In his address to an Arab League summit a few years back Colonel Qaddafi, troubled by the official Arab approval of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, warned his counterparts that they will soon face the fate of Saddam Hussein one after the other. Today it is Qaddafi and Libya in his cloak standing before the Iraqi abyss. Both Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali bent comparatively peacefully to popular demands and relinquished power while Qaddafi has apparently chosen to fight it out thereby transforming civilian dissent into a civil war, an armed confrontation that the Western powers have now catapulted into an international policing exercise under the banner of ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P).
Two arguments spell out the liberal opposition to the Western onslaught on Libya, the first questions the ethical consistency of the Western powers on the grounds that the US and its allies have refrained from intervening in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen where dissidents face similar if less dramatized suppression. By extension, the same powers have done embarrassingly little to ease the pain of the Congo or stop the bloodshed in Darfur. The second argument relies on the arithmetic of casualties as a measure of priority, whereby for instance Western funding for malaria research would probably save more lives than the zeal for humanitarian wars.
Apolitical as they are the two arguments take for given the vogue R2P and thus fail to challenge the ideological consensus that sustains Western interventionism. The logical end-point of this liberal moral claim is a perverted utopia where Western firepower intervenes when and where deemed necessary by an ethical committee of commissioned saviours. Paradoxically, such reasoning speaks for more rather than less imperial policing, with notably greater focus on the humanitarian bluff implied.
In its heyday the Save Darfur Coalition quoted the R2P to justify the imperial imposition of a no fly zone over Darfur if not a full-fledged military campaign against the Khartoum regime to secure the smaller but equally threatened Benghazis of the region under the motto of ‘out of Iraq into Darfur’. That did not happen but the manner in which the prospect of Western intervention obfuscated the actual crisis in Darfur remains resonant. In short, the focus of the rebel movements shifted from the arduous task of organising a receptive constituency in Darfur, without which any armed insurgency is doomed to degenerate into warlordism, to the reliance on international levers, a bid that turned sour in the Abuja peace process 2006.
My claim is that the choice between Qaddafi and the Western saviours is one between two false options. Rather than surrender the anti-colonial ground to Qaddafi the challenge is to re-invent the politics of liberation, a horizon that Frantz Fanon once poignantly proposed would only reveal itself on an international scale with the destruction of the Manichaeanism of the cold war.