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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4 reader comments

  1. anon says:

    I think someone commented something to the effect a while back (or was it in Ukraine around the crashed plane?) that the ‘nothing’ person with the gun suddenly becomes ‘important’ which perhaps is now being picked up more widely? hence perhaps the way forwards would / or will be to take away the guns? then it might not matter so much who is in charge so to speak as they will be unable to do as much harm, and those still with the guns ie the UN can move in quickly, and very effectively and with a lot less casualties to stop the violence?
    just a thought?

  2. Jenny says:

    I wish that channel 4 and British media in general would stop presenting these so called “revolutions” (be it in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and elsewhere) as a case of “good” (i.e. those who take to the streets) versus “evil” (the so called dictators). It is never as clear cut as that. I think it is this media bias that helps to sway our governments to aid these so called rebels militarily and thereby make matters worse.

    The proposal that 17 February that should become Non-intervention day where we decide the best course of action is to “do nothing” – simply because we are now more cautious about military intervention – is ridiculous. Not intervening militarily does not equate to doing nothing. And I don’t think anyone is saying we never intervene militarily – ever.

    I think there is a real naivety in the West (and by the media in this country especially), that a few demonstrators who appear western leaning genuinely represent the people of a country and that the country at large will be grateful to the West for intervening militarily to help them. Sometimes this is case, but more often than not, it isn’t. I think that assisting a government that asks for our help (as in the case of Mali) can be good, but we should rightfully be more cautious about helping so called “opposition groups” seeking to oust governments that we don’t like. I don’t think you can ever foster democracy by the barrel of a gun.

  3. Alan says:

    The assumption that dictators can only exist outside of the West reduces the article to state propaganda.

  4. lggmj says:

    It cannot possibly be for the good of Libyan people to leave Gaddafi in power? That would simply have allowed the unnecessary deaths of many courageous revolutionaries. We as Western countries have a responsibility to make oppressed people’s around the world see that they will be heard and aided if it is necessary. It is hypocritical to criticize dictators for allowing the suffering of their peoples and have an opinion on just about every international development which we think gives us the right to advise the parties involved on the best course of action to take, if we in turn sit and watch other nations suffer under the oppression of their leaders. There is must to be said for the concept of collective security, whilst currently a one-sided aspect, once the countries aided gain affluence and wealth, they may one day be of aid to Western countries like the UK in times of need.

    What happens after a revolution has been aided is another story, the country needs to be left well alone. Humanitarian aid? Of course! Military presence and rigging of seizures of power using influence? NO. Each country has a right to define it’s own future and political structure, having provided them with the infrastructure and resources for free elections, the rest must be left up to them.

    In the cases of Syria and Iraq, we need to help the people who are being affected by the spread of ISIS, because we ourselves are starting to feel the consequences, with shootings and hate crimes becoming shockingly frequent, only this week we have lost three bright young girls to a deeply contorted ideology.Every month a new atrocity is committed, be it a beheading or a burning, how many more depraved acts must be posted on the internet before decisive military is taken to crush this growing threat to the whole world? We were quick to intervene in Libya, why then do we not act with similar appropriate decisiveness on this issue with affects each and every one of the world’s nations far more than the acts of a relatively pro-West dictator against his people?

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