Rebels with a pause

The DLR pattered along the corridors of power yesterday, giddy as a foal, to talk to some people about Libya. We can’t tell you what was said – not because it’s terribly secret, but only because it’s terribly boring in its detail and geekery.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government bods were all very pleased with themselves. As far we could tell from their propaganda, it truly was a Panglossian conflict, the best of all possible wars. A little like the Goldilocks of wars: not too cold/long-lasting so people aren’t all bored of it; not too hot/short so the National Transitional Council had time to build capacity and assume power.

We have our doubts over this favourable and revisionist view of what was, for much of the time, a cobbled-together, ad hoc, stumbling military coalition. Nevertheless, six months in from UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and it’s true that Libya teeters on the brink of a new future, the latest beach upon which the wave of the Arab spring washes, bringing with it the seaweed of democracy and the floundering fish of political confusion.

Questions still remain about the Gaddafi regime. Like, erm, where’s Gaddafi? Is he next to Wally, because we can never bloody find him? Did he really lie about the death of his adopted daughter in 1986, the cheeky bugger? (Little-known fact: Gaddafi was warned of the impending US air strike, and perhaps survived because of the warning, by Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi. Boom! FACTED!) Is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi transmogrifying from bookish nerd to Islamic Rambo (Islambo?) every day? And what the devil happens now?

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, you are definitely born again hard. Hell, your dad may even allow you to serve as a rifleman in his beloved army.

But enough of the practical questions; the DLR cares not for your worldly inquisitions, but rather for the theoretical and esoteric. Hence, what we are asking ourselves is: where does this leave the concepts of national sovereignty and ‘liberal interventionism’?

In the wake of the fall of Tripoli, Phillip Bobbitt, a US academic whose name always makes the DLR think of an entirely different Bobbitt, penned a decent piece in the Evening Standard (we know! The Evening Standard! Home of thoughtful international relations theory texts, apparently) detailing the concept of preclusive intervention.

Ah, preclusive intervention. How very 1990s. Remember those carefree, ideological days, when foreign ministers could talk openly about ‘ethical foreign policies’ and not be laughed out of the House of Commons? When it was believed that the overwhelming military superiority enjoyed by the West after the Cold War could be utilised for positive benefits. Not just invading countries, but invading countries to help them. Lucky, lucky countries.

After the shitfight that was Somalia in 1993 (coincidentally, we watched Black Hawk Down this weekend and we were reminded what a terribly racist film it is) and Yugoslavia in 1992-99, preclusive intervention no longer seemed such a good idea. Sure, there were supposed successes, like Sierra Leone, but they were largely forgotten as other wars dragged in the major powers for grinding years.

Is it possible that Libya, in its brevity, mission success (so far – anything could happen yet), relative lack of civilian lives lost by NATO ordnance and total lack of NATO fatalities (yay! no white people died!) could reinvigorate the desire for interventionism?

Bombing the bejesus out of Libya: the model for future intervention?

We think not. But that’s not because the concept of preclusive interventionism has withered. In fact, as the Libya situation demonstrated, the principle of national sovereignty enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, has always been something of a chimera. In the imperial era, European states obviously only thought it applied to each other and not those countries they were colonising. After the Second World War, the UN was founded on the basis that intervention could be justified if a threat to peace and security was identified, as happened in the Korean war. Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Libya are all countries that have been on the receiving end of US military power. And that’s just in the past decade.

No, it’s not that interventionism isn’t desirable any more. Western powers would still like to mould the international order to their liking, and feel good about those occasional military operations that could be conceived as morally based. It’s just that we can’t afford it any more. Libya was a special case: a clear possibility of civilian casualties by a dictator that has committed various acts of violence against Western populations over the past 30 years (we make no judgement on whether they were justified or not), with some oil resources, a very shonky military, a rebellion in process and just a short hop over the Mediterranean. That kind of gimme doesn’t happen very often. All it takes is a little nudge (or a few thousand sorties and some direct military advice over six months) to send it over the edge and have a lovely, friendly democracy in its place. And you don’t even have to invade.

But beyond Libya, and the odd stabilisation missions that will crop up in Africa, Western states, even in the guise of NATO or the EU, just don’t have the funds (or stomach) for intervention and subsequent extended state-building enterprises any more.

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