last Communist leader Najibullah. Libya, with its porous borders, surrounded by Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt, is vulnerable itself and threatens others. The year 2012 could be decisive, not only for Libya, but for the region and beyond.

The situation in Syria is very dangerous. Unlike Libya, Syrian state institutions are more robust. The regime’s friends are not many, but Russia and China are taking a much tougher line with the West. Iran, its ruling allies in Iraq, and Lebanese and Palestinian groups have huge stakes in Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supported by the West, are determined to see the end of the current Syrian regime.

Turkey, a NATO member, has moved from its previous “independent” position to a stance much more in tune with the Western interests in the Middle East. Once a close ally of Syria, Turkey hosts the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army and allows the group to train its fighters and orchestrate attacks inside Syria. The Turkish military guards the Syrian rebel base, and a refugee camp, just across the Syrian border.

For Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, which professed to seek close relations with its neighbors, this is a complete about face. Two factors appear to be at work here. The Sunni support base of the party is one. The prospect of joining the European Union, an idea that France and Germany in particular oppose, may be the other.

How far Turkey’s moderate Islamic government will go is difficult to predict. It has its own Kurdish insurgency to contend with, so the strategy is risky. Turkey’s growing involvement in Syria reminds one of the 1980s when, from a small beginning, Pakistan, in the midst of ethnic insurgencies, became a base for anti-Communist Afghan forces. The consequences were disastrous.

The conflict in Syria continues to simmer. The sanctions on Iran are steadily being tightened. The talk of military action is persistent and the risk of a weak U.S. president facing reelection being pushed into a war against Iran is haunting. Sectarian violence in Iraq is on the rise. The country faces a new political crisis after an arrest warrant was issued for the Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges, prompting the mainly Sunni party al-Iraqiya to boycott parliament. The Syrian conflict threatens further instability in Lebanon and the wider region. And between Libya in North Africa and Pakistan on the edge of South Asia lies an ominously explosive region, waiting for a trigger strong enough to stage a catastrophe.

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The Killing of Muammar Gaddafi

History News Network, October 31, 2011 — 

Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. This verse from the Bible speaks aloud of the manner of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, as well as his brutal killing. It is also a lesson for those who fought Gaddafi. The end of him has left a disturbing trail of savagery, from which the victors have not emerged unscathed. Where Western governments have been complicit and the mainstream media sadly restrained and unchallenging, NGOs have strained their conscience and luck to speak out about reprisals by both sides.

Gaddafi is the second Arab ruler to meet his end as a result of Western intervention in this, so far brief, new century. Unlike Iraq, the Western powers are not in Libya as occupiers in a formal sense. That there are no “boots on the ground” is President Barack Obama’s escape route. However, we know all too well that air power, especially drones, has changed the nature of warfare, making it possible to control territory from the sky. Boots not being there on the ground is irrelevant. Like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in October 2001, the Western powers have National Transitional Council fighters on the ground in Libya. In 1979, they had Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the consequences are all clear before us.

The United States, Britain and France, flying NATO’s flag, embarked on a “humanitarian” bombing mission. Their remit, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, was to protect civilians in Benghazi, initially by enforcing a no-fly zone. How different does that mission look eight months later? Only a few days ago, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visiting Libya, had said, “We hope he [Gaddafi] can be captured or killed soon.” How many times have we heard the foreign minister of one country proclaiming that the leader of another be eliminated?

It was an act of incitement by an external power to anti-Gaddafi fighters to hunt him down. It was against United States law which prohibits state-sponsored assassinations, under a 1976 order signed by President Gerald Ford. That order reads: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Further, it was against the Security Council’s authorization for the Libyan mission.

Hillary Clinton’s statement constitutes grounds for her, and possibly President Obama’s, impeachment. But that will not happen under this Congress over a foreign war. Nonetheless, the assassination has ominous implications for the future. As Obama’s reelection in November 2012 approaches, the appetite for war in Washington could turn out to be another blunder with a high price tag. Already, the International Crisis Group, a respected NGO, has warned of repercussions for Africa and of militant Islam.

Writing in the Guardian, the editor of London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abdel Bari Atwan, said, “Pictures of his final struggle will bolster those who remain Gaddafi loyalists––and make no mistake, there are many who will lament his demise, either out of self-interest or tribal loyalty.”

What happened in the final moments of Gaddafi is worth examining. At the end of the battle for Sirte, NATO planes located a convoy of vehicles in which he was traveling. They bombed the vehicles, killing a large number of people. Gaddafi survived, but his brutal end was near. It is highly likely that NATO informed anti-Gaddafi fighters about his location. Images of his final moments leave no doubt that the 69-year-old former dictator was tortured by a frenzied mob before he died.

