Entries in revolutions (1)


Rethinking Regime Change for Libya

The salient feature of dictatorships is not always their repression.  Rather it’s their lack of three related phenomena, which together constitute what we think of as democracy: transparency, accountability, and rule of law.  Positing democracy and authoritarianism as a binary and not a continuum, Western liberal democracies pursued a red herring for much of the last ten years trying to turn zeros into ones.  Toppling the authoritarian regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq, many policy wonks spill a lot of ink discussing what the criteria might be for such regime change.

And now, in Libya, we find that we are at it again:  regime change.  No matter what anybody in NATO or one of its member states tells you, that is the goal.  And that goal is actually within the framework of UNSC Resolution 1973.  There will be no end to the threat against civilians in Libya until the regime that actively tries to kill those civilians (Libyans) is gone.  The Taliban were bad, Saddam Hussain was bad, and so are Bashar al-Asad and the Saudi royal family.  So how is Qaddafi different?  For liberal internationalists like myself the only logical and consistent conclusion was often to throw up our hands for fear that selective justice might be worse than no justice.

And yet I support regime change in Libya.  I don’t think that it can be extrapolated to other regimes in other places necessarily; for me it just seems like a clear intersection of the desirable and feasible—and yes, it has saved civilian lives.  As much as I tire of state actors and their petty nationalisms and geographical limitations, they are a reality and those state actors have to be dealt with.  There is no higher international body that can universally fix failings in transparency, accountability, and rule of law.  We have to deal with threats to justice and dignity on an ad-hoc basic until the willpower, institutions, and legitimacy for a truly global enforcement mechanism emerge.

An air war is feasible in Libya in a way that it is not in Syria, Yemen, or Bahrain.  The country is not wooded and the population is fairly spread out.  There are rebels and an active insurgency in government-controlled areas.  Qaddafi had lost legitimacy in almost unprecedented ways.  There’s also no question that civilian lives have been save in this intervention.

The terrain does matter.  It’s hard to hide a tank in Libya.  In the case of the Nafusa rebels, the rebels were controlling towns at the top of a long escarpment, with Qaddafi forces below trying to seize the high ground.  There’s no way for the QF to attack without moving their armour, or rocket launchers, or troop concentrations out in the open where air strikes can get them.  It’s also significant that as of this writing, the air war has not been escalated to the maximum of what’s possible.  Bombing a few key points in infrastructure would severely impede the regime’s ability to move reinforcements in, since there are fairly few roads in the country.  If the rebels cry uncle and demand it (up till now they have been emphasising that they want Libya’s infrastructure in tact), this could be something to watch out for.

In Libya, there are actual rebels that have legitimacy and running parts of the country, not just dissidents.  Before you ask, “who are they and how legitimate are they?”, please consider the case of Mr Qaddafi.  Repeat after me: Incumbency does not equal legitimacy.  Just because a government has been there a while does not make it legitimate.  The real reason that political elites fear calling out a government’s legitimacy is that they’re worried about domestic cans of worms that it might open.  And yet there are black holes of sovereignty on the global map, and sometimes there’s an easy solution that involves recognising the de facto reality.  Libyan rebels have a long way to go before they master the art of democratic politics, but on the other hand Qaddafi has really done some crazy stuff.  Even a somewhat authoritarian regime in Libya with the odd political prisoner is preferable to the whimsical and capricious madness of the Qaddafi years.

The wholesale loss of Qaddafi legitimacy is another thing sets Libya apart.  Like it or not, there are a whole bunch of people in Syria and Yemen that support the regime.  There have been actual verified mass protests in their support (even though I think these governments probably are doomed).  Qaddafi could never muster that.  Journalists can and should be sensitive to the possibility of real pro-regime sentiment in Libya (relatives and civil servants), but the rest of us can afford not to equivocate and see the difference.  Yes, the only way to get real legitimacy is with an election, but the only way we will get to an election is with rebel control.

