A Libyan Report Card

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In the starkest terms, a state is defined by a bureaucratic hierarchy that monopolizes the use of force over a specific geography. Ideally, nobody need fear the authorities except those who break the law. And because the authorities monopolize violence, nobody need fear his fellow man. Of course, tyrannical states induce general fear among much of the population. And weak states have a difficult time monopolizing the use of force -- the reason why they are weak in the first place. By these standards, many states in the world are weak. And Libya has gone from being a tyrannical state to being barely a state at all.

Given the calls for intervention in Syria, let's consider Libya, where a modest intervention was tried.

The authorities in the capital of Tripoli openly acknowledge the fact that they do not monopolize the use of force and have wisely opted for compromise and arbitration in eastern Libya (the Benghazi region) and in the far-flung Sahara to the south. It is difficult to predict whether Libyan affairs will carry on in the form of a benign and relatively mild anarchy (with some institutions working and others not) or will advance in the direction of a more coherent democratic state. Of course, a descent into worse chaos cannot be ruled out.

Libya's fundamental problem is that rather than comprising a compact cluster of demography like the Nile Valley, it is but a vague geographical expression -- a monumentally vast desert and coastal region between historic Egypt and Greater Carthage (Tunisia). Because Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are geographically associated with specific knots of civilization going back to antiquity, they did not require suffocating forms of tyranny to hold them together like Libya, and to a lesser extent like Algeria, which for decades during the height of the Cold War had a radical socialist regime. For Libya, Moammar Gadhafi's regime was, in fact, anarchy masquerading as tyranny.

Therefore, it should surprise no one that the toppling of Gadhafi brought about the veritable collapse of the state. Libyan authorities do not govern so much as negotiate the terms of geographic control. If anyone doubts the fact that the Libyan state barely exists, they should investigate the situation on Libya's borders. In Libya, borders -- with their connotation of specific, legal lines characterized by passport and security surveillance -- have given way in the direction of frontiers, a term implying overlapping movements of gangs, militias and tribes. Modern states have borders; weak and failed states have frontiers.

For example, the collapse of Gadhafi's regime brought about the second-order effect of war and anarchy in nearby Mali. Ethnic Malian Tuaregs who had backed Gadhafi fled Libya en masse, taking with them large-scale caches of weapons upon the Libyan leader's demise. The Tuaregs headed back to Mali, where they wrested control of the desert north of that country from a government located far to the south in the capital of Bamako. After the Tuareg rebellion was co-opted by jihadists, there were reportedly almost 2,000 deaths and wholesale raping and looting, in addition to the sacking of world heritage sites. The French government subsequently intervened with troops. Now there are multiple patches of sovereignty in a confused battlefield all across the Sahel and Sahara. The stability of regimes in places like Mauritania and Niger are somewhat more in doubt than before Gadhafi's collapse. Libya, for that matter, is now an ungovernable space in significant parts of the country where al Qaeda can very possibly find refuge. The killing of the American ambassador in Benghazi was indicative of the terrors that a chaotic, post-Gadhafi Libya can offer up.

It would seem from this accounting that the Obama administration's decision to militarily intervene in Libya (along with its NATO allies) was a blunder of the first magnitude. As long as Gadhafi was secure in power, the Libyan state was also secure, borders throughout North Africa were more reasonably maintained and al Qaeda had no dominion inside Libya itself, even as the Libyan intelligence services cooperated with those of the West. A post-Gadhafi world now clearly presents the CIA with greater security challenges than it had before.

But the political reckoning for the Obama administration is not that simple.

The trigger for intervention was reportedly the fear that Gadhafi's troops were marching on rebellious Benghazi, bent on perpetrating a massacre. Those reportedly in the forefront of arguing for intervention on such grounds were then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and National Security official Samantha Power. The three women had good arguments: Were Gadhafi to have massacred large numbers of civilians with U. S. warships hovering just offshore, it would have been a demonstration of American fecklessness comparable to that of European (and particularly Dutch) fecklessness when Serb troops massacred large numbers of civilians in 1995 in Srebrenica under the thumb of U.N. peacekeepers.

The loss of prestige the United States might have suffered throughout the Arab world as a result could have been substantial. And had the administration done nothing, Gadhafi's regime might well have collapsed anyway: Only the process would have been bloodier and more drawn-out, with an even greater level of chaos and socio-political disintegration than what we have already seen. More to the point, because we still do not know all the intelligence the administration had available at the time regarding Gadhafi's intentions in Benghazi, to condemn administration officials outright is too easy a judgment at this date.

But there is a conundrum here that those who favored intervention -- in Libya as well as elsewhere -- do not own up to. That is, short of deploying large numbers of ground troops, the ability of the U.S. government to rebuild weakened or collapsed states is severely limited. The idea that the administration intervened in Libya because it was the least worst option at a specific moment is defensible; the argument that if only Washington had done this, or done that, or put in more money or aid, Libya might be a stable state today veers in the direction of fantasy.

Even the presence of more than 100,000 American ground troops was insufficient to make Iraq an adequately effective democracy, so how can one argue that a band of civilian experts, plus small numbers of special operations forces, could have accomplished more in Libya? Gadhafi's regime had virtually eliminated civil society in a country that was barely a country -- and you say that the United States had it in its power to make it all whole, or partly whole, again?

Toppling an evil regime or stopping a war is a profoundly moral act. But taking moral responsibility for what happens next in a country is the hard part. Bosnia-Herzegovina, 18 years after the U.S.-led intervention and the Dayton Peace Accords, is a nasty, dysfunctional state. And Bosnia-Herzegovina has advantages that Libya and Syria simply do not have. It is next-door to the European Union and has a modern history of relatively strong institutional structures compared to much of the Middle East. Bosnia was in a relatively developed part of the Ottoman Empire; Libya and Syria were in much less developed parts. But because Washington tends to overestimate its own significance in terms of its ability to alter distant societies, the following pattern will continue to emerge: a terrible war resulting in calls for humanitarian intervention, an intervention in some cases, always followed by a blame game inside the Washington Beltway after the country has slipped back into tyranny or anarchy.

Meanwhile, here is a probability: Libya's relatively short history as a strong state is over. It will go on and on as a dangerous and weakly governed area between Tunisia and Egypt. Its considerable oil resources can internally generate revenue for armed groups and politicians both. Thus, Libya will become a metaphor for much of North Africa and the Sahara, places where frontiers are more common than borders.

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