Viewing Libya through a different lens

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

An inevitably recurring theme in discussions of foreignness is the disjunction between our increasingly globalized world and global systems that limit and misrepresent that globalization. We have found this tension in economics this month: the European Union’s ongoing economic struggles and this month’s financial roller coaster, triggered by the U.S. debt crisis, are both symptoms of global society haltingly coming to terms with an interconnectedness unprecedented in history. And, perhaps equally poignantly, we have found it in politics: global reactions to turmoil in Libya signal uneasiness and uncertainty in our collective understanding of the extent to which global society should intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state.

When revolution swept across North Africa around six months ago, few could have prognosticated how events would pan out. So when uprising in Libya began to be thwarted by a decades-old authoritarian government, and when it began to appear that the lives of civilians were under threatened, the international community, under the leadership mainly of the UK, France, and other NATO nations, moved to intervene under a Security Council mandate. At the time, many observers viewed with skepticism and concern the decision to implement military force. The New York Times, while expressing support for the intervention in a March 21 editorial, nevertheless emphasized that there remain “enormous questions” in the legitimacy, strategy, and objectives of an attempt to topple the Libyan government. “There is much to concern us,” the editorial board stated unequivocally.

Several months on, with the collapse of the Gadhafi government finally achieved, there appears to be greater consensus in celebrating the apparently successful vindication of the responsibility-to-protect (R2P) philosophy that guided the intervention. The Washington Post affirmed, as it expressed its support for what it deemed justified U.S. participation in Libya action, “The right question for the United States and its allies isn’t whether to help oppressed people fight for freedom, it’s when.” The Canadian publication Globe and Mail, while expressing disapproval at the latitude used in interpreting R2P, never questions in its skeptical take on Libya the validity of the R2P axiom, merely quibbling over the manner in which it was appropriated, invoked, and implemented. General consensus points to a reaffirmed faith in the need for global coalition to safeguard the rights of civilians, sometimes even when that means trampling on state sovereignty.

Whether the Libyan intervention was justified or not, whether it was a genuine attempt to uphold the rights of Libyan civilians or whether there were ulterior interests that vitiated the ostensible nobility of the plan, whether the intervention was carried out appropriately—all these are fair questions, but they are beside the point when we look at the situation through the lens of foreignness studies. At its heart, what the Libya situation suggests to an observer interested in its implications for foreignness, and more importantly, what responses to that situation suggest, is how callow our world still is in dealing with situations that present a challenge to entrenched, traditional understandings of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Regardless of whether we herald Libyan intervention as a tragedy or a victory, we surely can agree that it caused us to think once again about what it means to be living in a globalized world, one where we must continue to contemplate the implication of the belief that there is a common human-ness that overrides national distinctions, or that there are rights so universal and so fundamental that they are worth fighting for. And we can further agree, no doubt, that we still do not have to a collective, satisfactory solution to these fundamental questions. We can agree, then, that we must continue to grapple with what ‘foreignness’ means and how ‘foreignness’ functions in a new century and a new world order.

Like so many other issues, the Libya affair of the past several months has been, at its essence, a foreignness issue. Before we can come to an informed opinion on what transpired specifically in Libya, we must acknowledge that there are primary, more general questions: What does it even mean to intervene in a ‘foreign’ society? How can a state be ‘foreign’ for political purposes but its people not be ‘foreign’ in humanitarian intervention? What place does ‘foreignness’ have in our modern political systems? And do the philosophies, doctrines, and values underpinning those systems accurately reflect and represent a world in which the meaning of ‘foreignness’ is in constant flux, in which there is no stability to ‘foreignness’ as an ontological reality? Perhaps these are the questions we must ponder before, or as, we ponder Libya.

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