Archive for the ‘war and peace’ Category

My new post on openDemocracy:

It is said that the Brexiteers have the identity side of the debate sown up. The British, or at least the English, do not feel European. We have our history as a proud, island people – they, on the Continent, have very different traditions. It is remarkable how this myth has taken root, although the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish so obviously share common linguistic, cultural and indeed political roots with other Europeans, and when the whole recorded history of our islands has been so bound up with the Continent. It is particularly outrageous since so many British people have given their lives over the last century, not so that we can retreat into Little England but so that Europe can be free and democratic.

Britain’s post-imperial delusions have been the main reason for blindness to this history. When the Common Market was first proposed, many on the left not only saw it as a capitalist club, but believed that Great Britain remained powerful enough to stand alone as a social democracy, or at least that the renovated Commonwealth could provide sufficient international support. The French president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, is generally credited with puncturing these illusions (which Thatcherism had already undermined) with his speech to the Trades Union Congress in 1988. However the ground had really been broken by the remarkable movement for European Nuclear Disarmament (END) which was launched in 1980, and above all in the speeches and writings of E.P. Thompson.

Edward Thompson was the great historian of the English working class and of those quintessentially English radical thinkers, William Morris and William Blake. He had famous spats with compatriots whom he saw as insufficiently attentive to ‘the peculiarities of the English’, and with a French philosopher whose grand theory seemed, to him, insufficiently grounded in the very English medium of empirical reality. And yet his political passion as a leader of END was not just to end the Cold War, or to remove nuclear weapons, but to unify Europe. Indeed he saw European unity, achieved through popular movements from below as well as through agreement between states, as the key to peace and disarmament.

Unlike some younger disarmers, Edward saw a direct link between Europe’s armed liberation from fascism in 1944-45 and the peaceful liberation from the Cold War blocs which END proposed. The first liberation was very personal to him, and not only because at the age of 20 he had fought through the Italian peninsula in the last year of the world war (he had very mixed feelings about the military experience, explored in his moving essay,‘The LIberation of Perugia’). More importantly, his elder brother Frank had been executed while fighting with Bulgarian resistance fighters in 1944, giving his life, as Edward saw it, for a free and democratic Europe.

In the early 1980s, Britons like other Europeans faced another existential threat, compared to which the worst failures of today’s EU bureaucracy pale into insignificance. ‘We Europeans are packed into this small continent,’ Edward noted, while the Warsaw Pact and NATO targeted multiple nuclear warheads at each and every city. (Some of the atmosphere of the time was conveyed in the recent TV drama, Deutschland 83.) Starting from a British base, Edward and his comrades pursued a single-minded strategy not just of linking the burgeoning West European peace movements with each other, but also of engaging these movements with the pressure for democracy in Eastern Europe. This goal set END apart from those in CND who saw removing nuclear weapons as the ultimate goal, and put it on a collision course with Stalinists who objected only to western nuclear systems.

It was a visionary strategy, set out in Thompson’s 1981 lecture, Beyond the Cold War. When first proposed, there were millions protesting NATO missiles on the streets of West European capitals, but apart from Solidarity in Poland (primarily a free trade union, and crushed by a military coup in late 1981), Eastern Europe had only small numbers of open dissidents. Many of them were suspicious of western peaceniks. Yet the end of the 1980s saw millions on the streets of Eastern European capitals, calling for democracy and bringing an end to the division of Europe in essentially the way that Edward and END foresaw. It helped, of course, that Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the Soviet Union, and that he and Ronald Reagan began a rapprochement that was unimagineable in 1981, but both of these developments were partly enabled by the peace movements.

After the dramatic revolutions of 1989, not even Margaret Thatcher, and certainly not the British Labour Party, could withstand the European tide. The new Europe had many flaws – new nationalist parties replaced civil society movements in the east, the west helped foist privatisation on the former Communist countries, NATO expanded and increasingly alienated Russia, and a currency bloc was launched which could not withstand the full-blown financial crisis which spread from the United States in 2008. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, the European idea was strong. The German and French governments even stood out against George W. Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Edward Thompson died in 1993, much exercised by the terrible new wars in the Balkans. The new Europe he envisaged was certainly much more than the EU of the national leaders and bureaucrats, of whose limitations Yugoslavia was an early indication. But their EU expansion was only possible because of how the popular movements ended the Cold War, very much as he had hoped and foreseen.

