How has military intervention in Libya shaped the Arab Spring?

TNI debate, 5 April 2011
14 April 2011

A continuing war in Libya tarnishes the Arab revolutionary uprising, because it has subverted a democratic revolution and become a war of intervention. Two of TNI's fellows and experts on the Middle East debate the underlying causes and consequences of the Libya military intervention.

TNI Director, Fiona Dove: Good day and welcome to this debate. I have two TNI fellows with me today, Dr Kamil Mahdi and Phyllis Bennis -- both specialists on the Middle East, to discuss the Arab Spring, Libya and the bigger region.

Perhaps we can start with the question: What is the difference between Libya and Iraq as regards the military intervention?

Kamil Mahdi: Clearly the intervention is on a different scale from what happened in Iraq. It is a different environment with greater European involvement and, most importantly, comes in the wake of mass revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya itself. In a way, it is an intervention into ongoing developments in the region as opposed to the war on Iraq that was really a premeditated strike, an organised action that took a long time to prepare as part of a wider, well-planned US strategy. Of course, it didn’t work out as they intended, but it is the big difference with Libya.

The similarities are that both are imperialist interventions in the region. They both aim to establish or continue dominance of imperial powers and the interests that are involved in this.

Phyllis Bennis: I think that is absolutely right. Kamil raises a key question: Is this an Obama doctrine in the way there was a Bush doctrine? I don't think so. What we are seeing, rather, is the flaying about of the Obama administration as it has tried to work out how it should respond, what role it should have in regards to this regional uprising. This is a turning upside down of a regional reality that has existed for more than 50 years in a very strategic area, both in terms of resources - rich in oil and gas - and in terms of location as an intersection of continents. For all those reasons, the relationship of the US to Arab and North African governments as well as South West Asia is all up for grabs.

This is a turning upside down of a regional reality that has existed for more than 50 years

What we saw in Act One of the Arab Spring, with Tunisia and Egypt, was that the US was caught flat-footed as were the Europeans. Up to now, US policy in the Middle East has been based on oil, stability and Israel, and suddenly it could not rely on these. As a result, the US came very late to change its position on its relationships with dictatorships.

The difference between Libya and other countries was that while the Libyan revolt occurred at the same time as uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, the situation in Libya militarised much more rapidly.

The other difference is that unlike with absolute monarchies in the Gulf peninsula, the US relationship was very different with Libya. It is important to remember that the US only embraced Gaddafi in 2002. Up to then, he was an isolated outlaw. Reagan famously called Gaddafi the 'mad man of the Middle East'. Post-9/11, however, and with the new prioritisation on the War on Terror, the US decided to embrace all Arab dictators, regardless of their human rights record. They moved rapidly to rehabilitate Gaddafi’s image, so within 18 months Gaddafi had given up his weapons programme and paid a financial settlement for the Lockerbie case. In return, he was taken off sanctions lists, contracts were signed, and soon we had photos of Gaddafi arm-in-arm with Tony Blair, Berlusconi and others.

As of 6 weeks ago, he was our guy and it was therefore a complicated decision as to what to do. The US made the decision, I believe, grounded in what we are strongest in, that is military power – so that was our immediate response.  There was clearly a humanitarian crisis, but we need to be clear in distinguishing between our human response to an immediate crisis and the decisions of US government agencies and institutions which decide to send military forces. I don’t think the US government or other governments did this for humanitarian purposes. So the question is how did that military emergency play into what the US wanted to do.  It was all about how the US felt it could best reposition itself in relationship to post-dictatorship governments.

Kamil Mahdi: I think we have seen that the Arab Spring – the process of mass uprising and democratisation – clearly threatened the structures of power that US had relied on in the Middle East. This is clearly the context in which the US intervened. I agree with Phyllis that humanitarian concerns and preventing repression was not the main aim.

But what is interesting here is also how the Arab regimes closest to the US – the Gulf states – reacted to developments in Libya, whilst at the same time repressing their own peoples. We have seen Saudi Arabia clamping down on demonstrations in the kingdom. We don’t hear about Oman, but a lot of people have been killed in demonstrations and a state of emergency is in effect and, of course, in Bahrain, there has been massive oppression of the huge popular uprising.

For the [Gulf] regimes, Libya was very convenient as ..they were able to use the spotlight on Libya to portray Gaddafi as different, and extreme, compared to their kind of repression.

For these regimes, Libya was very convenient as there is considerable antipathy between the regimes that dominate the Arabian peninsula and Gaddafi. They were able to use the spotlight on Libya to portray Gaddafi as different, and extreme, compared to their kind of repression.

