Whereas the war in Iraq lacked any international legitimacy, the military intervention in Libya has legal authority in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. In addition, enforcement of the no-fly zone in Libya also has the support of the Arab League, symbolic as that support may be. But most importantly, unlike 2003, there are no mass demonstrations either in Arab or Western capitals opposing another Western military adventure in yet another Muslim majority country.
The lack of opposition should not be mistaken for a lack of concern. The history of Western military interventions in the region has been largely perceived as neocolonial imperialism. The fact that Iraq remains a bloody mess and Afghanistan a quagmire adds to the anxiety. And yet the hope that has sprung from the peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt gives us reason to believe that military intervention in Libya, as abhorrent as the idea may be, was the right thing to do in order to thwart the brutality of yet another Arab dictator. Something has fundamentally changed in the Arab and Muslim world. The rest of the world is now being forced, albeit reluctantly, to contend with that reality.
Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, US Sen. John Kerry gave voice to the optimism being felt by many, despite lingering concerns. “If liberation can be translated into lasting democracy, then the new Arab awakening will carry a vital message: simply, that ordinary people everywhere have the ability to determine for themselves how they are governed. The developments in Egypt and Tunisia also represent a dramatic blow against the extremism that we have been struggling with this past decade or more -- a blow against extremism that we could not have dealt ourselves.”
Sen. Kerry went on to say, “But just as the Berlin Wall could not be rebuilt, so we know that the old order of the Middle East cannot be restored.” To stop the restoration of the old order, military intervention in Libya became necessary. If the Muammar Gaddafi regime had overrun Benghazi, as they were poised to do, the Arab spring could have prematurely ended amidst deep suspicion that the West could have stopped the massacre but chose not to. This would have further emboldened the brutal repressions already under way from Yemen to Bahrain. In Yemen the defection of a senior military leader provides hope that if Western powers abandon their realpolitik and finally align their interests with their values, not only the people but also the extant power establishment may reject their brutal overlords.
Michael Gerson, speechwriter to former US President George W. Bush, in a recent op-ed to The Washington Post wrote: “When a government engages in genocide, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity -- effectively waging war against its own citizens -- other nations have the right and duty to intervene. In Libya, this abstract norm became a basis for action. The Obama administration deserves credit for its part in establishing this precedent.” The Arab spring has offered a Sputnik moment for US foreign policy. It appears that President Obama is slowly warming up to the idea that transformative change not only requires moral leadership of words but unfortunately necessitates the use of force when force becomes the only way to stop crimes against humanity. Rwanda still haunts us.
The reticence of emerging democratic powers such as Turkey, Brazil and India to join hands in this effort remains a source of concern. Although negotiations remain the preferred way to end this standoff, Gaddafi’s intransigence coupled with his threat to go door to door to clean out “rebels” offers scant hope for a peaceful resolution.
The extraordinary convergence of Western policy and Arab/Muslim public opinion needs further cementing. Sen. Kerry wants to introduce legislation to financially support “new and fledgling democracies in the region.” Sen. Kerry asserts, “We ought to be helping governments reform their security sectors, building transparency into the fabric of government ministries, strengthening the rule of law and helping leaders to incorporate the views of their public in the day-to-day work that they’re engaged in.” Turkey, with its long history of democracy and its experience as part of its European Union accession process as well as with enacting changes that brings laws and policies to the standards expressed by Sen. Kerry, must play a pivotal role going forward. Only then can Turkey’s aspiration of zero problems with its neighbors become a sustainable policy.
*Parvez Ahmed is a former Fulbright scholar and teaches at the University of North Florida.