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Solidarity and Intervention in Libya

[Image from unknown archive.] [Image from unknown archive.]

The Libyan uprising is entering its fourth week. The courage and persistence of the Libyan people’s efforts to overthrow al-Qaddafi have been met with ongoing regime brutality ranging from shoot-to-kill policies to the indiscriminate use of artillery against unarmed civilians. When we last wrote on this subject, we already recognized that the situation in Libya was dire. Since that time the violence of the regime’s unhinged bid to subdue the armed insurgency has only escalated. The mounting civilian death toll resulting from regime brutality has amplified previous calls for international intervention. The Security Council unanimously issued a resolution imposing tough measures against the Libyan regime including an arms embargo, asset freeze, travel ban and a referral of the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court for investigation. More recently, the Arab League has called on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The issue of a no-fly zone is only one of several proposals now being loudly advocated. Others include funneling arms to Libyan rebels and proposals to coordinate with Egyptian commandos allegedly already operating in Libya to provide logistical assistance and training to the rebels. Despite the intuitive appeal of the argument that something must be done, we write again now to oppose calls for the types of international intervention that are currently under discussion.

The desire to act in solidarity with the Libyan people demands that we assess the available options against the core principle of legitimacy that any intervention must satisfy: do no harm (that is, do not do more harm on balance by intervening). The likelihood that any of the current proposals involving coercive intervention would satisfy this principle is severely constrained when evaluated against the historical record, logistical realities, and the incentives and interests of the states in a position to serve as the would-be external interveners. Put simply, coercive external intervention to alter the balance of power on the ground in Libya in favor of the anti-Qaddafi revolt is likely to backfire badly. The attendant costs would, of course, be borne not by those who call for intervention from outside of Libya but by the Libyan people with whom we hope to show solidarity. In what follows we argue that embracing the call for solidarity requires a much more careful appraisal of the interventionist option, precisely because the potential risks will be borne by Libyan civilians.

This article is now featured in Jadaliyya's edited volume entitled Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of An Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). The volume documents the first six months of the Arab uprisings, explaining the backgrounds and trajectories of these popular movements. It also archives the range of responses that emanated from activists, scholars, and analysts as they sought to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. Click here to access the full article by ordering your copy of Dawn of the Arab Uprisings from Amazon, or use the link below to purchase from the publisher.

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21 comments for "Solidarity and Intervention in Libya"


I respectfully disagree with the authors' contention that "acting from the outside" is not in the interest of Libyan civilians. They were dying as you wrote these words. By the time you agree on "imaginative strategies," it may be too late.

Sherifa Zuhur wrote on March 16, 2011 at 09:15 AM

Thank you for your comment. We share your concern with the rising death toll, but we disagree with your description of our argument. We do not argue that any action "'from the outside' is not in the interest of Libyan civilians." To the contrary, we specifically advocate particular actions from the outside immediately and are open to other actions based on the evolving situation on the ground. Our criticism is of the suggested implementation of a no-fly zone, which we argue is not well-suited to protect civilians. Should circumstances change -- for instance, should the regime attack civilians primarily through an air campaign using jet fighters (as opposed to the apparent current strategy of relying primarily on ground and sea artillery and attack helicopters, none of which would be addressed by a no-fly zone) -- a reevaluation would be warranted. We note, however, that whatever option is considered must meet the test, on balance, of not causing additional harm to the civilian population. An intervention that fails this test runs the risk of adding to civilian casualties in what is already a dire circumstance, which is precisely what we oppose. We would welcome you (and others) to advance an argument of how a particular type of intervention would meet this do-no-harm principle by undertaking a credible cost-benefit analysis based on the welfare of the Libyan civilian population and what is known about conditions on the ground. To pursue a course without this level of forethought is to invite consequences -- intended and unintended -- the cost of which will be borne by the very Libyan civilians in whose name we claim to act. Further, the urgency of the need for action is not a basis to act in ways that privilege the interests of interveners ahead of the interests of Libyan civilians. The use of primarily air power may enable force protection for interveners at the expense of additional civilian casualties. Our call for imaginative strategies is rooted not in a categorical rejection of all forms of intervention, but in our assessment of the risks associated with the strategies currently on the table.

