From the outset of the Libyan episode, there have been ample grounds for reservation. Both the manner in which events have unfolded, and also the longer-term implications, are troubling.
Objections to the lack of public debate, to NATO’s tendency to reach for the gun before exhausting all alternatives to the use of armed force, to the ambitious pursuit of goals well beyond those authorized by the UN Security Council, and to the near complete incoherence of Western policy in the region seem well-founded. Quite apart from the unknown number of people killed during the rebellion, respect for international law and for the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect have been among the more notable casualties.
The broader concern is that for NATO participants, policy has become an instrument of war. But that, and a host of other issues remain unaddressed. With Gadhafi’s execution, these kinds of considerations have by and large been lost in the orgy of triumphalism and self-congratulation.
It may be that the Western military intervention in support of one side in a civil war was the best available among a limited selection of bad options, and that a new Libya, launched down a path of democracy, security, prosperity, and respect for human rights, is set to become a model. I hope so. But most of those attributes are without antecedent in Libya. I can’t shake the feeling that it is still way too soon to break out the champagne.
Deprived of a common enemy, the various factions within the ruling Transnational National Council (TNC) now have little to keep them united. Inevitable differences will arise over the distribution of power and the dispensing of patronage, not to mention the division of the spoils. These issues will be exacerbated by Libya’s long history of regional, ethnic and tribal divisions. Tensions of this nature will be challenging to contain and manage.
With the uncontrolled pillaging of Gadhafi’s armouries, the country is awash with weapons of all description, and untrained militias roam the streets. Some will be keen to settle accounts and will seek revenge through reprisals. All of this will be difficult to control and roll back.
The received wisdom notwithstanding, the Gadhafi who for a while had become the toast of the town when he changed foreign policy direction, settled with the Lockerbie bombing victims, renounced support for terrorism and terminated his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, was not universally reviled within his country. Although his erratic, eccentric and sometimes brutal behaviour made it easy to slot him as a cartoon cut-out, the very caricature of a loony despot, by comparative measure, he was not particularly corrupt and had some real achievements to his credit.
Gadhafi worked hard for African unity and financial independence. He invested oil revenues in support of national needs, and spent substantially on domestic infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and roads. Development indicators, such as literacy and infant mortality rates, were the best in the region, and this may account for the fact that Libya topped all other African countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.
Much of this legacy will have been lost in the seven months of NATO bombardment, and that may help to explain why not all of Africa is celebrating.
With the NATO military mission scheduled to end October 31, the centre of the international action will shift to trade and investment promotion, and to competition for lucrative resource and reconstruction contracts. Yet driven by the relentless pressures of the 24/7 news cycle and popular preferences for infotainment, the legions of journalists who covered the fall of Sirte have largely moved on. As a result, in the aftermath of the conflict and short of a resumption of full-blown hostilities, over the coming months we are unlikely to hear all that much about NATO’s new protectorate, or its proxies in the TNC.
That is unfortunate, for in the case of the latest exercise of Western military intervention, the proof will be in the pudding.