Among the crowds on Libya’s streets these days are heavily armed teenagers willing to fight and kill. As the National Transitional Council celebrates “Liberation Day” today, what kind of Libya is in prospect must be a question that haunts not only that country, but the entire region. Meanwhile, the race for lucrative contracts for British companies there has begun. As Gaddafi’s body lay in a meat store at Misrata, in London Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told British companies to “pack their suitcases” and head there to secure business.

Within minutes of the announcement of Gaddafi’s death, leaders in London, Paris and Washington were hailing the event. Outside his official residence in Downing Street, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that he was proud of Britain’s role in Libya, and that “we should all remember Gaddafi’s victims.” Surely we should all remember those, too, who were rendered by the West to the Gaddafi regime to be tortured as part of  the “war on terror.” Cameron made no mention of them. President Sarkozy of France called Gaddafi’s death a “major step forward.” Employing his usual rhetoric, President Obama proclaimed that “the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted.”

According to CBS News, Hillary Clinton shared a laugh on learning about Gaddafi’s death. Her comment, “We came, we saw, he died.” Who will have the last laugh?

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Preliminary Libyan Scorecard: Acting Beyond the UN Mandate

Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, writes in a guest column –  

In Western circles of influential opinion, the outcome of the NATO intervention in Libya has already been pronounced ‘a victory’ from several points of view: as a military success that achieved its main goals set at acceptable costs, averting as a moral success in averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and as political success that created an opportunity for freedoom and constitutionalism on behalf of a long oppressed people with the. This is one of those rare results in an international conflict situation that seems to please both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives because it was a show of force that reaffirmed Western primacy based on military power. Liberals because force was used with UN backing in accordance with international law and in furtherance of human rights and liberal values.

Qaddafi and his loyalists are apparently a spent force, and the future of Libya now becomes a work in progress without any clear understanding of who will call the shots from now on. Will it be the Libyan victors in the war for the control of the country? Will it be their NATO minders hiding behind the scenes? Will the NATO representatives do the bidding of the oil companies and the various corporate and financial interests that make no secret of seeking a robust profit-making stake in Libya’s future? Or will it be some combination of these influences, more or less harmoniously collaborating? And most relevant of all, will this process be seen as having the claimed liberating impact on the lives and destinies of the Libyan people? It is far too early to pronounce on such momentous issues, although sitting on the sidelines one can only hope and pray for the best, but it is not too soon to question the unconditional enthusiasm for what has been done and what it portends for the future of UN peacekeeping.

What has transpired since March when the UN Security Council gave its go ahead for the use of force to protect civilians in Libya should not be an occasion for cheering, but it has been in Western elite circles. Perhaps this unfortunate triumphal spirit was most clearly voiced by Roger Cohen writing in the New York Times, who viewed the Libyan intervention as a historically momentous discharge of global moral responsibility that seems to believes rests on the shoulders of post-colonial pro-activist leaders in the West:  “..the idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism is the best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th .” This rather extraordinary claim cannot be tested by reference to Libya alone, although even narrowly conceived the grounds for such confidence in Western uses of force in the global south seems stunningly ahistorical. But if the net is enlarged, as it must be, to encompass the spectrum of recent interventions under Western auspices that include Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan making the self-absorbed gaze of Cohen seem like a dangerous form of advocacy relating to the use of force in international relations. Looking at this broader experience of Western intervention makes one squirm uncomfortably in reaction to the grandiose claim that the willingness of leading Western countries to police the world is humanity’s ‘best hope’ for the future. Cohen is not timid about insisting that Libya provides a positive model for the future : “The intervention has been done right—with the legality of strong backing, full support of America’s European allies, and quiet arming of the rebels.” A contrast with Iraq is drawn, implying that it was an intervention ‘done wrong.’

There is a heavy dose of implicit paternalism, condescension, and passé consciousness, not to mention wishful thinking, present if the West is to be identified as the best hope for the future just because it managed to pull off this Libyan intervention, that is, assuming that the post-Qaddafi experience in the country is not too disillusioning. What about putting the failed interventions into the balance, and then deciding whether it is helpful or not to encourage the West to take on this protective role for the rest of the world? I seem to remember in days past such self-empowering phrases as ‘white man’s burden’ and ‘civilizing mission.’ It seems arbitrary and contentious to situate barbarism geographically, and it certainly seems strange to think that the locus of barbarism is in the non-West.

