Four Questions about the Libyan Bombing Campaign

1. What is the point of the bombing campaign against Libya?

To answer this question, it would be nice if we could reach some certainty about what is going on in Libya itself. But this is not going to be easy, in the absence of specialist knowledge about the parties and players involved in the internal conflict. Certainly, Qaddafi, a world figure of some notoriety, seeks to maintain his power in the face of internal opposition. But who is this opposition? Apparently, it is people opposed to dictatorial rule. But what are they supporting? Flying the flag of the last king of Libya, one supported by neocolonial powers, does not help. Nor does it appear that the army, unlike its counterparts in Egypt and now Yemen, has moved into the opposition in sufficient numbers to pose a serious threat to Qaddafi’s power. So we must assess the external relations without a knowledgeable assessment of the internal relations that have precipitated the crisis.

This is not the first time that “western” powers have attacked Qaddafi and Libya. But this time, the goal is apparently overthrow of him and his regime, rather than retaliation for real or imagined acts. The problem of course is that, absent a significant internal opposition capable of overthrowing the regime, “strategic” bombing will be ineffective–except at doing what it always does best, that is, civilian casualties and a stiffened opposition to the attackers. And, if there is such an opposition, bombing attacks will do little more than tend to discredit it, since they will appear to be the agents of foreign powers (as Qaddafi has been claiming).

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the bombing campaign is in the end just the latest retaliation against Qaddafi, a ruler that should have gone the way of Hussein, Milosevic, and others disliked by the US–but who has refused to do so. This retaliation of course allows the bombed to regain their moral rectitude, in the face of foreign attacks. This is the result of two aspects of “strategic” bombing that are well-known to scholars of the history of warfare, if not to the wider public. First, bombing doesn’t “work”–at least it isn’t capable of achieving any strategic objectives. If this was the case in World War II and in the Vietnam War–which were the largest bombing campaigns in history–and it was, how much more will it be the case here? In instances where a small, weakened regime with internal opposition is attacked (I am thinking of Serbia), the bombing may facilitate a change likely to have taken place anyway. But it is more likely to cause needless casualties in most cases (including in Kosovo, where it clearly precipitated the attacks on civilians and refugees that it was supposedly designed to prevent).

So, second, bombing is indistinguishable morally from torture. It is the same use of force applied to persons without adequate means of defense (civilian populations), and with minimal danger to the persons applying this force. After all, this is what differentiates strategic from tactical bombing, the latter aimed at combatants in the course of a military campaign involving other forces. (And tactical bombing can be effective, precisely because it operates in conjunction with other forces to defeat an opposing army.)

2. Why Libya and why now?

Aside from the fact that the U.S. has been trying to overthrow Qaddafi for the last twenty years at least, the current attacks probably have two proximate causes. First, France, which has gone the farthest in recognizing the rebels, probably saw an opportunity to exploit Libyan oil resources for its own advantage, with Libya’s traditional trading partner, Italy, marginalized by its too close association with Qaddafi. Such rivalries are not supposed to occur anymore in the new world of the E.U., but of course they do. Second, the U.S. probably wants to distract attention from the Gulf, where democratic opposition is occurring in states with U.S. military bases. In fact, these very bases could be newly useful in the Libyan bombing campaign!

3. Why is the bombing being conducted by NATO?

Well, what else is NATO for in the post-Cold War world other than coordinating “western” military deployments outside of western Europe? It certainly hasn’t been for “protecting” western Europe–and from whom? This has been its role in the Balkans Peninsular and Central Asian campaigns–why not North Africa, as well? NATO provides a convenient multi-state cover for US military adventures, when it can be mobilized (though it didn’t work for Iraq). It also provides a means of subordinating European militaries to US control (this had always been the French objection, now apparently mute).

4. Musn’t something be done?

Done by whom, you might ask? Well, the US, of course. And the obvious answer is “no.” This was the answer given (but not as strongly as it might have been) by China, India, Russia, and the largest countries in Europe (Germany) and Latin America (Brazil). Probably the “no” was not a veto only because Qaddafi has not won many friends around the world. The German response was particularly interesting, since it suggests a developing split within the EU and, if this goes on long enough, within NATO as well. Of course, the globalists in Germany are apoplectic about this (including the hapless Greens, who seem determined to become as interventionist as the US Democratic party under Clinton and Obama). But I suspect that Chancellor Merkel’s remove of the German navy from NATO control will prove popular (it’s certainly designed to be) and may even give the French government some second thoughts about its abject (though opportunistic) participation in the bombing campaign.

“Something” isn’t being done about numerous atrocious examples of government repression, civil war, and other forms of political violence all over the world (including elsewhere in the Arab World). We can be thankful that the US and its allies see no particular advantage in bombing Congo, or Mexico, or Nepal–right now, anyway. If the Libyan uprising is really a democratic movement to establish a less authoritarian regime, it will have to succeed the only way it can–by mobilizing internal opposition, especially withing Qaddafi’s government and army–and overthrowing him.

If sympathizers abroad want to help, they might pressure their governments to stop doing business deals with Qaddafi–in the case of the US, etc, at the same time that they are attacking him. Though sanctions is a slow form of torture (as bombing is a quick one), the reverse of sanctions–sending food and medicine to Benghazi and other rebel strongholds–could be tried. But the best thing to do is to reduce the scale of violence by following the German example and withdrawing from NATO (“hello,” Holland, France, Norway, et al!) or, in the case of the US, defunding it (how about that, Congressional Republicans?).

We surely could use some more democracy in the Arab World. But, come to think of it, we could use more in the US & western Europe as well–and the unelected commanders of NATO and “Eurocrats” of the EU who make the crucial decisions about this could use some “ousting” as well.

Omar Dahbour teaches philosophy at Hunter College & Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is author of Illusion of the Peoples: A Critique of National Self-Determination (2003) and Self-Determination Without Nationalism: Elements of a New Theory of Political Sovereignty (forthcoming).

Omar Dahbour