My reply to: “A Preliminary Evaluation of the U.S. Intervention in Libya”

Daveed Garstein-Ross wrote a piece recently for the Gunpowder and Lead blog called “A Preliminary Evaluation of the U.S. Intervention in Libya;” I commented on the post at length and have cross-posted my comments here for posterity.

For context I recommend reading his piece on the blog first then my thoughts will make slightly more sense.

— OK, here’s the thing. There’s what gets reported on the news, and there’s what actually happens. There’s quite often a large delta between those two things. We found this in Bosnia where the shibboleths and clichés parroted on the news were worth palpably less than the tripe found in the National Enquirer every week – at least the Enquirer could be entertaining and tongue in cheek.

The reportage about Libya since Gaddafi met his end seems to worryingly follow the same trajectory.

Addressing a first set of bullet points above – Libya was ruled by a personality cult for 42 years that killed or exiled anyone that even seemed to oppose it. To think that in five months a strong and organised central authority would arise in a country where the people just overthrew their strong, organised central authority is both fanciful and disingenuous as analysis. It took an incredibly bloody and costly civil war, with after-effects that resonate today still, for the USA to establish federal authority over the States so to judge Libya by the standards of 21st century democracies is somewhat hypocritical. More on that in a bit.

Secondly, a report that Gaddafi loyalists took over Bani Walid, is forgiveable if CBS News reported it; to say they still have control simply can’t be overlooked for anyone. But for a howler like that to appear in a respected defence blog should raise more than one eyebrow. Reports from people actually in Bani Walid could have confirmed the event as a situation involving disaffected youth summarily ejected by the Misrata militias amongst others.

Additionally, people on the East Coast of the USA might believe the Berbers (Amazigh) to be perceived as pro-Gaddafi. Almost any Libyan would quickly disabuse them of this perception. Again, this bit of analysis could easily have been confirmed with better sources. To look at a final set of bullet points, stating that a country, under the thumb of an autocrat, that then revolts against him might experience an amount of chaos and lack of accountable control over its arsenals is stating the obvious. To say that there are bad people out there who take advantage of this(!) isn’t an argument amplifier. It’s still stating the obvious but in that inflammatory way the TSA and friends do when trying to lobby for billions from ignorant Congressmen: if they waver, invoke al Qaeda; the money will flow. But these are quibbles (but supporting quibbles) compared to the conclusions drawn.

To say there is no goodwill on the Arab Street means narrowing ones definition of the Arab street to the posher bits of Riyadh or the HQ of the SCAF in Cairo. So Obama didn’t go to Tripoli but Cameron and Sarkozy were celebrated as heroes when they arrived, and NATO is no longer a swear word in much of the Middle East. National interests were advanced, tremendously even: we were the ones that supplied those arms, we bought the oil, we feted Gaddafi when he (apparently) “came in from the cold,” but we’re now seen as the ones that pushed the UN envelope to help liberate the people from him. We have a finite period of time to nudge parts of the Middle East in a positive direction by doing everything we can to encourage the uptake of democracy and democratic institutions in these countries.

If successfully entrenched, this will do more than all the realpolitik of all time to advance our national interests! To be fair, it will take a generation or two but will greatly decrease the international political threat level our children will face in a globalized world. If people of the Middle East & North Africa have the ability to freely choose their leaders (thus their policies) and exercise their freedom to do so, they will do so. They may muddle along (like Iraq) or choose and suffer the consequences (like Gaza) but will eventually get there.

It took the USA 130 years to get to a semblance of the nation of rights and rule of law vaguely recognizable in the form we know it today. Getting to that point wasn’t benign: during that time we invaded colonial Canada, Mexico and Spanish colonial territories, to say nothing of WT Sherman writing the “How to utterly subdue your enemies” manual for Assad and Gaddafi during the American Civil War, so some humility is on order on our part.

Don’t write Libya off on the basis of trying to carefully find its way to a form it’s never known before. They’re doing well, considering, but less than optimal analysis of the situation doesn’t help.

Image attribution: By William Murphy (Flickr: Protest In Dublin: Gaddafi Is A Murderer) CC BY-SA 2.0