17 Feb 2015

Libya: is it better to leave dictators in their place?

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the Libyan revolution. 17 February was the day back in 2011 when, inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, Libyans took to the streets to demonstrate against 42 years of Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship.

Two days ago we marked the day in 2003 when an estimated 1 million people marched through London to protest the coming war in Iraq. American and British forces began their invasion less than a week later.


So it’s a week to ask whether it’s better to leave dictators in place. If you’re a Libyan or an Iraqi, rebel if you must, just don’t ask anyone to help. If you’re a European or an American, turn inwards, ignore those in far off lands calling for change.

On February 15th 2003, as crowds massed in London, I was in Baghdad, waiting for the inevitable. However many people marched, George W Bush and Tony Blair would not be diverted from their course. Eight years later, after news leaked out from previously closed Libya, I crossed over the Egyptian border to witness six months of rebellion and war.

Read more: Could the rise of Islamic State prove fatal for Libya?

Libya was a genuine revolution, not something fomented by outside powers, but I doubt that the inexperienced, chaotic revolutionaries would have succeeded in overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi had Nato not intervened in March.

A few months later I interviewed Gene Sharp, the guru of non-violent revolution. He believes that all armed outside intervention is a mistake. In other words, Nato should have left the people of Benghazi to be crushed by Gaddafi’s forces – having been there at the time, I have no doubt that thousands would have been killed and tens of thousands would have fled. They would have been the necessary sacrifices for a future uprising when Libyans might have toppled a dictator unaided.

Would that have been better than what happened? Maybe. Islamic State militants proliferate in the anarchy of Libya today, as rival militia fight for power and people endure 24-hour power blackouts and rampant insecurity. This is the first 17 February since 2011 when Libyans I know are depressed, pessimistic and full of self-doubt.

So what of Iraq? Western intervention was not designed to help Iraqis but to overthrow Saddam Hussein, because the US administration had dubbed him its Number One enemy. Twelve years earlier, in 1991, when Iraqi people rose against the dictator, the US administration had refused to come to their aid on the grounds that chaos would ensue and Iran would gain influence. That’s exactly what happened in 2003, so maybe George Bush the father – much criticised at the time for leaving Saddam to kill and torture those who rose against him – was right.

In 2015, in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it is hard to see western, especially US-led, military intervention as anything other than calamitous. Those on the left will say that’s because it’s always in bad faith – I would say that’s true in Iraq (the weapons of mass destruction were not a threat, the stated reason for war was a lie). But in Libya I think western powers genuinely believed this might be a cost-free intervention. They were willing to overthrow their erstwhile ally, Col Gadaffi, because of pressure to aid an Arab Spring rebellion that might bring in a better government.

The disaster of Libya provided much of the reason for not aiding Syrians who rose against dictatorship in 2012, several years before their rebellion was stolen by the jihadis of Islamic State.

So maybe we should explain the people of Douma, besieged and bombarded by President Bashar al Assad’s barrel bombs, that they’re necessary sacrifices. Maybe we should tell them that from now on 17 February will be International Non-Intervention Day, when we reflect on the mistakes of the past and decide that the best course is to do nothing.

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