Doubtless Thompson, if he were alive today, would rail against the shameful failure of the EU to live up to its obligations to refugees and the vindictive policies of the Eurozone towards Greece. I am sure he would excoriate David Cameron for his abdication of Britain’s responsibility for Europe’s refugees, and I can imagine a withering dissection of the Prime Minister’s ‘renegotiation’ of migrant workers’ rights.

But Thompson’s vision leaves no room for Britain’s turning away from Europe to a fantasy mid-Atlantic or neo-Commonwealth position of the kind floated, typically unseriously, by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The slogan of the progressive pro-EU campaign group, Another Europe is Possible, sums up what Edward was saying in the 1980s in his campaign against the Cold War division of the continent. We have to remain part of the European Union to make a better kind of Europe possible.

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The west must prioritise civilian wellbeing in any intervention: my new post on Policy Network

There are three sectors of the conflict with Isis – the war zones of Syria-Iraq, the regional states which provide most of the backing for the wars and where most refugees are based, and western Europe where refugees now aim to come and whose cities Isis is attacking.

There are also three levels of the conflict. The armed conflict is now spreading from the war zones to Europe. The civilian experience of harm is massive in Syria-Iraq, the refugee camps and the Mediterranean, and now shocking in Europe as hundreds are massacred. Finally, in the political-media conflict, Isis uses mass death for propaganda purposes while western governments try to produce responses that will satisfy their populations, amid saturation coverage and moral panic.

We cannot ignore how the intersecting wars in Syria and Iraq involve local armed actors as well as Isis: the Syrian, Iraqi and (covertly) Iranian states, other Syrian armed groups, Iraqi Shi’ite militia and Hezbollah, and Kurdish forces. Wider international interventions are not mainly anti-Isis, but support local actors: the Iraqis and the Kurds against Isis and the Syrian regime (the west), and Bashar al-Assad against the armed opposition including Isis (Russia).

Interventions are driven as much (if not more) by political-media strategies for domestic audiences. Hence David Cameron’s UK government prioritised the drone assassination of Mohammed Emwazi, following Barack Obama’s example with the killing of Osama bin Laden. Even The Guardian allowed the ‘Jihadi John’ story to swamp the simultaneous Kurdish breakthrough in cutting the road between Raqqa and Mosul, Isis’ two main cities.

Both stories were, of course, eclipsed by Paris. Many hype the latest massacres as a turning point in the conflict. They certainly represent a significant turn in Isis strategy. Paris was the first western capital to be hit since London in 2005, and now it has happened twice in a year. It follows the downing of the Russian airliner and massacres in Ankara and Beirut, which have not had the same western political impact.

The French bombing of Raqqa will do little to stop future attacks, but it helps François Hollande look like he is rising to the occasion. Sadly, his declaration of ‘war’ has unmistakeable echoes of George W Bush’s after 9/11, which set the scene for the fateful invasion of 2003, to which the birth of Isis can be traced.

Clearly Isis needs to be stopped. Intervention that actually helps manifestly more humane forces can be justified. The problem is that Iraqi and even Kurdish forces have been implicated in atrocities – there are reports of Sunni homes burnt as the Kurds liberated Sinjar – while Assad is causing far greater suffering than Isis.

Western bombing itself causes civilian casualties, as the US killing of patients and staff in a Médicins sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan reminded us. Such ‘accidental’ massacres are a systemic part of the contemporary western way of war, based on ‘risk transfer’ which protects military personnel (in their bombers and drone command centres) at the expense of civilians.

Some western missions successfully avoid civilian death, as France seems to have done so far in Raqqa. However their de-facto Russian allies – French and Russian navies are now cooperating – are less careful, having apparently caused serious casualties in Raqqa and bombed hospitals in other opposition-controlled areas.

