Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 March 2019

As Libya tells us, regime change is not an end point

When it comes to Western intervention, regime change is sometimes just the beginning, argues Sholto Byrnes
A member of the Libyan pro-government forces walks beside shops damaged during street clashes with the Shura Council of Libyan Revolutionaries. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters
A member of the Libyan pro-government forces walks beside shops damaged during street clashes with the Shura Council of Libyan Revolutionaries. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters

In September 2011, Britain’s prime minister David Cameron and France’s then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, paid a visit to Libya. “It’s great to be here in free Benghazi and in free Libya,” said Mr Cameron, as the two foreign leaders were mobbed by well-wishers. That same day, one month before Muammar Qaddafi met an ignominious end in a culvert during the Battle of Sirte, Mr Cameron added: “I believe you have the opportunity to give an example to others about what taking back your country can mean.”

Three and a half years on, Qaddafi loyalists are back – now fighting under the banner of ISIL in Sirte. The terrorist group showed its reach had grown far beyond Syria and Iraq last month when it released a video of 21 Egyptian Copts being beheaded on a Libyan beach. That was just one shocking incident in what has become a wave of kidnappings, bombings and killings. The country has effectively descended into civil war, with the democratically elected government having had to flee to Tobruk, while a rival administration occupies Tripoli. Last December, the UN estimated at least 120,000 people had been displaced in what it termed a “humanitarian crisis”.

This is presumably not what Mr Cameron had in mind. Not if he concurs with his foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who recently told parliament that “the reality on the ground in Libya is that there is no authority to engage with”.

But the danger that the joys of freedom might be brief was apparent from the start. Days before Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy landed in Benghazi, I warned in these pages: “Although the gamble appears to have paid off, it was, like similar ventures in the past, one taken with no serious thought for what happened afterwards nor even the vaguest notion of how long it would last.”

The Nato intervention was itself not only a gamble but an ill-prepared one – as the then US defence secretary, Robert Gates, pointed out early on in the campaign, saying that “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly-armed regime in a sparsely populated country. Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference”.

What now appears to be absolutely catastrophic, however, is the lack of preparation for a Libya without Qaddafi. It seems incredible in retrospect that, after Iraq, western interventionists could again have relied on the word of unrepresentative exiles (such as Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress) that peaceful liberal democracy would immediately fill the post-dictatorship vacuum. But that is apparently exactly what happened.

As Joseph Walker-Cousins, who had been the stabilisation adviser to Britain’s special envoy at the time, recently wrote: “We were led to believe that rebuilding Libya would be a relatively simple operation: Muammar Qaddafi was finished, Libya’s army was useless and its tribes were broken. A new state was to be built on fresh and firm foundations. How mistaken we were.”

There may have been reasons for Nato to hope that Libya would make an easier transition. Justin Marozzi, an adviser to the National Transitional Council and contributor to this newspaper, told me that “after the disappointments of heavy footprint interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West adopted a light-touch approach in Libya after toppling Qaddafi from the air”. But such hopes were mere wishful thinking. This approach, says Marozzi, “has proved just as unsatisfactory. Post-war planning was as minimal as the coalition’s footprint”.

I recently attended a discussion at which a seasoned diplomat advised the following steps for nation-building: “Stability. Development. Rise of a middle class. And then, democracy.” Libya was developed and had a middle class. But stability under Qaddafi had been enforced from the top; it was not necessarily the natural condition of a country that had been divided into three provinces from Roman times until independence in 1951.

Some were aware that it might prove elusive once the self-styled “dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of all Muslims” was no longer in the picture. According to an investigation by the Guardian, Ken Clarke, then justice minister in Mr Cameron’s government, advised that partition into the old provinces was “the logical thing”. MI6, even more pessimistic, argued for sticking with “the devil you know”.

Mr Cameron, however, overrode the doubters. And he, along with Mr Sarkozy, must bear responsibility for what has happened since. After Iraq, removing a dictator and then disclaiming responsibility if chaos follows can no longer be acceptable. Yes, solutions must ultimately lie in decisions taken by local populations. But interventionists must also be subject to the rule: you break it – you own it.

“There’s no question of Britain abandoning Libya,” Mr Cameron said last month. Rather than cheers for the liberators, what bitter tears and caustic laughter those words must provoke today.

Sholto Byrnes is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

Updated: March 17, 2015 04:00 AM