Ziad Abu-Rish and Asli Bali wrote on March 17, 2011 at 10:09 PM

Sherifa, the same we were told about Iraq, Afghanistan and all other place where USA imperialism and NATO wanted to "save" natives. Even Israel claimed it was NOT acting against Lebanese people and people in Gaza - only against "terrorists".

If you are for USA bombing of Libya - just say it.

lidia wrote on March 18, 2011 at 04:11 AM

The "Do Not Harm" policy advocated by the authors in this article and the one prior to it ("On International Intervention and the Dire Situation in Libya" ) clearly indicate their urgent desire to help the people of Libya. What they argue against is a type of intervention that would achieve the opposite result. The words they write are an important part of the process to prevent people from dying and I commend them for their journalistic endeavors.

Sue wrote on March 18, 2011 at 02:16 PM

Dear lidia:

In theory, I do not see any difference in the killing now being executed by Gaddafi, and the killing in which NATO would be executing. None, whatsoever. Except that NATO would kill to end Gaddafi's regime. Gaddafi is just killing for the fun of it.

So yes, I think I prefer NATO killing Libyans than Gaddafi killing them. Not a pleasant choice, but an obvious one.

My worries lie in the aftermath, and there my worries coincide with those of the authors of this article. But I do not think the solution is to -not- intervene. I think the solution lies in limiting the mandate of NATO as much as possible. Maybe wishful thinking, but in my opinion the best solution.

Raymond wrote on March 19, 2011 at 01:57 PM

Raymond, I am NOT speaking about any "theory", much more about the reality. The same arguments we all heard about Saddam and Taliban.

Are you happy with USA killing of Iraqis and Afghans NOW? After all, they DID "free" Iraq and Afghanistan from Saddam and Taliban, did they not&

I wonder, WHY some people are so eager to support USA colonial wars - might be they are feeling obliged to decide what is better for some "backward natives"

And your "limiting mandate of NATO" is NOT just wistful thinking - it is ridiculous rubbish with very real mass-murder as a result.

WHEN the West learn to leave other world alone? Now it is me being ridiculous - West is alive only by feeding of non-West blood, like some ghoul.

lidia wrote on March 20, 2011 at 06:21 AM

Being in the midlef the chaos watching your kids and wife scared and dead families all around is something. Writing articles that objectively describe the situation in a quiet office in front of a computer while drinking a coffee and debating whether letting other countries intervene is something else. For now how to stop the massacre in libya that kills innocents every minute: Not by discourse or rethorc or debating. Only whoca do something is occident. Arab and Muslim coutries can not. Then let those who can do something do it. The fact that they have strategic interest is the pay to pay since Muslims and Arab are not at the required levelof being efficient. May be they should take this issue seriously from now insread of losing time in endeless empty discussion and do things that are substantial

sacha wrote on March 20, 2011 at 04:35 PM

I have to say, this article is the first reasonable attempt to discuss available options and mistakes already made by international community in Libyan conflict, that I found so far. I left Libya two weeks ago and my view of the conflict differs much from all what I see in mainstream media. The “popular uprising” is rather tribal one and overwhelming support for rebel fighters is not so obvious anywhere else than in Cyrenaica and, of course, in EU and USA. This conflict does not at all resembles changes in Tunisia and Egypt. Moreover, the French “bust-them-all” version of no-fly zone, will make it very difficult to reconcile two sides of the conflict long after Ghadaffi is gone, as the rebel fighters will from now on, have a label of traitors who legitimized Western air raids over Libya. The justification of the international intervention in Libya and supporting at the same time other dictators in the Middle-East is beyond comprehension unless you step into shoes of Western consumer/voter who follows evolution of the fuel price at its local gas station. I keep my fingers crossed for all Libyans, regardless which side they sympathize with.