No ‘clean’ war is on offer, whether by western bombing or from local allies on the ground. British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is right, therefore, to be cautious about military action. However that caution needs to be set in terms of an active response to Isis atrocities, which he has not achieved.

A progressive response needs to focus on the level of civilian harm in all sectors and on all forms of harm. We need a comprehensive strategy to prevent and alleviate civilian harm.

Airstrikes may have a role in supporting Kurdish and other anti-Isis fighters, but they do not offer a direct answer to the threat to civilians in European cities. The answer is less dramatic than explosions in Raqqa: better intelligence and policing and joining them up within and across European states.

In Europe, moreover, the largest number of much more helpless victims of Isis and Assad are those arriving to seek sanctuary. The left should shame governments of wealthy countries like Britain which refuse to take their share of those who arrive in our continent. As the French former captive of Isis, Nicholas Hénin, has pointed out, nothing will upset Isis and undermine the credibility of their recruitment as much as effective compassion for their Muslim victims.

We must also, however, address the situation of refugees still in the Middle East. We must make their situation more tolerable (as Cameron claims to be doing – but we could do more). But we must also providing safe routes to asylum in Europe – our international duty and the only genuine alternative to drownings, much as governments which fear the UK Independence party or the Front National will try to avoid it.

Finally, we must address the situation of civilians in the war zones. We should explore the scope to create and defend generally safe areas, in conjunction with Kurdish and other non-Isis oppositionists, although it is not clear where this could be done. We should increase international attention to their plight and continually emphasise that leaders of the Syrian regime, Isis and other forces need to face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Since even the worst political settlement would probably be less awful for civilians than the present war, we must seek such a settlement. In that context, but not militarily, western governments do need to work with Russia.

If Paris is to be a turning-point, let it be one in which we finally come to terms with the situation which not only Assad, Russia and Iran, but also western allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel have helped to create – and indeed the west itself with ill-conceived policies in the Middle East over many decades. At the political level, let us respond by prioritising civilian wellbeing all round –this, rather than any domestic political posturing, must be the sole motivation behindmeasures that are genuinely needed to support the overthrow of Isis in Syria-Iraq.

Citing my theory of risk-transfer war, Israeli social scientist Yagil Levy analyses in The Washington Post how – despite an increase in Israeli casualties in its 2014 attack on Gaza compared to 2008-9 – Israel transferred the risks of its campaign even more to Palestinian civilians than in the earlier conflict.

Posted on openDemocracy.net The Ukraine and Gaza crises alike demonstrate the risks of aggressive policy based on short-term calculations. Vladimir Putin and Binyamin Netanyahu’s war-as-politics invites damaging long-term consequences.

The slaughters in Ukraine and Gaza have one thing in common. Both result from governments authorising violence which is overwhelmingly motivated by domestic politics and appears almost gratuitous from a strategic point of view. Such policies promise short-term domestic popularity, but risk losing international credibility and producing serious blowback. Vladimir Putin is now finding this out. Binyamin Netanyahu should take note: the blowback for Israel could be far more serious.

Putin’s nemesis

Putin began his capricious military intervention in Ukraine to offset the humiliation of the Maidan protestors’ overthrow of the kleptocratic president Viktor Yanukovych, the day after Russia had endorsed the European Union foreign ministers’ deal for a gradual transition. Putin’s initial intervention secured total control over Crimea with its Russian naval bases, though these (like Russian speakers in Crimea) had never seriously been threatened. Putin, emboldened by a success which played to the nationalist gallery, then promoted the transformation of eastern Ukrainians’ political opposition to the new Kiev regime into armed rebellion, and followed up by sending Russian officers and weapons and encouraging Russian as well as local activists.

The strategy had the domestic effect of boosting Putin’s popularity. But it imposed a high cost in life and disruption on the people he claimed to be helping, provoked great western hostility, and did not stop Kiev gradually reasserting some control.

Now, however, the shooting-down on 17 July of a Malaysian Airways plane with 298 international travellers on board – to all appearances by pro-Russian separatists – raises the stakes to an entirely new level. This outrage can fairly be painted as the outcome of Putin’s adventure and is leading to worldwide condemnation of his regime. This could have serious consequences for Russia’s global economic as well political position. In the longer run it could certainly translate into domestic political costs for Putin.

