Libya revolts: A convergence of interests and values

Libya revolts: A convergence of interests and values March 24, 2011
A defining moment

It happens once every blue moon: the convergence of Western military action with Arab and Muslim public opinion. The last time we witnessed such convergence was during the US-led interventions in the Balkans, which stopped an ethnic cleansing and eventually brought peace to a troubled region of the world. Contrary to assertions from some, Libya 2011 is not Iraq of 2003. Whereas the war in Iraq lacked any international legitimacy, the military intervention in Libya has legal authority in the form of UN Security Council resolution 1973. In addition, enforcement of the no-fly zone in Libya also has the support of the Arab League, symbolic as that support may be. But most importantly unlike 2003, there are no mass demonstrations either in Arab or Western capitals opposing another Western military adventure in yet another Muslim majority country.

Lack of opposition should not be mistaken as lack of concern. The history of Western military interventions in the region has been largely perceived as neo-colonial imperialism. The fact that Iraq remains a bloody mess and Afghanistan a quagmire adds to the anxiety. And yet, the hope that has sprung from the peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, gives reasons to believe that military intervention in Libya, as abhorrent as that idea may be, was the right thing to do in order to thwart the brutality of yet another Arab dictator. Something fundamentally has changed in the Arab and Muslim world. The rest of the world is now being forced, albeit reluctantly, to contend with that reality.

Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, US Senator John Kerry gave voice to the optimism being felt by many despite lingering concerns:

If liberation can be translated into lasting democracy, then the new Arab awakening will carry a vital message: simply, that ordinary people everywhere have the ability to determine for themselves how they are governed. The developments in Egypt and Tunisia also represent a dramatic blow against the extremism that we have been struggling with this past decade or more — a blow against extremism that we could not have dealt ourselves.

Senator Kerry went on to say:

But just as the Berlin Wall could not be rebuilt, so we know that the old order of the Middle East cannot be restored.

To stop the restoration of the old order, military intervention in Libya became necessary. If the Gaddafi regime had overrun Benghazi, as they were poised to do, the Arab spring could have prematurely ended amidst deep suspicion that the West could have stopped the massacre but chose not to. This would have further emboldened the brutal repression already underway from Yemen to Bahrain. In Yemen, the defection of a senior military leader provides hope that if Western powers abandon their realpolitik and finally align their interests with their values, not only the people but also the extant power establishment may reject their brutal overlords.

Michael Gerson, speechwriter to former US President George W. Bush, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

When a government engages in genocide, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity — effectively waging war against its own citizens — other nations have the right and duty to intervene. In Libya, this abstract norm became a basis for action. The Obama administration deserves credit for its part in establishing this precedent.

The Arab spring has offered a Sputnik moment for US foreign policy. It appears that President Obama is slowly warming up to the idea that transformative change not only requires moral leadership of words but unfortunately necessitates the use of force when force becomes the only way to stop crimes against humanity. Rwanda still haunts us.

The reticence of emerging democratic powers such as Turkey, Brazil or India, to join hands in this effort remains a source of concern. While negotiations remain the preferred way to end this standoff, but Gadhafi’s intransigence coupled with his threat to go door-to-door to clean out “rebels” offers scant hope for a peaceful resolution.

The extraordinary convergence of Western policy and Arab/Muslim public opinion needs further cementing. Senator Kerry wants to introduce legislation to financially support, “new and fledgling democracies in the region.”

Senator Kerry asserts:

We ought to be helping governments reform their security sectors, building transparency into the fabric of government ministries, strengthening the rule of law and helping leaders to incorporate the views of their public in the day-to-day work that they’re engaged in.

Parvez Ahmed is a former Fulbright Scholar who teaches at the University of North Florida and is a regular contributor to

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