By Patrick Porter
There is a persistent charge, across a wide body of political opinion and commentary, that Western intervening powers “lost” Iraq and Libya.
By pulling out, or failing to engage enough, the West opened the way for new centrifugal forces, and new predators, to grow in the Middle East and North Africa. What we might call the “abandonment thesis” is superficially attractive, as it suggests that dark things happened primarily because we, the U.S.-led West, “let” them happen. Even as it induces feelings of shame, it affirms our pivotal importance and promises that we can exert high levels of control if we get it right next time. Yet a closer look at the history of both countries demonstrates that neither were the West’s to “lose.” The main force driving Western withdrawal was the will of the host population. That one of our most cherished assumptions might be wrong is something to bear in mind, next time we are tempted to break a state.
The accusation of abandonment haunts the legacies of former premiers David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. Critics complain that the Anglo-French coalition that pushed hard for the campaign in 2011 to prevent a massacre and then overthrow the vile Colonel Qaddafi left Libya in the lurch after Gaddafi was toppled. Since then, a disaster has taken place. Libyan society unraveled into an atomized, conflict-ridden chaos, as oil production plummeted, rival parliaments formed, torture and abuse thrived, and Islamists seized new footholds. Subsequent squabbles and inquests put most blame on Europeans or Americans for their distraction afterwards, for failing to take ownership of the aftermath, and failing to finish the job. Outsiders ought to have sent in training missions to restructure the Libyan army, insert multinational peacekeeping forces, reconstruct the country and leverage the government to pursue reconciliation between political enemies. This all rests on a general assumption that Libyans, or at least those who wielded power, wanted the help.
Abandonment charges also dog thepresidency of Barack Obama as it enters its twilight. He unwisely withdrew from Iraq in December 2011 and failed to keep a significant presence in the country, so it is said, just as a real but fragile victory was at hand. This created a vacuum for sectarian breakdown and its most monstrous byproduct, the capitulation of the Iraqi Army as the Islamic State expanded and captured a belt of territory and stormed Mosul, Iraq’s second city. The very urban center where General David Petraeus first found the way to recovery through a counterinsurgency renaissance became the platform for the new Caliphate, proclaimed in its great al-Nuri mosque. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has peddled this storyline, slamming the Obama administration for fleeing Iraq. As it happens, Trump advocated immediate withdrawal in March 2007, when levels of violence were far higher. That only suggests Trump’s shallow opportunism, however, rather than discrediting the claim itself.
The abandonment thesis deserves further scrutiny, and not just because the reputations of recent leaders are at stake. It carries important implications about how we define problems in future. If it is true, we can infer that in future armed interventions, the difference between success and disappointment is Western willpower and staying power. In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with efforts like Iraq or Libya. To work, the liberation business just needs a technical fix, underpinned by political will, in the form of increased commitment: more troops, more money, more diplomatic effort, more time, more pain. If the abandonment thesis is true, the problem is simple, if not easy.
The “betrayal” line of attack plays to a number of different persuasions, all of whom give Western agency the leading role. For hawkish internationalists and pro-interventionists, it offers an ideal alibi. It focuses the problem not on intervention itself but on the seductive idea that there just isn’t enough of it. It appeals to neoconservatives, for whom international affairs is a drama about the need for the West’s heroic greatness, against the constant threat of degeneracy, isolationism and entropy from within. Obama is their current prime target, as the architect of America’s supposed retreat from the world. It appeals also to humanitarian-minded progressives, for whom the world is primarily about the development and mis-development of countries, and for whom the collapse of Iraq and Libya is primarily a developmental story of neglect, a lack of proper “post-conflict” reconstruction. The catch-cry of thesecritics is that Britain spent thirteen times more money bombing Libya than it did rebuilding it. It appeals to the R2P movement, whose figureheads once described Libya as a “model intervention” that was squandered by feckless statesmen. More generally, it appeals to those souls who have a heightened sense of the West’s moral responsibility, as a privileged actor and as a former colonial master.
As it happens, both charges are quite untrue. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, Iraqis in 2010 and Libyans in 2011 preferred to govern themselves in ways that didn’t suit the international community. Whether or not Western leaders were reluctant, Western withdrawal (in Iraq’s case) and limited involvement (in Libya’s case) were politically inevitable, because it was the will of the liberated.
In Libya, even if we accept the premise that armed international forces would have successfully stabilized Libya without provoking blowback, as informed observersnote, “there was never a realistic option for establishing an international peacekeeping force or postconflict security mechanism…Libyans did not want it.” This reality became clear even before Qaddafi’s demise. Libya’s National Transitional Council in August 2011 “ruled out the deployment of any sort of international force to the country.” And this was in response to what was only a modest UN assistance plan offering 200 military observers and 190 UN police. That timing is significant, as advocates of these kinds of military actions stress the time-sensitivity of the first “golden hour” in stabilizing a country. Despite the insistence of UN envoys that the country “needs” peacekeepers, Libyan authorities didn’t agree.
