Monday, May 16, 2011

War Should Never Be The Default Stance

Gary Younge writes: Libya shows again that successful regime change can only be brought about by ordinary people, not by foreign bombs 
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 16/05/2011 

Despite the enormous power of the American government," argued the renowned Trinidadian intellectual and activist CLR James in 1950, "its spokesman, the man on whom it depends and has depended for years to give some dignity and colour to its international politics, is an Englishman, Winston Churchill."

So it was with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former US president Ronald Reagan as well as former British prime minister Tony Blair and former US president George Bush. But when it comes to Libya, the tables seem to have turned. For the clearest explanation of the war aims has emanated not from Britain, or indeed Europe, but the White House. While Britain has blundered (foreign minister William Hague suggested at one point that Muammar Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has blustered (starting the bombing without telling his allies), US President Barack Obama has offered the most lucid justification for military intervention.
The trouble is that at each moment the goal of the intervention not only changes, but also contradicts any justification given earlier. Shortly before the no-fly zone was imposed, Obama assured a bipartisan group in Congress that the action would take ‘days not weeks'. More than a week after the bombing had started he told the nation the aim was limited to purely humanitarian ends. "I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action," he said.

He also stood steadfastly against regime change. "If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter." Two weeks later, in a joint letter signed by British Prime Minister David Cameron and Sarkozy, he brazenly conceded it is about regime change. "It is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power."
Legal disaster

Assassination is now, apparently, the foreign policy du jour. On May 8, the British defence minister, Liam Fox, insisted: "Nato does not target individuals." Instead they go for families. Just over a week ago, they killed Gaddafi's son and three of his grandchildren.
So here we are with a conflict that was supposed to last days and was not about regime change that has gone on for six weeks and won't end until the regime has changed. Even as the west prepares to negotiate a truce with the Taliban, Gaddafi's offer of a ceasefire has been rejected summarily. In the name of humanitarianism, the war must be prolonged. The problem is not mission creep, it's the mission.

UN support makes the bombing legal, it does not make it legitimate. This is no mere semantic matter. Just because something is within the law does not make it a good idea. International law should be a prerequisite for action, not the basis for it. The Iraq war would still have been a disaster even if the UN had endorsed it. It would just have been a legal disaster. The international support also changes the character of the war. Americans do not have a monopoly on arrogance or hubris. It was the French who led the charge to war.
Britain was also gung ho. But it rapidly became apparent, as they both begged the US to step up its involvement, that they started a fight they could not finish.

The Libyan rebels' demands are important. But solidarity does not involve unquestioningly forfeiting responsibility for one's own actions to another, but rather it is a process of mutual engagement demanding an assessment of what is both prudent and possible. It is now clear that the Libyan uprising, like other revolutions in the region, could not succeed militarily.
Revolutions and civil wars have no guarantees of a happy ending, and foreign intervention is rarely the answer. We've seen from elsewhere that the most successful way to build democracy in the region is by ordinary, local people from below, not by foreign precision bombs from 50,000 feet above. Either way, what was clear from the outset was that such an intervention was not sustainable without regime change and then occupation. The mission had to creep, because as it stood it wasn't going anywhere.

Sometimes there are no good answers. But that doesn't mean war should be the default position. Because some answers are worse than others. And this is shaping up to be predictably bad.

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