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The Libyan Intervention in the Long View

by REZA SANATI

30 May 2011 17:17Comments
22.jpgLikely consequences: a weakened NATO, a more suspicious democracy movement, and a boost for nonviolent resistance strategy.

[ analysis ] As with any war, the consequences of the NATO-led military assault upon the Qaddafi regime will become evident in both the immediate and longer term. Regarding the former, Mohammad Homayounvash and Doug Bandow have already pointed out that the post-Cold War nonproliferation narrative promoted by the United States and her allies -- that the acquisition of nuclear weapons in hopes of deterring aggression was obsolete -- is exhibiting signs of breaking down. Moreover, the Libyan intervention along with the general crisis of state within the Arab world and the inconsistent responses of the United States and Western Europe toward these events has led to open mistrust and a loss of confidence in the efficiency of U.S. policy among regional client regimes.

As these consequences continue to play out, still others will begin to surface. It is likely that the Libyan intervention will yield three additional, significant results over the long term: the first concerns the future coherence and relevance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); the second bears on the relationship between opposition groups in states lacking in democratic governance or human rights protections and governments in Europe and North America; and the third involves a reemergence of the debate between proponents of nonviolent and violent resistance strategies.

Concerning NATO, its interventions in the post-Cold War era suggest that an existential crisis has been impending for some time. Created to counter the putative Soviet threat of the last century, the rationale for the alliance's continued existence progressively eroded once the Soviet enterprise collapsed. Faced with this dynamic, the United States and its European partners began a process of remaking NATO's raison d'être from a deterrent coalition into a supposed "global security force." In the 1990s, as Russia stagnated, as China and India initiated slow, arduous free-market reforms, and as Iran gradually rebuilt from its eight-year-long war with Iraq, the ground was laid for the refashioning both of NATO's mission and its membership. No longer was the alliance pitted against a comparable adversary and framing itself in Manichean dialectics. With the absorption of 11 formerly aligned Soviet states into the alliance, NATO transformed into the military wing of the collective free-market liberal economies of the United Nations. Embedded in this logic was the assertion that NATO operations were simpatico with "global security."

Yet, while the logic of the alliance's existence has changed, it is now its efficiency, or lack thereof, that is undermining its present and future cohesion. From Yugoslavia to anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Africa, to intervention in conflict-ridden zones on the African continent, to Afghanistan, to the recent intervention in Libya, the alliance's record of success is both thin and inconclusive. Arguably, the most efficacious missions have been its anti-piracy efforts, yet those endeavors are virtually the sole responsibility of the powerful American military, with its European allies usually playing at most a subordinate role. Furthermore, while the alliance did succeed in stopping the violence within the former Yugoslavia, the delay in that intervention allowed the deaths of thousands of civilians, while leaving that conflict frozen until the conditions for renewed violence appear. The case of Kosovo, a nominally independent Euro-American protectorate, symbolizes the persistence of irredentism, revanchism, and the ethnic tensions that still persist within the Balkans -- no credible and lasting political solution has yet been constructed. And the almost decade-long venture in Afghanistan with no finality or sustainability in sight speaks for itself.

In Libya, success for the Alliance will not be measured by whether the Qaddafi regime remains in power or not, for the regime's demise was inevitable even before the intervention. Within days following the mid-February upheaval, it was clear that Qaddafi had lost control of the country and that his regime had disintegrated. Several high-ranking defections evidenced this, as did the refusal of various elements of his military to turn their arms on their countrymen. What is more, the recruitment of mercenaries from Central African countries, some of them children from desperate circumstances trying to earn money for their families back home, demonstrated that Qaddafi no longer retained functional command over his government organs. Had the intervention not happened, it is simply not plausible to believe that Qaddafi would have been able to reassert his former authority over Libya. And serious doubts have emerged about the ostensible rationale for NATO's intervention -- to stop an impending genocide. It now appears that mass indiscriminate slaughter was not likely. The rationale has been turned on its head, as intervention has further fueled the country's civil war, perpetuating the very loss of life that it was intended to prevent.

It is what transpires in the next three to five years that will answer the question of whether intervention brought about positive internal and regional results. If NATO's record is any guide, the future of Libya will be dire indeed: it will find itself either a physically divided country or a totally failed state. If the former transpires, then it will witness its western half controlled by either Qaddafi or his political ilk, while the east turns into a neo-Kosovo -- essentially another Euro-American protectorate that requires foreign troops on its territory and foreign aid pouring into its coffers. Seldom do these nominally independent states transition to fully functioning political orders, instead entering political purgatory and becoming wards of the international community.

