The intervention of the United Nations into the Libyan struggle, while welcome at one level, and a game-changer at another, will also change the nature of any victory which ensues. The struggle for change in Libya commenced as an internal struggle, not unlike others seen in recent weeks in the Middle East, most recently Egypt, where the victory was won by non-violent revolution within the powers of the people. True democratic reform has taken place because it was the voice – and actions – of the people which prevailed. Libyan citizens, encouraged by what they had seen in the neighbouring country, took up the struggle for change. The time seemed right to bring the long rule of Colonel Gaddafi to an end. However, Gaddafi not only resisted the voices, he responded with force against his people, and the people were threatened.
At one level the response of the United Nations to sanction military intervention by other nations is understandable. Gaddafi was not going to go quietly, if at all, and the cost in terms of lives was set to escalate. Having stood by and watched such brutality in other countries unfold without intervention, and with an escalating and tragic cost in lives – both in terms of number of deaths and in the number of refugees created, the argument for intervention was made, and accepted. But in so doing, the nature of the struggle has changed.
The use of such a powerful force against the Gaddafi regime, nominally in enforcement of a “no-fly zone” changed the game significantly. No longer is this simply a battle for political transformation rooted in the power of the Libyan people, it has become a battle of forces far greater. Any victory is no longer an ideological victory based in arguments for a freer and fairer Libyan society, it has been shifted into a battle based on who can unleash the greatest force for the longest time. Paradoxically, an act taken to empower the Libyan people may well undermine the very case they are trying to make – that true political power is rooted in the voice of the people, not in the tyrannical exercise of force.
If Gaddafi manages to survive this assault, his position will be strengthened, and an argument can be made that the coalition has effectively undermined the moral authority of the arguments made by the Libyan people in their rebellion. If the UN coalition succeeds in removing Gaddafi from power, there consequently exists a moral claim upon whoever assumes power in his stead, one which has laid a foundation of power which still rests upon violence. The game will have been won, but a far different game than envisaged at the outset. It is no longer only the struggle of the Libyan people, it is now a battle between Gaddafi and the world. Any victory will thus create a power vacuum, echoing problems we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. And with the additional factor in the equation – Libya’s oil reserves – at the heart of Western interests, a new power struggle emerges in the wake of any regime collapse.
We may well ask about the alternatives. Should we have let this struggle play itself out as an internal struggle, just as the world allowed to happen in Cairo? Do we not believe in the power of the people’s voice – democracy – enough to let this struggle continue? Is the presence of oil the real catalyst for action, or a genuine and altruistic commitment to protect the Libyan people who began this uprising and were struggling to see it through? These are complex questions. But it is of concern that we turn so readily to the use of force to solve such problems… if such actions really do solve them at all. Is the ultimate answer to all tyrants only that we have the bigger weapons? What happens if they manage to gain this upper hand?