Netanyahu’s gamble

Where Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government is concerned, it almost certainly knew that the three teenagers whose kidnap led to its army’s rampage through the West Bank were already dead. More children were killed in the army operation, houses blown up and hundreds arrested (including many previously released Hamas supporters). The government definitely knew that, in response, Hamas would have every reason to escalate its rocket attacks. Partly to keep extreme right-wing, pro-settler elements within the governing coalition, Netanyahu calculated that Israel’s public, outraged by media hysteria over the murdered teenagers, would rally to whatever violence its military inflicted, not just on Hamas, but on Palestinian civilians.

There are conventional military elements to Israel’s attack on Gaza, but it is difficult to dignify them as strategic. These amount to inflicting short-term damage on Hamas’s economic and political as well as military infrastructure. However as the obscene euphemism “mowing the lawn” suggests, these gains are recognised as short-term. In any case the starting-point of this campaign, and its larger purpose as it continues, is surely to punish Palestinians as a whole for the delectation of an Israeli public opinion desensitised to dead bodies which are not their own. In this purpose, too, the gains can only be short-term, as once Gazans emerge from the rubble they will surely be radicalised by the new outrage that Israel has committed on them. The signs of this are already apparent.

Netanyahu’s blowback problem is not just Hamas: its political reinforcement is a predictable consequence of what he is doing, just as the continuing dominance of the aggressive Israeli right is a predictable consequence of Hamas’s rocket campaigns. The real problem is the extreme instability of the wider Middle East, with long-term wars raging in Syria and Iraq, in which the stability of Jordan – absolutely crucial to Israel’s own – is increasingly at risk. The gain to Israel of the brutal new, anti-Hamas Egyptian government is small in comparison.

Israel could find itself, not too far ahead, facing an opposition far worse than Hamas, which cannot be contained by the quick-fix punitive expeditions that Israel has practised in Gaza and Lebanon in the last decade, and which are easily sold to a domestic public and tolerated by western governments. Indeed these assaults, which Israelis now think of as routine, could contribute to a radicalisation beyond Gaza, and beyond as well as within Israel-Palestine, which will genuinely threaten their security in a way in which Hamas can never do.

Israeli adventurism: the real stakes

This is Netanyahu’s real gamble. For small, encircled Israel, dependent on United States and western support, the stakes of adventurism are far higher than they are for a great power like Russia, secure in its own borders and facing no real military threats. Israeli leaders, relentlessly focused on the short term (as their unstable electoral-coalition system dictates) could be making a historic blunder by ignoring the strategic advantages of a settlement with the existing Palestinian political forces – including Hamas.

The outlines of a deal, overwhelmingly on Israel’s terms even if requiring some difficult concessions, have been on the table for a long time. Peaceful Israeli and Palestinian states alongside each other, with cooperative economic arrangements and even a fraction of the western aid now buttressing Israel’s military stance, would offer a bulwark of stability which military occupation and violent collective punishment can never provide. In ten or twenty years’ time, the world might ask how Israeli leaders could possibly have indulged this dangerous temptation of short-term military gratification at the cost of a political and strategic solution.

The problem of war-as-politics

Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) famously claimed that war is the continuation of Politik by other means. The word is usually translated as “policy”, but sometimes as “politics”. In the 21st century, however, war is increasingly the continuation of domestic politics, with geopolitical policy and military strategy subordinated to domestic goals.

Since Margaret Thatcher salvaged her deep domestic unpopularity by successfully avenging the Argentine invasion of the Falkland/Malvinas islands in 1982, governments have increasingly factored electoral calculations into military decisions. Western leaders over the last three decades – like Netanyahu today – have been tempted by quick-fix wars with minimal political risks, in which few of “our” soldiers are killed and the life-costs are mainly transferred to innocent civilians in the war-zone. (see The New Western Way of War, where I call this “risk-transfer war”).

