Libya and the Recklessness of the West

Hugh Roberts

Libya no longer has – or is – a state. The political field throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by the various fiercely competing brands of Islamism. The religious field has been in a state of profound disorder since the abolition of the Caliphate following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. A degree of order was effectively restored to it by intelligent nationalist movements which, once in power, promoted a ‘national Islam’ the better to subject religion to raison d’état and curb its more dangerous and sectarian enthusiasms. But Western policy since the end of the Cold War has been relentlessly opposed to the nationalist tradition and its exponents throughout the region.

The eclipse of this tradition has tended to deprive religious and other minorities of the protection they received from modernising nationalist governments in their heyday and has induced many of them, especially the more mobile, professional, middle-class elements, to seek refuge in the West. The resulting diaspora has become a well of bitterly resentful attitudes towards – and occasional insulting caricatures of – those forces left in possession of the political stage in the countries the émigrés have abandoned. It has been encouraged in this behaviour by the tendency of Western governments to rely on diaspora personalities as a source of endorsement of their own wishful thinking and self-regarding readings of reality in the region and as a source of personnel to be parachuted into power – or at least office – in each and every regime change effected by Western military muscle.

In an advertisement broadcast last week in Pakistan, where 20 people have already died in demonstrations, President Obama invoked America’s tradition of respect for all faiths and Hillary Clinton insisted that the US government had nothing to do with the insulting video. I shall leave it to the American Muslims who endure humiliating mistreatment at the hands of frontier and other US police forces to comment on the first point. Of course, the Obama administration is no more responsible for the production and dissemination of Innocence of Muslims than the several million Copts who still live in Egypt and are undoubtedly appalled by what Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has done. But the United States has certainly had a hand in reducing the Middle East and North Africa to its present degraded political condition. And the Obama administration bears a massive responsibility for the present condition of Libya.

The official optimism that masquerades as news these days assures us that Libya has been liberated and democracy is under construction there. But what is being constructed is a superstructure without a base. By Max Weber’s widely accepted definition – ‘a state is a human community that (successfully) claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ – Libya today is a stateless country. Yesterday’s demonstration in Benghazi against Ansar al-Sharia – the group accused of the attack on the US consulate – may seem to offer hope, but it will take a lot more than one popular protest against one Islamist militia to rescue Libya from this catastrophic condition.

Obama made a calamitous wrong call in endorsing the Nato intervention in March 2011. His defence secretary Robert Gates and, initially, Hillary Clinton both knew that it was against the American national interest to be drawn into another war with an Arab and Muslim country, but Obama listened to Susan Rice and Samantha Power and allowed himself to be panicked into capitulating to Cameron and Sarkozy of all people, when what he needed to do was to emulate Eisenhower’s firmness towards London and Paris in 1956. He reckoned he could get away with it by ensuring there were no US casualties and thereby evade the constitutional requirement of congressional approval by pretending that it was not a war at all. The war that was officially denied has now yielded its first crop of American casualties and if the US responds by getting drawn further into Libya’s internal affairs the war may well resume in earnest, with little scope for an exit strategy.

As the International Crisis Group’s North Africa director at the time, I opposed the Nato intervention because I could see that it would mean not merely Gaddafi’s overthrow but the destruction of the state when the rebellion was yet to acquire the political and organisational capacity to construct a new state. An intelligent application of what Americans call ‘soft power’ could have facilitated a political transition while preserving the necessary minimum of state continuity. But it turned out that statesmanship of that order was not available.

The reason Muslims have been demonstrating from Tunis to Jakarta is not that they are exceptionally thin-skinned and liable to throw tantrums at the drop of a hat, nor even that US policy has given them plenty of other grounds for grievance over the years. It is that Islamist movements now collectively dominate but nowhere monopolise the political field and are bound to mobilise their supporters to the hilt whenever any of their rivals begin to do so. This is what the eclipse of the modernist nationalist tradition has led to, and Western – and by no means solely American – policy is responsible for it. The result is growing anarchy in the region from which Americans and American interests cannot realistically expect to remain immune.


