I was suspicious of the UN Security Council’s establishment of a Libya no fly zone from the beginning. And events seem to be proving my suspicions right.

From protecting civilian noncombatants the intervention has morphed into aggressive war as U.S. and NATO bombings are coordinating with the movement of rebel forces on the ground. It is apparent that the objective of this “humanitarian intervention” has changed to overthrowing the Gaddafi government.

“It seems to me, and I think everybody else,” said Sen. James Webb, D-Va., (no relation to me) in the Washington Post, “that we are clearly involved in regime change.”

Actually Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the leaders of France and Britain have said as much, quite unapologetically.

There is a logic operating here. That is to up the military ante as facts on the ground warrant in order to achieve the mission of “regime change.” Haven’t we seen this many times before?

The next big decision for the administration and NATO is whether to “officially” arm the rebels, which I’m doubtful will make a difference in terms of the outcome of this growing civil war. If anything it could prolong the war, postpone a political settlement, and drive up the loss of life of both combatants and noncombatants.

But if “armed” rebel forces on the ground and NATO bombings are unsuccessful in deposing Gaddafi, won’t there be pressure to introduce NATO ground troops? Wars have a dynamic of their own that makes me suspicious (there’s that word again) of the tidy schemes and assurances of policymakers in Washington and Europe.

An overriding question is: why did the Obama administration push a United Nations authorization to establish a no fly zone, especially since the administration’s hands are full winding down a costly war in Iraq and managing a grinding occupation in Afghanistan?

Apart from the president’s stated humanitarian concern, and I don’t doubt his word on that, national strategic interests, both geopolitical (Africa as well as the Middle East) and geo-economic, are part of the picture (as they are in our response to the Arab Spring generally). Gaddafi, while cooperative of late and hospitable to foreign petro-investments, is still considered a very unreliable ally and thus the upheaval in Libya presented an opportunity to replace him with a more reliable junior partner to assist with the strategic designs of imperialism in this part of the world.

But planners of this war badly miscalculated.

First, the assumption that an uprising would be quickly followed by a meltdown of political and military support for the regime appears to be wrong and, ultimately, very costly. Unlike Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi’s support from his military is significant so far.

Second, the opposition appears to possess little political and organizational coherence. 

Third, the administration assumed that it could easily enter and exit this conflict. But this is much easier said than done. 

The most promising possibility is for a ceasefire to be followed by negotiations between the warring parties that eventually moves in the direction of a representative democracy – an idea that appears to have some legs on both sides. But if this doesn’t happen, don’t expect a good outcome. Bloodshed, possible partition, death and destruction will leave their indelible mark on the Libyan human and physical landscape. And the hands of the U.S. will be stained.

Opinion polls here show majority support for the U.S. military action now, but that could change quickly if the war drags on. President Obama’s first instinct to stay out of the conflict was a good one (there are other ways to express solidarity to democratic forces and protect civilian non-combatants), but under pressure from inside his own administration as well as France and Britain, he unfortunately changed his mind. Hopefully he will resist any further escalation of the conflict and do everything to pressure for a ceasefire and a negotiated solution.

It’s true that if Obama had done nothing he would have been criticized unrelentingly by the right, but that would pale in comparison to how the right will take him apart if this turns into a foreign policy failure.

His speech to the nation a week ago, despite his best efforts to circumscribe U.S. participation in this bloody internal conflict, contained hypocrisy and rested on the discredited notion of U.S. primacy in world affairs. Setting aside the extremist Bush administration, it outlined a foreign policy not that different from previous administrations. The speech had echoes of the Carter doctrine that championed intervention in the name of human rights and democracy, in contrast to the earlier foreign policy outlook of Kissinger that rested solely on “national interests.” While it may have helped his standing domestically, it was surely not good for his prestige internationally. 

The good thing in the speech was the president’s insistence that the role of the U.S. will be limited. While I hope that is the case, not everybody in policy circles is necessarily of this mind. And even in the best of circumstances, it won’t happen without a popular chorus from across the country insisting on a peaceful resolution of this conflict – and, in a larger sense, recognizing the right of the Arab countries suffering so long under autocratic and imperialist rule to determine their own future free of outside interference.

Finally, “humanitarian intervention” for supposedly noble purposes constitutes a new challenge for the American people. More and more it will become the main discourse to legitimize intervention in regions of economic and political importance to U.S. imperialism.

I wouldn’t absolutely rule out UN-sponsored intervention in countries where the threat of genocide is imminent, but it is hard not to be suspicious of a “disinterested” U.S.-led military intervention. It is hard to believe that other alternatives under different auspices don’t exist.



Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.