Jarek wrote on March 20, 2011 at 05:36 PM

I think US intervention in Libya is just a ploy to put in place a pro-western puppet... one that for $$$ sell out the Libyan people. What is really puzzling is the willingness of the Arab league to allow this invasion - how shameful; first Iraq, then Afghanistan, now Libya - all to exploit the middle east and allow continual exploitation of Libya's resources and to maintain control of the area for Israel. How disgraceful and what a sad statement about the Arabs in charge.... Gaddaft was allowed to remain in charge because he cooperated with the colonialization of Libya by the US - and provided an ally of sorts for Israel... I am very saddened the President Obama is alowing himself to be manipulated by the US War machine and corrupt Jewish interests.

V. Sessoms wrote on March 20, 2011 at 08:03 PM

I believe the US is making a concerted effort at this time to consolidate its position in the mid east. It uses those nations currently under its control i.e. Saudi Arabia and Israel to do those things it cannot openly do in the face of international outrage. Saudi Arabia is used to prop up a government under attack by 'rebels' yet the US props up 'rebels' attacking a similar repressive government in Libya. Why. The only explanation comes from history. The 'pre-emptive' attack by Israel on all Arab air forces in the 6 day war, which gave them a decisive victory. The real objective is to take out the Libyan airforce in preparation for an Israeli attack on Iran. After that the Arab nations will all be failed states as Iraq is now. How can anyone still believe in the US humanitarian claims in the face of Rwanda and Darfur. This nation never acts out of self interest. Clinton bombed the Balkans for 'humanitarian' reasons and Obama, winner of the "peace prize" has a much bigger agenda. And why do all the Arab leaders suddenly fall into comas. Wake up Arab nations. The US is a nation with a very big agenda, not in your interest, but theirs.

louise wrote on March 20, 2011 at 10:22 PM

yes you right when it come to westerin counteries they make heir choices bsaed on their interest not the peaple interest in the middle east adn a you said her is the prove 1- in bahrain the king is doing what he like butuas and france are with him beacouse of oil 2- sam thing in saudia raebia 3- they did not support the egypation revoluation untill it was very clear that the peaple are not going to go untill he goes a way and had an asurance that egypt will keep its tready with all the west and israel 4- no budy help the egypaion and tunisan revolutions 5-if the libian peaple can not get their freedum for them selfes we have a propleam in couse ans results 5- nothing was don untill all western peronal was out of libya 6-but arab and african personal they do not count 7-3 monthes ago everyone with dancing with libya leader becouse of what he paid them and produce more oil it is all interst no humanitain reason

m soliman wrote on March 21, 2011 at 12:04 AM

Somebody help me. In the beginning of the Tunisian uprising, Michelle Eliot Marie, the foreign minister of Sarkozy's government pleaded desperately in the French Parliament to support Ben Ali against his own people. Four Weeks later Sarkozy leads the UN to defend the Lybian people against Moammar Gaddafi. Je ne compred rien du tout.

Radok Remond wrote on March 21, 2011 at 02:34 AM

The concept of "airlifting of Libyan and other African civilians to safety out of Tripoli" is evidently a bad joke, which is clearly unrealistic. European ships did selflessly help a lot of people - Chinese, Ukrainian, etc. to evacuate from Libya. Their conduct is indeed noble, and motives inspiring. The lives of Libyan people are at stake. The insane genocide must be stopped.

Dmytro wrote on March 21, 2011 at 02:42 AM

The old stereotypes and fear of so called crusaders is not working anymore. The internet provides a counter balance to this old propoganda. Modern thinkers understand that it is necessary to enter the 21st century or forever suffer the consequences. If you want your people to prosper, you must say hello to reality and open your eyes to it.

Spencer in the Philippines wrote on March 21, 2011 at 04:26 AM

Finally, an intelligent analysis of the situation! And thank you Jarek for some concrete info on what seemed to me as the Benghazis vs. the Tarablusis.

Can anyone explain the Arab League/Arab countries position? I cannot remember a country ever being expelled from the Arab League for anything let massacring your own population. Not Saddam Hussein and not Hafez al-Asad.

Ruth Roded wrote on March 21, 2011 at 06:22 AM

Sorry, but this is weak. Too many insinuations in place of proper arguments. E.g.: 'such a move might produce...'; 'may have undermined...'; 'potentially redoubling his resolve...'; 'it is possible that...'

Lots of things "might" occur, "may" happen, are "possible" or "potentially" the case. You say; 'there is no reason to presume...' Sorry? The question is, what *is* there reason to believe? Have you actually sounder evidence for your views than supporters of the intervention have for theirs?

When you cut through all the airy insinuation, what this boils down to is that you don't trust the likes of the US and UK.

Well, fair enough. I'm British, I marched against the Iraq invasion, and I deplore the Cold War record of US intervention. My sense is there has always existed a particular "democratic deficit" in respect of foreign policy imperatives: the policy discourse remains shallow and indirect.

However, I am getting bored of the same old, cookie-cutter platitudes voiced by the anti-imperialist Left, no matter how circumstances change. I note, for example, you offer no observation on shifts in personnel (the Obamas, Camerons, Zapateros, etc.) or associated ideologies, since past interventions. Just the bland, fatalistic certainty that Western governments' motives will never be pure enough.

But how on Earth did you arrive at a position that 'heeding local calls for a no-fly zone... amounts to subordinating the interests of the Libyan people to our own sense of purpose'?

Eughhh! If there is a respectable argument against this intervention, it isn't here.

Richard Paton wrote on March 21, 2011 at 01:34 PM

the un mandate can also be withdrawn and it is up to the relative countries russia and turkey to forward a resolution in this sense. Targeting headquarters in Tripoli in my opinion is just a senseless umiliation. While i strongly support stopping tanks before benghasi. How can we know what Libyans want?

dsgn wrote on March 21, 2011 at 03:53 PM

There are many other countries with dictator regime and PEOPLE dying but west is not interested because there is no oil.

It was in close past- why there was war in Bosnia for 4-5 years and in the middle of Europe?? Why there 250 000 people died? It was OBVIOUS offense from Serbian dictators (they visited Slovenia and Croatia also) but no body gave a sh** about this little country. As beautiful it is, still no oil whatsoever to offer. Additionally, I bet many were happy that Yugoslavia collapsed because it was too good place to live with versatile nations and religions. Maybe if USA and coalition had know that Bosnia has the only pyramids in Europe, they would have plans for establishing "Las Vegas 2" or something next to them, which means Mladic and Karadzic had to go asap.

Just, go to hell NATO and similar greedy organizations!

Aaron wrote on March 21, 2011 at 07:52 PM

Thank you all for your comments. We share your concern with civilian life and the future of the Libyan people's attempt to overthrow an authoritarian system of rule. However, it is clear that we differ on both our understanding of the on-the-ground situation and the risks associated with the current authorization to "take all necessary measures" which goes significantly beyond a no-fly zone. This article was originally written well in advance of the UN Security Council having issued Resolution 1973 and addressed a more limited proposal than the one ultimately adopted by the Council. The debate that preceded the Council's action illustrates our conerns. The decision was framed as a choice between doing nothing (while Libyans die) and doing something (which is to be defined by interveners with logics that are not in line with the Libyan people's interests and aspirations). This framing excludes multiple options between these two positions, all of which should be discussed and evaluated exclusively in reference to the interests of the Libyan people as opposed to what would be in the interests of the potential or actual interveners. Our reference to humanitarian relief was a starting point of suggesting alternatives, not a panacea. There is a large range of options, regional as well as international, diplomatic and not exclusively coercive, forms of assistance that strengthen the internal opposition rather than supplanting the rebels from outside, that might have been tabled. The fact that this discussion/debate has not happened, that possible consequences are not so much being mitigated by possible benefits but are going completely unaddressed and that criticisms of people's positions are based more on their social location than the merits of their arguments, is very troubling. Solidarity cannot be reduced to inviting powerful external actors to take the reins in Libya with little accountability to Libyans. We look forward to seeing alternative arguments and options advanced. However, that would require grounding the arguments/options in empirical facts or a recognition of the absence of verifiable information rather than on idealistic demands for action which, while well-interntioned, could have serious negative effects for the Libyan people. We are very worried about the violence being unleashed by the remnants of an authoritarian regime. We are just as worried about the potential for civilian deaths and derailed aspirations as a result of external intervention. History has shown both to be destructive vis-a-vis the humanitarian needs and political aspirations of local populations across the Middle East. Our call is not for inaction, but rather for a careful consideration of the pros and cons of each and every option available. Unfortunately, that has not happened. What has happened is that a genuine call for help has been used as the basis for a broad mandate enabling a tactical use of force on the part of powerful actors to determine for themselves what the ultimate strategic goals will be for their intervention in Libya. The displacement of Libyans in making such strategic determinations is now underway. We very much hope that history does not repeat itself in Libya and that somehow this intervention spares Libyans the heavy costs paid by populations in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond for the "good" intentions of those who would liberate them from the skies.

