A No-Fly Zone Is Counter-Revolutionary


As 2010 rolled into 2011, revolutionary tremors were being felt across North Africa and the Middle East. In Tunisia, a multitude of protestors successfully ousted longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Soon after Ben Ali’s deposition, the Egyptian masses brought President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule to an end. Before Tunis or Cairo had time to stabilise, the media turned its collective gaze to Libya, where armed oppositional forces were seizing their country from the once ironclad grip of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. By 15 March Gaddafi’s forces were striking back with a vengeance. 

The conflict divided Libya in two as the opposing belligerents took hold of major cities along the Mediterranean coastline. Gaddafi’s militia held command from Tripoli in the west whereas the rebels set up base in Benghazi to the east. Gaddafi promised massacres and the liberal media took him at his word. By the end of February, coinciding with UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s parliamentary request for a Libyan "no-fly zone," the US Navy began positioning ordnance ships off of the coast. On the evening of 19 March, coalition forces commenced their military operations, deploying cruise missiles and airstrikes against Gaddafi’s regime. On 31 March NATO took control of the no-fly zone.

In the lead up to intervention the usual flag-bearers of full tilt and fire-powered crusade were quick to vocalise their support. Christopher Hitchens argued that, with Libya, the United States "has the chance to make up for its pointless, discredited tardiness with respect to events in Cairo and Tunis". Tunisia and Egypt were political events engineered by and for the people — Libya, on the other hand, could be a revolution waged by the people but, ultimately, for the United States and her allies. With the assistance of NATO firepower, the Libyan rebels would stand a far greater chance at overthrowing a wretched dictator who presents himself both nationally and internationally, in Hitchens’ admittedly fine phrase, as "an all-round stinking nuisance and moreover a long-term enemy".

Little opposition came from the left and in its resounding absence the liberal populists took a step to the gun-toting right. Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd conceded "this is the right direction to go because we cannot afford Gaddafi to have yet more resources to bring about mass violence against his own people". Bob Brown of the Greens shared that very humanitarian sentiment before signing off with a line that would have sounded at home in a B-grade action flick. "Its time is up," he said of the Gaddafi regime. D-Day had arrived.

Anyone who claims to express solidarity or who even sympathises with the Libyan revolutionaries and their struggle against Gaddafi’s regime should be sceptical about the "no-fly zone". To be precise, the very suggestion of a military intervention, despite its humanitarian posturing, should have been met with forceful opposition. Why was that not the case?

The near unanimous desire for "urgent action" — driven by a facile line of reason not dissimilar to the familiar formula, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" — resulted in an ideological knot that has effectively bound the minds of far too many. This knot finds its tightest formulation in the (usually percipient) thinking of Guy Rundle. According to Rundle, any opposition to the no-fly zone is "a refusal of solidarity, a breach of it," and anyone who finds himself in that oppositional position has sacrificed the properly emancipatory spirit of revolutionary politics to anti-imperialist idealism. "Once you understand that the choice is between revolutionary solidarity and anti-imperialism," he writes, "the other questions become secondary."

That "the other questions become secondary" gives the whole game away. The role of the leftist critic has always been to ask those secondary questions, and to see that their rarely pleasant answers receive the airtime they deserve. With Libya, those questions pertain not only to the dubious motivations behind the no-fly zone but also, and more significantly, to the immediate and long-term consequences of military intercession. By looking at one immediate and one long-term consequence it would appear as though, with Libya, the compromise of anti-imperialism is, despite what Rundle has to say, the abandonment of revolutionary solidarity.

To call in an international military presence in "solidarity" with the rebels is to transform a revolutionary struggle into civil war. This is because revolutionary triumph is primarily the result of an ideological war of position — only after the success on that front should revolutionaries engage in a militarised war of manoeuvre. What made the Egyptian uprising so effective was that the military seceded from the government to align its strength with the people — that the war of position came before military manoeuvres.

In Libya, the national army was defecting and Gaddafi had to import mercenary thugs from the south. However, the coalition strikes galvanised military support in favor of Gaddafi and, with that backing, the man himself has committed to the long haul. It is because of the no-fly zone that whatever potential remained for a properly revolutionary war of position is now over — what remains is a locked-and-cocked Mexican standoff, which has no foreseeable resolution without massive carnage.

If the rebels are successful in deposing of Gaddafi with the aid of NATO, what we will likely see is another sad and spineless display of parliamentary democracy being upheld as the barometer by which to gauge success. Though the imperial states were "tardy" when it came to Tunisia and Egypt, it was hard to miss the belatedly predictable presence of US President Barack Obama as he wagged his finger and urged a "credible transition" to "genuine democracy".

Irrespective of what could very well be the sordid motivations behind all of this — which have been best catalogued by none other than Noam Chomsky — it strikes me that the no-fly zone is little more than a counterrevolutionary imposition that lends itself to the unnecessary spilling of more Libyan blood. This is why the left should categorically oppose the no-fly zone and in unequivocal terms: to allow its unchecked imposition and enforcement is to set a dangerous precedent.

When the superpowers begin speaking as though in solidarity with a "revolution" it is then we can be sure that all forces are mobilising to impose another "no-fly zone." What we are seeing here is revolution, the ultimate ideational tool of the left, being coalesced into a lexicon of duplicitous euphemisms and political weasel words.

More than a few of the historically informed commentators have compared Libya to past instances when intervention or the failure to intervene has manifested atrociously. Iraq has been the favoured exampled but there’s another hitherto overlooked comparison: Haiti 1791-1804.

The Haitian Revolution was born of a sugar plantation’s slave revolt and culminated in the elimination of national slavery and the establishment of a republic. Here, unarmed men fought off armed forces that had undoubtedly prepared for that day and by doing so they secured a victory whose outcome was dictated on their terms. What’s more is they did it all without a no-fly zone.

If the lesson gleaned from Iraq is that interventional force might not be a good thing regardless of the intention, the lesson to take from Haiti is that solidarity can very well operate in the form of fidelity, which means supporting the political independence and the autonomous future of revolutionary events. This is something we should do — and we can do it by opposing destructive interventions.


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