  • 22 September 2012 at 4:42pm
    Oliver Miles says:
    Searching for words to comment on Hugh Roberts’ account of post Qadhafi Libya I cannot do better than quote the distinguished Libyan writer Hisham Matar’s comment on his article in the LRB last November "It makes one wonder whether he knows the country at all."
    He has not apparently noticed, for example, that Libya has just conducted a general election universally accepted to have been free and fair, and is even now in the process of forming the first government in its history with a democratic mandate. Quoting Max Weber is I fear no substitute for listening to Libyans and observing what has actually happened.
    In his account of the history of the revolution Roberts says that he opposed NATO intervention because it would lead to the destruction of Qadhafi's state and that "An intelligent application of what Americans call ‘soft power’ could have facilitated a political transition while preserving the necessary minimum of state continuity". This almost matches for sheer ivory tower unreality Lord Giddens’ belief that Libya under Qadhafi might become a "new Norway".
    The problems of security to which he refers are central and recognised throughout Libya as such. As an editorial in a leading Libyan newspaper put it last week, before the demonstration in Benghazi on 21 September which showed that "the Street" supports the determination already stated by the new Prime Minister to bring independent militias under control:
    "The current government has been constrained by many factors, but in particular the lack of a democratic mandate. Armed groups who fought against Qaddafi during the revolution, and many opportunists who did not, have been able to operate with a certain autonomy on the basis that they have equal responsibility with the government to act as ‘guardians of the revolution’.
    The new government will have no such excuse. Libya fought its revolution for democracy, and the new government must use that democratic mandate to rein in armed groups outside of its control and assert a monopoly on the use of force.
    If it does not, then the success of the revolution as a whole will be in jeopardy.
    Some international observers have used yesterday’s attack and incidents like it to claim that Libya is sliding towards chaos and even the status of a ‘failed state’.
    Such claims are wild exaggerations. Considering the circumstances, Libya is in many respects doing remarkably well. Libyans know from their own experience that violence is not a factor of day-to-day life for most people. Indeed, given the proliferation of weapons in almost every household, the frequency of armed incidents is actually remarkably low.
    Moreover, the success of July’s National Congress elections, together with local council elections in many cities, have shown the world that Libya is committed to the democratic path and has the capacity to make it work."

  • 23 September 2012 at 12:36pm
    Diederik says:
    For readers interested in the observations of a long-term observer of Libya, who has actually been in the country on and off for the last quarter century and very frequently since the beginning of Libya's civil war in 2011, you may want to read my "After Qaddafi: The Surprising Success of the New Libya" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. My analysis closely matches that of Oliver Miles, and varies quite substantially from that of High Roberts--I simply do not recognize the Libya the latter describes.

    Dirk Bandewalle

  • 24 September 2012 at 11:05am
    Muhammad Idrees Ahmad says:
    Hugh Roberts believes that the uprising against Gaddafi and foreign intervention have destroyed the Libyan state and made attacks like the one on the US embassy inevitable. A state, he quotes Max Weber, is ‘a human community that (successfully) claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’. By this standard, he says 'Libya no longer has – or is – a state'. But under Gaddafi it was one, so presumably it met this criteria.

    So what made Gaddafi's state so deserving of preservation? Because it was part of the 'intelligent nationalist movements' which had been able to 'curb [Islamism's] more dangerous and sectarian enthusiasms'. Alas, the US wouldn't have it. It destabilized nationalist formations and unleashed the suppressed forces of sectarian intolerance. And protests form Jakarta to Tunis do not signify so much resentment over US drones policy, support for Israel, or its murderous presence in Afghanistan, as the 'eclipse of the modernist nationalist tradition', whose avatars were men like Muammar Gaddafi.

    That's NGO wisdom in a nutshell. It seems hopelessly trapped in a time when the voice of a foreign subject was still of no consequence. Since we oppose US intervention in Libya, we must also trivialize the wishes and achievements of the Libyans. If they are showing signs of empowerment, lets belittle them, and contrast the present state of affairs with the more absolute stability of authoritarian rule. Our criteria for evaluating the merits of other governments cannot possibly be their representativeness, but how peacefully they settle into our hegemonic order. By that criteria, post-2003 Libya, the preferred destination of rendition flights and Blairite junkets, cannot possibly be bested by the democratic anarchy of the present.

