Missing: Agency and Alternative in the Anti-Intervention Critique

Throwback. 

Article originally published here in Jadaliyya  on March 23, 2011.

Over 7 months later, with Libya Gaddafi-free and NATO operations over, the comments and my responses are very interesting for me to go back and read.

Particularly this portion of a response to a comment:

“At the end of the day, everyone has to reconcile their pragmatism, greater strategic opinion (for whatever interest), and implications for others with their conscience. Ultimately, I’m just not sure I can personally reconcile standing against the NFZ at this point, when I believe in my very core that had it not been enforced, Benghazi wouldn’t be standing. For whatever comes as a result, I will have to reconcile that with my conscience as well.”

Missing: Agency and Alternative in the Anti-Intervention Critique

The Libyan people’s revolution against Muammar al-Gaddafi has been called the February 17th revolution. It has been named – like Egypt’s January 25th revolution – after the day on which protests were called for demanding freedom and an end to a brutal and long-standing regime. In Libya, however, the protests erupted before schedule. They began two days ahead of time in response to the arrest and imprisonment of Fathi Terbil – the lawyer representing the families of the victims of the Abu Salim prison massacre. For years, Terbil and these families have demanded the release of the location of the corpses of those 1,200 individuals killed. They have filed suits and protested on a regular basis demanding accountability for the government’s brutality in Abu Salim. When they took to the streets on February 15th to demand the release of the man who had defended their cause, they found the citizens of Benghazi at their side. The protesters were immediately met with violence. By the 17th, Libyans were painfully aware of what they faced when they took to the streets – but they marched on regardless, even as they knew no cameras would be documenting their courage.

Since the 15th, Gaddafi and his sons have responded with ruthless and merciless violence against the people of Libya. Onlookers watched with horror, shock, and helplessness. Even in the most violent moments of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes during Tunisia and Egypt’s revolutions, there seemed to be a deeper sense of optimism and hope towards the developments as we watched. In Libya, pride gave way to horror as courageous demonstrators faced an unbridled brutality. Mercenaries flown in from other African countries whose governments Gaddafi had spent years courting, videos of burned bodies of soldiers who refused to shoot at civilians, mass graves in Tripoli, stories of massacres in al-Zawiya, hospitals under attack and medical personnel murdered, and a liberated east aching but unable to aid their countrymen in the west. Imagine a town – al-Zawiya – that now when its name is uttered has the effect on Libyans that Deir Yassin had on Palestinians in 1948. Like the reports of Deir Yassin for Palestinians, the stories of al-Zawiya and other towns from early weeks have caused thousands of Libyans to flee, in addition to migrant workers, causing a massive humanitarian crisis on Libya’s borders with neighboring countries. The archive of collective memories of horror seems to be amassing as fears spread that Misrata is the current target of the Gaddafi forces’ butchering of women and children. Al-Jazeera and others reported today that Gaddafi forces have taken control of the hospital and set up snipers on rooftops throughout the town.

In the first days and even weeks, much of the uprising and Gaddafi’s response occurred with little to no international press in Libya. The news stations covered what they could – the announcements by tribes turning against Gaddafi, resignations by Libyan diplomats around the world, defections of pilots and military leaders. But again, like Tunisia and Egypt, the human stories were smuggled out of Libya on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, the live online broadcast of radio stations and citizen news. Organizations like the Libyan League for Human Rights, the Libyan Youth Movement, and many others led the charge, and we all scrambled to keep up. Eventually, of course, the international news media arrived in the liberated east, and after Gaddafi had cleaned the blood off the streets, in Tripoli, as well. Often times, the rumors from the revolution have proven as credible as the news itself. What is crucial in this particular instance is that for Libya, these “rumors” were more than whispers among a mass movement. They were screams to the world to watch what was happening.

People have asked me what is happening with defections, with the momentum we saw in the early weeks of cities being liberated in the East. What happened is Gaddafi responded to what he saw as betrayal with vengeance. Reports from Libya now are that the pilots’ families in Tripoli or other cities under Gaddafi control are under house arrest and the threat of slaughter with word of the pilot’s refusal to follow orders. The momentum has been suppressed by a military campaign executed by Gaddafi against the Libyan people to “take back” Libya house by house, street by street, and the now infamous, zenga zenga, causing the opposition to lose not only vast stretches of territory between east and west, but massive numbers of pro-democracy fighters.

A few days ago, Operation Odyssey Dawn, the actions by coalition forces to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973, began with French airstrikes on Gaddafi tanks and forces advancing on Benghazi. Gaddafi’s attack on Benghazi had begun, but as of now it has been stopped short of the cleansing he had promised. For weeks, academics, intellectuals, and others – many of whom are well intentioned and with a desire to see success for the Libyan opposition – have written against the possabilities of this resolution and the actions that have now followed it, even in the face of calls from the Arab League and within Libya for a no-fly zone (NFZ). Reasons include but are not limited to “themoral bankruptcy of the West with respect to the Arab world,” oil market exploitation by the West in a post-Gaddafi Libya, and my personal favorite–falling into Gaddafi’s trap and reinforcing his narrative of resistance to foreign entities.

