Western intervention in Libya has exposed the extraordinary flux in relations among the great powers. In the first place, they’re badly split.
The neoconservative Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell only exaggerated slightly when he pointed out that, in the supposedly triumphant United Nations (UN) Security Council vote on Libya: “The five countries that abstained—Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia—account for almost three billion of the world’s people and are the core of tomorrow’s global economy.”
Germany’s abstention means that this is the latest in a string of crises where the European Union has been paralysed because of its internal divisions.
According to another Financial Times columnist, Philip Stephens, “Politicians and policymakers at the German Marshall Fund’s annual Brussels Forum observed that it was one thing for Germany to question the wisdom of another military entanglement in the Arab world.
“But siding with Moscow and Beijing at the UN had been beyond the pale.”
Meanwhile, France and Britain have led the Western charge across the Mediterranean, with the US playing a more cautious role—though the Pentagon is doing most of the military heavy lifting.
Barack Obama last week sought to define what Libya said about US global policy.
His key passage was probably this: “There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. In such cases, we should not be afraid to act—but the burden of action should not be America’s alone.”
The speech won the praise of neocons associated with George W Bush’s administration. William Kristol writes, “The president was unapologetic, freedom-agenda-embracing, and didn’t shrink from defending the use of force.”
Less to Kristol’s taste will have been Obama’s insistence, while reserving “the right to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally”, on acting with other states where possible.
This means the Libyan intervention is significant. The US is stepping back from the air campaign, leaving Britain and France in the front line.
As defence secretary Robert Gates said, “Any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”
Obama wants to conserve US military power. According to the Washington Post, he’s heading towards a showdown with his Afghan commander, General David Petraeus, because the president wants “a meaningful drawdown” of US troops from Afghanistan to start on schedule in July.
But that doesn’t mean Obama is planning to wind the empire down. One benefit of the Libyan operation is to associate the US with the Arab revolutions. This sets Obama apart from the Saudi and other Gulf rulers who intervened in Bahrain to crush a revolutionary movement.
The historian Immanuel Wallerstein has argued that the Saudis manoeuvred the US into the Libyan intervention. It is “a big distraction from what they thought most urgent, and what they were doing—a crackdown on the Arab revolt, as it affected first of all Saudi Arabia itself, then the Gulf states, then elsewhere in the Arab world”.
The Saudis may have wanted a distraction but I don’t think they are responsible for the intervention. Otherwise they would have sent a delegation to last week’s London conference on Libya.
There’s an intriguing passage in the speech Obama made the day Hosni Mubarak fell:
“I’m also confident that the same ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that the young people of Egypt have shown in recent days can be harnessed to create new opportunity—jobs and businesses that allow the extraordinary potential of this generation to take flight.”
In other words, Obama wants to use the Arab revolutions as a lever to transform the Middle East along neoliberal lines. He is trying to rebuild the foundations of US imperial power in the region on more apparently “democratic” lines. So the neocons were right to praise him.