Thoughts on Sameness

The Libyan intervention was considerably more controversial than media coverage often let on. The positions of countries aside from the United States and NATO countries were often caricatured or ignored from March through August. Opposition or skepticism of the NATO intervention was often interpreted as ‘support’ for the Qadhafi regime or a cynical attempt to avoid precedent-setting as it might relate to small states with ‘internal issues’ relative to big ones. It is often along these lines that the response of many medium-sized countries to the Libyan crisis (if not the Arab uprisings in general) has been a subject of curiosity for some commentators and observers in Europe and America. Much of this reflects the preconceptions and expectations of liberal writers as far as specific countries are concerned (here one can immediately point to patronizing and moralizing complaints about South Africa’s ‘dithering’ over Libya and the lack of a moral dimension to its foreign policy more generally; or, references to Algeria’s ‘revolutionary credentials’ when wondering about why it was so cool toward the rebel faction during the Libyan crisis). Other times it reflects ideological and political biases — efforts to tar or shame others for their behavior. One ought to step out of the picture and ask, as Imad Mansour does in MERIP:

Middle powers classically fear the erosion of the norm of sovereignty, which is supposed to make states immune to external intervention. Tough resolutions at the Security Council, imposing sanctions or authorizing military action, mean de facto acceptance of great power interference in the affairs of smaller states. Over the long term, further damage to the norm of sovereignty might see IBSA governments themselves facing greater infringements on their domains or the foreign policies they devise in pursuit of their national interests. African critics of the Libya intervention raise pointed questions in this respect: What does the emerging doctrine of “the responsibility to protect” entail? Who will define the doctrine, who will decide when intervention is necessary and who will choose the means? The Libya intervention sets the precedent that the West decides and the rest of the world follows.

Of course, one might argue this ‘precedent’ has long been set (at east in the last couple of hundred years) and that others are increasingly setting new trends and narratives, especially as the relative power of the medium sized countries increases as  large western powers’ recedes or remains constant. Paul Pillar writes a similarly pertinent line in response to the Russian and Chinese veto of Tuesday’s US and European-backed UNSC resolution which threatened sanctions in response to the government crackdown there:

The unfavorable turn in the Security Council proceedings, however, can partly be blamed on the Western governments’ own missteps. The resolution did not get the backing of any of the BRICS, which besides China and Russia also include Brazil, India, and South Africa. The BRICS pointed out that the earlier Western-proposed Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya was supposedly about protecting endangered civilians but turned into a prolonged NATO intervention aimed at overthrowing the Libyan regime. The BRICS say they do not want something similar to happen with Syria. The BRICS have a point. Even if a NATO military intervention in Syria is unlikely, a similar bait-and-switch seems in the making with sanctions. The vetoed resolution hints at sanctions if the Syrian regime does not change its behavior, but Western leaders (including President Obama, after much hullaballoo on this subject in Washington) are talking about changing the regime, not just changing behavior. So the failure this week at the Security Council is partly a price Western governments are paying for two mistakes. One is a disingenuous resolution (and equally disingenuous rhetoric) about their intentions in Libya, and another is confusion about the purpose of sanctions (a topic I have addressed previously, with reference not only to Syria but to other target countries such as Iran).

This is important. Ambassador Susan Rice’s ‘outragedspeech in response to the Sin0-Russian veto called their protestations over precedent-setting and sovereignty and the rest as a ‘cheap rouse’ to keep on selling weapons to the Syrian regime. One should not doubt the commercial motives involved. Their narrow interests, she continued, “may doom the prospects for peaceful protest in the face of a regime that knows no limits”. And the problem with the aggressively moralistic approach to foreign policy becomes clear: if Russian and Chinese reluctance (more like refusal) to move against Damascus is as immoral, dishonorable and worthless what does this say about the American approach to the brutal crackdown in Bahrain, an American client state where repression continues today and where Washington has significantly more sway? The American position there does not contrast starkly with the Russian or Chinese one here. The reader can decide how much more important basing rights for the US Sixth Fleet are as compared to Chinese or Russian interests in Syria (is one  of these interests more valid than the other?). And it is contradictions such as this one which make so many in the middle sized countries dubious about the meliorism of western liberals on human rights issues and in particular when their states adopt the righteous tone. For one of the most effective ways to keep up with reality is to compare what people say with what they do. Middle powers, as Pillar writes, are doing this in the wake of the Libyan crisis and so are other ‘great powers’. Few people, with notable exceptions, can reasonably be under any impression that the United States (or any other major western country, including France), since sitting with easy toleration for the bone-cracking in Bahrain has come up with new habits that have made old wrong melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays. The Saudis are widely seen to believe the Americans ‘dumped’ Hosni Mubarak and that it is prepared to do the same if their monarchy came under pressure from the street. This is is the result of the psychology of particular strains of the Saudi leadership than any reasoned observation of American position on Arab uprisings: there is no evidence of an American willingness, for example, to ‘dump’ anyone especially in the Gulf where Yemen and Bahrain exemplify Washington’s general tendency.