If the failed state prospect awaits Libya, it will undergo experiences like those of Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen, with major complications for all of North Africa. Even in the best-case scenario, with a rapid dissipation of forces loyal to Qaddafi in the west, the physical destruction that the civil war and intervention has already wrought upon the national infrastructure will take years to rebuild.

And what of NATO's reputation? There are consequences to either failing to resolve a conflict or engendering another: Will the American and European publics continue to go along with grandiose undertakings that continuously fall short of their intended results, especially in this age of austerity? The sociological mantra "Demography is destiny" is often repeated, yet in politics, it is usually efficiency that is destiny. In other words, political entities, whether domestic organizations, states, or multinational alliances, are ultimately judged by the fundamental results of their actions -- their efficiency, and whether their policies bring about successful conclusions. It is only this, and not whatever moral justifications they may proclaim for their actions, that either sustains their continuity and relevance, or sees them whither away.

Given the current, amorphous trajectory of the Libyan intervention, along with the inconclusive war in Afghanistan and the future of the Balkans, the odds for the ongoing unity of NATO look increasingly bleak. The financial crisis that has gripped large swaths of the industrialized world will only compound the already existing pressures from the varied domestic priorities of NATO's member states, inevitably creating cracks in an alliance that is both anachronistic in meaning and now increasingly ineffective in action.

At a very different level, the Libyan intervention will affect the future relationship between opposition movements in autocratic states and Western governments. The grim possibilities that Libya now faces will not be lost on opposition movements in other states around the region, for under the guise of humanitarian intervention, the agency and political future of Libya has now essentially been surrendered and placed in the hands of foreign powers. And it is not a light matter that the future frontiers of Libya are being openly discussed by NATO partners with scant sensitivity and attention to the rebels whom they are purportedly backing.

This is not to suggest that all opposition movements had previously entertained benign or even altruistic images of the United States and Western Europe and their intentions. Certainly, the West's treatment of the purported Third World over the past century is seared into the consciousness of many civil society activists. Yet the degree of mistrust was never uniform, and as the Libyan case demonstrates, some groups were always more open to receiving aid and assistance from the West than others. Now, however, the aggregate examples of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and the West's inconsistency in turning a blind eye to the opposition movements in friendly client states throughout other parts of the Middle East and Central Asia may ultimately create a unanimity of mistrust. The intentions and motives of Western states, regardless of how suffocating the domestic authoritarianism that is imposed upon diverse civil societies may seem, are now far more likely to be openly questioned and even vehemently resisted by opposition groups in human rights/democracy-deficient countries.

Yet arguably the most important intrastate ramification will be the reemergence of the debate between proponents of nonviolent and violent resistance against authoritarian rule. Erica Chenoweth, a professor of government at Wesleyan University, has recently made a compelling case, based upon a quantitative study that she authored with Maria J. Stephan about the efficacy of the former method. In juxtaposing hundreds of armed insurgencies with major nonviolent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006, Stephan and Chenoweth found that "over 50 percent of the nonviolent movements succeeded, compared with about 25 percent of the violent insurgencies." This revelatory analysis not only debunks the core argument that the Western right and far right perpetuate about how best to go about "liberating" oppressed societies, it also provides a road map to opposition groups based not on vague philosophical notions, but grounded in objective empirics.

Stephan and Chenoweth additionally observe that the use of violence by opposition groups provokes violence from draconian political orders, whereas nonviolence often creates confusion and fissures in regimes, which in turn creates greater opportunities for civil society to apply pressure for civil and economic rights. And although responsibility for the current chaos within Libya must be laid solely at the feet of Qaddafi's authoritarian regime, unfortunately for the Libyan opposition, their entrance into violent resistance simply hardened an already barbaric government's proclivity to employ violence. In the long run, many more civil societies under rigid governments may eventually take note of the contrasts and recalibrate their methods towards total nonviolent resistance as the strategy most likely to produce a transition to a stable order based upon popular sovereignty.

These three ramifications of the Libyan intervention will have a profound impact on the future revolutions in the Arab world. If the continued inefficiency of Western policies becomes fully coupled with the tendency of civil society movements to utilize nonviolent resistance, internal regional forces, irrespective of the vested interests of external foreign powers or the sclerotic regimes that are now being threatened, will ultimately guide the future politics and economics of the Middle East.

Photo by Fabio Bucciarelli. See more.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau


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