And let us not be to quick to praise this Libyan model? It is certainly premature to conclude that it has been a success before acquiring a better sense of whether the winners can avoid a new cycle of strife and bloodshed, and stick together in a Libya without the benefit of Qaddafi as the common enemy. Or if they do, can they embark upon a development path that benefits the Libyan people and not primarily the oil companies and foreign construction firms. Any credible assessment of the Libyan intervention must at least wait and see if the new leaders can able avoid the authoritarian temptation to secure their power and privilege within the inflamed political atmosphere of the country. The majority of the Libyan people undoubtedly have strong expectations that their human rights will now be upheld and that an equitable economic order is soon established that benefits the population, and not the tiny elite that sits on the top of the national pyramid. These are expectations that have yet to be satisfied anywhere in the region. The challenge is immense, and perhaps is beyond even the imagination of the new leaders, and likely exceeds their capabilities and will.

Yet such worries are not just about the uncertain future of Libya. Even if, against the odds, Libya turns out to be the success story already proclaimed, there are still many reasons to be concerned about the Libyan intervention serving as a precedent for the future. These concerns relating to international law, to the proper role for the UN, and to the shaping of a just world order have been largely ignored in the discussion of the Libyan intervention. In effect, once NATO helped the rebels enough to get rid of the Qaddafi regime, it becomes irrelevant to criticize the undertaking and such issues were completely ignored by the media. In the rest of this blog I will try to explain why the Libyan intervention should be rejected as a precedent, and steps taken to avoid its repetition.

As the World Court made clear in the Nicaragua decision of 1986, modern international law does not allow states to have recourse to force except when acting in self-defense against a substantial armed attack across its borders, and then only until the Security Council acts. The United Nations, normally the Security Council, but residually the General Assembly, has the authority to mandate the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter on behalf of peace and security, including on the basis of UN evolving practice, for humanitarian ends under extreme circumstances of the sort that arguably existed in Libya during the latter stages of Qaddafi’s rule. This humanitarian extension of UN authority has been challenged as opening a loophole of indefinite dimensions that can be used to carry out a post-colonial imperialist agenda. Even granting that humanitarian ends should now be understood to have been legally incorporated into prevailing ideas of ‘international peace and security,’ a crucial further question exists as to whether the force used by NATO remained within the confines of what was authorized by the Security Council.

The Security Council debate on authorization indicated some deep concerns on the part of important members at the time, including China, Russia, Brazil, India, and Germany, that formed the background of SC Resolution 1973, which set forth the guidelines for the intervention.This extensive resolution articulated the mission being authorized as that of protecting threatened Libyan civilians against violent atrocities that were allegedly being massively threatened by the Qaddafi government, with special reference at the time to an alleged imminent massacre of civilians trapped in the then besieged city of Benghazi. The debate emphasized the application of the recently endorse norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) that sought to allay fears about interventions by the West in the non-West by refraining from relying on the distrusted language of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and substituting a way of describing the undertaking as less of a challenge directed at the territorial supremacy of sovereign states and more in the nature of a protective undertaking reflecting human solidarity. The R2P norm relies on a rationale of protecting vulnerable peoples from rulers that violated basic human rights in a severe and systematic fashion.

But once underway, the NATO operation unilaterally expanded the mission as authorized, and almost immediately acted to help the rebels win the war and to make non-negotiable the dismantling of the Qaddafi regime without any special attention to the protection of Libyan civilians. This was not just another instance of ‘mission creep’ as had occurred previously in UN peacekeeping operations (for instance, the Gulf War of 1991), but rather mission creep on steroids! It would have been possible to explain what were obviously must have been the real intentions all along of NATO during the Security Council debate, including even setting forth an argument that the Libyan people could not be protected unless the rebels won the civil war and Qaddafi was taken out of the picture. Presumably such forthrightness was avoided by the pro-interventionist states because it would almost certainly have turned several of the already reluctant abstaining five countries into negative votes, including in all likelihood, those of China and Russia that are permanent members whose votes have a veto effect, thereby preventing the Security Council from reaching a decision. So the pro-interventionists admittedly faced a genuine dilemma: either dissemble as to the ends being pursued and obtain the legitimacy of limited advance authorization from the UN or reveal the real goals of the operation and be blocked by a veto from acting under UN auspices.

