24 March 2011

Odyssey Dawn, a Homeric tragedy

Two games of domino are under way in West Asia and North Africa, one of mass struggle against U.S.-backed regimes, the other of military intervention aimed at co-opting or defeating the popular revolts...

March 24, 2011
The Hindu

Odyssey Dawn, a Homeric tragedy

Siddharth Varadarajan

Muammar Qadhafi may be a threat to his own people but the bombing of Libya by France, Britain and the United States demonstrates beyond doubt that these three imperial powers are a threat to international peace and security.

With its overdeveloped military capabilities and astonishing levels of political cynicism, the West's drive to intervene in the internal affairs of the North African republic has been remarkably smooth and swift. Thanks in no small measure to a ‘global' news media with an inexhaustible capacity to serve as cheerleaders for war, U.S., British and French ordnance has started raining down on Libya barely weeks after the civil war there began. The West's latest adventure has also been helped along by the naivety of liberals and leftists, last seen in action during Nato's aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999. Of great help, too, has been the opportunism of the Arab League, all of whose members, without exception, run regimes that throttle the voice and rights of their own citizens.

Though Brazil, Russia, India, China and Germany abstained when the sanction for intervention was put to vote in the United Nations Security Council last week, it does not absolve them of their failure to mount an effective political challenge to the drive for war. Since these countries knew the consequences of this irresponsible course of action, they should have moved quickly to mobilise the African Union, of which Libya is a part, so that the “regional” imprimatur for war which the P-3 fabricated with the help of the League of Arab States could have been countered. Russia and China should also have insisted that they would veto the resolution if any attempt were made to push it through without the Security Council first hearing a comprehensive report on the situation in Libya from the Secretary-General's Special Representative.

We know from the absence of concrete or credible media reports on mass civilian casualties that any delay caused by a high-level external political initiative would not have led to a humanitarian catastrophe. Ironically, journalists from the West and other Arab countries had free access to eastern or “liberated” Libya, for at least three weeks prior to the U.N.'s authorisation of force. This was the period when Col. Qadhafi's use of his air force first prompted western calls for a no-fly zone. Despite this, the death toll of combatants and civilians the journalists in eastern Libya reported was not that much higher than the total number of civilians killed by the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt.

The decision to attack Libya is wrong on three grounds. First, the motive is not humanitarian but political and strategic. Second, it rests on dubious legality. Third, the intervention, because it is poorly conceived and ill-thought out, is likely to cause more harm than good for Libya, its people and the wider region.

Let's start with the motives. The ‘responsibility to protect' doctrine which morally underpins the attack on Libya is still not a part of customary international law but even its advocates must agree that the selective and politically expedient invocation of R2P robs the doctrine of its normative force.

Why does only Libya get attacked or referred to the International Criminal Court and not other countries? If there is one country in the Middle East which has threatened international peace and security for decades and which, even as these words are being written, has launched its air force, yet again, against a defenceless civilian population, it is Israel. Yet never have the cheerleaders for the war on Libya argued in favour of a mandatory no-fly zone to protect the Palestinian and Lebanese people from Israeli airstrikes.

Two years ago, just before the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the Israeli military killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Unencumbered by high office but with an election victory securely under his belt, Mr. Obama could easily have said something to urge the Zionist regime to back off. He famously said and did nothing and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his silence. When a U.N. report authored by Judge Richard Goldstone of South Africa catalogued the war crimes Tel Aviv had committed during that war, the U.S. used its diplomatic clout to ensure the matter never came before the Security Council. Had it come, of course, any proposed action — such as a Libya-style referral to the ICC — would have been vetoed in the same manner as the U.S. vetoed the recent 14-1 draft UNSC resolution condemning Israel for its illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories.

Elsewhere in the region, civilians have been killed in Bahrain and Yemen, both client regimes of the U.S., drawing only mild public criticism even as every effort is made by America and its allies to bolster these undemocratic regimes militarily so that they can suppress the aspirations of their people.

