Libya: Disaster in the Making

Journal of Foreign Relations column –

The assassination of General Abdul Fatah Younis, Muammar Gaddafi’s interior minister who defected to the opposition in February, and news of fighting between rebel factions near their “capital” Benghazi, resulting in growing lawlessness in the rebel-held east, further signify the makings of a disaster in Libya. These developments expose the true nature of the conflict and Western policy in that country. After the initial confusion, some elements associated with the insurrection have blamed “pro-Gaddafi forces.” Nonetheless, a rebel minister has admitted that General Younis was murdered by gunmen from an Islamist group belonging to his own side.

Younis, with two aides, was captured and killed, his body burned. The remains of all three were found on the edge of Benghazi. That large crowds attended his funeral indicates that Younis had his supporters in the rebel-held territory. The presence of antagonistic factions in areas under the nominal control of the Transitional National Council does not bode well for a quick end to the Libyan conflict, even if Gaddafi is eventually removed.

The Libyan conflict gets extensive coverage in the media. CNN and Al Jazeera look like strange allies in their pro-rebel stance. But the true nature of the war does not receive the attention it deserves. The assassination and subsequent clashes in Benghazi bring into focus the tribal nature of Libya’s war, which Britain, France and the United States, above all, portray as a straightforward contest between good and evil. The gun battles among rival factions and threats from General Younis’s Obeidi tribe raise the prospect of Libya sinking into a deeper tribal war over oil resources. The scenario is far removed from the delusion in Western capitals that a Bedouin society of six-and-a-half million people, scattered over a vast North African desert, will be transformed into a democratic nation, sitting in the Western camp engaged in free trade.

Politicians in power seem to have a disastrous tendency to ignore advice from their diplomats and legal experts. It happened in Iraq at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The West may have secured the United Nations Security Council’s approval for “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, but an increasing number of governments are becoming critical of Nato’s conduct in the war. Only the day before Younis’s assassination and factional fighting in Benghazi, Foreign Secretary William Hague had announced in London that Britain was recognizing the rebel Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate government.

In an overtly political and ill-judged move, all Libyan diplomats and staff in London were ordered out and the TNC was invited to move into the embassy. As Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to Washington, said afterward, Younis’s killing “underlines [the] folly of Nato getting drawn into the Libyan civil war … We should have created a safe haven in Benghazi, left it at that.”

Libya is a much smaller country, but there are emerging parallels with Afghanistan and U.S. policy of backing Mujahideen, riven by ethnic and tribal rivalries, in the 1980s. In 2011, the West’s energy sources and transit routes are not under threat of the Soviet kind. But the need to guarantee supplies from an increasingly turbulent oil-rich region is perhaps more acute. The current economic downturn represents a temporary cycle, after which zealous capitalism sees only opportunities.

An alliance based on opportunism was the beginning of the West’s involvement with the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a conservative society with a deep-rooted tribal system. The lessons of Afghanistan, and Iraq, seem not to have been learned in Washington, London and Paris, for the war in Libya is heading that way.

Political maneuverings are like a pendulum, swinging from one side to another. For many years, the West saw Gaddafi as a foe. Then the British and Italian government leaders, in particular, wooed Gaddafi in a manner that was nothing short of embarrassing. Faced with a growing wave of popular uprisings in the Muslim world in recent months, the United States and allies were at first slow to respond. Then they seized on the “freedom agenda,” abandoning support for Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator, and turning on Libya and Syria, but sparing friendly autocratic regimes in the region, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The latest turn of events reinforces the impression that in focusing mainly on Libya with massive military force, the West has yet again embarked on a highly selective policy and a risky venture.




The Age of Violence

History News Network & Journal of Foreign Relations 

Just after the invasion of Iraq, historian Eric Hobsbawm noted there being an unprecedented world situation. The great global empires of the past, Hobsbawm wrote, bear little comparison with the present United States empire. A key novelty of the American imperial project is that all other empires knew that they were not the only ones. Nor did they aim at global domination. However, the demise of the Soviet Union left the United States as the only superpower. The emergence of a ruthless, antagonistic flaunting of US power in the post-Soviet world is hard to understand, he wrote, all the more so since “it fits neither with long-tested imperial policies nor the interests of the US economy.” Despite this, a public assertion of supremacy by military force was dominant in the policymakers’ thinking in Washington. The question Hobsbawm asked was whether it was likely to succeed.

