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Rats, Traps And Saints In The Wadis

As in Libya, western interventions are about greed, power hunger and pompous rhetoric

Rats, Traps And Saints In The Wadis
Rats, Traps And Saints In The Wadis

The West’s Burden

  • In 2001, after 9/11, the West invades Afghanistan; still there
  • In 2003, the US invades Iraq and deposes Saddam Hussein. Reason: ‘he had WMD, harboured Al Qaeda’
  • NATO bombs Libya in 2011
  • Since 1945, US has intervened in 30-odd countries
  • The sole bright spots: Taiwan, South Korea


Two days before Muammar Gaddafi was killed, United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a visit to Tripoli. She and key members of the National Transitional Council (NTC) discussed different options before them, and the consequent scenarios arising from each, in case the Libyan strongman was captured. A day later, on October 19, senior members of the Obama administration analysed the options contemplated, among which was the possible fallout of the militia killing Gaddafi. Reports of these discussions, featured in the New York Times, have prompted international analysts to ask: Are America and the NATO countries culpable in the killing of Gaddafi? Shouldn’t the West have brought the Libyan dictator to trial?

“NATO’s action resulted from Gaddafi’s use of tanks, artillery and bomber jets against peaceful civilian protests.”
Juan Cole. Univ of Michigan, Ann Arbor

These questions are being asked because many believe the West has embarked upon a new course of exterminating leaders opposed to them, fearing their trials could turn them into heroes with cult followings, as had happened with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Public trials could also expose the West’s role in nurturing (in some cases, providing long and crucial support) those who have now been declared oppressive dictators and terrorists. This is why, critics argue, the slain Osama bin Laden was ‘buried in the sea’ by US marines. Citing the growing inclination of the West to fire missiles from drones to kill their avowed enemies residing in another country—for instance, Yemen or Pakistan—they insist that this too is tantamount to intervention.

The intervention of the West has acquired a new salience in West Asia and Africa, where people have risen in rebellion against oppressive rulers. The justification for such action runs along familiar lines—international intervention is justified in those countries where rulers violently suppress their populace, and deny them freedom and the right to democratically elect a government. Former Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmad, who has served in West Asia for decades, scoffs at this: “The West does not want any real change to take place in the region. It wants to have potentates in the oil- and mineral-rich countries who would serve their interest or allow them control over this vital region.”

“What clinched the argument for intervention was that the new Libyan nation could pay NATO their expenses.”
Eugene Rogan, St Anthony College, Univ of Oxford

Ahmad’s view has South Block officials nodding in agreement. They say, for instance, that the Libyan imbroglio could have been resolved amicably had the NATO countries not overruled the proposal Gaddafi and his supporters had mooted—and which had the support of the NTC and many African countries. They say Gaddafi had promised to step aside, allow the conduct of a free and fair trial under international supervision, and accept the verdict handed to him by the elected government.

Why did the West choose only Libya to intervene, from among several countries in a region infamous for several rulers as ruthless as Gaddafi? Why didn’t the West snarl at the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, where too popular unrest has been brutally suppressed? Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says, “It resulted from Gaddafi’s use of tanks, heavy artillery and bomber jets against civilian urban crowds who, for the most part, were simply peacefully protesting, rather as happened in British India at Jalianwalla Bagh or in Bangladesh in 1970-71.”

“Many saw the R2P UN resolution as a ploy by the West to remove governments unacceptable to them.”
Nirupam Sen, Former diplomat

Cole believes the British and French were perhaps apprehensive that had Gaddafi crushed the popular unrest, the disenchanted Libyans could have embraced Al Qaeda, in a virtual replay of the Algerian experience. The military rulers of Algeria cancelled the 1991 election because Muslim fundamentalists had won it. In desperation, the latter took to arms and scarred the country for nearly a decade. Cole feels it is unfair to compare Libya to Bahrain, where perhaps 30-40 people died, as against the thousands whom Gadaffi shelled.

