Well, as was almost undoubtedly to be expected, international involvement in Libya when it came, came late, chaotic, contradictory and confused- – and was then conducted in the usual cack-handed fashion. The UN resolution was announced, but there was then a fatal delay in acting on it. Gaddafi took the opportunity to announce a ceasefire, which confused everyone, while pushing forward as far as possible with tanks, and getting into the outer suburbs of Benghazi.
The tanks were, by and large, fought back by rebel forces in Benghazi, with some captured, and those further out in the open desert were finally bombed, by various forces. Anti-aircraft and other defence facilities in Tripoli were also hit, from submarine missiles, and there were reports of government buildings being hit, and one of Gaddafi’s compounds. There were almost certainly civilian casualties.
The whole operation — largely involving the US, with smaller roles played by the British, French and Lebanese air forces — quickly became mired in confusion, as some of the Arab signatories to resolution 1973, Qatar principally, piped up and said that it hadn’t agreed to any ground strikes, merely to the imposition of an no-fly zone. Turkey refused to authorise the full establishment of the no-fly zone. Slick it wasn’t.
Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to surmise that an all-out assault on Benghazi was averted, and that the rebels were able to consolidate their position. Quite aside from averting what would most likely have been an appallingly bloody takeover of a rebel city, the attacks have also given the rebel forces a chance to consolidate and regroup. That may well prove to be decisive in the God knows how long to come.
Had some sort of decisive supporting attack come earlier, it may well have allowed the revolution to spread rapidly, and reach the western part of the country. There was no chance of that happening multilaterally, but it might have been hoped that Nicolas Sarkozy could have been pushed, through appeals to vanity, electoral desperation, residual anti-Americanism, possibly genuine notions of French republicanism, and the flattering attentions of Bernard-Henri Levy to strike first and fast.
Quite aside from conferring some military advantage, the crazed unilateral nature of the act would have put the irrelevant question of international law well and truly to one side.
Now, this late and confused action may well have exactly the effect critics charge it with — split the country in two, create an unsustainable stalemate, turn the eastern part into a client of Western nations, etc.
Ultimately all of that may happen, but it still does not even slightly discredit the correctness of the action, or more exactly, of arguing for it from the left. At every level, from the ground up, to the transitional council, there was a strongly expressed desire for international military support.
That cannot seriously be doubted now, and voices raised against it in eastern Libya were clearly in a minority. With a genuinely radical uprising under way, and a request from it for solidarity and assistance, the only possible radical and moral act was to accede to it, and make good on notions of solidarity professed for years and decades.
This latest military engagement has, to be sure, refashioned the politics of military involvement in sovereign countries afresh. The four “camps” (pro/anti war x right/left) were further shattered and recombined. If nothing else, it may have put the old ghost of “guilt by association” to rest once and for all — all weekend on the UK rolling news, right-wing commentators came out against Libyan involvement in language virtually identical to that being used by the Stop the War Coalition — who could in any case draw little broader support, with many of the new student, etc, left grouped around the “anti-cuts” campaign appearing to be in favour of military action, tacitly or otherwise.
The anti-war/anti-imperialist left did not cover itself in glory in this debate — indeed it was riven with debate about what to do when an actual revolution calls upon you to help in a way that you don’t want to, i.e. by support of imperial powers. There were various ways to try and wiggle out of that conundrum, the most discreditable of which was to falsify the situation, with arguments ranging from the demonstrably wrong (“the rebels don’t want our involvement”), to the surreal (“the rebels are winning! The West will simply hold them back!”)
There were a few challenging arguments, most particularly as to whether the West had made the process something that was “all about us”, something that was certainly in evidence in the renewed discussion of humanitarian blah blah blah “our boys” in the newspapers. But ultimately the Libyan rebels, the Libyan people, had made it about us, at least in part, when they had asked for our help in very specific terms.
White people who had spent the past decade wearing keffiyehs suddenly found 19 different reasons why the couldn’t do the one thing that was being asked of them at a time when it really mattered, an act that had to be wrapped up in increasingly archaic and metaphysical theories of imperialism, to render them palatable.
For anyone who though that Libya was one of those rare opportunities where there was a chance to find real solidarity with a people rising up, the refusal of it for reasons of allegedly superior wisdom had the feeling of a final act. There was something utterly bizarre about Stop the War Campaign and the SWP marching against the military action, as an actual rebel city erupted in relief and joy and renewed determination upon its announcement. But, no doubt, this engagement will make fools of us all in the end.