I feel as though I have to say something about the War in Libya which is happening as we speak. I’m not much of a political scientist, so don’t take any of my analysis too seriously.
It seems that the uprisings in Libya are related to the uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, and Palestine. Many media sources are calling this the “Arab Awakening”, but I think it is more appropriate to call it the “Arab Uprising” – since it is the uprisings that we, and they, can see. Maybe we could say the uprisings are causing awakening, which leads to more uprising. But anyway, I think the reason we haven’t seen the term “uprising” used as much is because the Arabic word for uprising is intifada, and analysts do not wish people to make the obvious links between this pan-Arab intifada and the two Palestinian intifada.
The uprisings in every country besides Libya have been responded to in a similar way by Western powers – support the dictator and continue to materially support brutal oppression of the uprising right up to the point where it is obvious some sort of regime change is required, and then pretend you supported the uprising all along. Of course, Obama might “call on” the middle east dictators he supports not to use force against protestors, but no there is no material to these demands right up until the point where it is clear that supporting the dictator is politically impossible. This explains why the US supported Mubarak until very late in the Egyptian uprising, and also why it has supported Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in its brutal repression of protests there.
The situation in Libya is different for at least two reasons. One is that part of the Army joined the revolution, and the other is that Gaddafi is not as loyal as the other Arab dictators – so Western powers have an investment in regime change in Libya, although they are naturally opposed to any democratic reforms which would put in danger their relatively easy access to Libyan oil.
So, the current civil war affords an opportunity to improve the security of western interests in Libya, but it’s crucial that the interests are oil and not improving the lives of Libyans – at least for the most part. It is true that France recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya, but I believe they are the only one to grant this diplomatic legitimacy to the pro-democracy forces.
It is crucial for America to portray the rebels as not a truly popular force, but as the internal degeneration of stability within a non-democracy. We have to say things like “the rebels will be no better than Gaddafi” because it legitimizes putting down the popular interests of the Libyan people in favour of installing a regime very similar to Gaddafi’s, but more friendly to US orders. Libyan life must be framed as so inherently unstable that it requires the strong hand of a western-backed dictator, and playing up factionalist differences and the inherent violence of Arabs is key to maintaining the popularity of this view.
Probably the most important thing to keep in mind when looking at current events like this is simply to remember that the invocation of values like “protecting the people” and “supporting democracy”, while they have authentic meanings, can easily be mobilized hypocritically in the pursuit of other ends. While there is nothing essentially wrong with a UN resolution that legitimizes use of force agains the government of Libya up to and including a land invasion, the hypocricy is in the selective use of values like “Responsibility to Protect” such that the value of some lives become the ground of a military invasion, while asserting the value of other lives will get you ignored, or even labelled anti-semitic.
I don’t know what will happen in this war, or what will result from it. I can tell you what I hope happens – that the West plays only a supporting role to the Rebels, that the Rebels win and institute independent democracy, and that the West does not retroactively hand the rebels a bill for the hundreds of millions of dollars the military support will have cost. But that will only happen if we in the west do not allow our governments to use this as an an excuse to invade and install a regime of their choosing. The true responsibility to protect is not in the hands of our governments, it is in the hands of those who can hold those governments to account.