Apart from nationalistic passions witnessed in times of war, there are several myths associated with this industrial-scale killing and destruction. That war is “good for the economy” and “good for population control” are among most often heard. These myths obscure the fact that war mobilization creates an artificial and temporary economic cycle, and that the objective of population control must be realized by killing other people in distant lands. Wars are destructive, not productive, and all imperial powers have eventually found the costs too great to bear. Some empires draw back before their extinction, but it is too late for others. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires collapsed in the early twentieth century after spreading themselves too far. Japan, an ally of Britain and France in the First World War, was defeated in the Second World War along with Nazi Germany, both having stretched their armies as a result of grave miscalculations.

The Soviet Union reached the end point in its history after the military defeat in Afghanistan and the failure to compete with the capitalist West in the arms race during the Cold War. Although the United States had prevailed, the only superpower left was in the midst of a socio-economic crisis. It took eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, marked by his aversion to fighting wars, financial reengineering and expansion of the markets abroad, to resuscitate the economy. Clinton succeeded in turning the American economy around, but at a great cost elsewhere.

Remember Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan, where drought, war and famine took the lives of millions. US documents declassified several years later confirmed what many knew in 1994. A decision by the Clinton White House not to intervene in Rwanda allowed the slaughter of some eight hundred thousand mostly Tutsis by extremist Hutu gangs in a hundred days. The trend continued until European allies dragged Clinton to intervene in ex-Yugoslavia to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The US intervention was from air and the NATO bombing of the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 followed, until Slobodan Milosevic gave in. For other reasons, too, Yugoslavia was different. Milosevic was an ex-Communist turned Serbian ultra-nationalist and the expansion of the Yugoslav conflict to Kosovo was seen as a threat to stability in other parts of Europe. Milosevic was isolated even in eastern Europe and Russia, the only friendly power, was grateful for all the help the Clinton administration had given it to cope with the crisis in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

We now live in an age of unprecedented violence. The actors are different, for the Cold War is over and there is no other nation to match the United States in a military sense. The problem is that unmatched military superiority has its own perils, as seen in recent years. Reliance on coercive power as the primary method of convincing others corrodes the moral fiber of society, creating a world shorn of human sensitivity, justice and a stable order. Fighting wars abroad is a function of loathing, which cannot be directed against the external enemy without infecting societies within. The penchant for stereotyping the other is frequent, true self-examination is uncommon. Ruling elites use language that is polarizing. They are tempted to favor coercive methods against some sections of their own populations to placate others.

Assertions of the “failure of multiculturalism” and proclamations of “muscular secularism” in America’s European satellites are signs of an anti-intellectual environment in which rulers and subjects feed each other. Indolent thinking, copycat political debate and repeated sound bites create an artificial consensus in the West that seeks to hide real problems. There is little realization that it contributes to the same intolerance which it claims to counter. While Western denunciations have been focused on Islam, the terrible massacre by Anders Behring Breivik, a Christian fundamentalist on the Norwegian far right, should give these Western leaders a pause to reflect. Breivik also used a language of denunciation of multiculturalism, but backed his hatred with deadly effect and on his own people.

In the current age of violence, the United States is openly involved in wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Libya and very likely engaged in Syria, Iran, Columbia and other countries. It makes Barack Obama’s war agenda somewhat comparable to Ronald Reagan’s during the final phase of the Cold War. As well as wars, violence in the form of drought, hunger and famine is causing intense suffering in much of east Africa, from Somalia across Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. Warning signs of the looming disaster were already there as early as April 2008. Now it affects eleven million people and is growing, such is the scale of culpable negligence. The twenty-first century age of violence began under George W. Bush’s presidency. More than two years into the Obama presidency, it is reaching catastrophic proportions. In light of numerous forces, domestic and foreign, challenging the United States, the idea of exceptionalism is a tired myth.


Dilemmas of Sovereignty and Intervention – Richard Falk

Richard Falk ( writes in a guest column –

The Arab Spring (and its troublesome, yet still hopeful, aftermath in Egypt), intervention in Libya, nonintervention in Syria and Bahrain, drone military operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the influx of unwanted immigrants and walls of exclusion, and selective applications of international criminal law draw into question the most basic of all ideas of world order: the sovereignty of territorial states, and its limits. Also, at issue, are the closely related norms of international law prohibiting intervention in the internal affairs of states and affirming the fundamental right of self-determination as an inherent right of all peoples. These are basic rules of international order acknowledged in the United Nations Charter, taking the form of prohibiting the Organization from intervening in matters ‘essentially within domestic jurisdiction’ and through affirmations of the right of self-determination.

The latter is only aspirational in the Charter, but becomes obligatory as a result being posited as common Article 1 of the two human rights Covenants and being listed as one of seven principles enumerated in the authoritative Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States (UN General Assembly Resolution 2625, 1970).

