The Rest

Aug 5, 2014

Rundle: why Libya was different

Increased hostilities in Libya have some wondering if Western powers should not have intervened. But Crikey's writer-at-large believed then -- and believes now -- it was a good idea.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


With the situation in Libya deteriorating -- fighting between militias that was initially focused around Tripoli airport has spread more widely; non-Libyans have been evacuated -- it was inevitable that Western involvement in the conflict that overthrew Gaddafi and his regime would come under examination. The debate didn’t split along the usual lines -- many on the Left (myself included) supported Western involvement, while those opposed included a number of people from Left and Right, for various reasons. Now some of those who opposed Western involvement are arguing vindication, given the apparent weakening of an already weak Libyan state and rising civil conflict. The most prominent of these is Antony Loewenstein, who cites a range of conditions currently applying in Libya in service of a wider argument that Western interventions -- or involvement, as I'd see it, in Libya -- are always bound to fail in terms of what purportedly they set out to achieve, usually the overthrow of a dictator. Loewenstein focuses on three factors -- the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, the degree of strutting narcissism that often accompanied discussion about Libya, and the Western media’s turn away from interest in Libya. All of those seem to me to be red herrings, and none of the reasons for supporting involvement in Libya are canvassed -- nor what might have occurred had involvement not occurred. But crucially, he never deals with the central moral-political case around involvement in Libya -- and the central challenge to those who opposed it. That is, this was not an intervention from top down, without action on the ground, but a response to a request, indeed a plea, from a group fomenting a revolution for liberation. My position was and is that a request by a group is categorically different from a top-down intervention, because a request based on earlier claims of solidarity is in effect a request for us to keep a promise, and it is wrong not to keep your promises. The only question, then, is whether the aims of the revolution are those you'd agree with -- they were -- and whether the group requesting it was truly representative. My reading of articles, blogs and news reports of the time was that every grassroots group wanted the assistance that would mean the difference between life and success, and failure and death. So the responsibility to protect didn't come into it for me, and the Western saviour complex was annoying but irrelevant. Indeed, it seems to me that the refusal by some on the Left to seriously consider the Libyans' request for arms is another species of that Western smugness -- wrapped in a simplistic doctrine, they were willing to lecture an Arab people on how to conduct their own liberation and disguise their refusal of solidarity in theory. It was a denial of their political subjectivity, and it still is. Thus to consequences. Well, my argument never pivoted on consequences, because the demand of a solidaristic promise was overwhelming. But the premise of Loewenstein's argument and a lot of told-you-so leftism on this matter is that the current disorder invalidates Western involvement. Why? By what implicit standard is remaining under a brutal dictatorship you have risen up against better than the civil disorder, and even civil war, that often or even usually follows an uprising? Whatever the Libyans are going through at the moment, it does not compare to what would have occurred had Gaddafi restabilised his power. The same applies to some of the incidents that followed the overthrow -- racist outbreaks, violent reprisals. What uprising is not followed by them? Why this hunger for order, when it was the Libyans themselves who clearly wanted to risk the disorder uprising brings? I'm not even going to deal in any depth with the silly fantasy that without Western assistance the revolution would have become some pure uprising, with sweetness and light afterwards. This sort of position is put by Western Left groups that don't want to choose between bad alternatives. The result is paradoxical: Loewenstein and others end up on the side of Tony Blair and sections of the US neocons opposed to involvement. Nothing wrong with ending up on the same side as different groupings -- but in this case it is for almost the same reasons: that the disorder of revolution is to be shunned in favour of an order that is not disturbing to international relations. Personally, I'll stand with people who rise up and honour the requests they make on the commitments implicitly made to them. I'm glad the Greens did too, and I'd urge the same decision in the future, on a case-by-case basis. In the meantime, I'd be interested to see if Loewenstein can offer any writing from Libya that expresses clear regret about asking the West in, or believes that overthrowing Gaddafi was a mistake.

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16 thoughts on “Rundle: why Libya was different

  1. Limited News

    If it were shown that the Libyan rebels were sponsored by NATO in the first instance, then of course NATO has a responsibility to protect their stooges…

    Same goes for all of the West’s triumphs in recent years – sequential wars of conquest undertaken on “case-by-case” basis for reasons that are totally unrelated.

