As Canada and its NATO allies gear up for yet another military intervention in Libya, I feel it’s worth asking what exactly they hope to accomplish there.
Note I don’t say “what we hope to accomplish”. I was against the first round of bombing and political interference and sneaky boots-on-the-ground special-forces whatever-it-was-they-did (cause-we’ll-never-know), although of course Stephen Harper & Co. never asked me for my opinion. And I’m solidly against a second ill-conceived round of open-ended meddling into one of the more complex civil wars in the world, mostly on the grounds that Western militaries caused the damn war by virtue of its first ill-conceived intervention, and haven’t exactly demonstrated any kind of penitence or even awareness that they played a role in creating the chaos that subsumes Libya today.
If you’ve forgotten about the First Libyan
War Non-Combat Operation, or if you weren’t paying attention at the time, here’s how it went down: Back in 2011, in the midst of the so-called “Arab Spring”*, Western newspapers were flooded with stories of atrocities in Libya committed by the regime of Muammar Gaddafi against a seemingly spontaneous rebel uprising in that nation. Gaddafi, the reports alleged, was bombing his own people, was killing peaceful demonstrators from the air, was planning an indiscriminate massacre in the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi, and had distributed Viagra to his troops to encourage mass rape. All of these claims were later proven to be totally false.
By then, however, it was too late. Under cover of a (broadly interpreted) United Nations Security Council resolution, a coalition of mostly Western/NATO nations imposed a “no-fly zone” on Libya, a condition which majorly disadvantaged the regime and allowed the rebels to move freely across the country. With Western air support (and some shock troops from Qatar) the rebels (some of whom were affiliated with al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist organizations like the CIA) were eventually able to take control of the nation. Gaddafi was eventually captured and extrajudicially executed by a violent mob.
Despite Western triumphalism – Hillary Clinton famously crowed, “We came, we saw, he died!” – the death of the longtime strongman (and notorious human rights abuser) did little to bring peace or stability to Libya. Instead, in the power vacuum left by his absence, the nation and the region were thrown into chaos. A coup in Mali the following year can be traced directly to the outflow of weapons and fighters from Libya, and, less directly, the rise of Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) in Syria was fuelled by an outflow of militants and arms from Libya which was directly facilitated by the CIA and MI6
Meanwhile, in Libya itself, the rebellion rapidly split into competing factions, and the nation was plunged into a civil war that persists to this day. Recently, Daesh fighters have attempted to make the nation an outpost of their illegitimate “caliphate”, and some (Western) estimates suggest as many as 6500 Daesh fighters are in Libya today.
Now, senior Canadian and NATO military officials have started gravely intoning on the likelihood that the West will once again “need” to militarily intervene in Libya, this time to prevent the growth of Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) in the North African nation, which is still struggling to recover from the last round of massively destructive NATO involvement.
“If we’re going to have an impact in Libya, now is the time to get involved, over the next six months,” said former NATO supreme commander James Stavridis. “I think the international community is very interested in Libya…I don’t know whether we will be involved militarily, but we will certainly be involved somehow,” said Canada’s chief of defence staff, Gen. John Vance. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was more circumspect, acknowledging that intervention was certainly possible but insisting that “Before we can actually say ‘Yes we’re interested,’ ‘Yes we can do this,’ we’re doing what all responsible coalition partners should do [assess the political and security situation] and then decide if we have the right capabilities to assist in this mission.”
But look, it’s straight-up ahistorical nonsense to argue that a UN-approved stabilizing mission led by a NATO coalition will do a damn thing to combat ISIS. Given recent history, the most likely outcomes of such an intervention would be a multiplication of the region’s woes, an increasing of the strength of fundamentalist militants, and an increased likelihood of further intervention in the not-so-distant future.
There’s no sense in any of these comments from Canadian and NATO generals that they have any concrete ideas on how to produce a better outcome this time around, no indication how this latest Western military intervention in a Middle Eastern nation will depart from the long string of failures dating back to 9/11. There is to date no model for a successful intervention of this type, and there’s no model articulated here for how this could possibly work out any better than it has in Afghanistan, Iraq (several times), Syria (indirectly/not so indirectly) and in Libya itself.
And this is an extremely relevant question. Senior Canadian military officials have finally started acknowledging that the Afghanistan War was an unmitigated disaster, and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, himself an Afghan vet, has questioned the wisdom of the current model of Western military intervention.
At this point, a proper military mission, led either by NATO or a more informal coalition, is still a little ways off. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France are working through the United Nations to try to broker an end to Libya’s festering civil war and impose a national unity government which would be friendly towards Western military intervention. (Canada is pretty much just following the lead of the Big Kids on this one.) An agreement to establish a unity government was announced in January, but an actual unity government has yet to materialize on the ground. The more widely-recognized of Libya’s two rival Parliaments rejected the unity plan late last month, and it seems that most of the enthusiasm for the effort is coming not from within Libya but from foreign capitals.
Support is growing in Europe, and especially in former colonial power Italy, for a bifurcation of Libya into three smaller states, a true marker of the desperation Western powers are feeling. Redrawing colonially imposed borders and violating territorial integrity is a dangerous path to go down, given how many regional separatist groups exist across Africa (and within Europe itself).
Support is also growing for military intervention regardless of the desires of Libya’s warring factions, an action which was presaged by the decision by Western powers to illegally bomb Syria (and, in the case of the United States, put Special Forces troops on the ground) without the approval of that nation’s government.
So far, all the noise we’ve heard out of Ottawa in relation to a Second Libyan
War Non-Conflict Operation has been cautiously approving, and there’s no reason to think that the government du jour would in any way resist NATO plans for further intervention in Libya, notwithstanding any local objections or the absence of reasonable plans for any kind of success. This is a story to watch in the weeks and months to come, but for the record, I’m calling it now: this is going to end poorly.
(*I’ll let the historians definitively decide whether “the Arab Spring” is a legitimate analytical category, but at this point its legacy is so multi-faceted and ambiguous that I’m tempted to look at it as at least two distinct and opposing trends: a movement by well-educated middle-class folks in Arab nations to challenge autocratic and repressive regimes, and a counter-movement by Western nations to take advantage of the perceived regional desire to confront auto-/plutocracy by locals in order to take on perennial enemies in the region, often through the funding/arming/training of fundamentalist militias.)