The Great Libyan Distraction

by | 5 Apr 2011

The entire Libyan conflict of the last month – the civil war in Libya, the U.S.-led military action against Gaddafi – is neither about humanitarian intervention nor about the immediate supply of world oil. It is in fact one big distraction – a deliberate distraction – from the principal political struggle in the Arab world. There is one thing on which Gaddafi and Western leaders of all political views are in total accord. They all want to slow down, channel, co-opt, limit the second Arab revolt and prevent it from changing the basic political realities of the Arab world and its role in the geopolitics of the world-system.

To appreciate this, one has to follow what has been happening in chronological sequence. Although political rumblings in the various Arab states and the attempts by various outside forces to support one or another element within various states have been a constant for a long time, the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi on Dec. 17, 2010 launched a very different process.

It was in my view the continuation of the spirit of the world revolution of 1968. In 1968, as in the last few months in the Arab world, the group that had the courage and the will to launch the protest against instituted authority were young people. They were motivated by many things: the arbitrariness and cruelty and corruption of those in authority, their own worsening economic situation, and above all the insistence on their moral and political right to be a major part of determining their own political and cultural destiny. They have also been protesting against the whole structure of the world-system and the ways in which their leaders have been subordinated to the pressures of outside forces.

These young people were not organized, at least at first. And they were not always totally cognizant of the political scene. But they have been courageous. And, as in 1968, their actions were contagious. Very soon, in virtually every Arab state, without distinction as to foreign policy, they have threatened the established order. When they showed their strength in Egypt, still the key Arab state, everyone began to take them seriously. There are two ways of taking such a revolt seriously. One is to join it and try thereby to control it. And one is to take strong measures to quash it. Both have been tried.

There were three groups who joined it, underlined by Samir Amin in his analysis of Egypt: the traditional and revivified left, the middle-class professionals, and the Islamists. The strength and character of these groups has varied in each of the Arab countries. Amin saw the left and the middle-class professionals (to the extent that they were nationalist and not transnational neoliberals) as positive elements and the Islamists, the last to get on the bandwagon, as negative elements. And then there is the army, always the bastion of order, which joined the Egyptian revolt late, precisely in order to limit its effect.

So, when the uprising began in Libya, it was the direct result of the success of the revolts in the two neighboring countries, Tunisia and Egypt. Gaddafi is a particularly ruthless leader and has been making horrific statements about what he would do to traitors. If, very soon, there were strong voices in France, Great Britain, and the United States to intervene militarily, it was scarcely because Gaddafi was an anti-imperialist thorn in their side. He sold his oil willingly to the West and he boasted of the fact that he helped Italy stem the tide of illegal immigration. He offered lucrative arrangements for Western business.

The intervention camp had two components: those for whom any and all military interventions by the West are irresistible, and those who argued the case for humanitarian intervention. They were opposed very strongly in the United States by the military, who saw a Libyan war as unwinnable and an enormous military strain on the United States. The latter group seemed to be winning out, when suddenly the resolution of the Arab League changed the balance of forces.

How did this happen? The Saudi government worked very hard and effectively to get a resolution passed endorsing the institution of a no-fly zone. In order to get unanimity among the Arab states, the Saudis made two concessions. The demand was only for a no-fly zone and a second resolution was adopted opposing the intrusion of any Western land forces.

What led the Saudis to push this through? Did someone from the United States telephone someone in Saudi Arabia and request this? I think it was quite the opposite. This was an instance of the Saudis trying to affect U.S. policy rather than the other way around. And it worked. It tipped the balance.

What the Saudis wanted, and what they got, was a big distraction from what they thought most urgent, and what they were doing – a crackdown on the Arab revolt, as it affected first of all Saudi Arabia itself, then the Gulf states, then elsewhere in the Arab world.

As in 1968, this kind of anti-authority revolt creates strange splits in the countries affected, and creates unexpected alliances. The call for humanitarian intervention is particularly divisive. The problem I have with humanitarian intervention is that I’m never sure it is humanitarian. Advocates always point to the cases where such intervention didn’t occur, such as Rwanda. But they never look at the cases where it did occur. Yes, in the relatively short run, it can prevent what would otherwise be a slaughter of people. But in the longer run, does it really do this? To prevent Saddam Hussein’s short-run slaughters, the United States invaded Iraq. Have fewer people been slaughtered as a result over a ten-year period? It doesn’t seem so.

Advocates seem to have a quantitative criterion. If a government kills ten protestors, this is “normal” if perhaps worthy of verbal criticism. If it kills 10,000, this is criminal, and requires humanitarian intervention. How many people have to be killed before what is normal becomes criminal? 100, 1000?

Today, the Western powers are launched on a Libyan war, with an uncertain outcome. It will probably be a morass. Has it succeeded in distracting the world from the ongoing Arab revolt? Perhaps. We don’t know yet. Will it succeed in ousting Gaddafi? Perhaps. We don’t know yet. If Gaddafi goes, what will succeed him? Even U.S. spokesmen are worrying about the possibility that he will be replaced either with his old cronies or with al-Qaeda, or with both.

The U.S. military action in Libya is a mistake, even from the narrow point of view of the United States, and even from the point of view of being humanitarian. It won’t end soon. President Obama has explained his actions in a very complicated, subtle way. What he has said essentially is that if the president of the United States, in his careful judgment, deems an intervention in the interests of the United States and the world, he can and should do it. I do not doubt that he agonized over his decision. But that is not good enough. It’s a terrible, ominous, and ultimately self-defeating proposition.

In the meantime, the best hope of everyone is that the second Arab revolt renews steam – perhaps a long shot now – and shakes first of all the Saudis.

Republished with Prof Wallerstein’s kind permission
Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. For rights and permissions see


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