Intervention Was Not the Cause of Libya’s Woes. Quite the Opposite

Libya is now in flames. This might seem to be a rather hyperbolic note on which to begin, but it is true. The country is spiralling out of control, and the city of Benghazi, the former rebel capital in the 2011 revolution against the dictatorship of Colonel Gaddafi, has reportedly been captured by Islamist militants and declared an ‘Islamic emirate’. Foreign diplomatic staff continue their exodus as tensions swirl and the threat of civil disintegration becomes more plausible by the day.

Perhaps surprisingly, this state of affairs serves to confirm rather than to repudiate my contention – that the United States and its allies need to take a more proactive role in removing tyrants and combating the forces of oppression worldwide, be they political or theocratic.

What the current situation in Libya proves is that the supposed ‘stability’ provided by friendly despots is nothing of the sort. As we have seen, across the Arab world in the last few years, the iron hand of dictatorship is not a viable tool for governance. Sooner or later – and recent history inclines towards the former – the people of nations under this particular yoke will attempt to do something about the anti-democratic entities which control their lives.

Colonel Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, the tyrannical leaders of Libya and Egypt respectively, who had received some goodwill from western leaders when other, more palatable allies in the region were in short supply, were not toppled by western interference alone – or at all, in the case of the latter. Rather, internal movements did the heavy lifting in both cases. The heroes of Tahrir Square, who managed to topple Mubarak in an astonishing 18 days, may have been betrayed by the ascension of a military junta, but, in the heady days of 2011’s Arab Spring, they removed a leader of more than forty years whose jails housed more than a few dissenters and political prisoners. The stability he provided proved finite, it seems.

The same is true of the eccentric Colonel. Who, I wonder, had the intellectual bravery, and stupidity, to declare, when Libya had essentially split in two and ‘partition’ was the word of the moment, that despotic rule was preventing anything of that nature? Like Syria now, Libya then was a country at war with itself. Some stability.

The failure of the West, in Libya as in Iraq, was not too much intervention but too little. The UN endorsed no-fly zone over the country, in order to prevent the wholesale slaughter that Gaddafi promised would occur when he retook Benghazi, was necessary and vital. Without it, untold suffering could have been inflicted by vengeful soldiers and paramilitaries on an undefended civilian population. In time, rebel forces advanced across the vast spaces that make up much of the country. Tripoli fell and so did Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown.

They had won, defeating a very bad guy in the process. (Actually, that designation is a bit of an understatement, especially after the opening of regime archives and prisons allowed historians to see the truth of Gaddafi’s time in power. As expected, the picture these sources paint is not a pretty one.) However, the seeds which led to the current crisis had already been sown, and they were not uprooted in the euphoria that followed Gaddafi’s removal. (His execution – despite the adrenaline-fuelled pleasure it initially brought – which was carried out on the street, without due process and outside a court of law, didn’t help matters.)

What instead seems to be the deciding factor in the travails of the new Libya is primarily the result of Gaddafi’s handiwork. In the course of the civil war, the two main focal points for rebellion, Benghazi and Misrata, were separated not just by geography and miles upon miles of desert roads. Gaddafi controlled areas cut Misrata off on all sides, and forced its residents to undergo immense hardship.

Benghazi was threatened with destruction, and the civil population was threatened with extermination, but neither eventuality came to pass. ‘Threatened’ is most definitely the key word here. NATO intervention, in no small part prompted by Gaddafi’s blood-curdling threats, stopped the very worst befalling the eastern metropolis.

This asymmetry of experience has proven a serious obstacle to unity in the post-Gaddafi political landscape. Despite the pretence of working side by side to do battle with a common enemy, the two cities, each with their own systems of government as well as distinct military-style brigades, were never able to completely see eye to eye. This trouble, manifesting itself as a east/west style division, laid the foundation for some of the violence and trouble that we see on the streets of Tripoli and elsewhere this week.

The conventional response – in the proud tradition of ex post facto isolationism – is to blame the US and allies, including the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, for the manifestly less than perfect result in the wake of their military actions. This analysis represents both a flawed diagnosis of the problem itself and also a serious moral deficiency on behalf of its advocates.

The UN resolution which was put in place to allow a no-fly zone over Libya was an abundantly necessary measure. Mere days before the resolution was passed, Gaddafi himself had explicitly threatened the citizens of Benghazi. ‘We are coming tonight,’ he said, ‘and there will be no mercy.’

With that on the table, then, there was no alternative. Act, or watch as a civilian population was brutalised by a tyrant – and a particularly nasty one at that.

But there could have been another way. If, before all of this, the militaries of the West had hit Gaddafi, and hit him hard, many months could have been knocked off the war. The social divisions which now plague Libyan reconstruction might have been averted entirely. Wounds inflicted in a brutal civil war might have been avoided, or made to cut less deep. As it was, it took the imminent threat of extermination to force the hand of the United Nations. That is not good enough, for Libya or the world.

Next time – and there will be a next time – we deserve better.

This piece was originally published elsewhere in August 2014.