Notes From the Margins…

Libya – another intervention unravels?

  • January 05, 2012
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There’s an interesting analysis by Tony Karon on Time‘s Global Spin blog of the emerging chaos in post-Gaddafi Libya.   Karon writes of Tuesday’s gunbattle in Tripoli between rival militia factions, of armed gunmen terrorising towns and neighbourhoods, of tribal and factional competition that may yet lead to civil war in a country where the ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) is still struggling to establish its authority and legitimacy.

Comparing this situation to Donald Rumsfeld’s observation that ‘freedom is messy’ in the immediate aftermath of post-Saddam Iraq,  Karon notes that

The difference, of course, is that in Iraq, the U.S. military had established a monopoly of force —Rumsfeld was simply clinging to the hope that it wouldn”t have to be used to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq, and could be brought home pronto. But Libya, as we know, was a different kind of operation— an aproach hailed by U.S. and NATO officials as a new model of “intervention-lite” in which Western powers and Arab allies could help indigenous populations oust odious dictators with minimal commitment of blood and treasure.

Leaving aside Karon’s assumption that Western states and Arab allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are really moved by such selfless motives,   his analysis touches on a question that is crucial to other liberal/humanitarian interventions elsewhere, when he observes  that

“…the recognition extended by foreign powers to the NTC was far in advance of the extent to which Libyans, even many of those in the forefront of the battle to oust Gaddafi, were willing to accept its lead. The fact that the rebel leadership had not established an alternative power center meant that the collapse of Gaddafi also meant an effective collapse of state authority. The challenge now facing the rebels is to build a new state on the ruins of the old, and the first order of state-building business is establishing a monopoly on military force within its borders. The NTC is struggling to meet that challenge.”

This tendency to produce governments and rulers that lack real legitimacy has been a recurring feature of the Western military ‘interventions’ of the last decade.   In Afghanistan the toppling of the Taliban was achieved through alliances with local warlords and the imposition of the utterly corrupt Karzai administration – a government that is only in power through rigged elections.

In Iraq,  the US set out to establish a government that would be pro-American and pro-Israeli, friendly to foreign capital and willing to transform the Iraqi economy in accordance with the priorities laid out in the Bremer laws.  The only politician they found who was willing to play this role was the sinister Ahmed Chalabi, who despite his connections in US political and intelligence circles,  was barely known in Iraq itself and clearly had his own agenda.

Unable to impose Chalabi as an Iraqi Karzai and with no knowledge or understanding of the country they occupied, the Anglo-American invaders dismantled the core institutions of the Iraqi state and created a power vacuum – and a crisis of political legitimacy – that laid the basis for the firestorm of violence that followed.

Presented by some of its supporters at least,  as a disinterested attempt to implant a Western-style democracy in the heart of the Arab world,  the invasion and occupation ushered in a  corrupt and parasitic parliamentary system that was seen by many Sunni Muslims as a vehicle for Sh’ia ascendancy, and whose government increasingly relies on violence, force and intimidation to remain in power.

In Libya the US/European coalition similarly put its faith in a TNC that was stacked with former Gaddafi loyalists and opportunists, and which appears to have been largely tacked onto the popular movement that began in Benghazi last February.   If external intervention was crucial to the collapse of Gaddafi, as in Iraq it has nevertheless created a political order that  is inherently unstable and prone to further conflict.

Such outcomes are to some extent an inevitable consequence of ‘interventions’ that are always driven primarily by broader geostrategic considerations rather than any real concern for the countries that are bombed or invaded.   Some of the more ‘leftist’ proponents of Western military interventions in recent years have tried to reconcile the ‘realist’ school of international relations, which places national interests and security and geopolitical objectives over moral and humanitarian considerations,  with the more recent ‘idealistic’ objectives of building democracy/humanitarian intervention and R2P (Responsibility to Protect).

Even when interventions are driven by self-interested geopolitical considerations, such supporters argue, they can still serve progressive or humanitarian ends, however inadvertently.   These arguments were often made in the run up to the Afghan and Iraq war, where it was argued that the Taliban and Saddam were so bad that anything that toppled them would inevitably be better and that democracy was  always better than dictatorship – however it came about.

In presenting war/bombing/invasion as a moral and humanitarian obligation and the  least-bad option, such arguments ignore the fact that unilateral wars of choice not only kill people, often in greater numbers than were dying already –  they inevitably produce unforeseen political consequences that contradict or undermine their supposed intentions.

Personally, I’m always happy to see dictators fall anywhere and I certainly prefer democracy – even in its limited and easily manipulated parliamentary form – to dictatorship.   For all its limitations, this is what millions of Arabs have taken to the streets to fight for over the last twelve months.

But democracy is an organic process that must emerge from the bottom up and from within the society in which it takes place if it is to have legitimacy and consensus.It can’t simply be conjured up by neo-imperialist interventions,  air strikes and military invasions.

Such interventions invariably seek allies that reflect their own interests and priorities rather than those of the population they supposedly intend to liberate or protect.  In doing so they will not only fail to make things better – they will often make a bad situation worse in the short-term and lay the basis for further violence and civil conflict in which democratic politics is marginalised and ultimately undermined.

Libya is beginning to look like one more example of this pattern, and Western interference in Syria may well produce a similar outcome.  That is why the best thing that Western states could do for the ‘Arab Spring’ would be to keep their guns and planes out of it.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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