At the same time, as Ken Booth provocatively pointed out almost 20 years ago one of the great failings over the centuries of the Westphalian framework of world order (based on treaties of peace in 1648 concluded at the end of the Thirty Years War that are treated as establishing the modern European system of territorial states premised on the juridical ideal of sovereign equality) was associated with sovereign prerogatives to possess unconditional authority in state/society relations. Booth showed that respect for sovereignty had legitimated the inner space of states as a sanctuary for the commission of what he called ‘human wrongs,’ that is, non-accountable and cruel abuses of persons subject to territorial authority. Historically, the West claimed rights of intervention, often in the name of ‘civilization,’ in the non-West, particularly in the decaying Ottoman Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The great wakeup experience, at least rhetorically for the liberal West, was the non-response at the international level to the lethal internal persecutions in Nazi Germany during the 1930s, which were not only within a sovereign state, but within a country with a high claim to be a major embodiment of Western civilization.

The responses after World War II, mainly expressed via international law, consisted of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials of surviving German and Japanese leaders, the adoption of the Genocide Convention, and the negotiation and approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), as well as the establishment of the United Nations itself. These were well-intentioned, although somewhat ambivalent, gestures of global responsibility that generated criticisms and even suspicions at the time: the Nuremberg and Tokyo standards of individual accountability for crimes were only imposed by the coalition of victors in World War II upon the losers, exempting the Allied Powers from any legal responsibility for the terror bombings of German and Japanese cities and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Genocide Convention seemed deficient due to its failure to  provide mechanisms for enforcement; the UDHR was drafted under the sway of Western liberal individualism as a hegemonic orientation, and was only endorsed in the form of a non-binding ‘declaration,’ a clear signal that no expectation of enforcement existed; as well, the legitimacy of the colonial structures of foreign ruler were not questioned until challenged by a series of populist uprisings throughout the non-West that produced some bloody wars as in Indochina and Algeria..

In passing, it should be observed that the West never respected the sovereign rights of the peoples of the non-West until it was forced to do so. Whether it was European colonialism that extended its reach throughout Africa and Asia or the assertions of American hegemony over Latin America beneath the banner of the Monroe Doctrine the pattern was one based on relations of hierarchy, not equality. This was accompanied by a refusal to extend the Westphalian writ of mutual respect for sovereign rights beyond the Euro-American regional domain until the imperial order began to crumble after World War I. First, the Good Neighbor policy seemed to reaffirm sovereignty for Latin America, but only within limits set by Washington, as the Cold War era of covert and overt interventions confirm. In the Middle East and Africa various experiments with colonial halfway houses were undertaken within the framework of the League of Nations, and formalized as the Mandates System. Secondly, after World War II a variety of nationalist movements and wars of national liberation broke the back of European colonialism as an acceptable political arrangement, and the idea of the equality of sovereign states was globalized as a matter of juridical doctrine, although not geopolitically.

During the last six decades the world has moved forward in pursuit of global justice, or has it? On the one side, human rights has matured beyond all expectations, and to some degree exerts a generalized moral and political force subversive of national sovereignty by validating a higher law that exists above and beyond the legal order of the state. This subversive thrust is reinforced by the development and institutionalization of international criminal law, enforcement of accountability claims against such pariah leaders as Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, as well as lesser figures in the entourage of tyrants, the establishment of the International Criminal Court, arrest warrants for the likes of el-Bashir of Sudan and Qaddafi. And, perhaps, most significantly in relation to global justice, the rise of respected transnational NGOs that have created a somewhat less selective pressure for implementation of human rights norms, but one that remains weighted toward political and civil rights that are given priority in the liberal democracies of the North, and one that gives little attention to the economic, social, cultural, and collective rights that possess primary importance to developing societies in the South. In actuality, the UDHR was correct in its integration of all forms of human rights in a single coherent legal instrument, but it became a casualty of the Cold War ideological tensions between capitalism and socialism, with one side championing a liberal individualist understanding of human rights and the other side a collective conception.

And yet, these various moves toward what might be called ‘humanitarian globalization’ achieved at the expense of older conceptions sovereignty are too often subordinated to the realities of geopolitics. That is, the application of legal standards and the assertion of interventionary claims remain imbalanced: the West against the rest, the North against the South, the strong against the weak. Even the supposedly globally oriented human rights NGOs devote most of their attention to non-West violations when it comes to alleged infractions of international criminal law.  Selective applications of law and morality tarnish the integrity of law and morality that is premised upon fidelity to principles of equality and reciprocity. This makes supposedly challenges to sovereignty suspect, but are they also worthless, or as some argue, worse than worthless?