There was also an interest in drawing attention away from the broad range of issues that the uprising has exposed. Not only did all the dictatorial regimes converge over time in subservience to the US, they also were equally tied into the same patterns of corruption, same kind of neoliberal polices and alliances with finance and multinational capital. It is very convenient to focus all attention on Libya at the moment.

Phyllis Bennis: What we are seeing here is not just a shift in US policy as they grapple with a new reality, we also have political shifts among those Arab governments. One interesting dimension of the run-up to the Libya conflict is that the Obama administration recognised that it didn’t just need the legality of UN security resolution but legitimacy -- often missing -- of support from the Arab League and African Union. They, of course, ignored the Africans when they did not back it.

What we are now hearing is that the meeting of the Arab League that supported the initial 'no fly zone' didn’t include all members of the Arab League, and even then support was not unanimous, with only US-backed Gulf countries voting in favour. Regimes, like the Saudis that coordinated tjhe Anti-Libyan response, were promised the quid pro quo by the US that they would not oppose them sending troops to Bahrain to suppress uprising there to protect their own interests.  In fact, what we heard from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was that Bahrain obviously, she said, has the sovereign right to call in support to maintain security.

The pattern we see is one of the US trying to reposition itself with non-oil countries while maintaining tight consistency with oil countries as much as it can.

So the pattern we see is one of the US trying to reposition itself with non-oil countries while maintaining tight consistency with oil countries as much as it can. This has become shaky again recently in Yemen, where the strategic interests are not about oil but the War on Terror. Up to now, the US wanted to maintain a strong relationship with Yemen's regime and in doing so faced escalating violence and opposition. Only in the last 48 hours, has the US been saying this won’t work either, and as a result is trying to organise a face-saving exit for the Yemeni President and scrabbling around desperately to ensure successors allow the US to continue drone strikes in Yemen. It has proved to be a very tricky business for the US administration to navigate a whole set of new relationships.

The fact that in the case of Libya, they chose to use military forces – while recognising their limits and putting caveats on their use (such as saying it is not our forces leading, even if it is not true) is in a certain way a positive sign that they recognise that military relationships with Arab regimes is not sustainable in the long term.

Kamil Mahdi:  The crucial point here is that a long-term continuing war in Libya tarnishes the Arab revolutionary uprising. What we have in Libya is not a democratic revolution that dragged on and became violent; it is rather now a war of intervention. That, in fact, was one objective of the military intervention in Libya, which was to reintroduce the idea that this region needs foreign intervention to resolve its problems; that we can't do it on our own. Whereas what happened with this uprising is that for first time for decades, since the 1970s or even earlier, people in large numbers are taking charge of their own destinies, they are changing things themselves. That is what is new, and this is what is being subverted.

Phyllis Bennis: I have a question for you Kamil. I think you and I would both agree, that the early militarisation of the popular response in Libya, compared with, for example, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt, was probably not planned or strategically decided on, yet has profound consequences. Now that militarisation has taken shape, what choices do people’s movements in Libya have? I have been struggling to see what options there are. There is a danger that the Libyan opposition is moving out of the broader regional trajectory of the Arab Spring as a whole. That is a sad reality. What options do they have?

Kamil Mahdi: Obviously the options are very limited once you have taken up arms against a regime of this kind.   This is an exceptionally brutal regime; there are many horror stories from the past. Even now the stories coming out of where the regime has been able to re-establish itself are pretty horrendous. Once people take up arms, options are limited so I fully understand the position of the rebels in calling for external support when they are up against a wall. Why they took up arms, who led this -- in circumstances where it was not wise to do so - is another matter. But right now their position is understandable.

I keep hearing from Libyans ... that intervention is doing anything but resolving the problem

The question is the reaction of the West, which has been far from being the type of reaction they wanted.  I keep hearing from Libyans and reports from the media that intervention is doing anything but resolving the problem. It is prolonging the conflict. It was supposedly to protect civilians, yet it is rather leading to more fighting; it is certainly not resolving the conflict. There is suspicion amongst Libyans that Western powers are engaging with negotiations with both sides while using them against each other, in other words weakening both sides and prolonging a war.

What would have happened if an uprising of this kind had had genuine protection? Just as the US has now passed over control to NATO and European powers, they could just as well have passed over control to regional powers, not seen as imperial powers with specific designs on the resources of the region. They could have been accompanied by more vigorous political and diplomatic processes. But the West is keeping their cards to themselves, with a fig leaf of Arab support (Qatar and UAE are by no stretch equivalent to wider Arab support as they are client states totally dependent on Western powers)

Fiona Dove: If the war continues much longer, what are the likely implications for prospects for the Arab Spring, including Palestine?