A similar dilemma faced the intervening governments prior to the 1999 NATO’s Kosovo War. It was resolved by ignoring the legalities altogether, with NATO acting without any UNSC authorization. It was also a controversial precedent, and some blamed the Kosovo reliance on ‘a coalition of the willing’ or on a military alliance as providing a sufficient authorization, for the later claim of de facto authority to carry out the Iraq invasion without gaining prior UN approval. In both Kosovo and Iraq circumventing the UN’s legally prescribed role of deciding when to authorize non-defensive force on behalf of international peace and security was criticized, but the unlawfulness of the action led to no clear repudiation of either intervention after the fact, and rather highlighted the weakness of the UN as the Organization acted in both cases to ratify the results of uses of force that clearly violated the UN Charter unconditional prohibition imposed on all uses of non-defensive force by member states. This rogue recourse to force was especially disturbing in Iraq as the attack legally amounted to a war of aggression, a crime against the peace in the language of the Nuremberg Judgment rendered in 1945 against surviving Nazi leaders after World War II.

With regard to Libya, the culprits are not just the states that participated in this runaway operation, but the members of the Security Council and the Secretary General of the United Nations that abstained from supporting Resolution 1973 seemed to have a special duty to make sure that the limits of authorization were being respected throughout the undertaking. It would seem to be a matter of serious responsibility for all members of the Security Council to ensure respect for the Charter’s core effort to prevent wars and seek peaceful resolution of conflicts. When exceptions are made to this generalized Charter prohibition on the use or threat of force it should always be strictly observed and interpreted, and if limits are exceeded, then the supervisory authority and responsibility of the Security Council should kick in as a matter of course, and in a spirit of constitutional seriousness. The Secretary General also has secondary responsibility to take appropriate steps to call the attention of the membership to such blatant departures from an authorizing resolution as an essential aspect of his role as custodian of the integrity of UN procedures and as the UN’s de facto ombudsman in relation to ensuring fidelity to the Charter. This allocation of responsibility seems more important when it is realized that the actions of the Security Council are not subject to judicial review. This controversial example of judicial self-restraint within the UN System was ironically decided by the World Court in the 1992 Lockerbie case involving sanctions imposed on Libya in apparent violation of relevant treaty law. The majority of the judges concluded that whatever the Security Council decided needed to be regarded as authoritative even if it went against international law, that this was the last word so far as international law was concerned.

Against this background, the abstaining states were also derelict at the outset by allowing a resolution of the Security Council involving the use of force to go forward considered that it contained such ambiguous and vague language as to raise a red flag as to the proposed authorization. Although Security Council Resolution 1973 did seem reasonably to anticipate mainly the establishment of a No Fly Zone and ancillary steps to make sure it would be effective, the proposed language of the resolution should have signaled the possibility that action beyond what was being mandated was contemplated by the NATO countries and would likely be undertaken. The notorious phrase ‘all necessary measures’ was present in the resolution, which was justified at the time as providing the enforcers with a desirable margin of flexibility in making sure that the No Fly Zone would render the protection promised.  Almost immediately once NATO launched its operations it became obvious that an entirely new and controversial mission was underway than what was acknowledged during the debate that preceded the adoption of 1973. The U.S. Supreme Court has often invalidated Congressional action as ‘void for vagueness,’ and this is something in the UN setting that the members should be prepared to do on their own in their role as final guardians of constitutional integrity in relation to war making under UN auspices. Given the Charter emphasis on war prevention and peaceful settlement of disputes, it should be standard practice that exceptional mandates to use force would be interpreted strictly to limit the departure from Charter goals and norms, but the record even before Libya has been disappointing, with geopolitics giving states a virtually unlimited discretion that international law purports to withhold.

There is a further related issue internal to best practices within the United Nations itself. The Security Council acts in the area of peace and security on behalf of the entire international community and with representational authority for the whole membership of the Organization. The 177 countries not members of the Security Council should have confidence that this body will respect Charter guidelines and that there will be a close correspondence between what was authorized and what was done especially when force is authorized and sovereign rights are encroached upon. This correspondence was not present in the Libyan intervention, and it seems to have barely noticed in any official way, although acknowledged and even lamented in the corridors and delegates lounge of UN Headquarters in New York City.

This interpretative issue is not just a playground for international law specialists interested in jousting about technical matters of little real world relevance. Here the life and death of the peoples inhabiting the planet are directly at stake, as well as their political independence and territorial integrity of their country. If the governments will not act to uphold agreed and fundamental limits on state violence, especially directed at vulnerable countries and peoples, then as citizens of the world, ‘we the peoples of the United Nations,’ as proclaimed by the Preamble to the Charter need to raise our voices. We have the residual responsibility to act on behalf of international law and morality when the UN falters or when states act beyond the law.

