Libya and the World after Gadhafi: Preliminary Thoughts

It is perhaps premature to propose potential conclusions and lessons learned in the immediate wake of the rebel victory over the Gadhafi regime. On the surface, it appears that NATO support for the rebellion assisted materially in achieving the objective of ridding Libya of a widely detested dictator.

In terms of success, this would seem to represent more than can be said for Western efforts in backing one side in the Afghan civil war, or intervening under manifestly false pretences in Iraq. Both of those episodes have proven extremely costly. Still, before breaking out any more champagne, there are several issues regarding the Libyan affair which require more sober and sustained reflection than they seem to have received at the international meeting on Libya’s future held September 1st in Paris.

The rule of law. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, passed in response to widely-reported concerns over the possibility of a massacre in Benghazi, provided NATO with the limited authority to establish a no-fly zone and to intervene in order to protect civilians. Participating NATO members, led by the UK and France, in almost no time exceeded the resolution’s provisions by arming rebel groups, inserting special forces and advisors, and mounting a protracted, and at times intense air campaign in service of regime change. This level of engagement has gone well beyond anything provided for in the resolution, and, however much one might admire the goals, amounts essentially to vigilante action.

What is to be made of this kind of example? It certainly lies outside the more limited precepts of humanitarian intervention, and as such does not qualify under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the thought that oil and opportunity played a defining role in determining the nature of the course taken. These actions also suggest the continued functioning of a world order in which the “rule makers” are free to act as they please, while the “rule takers” have no such option. Anyone with an interest in just global governance cannot be thrilled about this sort of demonstration, which has all of the hallmarks of imperial over-reach.

Talking vs. fighting. In Guerrilla Diplomacy, I spend about 300 pages making the case that if development has become the new security in the age of globalization, then diplomacy must replace defence at the centre of international policy. In that regard, the question must be put: why did western powers once again reach first for the gun? Why did they not consult with their own citizens before acting? Where was the diplomatic offensive? Yes, the foreign holdings of the Gadhafi  family were frozen, an arms embargo was applied, and the International Criminal Court was asked to investigate legal proceedings. But this does not constitute anything like the full-court diplomatic press which was purported to be underway. There were no comprehensive economic or political sanctions, no dispatching of special envoys, no demands that the UN Security Council move to separate the combatants before the onset of full-blown hostilities. Hugo Chavez, and later the government of South Africa under African Union auspices  called for negotiations, offering mediation and good offices. Their entreaties were ignored.

While the full extent of the civilian and combatant casualties remains unknown, these have certainly been greater than might have been expected had pacific alternatives to the use of force been fully explored. It is by no means inconceivable that a similar outcome could have been achieved without recourse to protracted violence. Another opportunity for the vigorous exercise of diplomacy has been forsaken, and that seems to me most unfortunate.

International policy coherence. It can be argued that because of the constantly shifting balance between values and interests, consistency has never been one of the defining features of international policy. That said, what we are witnessing in this case represents an exceptional, if not unprecedented, case of incoherence. Well after the end of the Cold War, close Western allies have included a selection of corrupt, unrepresentative, illiberal, and often very nasty autocrats. Their friendship was often actively courted in the name of geopolitical stability, resource access or commercial gain. Today, some, but by no means all of those same figures have become the subject of scorn, derision, and ridicule. There is no obvious pattern. And in places where government forces actually have been slaughtering their own people – in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere – next to nothing is done.

As unrepresentative despots go, Gadhafi was no worse than many, and his track record in terms of personal corruption and spending on infrastructure, education and social services was actually better than average. It is useful to recall that not long ago, western leaders – keen to expand trade and acquire newly available oil concessions – were lining up to see him. His decisions to dismantle Libya’s nuclear and WMD programs, to stop supporting international terrorism, to turn over suspects and offer a financial settlement for the Lockerbie bombing, and to denounce al-Qaida had the effect of transforming his status from that of a pariah to something akin to a newfound friend. Fast forward a few years and that rapprochement suddenly became history, with Gadhafi  again characterized as a dangerous buffoon, an obstacle to democracy, and an enemy of the people.

Little wonder that those with a preference for religious extremism and political violence find the contradictions inherent in western policy such an easy propaganda target.

Break it and it’s yours. No one seems to know very much about the ruling National Transitional Council or their future intentions for the country. My impression is that the concerns expressed over a possible Islamist tendency in the uprising have been over-drawn. Still, NATO played a significant part in achieving the present outcome, and with that should come an equal measure of responsibility.

The challenges ahead are great, and they go well beyond finding and trying the former president. Long before elections can be contemplated, the remaining pockets of resistance will have to be quelled, reprisals avoided, tribal and clan differences broached, militias disarmed, weapons brought under the state control, services restored and critical infrastructure repaired. That is a daunting list.

NATO countries missed out on providing meaningful political support to the Arab Spring, and in this case chose instead to participate militarily. The consequences of that decision will endure.

I wish the new Libyan government well, but nevertheless wonder if similar results could have been achieved without recourse to violence or foreign intervention.