Such wars have worked only for short periods. In an extreme but relevant case, George W Bush’s hubris in declaring “major combat over” in Iraq in 2003 was exposed by the unending, low-level genocidal civil war that continues to this day. Despite Tony Blair’s protests, this war did not just introduce “terrorism” and al-Qaida to Iraq, but has led ultimately to ISIS and the new “Islamic State”. Even electorally, although Bush may have scraped re-election, his presidency ended in ignominy and the defeat of his party, while Blair has of course become a pariah in Europe.

Netanyahu should heed not only Putin’s, but also Bush’s nemesis. He may keep his show on the road for a while longer as a result of the latest assault, but the new, much more aggressive and unpredictable Islamists which Bush’s policies helped to unleash are not far from Jordan and even Israel itself. It is a mark of the extreme short-termism which characterises Israeli, like most governments’, policies that few are thinking of the dramatically different stakes that would arise if the Palestinian crisis should be connected to the wider instability, as the Iraqi crisis has been dramatically connected to the Syrian war.

The Gaza war is meant to be, like Israel’s and other western wars, a contained exercise. But what if Clausewitz’s law of escalation should assert itself in currently unforeseen ways?

A new post on openDemocracy

It is now two years since the “Arab spring” spread popular protest across the one world-region still overwhelmingly dominated by authoritarian rulers, and thus heralded a major new phase of the democratic upheavals that have transformed the world over recent decades. These largely peaceful mass movements achieved remarkable, if qualified, successes in Tunisia and Egypt: qualified, because their transformation remains conflicted, their aspirations to fundamental political change have been contained, and their very impact has released many new social problems that they are not yet in a position to solve.

In two countries, moreover, non-violent protests were largely overtaken by violent campaigns. In Libya, activists took up arms after peaceful protests were brutally repressed,  improvising an insurgency that the west first saved from defeat and then aided to victory; and in Syria, an initially peaceful uprising equally met with repression slowly turned into a destructive and messy civil war that ended hopes of peaceful change and, after two years, offers an increasingly bleak prospect. If Libya can be counted a success of sorts, Syria’s suffering represents a terrible failure that casts a shadow over the hopes for democratic change in the entire Arab world.

The experiences of Libya and Syria, in the context of the Arab spring as a whole, pose questions about the relationship between violence and non-violence in political change, and whether alternative roads and results were possible:

* Could the original peaceful Libyan opposition have survived Gaddafi’s violence and re-emerged, either in the short or medium term, to remove the regime without taking up arms?

* Why did the Syrian opposition, which followed a peaceful course much longer, finally succumb to violence? Did this shift genuinely improve the chances of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime? If it did, has it been worth the additional suffering caused to so many people? Was there another, better path that could have been based on expanding the non-violent opposition?

Choices and costs

The questions are too complex for short or easy answers. But what these intractable situations make clear is that peaceful movements have offered no guarantee of change, and that violent opposition has succeeded only with substantial external help, which brings its own problems. This very lack of clarity is an invitation to revisit the fundamental choice between peaceful and violent methods in political change. In this respect, a timely academic study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan – Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict – offers valuable insight.

The authors use the methods of political science to test the strategic alternatives of violent and non-violent resistance across 323 cases from 1900-2006. They both attempt to quantify “successes” and “failures” (defined according to the stated goals of resistance movements, and discernible evidence that their actions have contributed to their achievement) and develop in-depth case-studies and nuanced arguments that reflect the diversity of historical experience. This multi-method framework raises its own questions, from the inevitable difficulties faced by generalists in understanding and classifying many different examples (and some of the authors’ specific judgments are certainly open to debate); but the approach seems broadly successful in neutralising any fundamental challenge to their arguments and conclusions.

Chenoweth and Stephan argue that the “participation advantage” of civil resistance ensures it works better than armed resistance. The evidence, they say, shows that non-violence is capable of mobilising large sections of a population against an authoritarian regime, of undermining regime support, and even of securing significant defections from within the elite. The broader support gained by non-violent movements typically increases the costs to regimes of resisting change, and repression against non-violent movements is much more likely to backfire. But if such movements fail to achieve sufficient breadth, they may fail to achieve their goals (as in Burma prior to the recent opening).

