As the Revolution in Libya appears set to succeed, a number of notions have become instant common wisdom, the most prominent of which is that “we” somehow have a responsibility to ensure that Libya does not become another Iraq.
This is an instance of substituting analogy for knowledge, too common in discussions about the Middle East and politics, and interestingly, as Guy Rundle observes, seems to have originated from left opponents of the NATO intervention:
The “endgame” discourse is a continuation of this folly?—?the avid discussion of what “we” must or must not do once the rebels have secured power. Such discussion has become terribly confused?—?a great deal of it has focused on the idea that Libya and Iraq are comparable situations. This has become a topic taken by the mainstream, but the comparison initially came from those sections of the left who opposed NATO support for the revolution. The comparison?—?contained in the single notion of “intervention”?—? becomes self-fulfilling, even though the situation is radically different. The US Coalition had taken ownership of Iraq?—?its every act affected the country’s destiny. There are no NATO troops on the ground in Libya, nor are there likely to be?—?so the idea of “we” taking responsibility for what happens to the country can only be done by obscuring the real differences in the character of our involvement. Here more than anywhere it seems necessary to insist on the notion that NATO involvement was support for a pre-existing process, and that the principle involved in that makes it imperative that Libya’s future be left to its own people.
Inevitably the apparent success in Libya has led to suggestions that the principles that guided it be applied elsewhere, such as in Syria. But the two cases are not comparable, and the reason they are not goes to the heart of nature of NATO support in Libya, and the reason I, and others, argued that the Left should support it?—?because there was a request for support, from a legitimate and constituted leadership, a military process that could be augmented, and a shared political aim.
In Syria, these conditions simply don’t exist. There’s no explicit single leadership, no front line, no clear military process that could be augmented. NATO involvement would be pure, old-skool military humanitarianism, with all the chaos and death that entails. Thus in opposing it, it’s vital to make out the case for distinguishing between Libya and Syria?—?and any other invitation to “sort things out”, rather than help someone win.
As far as I can tell, although I’m happy to be corrected, those who opposed the NATO intervention from the left have not been commenting directly on whether the end justified the means. It’s well worth remembering that there was also significant opposition from the right and from the “realist” foreign policy wonks, and as Rundle reminds us, that retrospective justification should be avoided. The key thing, as he says, was the rightness of the initial decision for solidarity:
Above all, it seems important not to succumb to retrospective justification. Thought things look good for the rebels now, anything is possible?—?from a total takeover by NATO’s clients within the leadership, to protracted conflict between separate groups, to the victory of hardline Islamist groups, though the latter seems highly unlikely. But it is not the apparent military success of the rebels that justifies advocating support for them, and nor does such success invalidate the argument against. For my money, once a request was made for support, and in explicit terms, honouring it was simply delivering on an implicit promise made by the notion of international solidarity. That would hold, even if the revolution had ended in disaster. But the crucial point was surely to not go down to another noble defeat, but to actually win one.
Again, as Rundle makes clear, a number of outcomes are possible, many of which will be for a number of reasons sub-optimal. Juan Cole, unsurprisingly, is well worth reading on this point.
Those who opposed the intervention from the left will no doubt be emphasising the negatives. Of course, we should be discussing the form democratisation will take, and the political and economic consequences of the Revolution’s victory, but in a spirit of solidarity and with a recognition that we do not determine the outcomes. Rather than some sort of neo-colonialist denunciation in advance of the course the Libyan people might take (“manipulated by the US”, “all about oil”!), what is appropriate is a maintenance of a democratic commitment to solidarity combined with a will to offer critical and reflexive support.
But, as with the imperative to support the Libyan Revolution, and its demand for military assistance, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to keep the bigger picture in mind.
Matt Osborne at Crooks and Liars does this well, in a post which is also a rich narrative of what has occurred since February 17:
Two myths should be put to rest. First, the idea that Libya’s war originated as anything but a native conflict is nothing but paranoid speculation. Indeed, freedom fighters have systematically ignored international sanctimony and calls for a cease-fire. Libyans fought, and appear to have won, their own war, following their own plan. That they had help — from the sky, or via Egypt, or by sea — does not detract from the sacrifices of Libyans who refused to stop fighting and dying. They own their victory.
Second, the image of “ragtag revolutionaries” is also false. Freedom fighters have in fact been consistently clever and creative. While still undisciplined tactically, they have demonstrated good operational discipline and planning, and in fact have done a very good job of coordinating with air power despite the challenges. Never wavering in determination, Libyans have written their own epic, and it is a good one. All the allies did was help.
Previous coverage of the Libyan revolution at LP can be found here.
Elsewhere: The Guardian is an excellent source for breaking news and analysis of the current situation in Libya.