Is Cameron really to blame for the mess in Libya?

Libya is still a mess. Not on the level of Syria or Iraq, but a mess nonetheless. With a slow-burning civil war going on between the western and eastern halves of the country, each backed either by the West or by Russia. And in between the two, there is still an ISIS outpost trying to stake a claim – although luckily, so far without much success.

We do not hear much about what happens in Libya, except in so far as it relates to the Mediterranean migrant crisis. But that does not mean things are quiet. They are only quiet relative to Syria, and that continues to attract most of the media coverage in the West. Yet should we ever see significant progress in Syria, and Afghanistan, the next story will no doubt be Libya.

And there is a case for seeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya together as part of the same phenomenon: failed states smouldering in the wake of Western interventions. This is certainly a powerful narrative in our political discourse, most prominent amongst left-leaning progressives and anti-war campaigners. Indeed, the parallels between these cases are hard to avoid.

What is somewhat more surprising is that the UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee should also be taking a similarly hostile view of Western intervention, particularly in the case of David Cameron’s efforts in Libya. Many of the anti-war progressive crowd will no doubt feel greatly vindicated by these developments. But unfortunately, this stance has some rather perverse implications - especially from the point of view of a humanitarian-minded progressive.

Britain and France can be fairly criticized for losing interest in Libya after the initial intervention and allowing the country to unravel into its current de facto civil war

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

First of all, let us all agree that Libya is not in a good place right now. And also, that it is in a worse place than it was in 2010. That is not what is disputed here. We are not comparing how things are now with how they were before the 2011 Civil War. What we must be comparing is how Libya is today, given that we did intervene in the civil war against Qaddafi, as compared to how it would have been today had we not intervened in 2011.

And the fact of the matter is that we do not know. It is possible that Qaddafi may have emerged victorious from the uprising, with a swift and brutal response which would have nonetheless established order and security in the country and minimized long-term casualties. But it is just as likely, if not more so, that, as the West stood by, the tribal divisions of Libya would have played out into the orgy of violence we see in Syria and north-west Iraq. Or, in the extreme case, tribal and ethnic strife could have burst over into ethnic cleansing and genocide on the scale of the Balkans or Rwanda.

Timely intervention?

What we do know, in spite of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report based, as it was, or rather questionable sources, is that when the West decided to intervene in Libya in 2011, Qaddafi’s forces were marching on Benghazi intent on massacre. Is the humanitarian progressive thing to do in such circumstances to stand aside as pro-democracy movements are brutally crushed by tinpot dictators? Should we have stood by and watched as we did in Syria when Assad started using chemical weapons against his own people?

President Obama criticized David Cameron for allowing Libya to become a “shit show”. And that may be valid criticism. But by the same measure, the Obama administration can be accused of letting Syria become a “shit show” for the way they have refused to intervene decisively early in the conflict - and certainly after the chemical weapons “red line” was crossed. The way Libya has turned out is certainly not good. And Britain and France can be fairly criticized for losing interest in Libya after the initial intervention and allowing the country to unravel into its current de facto civil war.

But that is not to say that we should not have intervened to stop a massacre. It is to say that once you have intervened in a country, you must assume responsibility for how that country develops from there. And that is where Western foreign policy has been falling down in the last two decades: we are happy to intervene in other countries - but our political culture does not tolerate the long term commitments that such intervention requires morally.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy, Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:52 - GMT 06:52
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