Libya tank - Reuters
People celebrating atop a destroyed tank belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi after an air strike Sunday. Photo by Reuters
Text size

Drawing comparisons between the Western nations' attack on Libya and the two wars in Iraq, as well as the current war in Afghanistan, is easy. True, the objective in each case was to destroy the regime; but in the past military actions, the leader or regime was described as posing a real threat to the Western world.

In the case of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had encroached on Kuwait. The world was gripped by panic that Iraq might continue on, conquering other Gulf states and taking possession of key world oil sources. The pretext for the second Gulf War was the belief that Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. Afghanistan and Somalia served (and continue to serve ) as Al-Qaida bases, and so military action there was justified as part of the war on terror.

In Libya's case today, the conditions have changed. Muammar Gadhafi is a leader who poses a danger to his own people, who used violence against dissenters in his own country, and who is trying to block the wave of revolution that has engulfed the Middle East.

This military move seems to constitute a new, intriguing development: The "enlightened" nations are fighting for the rights of the oppressed. Using their superior military power to promote democratic goals, they are expressing the values of international responsibility that globalization was always supposed to nurture. The mobilization of Arab states like Egypt and Qatar for military action against Gadhafi, and the agreement of other Arab states to block Libya's air space, reinforces the credibility of the allied forces' attack on Libya.

For the first time since the first Gulf War, Arab states have agreed to support violent Western intervention in the "Arab world." Such support, however, is founded on a complicated array of calculations. Egypt has supported the action in Libya to signal to its own citizens that it backs human rights struggles. Saudi Arabia is endorsing the attack in Libya out of a desire to enhance the legitimacy of its military intervention in Bahrain.

Meanwhile, the Arab League has agreed to the action taken in Libya, and went so far as to demand that Libyan air space be closed, as a kind of symbolic statement; the League knows it lacks the power to solve any crisis in the Middle East.

Based on past experience, such air attacks are not powerful enough to topple political regimes. And beyond this practical issue, the military intervention in Libya raises a number of complex questions. For example, how will the military action impact the civil rebellion against Gadhafi? And how will any new leader who is elected or appointed win recognition for the revolution as an independent, sovereign force?

Movements of rebellion in the Arab world have emerged as spontaneous civil protests that rely largely on modes of communication, not firearms. The contrast has been consistent and clear: the regimes have used guns, while civilians have protested peacefully. The military action in Libya undermines this division of labor. True, rebels in Libya have been firing rifles, but they have not been trying to perpetrate a military coup.

Why is it that in Yemen, where dozens of civilians have been killed, and the army continues to clash with civilians, there has been no Western intervention? Will Tomahawk missiles be fired on Syria if the regime continues to order armed forces to disperse protesters through violent means?

No doubt, the choice of Libya as a battleground does not derive solely from a new policy principle - featuring a willingness to take action in any place, to apply the role of "international responsibility to protect." Instead, a cool risk-benefit analysis is in play in Libya.

An attack in Yemen would mean America's loss of its last shaky reed of support for its war against Al-Qaida terrorist bases; and an attack in Syria would possibly jeopardize security in Israel, while strengthening Iran and Hezbollah. Libya, in contrast, is a comfortable target; the West is currently able to view itself as a "partner" in a civil uprising for democracy.