As Colonel Gaddafi ruthlessly slaughters his opponents some are calling for a revival of “humanitarian intervention”—a military response by other countries under the pretext of safeguarding human rights.
The grounds for intervention vary.
Some of the support comes from horror at Gaddafi’s actions. Some Libyan exiles and some supporters in Egypt call for some sort of intervention—a no-fly zone for example. While understandable, at the very least this takes the revolution in Libya out of the hands of the Libyan people.
More ominously, neoconservative Project for a New American Century supporters have written a letter to US president Barack Obama urging military intervention to stop a “moral and humanitarian catastrophe” and “end” the Gaddafi regime.
For others in the Washington political establishment, the real danger comes when Gaddafi falls—“security” experts predict a failed state where Al Qaeda will proliferate.
The academic Bernard Lewis argues Arabs are “simply not ready for free and fair elections”.
The former British ambassador to Libya, Sir Richard Dalton, argues for “armed humanitarian intervention” to stop post-revolutionary disorder and secure the oil.
And the right winger Jon Gaunt has advocated sending the SAS in to secure “our” oil interests, with a subsidiary remit of “protecting” Libyans.
But the lesson of Iraq is that you can always make things worse. No matter how bad a regime is, occupation and war kills and maims even more people. In Iraq, the US-led war killed approximately one million people, and created four million refugees.
Gaddafi is brutal, but he would have a job matching that record. Also, British and US governments would like to intervene to stamp their authority on the regional system and its resources.
And there’s also the idea, disproved in Egypt and Tunisia, that democracy is the product not of people power but of military force by Western states.
Imperialist powers that have lately been allies of Gaddafi (as well as Ben Ali and Mubarak) are now supposedly a human rights agency.
This is an old idea with a blood-drenched past.
The history of humanitarian intervention really came to the fore during the 19th century. Then liberals like British philosopher and colonial official John Stuart Mill argued for colonialism on the grounds that it was a civilising mission.
They justified imperialism in liberal language that stressed the supposed benefits for the colonised.
In the context of the Cold War and decolonisation, the US propped up puppet regimes with military violence on the grounds that these regimes offered modernisation against the “totalitarian” alternative of communism.
That justification fell apart in Vietnam.
Since 1989, formerly left wing and liberal intellectuals looked to the US to stop “genocide” in the Balkans and beyond.
The idea was that in a world divided between democracy and various nationalist and religious currents, the US was on the side of democracy.
People in the Third World supposedly needed more US intervention, not less. The result was a series of bloody interventions in Yugoslavia, then Afghanistan and Iraq.
What “humanitarian interventionists” ignore is that the imperialist forces they call on have always been the most consistent opponents of democracy and human rights.
And that before their very eyes, populations are proving quite capable of freeing themselves.