Ziad Abu-Rish and Asli Bali wrote on March 22, 2011 at 04:16 PM

As a US citizen, I am concerned over our involvement in the whole Libya situation. The area has been relatively stable for decades and now a few dissidents try to buck the system and get smacked down by the government. Everyone should butt out and let Libya handle Libya.

We, the US, are fighting two pointless wars already. We know this as a people. We're tired of the wars, the strife, the fear, the conflict. We just want to live and let live. And now the President uses the War Powers act to circumvent Congress to send air support to interdict another's soverign territory after they attempt to stabilize their country? I'm sorry, chum. That's not cricket.

Where was the international outcry during the Ruby Ridge indicent? During the Waco, Texax incident? Hmm? Nowhere. These people attempted to buck the system of government in the USA. They were all met with violent and fatal reprials. But, there was no condemnation by the UN, no sanctions by NATO. Not a peep from the international community at all.

So, who speaks for them?

Andoh wrote on March 23, 2011 at 06:02 AM

Those folks in Libya really need help from the rest of the world. The authors of this article are very astute in observing that that 'help' could however hurt, as in civilian losses and distorting the conflict. But it seems some peoples' responses are mired in old hates and obfuscations. 'Corrupt Jewish interests', 'West is alive by feeding on nonWest blood', and 'no outcry during Ruby Ridge incident'. Has a dangerous proportion of the world gone loco? It seems some tell themselves something enough over and over to believe it, and see nothing but it despite everything else. Its like Goebbels Big Lie aimed at oneself. Whats going on in Libya is basically a fascistic regime, with a certified insane man at head willing to wipe out all who don't 'love' him. I was shocked and saddened to see in my city in New Mexico, USA that the only protest about Libya was against any intervention and implicitly pro Khaddafi. They are some nitwits Stalinists whose usual main focus if trying to drum up support for the Castro regime (a Khadafi ally). As a mid school teacher I was boggled by the slogan "money for schools not for war" since I'd rather DO something to help rather than be isolationist and smug and be in the classroom with better quality texts and technology studying next year with somber tones 'The Great Libyan Massacre of April 2011'. I'm sorry in that case that is pure drivel. Pretty sad. From what I can gather the rebels want the air support but no foreign soldiers. It would seem logical since their fate without help would be a brutally violent death by the time you read this. So all posturing aside what have you actually done for the people of Benghazi for instance. I haven't done anything because I don't know really what to do but this article, though a bit of a long tome to read, is definately thoughtful and puts the Libyan peoples' interests in front as it should be. Most of what the Libyans need to do is firstly in their hands and then with the various groups like Arab League, UN, NATO, AU, EU, etc. As individuals not in Libya its hard to know how to help. But all the bureaucrats and self interests aside the Libyans need relief supplies, access to escape, and enough military help from outside to defang the beast (so to speak) that is menacing them without getting so much or certain types of 'help' that might work to set decent Libyan against decent Libyan. If we want them to do well and make Libya free can't we drop all these skeletons in the mental closet? Bizarre mutterings about people drinking blood, the Jewish this and that, and I'm sorry Ruby Ridge was unfortunate but don't compare a family of white supremacist nuts in Idaho getting ambushed by the FBI with a mass rebellion by students, soldiers, teachers, doctors, and rural people against a fascist tyrant. Let go of your pet agendas and axes to grind if you come forward in good faith. If you just come to peddle your pet form of alternate fascism you're just a source of pollution. Help the Libyan rebels and civilians, see what THEY want, use both heart and head to try to figure whats best. Thats all, thanks to the very intelligent writers and the many who responded with good intent, intelligence, and good heart.

PK wrote on April 01, 2011 at 01:37 PM

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