The authors also recognise, however, that armed resistance can work when it is more successful in mobilising popular support, or (a crucial factor) when it has external support. Non-violent movements often benefit from some limited types of international backing, but rarely depend as much on the latter as do armed movements. But the success of arms often carries a further cost in the aftermath of change, say the authors, in that armed movements are much less likely than non-violent ones to lead to the establishment of a democratic regime.

In comparing violent and non-violent campaigns in the same national contexts, the study shows that the latter are invariably more effective both in mobilising larger numbers of people, and generally so in achieving their objectives. But the authors are sceptical of the argument proposed by some scholars that a violent campaigns can act as a complement to larger social movements – a sort of “radical flank” that enables “moderates” to win; rather, they say, violence is likely to harden regime support that might otherwise crumble in the face of peaceful protest. They note that while violence is often justified as a “last resort” where non-violence is supposed to have failed, it is rare that movements resorting to violence have come near to exhausting the possibilities of non-violence.

At the same time, the study does not fully address the question of whether taking up arms cuts off possibilities of peaceful change and damages wider non-violent movements. Why Civil Resistance Works appears to have been completed in the initial phases of the Arab spring, since when the hard cases of the Arab spring have got even harder, so it cannot tell activists in Benghazi or Aleppo or what they should have done or should be doing.

Yet the work offers a sobering basis for reflection of the present course of events. The bloody stalemate in Syria’s civil war, and the recharging of the ill-judged “war on terror” in the linked Malian/Algerian crises, make it even more relevant to question the primacy of violent methods as a way to achieve change. They also highlight the need to ask what might have been, if rigorous and imaginative policies of non-violent resistance had been universally maintained.

I have contributed a chapter, ‘Twenty-First Century Militarism: A Historical-Sociological Framework’, to Militarism and International Relations: Political economy, security, theory, edited by my Sussex colleagues Anna Stavrianakis and Jan Selby, and published by Routledge in the Cass Military Studies series. The book contains 12 chapters grouped under Theorising militarism, Militarism and security, and The political economy of militarism, with strong coverage of a range of thematic and area issues by authors with varied theoretical perspectives.

My chapter reviews the historical vicissitudes of the concept of militarism, its emergence in the 1980s and the strengths and weaknesses of the work done on it in that period, outlines a historical-sociological framework and a theory of recent historical change in militarism, and concludes with reflections on militarism in the era of global surveillance war. An earlier draft of this chapter can be found here.

Published on openDemocracy, 7 April 2011. This replaces an earlier draft published on this site.

In mid-February 2011, the protests which began the Libyan revolution seemed to demonstrate the unstoppable progress of people power. It seemed that even Gaddafi’s kleptocratic and personalised regime – which unlike Tunisia or Egypt never allowed space for civil society – might fall to the new mass-demonstration movement. By early April, after an exceptionally swift national and international military escalation, Libya has shown the limits of popular revolt against a regime which is prepared to use all the means at its disposal to prevent change.

Libya’s escalation to war was so swift that some have even blamed it  on the armed character of the popular movement. This interpretation misses the fact that the Libyan revolution began with Cairo-style peaceful protests, including in Tripoli itself, which the regime instantly met with violent repression, soon escalating to the use of the air-force to bomb opposition-held cities. The desperate plight of civilians in besieged Libyan towns is not the fault of provocative armed militants, but of a regime which will tolerate no loss of control.

I write this in Barcelona, not so far across the Mediterranean from Libya. Here it is impossible not to remember how, when Francisco Franco turned the Spanish army on the people in 1936, the democratic parties in this city and elsewhere improvised their own militia to defend the Republic; nor how in the subsequent war, Franco called in German planes to bomb the Basque city of Guernica. Spain famously became the great cause of the international left in the 1930s, for whom it was the shame of “the democracies” (Britain, France and the United States) that they did little to help.

