The evident domination of Islamist elements in post-Gaddafi Libya, symbolised by the announcement of National Transitional Council chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil that Sharia would form the basis for legislation in the new Libya and that the law against polygamy was to be relaxed, raises the question of whether the West was wrong to intervene against Gaddafi. And the answer is that no, we were not.
When the uprising broke out in February against Gaddafi’s dictatorship, it was clear that the latter had to go, just as it is clear today that Assad’s dictatorship in Syria has to go. The only question over Libya then, as over Syria now, was how long-drawn-out, bloody and destructive the transition to a new order would be. Those of us who backed intervention in Libya did not do so in the belief that, if the revolution there were to succeed, Libya would turn overnight into Denmark or Holland. We did so in the belief that the alternative, of allowing Gaddafi a free hand against the rebels, was by far the greater evil. At the time of writing, over 3,500 Syrians have been killed by Assad’s security forces, and we have no way of knowing how many more are going to die, and how much destruction the country will suffer, before the Baathist regime is overthrown and Syria can reach the point where Libya is today. The more protracted, bloody and destructive the Syrian transition is, the more difficult it will be to build a healthy new order in Syria afterward. The ultimate danger is not a Libya or a Syria in which some form of political Islam is strong or in power, but an Afghan or Somali scenario in which the state is destroyed by civil war and collapses, creating a void that organisations such as al-Qaeda can fill. Only slightly less unpalatable is a Yemeni scenario, in which a discredited dictator holds onto power but loses full control of his county, allowing al Qaeda to gain a foothold. Yemen is the principal centre for operations of ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’, despite Ali Abdullah Saleh’s pro-Western orientation.
As Bolshevik and Stalinist tyranny were the child of Tsarist tyranny, so the Islamist elements that have risen to the fore in Libya since Gaddafi’s fall are the children of Gaddafi’s system, which prevented any healthy, pluralistic system from developing and acted as an incubator for radical Islamism. Anyone who thought that Gaddafi’s regime acted as a Hobbesian Leviathan keeping Islamist elements in check was wrong: Gaddafi’s Libya sent more fighters per capita to join the Islamist insurgency in Iraq than any other country, including Saudi Arabia. Despite being in power for forty-two years and wielding absolute control over his country, Gaddafi never got round actually to abolishing polygamy; he merely restricted it. The foreign media has rightly highlighted the disgraceful treatment of David Gerbi, the Libyan Jew who joined the rebellion against Gaddafi, but was then driven out of the country after trying to re-open a synagogue; yet it was Gaddafi who banned the return of Jews to Libya, confiscated all Jewish property in the country and drove out the few Jews who remained, thereby establishing a Libya that was Judenrein. In 1972, in order to pursue his megalomaniacal regional adventures, Gaddafi established the ‘Islamic Legion‘ as an international paramilitary force with an ideology blending Islamism and Arab-supremacist, anti-black racism; it fathered the Janjaweed, with which the Islamist regime in Sudan carried out the Darfur genocide. Given this legacy, it would have been a miracle if a post-Gaddafi Libyan regime were not tainted with Islamism.
We in the West had a humanitarian duty in February and March of this year to protect the Libyan people from massacre at Gaddafi’s hands, and once we had embarked on that intervention, we could only ensure its ultimate success by bringing down the murderous regime. As John McCain said in April after visiting a hospital in Benghazi and seeing the dead and dying victims of the war, ‘It argues for us to help them and to get this thing over with and Gaddafi out.’ But now that we have helped the Libyan people to do what they could not do by themselves, saving their citizens from massacre and freeing them from a dictatorship, it is up to them to do what they have to do for themselves: build a healthy, functioning, pluralistic new order.
Western military intervention has helped maximise the chances of such an order emerging, but it cannot guarantee that it will. We cannot force Libyans or other Arabs to vote for secular parties, much as we would like them to do so. The struggle for a democratic Arab world will be slow and painful; it will be marked by setbacks and defeats, and Arab countries will not always make the choices that we might want. That, after all, is in the nature of democracy. Realistically, democracy in the Arab world will have to accommodate political Islam in some form, but there is a whole range of phenomena that that term embraces, from Turkey’s Justice and Development Party through the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda, and we should not see Armaggedon coming just because of the NTC chairman’s deplorable comments regarding Sharia law and polygamy – we are a long way from an al-Qaeda caliphate in Libya or Tunisia. Expressions of moderation by Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and by Libyan Islamists such as Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Ali al-Sallabi should be taken with a pinch of salt, but even insincere expressions of moderation indicate that Islamists are aware they do not have a blank slate, and that their agenda for the country is far from uncontested.
