The architects of US foreign policy aren't dumb. They're extraordinarily clever and, if nothing else, deft public relations managers. A month ago, the notion of "humanitarian intervention" (itself a re-packaging of earlier colonial and imperialist concepts- see this) was dead in the water. Now imperialism has seized upon a golden opportunity to rehabilitate it while pursuing other regional geopolitical goals.
Why is Libya a "golden opportunity"? First of all because Gaddafi is so roundly despised in the Arab world and elsewhere. Of course, it wouldn't be quite right to say that he's been roundly despised among Western elites for some time- just a month ago the likes of the IMF were still singing his praises as a neoliberal reformer and friend of the West. Still, Washington and others have reason to think that they could fine a more willing client in Libya than their present business partner. Another reason that this is a "golden opportunity" for imperialist powers is that Gaddafi's regime is brutal. He has beaten back the uprising with ruthless military might and has promised to do terrible things to those involved if he triumphs. In the context of the region-wide uprisings, imperialist powers can couch themselves as the saviors of opposition leaders rather than the forces of reaction. Let us not forget that the Egyptian state used weapons produced and paid for by the US government to try to stop its own people from rising up. Mubarak's regime was defended by Washington in the face of mass revolt. Now Washington can sell itself as a progressive force in the region while doing what it has been struggling to do all along: re-establish control of a region where democratic uprisings have been tearing asunder the old regional order that the US (and others) had helped to create.
I must say, from where I'm sitting it feels as though the imperialists are winning the war of ideas at the moment. They've managed to hoodwink handfuls of liberals who opposed the Iraq War into believing that, this time around, Washington really has shed its recent imperialist encumbrances and intends to do nothing but selfless good for an oppressed people. They ought to know better.
Just recall, for example, the defense of Mubarak that many Administration officials gave. "He's no dictator" they said. We're worried about "stability" in the region, they said. They're prepared to say things about Gaddafi's authoritarian reign that they wouldn't dream of saying about Yemen, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Let's stick with Yemen for a moment: there has been an almost total media blackout of Yemen in the english-speaking press for the most part of late . Yet there have been atrocities there recently, with military firing on protesters and killing and wounding hundreds. I've also heard almost nothing about the Bahrain- where the Saudi's put down protests with brutal military force recently. If the Saudi's had not intervened, the US would have had to consider doing so themselves- Bahrain is an extraordinarily important strategic outpost for the US in the region and they have massive military bases there. In this case, two of the biggest allies of the US (Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) are the most authoritarian. So much for the tight link between Washington and democracy in the region.
Another comparison: take Israel's brutal assault on Gaza in 2009:
To take an obvious example, when Israel spent three weeks pummeling Gaza's 1.5 million residents, there was never any talk among U.S. political leaders about "stopping a massacre" or "protecting civilians from a deranged dictator." That's because unflinching support for Israel's war on Palestinians is part of the long-term objective of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.And for the liberals who want to believe that US foreign policy has undergone a radical shift since Obama took office, recall that this was after Bush had left office.
The evidence just doesn't sit well with the "humanitarian intervention" line overall. I can't simply forget about the prolonging of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, brutal drone attacks in Pakistan, the sponsoring of coups, imperialist bullying in Latin America, assaults on democracy in Haiti, and too many other historical examples to count (from the Balkans to Somalia). Any plausible theory of international relations must contend with the data, and liberal interventionist gloss on the actions of capitalist states in the global arena does not capture even a sliver of the available evidence. It only looks plausible on the condition that one blot out the past entirely (even the recent past of a few weeks ago!). And although the effacement of memory and the sense of the past is a hallmark of social life in contemporary capitalism, this elision is never complete or totalizing. Recent data is still to fresh to push aside completely, no matter how quickly the ephemeral swells of mass media coverage shift.
The basic fact we must confront is this: US foreign policy tends to serve the interests of domestic elites. US foreign policy aims at securing more control and power abroad. Moreover, the US ruling class is in competition with other ruling classes and states. The basic goal is to secure access to resources, favorable terms of trade and bargaining, dominance and hegemony. The refreshing thing about the hard-right is that they are quite up front about this, whereas the "dovish" liberals tend to dress the same policies (or slightly less bold versions of them) in the language of human rights, cooperation and democracy.
We forge at our own peril that for our foreign policymakers, it is a necessary condition of any and all interventions abroad that they further the geopolitical interests of the wealthy and powerful. That is the meaning of "the National interest". This is not a humanitarian enterprise in the slightest. And where the US is involved in humanitarian crises it nonetheless exploits them to further dominant interests. Sure, in some cases food and medicine is dispensed here and there- but the necessary condition of furthering strategic interests is always at the same time satisfied. Let us not forget all of this in the case of Libya.
Evidently, Administration officials are already talking about partitioning Libya in the event of a stalemate. That is unsurprising- partition is step 1 in the imperialist/neo-colonialist play-book. It is part of a more general ruling class tactic known as "divide and conquer".
So although the rhetoric is one of a "gamble", make no mistake: foreign policy-makers have run the cost/benefit analyses and they have some kind of plan. Of course, they'll continue to say this is a "huge gamble", and in some ways it is, but in reality they've intervened at a time when they feel they are on rather secure footing. They waited until the opposition was on the ropes, thus ensuring both that they could (a) favorable bargaining terms with opposition leaders (many of whom are former regime officials) and that (b) they would look more like saviors than aggressors meddling in foreign affairs. What will the concessions that Washington and others have exacted amount to? Will it mean more access to Libyan oil resources? Military bases? A quasi-client regime subservient to Washington that is internally oppressive? These are all distinct possibilities and well within the range of options acceptable to imperialist powers. To suppose that they are losing sleep praying for real democracy from below is to abscond from earth entirely. Though that's what they'd like you to believe, that's not at all what the facts on the ground suggest.