The Libyan opposition has not even had the Spanish advantage of existing state institutions, parties and international legitimacy through which to organise their defence. Not surprisingly, the opposition seems chaotic and militarily unprepared; the role of former regime figures in the leadership also raises doubts about the opposition’s capacity to provide a better alternative. The Libyan opponents of Gaddafi have now, however, the advantage of military support from the same states that failed Spain all those years ago, reflecting the history of growing western and United Nations “humanitarian” intervention since the end of the cold war.

The balance-sheet of intervention

The practice of intervention has been uneven and – from the point of view of principles – inconsistent. The Bosnian people in the early 1990s, victims of Serbian nationalist aggression, saw little direct military intervention; the United Nations Protection Force was there, as its name suggested, to protect UN humanitarian relief rather than Bosnians. Only after the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 – when war on the ground was already moving against Serbia, and Bill Clinton was facing re-election – did Nato bomb Serbian positions. This was followed by the Dayton conference of November 1995 which ended the war but also obliged the Bosnians to accept the compromise partition of their country.

The victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 fared even worse, as the UN stalled intervention until hundreds of thousands were dead. The French – allies of the old Rwandan government whose forces carried out the killing – finally sent forces which saved génocidaires along with victims. In Iraq, the United States turned its back on the popular rebellion of 1991 at the end of the war over Kuwait before being forced (along with Britain and France) to intervene to protect Kurdish refugees; the invasion of 2003 it led was hardly undertaken for humanitarian reasons, and provoked many years of violence.

It was only over Kosovo in 1999 that Nato used decisive military force to end massacres and expulsions, again by Serbian forces (this time against ethnic Albanians); although this took place without the UN Security Council authorisation that was to be obtained for Libya. But in the classic case of “risk-transfer war“, Nato achieved the return of the Albanians to the homes exclusively by means of aerial bombardment; this cost the lives of hundreds of Serb and Albanian civilians while protecting its own military personnel, not one of whom died at Serbian hands.

In 2011, the popular movements in Bahrain and Yemen seem to be losers from the west’s and the UN’s inconsistencies. Both regimes are US clients, so despite their increasing violence and the correspondingly critical rhetoric of Hilary Clinton, they are unlikely to be on the receiving end of Libya-style intervention. The UN may have adopted the “responsibility to protect” as a norm, and there are echoes of it in Resolution 1973 which authorises the Libya intervention, but it is hardly likely that it will be consistently applied in a principled manner. The civilian victims of Ivory Coast’s conflict, to cite only one case, have had no such protection.

The Libyan case

Armed intervention is hardly a generally desirable outcome. No one can take satisfaction from the immolation of Libyan soldiers, who probably include conscripts as well as regime supporters. The fact that the United Nations and the west could find no other means than bombing to prevent Gaddafi’s counter-revolution succeeding is deeply depressing.

An earlier, bolder, non-military international series of initiatives to support the Libyan opposition and people might have averted this outcome. The shallowness of western leaders’ commitment to the anti-Gaddafi effort has been evident from the start (unsurprising, given the western rapprochement with Libya since 9/11 and the eagerness of western governments and companies to do business with the dictator). Nicholas Sarkozy’s gesture of recognition to the revolutionary council in Benghazi would have been more impressive if he had gone there himself (perhaps with Ban Ki-moon), to act as a kind of international human-shield against the Gaddafi onslaught.

Even in military terms, as Mary Kaldor has suggested, an international peacekeeping force on the ground would have been a more certain means of protecting civilians than bombing from the air. But Sarkozy, David Cameron and Barack Obama could think only of airpower, and waited until the regime had almost won before using even that.

The appeal of airpower is that, as over Kosovo, it carries minimal bodily risk for western military personnel – and so also minimal political risk for their leaders. In the Libyan case these motives mix with other considerations: the understandable reluctance of the Libyan opposition and the Arab League to see western troops on the ground, and suspicions among the Chinese and Russian of any such move in the Security Council. Airpower thus becomes the lowest-common-denominator solution.

