Progressives and the left are having a hard time dealing with western military intervention in Libya. Two principles are clashing head on. The first is: military intervention must be avoided as the history of such intervention has always led to disaster for the Arabs, with death and misery on an unimaginable scale. The suffering of Libyans and Iraqis, under Italian fascism and the illegal war on Iraq respectively, come to mind. The second is: supporting a popular uprising against a despot intent on using every weapon available plus mercenaries to crush a revolution for justice, democracy and freedom. Those people have sought help from the only powers capable of giving assistance, western powers, through the UN; how could we not help!
At the start of the Arab revolution in Tunisia, the West was hesitant in its support of the revolutionary young. Remarks such as "Mubarak is not a dictator" by Joe Biden, or the French offer to the Tunisian President of sending French advisers and equipment to help him deal with demonstrators, underscored their support for despots; not much concern for human rights there. As far as they were concerned, the model of controlling the Arab world and its resources through dictators that they could bribe and control, had served them well. It is much easier to control a despot who rules by instilling fear in the people than having to deal with the messy business of democratically elected leaders and institutions.
Western powers, then, quickly realised that what was happening in the Arab world was far more serious, and that the Arab masses had broken through the barriers of fear that had imprisoned them for decades. William Haig, the British Foreign Minister's, remark that this was an important moment in the history of the region, and the West needed to be on the right side, is a testament to the shift in western attitude.
The West has always been adept at changing its model of exploiting the Arab world. It started with direct occupation and colonisation of Arab countries following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. When it became costly and unworkable to suppress revolutions and rebellion among the people, the West moved to exercise control through carefully chosen puppet leaders with sham democracies. All the monarchies in the Middle East are examples of this model. Army officers espousing Arab nationalism wanted real independence, and through coups and revolutions assumed power in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The West continued its interference, and attempted to manipulate and cajole these leaders into toeing the line, and if they did not, other coups were engineered to bring in more compliant rulers. An example of this is the CIA inspired coup in 1963 that removed Brigadier General Qassim from power in Iraq, bringing in the Ba'ath Party and culminating in Saddam's Iraq.
Others with time became corrupt dictator-rulers for life and groomed their sons to take over when they died. Imprisonment, torture, and massive networks of secret police and informers created terror and fear among the population, and that worked until the start of the Arab revolution in Tunisia. Now we are at a point in history, with the West realising a new model is needed if it wants to retain some control of the region. The revolution sweeping the Arab world has forced the West to change its attitude. This is an important point progressives need to take account of when deciding the least bad option. It renders less important negative historical precedents of military interventions, and in any case this one explicitly excludes boots on the ground.
It seems to me that the progressive cause is not served if the group supporting military intervention according to UNSC1973 and the group opposing it conduct their debates with intolerance and rancour. Let us be honest, this intervention could go wrong, it could escalate to boots on the ground (unlikely), ending up causing more deaths and misery than non intervention. I hope, for the sake of the Libyan people, that these doom laden scenarios are wrong. Or, the optimistic outcome, more likely in my view, is that what has been done so far could result in the collapse of the regime from within. The recent defection of the Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa is an encouraging sign. It must also be admitted that western intervention, regardless of its motives, has saved Benghazi, a city of nearly a million people, from untold carnage and misery as promised by the chilling words of Gaddafi.
Both sides of this debate are working on the balance of probabilities, in coming down on one side or the other. I believe that all of us on the left of politics are motivated by humanitarian considerations; the manner of our debate should reflect that.
There is, of course, another important factor that drives the opposition to western military intervention. It is this: what will be left of this glorious Arab revolution in Libya after the West has crawled all over it with advisers, the CIA, and other intelligence services?
On the other hand, what would happen if the revolution in Libya were allowed to be crushed and Gaddafi won? What covert actions might he take against the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia? What lessons would the remaining despots and dictators learn from Gaddafi's use of unrestrained force against his own people?
Here is where both sides of the progressive divide could come together, to campaign to restrict western intervention to saving civilian lives from a despot hell bent on using any means to stay in power. The Libyan people must be given the space to choose their own government free of interference and pressure from the West. Helping the Libyan people achieve that is a worthy cause for progressives and the left to work for.