Under militia rule, Libya is beginning to disintegrate. Are the interventionists to blame?

o13-iconOwen Jones writes: It’s called the pottery store rule: “you break it, you own it”. But it doesn’t just apply to pots and mugs, but to nations. In the build-up to the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, it was invoked by Colin Powell, then US secretary of state. “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he reportedly told George W Bush. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems.” But while many of these military interventions have left nations shattered, western governments have resembled the customer who walks away whistling, hoping no one has noticed the mess left behind. Our media have been all too complicit in allowing them to leave the scene.

Libya is a striking example. The UN-authorised air campaign in 2011 is often lauded as a shining example of successful foreign intervention. Sure, the initial mandate – which was simply to protect civilians – was exceeded by nations who had only recently been selling arms to Muammar Gaddafi, and the bombing evolved into regime-change despite Russia’s protests. But with a murderous thug ejected from power, who could object?

Today’s Libya is overrun by militias and faces a deteriorating human rights situation, mounting chaos that is infecting other countries, growing internal splits, and even the threat of civil war. Only occasionally does this growing crisis creep into the headlines: like when an oil tanker is seized by rebellious militia; or when a British oil worker is shot dead while having a picnic; or when the country’s prime minister is kidnapped.

According to Amnesty International, the “mounting curbs on freedom of expression are threatening the rights Libyans sought to gain“. A repressive Gaddafi-era law has been amended to criminalise any insults to officials or the general national congress (the interim parliament). One journalist, Amara al-Khattabi, was put on trial for alleging corruption among judges. Satellite television stations deemed critical of the authorities have been banned, one station has been attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, and journalists have been assassinated. [Continue reading…]

Jones concludes: “No wonder western governments and journalists who hailed the success of this intervention are so silent. But here are the consequences of their war, and they must take responsibility for them.”

Once again we are offered a picture of Libya, the uprising against Gaddafi, and the chaos that has followed, as something in which the interventionists are all powerful and the Libyans themselves are like headless chickens set loose by Western overlords.

But here’s a radical idea: Maybe the anarchic state into which Libya has fallen is primarily the responsibility of its militia rulers.

If the only way of holding a country together is through the force of authoritarian rule, is that an argument in favor of authoritarianism or does it merely reveal the flimsiness of national identity?

The anti-interventionists who seem to feel nostalgic about the stability of Libya and Syria pre-2011, also seem to find it very easy to tolerate oppression which they themselves do not face.

No one enjoying democratic freedoms has the right or should have the audacity to believe that they can instigate someone else’s revolution. But the one thing on which most observers agree is that the uprisings in Libya and Syria were homegrown.

Facing well-armed government forces, the revolutionaries sought foreign support, just as Americans fighting for independence from Britain gladly accepted weapons and money from France.

Beneath a facade of anti-interventionist harmlessness (“It’s none of our business to interfere in the political affairs of others”) lurks an Orientalist contempt for Libyans and Syrians — populations whose political aspirations could apparently have continued being effectively suppressed by Gaddafi and Assad were it not for the meddlesome interference of Western neo-liberal interventionists.

When Owen says that those who supported NATO intervention in Libya should now “take responsibility,” it sounds like he’s expecting mea culpas in the form like this: intervention turns out to be a terrible thing. I promise to never support it again.

Yet those who argue that intervention in Libya was a terrible thing, need to present a credible supporting argument which I have yet to hear: why they believe Libya would now be in a better condition had NATO not become involved.

Absent the intervention, would Libyans now be living in relative peace, or, on the contrary, might Libya now more closely resemble Syria?

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5 thoughts on “Under militia rule, Libya is beginning to disintegrate. Are the interventionists to blame?

  1. Norman

    What is/was the solution? M.M.Q. We are only learning what went wrong, not what happened to all the advanced weapons most likely spirited out of country after Qaddafi was killed. Another star for the planning by those who sit in the Ivory towers, far, far, away.

  2. Syd

    “Yet those who argue that intervention in Libya was a terrible thing, need to present a credible supporting argument which I have yet to hear: why they believe Libya would now be in a better condition had NATO not become involved.”

    Since there are costs to American intervention, the burden of proof should be on the interventionists to justify our bombing other people.

