Libya, the Arab Revolution and Western Interventionism: A Case of Opposing Logics?

by Alexander Anievas, Jamie C. Allinson

Despite the re-appearance of the ghouls of ‘humanitarian’ interventions past, opposition to the No-Fly Zone over Libya has been neither easy nor immediately obvious for the left. The reason for this, it should go without saying, is that progressive minded people support the revolutionary movements in the Arab world against the awful despots of that region—of whom the oil-fed, Blair-endorsed and vicious Gaddafi could serve as a personification. The immediate prospect of a massacre in Benghazi and the crushing of the anti-uprising prompted prominent figures of the Left such as Juan Cole and Gilbert Achcar, among others, to forego opposition to Western intervention.[1]
We are now two weeks into the military campaign and the reasons why supporters of the Arab revolutions should oppose it are becoming more convincing. We do not need hypothetical claims that Gaddafi was unlikely to commit a massacre in Benghazi[2] (would intervention be acceptable if he were?) nor the sotto voce insinuation that the Libyan uprising is a foreign plot. [3] Let us accept that the February 17th movement began as a popular revolt, like that of Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. We can also see from his treatment of Zawiya, where even the graves of the revolutionaries were disinterred after Gaddafi’s forces pounded the city, that the fear of a massacre was far from unjustified. The point about the distasteful calculus of saying ‘some Western bombing is fine to stop Gaddafi’s threat to Benghazi’ is that it does not stop there. We must also reckon with the consequences both for the Arab revolution within and beyond Libya.
‘Humanitarian Interventionism’ in Context
The two weeks of the Western attack have demonstrated these consequences for the dynamic of the revolution. Benghazi indeed has been ‘rescued’—for the time-being. But the forces of the Interim National Council seem to follow a regular pattern of advancing thanks to Western air power only to retreat in the face of Gaddafi’s forces. The initial momentum of the revolution politically winning people to its side was lost as Gaddafi’s patronage networks functioned effectively in the centre of the country, forming a block to the revolutionary advance on Tripoli.
The Western attack has only exacerbated this problem, such that the likely outcome is a semi-partition of the country, of the kind that prevailed in Iraq between 1991 and 2003. Saddam carried out some of his worst acts of repression—summary executions of civilians picked at random, the destruction of city blocks by tank shelling, the draining of the marshlands to drive out their inhabitants—under the No-Fly Zone. It did not lead to the ousting of Hussein but eventually to the 2003 invasion. In other words, Western-backed air strikes, historically speaking, do not make or facilitate revolutions. This can only be achieved by the forces on the ground: that is, the revolutionary agents themselves.
At their very best, air strikes can only offer a temporary ‘breathing space’ for the rebels to regroup and consolidate themselves as a counter-force to the regime. At worst, continuing air strikes hinder the revolutionary process in its progressive radicalization thus potentially destabilizing the movement or, worse still, delegitimizing the revolution. For if the rebels do indeed succeed in overthrowing Gaddafi they will be viewed by many ordinary Libyans as (at least partially) beholden to Western interests (more on this below). And here the question of who controls Libya’s vast oil reserves cannot be discounted. The flow of oil has been severely disrupted by the revolution, raising oil prices to their highest level since the financial crash of September 2008. This has no doubt raised the concerns of rulers in the US and Europe.[4]
The Costs of Interventionism: Prospects and Politics
What we may see is a partition between two versions of Gaddafi ‘lite’. Dr Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (PhD, London School of Economics) and his brother are lobbying to rule the western part. The former regime defectors, such as Mahmoud Jibril and Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil, increasingly present themselves as reliable Western allies around Benghazi. On both sides, the Western intervention marginalizes the shabab who originally came out on February the 17th. For those young rebels to persuade at least some of the indifferent or pro-Gaddafi rebels to join them would require social demands unlikely to be conceded by the Western powers in control of Libyan airspace.
Either way, one doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to anticipate that those states involved in the bombings—above all, Britain, France and the US—will expect certain political and economic rewards for their undertaking. And here the domestic politics of the Western countries involved will intervene heavily upon the final outcome in Libya. For we live in an age where the politics of so-called fiscal austerity are paramount, suffusing the domestic politics of all the intervening parties. Thus, the question of who will end up footing the bill for the military intervention in Libya will, for domestic political reasons in the West, likely fall upon the Libya people themselves. Already in the United States, the question of ‘war costs’ have been raised in the domestic debate: while ‘humanitarians’ in the West may indeed support the intervention out of genuine moral outrage at the (potential) losses of civilian life, the issue of who will bear the ultimate costs of their actions will likely be deferred by the politicians seeking re-election to those on the receiving end of Western ‘humanitarianism’.