All of these arguments against intervention are understandable and I share them, at least in principle. However, I challenge all those who cite them in arguments against the NFZ that is now being enforced to answer me one question. What would your articles have said when Benghazi turned in to Dresden? Would you still be talking about reinforcing a narrative if the city lay in ruins and tens of thousands were slaughtered? It is difficult to fathom the Libyan people thanking the world for not falling in to Gaddafi’s trap (a narrative and trickery which Libyan’s have not embraced). It is even more difficult to fathom the leftist academic approach of addressing moral bankruptcy by allowing Gaddafi to have his trap both ways – by either keeping a NFZ from being considered (from fears of aiding his rhetoric and allowing him to bomb cities) or by the West attributing to his narrative (even as they keep cities from being bombed). What are we then led to believe, is the alternative just as morally bankrupt of a narrative that Libyans actually do not know what is best for them?!

It is complicated and frightening. No one wants Libya, or any nation, to become another Iraq. Though I do not believe Libya in 2011 is Iraq in 2003, something Juan Cole has pointed out. It is infuriating that the Security Council that passed Resolution 1973 is the same Council that sat idly by as Israeli drones rained death on Gaza in 2008/9. There is no denying the contradictions. It would be simplistic and short-sighted to position those in support of the NFZ as “morally righteous” and those against it as “anti-revolution.” This is simply not the case. But it would be just as simplistic and short-sighted to nor hear the Libyan voices screaming for help from under the weight of their siege.

Or is it perhaps that the halls of leftist academia worry that Libyans themselves do not comprehend the implications of a NFZ? If so, then the attempt to deconstruct Orientalism and colonial patriarchy has in this instance only functioned to erase Libyan agency altogether. What does the Libyan call for a NFZ ultimately mean then? These are men, women, and children who understand what a foreign presence means. And despite all fears and debates, they called for aerial protection and support. I, for one, will neither deny them that right, nor withhold my support for the decision by the international community to grant their request.

The rhetoric that intervention will lead to a secession by the East and sow division between Libyans is based more in Gaddafi’s narrative than the one coming from Libyans in the East, who insist on Tripoli as their current and future capital. Some have said that implementing an NFZ will mean ground troops whether the Libyans foresee it or not. I simply don’t agree that it’s a given, and to be clear I do not and would not agree to or advocate for an extension of the NFZ to mean the deployment of ground troops. In the same vein of the agency discussion, Libyans, both from the National Revolutionary Council and citizens interviewed or writing online, have been explicit in their public statements that they do not welcome foreign troops on Libyan soil. Further, though I share concern over intentions and claims by them, I don’t think that the Western nations involved, many of whom are reeling from budgetary crises at home and have been obsessed with garnering Arab support for their actions, want another Afghanistan or Iraq on their hands. For those whose reaction to the NFZ is the “slippery slope” argument, I push you again – what is your alternative? Freezing assets and accounts? Done and ineffective in the short term; Gaddafi is proving to have enough of a cash supply to finance his crimes. Arming the rebels? A legitimate possibility (and already occurring via Egypt’s border), but still immediately ineffective in the face of Gaddafi’s helicopters, planes, and tanks in order to prevent massive bombing campaigns and heavy shelling. The same is true for the immediate impact of disrupting communication and jamming signal.

Ultimately, regardless of where you stand on the issue of the no-fly zone and air strikes in Libya, I beg of you to not treat the victory of this revolution as a foregone conclusion. I do believe Gaddafi’s days are numbered, more so now due to the UN resolution and the NFZ. However, let’s make something perfectly clear: Gaddafi would not have been the first or last ruler to massacre thousands and stay in power. Before you exert all of your energy  denouncing the NFZ and its understandable problems, I urge you to weigh the human component not only of imminent massacre, but the massacre that comes after a Gaddafi victory. The faster pace and lesser bloodshed we witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt is not necessarily transferrable to Libya, nor will it be for many other countries in the region.

As these populations rise up and demand their freedom and dignity, they face an uphill battle and yet, they march on. They do so, not in the bubble of a national vacuum, but in the recognition that they want more not only for themselves and their countrymen, but for their relationship with the world. The Libyan Youth Movement, the League for Human Rights, the National Revolutionary Council, and individual youths from around the country are not sending Tweets, Facebook status updates, and creating websites and YouTube videos because they’re tech savvy and addicted to social networking. They do it so we read, so we listen, so we might raise our voices with them, because they envision a place for themselves and their nation in the world beyond the one they have been told is where they belong. In this moment of confusion and fear for many who write and consider their positions, I cannot but help to turn to the Libyans on the ground for clarity and I urge you to push yourselves past the cookie cutter anti-interventionist arguments that continue to be posed and spend at least an equal amount of time listening to those on the ground as much as the time reading Op-Ed pieces of Western publications.

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