  • 24 September 2012 at 7:41pm
    Hugh Roberts says:
    As a former ambassador to Tripoli, Oliver Miles’s view of Libya carries weight. But his comment does not refute anything I have said. Sneering at me for quoting Max Weber the better to dismiss me as an ivory tower academic, he reveals that he himself accepts Weber’s definition of a state when he acknowledges the need for the Libyan government to “assert a monopoly on the use of force”. While celebrating the democratic aspect of the superstructure, he does not deny that it lacks a solid base and so falls short of being a state, a fact that many Libyans recognise and deplore as much as I do. I share his hope that the Libyans will extricate themselves from this predicament but I’ll believe it when I see it. As for the past, my objection to the Nato intervention was not that it destroyed “Qadhafi’s state” (a suggestion that recycles Hisham Matar’s smear that my opposition to Western policy expressed support for Qadhafi’s regime), but that, occasioning many thousands of avoidable deaths in disregard of the avowedly humanitarian object of the exercise, it rendered Libya stateless by precipitating Qadhafi’s overthrow before the rebellion had time to cohere sufficiently to be able to establish a new state. To pretend that my advocacy of a cease-fire and a negotiated transition - which numerous countries (few if any led by academics) also supported - can be compared with anyone’s belief that Qadhafi’s Libya might become a new Norway is to resort to desperate tactics indeed.

    In the original text of my article last winter (Who said Gaddafi had to go? LRB Vol. 33, No. 22, 17 November 2011), Dirk Vandewalle was the first of a number of Libya specialists whose work I cited before the editing needed to reduce my text to publishable length removed such references, and I would normally defer to his expertise. But authority does not obviate the need for coherent argument. He says he does not recognise my description of Libya. But I have not offered a description of Libya. I have simply made a statement, factual in content, which Oliver Miles dislikes but cannot refute. And if readers take up Vandewalle’s invitation to consult his latest article in Foreign Affairs, they will find that he also acknowledges the truth that Libya lacks a state and uses a shorthand version of Weber’s criterion in doing so. They may also note that a short piece by Fredric Wehrey in the same issue speaks of “the country’s descent into warlordism”.

    Idrees confuses my (and ICG’s) concern that a measure of state continuity should have been preserved with partisan support for the preservation of “Gaddafi’s state”. The truth of the matter is that I and ICG from the outset took it for granted that the Jamahiriyya was finished (precisely because so many Libyans had risen up against it), did not lament that at all, and advocated the kind of transition that would minimise death, destruction and chaos and maximise the prospects of establishing representative government. Almost everything else Idrees says is premised on his massive misinterpretation of my and ICG’s position. The exception is his admission that the present situation in Libya can be characterised as “democratic anarchy”. Thus he too, in the end, has to admit that my point about anarchy is not unfounded.

  • 25 September 2012 at 12:23am
    Diederik says:
    I do not wish to quarrel at length with Hugh Roberts whose work I admire greatly. But it isn't correct to argue as he does that he offers no description of Libya: his first sentence is exactly that: "Libya no longer has--or is--a state." That's about as viscerally descriptive as you can be about a country. I could of course not agree with Hugh's statement that his assertion is a statement, "factual in content." I do not believe those are the facts in Libya. The point of my article was precisely to dismiss claims that Libya is not a state. I argued that there are indeed considerable elements of statehood missing, including the monopoly of violence by the government as Hugh correctly points out. But when exactly is a state a state? I argued further in the article that despite these elements missing, Libya has held together, and is furthermore very slowly but steadily developing further aspects of statehood that are creating a more complete version of a modern state in the country. As for Fred Wehrey's piece, and with all due respect I have for Fred's recent articles, I do not believe Libya is descending into warlordism if that is indeed what he argues. The slow but steady handing over of militia prerogatives to the government, and the most recent popular demonstrations in Benghazi (and those before in other Libyan cities) are but one indication of the fact that there is a growing demand--and now seemingly a growing willingness by the government--to confront particularly the rogue militias (and eventually, albeit by other means and more long-term, the legitimate militias that emerged during the civil war). I stand by what I argued in the Foreign Affairs article: that only slightly over a year after a bloody civil war, Libya has made considerable progress toward becoming a modern state--still incomplete, still imperfect, but with a slow but steady momentum toward a more complete modern statehood.

  • 30 September 2012 at 7:02pm
    Neil Kitson says:
    In all of this learned discussion, there is not one mention of the United Nations or the Security Council resolutions that provided the sole legal basis for the shambolic NATO armed improvisation that followed. The United Nations had a gold-plated unanimous Security Council Resolution (1970) to try to protect a civilian population by methods other than violence. NATO blew it by seeking and then abusing Resolution 1973, which of course meant violence, and as usual with no particular plan for what happened after the violence. Now, Western scholars pick through the smoldering ashes to find evidence of "success" or "failure" - according to taste.

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