It has become reflex to treat remark that foreign interventions in conflict do not work. It is extremely topical to refer to the current situation in Syria using Libya as a lens. The most common remark is that interventions do not work because ‘Libya is in a mess’. The logic is that Libya is in a mess because of the foreign intervention that denied the Gaddafi regime the opportunity to deploy its military in a full-scale attack on the citizens of Benghazi, who had come out onto the streets to express its wish for a change of regime, and the introduction of democracy.
Yes, Libya is in a mess. The state has fragmented, and its oil and gas sector has slumped, exporting only a tenth of what it normally exports. Militias have taken control of oil and gas facilities, and have taken control of local territories, and now openly contest the authority of the state. But is this a result of the foreign-led intervention in Libya, which denied the Gaddafi regime the ability to fight from the air, and provided support to the very same rebel groups who now control respective tribal and other territories?
In order to answer this question, several considerations must be made. Firstly, we have to address the question of what scenarios may have unfolded in Libya in the absence of intervention. Secondly, we have to address the question of whether the intervention itself is the cause of the fragmentation of the Libyan state. We have to address these questions together in order to establish the causality between intervention and state collapse in Libya with sufficient confidence. Failure to do so, is dishonest and misleading.
So let’s deal with the first question, that is; what scenarios may have unfolded in Libya in the absence of intervention. Let’s entertain the possibility that the Gaddafi regime was given the green light to go ahead and crush Benghazi, and route the “vermin” and “al-Qaeda” as Gaddafi repeatedly referred to the opposition. In the event of an all out military attack on Benghazi, only two outcomes can reasonably be envisaged. The first, and most likely, is that Libya would have then become the destination of choice for Jihadi groups from across the world, that the ‘rebels’ would have received piecemeal, basic support from other countries from within and without the region, and the country would have slumped progressively further towards civil war. Indeed, this is how the situation has unfolded in Syria. Hama and Homs were crushed by the Assad regime, and the country has devolved into a civil war within a short period of time. The outcome is 4 million internally displaced people and 2 million refugees who have fled across the borders, and a widespread humanitarian crisis has unfolded that now threatens to destabilize the entire region.
The second, and infinitely less likely outcome is that Benghazi would have been crushed and Libya would have returned to normal under the Gaddafi regime. In this scenario Gaddafi would have continued to strong-arm Libya’s various groups into an artificially cohesive feudal state, and prepared his son, Saif Al Islam, to take over from his rule. In this scenario, Libya continues to sail along as though it is entirely unaffected by the Arab Spring that continues to unfold across the region today. The second scenario is a far less likely outcome, and renders Libya a dictator state, that is; another accident waiting to happen in the region. In this scenario, Libya miraculously out-lives the horror of the crushing of Benghazi and sails off into the future as though it never happened. Hardly likely, actually; extremely unlikely. The stuff crack pipe dreams are made of.
The reasonable scenario, where Gaddafi would have ‘seen the light’ and stepped down and introduced real democratic elections was never on the cards. The proof of this is that he fought until the bitter end. So this, third option was never an option, and anyone who entertains this option has descended far beyond the aforementioned ‘pipe dream’ into the realms of childlike fantasy.
And to return to the original question; in the face of these two outcomes, can we reasonably argue that the fragmentation of the Libyan state is a result of the intervention? Well, nobody can argue with full confidence that they know how history would have unfolded, had particular events been different. That I acknowledge, but it still does not answer the question I originally posed. Is it really true that Libya is worse off because of the foreign intervention that essentially enabled it to break with the shackles of decades of authoritarian rule under a dictator?
In my view, Libya has not fragmented due to the foreign-led intervention. It has fragmented precisely because it has been artificially held together for decades under the violent and brutal rule of a dictator state. It is inevitable that no matter what political transition trajectory it adopted, that it would face a serious challenge in establishing real socio-political cohesion and introducing democratic reforms. It is my contention that wherever dictator-led or authoritarian regimes prevail for long periods of time over territories that are populated by diverse, heterogeneous groups, and rule through powerful centralized states that strong-arm the populace; that the collapse of these regimes inevitably leads the fragmentation of the state. This is simply because the state that people never trusted in the first place, and which held all the power, leaves a profound vacuum in its wake, and ordinary people would reasonably contest the remnants of it, even as it begins to reform. This is especially the case because entrenched interests work hard to hijack the process of democratic reforms to their own advantage. When people see the same state of old re-assembling itself they are quick to recognise the old wolf that now parades in new clothing. They then resist it, and hold onto the gains they have made. These gains are often territorial, especially if these territories have been gained through open, armed conflict in the streets.