Following on the issue of legitimacy, let me also point out why a negotiated solution was never realistic.  There was no will for it from amongst the regime, or at least amongst those holding the power within it.  Qaddafi wants to fight, defines himself by the fight, and will fight.  The day the NFZ was declared, Moussa Koussa, the then foreign minister (since defected) declared a ceasefire.  Whether he meant it or not is not clear, and if he did it’s even clearer that he had no ability to enforce it.  Adhering to that early one would have probably insured regime survival, but whoever controls the Brigades could not even think that far ahead.  With so much terror and unkept promises it’s hard to see how the rebels could take seriously an offer to negotiate even if it were earnest.  Many perceive themselves to be fighting for their lives.

Qaddafi had not just lost legitimacy with most Libyans, but has pissed off the international community to the point where even Saudi Arabia and Syria wouldn’t mind his ouster.  Bashar al-Asad may be on his way to claiming Qaddafi’s bad-guy prize, but the reality is that there are still folks—some of the sovereign—who wouldn’t like the precedent set by his ouster.  Not so with Qaddafi.

Civilian lives have been saved in Libya so far.  About Iraq we’re not sure.  According to the Lancet’s extremely thorough study in 2005, in that situation more people probably died in the aftermath of Hussain’s fall than the man manage to kill under his regime.  The number of civilians killed in Benghazi and Misurata is much less than if Qaddafi had been able to come in unopposed.  The violence of the Brigades is still on show at the moment, where they blindly shell populated areas that they have no hope of holding and which does nothing but incite rebel fighters to continue at all costs.  Near the Wazin checkpoint I had the opportunity to see the Brigades in action.  Troops who couldn’t communicate over distance were running around blindly and trying to shell in the direction of the checkpoint with guns they couldn’t aim very effectively.  It lacked tactics and strategy beyond simply inflicting damage.

It’s not at all clear to me weather it’s by intent or accident, but the NATO strategy of providing the rebels just the right amount of support to actually win but then to also feel some ownership over the new Libya seems to have emerged.  After the rebels’ failure to advance west of Ajdabiya, the breaking of the siege of Misurata and subsequent advances have been vital to the revolution’s sense of self-worth.  The argument about boots on the ground is often misleading too.  As much as I dislike the security industry and private security companies (PSCs), NATO’s war has made good use of them and their plausible deniability in Libya.  Why have British or American boots on the ground when those same boots can be hired by a PSC and then seconded to the Qatari government as “military advisors” for the Libyan National Army (rebels)?  The narrow and unnatural constraints of sovereignty and of the state system provide a way out by their own narrowness.  As long as said personnel are not technically working for one of the NATO members, that member has not committed ground troops.  The fiction is useful diplomatically, but it’s also a clever exploitation of loopholes in the state system.  The NATO intervention now has the look of a very full and consistent intervention with quite a bit of the state-building frontloaded into the fighting.

And lastly, the media narrative is going to tend towards stalemate until almost the end.  Traditional media outlets are doing what they’re supposed to do and reporting what they can verify.  People post what they hear and see on Twitter first, or blog about it.  The rest of us pick up reports from people who have proven to be credible over time and check them out and add weight.  Necessarily the major outlets are rarely where the action is occurring.  It’s hard to verify the ongoing protests in Tripoli or the latest gains in Nafusa.  But slowly the rebel claims have by and large been borne out, and what’s emerging is a pattern of consistent military advance by a force that started from zero.  Currently rebels are effectively surrounding Tripolitania, depriving Qaddafi of his main supply routes from Africa, with the sole exception of restive Gharyan.  There’s no centrepiece battle to point to yet, but from the vantage of those in Tripoli the end will likely appear quite sudden.  Until that time, journalistic balance will consist of stories to the tune of ‘Qaddafi’s not going anywhere’ versus ‘the end is nigh’.

Reality is usually greyer than the black and white of Libya.  Here you have a situation where the most good for the most people would clearly be served by a Libya without Qaddafi.  Distasteful though al-Asad is in Syria, my analysis there is that an intervention would be counterproductive, so I don’t support it.  Changing a regime doesn’t solve all of a country’s political problems but sometimes it’s worthwhile and every time and place requires a different constellation of methods and political forces.  But no state is sacred, and no state or regime has right to exist.  These things are only as good as the good they do for the people they are intended to serve.