Johan Galtung was on Al Jazeera yesterday talking a lot of sense about the Western intervention in Libya. Much of what he said flowed naturally from his status as something of a peace activist (and often outspoken critic of the United States) and might therefore be dismissed as idealistic or tendentious. Yet one should not sweep aside some of the truly important points he made on the topic of legitimacy and history, relevant not only here and now in Libya but in future Western interventions around the world. In particular, Galtung stressed the need to consider the psychological effects of having NATO warplanes bomb yet another Muslim country, given the sensitivity about this across much of the Arab and Muslim world, and the tenuousness, given the region’s recent history, of Western legitimacy and credibility there.
Galtung made this case quite well with regard to Libya. He intimated that despite the signs of local thankfulness for the Western intervention, the convergence of interests and of agendas may very well unravel, first because it is not every Libyan who is welcoming this intervention, and second, should missiles start going astray or the great hopes of the resistance movements somehow go unfulfilled, it will be quite easy for Ghaddafi’s supporters to pin the blame on the Western attackers. In such an instance, it would also be important not to forget that Ghaddafi still has the potential, among some sectors of society, to pose quite effectively as an anti-Western charismatic leader, launching a counter-crusade against Western colonialist. He may have lost the veneer of a revolutionary a long time ago, but the spell, or what Galtung called the ‘magic of the revolution’, still has possible potency.
On that front, I was particularly interested in the care Galtung took to place current events within the longue durée of Libyan and regional history – something I fear the Western world often forgets to do or dismisses as unimportant. In particular he pointed to the fact that it is just Italy, France and Britain – the countries now involved in the bombardment – who colonised Libya for much of the 20th century, since 1911 in fact, something that will be a much more immediate memory among the colonised rather than the colonisers. ‘In other words ‘ Galtung said, ‘you will have among the 350 million Arabs, so many, such a percentage, who will say “just what did we say?; here they go again; we know them; it’s the same old game”‘. In a similar vein, Galtung asked, what are the likely psychological effects of the fact that this intervention marks the 100th anniversary of the first-ever instance of aerial bombardment, carried out by Italy in Libya in 1911, and resulting (much as today) in apparent ‘collateral damage’ (then called ‘frightfulness’).
Galtung does not offer any easy solutions to this dilemma. He does speak to what might have been an alternative to the use of force by the West, or its effective involvement in a civil war. This which would have included a much more assertive and active Arab League or African Union, playing a strong role in getting the competing sides to the negotiating table. He also puts his hope in the ability of the United Nations Security Council to ‘administer humanitarian action in a humanitarian way’, which would need to involve constructive participation of the BRIC countries, so as to engender the needed legitimacy.
We can argue about the viability of these international and regional organisations, but I think Galtung is onto something when he talks of the West’s genuine credibility gap in many of the places it is asked to intervene. This does not have to mean paralysis but it would be foolish to confuse our way of viewing these wars with how they may be seen, or come to be seen, by those on the ground.
You can see the whole interview here.