Libya and the end of the neo-colonial argument

There are a lot of good reasons for the US to hesitate before intervening in the civil war in Libya (though very few for not actually doing it) but surely the dumbest is the oft-voiced fear that to do so will be regarded by the “Arab street” — a phrase that, mercifully, the wave of popular revolutions should oblige us to retire — as some sort of neo-colonial aggression.  The usual example cited to buttress this claim is the reaction to the Iraq war, but that was an American military invasion undertaken entirely at American initiative that had been an American policy option for a decade before the pretext came along to launch it and, in the final analysis, largely served American domestic political interests.  It was done in the name of the Iraqi people, to be sure, but the Iraqi people themselves did not make any large-scale demonstration of their wish for an American invasion.

The situation in Libya is very different: the impetus for American (or international) intervention has come entirely from the Libyan people and it is widely recognized that the US does not have an existing policy-looking-for-a-pretext to invade Libya.  Whatever action is undertaken — from a no-fly zone to surgical strikes to arming rebels — would be an attempt to give the Libyan people a fighting chance, not to fight on their behalf or in their name.  No doubt, some demagogues in the region will try to beat up some controversy about it but they are on the wrong side of the wave of revolutions sweeping the region.  For decades, American policy in the Middle East has tended to aid dictatorship; to act now in response to a direct request from Libyans engaged in a large-scale revolt would be one of the few genuinely popular acts of American policy in the region in years.

As a side note, there are many significant, game-changing steps the international community can take that do not involve putting boots on the ground or even risking substantial military engagement.  For one, the Libyan air force is not large to begin with and the easiest way to erode its capabilities is for Malta to establish an open door policy for any Libyan fighter jet that wishes to land to evade orders to bomb protesters; early in the revolt, two Libyan fighter jets landed unannounced in Malta and this was treated as an illegal rather than honorable act.  Also, Gaddafi’s principal advantages over the rebels lie in his access to money (to buy loyalty, pay mercenaries, etc) and materiel (arms, planes, etc) but both of these could be neutralized through very limited international bombing campaigns targeting a few key locations.  Everyone, including the New York Times, understands that the Gaddafi’s stronghold is the Bab al-Azizia compound: take it out.  If Reagan could get away with unilateral surgical strikes against Gaddafi in 1986, surely the international community could do so now given that most of the eastern half of the country has begged for it.

Click here to read my article about Libya for Travel + Leisure.

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