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Don't Let NATO Chill the Arab Spring

Posted on: Monday, April 11, 2011

Keywords: Middle East, Africa, US Policy

MADRE stands with the people of Libya fighting for democracy and an end to repressive government.

MADRE opposes NATO’s military intervention, which threatens civilians’ lives and undermines prospects for self-determination and true democracy in Libya. Days ago, an African Union delegation arrived in Libya to broker a truce to end the violence. These diplomatic moves should prompt a renewed international push for negotiations. MADRE calls for an immediate ceasefire and an end to US and NATO intervention in Libya.

Why We Must End the No-Fly Zone and Bombing Attacks

Many people were moved to support this intervention in response to gross human rights violations committed by Qaddafi’s forces. Yet, NATO airstrikes launched in the name of protecting civilians have killed civilians. Observers have condemned the bombings as “disproportionate” and “careless with civilian lives.”

UN Resolution 1973, authorizing the no-fly zone, says nothing about regime change. Yet, the US has made it clear that its goal is to oust Qaddafi. The escalation of militarized conflict and the open calls for regime change foreclosed opportunities for peaceful negotiations.

Meanwhile, Libyans face a growing humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, and civilian casualties are mounting. Hospitals lack medical supplies and food is growing scarce. The global response to the crisis in Libya must ensure that the basic needs of Libyan civilians are met and that human rights are protected.

Addressing Arguments from Progressive Supporters of the No-Fly Zone

“The intervention averted a massacre.” In March, as Qaddafi’s forces approached the city of Benghazi, a stronghold of the opposition, the possibility of a mass killing loomed. But the airstrikes also puts civilians at risk. We have already heard reports of civilians killed by NATO bombs. We’ll never know what would have happened if NATO had not been deployed. But we can say what needs to happen now: ceasefire.

“The Libyan opposition called for a no-fly zone.” This is indeed a valid criterion for determining when humanitarian intervention is legitimate. But satisfying this one criterion doesn’t guarantee reflexive support from progressives for intervention. We still have the responsibility to analyze the policies and actions of our own governments, particularly when we have reason to question their purportedly humanitarian motivations.

“The no-fly zone was sanctioned by the Arab League.” This statement is misleading. Of the 22 members of the Arab League, only 11 took part in the vote and only nine voted in favor. Six of the yes-votes were from members of the Gulf Cooperation Council a US-supported and Saudi-led grouping. As an expression of broadly based regional support, this does not go very far.

Moreover, UN diplomatic sources report that Saudi Arabia secured the call from the Arab League for a no-fly zone only in exchange for US consent to invade Bahrain and crush its pro-democracy movement.

“The UN Security Council resolution authorizes intervention.” What Resolution 1973 authorizes are measures to ensure civilian protection, including the no-fly zone. But the US and NATO quickly discarded non-violent measures, including negotiations led by the Arab League or the African Union, in favor of military action. As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The international community has a “responsibility to protect”, as recognized by the UN and by international law, to save civilian lives when their government commits extreme, large scale human rights abuses. But this has been used to justify a rush to military intervention. Progressives should demand that peaceful means are exhausted before endorsing any resort to force. Even before Qaddafi’s siege of Benghazi, Arab pro-democracy activists called on the international community to freeze government assets, end all flows of military aid, impose economic sanctions and undertake human rights investigations. Yet, these viable options were bypassed in favor of bombing.

Moreover, a Security Council resolution should not guarantee progressive support. The UN also gave its belated stamp of approval to the US occupation of Iraq, which most progressives consistently opposed.

Libya in Context

While the Libyan uprising is new and unpredictable, the US/NATO response is not. The latest US war follows a familiar pattern of military intervention in the name of humanitarianism.

Look at the US invasions of the Philippines (1898), Haiti (1918), Vietnam (1954-1975), the Congo (1964), Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), the many US sponsored wars in Central America in the 1980s, Panama (1989), former Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003). Each of these wars was billed as a humanitarian intervention.

Also familiar is the old pattern of subverting international consensus in favor of a manufactured multilateralism. Resolution 1973 came about only through heavy-handed lobbying by the US to demand the votes of countries on the fence, like South Africa. Many of these countries have since reversed their position and are now calling for a ceasefire.

Finally, the image of NATO being deployed to “protect civilians” in places where US and European interests are clearly at stake is familiar. Having lost its original mandate with the end of the Cold War, NATO was rebranded as a US-dominated intervention force. Its primary mission now is to help maintain control over energy resources for the US and its allies.

What Are the US Motivations in Libya?

One thing we know for sure: the US is not driven by humanitarianism. If it were, it would have enforced a no-fly zone over Gaza in 2009 when Israeli warplanes killed 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children. Instead, Israel was rewarded after the assault with $30 billion in US military aid. Israel is not alone: as recently as February, the Obama Administration was preparing to send Qaddafi another $77 million in armored troop carriers.

There is a long list of humanitarian crises that have failed to trigger US intervention or that the US has supported outright. So what does motivate the US?

Oil: Libya has more proven oil reserves than any other country in Africa. US companies bought oil from Qaddafi before this war, but the intervention is an opening to actually gain control of this vital resource. That move would give the US great leverage over economic competitors like Russia and China.

Military Bases: AFRICOM, the US military command for Africa, is currently headquartered in Germany because no African government will host its operations. Replacing Qaddafi with a more compliant regime may give the US an opportunity to overcome this failure and finally establish a permanent military base in Africa.

“Stability”: We all watched what happened in Tunisia and then in Egypt, when thousands of protestors took to the streets. These mass mobilizations rallied people from all walks of life, including trade unionists, women’s groups and youth organizers who all demanded their rights as citizens. More than anything else, the progressive potential of these movements stemmed from their truly grassroots and broad-based nature. At its onset, the home-grown rebellion in Libya also included mass organizing and peaceful protests.

Turning a popular mobilization controlled by citizens themselves into a top-down, foreign military operation takes the struggle out of people’s hands. It ensures that whatever regime comes next won’t be a product of people-power, but of NATO’s power and that the new regime will be dependent on the West.

In fact, people-power is not what the US wants to see, especially in the world’s biggest oil-producing countries. If all people in the Middle East were able to participate meaningfully in national policy-making, there is little chance that they would direct oil revenues to US banks. More likely, they would try to ensure that oil revenues be used to fund education, employment, health care, national infrastructure and other necessities. In fact, these are the core demands of the Arab Spring. But what most people call democracy, the US calls extreme Arab nationalism—and it’s not tolerated for long.

Despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric about honoring democratic struggles in the Middle East and North Africa, a main motivation for the NATO intervention is to extinguish the progressive potential that inspired Libyans and thousands of others in the region to rise up and demand change.

As we search for ways to support them, we should evaluate calls for military intervention according to lessons we’ve learned over time. Given that very few conflicts can be resolved by force, will a military intervention remedy the problem? Will force be kept to a minimum and used only as a last resort? Will the intervention keep the door open for peace negotiations? Does the intervention prioritize the human rights and needs of civilians for open borders, safe humanitarian relief corridors and aid delivery that responds to the disproportionate impact of conflict on women?

MADRE believes that progressives should oppose the NATO intervention in Libya and call for:

  • The delivery of urgent food relief and humanitarian aid to civilians.
  • An immediate ceasefire by NATO and Libyan government forces.
  • Renewed efforts to seek a diplomatic solution.



By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Executive Director

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