The battle for the new order in Libya is only just beginning. We cannot predict or determine the outcome, but we should not regret that we helped to give the Libyan people the chance to fight it.
This article was published on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
The spoilt teenager is fed up with suffering under his parents’ oppressive rules and restrictions while continuing to eat their food and avoid responsibility for himself. He is thinking of walking out on them to make his own way in the world. If he does, he will find it hard going; he may have to sleep rough and work menial jobs for a while. But in the end, he will grow up to be a man. Let us not forget that, however selfish and irresponsible his behaviour may have been, the real blame lies with the parents who brought him up so badly, pampering him while pushing him into a role that merely pandered to their own fancies. It is they, as much as he, who need to be taken down a peg or two.
‘The people’ in Greece (or anywhere else) should not be idolised, as many idealistic lefties do, as a supposedly noble body that could turn the world into Paradise if only it could overthrow its ruling class. Nor should the Greek people be viewed through racist spectacles, as condemned to economic failure by a supposed inherent fecklessness arising from their national character.* Many ordinary Greeks may have contributed to their country’s economic crisis through tax evasion, or by taking ridiculously early retirement, or by receiving salaries for non-jobs in the bureaucracy. Other ordinary Greeks work hard at honest jobs and pay their taxes. Nations are collections of individuals who do not share a collective guilt. Yet the guilty and innocent alike will suffer the effects of the savage austerity measures being forced upon the nation by the EU. Young Greeks who are only now reaching adulthood and who really are not to blame for the errors of their parents’ generation will suffer in particular.
Responsibility for the crisis lies, of course, with the Greek political and economic elites. But it lies also with the political and economic elites of the EU, which subsidised and indulged their Greek clients. For all that Greece undermined European peace and stability over Milosevic, Macedonia, Kosova and Cyprus; for all that it abused the human rights of its ethnic Turkish and Macedonian minorities; for all that its public discourse was infected with virulent anti-Western sentiment, the EU elites continued to give it a blank cheque. Now, to save their own ill-thought-out Euro project and minimise the losses for their own banks and investors, they are forcing austerity measures on Greece; measures that penalise those who are not responsible for the crisis in order to protect the interests of those who are.
There are, of course, economic arguments both for and against a Greek acceptance of the EU bailout package. Yet the question is not merely an economic one, but concerns issues of democracy, justice and the political shape of the future EU.
In Greece as elsewhere in Europe, spending cuts and austerity measures are undoubtedly necessary, yet it is in the interest of ordinary people to fight them tooth and nail – not in order to torpedo them altogether, but to ensure that as much of the burden as possible is shifted to the richer sections of society, and in the case of Greece to the rest of the EU. Here in the UK, Conservatives tell us that cutting taxes for the rich will stimulate growth, while cutting incomes and benefits for the rest of us is necessary to reduce the deficit – a form of reasoning that does not inspire confidence. In Greece, the austerity measures look set to depress the Greek economy further and severely hurt people’s living standards without actually ending the debt crisis. Essentially, Greeks are being asked to sacrifice their own living standards, not for the sake of their own long-term future wellbeing, but for money that will largely go straight through them to their creditors. My sympathies, therefore, are very much with the ordinary Greeks striking and protesting against the austerity measures; I would prefer them to suffer less, and rich tax-dodgers and European banks and investors to suffer more. If the Greek electorate rejects this bailout deal, they may simply receive a better one. Let them fight for a skinhead’s haircut.
On the other hand, the success of any bailout deal will merely prop up the corrupt, unhealthy relationship of dependency between Greece and the EU that created the mess in the first place. There is therefore some reason for thinking that a complete collapse in European efforts to ‘rescue’ Greece, although painful for all concerned in the short term, might prove beneficial in the long run. It would restore to the Greek nation control over, and responsibility for, its own destiny, and necessitate a much-needed radical restructuring of Greek economic and political life. And its repercussions might likewise force a change in direction for the EU, away from misguided moves toward greater integration at the expense of democracy and accountability, toward a looser and more flexible union; one in which member states have more control over and responsibility for their own respective destinies, and are more responsive to the wishes of their citizens.
Four years ago, I warned that the Hellenic tail must not wag the European dog. The consequences for allowing this to happen turned out to be much more serious than even a strong critic of Greek behaviour such as myself could have imagined. Now, however, I am beginning to wonder if a bit of wagging of the European dog by the Hellenic tail might not be such a bad thing.
* For a true pearl of anti-Greek, anti-Balkan chauvinism, here’s the Daily Mail: ‘Greece has always had a siege mentality. It is very different from the rest of the EU. It was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before it became an independent country in the early 19th century, and psychologically is as much a part of Turkey and the Middle East as it is of Europe. It has few shared traditions with Western Europe.’
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