Interventionism - Tanvir Ahmad Khan - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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Perched on high moral ground during his election campaign, President Barack Obama promised that he would bring imperial interventions abroad to an end. Of the inherited conflicts, he would wind up the military engagement in Iraq and steer Afghanistan, the theatre of a ‘just war’, to a successful democratic outcome. As to Bush’s demonic obsession with reconfiguring the Greater Middle East, Obama journeyed to Cairo and offered a new deal to Arab-Islamic peoples and a greatly energised Middle East peace process.

High moral purpose invoked in electoral battles is often dented by the realpolitik of the incumbency of power but, regrettably, the gap in Obama’s promise and performance goes beyond the expected dent. The Middle East peace process is in disarray; the Israeli lobby in Washington has brought it to a grinding halt. In Afghanistan, Obama often subordinates a desire for a negotiated settlement to the preferences of military leaders.

Now Libya adds another dimension to the pressures that skew his decisions. There were no imperatives of national interest including Al-Qaeda, the Libyan oil and the dictates of the military industrial complex that demanded urgent American engagement. Admittedly, there were apprehensions of a vengeful Qaddafi inflicting severe punishment upon the rebels facing defeat but then there are other hotspots in the Middle East and Africa that put civilians in harm’s way. It seems that Obama accepted intervention in Libya more in the interest of France and England, ruled at present by leaders with nostalgia for a bygone imperial era, than in American interest.

In this space, I have written about President Sarkozy’s bid to re-position France as a bastion of Western power, a far cry from Francois Mitterand’s concern for the “Third World”. Sarkozy’s vision of a Mediterranean European Zone harbours enhanced French economic and strategic ambitions. The chances of his re-election, however, diminish as the xenophobic National Front, led by Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, lures away a segment of the French Right. A regime change in Libya led by France may arguably reverse this trend. Even after inviting them back, Qaddafi did not give the western oil companies a free run.

Again, Nato will bomb Libya back into the wretched military status of 1911, or worse, and there would be an opening for the French military-industrial complex to sell military hardware worth billions of dollars to a pliant future government in Tripoli. Great Britain is carrying out highly controversial cuts in NHS and education to overcome a grave economic situation and yet it is committing huge sums of money to the regime change in Libya. David Cameron, with whom I share an Oxford college, seems to be an inexperienced new comer to the neo-imperial dreams of the hawkish echelons of the Conservative Party. He is probably hoping to share with Sarkozy the windfall from a pacified or permanently divided Libya.

It will depend greatly on whether the pacification of Libya follows the intended script. With instant air support from the coalition and fresh arms supplies, the rebels are recovering the coastal cities fast but resistance from pro-Qaddafi tribes now being armed by him may prolong the conflict. As it drags on, the aura of humanitarian intervention – “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” – would increasingly evaporate. In the end, even the Arab nations that have supported it may come to view the Libyan episode as predatory western power seizing targets of opportunity as they present themselves or are manipulated to become through covert operations. The Arab spring has already lost some of its innocence. It has become the midwife in the rebirth of military interventions.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: katanvir@

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