Libya: the Good War

Atrios reminisces about the days when Libya was the war everybody liked instead of the war nobody wants to talk about:

I was talking about this with a friend who knows a bit about such things (I mostly don’t) yesterday. There was a time when we had to do something in Libya, and doing something of course meant bombing the shit out of someone because what else do we know how to do. Eventheliberals were saying 1) bomb 2)???? 3) humanitarian miracles!!!. Nobody talks about Libya anymore. I guess we just got bored?

The dilemma in both Libya and Iraq is that criticizing the intervention can sound like nostalgia for the days when a bloodthirsty madman was running the country, and obviously that’s not what most critics are saying. It’s amoral and unfair to the people of Libya and Iraq to say that they’d be better off with Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein still in charge, right? But this is an argument that pro-intervention folks use a lot: “oh, so you’re saying everything would be better off with the dictator still in power?” That’s a false choice, though. I don’t believe the people of Iraq would be better off with Saddam still in power, nor do I think that the people of Libya would be better off with Gaddafi still in power. But I do believe a couple of things:

  1. It’s hard to imagine how people in either country could be any worse off than they are right now, under any other set of circumstances, and
  2. I think people in both countries would be better off if they’d replaced Gaddafi and Saddam on their own; this means of their own accord, on their own timetable, and with a replacement that they created themselves

I will admit that I was still a Do Something person in 2011 and I felt intervening in Libya was the right thing to do. And the truth is, there were several ways in which Libya was different from Iraq. There was strong international support for the Libya mission. The Libya intervention was meant (at least initially) to stop an ongoing humanitarian disaster while also preventing a bigger one (allegedly). There was an active rebellion going on against a repressive dictator, whose leaders were openly asking for international assistance. I was skeptical that the US and its partners would restrain themselves from expanding their limited mission–stopping a massacre–to go full-bore for regime change–which turned out to be what happened–but even at that I was in favor of intervening. I hope I’ve learned my lesson.

Comparing Libya and Iraq only gets you so far, obviously, but the interventions were alike in that both demonstrated the fact that the US is a lot better at breaking stuff than it is at helping to put anything back together. Libya is definitely broken. It’s got two competing governments, one in Tripoli and one in the northeastern city of Tobruk, simultaneously fighting each other while also trying (and failing) to fight ISIS, whose Libyan operations are based in the central coastal city of Sirte. This civil war has been going on virtually since Gaddafi was captured and killed, which means the country has been in a state of war since March 2011. Needless to say Libya’s economy is in tatters, and people are in such dire straits that they’re drowning in the Mediterranean by the hundreds just for a chance of escaping the hell in which they’re currently living.

The Tobruk government claims to be Libya’s legitimate government, and technically they’ve got a better claim than anybody else, even if it still isn’t all that great. Tobruk’s parliament was elected last June, but with very low turnout (understandable given the war, but still not a great marker of legitimacy), and then had to flee Tripoli two months later when Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated rebels seized the capital and reinstated the defunct General National Congress that the election was supposed to replace. Basically the losers of the election got to form their own parliament anyway, which is the kind of thing that works in Kindergarten class elections but really sucks when you’re dealing with violent adults with access to lots of big guns.

Joining these governments in the precious patchwork that is contemporary Libyan politics is ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar al-Sharia (based in Benghazi and at least partially responsible for the 2012 consulate attack there), and various Tuareg (Berber) groups that have been waging their own civil war in the southwestern part of the country. The smugglers who are responsible for drowning those would-be Libyan refugees in the Mediterranean are also a factor here, since their crimes wouldn’t be possible without the violence and anarchy brought on by the civil war.

Excellent, up-to-date map of the state of affairs in Libya, from Wikipedia user Alhanuty. Red areas are (at least nominally) controlled by the Tobruk government, Green by the GNC in Tripoli, gray is ISIS, blue is contested, and yellow is the Tuareg area.

As it was in 2011 before the intervention, the epicenter of much of the fighting right now is Misrata, an important coastal city just east of Tripoli. Misrata is controlled by forces allied with the GNC in Tripoli, but Tobruk’s forces, under the command of a former Gaddafi-era general-turned-US asset, Khalifa Haftar, have been pressing Misrata’s defenders on one side while ISIS presses them from the other. The UN is holding talks in Geneva between the competing governments, but while the Tobruk government appears ready to accept the UN’s framework (in which it appears to come out in the stronger position), the Tripoli government does not.

Did the Western intervention in 2011 cause all of this mess? Yes, but it’s not completely responsible. Some responsibility also lies with Gaddafi, whose paranoid authoritarianism stripped Libya of any chance at building strong governing institutions or even a real sense of united nationhood among its three main regions (Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east). And really Gaddafi was just a reaction to the rot that colonialism and monarchy brought to Libya before him. It was probably inevitable that Libya would struggle to hold itself together after Gaddafi’s death, whenever (or however) that happened. But a managed transition from Gaddafi to democratic government would have obviously been better than this. Just about anything would have been better than this.The 2011 intervention, if nothing else, foreclosed on any possibility–however slim–of such a transition.

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