There are two contradictory modes of response. The liberal answer is to insist that progress in society almost always occurs incrementally, and doing what is possible politically is better than throwing up one’s hands in frsutration, and doing nothing. So long as targets of intervention and indicted leaders are given fair trials, and are convicted on the basis of the weight of the evidence, such results should be affirmed as demonstrating an expanding global rule of law, and serving the interests of global justice. The fact that the principal states intervene at will and enjoy impunity in relation to international criminal law, remains a feature of world politics, and is even given a prominent constitutional status at the UN by granting a veto power to the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The critical response argues that the prevalence of double standards contaminates law, and makes it just one more instrument of power. The authority and legitimacy of law depends on its linkage to justice, not power. To enforce prohibitions on the use of aggressive force or the commission of crimes of state only on losers and the weak is implicitly to cede the high moral and legal ground to the richest and most dangerous political actors. It makes available a humanitarian disguise for abusive behavior in a post-colonial global setting, providing pretexts for disregarding the dynamics of self-determination, which is the legal, political, and moral lynchpin of a system of sovereign states detached from the hierarchies of geopolitics.

In a world beset by contradictions, there are only hard choices. There seem to be three kinds of situation that somewhat transcend this tension between liberal and critical perspectives: a severe natural disaster that cannot be addressed by national capabilities ( Asian tsunami of 2004; Haiti earthquake of 2010) acute or imminent genocide as in Rwanda (1994) where a small international effort would have seemed likely to avert the deaths of hundreds of thousands; a mandate to act issued by the UN Security Council as in Libya. In each instance, there are risks, uncertainties, and unanticipated effects; especially worrisome is the recent pattern of authorizations of force by the Security Council. Both in the Gulf War (1991), to some extent the sanctions currently imposed on Iran, and now with the Libyan intervention, the mandate to use force is stretched beyond the limits specified in the language of authorization. In the Libyan case, Security Council Resolution 1973 the initial justification for intervention was justified by reference to an emergency situation endangering the lives of many Libyan civilians, but converted operationally and massively by NATO into a mandate to achieve regime change in Tripoli by dislodging the Qaddafi leadership. No effort was made to secure a broader mandate from the Security Council and nothing was done to insist that NATO operations be limited by the terms of the original UN authorization.

What can be done? We have little choice but to cope as best we can with these contradictions, especially when it comes to uses of force in the course of what is labeled as a ‘humanitarian intervention’ or an application of the ‘right to protect’ norm. I would propose two ways to turn the abundance of information on these issues into reliable knowledge, and hopefully thereby, to engender greater wisdom with respect to the specifics of global policy and decision-making. First, acknowledge the full range of realities in international life, including the absence of equal protection of the law, that is, judging claims and deciding on responses with eyes wide open by being sensitive to the context, including its many uncertainties. With these considerations in mind adopt a posture of reluctance to use force except in extreme cases. Secondly, presume strongly against reliance on hard power resolutions of conflict situations both because the costs almost always exceed the estimates of those advocating intervention and because military power during the period of the last sixty years is rarely able to shape political outcomes in ways that are on balance beneficial for the society on whose behalf the intervention is supposedly taking place.

When it comes to severe human rights abuses somewhat analogous considerations apply. In almost every instance, deference to internal dynamics seems preferable to intervention-from-without, while soft power interventions-from-below-and-without are to be encouraged as expressions of emergent global democracy. Victimization and collective acute vulnerability should not be insulated from assistance by rigid notions of sovereignty, but nor should self-determination be jeopardized by the hypocritical moral pretensions of hegemonic states.  This is inevitably a delicate balance, but the alternative is to opt for extremes of passivity or activism.

In effect, to the extent possible, global challenges to sovereignty should take the form of transnational soft power tactics of empathy as identities of persons around the globe become as globalized (and localized) as markets. The recent furor aroused by Freedom Flotilla II is illustrative of an emerging tension between the role of sovereign states in defining the contours of law and morality and that of popular forces mobilized on behalf of those unjustly suffering and neglected by the world of states. Ideally, the UN should act as a mediating arbiter, but the UN remains a membership organization designed to serve the diplomacy of sovereign states and the states system, and is generally hostile to the claims of global civil society however well founded. One attractive proposal to endow the UN with a more robust mediating role is to establish some form of Global Parliament, perhaps building on the experience of the European Parliament that has evolved in authority and political weight over the decades.  A more relevant innovation consistent with the above analysis would be the establishment of a UN Humanitarian Emergency Peace Fund with independent funding, an authorizing procedure that was not subject to a veto, and an operational discipline that ensured that the implementation of a mandate to act forcibly did not exceed its boundaries.