Some others, inevitably, cite oil as the West’s primary motivation behind their action in Libya. Pointing to the 2007-08 US embassy cables that Wikileaks placed in the public domain, they explain western companies were angry at Gaddafi’s insistence on renegotiating the terms of oil agreements in favour of Libya. Diminished returns, his famous quirkiness, as well as his friendship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, made western governments wonder if Gaddafi could be considered “reliable” in business, and raised the spectre of other countries emulating him and triggering an oil crisis reminiscent of the early 1970s.

Eugene Rogan, who teaches history at Oxford’s St Anthony College, feels the motivation underlying the NATO action in Libya had several dimensions—and the fear of Gaddafi massacring his people was surely one. Rogan says the West turned the Arab League mandate allowing NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Libya into a systematic bombing campaign that amounted to intervention. And anyway, Rogan argues, the West had always been uncomfortable with Gaddafi over issues like the Lockerbie bombing, the 1984 assassination of Yvonne Fletcher—a British policewoman who was monitoring a rally of Libyan dissidents in London—and support for international terror groups. But what clinched the argument in favour of intervention, says Rogan, was the confidence of NATO countries that the successor government in Libya “would have the funds to repay the NATO countries for their expenses in the liberation of Libya—much as they handed the Saudis and the Kuwaitis the bill after the Desert Storm Gulf War”.

A Saddam statue meets its end in 2003

Perhaps the West aimed also at reasserting its dominant role in the crucial area of West Asia and North Africa—a region from where, according to Talmiz Ahmad, the influence of the US and the West European powers has been diminishing, as is apparent in the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’. Libya was being used, Ahmad says, “as an example to warn the other potentates in the region what to expect if they don’t fall in line”. In other words, you can’t be a dictator, hit at US interests, and also oppress your people.

“Though not a legally binding requirement, ‘Right to Protect’ is a norm that’s gaining wider adherence.”
Paul Stares, Council on Foreign Relations

Libya is an important case study because it reveals the multiple factors that underlie the phenomenon of western interventions. So are we then to dismiss as duplicitous the invoking of the ‘Right to Protect’ principle, which the West often harps upon to justify such actions? Known as R2P in diplomatic parlance, the principle states that interventions are justified in countries with brutally oppressive rulers. Says Paul Stares, director of the Centre for Preventive Action at Washington’s Council on Foreign Relations: “Though not a legally binding requirement, it’s an evolving international norm that is gaining wider adherence.” This view was also articulated by French foreign minister Alain Juppe in a recent interview to an Indian newspaper. Juppe said the R2P principle was introduced in the United Nations in 2005.

But what Juppe forgot to mention was that the UN resolution hasn’t been passed yet. Former diplomat Nirupam Sen explains why: “Most countries, including India, saw the 2005 resolution as a ploy by the West to remove governments not acceptable to them.” Invited to the UN to debate the R2P issue in 2009, many eminent thinkers, including Noam Chomsky, expressed their strong opposition to it.

“The West does not want real change in the region. It wants regimes in oil-rich countries who’d do their bidding.”
Talmiz Ahmad, Former Indian diplomat

Irrespective of the outcome of the ongoing debate on R2P, the propensity of the West and former colonial powers to intervene in another country dates back to 1878. Then, European colonial powers convened the Conference of Berlin to parcel Africa among themselves. Some say the history of intervention actually began in 1415, the year in which Portugal conquered its first colony in Africa. The emergence of the US as a power accentuated this trend during the Cold War, which saw Washington and Moscow intervene and reshape countries in accordance to their worldview. The end of the Cold War has seen the US and its allies invoke the R2P to justify interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, not to speak of their flouting international norms to bomb countries.

The long history of forcible muscling in by the US and the West has been traumatic for many peoples. Odd Arne Westad points out in his book, The Global Cold War, that from the Third World perspective the consequences of US interventions have been “truly dismal”. He says the agenda of US intervention has ostensibly been stable growth and stable democracies, but these goals have been realised in just two half-states—South Korea and Taiwan. These are absent in around 30 other countries where America has intervened, directly or indirectly, since 1945. “The human tragedies...that this scorecard reflects are enormous. Moreover, for many countries these are ongoing tragedies, with enough landmines and other weapons in place to destroy lives well into a generation yet to be born.” Truly, it’s too early to hail the western intervention in Libya as a template for better times.

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