Reluctant Imperialists?

The U.S. and EU in Lybia are keen to appear post-colonial, but instead they are advancing their global hegemony

Opinion | Laurence Doering | May 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to provide the Libyan opposition with decisive military support is understandable: There was a fear of getting bogged down as in Iraq. But more importantly, Obama wanted to avoid accusations of a foreign occupation, which might have alienated supporters of the Libyan opposition and strengthened President Muammar al Qaddafi’s line that the rebels were the ‘pawns of Western imperialists’. For the same reason, Italy, as the former colonial power in Libya, procrastinated before joining the NATO effort.

The NATO intervention was to be limited to "humanitarian" aims, taking out Qaddafi’s most lethal weapons from the sky, while leaving the difficult task of regime change to the Libyans themselves.

Yet behind this seemingly practical line of argument lurks a much wider ideological minefield, underpinning the "liberal mode of war" that has come into its own post-Iraq. If we review the Western powers’ reasons for going to war in Libya, a picture of closet imperialism emerges, more insidious than George W. Bush’s explicit moralizing.

As Philip Crowley, the former U.S. State Department spokesman, told the BBC Mar. 28, the NATO air strikes were "creating a level playing field so that the opposition has a fair opportunity to make its case to the Libyan people and to force Qaddafi to step down."

For all the Western cheerleading, the aim of creating a "level playing field" seems disingenuous: It could not be further from true solidarity with the rebels’ struggle. Instead, they are being treated as a favorite in a free and fair cock-fight. More importantly, this style of spectatorship is ultimately more arrogant, and more ideologically back-handed, than a full-scale, Bushite intervention. The implication is that Western power is so uncontestable that it need no longer field a team of its own: After all, it can set the rules of the game.

Crucially, the West is a just referee, "leveling" the playing field and giving each contestant a "fair opportunity." That’s what democracies do, isn’t it? This promotes not only a sense of the West’s essential incorruptibility, but also extends the central plank of liberal ideology into warfare: The responsibility of the individual to seize her destiny under meritocratic circumstances. As The Economist noted approvingly, "Arabs are being asked to shed the culture of victimhood, take responsibility for themselves and uncork the creativity of their young" (April 20). In the meritocratic narrative, the West’s ongoing role in shaping events in the region is effaced.

This disappearing act is what characterizes liberal hegemony; circumstances shaped by Western decision-makers are presented as natural and universal. The master-trope is the notion of a "humanitarian intervention." Even NATO’s warplanes are seen to incarnate Natural Law: As the Qaddafis have had to realize, when a dictator commits "crimes against humanity," he will be struck down from above.

It is, of course, a truism to point out that "humanitarian interventions" are shaped more by political calculus than Natural Justice, as the people of Bahrain learnt when their heads were bashed by America’s allies in the Gulf. Moreover, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi called their own bluff on the "humanitarian" intentions of their engagement in Northern Africa with their squabble over how to keep the resulting refugees out of Europe.

The playing field in Libya is indeed skewed; not, however, in favor of Qaddafi, or the rebels, but to the advantage of Western game-makers who profess not to be playing. In their very self-constraint, the NATO allies have upheld the sense that they are the legitimate custodians of an international order of fair-play, which it is their duty to enforce in the name of "humanity," whose interests they alone are equipped to define.

That is the true art of imperialism.

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