Iraqi echoes in Nato’s Libya adventure

08 September 2011

It is said that Libya in 2011 is different from Iraq in 2003, but there are striking similarities

The nations behind the war for Libya seemed to have learnt at least one important lesson from the war for Iraq in 2003; they are avoiding premature claims that their mission has been accomplished. But there was no mistaking the self-congratulatory spirit that dominated the International Conference in Support of the New Libya held on 1 September in Paris, which was attended by the powers behind the overthrow of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

The consensus at this point about the war for Libya is that the world is not going to repeat mistakes made in Iraq eight years ago. Everything is different this time. Everything consequently should be different from now on, as well.

The truth, however, is that the two wars have much in common. The first similarity is in the lack of clarity about why they happened at all. The argument that Nato and the rest are standing up for human rights is contradicted by revelations at the start of September that Britain and America had cooperated with the Gaddafi regime in detaining and torturing Libyan dissidents identified as Al-Qaeda supporters. To the embarrassment of London and Washington, one of those handed over to Tripoli by the UK and the US is now the commander of rebel forces the two Western powers are supporting. The warm relations with former Libyan foreign affairs and minister and intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, expressed in letters uncovered in Tripoli from British Intelligence officials in the last decade, confirm the monumental scale of the double-talk and double standards.

London says it was a necessary part of practical diplomacy, but why the sudden outbreak of principle now? The argument that Prime Minister David Cameron is a nicer man than his two predecessors sounds unconvincing. There is evidence that the war in Libya was driven by public opinion in Britain and elsewhere. Television reports of violent repression, coupled with Gaddafi’s televised hate speeches, probably had an impact, but there was nothing in them more bloodcurdling than what has been said, in English, by Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. No one is seriously suggesting Zimbabwe should be invaded.

The confusion about motives echoes events in 2003. A senior member of President George W Bush’s administration, who was intimately involved with decision-making during the run-up to the Iraq war, told me earlier this year that he still did not know why the decision had been taken to attack Iraq.

The second parallel is in the course of the war itself. At least 100 air attacks against targets in Libya have been carried out every day for more than three months. The scale of Western military action is in line with what happened in Iraq in 2003. The claim that there are no “boots on the ground” is misleading. Advisers from Nato countries are serving in the rebel militia and there are bound to be private security contractors, in reality Western soldiers wearing civilian clothes, just as there are now in Iraq.

The third parallel is in the process of nation-building. It is now universally acknowledged that one of the greatest errors made after the war for Iraq was the attempt to run the country as if it were a US colony. This year, Nato and its partners have been working hard to find acceptable (if not unfamiliar) Libyans to act as the face of the new regime. The aim is to deflect charges that the country is under foreign control, but those that have devoted resources to breaking the Libyan regime are unlikely to walk away from what they have now created. Libyan sovereignty and independence are indefinitely compromised.

The fourth parallel is that the proponents of the war are asserting, as their equivalents did in 2003, that it was essentially about one evil man and his kleptocratic family. The idea that the Libyan system was the work of a single pair of hands is false. The Gaddafi regime enjoyed a higher degree of assent than is now widely proclaimed. Libya, like most Middle East countries, was a police state. And, as elsewhere in the region, the majority assented to a repressive system in return for quiet lives. Basic infrastructure worked. Healthcare and education were good, by Middle East standards.

The fifth parallel is perhaps the most compelling. In 2003, support for war was successfully stoked in Washington and London and the UN was marginalised. This year, effective debate within the legislatures of the Nato countries behind the war was even more limited. The UN has been a spectator and the public reaction in the US, Britain and France has been minimal.

There are more trivial coincidences. Gaddafi and his sons are on the run, just as Saddam Hussein and his sons were in 2003. Perhaps, like Saddam, Gaddafi will be caught, tried and executed, but the caravan of history has already moved on. Gaddafi’s life from now will be a footnote in his biography.

Those that followed with dismay events in Iraq in 2003 comforted themselves with the thought that they could never been repeated. That has proved to be just another Middle East delusion. There is much that has happened in Libya less than a decade later that suggests they already have.

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