Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Libya will not be Iraq

For many, including myself, Libya will be a bitter/sweet pill to swallow. That is because the rebel's victory over Colonel Gaddafi was only possible because of NATO involvement and an extensive bombing campaign that virtually nullified his armed forces. On the one hand a massacre of the Libyan people by this erratic and highly dangerous individual was avoided, but on the other there is the very real risk that Libya will now be a vassal state to the West. Of course the Libyan people have made their decision, and the jubilation they are showing in the streets of cities across the country is a clear sign that they prefer this alternative to having Gaddafi and his family ruling them with an iron fist. There is, however, the argument that points us to the 'Iraqi' scenario. As a Syrian, I'm quite used to hearing the argument that democracy 'didn't work' in Iraq and that we should remember how nearly one million Iraqis because of the invasion. But the analogy does not work for a number of reasons.

In Iraq, democracy was, allegedly, to be applied by an invading American-led force that would completely purge society of the Ba'ath party, remove Saddam Hussein and then sit back and let favourable oil and construction contracts do the rest of the work. In Libya there are no American tanks and no columns of invading American and British soldiers. The ground fighting was done entirely by Libyan rebels, and, contrary to exaggerated claims, you cannot occupy a country by air power alone. Nor do ships off the coast constitute an occupation. What we should acknowledge is that this was a Libyan rebellion which was assisted materially by NATO. To say otherwise puts the donkey behind the cart and verges on the dishonest.

Secondly, the instability and deaths that occurred in Iraq were not entirely because of American bombing, in spite of garish propaganda posters of the victims of such bombings. Iraq was a battlefield between Iran and the United States. By proxy, a cacophony of groups emerged in the chaos and began to fight for control, including al Qaeda. All these groups, whether aligned with the United States or with Iran, did very bad thing. The most memorable atrocities, apart from al Qaeda's macabre beheadings, were the Haditha and Falluja massacres perpetrated by US soldiers, the Iranian campaign of assassinating Iraqi intellectuals, pilots and senior Sunni figures, and the Mahdi army's torture of captives, including drilling their bodies with holes. Then there was the Syrian regimes encouragement of Islamists to go to Iraq.

For these reasons, I just don't accept the analogy with Iraq. Yes, the sectarianism and extreme violence we saw in Iraq was an awful warning against chaos and a lack of security, but they were symptoms of what I described above. When we look at Libya today, we do not see any of these factors. In fact, every indication is that Libya might actually prosper wonderfully now that Gaddafi is gone. Sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt, countries which have already toppled their dictators, and with the firm support of the West, Libya is too far and too big for a distant country to start causing instability. It also has a coherent, popular, and legitimate alternative to Gaddafi's rule, something that was missing in Iraq. To say that Libya will go down the road of Iraq, or to say that NATO 'occupies' Libya, is bizarre and ignores -wilfully or out of ignorance - the reality underlying the Libyan solution.

Whether or not I would have accepted NATO involvement in Libya myself is another story, but I must respect the Libyans I have spoken with and heard from who have supported this involvement and wished Gaddafi removed at any cost. To lecture Libyans now about 'history', 'Arabism' and 'imperialism' is insulting and callous. Many of the people I know who decry NATO bombing and are cynical of its involvement there have ironically never mentioned or condemned the atrocities Gaddafi's forces have carried out. It is this silence that many Libyans will remember most in the future.

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