Now consider Rice’s line that ‘this is not about military intervention. This is not about Libya.’ This was meant for Moscow and for Beijing but it is perhaps as relevant for Brazil and for India and for South Africa and the rest with doubts about the credibility of Euro-American efforts to make peaceful (and not-so-peaceful) protest viable. There are not only two skeptical countries on the scene. The Security Council resolutions on Libya had nothing written into them about regime change, though they became the license by which NATO leaders and their sympathizers argued that If our mission is to protect civilians this necessarily means the overthrow of the Qadhafi regime despite the various protest from the African Union and others that the military component be limited to its textual mandate rathe than liberal interpretation and that protecting civilians ought not mean giving air cover for one combatant faction against the other or providing arms to factions in violation of an arms embargo for which the western powers zealously campaigned. The Russian President’s defense of his country’s veto went along these lines in public, omitting commercial concerns as is to be expected (the resolution’s text meant ‘only one thing: our partners at the U.N. Security Council aren’t excluding the repetition of the Libyan scenario, although in private conversations they said that they understand that Syria is not Libya [. . .] The proposed text would have allowed to again resort to weapons.’) Of course the Russians look somewhat preposterous taking this line given their own exploitation of a ‘humanitarian’ grievance as a pretext for their 2008 invasion of Georgia.Still more notable is how Moscow has shifted its position somewhat. One nevertheless would not expect either China or Russia to endorse something like the Tuesday resolution given their relationships with Damascus and their long standing behavior in similar situations.

To those outside the west such maneuvers look just as crude as Russia and China’s to guard their interests in Syria and Burma and Zimbabwe, for example. And the same ought to be the case when observing how South Africa, for example, carries on with its dictatorial and bloody neighbors and partners in Harare and Beijing and previously in Tripoli. All these countries are states, not movements though some position themselves alongside such things when advantageous or otherwise opportune. They are at times disposed to caution or recklessness based on their view of a situation and they frequently commit errors overseas. They are not special, they are not snowflakes or exceptions or masterpieces. That writers favorable to the intervention quote Jacob Zuma mockingly over how the west ‘undermin[ed] the African continent’s role in finding a solution’ in Libya comes from a patronizing double standard which utterly discounts the legitimacy of non-western foreign policy and regional institutions. The Libya intervention got part of its legitimacy — and this is especially true in western capitals — from the fact that the Arab League, or most of it, passed a resolution endorsing a no fly zone there. This was despite the fact of Libya’s more participator membership in the African Union (which Libya’s 2008 presidency served to utterly and visibly debase). Here was a very interesting thing: an institution generally regarded with contempt and indifference by its member states’ peoples and leaders and not generally looked to for credibility or legitimacy by anyone (the Arab League) was regarded as the precise and premier place to get support for a military intervention in one of its member states even as that same member state was more deeply involved and committed to another regional institution with more member states and a more credible set of sub-regional organizations and initiatives and which the western powers of eagerly egged on to take more ‘responsibility’ in conflict resolution and the like (the African Union). But time was of the essence. An ‘African solution’ would take too long and perhaps not give the desired result. The AU had its own conference on Libya — the results of which very few people who were not there cared to register — when the Arabs and NATO and EU and Americans met at Paris to discuss the country’s future. In this sense the AU saw a dent on its credibility and legitimacy less because of its members’ positions on Libya (as moralizers would have it) than because the Libyan crisis exposed just how limited its ability to initiate meaningful collective diplomatic action remains and how willing and capable the western powers are of dividing and ignoring its initiatives, protests and actions. This is compounded by the fact that Libya was not marginal AU member, it was one of its most important financially and politically and that the organizations other key members (South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, etc.) utterly failed to lead or sustain any charge on Libya once the intervention camp had formed in west and in the Gulf. Even leaders in the AU panel group on Libya — notably the Mauritanians — let their fealty to the AU process and to Qadhafi melt off after warm hugs from France and America and the Gulf in the way of loans and infrastructure promises.

It would be gravely naive to have expected anything less than what took place: western nations proceeding with authority based on their might, middle ranking powers wavering, figuring out their way as they have not had to previously or bristling with indigence and the smallest and weakest states sitting as opportunists waiting for the wind to change. If the American entry into the Libyan intervention came less as in response to popular pressure or a conventional material concept of the ‘national interest’ and more the result of maneuvering by lesser powers and obscure and occasionally definite doctrines and urges the same may be said in large part of the Libyan policy of virtually all other states whether they wanted to be rid of or to carry on with Qadhafi. The Libyan crisis illustrated where agency and power lay as the world drags on into a new iteration of jargon about multi-polarity, poly-polarity, responsibilities to protect and multiple sovereignties. And it has illustrated the kinds of prejudices and predilections and ambitions states and their peoples live with in the early twenty-first century. And Libya has shown how similar to the old world order is to the present one, how very much alike the great and middle-sized powers are.