To persist in the claim that we “ought” to have inserted forces in the aftermath is either to lack curiosity about Libyan politics at the time; or it is to suggest that outsiders should have pressured them harder to accept peacekeepers even though Resolution 1973 forbade the deployment of a foreign occupation force of any kind; or that outsiders keen to be seen to support the Arab Spring of liberation should have taken a colonial stance and imposed forces on a sovereign African state against its will. Taking as a rule of thumb the minimal ratio for a stabilization force of twenty troops to every 1000 people, a force of over 100 thousand troops would have been required. Of course, we can debate the wisdom of the Libyans’ choices: the government three years later did call for peacekeepers to help disarm militias, by which time there was barely a peace to keep. We can’t dispute, though, that the choice whether to consent to peacekeepers was theirs.
We need not be long detained by the claim that Libya descended into chaos because it was “underdeveloped,” or because the liberators didn’t spend enough money to reconstruct the country. Libya even after the war and revolution lacked neither wealth nor resources. It was not Afghanistan. It had $150 billion in foreign assets; was benefiting from oil and energy driven economic growth with European states scrambling to participate; it had the highest GDP in Africa, falling child mortality and rising life expectancy. If anything, the causality ran in the other direction. Development problems did not fuel political chaos. Political chaos led to near economic collapse. This would have made effective reception and distribution of international aid extremely difficult, and given the misalignment problem in international interventions, injecting resources into that situation may well have fuelled, not calmed, the conflicts.
Likewise in Iraq, political realities and the agency of Iraqi rulers precluded the kind of hypothetical involvement that Obama’s critics wished for. This was a decision Obama inherited. The United States was withdrawing forces in the time leading to December 2011 because the Bush Administration had agreed to, according to the terms of its Status of Forces Agreement signed in December 2008. Could Obama have kept some kind of military presence, or forces in a noncombat role? Possibly, but only at a price that the American Congress would have rejected, namely the insistence that any international troops lose their legal immunity from prosecution and be subject to Iraqi laws. Iraqis overwhelmingly opposed continued U.S. military presence, including central power figures such as Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Neither was the insistence on legal immunity an Obama innovation: it was part of the Status of Forces Agreement and is a standard requirement for deployments of American troops abroad. Iraqi politics was the prime mover, as well as misplaced optimism within Iraq that Iraq’s indigenous forces could cope in an environment where levels of violence had declined. So when Iraq’s major political bloc leaders met in early October 2011 in an all-night session, “they agreed on the need for continued U.S. “trainers” but said they were unwilling to seek immunities for these troops through the parliament.” To observe that Libya and Iraq weren’t ours to lose, and that Libyans and Iraqis have agency in their destinies, is not to exonerate the West for its contribution to the two disasters. The West’s overthrow of the state contributed strongly to creating conditions for state breakdown in Libya, and sectarian conflict in Iraq. It is to observe that liberating people does not turn them into passive clients.
Rather than casting about for villains who betrayed the noble enterprise of rescue, it’s time to center our focus on the experiment itself. The central fact of these wars is that we are breaking states, not just rescuing people, and doing so in the optimistic expectation that the rescued will reform their countries in shapes that we approve of. This experiment has not been uniformly successful. The word “intervention” is inadequate as an account of this exercise and its radical quality. Iraq from the outset, and Libya as it evolved, were not merely efforts to “step into” a conflict. They were revolutionary wars to overthrow states.
It has proven remarkably easy to overlook this reality. When defenders of the Libyan war such as Shadi Hamid claim that creating something like “a stable democracy…was “never the goal. The goal was to protect civilians and prevent a massacre,” they have forgotten their own claims at the time. In August 2011, Hamid claimed that the “lesson” of Libya was the “decisive” role of “external actors” in “the Arab struggle for freedom.” By August 2011, that is exactly what the war had become. It grew beyond a limited exercise in preventing atrocities, into an effort to overthrow a government and bring freedom to an afflicted people. They may wish to forget it, but those who backed the intervention articulated high hopes. It is reasonable to judge the adventure by the standard its own advocates set.
That Libyans and Iraqis decided that they would exercise sovereignty in ways that diverged from Western preferences is not a complicated observation. Yet it is striking how difficult we find it to stomach. This says something about Western attitudes towards the whole business of liberating the oppressed. Are we liberating people in the expectation that they will be free to do what we want them to do? We rejoice when their tyrants fall and their statues are torn down. We lament when those same liberated people exercise their newfound sovereignty to make decisions that don’t suit us. Instead of confronting that reality, we develop a self-flattering narrative, that the fate of ‘rescued’ societies is all about us, our commitment and willpower. Ultimately, we seem to regard the liberated not as agents but as objects. Yet we are not always central players in the drama, and cannot confidently expect to steer the liberated in our direction. This realization, that sometimes even the West can only hope to exert power on the margins, struck even the late Fouad Ajami, a keen believer in America’s historical mission in the Middle East: “America should not write itself into every story: There are forces in distant nations that we can neither ride nor extinguish.”
Patrick Porter is the academic director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter.