A war of Western imperialism?

Backing of Libyan rebels apparently aims to clean up West’s image across the Arab world.

Bombing Gaddafi is not a humanitarian gesture, but an attempt to spread goodwill across the Arab world directed at the West, Moor says [GALLO/GETTY]

There is a lot about the Western intervention in Libya that could go wrong – and it remains to be seen whether bombing Gaddafi and his mercenaries is a good decision.

However, large numbers of people around the world appear to support the objectives of the anti-regime forces. Also, the indigenous resistance movement – which requested help – would have been annihilated in the absence of those air strikes.

George Bush’s legacy of destruction extends beyond the piles of brick, flesh and mortar that we have been tallying for a decade now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than any other figure in the post-war 20th century, the last American president did more to erode the gains in legitimacy made by supranational institutions and their proponents.

After the Iraq war, the United Nations began to be perceived as a US rubberstamp body – or worse – as a meaningless exercise in bureaucracy.

The UN can only function legitimately through consensus (or consensus-lite) decision-making and it was clear that the US was strong-arming weaker states in 2003.

George Bush and the neoconservatives hijacked the legitimate language of consensus-based intervention for their own ill use.

So activists are not wrong to react cynically when they hear that language today; I don’t believe that bombing Gaddafi is a humanitarian gesture.

But George Bush should not be allowed to delegitimise the mechanisms – which are distinct from the language – of global intervention in situations that offend human rights and dignity.

Today, many people agree that the situation in Libya is horrifying. Furthermore, the Libyan rebels requested aid from the outside world.

Those two conditions alone do not justify intervention but they are crucial components of a legitimate international decision to employ force.  

What is a successful intervention?

The question of what a successful intervention means is a very important one. At the very least, it means taking a back seat and supporting the rebels in the capacity that they desire.

It also means not attempting to install a new government that’s pliant and subordinate to the West. Compromise on these two principles will quickly diminish the legitimacy of the campaign against Gaddafi.

Many people have argued that the intervention is a Western imperialist project. Here, it is worth remembering that Western powers were already in control of Libya’s oil when the revolution began.

Muammar Gaddafi was as much “our guy” as Hosni Mubarak. Condoleezza Rice personally visited Libya and met with Gaddafi in 2008.

The following year Tony Blair pushed for the release of the Lockerbie bomber to secure a sweetheart deal with the Libyan regime (although it was Gordon Brown who did the releasing).

Western powers would have been much better served by backing Gaddafi if oil was their object.

There is an alternative imperialism argument: that the intervention is really a push to consolidate Western control over Libyan resources. But, without intervention the rebels would have most certainly been annihilated by Gaddafi’s superior forces.

So why back the losing horse? How can Western powers be sure they can succeed in creating a more agreeable government? Would not they go with the devil they know, especially when he is already their devil?

Finally, any government that takes shape in Libya in the future will have to address the basic issues that fueled the popular uprising there in the first place.

Gaddafi is an imperial stooge and a new imperial government will ensure that the underlying conditions will not go away.

Spreading goodwill, avoiding oil price spikes

So what’s motivating the Western powers into projecting their power into Libya? And why is the West not intervening in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or Yemen?

The potential benefit of successfully backing the rebels will be an increase in goodwill across the Arab world directed at the West. It is not clear if that is a realistic expectation, but it is one appears to motivate Western leaders.

Meanwhile, the cost of attacking Gaddafi and his mercenaries in a limited way, and supplying the rebels with arms is relatively low. It is not clear if the cost is actually low, but it’s likely that it is perceived that way since the intervention is already underway.

In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the opposite is true. The American president Barack Obama will seek reelection, so it is in his interest to prevent the global economy from stagnating then shrinking.

A successful revolution in Bahrain may destabilise Saudi Arabia which would drive the price of oil up which could cause the US economy to stall. It is just not a risk worth taking for him.

Probably, fears of an insurgent Iran – legitimate or not – play into his calculations as well. That’s because most Bahrainis are Shias.

Likewise, Yemen permits the Americans to pursue Al Qaeda affiliates in that country. That goes directly to Obama’s security credentials.

If Yemen lapses, Obama will be accused, rightly or wrongly, of permitting terrorist sympathizers to take control in yet another Middle Eastern country. And the 2012 election campaign is already underway.  

Intervention in Libya could turn out badly in a many different and unforeseen ways. And imperialism and neoliberal “reforms” – which are a problem in that country – did not arrive with the revolution; they preceded it.

We can aspire towards helping young Libyans reform their society to make it more democratic, just and anti-imperialist. But before they can do that they must survive Gaddafi’s pulverizing onslaught. And that’s something that the Western offensive gives them a chance of doing.

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American freelance journalist living in Beirut. He was born in the Gaza strip, Palestine. He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and The Guardian.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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