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?

I’m one of the people who doesn’t talk much about Libya, which is a glaring omission given the general focus of this blog. But I’ve got a historical post about Libya in the can for next week, so now’s probably as good a time as any to make a troubling admission: I was one of those Do Something people back in 2011. There, I said it.

At the risk of making this All About Me, let me explain. I could pretend that I wasn’t OK with the Libyan intervention. The whole thing happened before I had this here blog, and I don’t think I’ve ever written anything here that could be construed as strong praise for the operation. But the truth is, I thought it was a good idea at the time. I contrasted Libya with Iraq, and Libya seemed to check off a lot of boxes that the Iraq didn’t: there was strong international support for the mission, we would be stopping an ongoing humanitarian disaster while also preventing a much bigger one, and there was an active rebellion going on against a brutal dictator, whose leaders were openly asking for international assistance. I was skeptical that the US and its partners would be able or willing to stick around after the intervention to help stabilize the country, which proved correct, but all in all I was in favor of intervening. I hope I’ve learned my lesson, but I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve mostly avoided writing about Libya all this time.

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 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, or 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

Comparing Libya to Iraq only gets you so far, obviously, but they’re also alike in that both interventions demonstrated the fact that the US is a lot better at breaking stuff than we are at helping to put it back together. And Libya is absolutely 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 finally captured and killed, which means the country has been in a state of war since March 2011 (ISIS entered the picture last year). Needless to say the country’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 really they’ve got a better claim than anybody else, even if theirs isn’t all that great. That parliament was elected last June, but with very low turnout (understandable for a country doubling as a war zone, but still harmful to your claims 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 them in the precious patchwork that is the contemporary Libyan political scene 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 state of anarchy caused by the ongoing 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 their top general, 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? Well, yes, and no. Ultimately the responsibility is with Gaddafi, whose paranoid authoritarianism stripped Libya of any chance at building strong governing institutions or even a real sense of united nationhood (part of the problem in Libya, as in Iraq, is that it’s a single country composed of three historical regions — Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east — that have been lumped together in one state for better or for worse). And really Gaddafi was just a reaction to the rot that colonialism and monarchy brought to Libya before him. The instability that has gripped Libya since Gaddafi’s death was probably going to grip it eventually, one way or another (Gaddafi wasn’t going to live forever, despite what he may have thought about himself). But a managed transition from Gaddafi to democratic government would have obviously been better than what’s happened (just about anything would have been better than what’s happened), and the 2011 intervention prevented that kind of transition by ensuring that Gaddafi would be removed suddenly and violently.

On the other hand, while I’ve been comparing Libya to Iraq a lot here, the argument that not intervening would have been preferable to intervening from a humanitarian or governance standpoint is at the very least called into question by what’s happened in Syria. Unlike Libya, where Western intervention has led, in part, to mass suffering, chaos, and the spread of ISIS, Western non-intervention in Syria has led, in part, to…mass suffering, chaos, and the spread of ISIS. So, I don’t know, maybe we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t here.

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12 thoughts on “The good war

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