    The American support for the rebels cost us about $1 billion. Right now over 100,000 people in Detroit are about to have their water cut off because they can’t afford to pay their water bill (collective total: $260 million.)

    We had a deal with Qaddafi that if he gave up his nuclear weapons program we wouldn’t try to overthrow him. Whether our intervention breaks the letter of the agreement or merely the spirit, every country that has a nuclear program that we wish to dismantle has a history of civil unrest. After Libya, future deals become much tougher. This is probably the biggest cost.

    And after paying this, are the Libyans any better off as a whole? Yes its up to the Libyans and the Iraqis to make their country better, but if we keep intervening and the result is anarchy, why shouldn’t this be an argument against intervention?

  3. Paul Woodward Post author

    To say “if we keep intervening and the result is anarchy” promotes a notion of intervention that seems widely held among anti-interventionists: that is, that they have ideologically opposite counterparts — people who are convinced that there is no problem that a few bombs can’t fix.

    In reality there is no such consensus. Lots of people who believed that NATO intervention in Libya was the right course of action, also vehemently opposed the war in Iraq. Libya is not Iraq. Syria is not Libya.

    Unless one is a pacifist and opposes all forms of violence — and thus would have opposed the fight of Americans against British rule; opposed the war against Hitler; opposed all movements of armed resistance from Palestine to Central America, etc. — then to assess whether military action is ever justified, that assessment has to be based on the circumstances.

    Those who argue that the current state of Libya is a direct consequence of NATO’s intervention are making a very simplistic argument which necessarily implies that absent the intervention the situation now would not only be different but also better.

    Some assert, for instance, that the threats to Benghazi were overstated. But if that was the case, Russia and/or China could have cast a veto at the Security Council. Were they bullied by the U.S., France and Britain? Hardly likely. No, even though both have tended to be consistent opponents of Western intervention, it would seem that when it came to Libya neither was willing to put their anti-interventionist philosophy to the test. Neither wanted to be held responsible for having allowed Gaddafi’s forces to take their revenge on the seat of the uprising.

  4. Ed

    ‘The anti-interventionists who seem to feel nostalgic about the stability of Libya and Syria pre-2011, also seem to find it very easy to tolerate oppression which they themselves do not face.’

    I have lived in Libya for the past four years (apart from ten months away during the fighting). Tonight when my wife came home she was followed by two cars who may have been intent on killing or kidnapping her since she is the director of a major British organisation. I can assure you that this would not have been the case four years ago.

    There is a case to be made for the argument that things would not only have been different but even better without intervention. Qaddafi was making changes and in fact had released the head of the head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who was handed over to the Americans by MI6 and is now suing the Brits because of it. But of course when the fighting broke out he ran off to Qatar and the came back hoping to be hailed as a liberator. He was sadly disabused of this notion.

    True, we don’t know what exactly would have happened but the US/Qatari etc intervention nipped in the bud any possibilities of national reconciliation and led to a situation that is deteriorating by the day. I know that Madeleine Albright and Zbigniew Brzezinski think that their interventions were worth it, but do you? I don’t.

    This is from someone actually living with the consequences.

  5. Paul Woodward Post author

    Ed – What you seem to be saying is that things would have been better had there been no uprising. But as the Tunisians toppled Ben Ali and the Egyptians pushed Mubarak aside, why should Libyans not have wanted to do the same?

    Once the uprising started, had Gaddafi remained in power there’s little reason to believe he would have been in the mood for reconciliation afterwards. The many Libyans who at the time said that they had crossed a threshold beyond which they felt no fear, knew that they were either going to defeat Gaddafi or die.

    I imagine that a difficult question many Libyans, Egyptians, Syrians, Bahrainis, and Iranians must be asking themselves is this: if rising up against authoritarian rule means risking subsequent civil war, anarchy or protracted instability, is it better to reconcile oneself to a lack of basic political freedoms?

    But that seems to be a question that they alone have a right to answer. It’s not for anyone whose own citizenship confers upon them a full range of political rights to suggest to anyone else that they don’t deserve to apsire for the same rights. “Learn to live with your dictator” is a pretty ugly neo-colonial sentiment to be promoting.

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