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.