Learning Lessons from Iraq & Libya

The difference between Iraq and Libya is the difference between neoconservative foreign policy and liberal-interventionist foreign policy. It is the difference between Bush & Obama. The difference between unilateral invasion & UN-supported liberation. The difference between external-regime-change and a genuine, grassroots revolution… But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Neoconservative foreign policy promotes intervening abroad to promote domestic national interests, whilst liberal interventionism seeks engagement through humanitarian aid, nation-building and sanctions. For the latter, the moral force of of military might is a last resort or an emergency act to save lives… for neocons it is justified on lesser grounds, concern about “the well-being of foreigners” borne out of “strict national interest”.

“Many of our domestic problems are caused on the other side of the world. Financial instability in Asia destroys jobs in Chicago and in my own constituency in County Durham. Poverty in the Caribbean means more drugs on the streets in Washington and London. Conflict in the Balkans causes more refugees in Germany. These problems can only be addressed by international co-operation.” ~Tony Blair (1999)

Neoconservative foreign policy is understandably seen as an “imperialist” doctrine, selective in its support of democratic initiatives only when it suits one’s own interests. It’s a Henry-Kissinger style “realpolitik” worldview – one perfectly happy to back dictators and despots, not nearly as moralistic as it might claim.

Liberal-interventionism on the other hand seeks to encourage the spread of democracy everywhere, in line with the concept of democratic peace – for a greater good. Not merely about acting in one’s own interests, the thesis seeks to obsolete machtpolitik.

So what does Libya tell us?

In 2008, whilst leader of the Opposition, David Cameron claimed “we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet and we shouldn’t try”. Come the Arab Spring of 2011, we of course organised air sorties over Libya for that very reason… but for all the claims of freedom, victory and success now, to some extent his original position may still be vindicated. Gadhafi may be gone – but who will replace him? Again, using Cameron’s own words, true democracy “is not just about elections – far from it”.

A 1998 Harvard University paper cited Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as saying: “The guiding mechanism of a free market economy … is a bill of rights, enforced by an impartial judiciary” – editor Sean M. Lynn-Jones then pointing out “these conditions also happen to be those that are necessary to maintain a stable system of free and fair elections and to uphold liberal principles of individual rights.” In Iraq, the political system remains almost as mangled as it was prior to the deposition of Sadam Hussein, Transparency International rating Iraq the most corrupt in the Middle-East… truly quite a feat… putting it somewhere between “flawed democracy” and “authoritarian regime”. Afghanistan meanwhile ranks 150th out of 167 on the EIU‘s “Democracy Index” as an Islamic Republic, behind even self-admitted absolute monarchies… again quite an achievement.

“In contrast to the heirs of some other non-Western traditions, including Hinduism, Shintoism and Buddhism, Islamic societies seem to have found it particularly hard to institutionalise divergences politically: authoritarian government, not to say Islamo-fascism, is the rule rather than the exception from Morocco to Pakistan.” ~Malise Ruthven (1990)

Simply invading a country and deposing one despotic regime does not bring democracy – this much is clear. The West’s role in Libya was notably different to that in Iraq and Afghanistan, however. Whilst in past conflicts we positioned ourselves as the “liberating” force – in Libya we simply provided the support required for those on the ground, enabling those behind the insurrection to be the heroes, enabling individuals to take control of their own country, not simply submitting to a new order. In the words of Obama speechwriter and US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes, “The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier,”

This has its risks… where there is limited western invention, there is limited control over the government that results from a revolution. For instance – a truly democratic system has the potential to elect someone with whom we may struggle to work with (radical Islamists, like those seen in Benghazi, perhaps). Neo-conservatives may shudder, but liberal interventionists will see this as part of the natural process to liberalisation. Society will become more open and given time will democratise further, if the nation is truly given freedom to select its own rulers. Meddling in their affairs and “installing a liberal government” directly contradicts our democratic aims and in the long-run simply leads to Taliban-like problems and Islamic revolutions. We must learn these lessons from the past. Attractive as it is to want to speed up the process of liberalising these nations, the people must first be represented by a government they recognise does truly represent them, lest we be left with civil war and more instability still.

Mistakes were made in Iraq and the fight in Afghanistan is far from finished, but we have a chance with Libya. Now Gadhafi is gone, let us not screw it up with neoconservative thinking. Let Libya have elections; let their people elect a west-hating government… but let them be empowered, let them have a democracy, so that their government may be accountable to them… and let us engage this new government in diplomacy. Let us engage them with the very values we are proponents of.