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On Her Majesty’s Service: MI6, Oil and Libya’s Torture Chambers

CounterPunch, September 5, 2011 

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule is coming to an end in Libya and a picture of contrasts is emerging. There is a contrast between the celebratory mood in London, Paris and Washington on one hand and Libya itself on the other. With Gaddafi down and disappeared but not altogether out of the scene, a contrast between the west and the east in that vast desert land. The east includes Benghazi, the anti-Gaddafi factions’ stronghold. In the west, the popular sentiment is much more ambivalent toward the National Transitional Council and its NATO backers.

Thus far, the NTA’s senior leaders have spent more time abroad, or at their base in Benghazi, than in Tripoli, where conditions are precarious. Is Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s passage to the Libyan capital hindered by security, because Gaddafi’s troops have taken off their uniforms and melted into the population with their guns? Or it is the fear of the rival militias of Nisrata and Nafusa, who did most of the fighting but whose loyalties to the Transitional Council are uncertain.

Contrast also haunts life at large. The Economist correspondent in Tripoli spoke of those the NTA may regard as its constituency, but also those who view the recent events with “disaffection” and “nervousness” as they adapt themselves to the new situation. Reports of smugglers looting large numbers of portable missiles and small weapons are adding to the climate of fear and uncertainty. Libya’s tribal society is truly split.

On Thursday (September 1), President Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Cameron of Britain welcomed delegates to Paris for an international conference on Libya. And Syria-based al-Rai channel broadcast a defiant message from Colonel Gaddafi. Never to miss his moment, the colonel warned that “the traitors will come to an end and NATO will collapse.” Meanwhile in London,  the curtain went up a little, revealing intentions hitherto undeclared and a secret plan hatched to bring Gaddafi down.

As the Paris conference opened, Britain and France lost no time before planting their flags in the Libyan sand, determined to secure their share of the prize. The race for Libyan oil had begun. France asserted that it was “fair and logical” for its companies to benefit after the war. BP, a rival, was already holding private talks with members of  the Transitional Council of Libya. And the council had to deny reports of a secret deal under which French companies would control more than a third of Libya’s oil production. It is a little premature to celebrate, though, for it is not known how soon and how fast the oil will start flowing again.

The role of Britain’s bombers from the sky and that of its special forces on the ground to help the anti-Gaddafi forces had been known for some time. Now, more has been revealed about the extent of military-intelligence planning at the highest levels in London to bring about Gaddafi’s downfall. According to leaks, Prime Minister Cameron set up a top-secret “Libya oil cell” to plot against Gaddafi as NATO embarked on its bombing campaign. The secret unit is said to have played a “crucial role” in blocking oil supplies to Tripoli while making sure that the rebels continued to receive fuel supplies unhindered. The plot was the “brain child” of the international development minister, Alan Duncan, an ex-oil trader, who convinced the British Prime Minister and the National Security Council that Colonel Gaddafi would defeat the rebels unless they got access to oil and the colonel was deprived of it.

The Guardian disclosed how the plan was devised and executed. With strong backing from Prime Minister Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague, a select group of British officials and foreign intelligence service (MI6) officers was involved in the operation. Their task – to control the flow of oil in and out of Libya. For weeks prior to the fall of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s forces struggled to keep on the move, as his stocks of refined oil were exhausted. The rebels were getting supplies and trading Libyan oil and diesel freely.

In the months and years to come, Prime Minister Cameron will face some tough scrutiny. For his international development minister, the prime mover behind the covert operation of regime change in Libya, has previously worked as a consultant with the Swiss oil firm Vitol. The minister also has close ties with the company’s chairman, Ian Taylor, a donor to the Conservative Party. Given Switzerland’s neutrality, how the authorities there view a Swiss firm’s involvement in the Libyan war is yet to be established.

Meanwhile, there are matters of more immediate curiosity. Human Rights Watch says it has discovered secret files buried deep in Gaddafi’s private offices. They contain evidence of how close the United Kingdom and the United States were to Gaddafi in the torture regime in the “war on terror” in the past decade; how previous animosities were forgotten; and how the United States used Libya for its torture program, transporting suspected militants for enhanced interrogation outside U.S. jurisdiction. The relationship between Britain and Libya became so close that Swedish, Dutch and Italian intelligence agencies used the services of MI6 to approach the Libyans for help in dealing with their own “terrorist suspects.” Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the Transitional Council of Libya, was Libya’s justice minister until his defection early this year.

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