That is, intervention or not, the fragmentation of dictator led and authoritarian regimes is inevitable when ‘revolution’ occurs, whether revolution is relatively peaceful (as in Egypt) or involves armed conflict (as in Libya and Syria). This fragmentation is more pronounced in countries such as Libya and Syria, because they are constituted of many, diverse tribal groups and clans. In Egypt, which is not as diverse, the general populace has split nonetheless; both sides (i.e. the anti-Muslim brotherhood and pro-Muslim brotherhood groups) profoundly distrust the state. This is precisely because the powerful centralised state is the main vehicle through which the revolution can be subverted or appropriated, resulting in more of the same ‘wolf’ in new clothing. And so, whether in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, etc. the same dynamic unfolds when the state is fundamentally challenged by revolution. It (the state) attempts to remake itself amidst the revolution, and this is what all revolutions would do well to guard against, even if it means fragmenting in order to prevent the state from regaining its hold over the people.
The argument I am making here is that when we view these revolutions through another prism (i.e. what the legacy of large, centralised authoritarian or dictator-led states entail for revolution), it becomes patently clear that intervention or not, some fragmentation and commensurate resistance and open contestation with the state is to be expected. Blaming foreign-led interventions for the collapse of the state, ignores the fact that these states were fragile to begin with precisely because their governments and the state were not legitimate or representative in the first place. It ignores the fact that four decades of dictatorship or authoritarian rule would collapse like a ton of bricks no matter which direction the revolution takes.
The difficulty with transitioning to democracy, is precisely that it involves building the strong socio-political foundation that democracy requires. In my view, this is precisely the focus that is missing in the debates on the middle east and north Africa right now. That is, we are not discussing what democratic reforms can help bring about meaningful change and stability; where pluralism is guaranteed, and where the old ‘state’ is prevented from regenerating the very head that the people cut off. But like a lizard, the state can replicate and reproduce itself relatively easily. Indeed, that is what states, like most institutions, do. An institution is an institution precisely because if an individual is removed, it can carry on regardless. It has many heads and many tentacles, which if cut off, can morph and replicate each other. The state survives revolutions, and this is precisely why revolutions are so difficult in the first place; when the people have removed the leadership it is only be beginning of the struggle against the state. Reform - or rather reformation - of the state is at stake, and contestation is inevitable as this process unfolds amidst the unwinding of the previous regime.
The reason why the explanation I have tendered for the fragmentation in Libya is significantly more honest, is that it can be applied across the board in the Arab Spring. By focussing on what kind of state people were rebelling against, and why, it becomes easier to understand why there is such intense distrust of the state, and especially new governments. People who have been subject to the blatant lies and manipulation of an unjust system are quick to recognise when the same factors they fought to remove begin to re-emerge. It does not make sense to lay all the blame for the ‘crisis’ in Libya on the UN-sanctioned intervention. In all likelihood, Libya would have descended into a full scale civil war that resembles Syria without the intervention.
So when it comes to interventions, the question is not whether it will ultimately lead to a complete, binding ‘solution’ to the crisis. Rather, the question that interventions are concerned with is simple; is the intervention going to save lives and prevent the further loss of human life by disabling the capability of a rogue government or state to act illegally and/or brutally. Expecting a foreign led military intervention to automatically lead to full democratic reform, without any bumps in the road, or challenges to the process of transition, is ridiculously naive.
I will use an admittedly crude example by way of analogy, to explain my orientation on the issue of intervention. It is often said that one should not intervene in a domestic dispute, as the risks of both of them turning on you are high. When I was a teenager, one of the men in my apartment block took his wife and children hostage in the apartment, and it was clear that he had lost his ability to reason and may harm them. At the time in South Africa, family killings were occurring at a high rate. A neighbour and devoted father of two little sons – a mild man who I often watched playing soccer with his two boys in the park – convinced the troubled neighbour to open the door claiming that he ‘just wanted to speak with him’. When he opened the door, my brave neighbour pushed the door in and entered the apartment, and managed to get the children and their mother to safety. He put his life at risk to intervene in that situation, especially as the troubled neighbour was armed with a handgun. If the couple divorced after that event, it had nothing to do with the intervention that my brave, mild-mannered, dutiful father and neighbour made, at great risk to himself.
At another time, in the same apartment block, my father helped wrest away a knife from a son who had become enraged and wanted to attack his own father with it. I have also acted in a similar fashion when the need arose. Amongst my friends, the weakest among us would nonetheless stand up for and defend his friends when attacked, even when outnumbered. It was what provided the social bond between us, that is; the ability to take risks to protect one another. This is a very human orientation, which I believe is shared by communities across the world, although admittedly to greater or lesser degrees. But if we are to form and belong to a global community that has norms and standards to which we all subscribe, then we need to be able to take risks for each other when it counts.
The principle for intervention was very simple in the social and political context that I was raised; if someone is being oppressed, is subject to intolerable injustice, and you have the power to help them, then you should make an effort to help them. In the South African struggle the most often heard slogan was, “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Even the Jihadis who migrate half-way across the world also respond to this logic, that is, in the belief that in Islam it is your duty to help people who are being oppressed. Across the world, when human cruelty rises its ugly head and escalates to dangerous proportions, the victims ask, “where was the world when we were being killed”. It’s that simple! If there is no world out there that can intervene to help people in need, then there is no human project, and there is no humanitarianism between us.
