Libya: against imperial retrospectivity

The latest fodder for "anti-war" propaganda—avidly jumped on, of course, by such predictable outlets as  the (reliably reactionary) Counterpunch and (poorly named) Global Research—is the report of the British parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee finding that the 2011 military intervention in Libya relied on flawed intelligence and hastened the country's political collapse. The report blasts the UK's then-Prime Minister David Cameron, stating that his government "could not verify the actual threat to civilians posed by the Gaddafi regime; it selectively took elements of Muammar Gaddafi's rhetoric at face value; and it failed to identify the militant Islamist extremist element in the rebellion." (Al Jazeera, Sept. 14)

Here we go again. The anti-war case once again rests on the weak and cowardly foundation that Qaddafi didn't really mean it when he threatened "rivers of blood," and favorably invoked both the Tiananmen Square massacre and Israel's bombardment of Gaza as examples of what he would do to those who dared to rebel against his regime in the east. The assumption seems to be that it would be preferable to stand by and watch the massacre on the slight chance that Qaddafi was bluffing. If there was a case against the intervention, this was assuredly not it. Unless you think a good anti-war slogan would be "Arab lives don't matter."

And as for the admonition about jihadis among the rebel ranks—we've pointed out before the self-fulfilling nature of such warnings. The Western governments groom domesticated technocrats for the new order, who are of course rejected by the Libyan people and prove ineffectual. The jihadis are then poised to exploit the backlash. Nobody offers any solidarity to the pro-democratic, secular revolutionary forces. Then, when they are sidelined or crushed, the "anti-war" crowd (displaying its usual love-hate relationship with political Islam) squawks about how the revolution was a hornet's nest of jihadis from the start.

A gloating opinion piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian is typical of the unseemly schadenfreude that characterizes the "anti-war" approach to Libya—taking nearly open glee at the chaos there…

Going to war is too easy, far too easy. That is the one clear message from the Commons report on David Cameron's 2011 war on Libya. It presents that venture as an ill-conceived vanity project, to dust the ingenu prime minister with some "Arab spring" glory. In reality it brought untold misery to a country to which Cameron promised peace and democracy.

The immediate purpose of the war was to save "hundreds of thousands" in Benghazi from imminent massacre, after their uprising against Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi. The certainty of this massacre was dubious… Mission creep was inevitable, and the outcome was certain to destabilise not just Libya but its neighbours. It was none of Britain's business.

This is another example of what we term imperial narcissism—contemptuous of the actual struggles of the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East, even to the point of putting scare quotes around "Arab Spring." As for blaming the "untold misery" on the intervention, this assumes that the alternative was going back to a stable dictatorship under Qaddafi—which was clearly not possible; his autocratic rule had reached the breaking point. And it was 40 years of suppression of civil society under this rule that bears the greatest responsibility—by far—for the contemporary disaster in Libya. But this overwhelming reality is invisible to "anti-war" commentators, who have internalized the imperial perspective no less than the interventionists they love to hate. 

This schadenfreude position always overlooks the fact that Syria—where the West did not intervene militarily against the dictatorship, and where Bashar Assad has been free to carry out mass murder with perfect impunity—is in far worse shape than Libya today. (For an alternative perspective on the efficacy of the intervention, see Shadi Hamid's piece in Vox of April 5, flatly entitled: "Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure. They're wrong.")

Thankfully, Brian Slocock responds to Jenkins' schadenfreude with a forthright letter in The Guardian:

Simon Jenkins follows many western commentators in viewing events in the Middle East through a typically colonialist lens that filters out the people of the countries concerned and only sees western entities as meaningful actors. Thus the Libyan revolution becomes "David Cameron's war on Libya", with the people of Benghazi—the authors of the uprising—dismissed in a side comment. Similarly, the fall of the Gaddafi regime is attributed solely to the Nato operation, with no place for the people of Misrata, who pushed back the notorious 32nd Brigade led by Khamis Gaddafi for two months before any air support from Nato arrived; or the people of Az-Zawiya, who rose against Gaddafi, were put down by his forces, and then rose again as soon as the regime's attention was diverted elsewhere.

It's understandable that Jenkins chooses to pass over these people because he has nothing to offer them except a Hobbesian injunction that resisting tyranny produces worse results than the tyranny itself—an easy formula to pronounce from the comfort of the home counties, not so easy to embrace from the perspective of the tyrant's scaffold and torture chamber.

Popular revolutions are complex events that don't always produce the results their supporters aspire to, especially when they come in the wake of decades-long suppression of any form of free political expression. However, the appropriate response to them from western democrats is not haughty dismissal but active engagement, understanding and support.

The Libyans as actors in their own drama? What a radical notion… We're glad Slocock remembers what actually happened in Benghazi in the spring of 2011. For most of the West it seems to have gone down the Memory Hole, and the very name "Benghazi" has become a mere shorthand for a Beltway scandal. The secular democratic activists in Benghazi who are still struggling today? Utterly invisible to the outside world. Libya is reduced to a political football, and the "anti-war" forces in Britain and the US are no less guilty of this.