Libya Article The Times 25 Aug
“If you love sausages and respect the law, take care to watch neither of them being made”. There are worse starting points than Mark Twain’s aphorism for those trying to understand what’s happening in Libya.
The overthrow of Gaddafi has been messy and is very likely to get more so. For those used to watching armoured columns streaming in triumphant order across the desert to depose a dictator and pull down his statues, it doesn’t look very impressive.
But this is what the future probably looks like. Better get used to it.
Like it or not, the ramshackle Libyan rebel army are, with support of the NATO based coalition, creating a new way of intervening and giving strength to a new strand of international law.
Farewell Gladstonian Liberal Intervention with its foreign gunboats; hello People’s Liberal Intervention with its raybans, t-shirts and hastily converted pick-ups.
Of course Libya isn’t over yet. The last days of Muamar Gadaffi could be just as messy as the long days that led to his downfall. He is more than mad enough – and self-declared martyr enough – to do something very foolish at the end.
But even if, as we hope, the battle ends soon and cleanly, the peace that follows is likely to be just as confused and chaotic as the conflict which preceded it. How could it be otherwise? We have intervened this time to prevent a massacre and let the Libyan people shape their own peace, rather than to seek to impose ours – something which, by the way we ourselves weren’t very good at.
So, as we watch the Libyan National Transition Council struggle to build a Government (security should be its first priority), it would be in order to remember with humility that when we tried to do the same thing in Baghdad we didn’t exactly make a roaring success of it – nor in Kabul either, come to think of it. Nor indeed, in many places where we have tried to create a western peace after a foreign conflict.
We should, of course now do all that we can to help the Libyan rebels bring about order and government in their country. But we will need to do so with understanding and patience. Better for the mistakes that will inevitably be made to be local and regional ones, than our mistakes which they have to pay for, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 1997, before the Kosovo war started, I was in the little Albanian villages south of Pristina being bombarded by the main battle units of the Serb army. The following day I met one of the Serb artillery commanders and found that he was more worried about being indicted by the then infant Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, than he was of being bombed by NATO. The point about law, is that it exists not just to deliver justice after the event, but also to govern behaviour beforehand. Post-Kosovo, the World Summit of 2005 gave form to a new international legal concept – The Responsibility to Protect (R2P for short). This asserted that, under international law, there ought to be an obligation (note “ought” and “obligation”) on a Government to protect its people, not abuse them. Many of us thought R2P would never be more than a piece of well meaning rhetoric. But Libya has given R2P both form and precedent.
How the concept of R2P is carried forward post-Libya will also not be smooth or free of contradictions. R2P will be applied with force in places where it can be – Libya for example; but not be so applied in others, where it can’t be – Syria probably. But then this was true of classic Liberal Interventionism too. We did it in Iraq and Afghanistan because we could, but not in Chechnya or Zimbabwe, because we couldn’t. In the untidy age ahead, one of our mantras when it comes to intervention is likely to be “Just because you can’t do everything, does not mean you shouldn’t do anything.”
In this way, international law is no different from most other bodies of jurisprudence. These do not spring from a single pen or a single piece of paper; they evolve over time confusingly, inelegantly and often in contradictory fashion. Libya has placed us slap bang in the middle of that messy process – better get used to it.
Many of us, me including, feared that, after the Iraq debacle, the multilateral system might never be able to be used again for good ends. But it has been – and triumphantly.
So now, thanks to Libya, we have three international interventions options to choose from.
We could abandon the notion of intervention altogether, recognizing that we can’t make a success of it and shouldn’t try. In this case the next turbulent decades will be much more dangerous, as power shifts in a world which is increasingly instable and interdependent and increasingly equipped with weapons of mass destruction.
Or we could continue to intervene as in Iraq and Afghanistan; exclusively western coalitions; massive western troop deployments; a cavalier attitude to international law; shock and awe; a quick victory; followed by the long, slow, flawed attempt to impose our systems on their countries at the point of a bayonet.
Now Libya has offered us a third alternative.
Support R2P with force where its possible. Find other means where it isn’t. Assemble a coalition wider than the west. Obtain the backing of international law. Accept this means constraints on military action during the conflict and on our ability to influence the outcome afterwards. Measure success by the horrors we prevent, rather than the elegance of the outcome. Recognise the importance of the regional powers. Act, not to impose our will, but to give the local population the freedom to exercise theirs. Understand that this may well be disorderly – and perhaps sometimes worse. And remember that it hasn’t been much less so when we have tried to do it ourselves.
Will this be comfortable to watch? No. But it’s probably as good as we’ll get. Better get used to it.