This week the victorious, or near-victorious, Libyan rebels rode into Tripoli waving guns from the back of small trucks. The bandwagons appear to be following close behind. For months after rebels took over Benghazi, and the subsequent involvement of NATO, the Libyan revolution/uprising has been a curious Cinderella conflict, fading from the world news, and playing little part in the politics of the US or Europe — certainly nothing compared to the role Iraq played in years past.
Now it has suddenly burst forth, in about as upbeat an image as could have been hoped for — a virtually uncontested roll through of the rebels into the capital, unopposed. The notion that Muammar Gaddafi had substantial supporters in the capital and that the battle of Tripoli would be as bloody as Gaddafi’s threatened evisceration of Benghazi proved false. Even if one treats reports of jubilant, welcoming crowds with the usual grain of salt, it’s clear that the west of the country was no more well-disposed to the regime than the east, and the possibility of the fighting becoming a regional civil war has evaporated.
So now, of course, the carve-up begins — at every level, from the desert up (or down) to Brussels, the carve up of spoils, politics, and history. It had started well before the battle had been joined, with the appearance of what would become the National Transition Council following hot on the heels of people rising. Those wishing to argue that the conflict has become a proxy war to throw out a dictator that Western powers had accommodated, but could easily live without had plenty of ammunition (more than many of the rebel grouplets). The NTC was heavily dominated by Western educated and connected technocrats, some of them from Gaddafi’s regime. There is no reason to be naive about their motives, or the West’s in supporting them. In a region where China has started to gain greater purchase than the US — through being more willing to build infrastructure than lecture on human rights — a sponsored elite running an oil-rich country is an invaluable asset.
They have already made noises about favouring NATO allies in oil deals. Gaddafi was perfectly willing to sell to the West, but he was an unpredictable free agent who had swung in every direction during 40 years in power. The NTC is likely to be more pliable.
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Nor was there much comfort to be taken in the efforts of the rebels, who, after initial success, quickly became bogged down. Though there was no reason to believe that they were a post-hoc confection, a reverse engineered revolution, their numbers were relatively small, and once NATO became involved they appeared more willing to make symbolic advances, and leave the jets to soften up the opposition than fight them. This was the mid-period image of the uprising, in which the principal message of the Western media was that it was one in which the West again had become bogged down, the uprising it had joined to assert becoming a vestigial pretext.
Though there was some truth to that picture, it also seemed stunningly unfair. Every report suggested that the rebels were real, spontaneous groups, genuinely willing to take on the fight. By that time, the uprising was in its third month — the blink of an eye compared to revolutions such as the American or Chinese, but long enough in a hyper-modern age to be taken as failure — indeed, as folly. Middle-of-the-road commentators became more interested in left arguments that such engagements will always become quagmires, while the right found a way to attack a war originated on Obama’s watch — its wayward character became a measure of his alleged incompetence.
The revolution and its relationship to NATO was thus shaky enough — but, to paraphrase Behan, there is no situation so bad that a human rights lawyer cannot make it worse. The determination to label Gaddafi an international criminal, and have him charged before the ICC, is hard to see as anything other than an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the revolution, just when legitimacy was exactly what it needed most — as a national and particular revolution holding a dictator to account of the people he had ruled over.
The “endgame” discourse is a continuation of this folly — the avid discussion of what “we” must or must not do once the rebels have secured power. Such discussion has become terribly confused — a great deal of it has focused on the idea that Libya and Iraq are comparable situations. This has become a topic taken by the mainstream, but the comparison initially came from those sections of the left who opposed NATO support for the revolution. The comparison — contained in the single notion of “intervention” — becomes self-fulfilling, even though the situation is radically different. The US Coalition had taken ownership of Iraq — its every act affected the country’s destiny. There are no NATO troops on the ground in Libya, nor are there likely to be — so the idea of “we” taking responsibility for what happens to the country can only be done by obscuring the real differences in the character of our involvement. Here more than anywhere it seems necessary to insist on the notion that NATO involvement was support for a pre-existing process, and that the principle involved in that makes it imperative that Libya’s future be left to its own people.
Inevitably the apparent success in Libya has led to suggestions that the principles that guided it be applied elsewhere, such as in Syria. But the two cases are not comparable, and the reason they are not goes to the heart of nature of NATO support in Libya, and the reason I, and others, argued that the Left should support it — because there was a request for support, from a legitimate and constituted leadership, a military process that could be augmented, and a shared political aim.
In Syria, these conditions simply don’t exist. There’s no explicit single leadership, no front line, no clear military process that could be augmented. NATO involvement would be pure, old-skool military humanitarianism, with all the chaos and death that entails. Thus in opposing it, it’s vital to make out the case for distinguishing between Libya and Syria — and any other invitation to “sort things out”, rather than help someone win.
Above all, it seems important not to succumb to retrospective justification. Thought things look good for the rebels now, anything is possible — from a total takeover by NATO’s clients within the leadership, to protracted conflict between separate groups, to the victory of hardline Islamist groups, though the latter seems highly unlikely. But it is not the apparent military success of the rebels that justifies advocating support for them, and nor does such success invalidate the argument against. For my money, once a request was made for support, and in explicit terms, honouring it was simply delivering on an implicit promise made by the notion of international solidarity. That would hold, even if the revolution had ended in disaster. But the crucial point was surely to not go down to another noble defeat, but to actually win one.
In that respect I agree with Juan Cole, the prominent US commentator and perhaps the most vociferous critic of the Iraq invasion among those supporting the Libyan initiative — that helping a revolution of young Arabs actually succeed would have untold consequences across the region. Just as the American Revolution had been won by the French at the Battle of Yorktown — thus affirming the idea in the French that a revolution was a real possibility — just as the Bolsheviks won in 1917 with a great deal of help from the German general staff, and went on to found the Comintern and spread revolution through the world, so in the Arab Spring, it’s an important thing to have one big win. Whatever is to come, the revolution was a popular one, an expression of the general will, and offers forth untold possibilities. The vision of men with guns on the back of HiAces may well have been propaganda in the months past; and you can be sure as hell it will be in the years ahead, one single image expressing the possibility that people can rise and not be doomed, that more than martyrdom there is the possibility of victory.