Zunes Critiques War on Libya
Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 06:48 AM EDT
As always, Stephen Zunes' writings on US
policy toward the Middle East and nonviolent action are some of the most
thorough and informative out there, and his articles on the situation in Libya
are no exception. At the end of February, he wrote this in-depth piece on the history of US-Libyan relations, which I
very helpful, and more recently he had a great critique of the concepts of Responsibility to Protect
and humanitarian intervention.
On Monday, he wrote an wonderful piece about the Western military intervention and
nonviolent alternatives in Libya that reiterates many of the points I've been
making on this site since the war began.
First, he argues that the Libyan movement's turn to violence, and the
subsequent outside military intervention, will make it much less likely that
any kind of democratic government will emerge in the wake of this
...the chances of a successful transition to democracy
the ouster of an authoritarian regime are much higher if the overthrow results
from a massive nonviolent movement, which requires the establishment of broad
alliances of civil society organizations and the cooperation and consensus to
make that possible. This contrasts with an overthrow resulting from a violent
struggle -- led by an elite vanguard, dominated by martial values and seeking
power through force of arms rather than popular participation -- which, more
often than not, has simply resulted in a new dictatorship.
When massive nonviolent resistance liberated a number of key Libyan cities
back in February, popular democratic committees were set up to serve as
local governments. For example, Benghazi -- a city of over a million people --
established a municipal government run by an improvised organizing committee
judges, lawyers, academics, and other professionals. Since the resistance to
Qaddafi turned primarily violent, however, the leadership of the movement
appears to now have significant representation from top cabinet officials and
military officers, who for years had been allied with the tyrant, defected
in recent weeks and whose support for democracy is rather
Writing at Foreign Policy, conservative Harvard University
professor Stephen Walt recently cited a whole series of academic studies that support this
A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that
military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and
the United States) "has only very rarely played a role in democratization
1945." Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New
York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to
stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and
several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the
War generally led to "significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines
forty-two "foreign imposed regime changes" since 1920 and finds that when
interventions "damage state infrastructural power" they also increase the risk
of subsequent civil war.
Other studies, like "How Freedom is Won," which was published in 2005 by
House, or Maria Stephen and Erica Chenoweth's exhaustive "Why Civil Resistance Works," demonstrate with
extensive evidence that nonviolent movements are far more likely to lead to
democratic governments after they are victorious than armed struggles.
Zunes then argues that war on Libya and the
taking up of arms by rebels are only likely to empower Qaddafi and discourage
further defections from within the Libyan security apparatus:
Given how their history of suffering under colonialism and
foreign intervention has made Libyans notoriously xenophobic, there is a risk
of a nationalist reaction from Western bombing that could strengthen Qaddafi
more than the damage done to Qaddafi's war-making machinery would weaken
In addition, defections by security forces -- critically important in
ousting a military-backed regime -- are far more likely when they are ordered
to gun down unarmed protesters than when they are being attacked by foreign
And finally, while acknowledging the unique challenges faced by the
opposition in Libya, Zunes provides numerous examples to counter the myth that
Qaddafi is too ruthless for nonviolence to work in removing him from
In fact, he makes the case that the pro-democracy movement in Libya made
most significant gains during its nonviolent phase and that it was not
successful only due to a lack of strategy and planning.
In Libya, the protests were almost exclusively nonviolent
the first week of the uprising. It was during this period that the
pro-democracy movement made the most gains, taking over most of the cities in
the eastern part of the country. It was also during this period when most of
the resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Qaddafi,
Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers took place.
Pilots deliberately crashed their planes, flew into exile and otherwise
orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers defected or
to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution.
It was when the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, that the
revolution's progress stalled and was soon reversed, which in turn led to the
United States and its allies attacking Libya.
Smart strategy is key to any insurrection, whether it be armed or unarmed.
The largely spontaneous Libyan uprising, in its nonviolent phase, focused
almost exclusively on mass protests, making them easy targets for Qaddafi's
repression, rather than relying on more diverse tactics -- including strikes
(which could have been particularly effective in the oil industry), boycotts,
slowdowns, and other forms of non-cooperation. In short, the failure of the
nonviolent struggle was not because it was nonviolent, but because it was not
This article originally appeared on Waging Nonviolence.