Talk, without action, is empty. Sometimes an intervention requires political action, at other times actions to provide aid and humanitarian relief, and in the worst of situations, to intervene militarily in an escalating conflict or gross human rights abuses. Indeed, the United Nations is based upon these principles, and should take the lead in producing global consensus on how to address human disasters, whether they are due to social, economic, political and environmental changes, or whether they result from conflict or result in conflict. But what if the UN cannot provide an adequate response to a humanitarian disaster because it is crippled by political wrangling, total absence, or alternatively - if not equally - by bureaucratic ineptitude?
In a free society, I, as a citizen have the right to act to stop a crime if the law isn’t present, or is incapable of acting. If a policeman is incapacitated I am still legally entitled to effect a citizen’s arrest if I observe and judge that a criminal act is unfolding before me. This, at the same time, binds me to the responsibility, that after acting, I should make myself available to be judged by my actions in terms of the law. As long as I act reasonably, and in the interests of the social contract, I should be confident that I will be judged fairly. That is, even if I am not acting in self-defence, the law should always make provision for acting in the interests of greater society. Why should it be different for global citizens?
When it comes to Libya, the broadly proffered notion that Libya is in crisis because of the intervention it underwent is spurious and misleading. It negates all attempts at establishing adequate causality, and chooses instead to ignore Libya’s historical dispensation, and the consequences of any fundamental challenges that the Libyan state (and other authoritarian states) may endure. It is (and should be) obvious, that the authoritarian, often dictator-led states and governments of the Middle East and North Africa have endured the challenges to their rule by responding with increased levels of instability and fragmentation. This is what fundamental change and revolution brings; periods of enhanced turbulence where periodic internal conflicts, state confrontations and disruptions of all manners - both positive and negative - flare up from their respective potentials in the aftermath of revolution.
Democratic reform is not just about holding elections, writing constitutions, and changing legal systems; it is fundamentally about changing the state - that is; it’s functions, processes, regulations and authorities, and thereby its institutions - so that a new society can be produced. Producing a new society, especially in a society where socio-political cohesion has been artificially enforced by state institutions and the rule of authoritarian and/or dictatorial regimes, is bound to prove a challenge beset by many and diverse setbacks. In any quest for a new society, struggle is inevitable. It cannot avoided.
Whatever help a society receives from outsiders in obtaining the freedoms it requires to negotiate its own transition to a new set of norms and practises is only just that, help. Ultimately, what transpires in such fraught socio-cultural, political and economic countries depends on how well they can organise, as a society, to face their challenges. If they are unable to do so, it is only a reflection of how devastated societies in these countries are as a result of the long terms under which they have endured unjust governments. Placing the blame for the failures of these nations to re-establish themselves adequately in a post-revolutionary environment at the feet of interventionists ignores the political history of these nations entirely, and seeks to establish the moment of intervention as the beginning of the causal chain of events that lead to the failure of the state. This is a patent analytical falsehood. The reality is that these states had already failed to meet the demands and aspirations of their citizenry. They had already crumbled from within and were disasters waiting to happen. Intervention may be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it is dishonest to ignore the oversized load that countries such as Libya and Syria were already carrying, which led to this mess in the first place.
Equating Libya with Iraq is even more ridiculous; these were entirely different situations. To start with, the intervention in Libya was supported by the UN. Interventions in sovereign states is a necessity in a globalized world. We cannot avoid the responsibility of acting to enforce global laws, else they become meaningless. When laws become meaningless, societies become corrupted, and all manner of abuses ensue. It makes the world more dangerous for all of us. It is this objective that interventions are concerned with, and not rescuing entire nations from the difficulties of political transitions that they must now negotiate because of their fraught histories. To campaign against any and all interventions on the basis that global hegemony is undesirable, or that only peaceful means will be effective, ignores everything that we know about genocide.
There will always be rulers and leaders who justify the use of unconscionable levels of force against their people. It does not always require chemical or nuclear weapons. In Rwanda, 500,000 machetes were enough to fuel genocide in which around 800,000 people lost their lives. The Syrian conflict reflects an abject failure of its own government. With 100,000 people dead, 4 million internally displaced and 2 million refugees across the border, and no end in sight to the conflict, it is clear that there will be no political solution that will emerge from within Syria. In all likelihood, without international involvement, Al Assad’s forces will crush both the opposition and all internal dissent that may emerge from within the country itself. The solution in Syria will not be political, it will be a military one, should Syria be left to its own devices. The anti-intervention stance, in this case, does not mean that any kind of peace will result. The implications of not intervening now is that the situation worsens, eventually drawing the entire region into its spectacular collapse. And as more information becomes available, and dribbles out of the Syrian state over the next few years, an intervention will likely become necessary in any event. As was the case in Kosovo, the world will avert its eyes just long enough for the brutality to result in another genocide, which after it is committed, cannot be undone. And then, all the wringing of hands in the world makes no difference to the families of the dead, should any of them remain. It will, and should, rest upon our consciences if we stood by and did nothing to prevent it, with all the evidence being clear that only more suffering can result from the path Syria is currently on.