Kamil Mahdi: What happened in this uprising and is common to all the countries affected was the way a whole set of presumptions and proposed solutions collapsed. Faced with long-term dictatorships, hollowed out institutions, widespread corruption, failure of public services and a loss of national purpose, technocratic solutions were constantly posed as the way to get out of the problem. In other words, we were promised if you open up the economy to international capital, use knowledge from elsewhere, adopt everything proposed by the IMF and World Bank, then the problems would be resolved. The uprisings introduced a new dynamic that goes against imposing solutions from the top-down.

I believe the uprisings will continue and not go away. The intervention in Libya is an attempt to distract from it, an attempt to scare people that the uprising will lead to internal wars, and foreign interventions. The question is will it be believed by people on the ground. I believe most people won’t accept this.

Phyllis Bennis: What we are seeing are forces primarily in the US claiming legitimacy for themselves to determine how far democratisation process can go. We are hearing this with Yemen where there is a reluctant acknowledgement that that particular dictatorial regime will not survive, so the question is becoming how the Administration will convince Yemen's new leaders to allow continued military engagement with terrorism.

This is an increasing challenge for each revolutionary process, particularly as they are still all at early stages of overthrowing dictatorial regimes. They are far from looking at issues such as economic transformations or international structures. Yet, they are at least still involving a range of mass participation and involvement.

Libya is seeing a very different revolutionary process than all other countries. The question is how will this affect revolutions as they spread to Gulf states where US intervention has been so profound

That lack of mass involvement could become dangerous in Libya. There, the early militarisation of the process has already meant that women are less likely to be engaged, for example, as streets become battlegrounds rather than places for debates. It parallels what happened in Palestine. There, in the first intifada, which was a mass, non-violent mobilisation and struggle, it was called a 'shaking up' and it proved to be this in Palestinian society, with women taking a more public role, a challenging of old elites, a huge role played by young people in a culture where older people traditionally called the shots. Yet, when the second intifada started - while it began like that – it quickly became a mobilisation of small group armed actions. The result was women returning home, mass protests ending, and it took on a very different character.

Libya is seeing a very different revolutionary process than all other countries. The question is how will this affect revolutions as they spread to Gulf states where US intervention has been so profound like Saudi Arabia, with its large gas and oil reserves, or Bahrain, home of the US 5th fleet.

Fiona Dove: What can we, outside the region, do?

Kamil Mahdi: I think the first thing is to recognise the diversity and breadth of this movement, and recognise that it is new. The old forces are there, and we will soon hear more of their voices as they are well organised, while we don’t yet have a clear idea of emerging mass movements and their voices. So we need to be attentive and listen to what is happening.

We should stay within basic principles: supporting rights to basic freedoms regardless, challenging western powers and exposing their objectives and types of interventions, not expecting opposition movements to be ideologically pure nor politically astute. We need to recognise that these are emerging movements, and the more people participate, the more political awareness will develop. I believe this, not just based on pious hope, but from talking to people close to the ground.

We can build links with these movements, make connections. However, the main thing we can do is constrain the military powers that are intervening.

Phyllis Bennis: What Kamil said is crucial: We have an obligation to constrain military powers, who are trying to take advantage of this moment. This does not just mean saying the military intervention is wrong, but also supporting support real intervention that is not military. The focus on military intervention in Libya means that other parts of the UN resolution (such as, an immediate ceasefire, negotiations, accountability etc) were put aside. We need to go back and say that is what we stand for. We don't oppose military action and stand aside. We stand up in opposition to dictatorships and imperial intervention but on the side of people fighting them.

We also need to reclaim the extraordinary nature of the Arab Spring that has been sadly lost, to an extent, by the intervention in Libya. What we saw here in the US, where people in the economically hardest hit states, such as, Wisconsin were going through the worst attacks on the rights of public employees and working people, is that what happened in Egypt served as a great inspiration and a great model. There is a photo that has been shared worldwide of a young man in Tahrir square with a sign saying, 'Egypt supports Wisconsin'. There are also reports that during the occupation of the State House in Wisconsin, people from Cairo rang in to order pizzas for the occupiers. It was an incredible moment of mobilisation and solidarity. If we can make the Arab Spring a peoples' spring, a workers' spring, this would be an incredible moment for our global movement for democracy.