Incoherent Empire: Confronting the Liberal Way of War
This domestic context also helps explains much of the strategic incoherence characterizing the approach of the Obama administration. [5] President Obama has made clear that America’s political aim is to oust the Gaddafi regime. However, he defines the military rationale behind the air strikes as one of ‘protecting civilians’. [6] If this is a case of differentiating between long-term strategy and short-term tactics, it’s not a very good one, as the two are anything but complementary.
As we have witnessed over the past two weeks, continuing strikes are unlikely to result in the removal of Gaddafi from power. In fact, their main effect thus far has been to transform a popular uprising into a protracted civil war. Without sending in ground troops or some other form of more direct military intervention this stalemate in Libya is unlikely to end, thereby perpetuating a situation which could last indefinitely; a consequence of which will be more human suffering and further loss of life. [7]
If the Western powers then decide to intervene and occupy Libya to oust Gaddafi, we are left with another Iraq or Afghanistan scenario whereby the Western powers will likely try to impose a new status-quo order irrespective of the demands made by the Libyan rebels. In either case, the scenario is bleak: continued civil war perpetuated by more air strikes or the imposition of a Western-dictated government more or less subservient to their interests.
Revolution Compromised?
All this is, of course, to say nothing of the flagrant hypocrisy of the Western countries’ selective use of intervention in the region: why Libya and not Yemen, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia? One need not be a cynic to point out that the selection of intervention in Libya has more to do with particular economic and geopolitical interests of the intervening Western states than a purely humanitarian concern for civilian suffering. If so, then one must also expect that whatever the outcome of the Libyan intervention, these same self-serving interests will guide the eventual form any post-Gaddafi government will take. As such, the popular legitimacy of such a government would be immediately compromised.
Worse still, the intervention tars the other Arab revolutionaries with association with Western sponsorship—a slur already being deployed in Syria and elsewhere. The intervention in Libya has had the effect, probably intentional, of covering up the Saudi invasion of Bahrain and the consequent reactionary repression of the sort that we might have expected had Gaddafi entered Benghazi. The moral accounting upon which supporters of the bombing rely must also reckon with the current and future victims of Arab reaction, should the Western powers succeed in their aim of turning the revolutionary tide in a direction more favourable to their interests.
Once begun, military interventions, like revolutions, take on momentum all their own. They follow their own laws and logic. Despite even the best of intentions, sometimes you don’t always get what you wish for.
Jamie C. Allinson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh, specializing on the Middle East. He is a corresponding editor of Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory.
Alexander Anievas is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, and temporary lecturer at the Pembroke-King’s College Programme. He is an editorial board member of Historical Materialism and the Cambridge Review of International Affairs. He recently edited the book collection Marxism and World Politics: Contesting Global Capitalism (Routledge, 2010).
[1] Juan Cole ‘An Open Letter to the Left on Libya’, Informed Comment, 27 March 2011,>; Gilbert Achcar ‘Libya: a legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective’, Znet, 25 March 2011,
[2] See, for example, Seumas Milne ‘There’s nothing moral about Nato’s intervention in Libya’, The Guardian, 23 March 2011,
[3] For example, Alain Badiou ‘An open letter from Alain Badiou to Jean-Luc Nancy’, Verso Blog, 4 April 2011,
[4] For an interesting, if somewhat conspiratorial, analysis of the role of oil in the conflict see Michel Chossudovsky ‘“Operation Libya” and the Battle for Oil’ and ‘All Out War on Libya: Surge in the Price of Crude Oil’, WorldNews Trust, 18 March 2011,
[5] On the ‘strategic incoherence’ of this latest variant of the liberal way of war see Tarak Barkawi ‘No-fly zone: Clouding words of war’, Al-Jazeera, 28 March 2011,
[6] Full text of Obama’s speech at
[7] See the judicious analysis in Tim Holmes, ‘Libya Intervention—An Audit’, New Left Project, 28 March 2011,

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