In evaluating calls for intervention, the first question we might ask is how the Libyan case differs from recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, where intervention of this type was not invited. In both of those countries authoritarian leaders who were erstwhile Western allies were pushed out when their military institutions refused to turn on protesters. But situated in countries long allied with the West, the self-preservation calculation of those military institutions might have been quite different than in the Libyan case. When Ben Ali and Mubarak became focal points for opposition groups and liabilities to regime maintenance, the military leadership in each country may have had reason to believe that their institutional interests were better served by transition. The continuing role of both the Tunisian and the Egyptian military in overseeing transition speaks powerfully to this calculation. By contrast, the Libyan military, embedded in an isolated regime without strong ties to the West, may not expect as secure an institutional trajectory in the event of a transition.
Indeed, despite various defections — including those by ministers, diplomats, military officers, and air force pilots — we have yet to see the collective decision on the part of the Libyan armed forces to champion the demands of protesters. In fact, there is little indication of whether the Libyan armed forces have the institutional capacity for disciplined collective action. . . .
The first test of any would-be interventionist is this: do no harm. And there is very little evidence that direct intervention in the Libyan case could meet this test. For instance, calls for a no-fly zone by Libya’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. (drawing on the Iraqi precedent of the 1990s) and an air campaign by others (drawing on the Kosovo precedent from 1999) would surely fail this test. . . .
Intervention in support of regime change in Libya presents the West with a window of opportunity to shape the transition of a relatively oil-rich North African country, potentially replacing an irritant with a new client. Where the emphasis of Western interests in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases has been on stability, in the Libyan case the goals will likely be rapid transformation. For instance, in a post-transition Libya, individuals with ties to the West or experience with energy markets might emerge as favored interlocutors, identified with international approval as “moderate” and “appropriate.” To invite forceful international intervention in the last days of the current regime might empower external interveners to make such choices, potentially at the expense of the preferences of the Libyan people. Particularly in light of how little is known about the current political dynamics among opposition groups within Libya, international intervention may entail a particularly high risk that the narrative framing of events will be captured by external actors in ways that are adverse to local Libyan choices.
Laila Shereen Sakr is a media artist known as VJ Um Amel. Her work critically examines cyber ecologies in a post-9/11 world. The text above is an excerpt from Aslı Ü. Bâli and Ziad Abu-Rish, “On International Intervention and the Dire Situation in Libya” (Jadaliyya, 23 February 2011).
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