The limitations of aerial bombing are evident too in the manner of the rescue of two US pilots forced to eject from their plane near opposition-held territory near Benghazi, When two 500-pound bombs were dropped to provide cover while helicopter-planes landed to pick up one of the crew, six Libyan villagers were injured. It is evident that the military’s first instinct was to bomb rather than to search on the ground in collaboration with local forces, even at cost to the civilians who were supposed to be protected. The deaths of around thirteen rebels near Ajdabiya on 7 April 2011 as a result of a Nato air-strike is a further example of the perils of this form of intervention.

It may be that popular Libyan support for the western operation may survive such incidents, as it did among Albanians in Kosovo; but they will damage the operation’s wider credibility, especially among Arabs and Muslims.

The way forward

The Libyan intervention is pervaded by contradiction. These western failings are in the end no reason to reject it, for in its absence the bloody triumph of the dictator was certain. For the same reason that an earlier left campaigned for solidarity with Spain, the internationally legitimate action against Gaddafi’s repression is justified in principle, and appears already to have produced important results.

The regime’s forces were in the early days of conflict on the brink of conquering Benghazi, the country’s second city and opposition capital, with potentially dire consequences for a large urban population. The opposition’s reported fear of the “genocide” of half a million people may have been overstated, but reprisals could well have echoed the notorious Abu Salim massacre in Benghazi’s prison in 1996. The memories of this event, as well more recent brutality in towns recaptured by Gaddafi, underlie the city’s role in the current revolt.

The intervention appears also to have protected – if not yet saved – the people of Misrata, Libya’s third city, from conquest; reports of the brutalities committed there by Gaddafi’s forces emphasise what is at stake. By any standards these are significant achievements which fall within the legitimate scope of the intervention concerning the protection of the threatened civilians. Moreover, the intervention has partially turned round the political situation, and kept alive some prospect (if not a swift one) of removing the Ghaddafi regime.

These achievements notwithstanding, it is clear that airpower is both insufficient to protect civilians and unlikely to achieve the latent goal of regime change. This implicit goal is hardly reprehensible, since (unlike Iraq) the west and the UN are supporting a popular revolution designed to achieve precisely that. Yet modern political power is primarily territorial, and it is only forces on the ground which can definitively end Gaddafi’s strangehold on Libya’s people.

The facts that the opposition is militarily weak and the west has foresworn ground intervention underpin the belief that a stalemate (reminiscent of the mid-period of the seventy-eight-day Kosovo war) is already emerging, with the west’s unwillingness to intervene on the ground making straightforward victory difficult.

There is also no obvious compromise, such as enabled Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw to Serbia and survive more than a year after his forces withdrew from Kosovo. Gaddafi has no border to retreat across, and none of his family will ever be acceptable to the opposition; Saif-al-Islam Ghaddafi’s apparent belief that he could supervise a transition seems pure fantasy.

Yet despite the militarisation of this revolution, and the understandable concerns of Paul Rogers and other analysts, it is not – yet – clear that this will prove a protracted war (see Paul Rogers, “Libya and Iraq: a long war’s risk“, 7 April 2011). Whatever their “tribal” origins, the Gaddafis are not the Taliban. Their power and wealth depend on control of urban systems (especially Tripoli) and modern extractive industries (which they have increasingly exercised in cooperation with western powers). They are unlikely to reinvent themselves as desert-warriors.

The outcome therefore must be considered in more than military terms. The big question is whether the new military situation will encourage the political disintegration of Gaddafism. This is mostly viewed in relation to   defections of senior officials from the regime, but a more important question is whether the weakening of the regime opens space for the popular opposition in Tripoli itself to re-emerge.

The opposition in Tripoli’s working-class suburbs, strong in the first weeks of the uprising, have gone underground in face of the repression. The Benghazi opposition clearly hopes for a virtuous reciprocal action between the military campaign and renewed peaceful action on the capital’s streets. That is far from certain: it is equally possible that (in the short term at least) the Gaddafis use the western intervention to reinforce their repression in there, citing the bombing as a rationale.

At some point, however, the stalemate will have to break. It should be recalled that the origins of the Libyan crisis lie in the Arab revolution of 2011. It is too early to dismiss the possibilities of change, even if the state of Libyan society and state after the depredations of Gaddafi’s four decades of rule may indeed mean a hard road ahead.