Many around the world took a celebratory tone when learning earlier this week that rebels in Libya gained control over Tripoli, the capital of that oil-rich country. Yet, these celebrations miss the point.
To be clear, the Libyan people are now in control of their destiny in a way which they never have been; that is worth commending, but the means through which this was achieved are not. Indeed, one need only to look at the facts to see that the conduct of this revolution has been rather less than inspiring. Despite its name, the Arab Spring was actually triggered last winter following protests in Tunisia. The largely nonviolent protest movement in Tunisia resulted in the resignation and exile of an authoritarian president who had actively employed armed force against demonstrators. After some confusion, the leader of the largely symbolic legislature became President. What followed were similar nonviolent actions in other Arab countries, which, to a large extent, have only partially subsided.
The successful revolution in Tunisia was followed by upheavals in Egypt where, once more, armed force was applied against largely nonviolent public demonstrations. There, the military toppled the regime following backpedalling by the Egyptian president regarding his promise to step aside in response to the crisis. Following revolutions in two neighboring counties, demonstrations in Libya turned violent sparking a civil war which, as of this writing, remains ongoing even as a rebel victory now appears all but assured.
Much like Iran in 1979, opponents of these deposed regimes come in many forms. Some surely want reforms along western lines. Labor groups would like to see wages and job opportunities increase. Others would be content, if not pleased, to see theocracies emerge from these largely secular regimes. Then as now, predicting exactly how events within a popular revolution will unfold is an impossible task. What is clear, however, is that many of the factors at work in Iran in 1979 are present in each of these three Arab countries, despite the separate histories and Persian-rather than Arab-character of the former.
The prospect for an Iran-like regime forming in Libya is greater than in any Arab country which has thus far undergone revolution this year. Under Qaddafi, Libya paid lip service to the idea or being an Islamic regime, but interspersed with this idea of pan-Arabism (for a time), and what is sometimes called Arab socialism. The result has been to produce a relatively modern and well-to-do (by African standards) society ruled by a primarily nationalistic authoritarian regime focused on its own aggrandizement. As with any authoritarian regime, rival ideological currents are suppressed, be they Islamist or liberal in character.
Thus, as a was true with Iran, any number of opposition political currents could emerge triumphant in the coming weeks and months when the Transitional National Council actually goes about forming a new government and political system to replace that which has endured for more than half a century under Colonel Qaddafi. Nonetheless, a larger, more diplomatic concern exists. Under the previous U.S. and U.K. governments, the Libyan regime gave up its weapons of mass destruction development program, and ceased state sponsorship of terrorism. No one can deny that Qadhafi in his heyday was a brute, but the fact is that, over the course of the last decade, Libya had begun to change.
No longer was Qadhafi the pariah he had once been; instead, Libya was being integrated into the global community. There can be no excusing the terrorism of the Qadhafi regime in earlier times, but so too cannot be excused the conduct of western governments in deploying armed force to oust from power an externally peaceful sovereign government.
When the Iraq War was conducted under the previous British and American governments, critics correctly contended that revolution cannot be imposed upon a society, and raised the prospect of a theocracy forming in that country following the war despite the best efforts of the West. Postwar Iraq has taken a largely secular course, but given continued political and economic difficulties there, that could still change. Critics of the Iraq endeavor further contended that the Iraq War was illegal and waged against a state which was at peace with its neighbors. The Libyan civil war has been waged with western assistance against a regime at peace with all of its neighbors.
The justness of an armed struggle is not determined by the lives lost in its prosecution, but by the principles employed by its participants. If one contends that the Iraq War was illegal on the basis of the strategic motivations for its occurrence and the questionable United Nations authorization of it, then must also regard as illegal this Libyan endeavor.
Indeed, the UN resolution cited in support of Western involvement in the Libyan civil war authorized only humanitarian support. At no time in the history of mankind have aerial bombardments constituted humanitarian assistance. Civil wars conducted independently of other governments, or only assisted through actual humanitarian support, or even through the sales of weapons have a great prospect of producing results which are beneficial to, and in the interests of, the parties involved because the actual costs and consequences of the fighting are felt across all segments of society. A war not felt at home is a war in which costs are apparent only to a minority at the time.
More troubling is the message the Libyan war has sent to rogue states elsewhere in the world. The Libyan regime had abandoned its desire to produce weapons of mass destruction. But, not a decade later, ended up falling at the hands of western-backed rebels anyway. If the assurances of the Americans, the British, and the French are meaningless, then neither Iran nor North Korea has any reason to deal fairly with these governments and abandon the pursuit of nuclear and other dangerous weapons.
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes. But so apparently do those who learn from history seem so willing and able to repeat it.
Anyone voting next year in the U.S. presidential election should ask themselves if the Barack Obama who so adamantly opposed the Iraq War when he first ran for U.S. Senate would agree that the Western intervention in Libya this year is something to be celebrated. Rather than the old adage regarding learning from the mistakes of history, it would be more accurate now to contend that, in the field of international relations, neither good will nor good deeds go unpunished.