Entries in Libya (4)


Fall of Tripoli Roundup

How much of Tripoli the rebels control is still very much open to question, but what is certain as of writing this is that the régime of Muammar Qaddafi has crumbled and lost control as a defined unit.  There are a few good pieces that I'll point people to regarding this, that repeat points I have made myself, and also set out my idea on what this means for interventionism in the future.

Two of my favourite commentaries are by Issandr El Amrani ("The Arabist") and Juan Cole.  A common theme of both is that the arguments coming from both extreme right and left are bit ridiculous.  The situation does not look like Syria, there's no guarantee the new government will be any better for oil interests, and no one wants to occupy the place if they can avoid it.  The "quick succesion" of events in the last week has finally vindicated the observations of those who have watched this conflict unfold closely like myself and noticed that there was a lot of movement day to day.  It was only a matter of when that movement became media-friendly and photogenic that the vast majority of commentators noticed.  Likewise, the arguments of how 'boots on the ground' were necessary were rendered irrelevant by the use of security contractors and consultants.

Ultimately, the NATO strategy found its strongest vindication in giving firm material and psychological support to the revolution while standing far enough back to give the rebels a sense of ownership over the outcome.  From my experience on the ground, I feel exactly this; the feeling that people care for Libyans but can also treat them like adults.  The message that I feel I'm getting is that the West showed firm support for liberalism in the Arab world, but also delivered the message that it was no cakewalk.  The tensions amongst NATO members were palpable, especially during the thankfully rare mistakes of the campaign, and this was in a situation where terrain and geographical control rendered intervention feasible.  The NATO mission in Libya in its success actually demonstrates why such a mission would not work in Syria and reminds aspirant populations that there's only so much outside intervention can do.  And hopefully the case is clearer with Western governments that they can't always fix it no matter how much they want to.

I realise I'm being a bit optimistic here, but my shtick is ultimately trying to make things better, and I wouldn't be doing what I do unless I believe that at some level.


Giving Weapons to the Libyan Rebels

Yesterday France confirmed that it supplied the Libyan weapons with arms.  So much we already new through numerous witness reports on the ground in Nafusa, many of which noted that the newly-built runway near Jadu had been used.  Rumours in Benghazi have long held that Italy has supplied arms.  Here are my reflections on the situation:

  • What exactly constitutes application of humanitarian principles is contentious.  The reality remains that this war is absurdly one-sided in that Qaddafi's chief tactic is violating humanitarian principles or using them against the international community.  I got to eavesdrop on a UN meeting where humanitarian concerns were completely divorced from there political reality.  Let's say we're dealing with food instead of weapons:  The more food given to non-combatants is more that's available to feed régime armed forces.  The worthy humanitarian principle of feeding people is at odds with the anti-humanitarian principles of the régime.  Luckily there's no dilemma because starving people are easier to cow and therefore in no one's interest but Qaddafi's.
  • Once again, "boots on the ground" doesn't matter in the way most people think it does.  Soldiers and trainers can do the same work not as part of national institutions such as armies, but as paid contractors for private security companies.  This is a problem of widening accountability gaps for state actors, but to the extent that it allows us to work around inefficiencies in the state system, such as awarding sovereignty to one régime over another, I'll accept it as doing something rather than nothing.
  • The confirmation of support could be a figment of convenience, since the rebels are now calling on NATO to do more.  In some ways NATO has, it's just been impolitic to say it.  The rebels kept insisting they can do it themselves and there's a real benefit to everyone, Libyans included, with the sense of empowerment that comes from winning one's own victory.
  • Again, I don't support any of the state actors doing this, nor do I think their intentions are genuine or that they even know what they're doing for that matter.  Hopefully by keeping up the technical fiction that boots are not on the ground we'll also pre-empt the need for Libyan issues to enter into the domestic politics of NATO members after the war is over.  What these air drops do support is the intent of UNSCR 1973, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, and again the only way of doing that has become the removal of a certain dictator.



The Humanitarian Cluster...

One of the things that I most looked forward to coming to Libya, was the chance to see how all of the things I (over-) learned in Afghanistan apply here.  I can go on at length about similarities and differences, but let me just focus on one thing that I see remaining the same.  There seems to be an inability or unwillingness to accept the meaning of the word ‘principle’ in humanitarian principle and hence an inability to approach the politics inherent in working for an NGO, or for that matter to see the big picture.

Libya is an aid effort in a pretty heavily developed place (electricity and paved roads galore here), and with all that sundry rule of law lying about, the effort seems much more structured here.  The UN and the major donors from the NATO states take the lead and the first-tier NGOs are chasing them about and going to the meetings they schedule.

This leads to a lot of exhausting discussion about rather useless topics (Benghazi or Zarzis take your pick) like which NGOs are too allied with the rebels to support.  And this is where I, the good realist liberal, want to tear my hair out.  See we have this principle of trying to be neutral, but we have to be realistic and realise when we cannot.  There is no civil society behind Qaddafi lines because his quixotic dictatorship has not allowed any to form.  Pretty much everyone trying to help Libya, like the vast majority of those within Libya are supporting the opposition, which allows NGOs to operate freely.  Moreover, if you or your organisation hopes to have any credibility in future Libya, the only question that will be asked of you is ‘what did you do for the opposition?’

So here is why it’s useful that humanitarianism is a principle and not a set list of things.  We can employ humanitarian principles by working with a Libyan organisation who might be pro-rebel but still tries to distribute aid widely to all (again rebels support things like this while the former regime does not).  Sometimes such nascent civil society organisations will say inappropriate things at meetings when included.  That’s okay; it’s how the discussion evolves.  What if we excluded the UN and its employees for every inappropriate thing they did and said?

Just as was my past experience in Afghanistan, a lot of the response to this crisis could get bogged down in NGOs’ self-perception.  Non-profit and non-government are happy coincidences; I’m still encouraging NGOs to think of themselves as non-state actors (and no, that doesn’t mean you need to be armed).  It may be nice to have a few governments recognising an organisation to lend it legitimacy, but we exist outside the state system and our lack of state-based identities make us better and more able to focus on the task at hand.  It also means we’re independent political actors trying to enact our political platform of neutrality.

I came to Libya support liberalism, to support the people here, to get some perspective on the 2011 revolutions.  I did not come here just to implement some lines on a TOR.  Everybody can and should do their work and the immediate task at hand, but I really hope no one loses sight of that bigger picture.