Riding the Sandstorm

Had it happened later in the year, the wave of revolts that have so far toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and currently threatens the rulers of Bahrain and Libya, would have been called the "Arab Spring." As it is, perhaps one should borrow the term from a recent op-ed in the Hindustan Times and call it a "sandstorm." Certainly it shares several characteristics with the weather phenomenon: it began suddenly, has moved in unexpected directions, and no reliable forecast can be made of when it might end.

Balkan Connections

There have been several Balkans connections to the unrest in North Africa and Arabia. One Maltese blog reported that the regime of Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi has used Serbian mercenaries, and the rumor was picked up far and wide. Official Belgrade has denied any involvement, and no corroborating information has emerged for the original story.

It has been confirmed, however, that some Egyptian activists of the "April 6" movement attended seminars organized by a subversive group the Empire established in Serbia in 1999. Following the success of their October 2000 coup in Belgrade, some of the Empire-trained activists of "Otpor" set up a training center called CANVAS, where Egyptian and other activists have been trained since. "Otpor" was originally set up and funded by the National Endowment for Democracy. To say that the Egyptian revolution "came from Serbia" (Svenska Dagbladet) might be somewhat hyperbolic, though. CANVAS may be located in Serbia, but it produces and exports an Imperial product.

That product, however, has come to be seen in much of the world with widespread skepticism, bordering on paranoia. As Eric Walberg noted, writing for Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly, all the "colored" revolutions engineered by NED have been "a bitter disappointment, and along with Serbia, clearly manipulated by the US to serve its geopolitical ends."

Therein lies the chief argument against the theory that the "sandstorm" was somehow engineered in Washington. Three out of four governments affected by the revolt were loyal US clients: Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. Basically, the Empire has just suffered a major setback in North Africa and Arabia.

On the other hand, while Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries have managed to oust their dictatorial presidents, they haven’t achieved much else. Egypt is administered by the military, while Tunisia is run by a shaky caretaker government. Bahrain, a major US base in the Gulf, was a site of bloody repression against the protesters before the outright civil war in Libya nudged it from the spotlight; tensions in the country persist, though the government has since agreed to negotiate.

Coveting Cyrenaica

And then there is Libya. Ruled since a 1969 coup by Colonel Muammar el-Gadhafi, the "Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya" has North Africa’s largest reserves of oil. Protests that started in the eastern city of Benghazi on February 16 met with a violent government reaction.

Since then, news from Libya has been contradictory and confusing. Gadhafi claims his enemies are "al-Qaeda" and Imperial lackeys, and that his military isn’t killing civilians. The rebels accuse the government of widespread atrocities, while alternately pleading for Imperial intervention and rejecting it.

By just about any rational standard, invading Libya is a horrible idea. Claims of atrocities perpetrated by Gadhafi’s forces sound a little too much like the atrocity porn concocted to justify interventions in the Balkans. Even if they are all true, the rebels seem more than capable of handling it.

Brendan O’Neill has derided the advocates of intervention as "iPad imperialists" and warned of the dangers of faux "ethical" foreign policy, that is actually anything but. His position is worth noting because he has been a consistent critic of Imperial meddling in the Balkans, and the way the creeping intervention in Libya is shaping up bears uncanny similarities to how events unfolded in Bosnia.

The Deliberate Slippery Slope

It is simply not true that the U.S. and European governments stood by and did nothing while the war raged on in Bosnia, from 1992 to 1995. Their involvement, however, was governed by two principal considerations. First and foremost, their populations were unwilling to support an open war; the Cold War had just ended, as had Desert Storm, and the West was in an economic recession. Any intervention had to be sold to the general public, both as a moral imperative and as a low-to-no-cost option. Secondly, one of the parties in the conflict built its strategy around enlisting the West in its war effort. Washington refused to engage in open warfare until it could do so on its own terms.

The outcome of both considerations was a "slippery slope" of involvement, one step at a time. First the humanitarian aid flights started coming in. Then a "no-fly zone" was set up to protect them — and naturally, NATO was invited in as the only military alliance with the capability. Then ground convoys started, which required protection by the UN troops — which, in turn, required protection by more troops, until a NATO "rapid reaction force" was in place. Once the "safe areas" were established, the UN didn’t have enough troops on the ground, so the NATO aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone were diverted to "assist." After a while, they no longer needed UN authorization for ground strikes. At that point, in mid-1995, it was simple enough for NATO troops to openly join the conflict.


Was this method of getting involved sneaky? Absolutely. However, the nascent Empire was able to claim Bosnia as a brilliant success, because the cease fire had held to become a lasting (if troubled) peace and no NATO peacekeepers lost their lives.

It looked like the Bosnian gambit might be exposed in the spring of 1999, when NATO used them to justify the attack on Serbia and the occupation of Kosovo. Once again, lack of major casualties allowed the media to spin what was objectively a disaster into a famous victory.

Today, the protracted fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan have managed to sour the American populace on war, and the economic crisis significantly narrowed Empire’s options for a major military engagement. And that is where partisan politics come in.

The responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan has been laid at the feet of Bush the Lesser, where it rightly belongs. Because Republicans have spearheaded those adventures, they’d lost much in the way of credibility to criticize the Obama regime — essentially a Clinton White House redux — for continuing the wars, or embarking on new ones. Nor do they dare respond when the new/old foreign policymakers hold up Bosnia and Kosovo as examples of the "good wars," and push to meddle in places like Libya based on those precedents.

The latest news from Libya is that US and UK "humanitarian" teams are already on the ground. Washington is pushing for a no-fly zone, even though that is a de facto declaration of war. To bomb Libya in the cause of preventing the bombing of Libyans is both logical and political nonsense. Intervening is the surefire way to poison the well of Arab democracy and make the rise of militant Islam a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of which suggests that it is precisely what the Empire is going to do.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.