    I’m reminded of the Japanese war museum in Tokyo, which describes the rape of China and WWII in the Pacific as a series of seemingly disconnected events that “just happened”

  2. j.oneill

    This article is so wrong on so many levels it is difficult to nominate any one outstanding point. Mr Rundle’s rewriting of history would be one. His complete inability to see the real motives behind the so-called responsibility to protect doctrine ostensibly invoked would be another. His complete misunderstanding of Libyan history and the role played by Gaddafi would be another. Now we have a CIA trained stooge seeking to step in and impose his own brand of dictatorship. No doubt Mr Rundle would interpret that as the will of the oppressed people as well. Lets not mention the Golden Dinar being formulated to break the dollar stranglehold; or the oil and gas developments being done with Chinese assistance. And in case we forget in all this rewriting of history, Libya happened to have the highest standard of living for its ordinary people in the whole of Africa. What’s the destruction of a civil society compared to the benefits of western imperial intervention.

    And he has the gall to describe himself as of the “left”.

  3. Vlad the Impala

    I think NATO throwing their support behind forces like the LIFG based on a fear of “what might have occurred had involvement not occurred” shows the true nature of the “War On Terror.” It also highlights what happens to countries who give up their development of nuclear weapons in the belief it will defuse tension with the West- you end up with a knife in the @r#3 while NATO troops look on.

  4. Guy Rundle

    J O’Neill

    I think you’re missing my point(s). I’m specifically arguing that you one doesnt need to rely on the RTP to decide that there’s a moral duty to support the demand for military assistance. Nor does Western support for the TNC or others invalidate their claim to be running a revolution that would free them from an oppressive state. Nor was it simply the TNC calling for arms – groups on the ground were making the request too.
    Gaddafi may have had all sorts of schemes for challenging western imperialism. None of them came to much, and he was running a lethal regime, of summary execution and mass rape.
    Unilateral intervention wouldnt have been justified – assistance to a grassroots revolution was

  5. AR

    Grundle has really disappeared up his own cloaca with this sorry contortionism.
    The gem was – “By what implicit standard is remaining under a brutal dictatorship you have risen up against better than the civil disorder, and even civil war, that often or even usually follows an uprising? Whatever the Libyans/Iraqis are going through at the moment, it does not compare to what would have occurred had Gaddafi/Saddam restabilised his power.
    Overthinking is just as deleterious of doing none at all.

  6. Guy Rundle

    J O’N

    BTW Libya may well have the highest standard of living for Africa – but it’s an arab petro-state, and against them it doesn’t compare well. Its social welfare system are no better, and sometimes worse, than the Arab monarchies, and the Gaddafi family act exactly like a royal family, in doling out favours. Hardly a progressive system. And one the Libyans voted with their feet against.

  7. Guy Rundle


    Youve missed the crucial point. The Iraqis didnt rise up against Saddam – and you have to take that as an important act. Saddam killed or imprisoned about 1500 opponents a year. 3000 people a week were being killed in Iraq after the war, and the mass killings going on. Both in principle and in consequences the two situations dont compare at all.

  8. Liamj

    Of course the average Libyan warlord needed Western arms and ‘advisors’ in 2011. The EU sold Gaddafi nearly 800 million euro’s worth of armaments in the years b4 2011, and you don’t overthrow that with just a Burson-Marsteller cheer squad on collaborating news networks. Supplying arms to both sides of an oil-state conflict is great business, Iran-Iraq bled petrodollars for a decade back when Saddam was our man, before the AWB discovered it was funding terrorism (always a bit slow on the uptake those cockies).

    What i’m puzzled about is why GR feels need for post-hoc rationalisation – we’re already several wars further down the road and theres a new one to drum up support for. So what if Libyas exports are down, it makes great play on the oil futures, and just like Vietnam, Columbia, Iraq etc, we can go get the oil later, once the locals are poor enough to be grateful for any price. War socialism – relax, we’re soaking in it.

  9. Kayaki Dee

    AR & J oneill – you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.


    This must be Rundle’s imperialist conversion moment closely resembling Christopher Hitchens’ laughable effort in grovelling to the neocon cause.

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