June 22, 2017
By Ishita Madan
Six years ago, a multi-state NATO-led intervention took place in Libya. The question of intervention was posited as one of humanitarianism – should the United States participate in military intervention in defense of a persecuted population, or engage self preservation by maintaining distance from the conflict. Samantha Power, then an advisor on foreign policy to President Barack Obama, spoke at length on the merits of intervention, citing instances of genocide in the past that she felt were the result of lack of initiative on the part of the United States. Hillary Clinton also spoke in support of intervention in Libya, once again citing humanitarianism as a chief motivation. Critics argued that intervention would be taxing upon the United States, that it was an expense the nation could not afford at the moment.
A third perspective, one concerned that humanitarianism was being invoked to bolster an ulterior motive in Libya, emerged throughout. After all, Gaddafi’s vision had long clashed with Western interests. As early as the 1960s, he had demanded that the United States and Britain abandon their military installations in Libya. He vowed to use his petrodollars to instigate an Islamic revival that would undercut Western influence throughout the Middle East, professed support for Palestine, and hoped to promote Arab and African unity. The latter stance in particular made him deeply unpopular with many Islamic fundamentalists, as did his dedication to modernization. While Gaddafi was responsible for a variety of human rights abuses, his opposition was the most extreme of the Libyan right wing. Nevertheless, the opposition were portrayed as victimized, oppressed rebels in American media, and intervention was carried out.
In 2017, what has become of Libya? The process of liberation via American intervention has catapulted it from the forefront of the Arab Spring to being widely recognized as a failed state. Poverty, the spread of religious fundamentalism, and the enslavement of black Libyans all mark the failure of the NATO-led intervention, as well as the lack of foresight as to who the United States was bankrolling. Yet the conversation regarding intervention remains unchanged, as a nearly identical argument is constructed regarding Syria.
As with Libya, Syria has a morally questionable leader. There exists a number of rebel groups in Syria hoping to overthrow him. However, it is necessary to question the political motives of the opposition. When examined closely, it becomes clear that religious fundamentalism and a staunch belief in ethnic superiority mark these rebel groups, similar to those found in Libya. Moreover, the United States’ motives do not appear to be aligned with the Syrian people’s. As with Gaddafi, Assad was marked a threat to the West for reasons entirely unrelated to his treatment of Libyan civilians.
It is time to begin asking who the United States is backing in international conflicts, to question the selectivity of “humanitarian” intervention – why do Libya and Syria require intervention but the Rwandan genocide did not? It is time to be discerning and inquisitive about state interests, and explore the history between the United States and the nations it plans to take apart, rather than unquestioningly accepting the narrative of humanitarianism.