Egypt and Tunisia demonstrated the power of mass protest and the moral leverage of those who pursue non-violent action. But while movements there sparked a chain reaction of democratic defiance across the Arab world, protesters in other countries face more entrenched and tenacious rulers — the prime example of which is Libya’s Gadhafi.
Hampered by tribal allegiances and weak national institutions (per Gadhafi’s design), Libyan dissidents have been strongest in the country’s neglected east, bordering Egypt, and weakest in the capital, Tripoli, where Gadhafi delivers daily fulminations. As his loyalists and rebels battle for control city by city, a stalemate has emerged, at least for now.
In light of that, some Western pundits and politicians have started exercising their shoulders to once again take up the White Man’s Burden — "humanitarian intervention" in an oil-rich Arab country. Neoconservatives, led by former Bush officials, have urged "immediate" action.
Head of yesteryear’s empire, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that Britain was leading discussions to establish a no-fly zone over Libya — like the one imposed over Iraq between the two wars against Saddam — and his officials talked of arming the rebels. He has since backpedaled, as French and American allies balked at the pronouncement. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in particular, warned Congress that a no-fly zone requires airstrikes before it can be enforced.
But the option of military invention has not disappeared from the menu: America has positioned warships off Libya’s coast, Italy cancelled its non-aggression pact, and Britain dispatched special forces to rescue its oil workers. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained, "We are working to understand who is legitimate, who is not, but it is premature in our opinion to recognize one group or another."
And this is precisely why Western military intervention — "liberal" or otherwise — would damage the democratic cause. Such interference sets up American elites and their allies to become the judges of "who is legitimate" and "who is not" in accordance with their own interests (or that of their Israeli lobbyists), tarnishing what has thus far been an indigenous Arab movement.
Western intervention would bolster Gadhafi’s wild claims that rebels are foreign agents and buoy autocrats like Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who described his opponents as agents of the West.
Rebel commanders have been debating whether to ask for Western airstrikes (they have wisely ruled out foreign troops), in light of their inferior arms, equipment, and training. But as of Tuesday, those who oppose intervention prevail.
Even in the event of prolonged bloodshed or humanitarian crisis, the West is hardly the only option: the Arab League has said that it may step in, with help from the African Union, if things truly get out of hand.
If Western countries truly wish to help the Arab people, they ought to focus not on what they "should" do but on what they are already doing: bankrolling despots in Yemen and Bahrain and allowing Israeli expansion. Until then, it is childish to imagine that anyone but the Arabs have the interests of the Arabs at heart.