Today, there is much hypocritical hand-wringing in Arab capitals that the western coalition's military campaign has gone beyond the original ambit of enforcing a ‘no-fly zone.' In fact, the text of UNSC resolution 1973 of March 18, 2011 is clear and unambiguous. Enforcement action in support of a no-fly zone is only a part of the wider use of force that UNSCR 1973 permits since the resolution “Authorizes Member States … to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”

Anyone familiar with U.N. matters knows that the crucial words in the resolution are “to take all necessary measures.” In the past, those five words have been enough to launch a thousand ships and missiles to distant shores and there was no reason to imagine that France, the U.S. and Britain would be restrained in interpreting and implementing their mandate this time round. Since the insurgent forces are operating in “civilian populated areas,” any military attempt by the Libyan authorities to re-establish control over the country can legitimately be considered a trigger for the West “to take all necessary measures.”

The problem with UNSCR 1973 is not the in-built ‘mission creep' but the fact that it is ultra vires. No resolution can violate the principles and purpose of the U.N. Charter. Article 2(7) is quite explicit: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Customary international law recognises that a sovereign state indulging in genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity cannot hide behind the shield of domestic jurisdiction but it is far from obvious that the Libyan regime — odious, undemocratic and violent though it undoubtedly is — has engaged in acts which cross that threshold. There are civil wars and international conflicts where the number of civilians killed by belligerents has been much higher — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza — but the international community has not treated these as war crimes worthy of intervention. In the absence of some reliable metric, then, UNSCR 1973 cannot authorise something that the U.N. Charter explicitly prohibits.

Turning from law to politics, one might still conceivably argue that some “higher purpose” justifies the western bombing of Libya if there were a reasonable expectation of a happy ending. Like the West's other wars in the wider region, however, its latest misadventure seems destined to run aground. The Iraqi and Afghan experiences demonstrate that establishing a new state, even in situations where the old regime is overcome quickly by military means, is a difficult process. The U.S. is a distant power and can afford to play games with the lives of other regions. But France and Britain will pay for fuelling instability and violence across the Mediterranean. The highest price, of course, will be paid by the people of Libya who have surrendered the initiative for change within their country to the U.S. and its allies and agents. Like the Iraqis who foolishly welcomed the American invasion of their country in 2003, the Libyans who wanted Operation Odyssey Dawn may well end up taking part in a tragedy of Homeric proportions.


M.T. Karthik said...

Mr. Varadarajan:

Remarkable piece here.

You have finally put into terms what has been coming to bear and, more importantly, have expressed it with journalistic accuracy rather than Nationalist prejudice. I really admire your effort. It reminds me of Cesaire Aime writing in Europe in 1950.

There has been a lack of courage among journalists in Europe and the USA. I long for them to read your work which - situated as it is - contains a degree of distance from the points of conflict, while being informed with the best of intelligence from Europe/USA (wikileaks and the net in general) and that of India/South Asia as a result of your work as a journalist. You can say things they know to be true but are unable to write themselves.

It is exceptionally difficult apparently for journalists in "the West" to get this distance and it is perhaps the most important effort. I, for one, blame media consolidation and corporate influence. I miss great writing.

Thank you, again, for your remarkable work, a pathway leading out of the pseudo-historical journalism that dominates the spectrum.

M.T. Karthik

amruta said...

Dear Mr. V:

I'm studying in the US, and am really surprised by how little substantive criticism there is.

It would nice if "liberal" US commentators (including some of my colleagues and fellow-students) would stop hiding behind some smoke-and-mirros gender politics by constantly reminding us how "the women" pushed for this war. Would be nice if they stopped praising Obama's "consultative" military leadership --- because he may not be rushing into battle but he's not refusing to fight. Would be nice, also, if apologists didn't keep saying Obama "had no choice" --- because we know of plenty of examples when he did choose to NOT "assist" citizens/residents of other sovereign nations!

I admire Obama and his presidency for many reasons. However, I didn't think he would succumb to 'realpolitik' as regularly/easily as he has.

Anyways, thanks for this piece. Have shared this piece widely because it's one of the most cogent and succinct critiques I've read about "Odyssey Dawn."

Arun said...

Mr. V

Justice is a rare commodity in this world, and we must satisfy ourselves with what little there is. Irrespective of the West's behaviour elsewhere, they have intervened against a murderous dictator. That them (and others) probably having sold arms to Libya's govt, should put a finger on the scales on the side of the free libyans is not all bad. The people of Libya face a dictator with no compunctions, they indeed did ask for help from the West - they may yet forge a more independent path in the future.
The oil argument here is unconvincing - the West is blamed if it supports status quo or goes against it.
Who would act more selflessly - India , china, russia. The fact of the matter is that West is the devil we know (and love).