Was it wrong to support the overthrow of Gaddafi?

Published by The Independent (9th March, 2015)

There are few historic sites more wondrous than the ruins of Leptis Magna, a Roman city once home to 80,000 people, preserved by Mediterranean sands. It has forests of marble columns, intricate mosaics, imposing triumphal arches, temples, theatres and an amphitheatre which was dug out beside the sea. Walking around the vast site, much of it still unexcavated, you feel an intense connection with the classical world.

Yet the rise of jihadists in Libya has provoked fears for the future of Leptis Magna, along with all the other cultural treasures that can be found in Libya such as the Greek ruins in Cyrene and the 12,000-year-old rock paintings of lions and elephants that stretch for miles along a dried-up riverbed in the Saharan desert. Already militants have destroyed several monuments in Tripoli and now Islamic State is beginning to spread its malign influence across the nation.

Such fears are justified at a time when these vile religious zealots are destroying archaeological treasures in Iraq. The murder, rape and enslavement of human beings is far worse, of course, but bulldozing priceless relics from the past symbolises the crassness of their single-minded savagery. The fact that Libya’s diplomats are raising the alarm over their nation’s incredible heritage serves as an urgent reminder of the chaos into which this unfortunate country has sunk.

Inevitably, as with other nations such as Egypt and Syria, we hear people say that perhaps it would have been better to have backed an autocrat – in this case the late, and unlamented Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – given subsequent events. But Libya is different, since not only did Britain support the uprisings four years ago that ousted the dictatorial regime, but our armed forces played a key role in ensuring Gaddafi was overthrown after 42 years in power. With hindsight, was it wrong to have done so?

Certainly the country is in turmoil. The current threat from the bloodthirsty, barbarous killers who call themselves Isis has been overblown, but it is clearly a presence as shown by the beheading of 21 Christians on a beach; indeed, it is probably also in Sabratha, home to a majestic, Roman theatre which was rebuilt by Italian archeologists.

Regardless, the country is riven by conflict with two rival governments and parliaments, while well-armed militias and Islamists jostle for power, plunder national wealth and terrify residents. Air strikes are carried out by foreign powers fighting a proxy war. Little wonder that almost a third of the country’s 6.2 million population has reportedly fled, most to Tunisia.

It is not hard to portray this as another tragic example of misguided, Western intervention. After all, the words of Prime Minister David Cameron telling cheering crowds in Benghazi how they were an example to the world for choosing freedom over dictatorship feel more hollow by the day.  Yet for all the posturing and phoney pledges to help build democracy by the desert, I would argue that Britain and France were right to step in. The failures came later on.

The decision to back the rebellion was taken on the grounds that Gaddafi’s forces were about to retake Benghazi, birthplace of the Libyan revolution. Talk of a looming bloodbath was probably overdone, as were some stories about alleged atrocities, but there is no doubt the dictator and his thieving family would have sought brutal revenge on those that challenged their rule. And it should be remembered that this was not the unwarranted invasion of a foreign nation, as in Iraq, but limited air strikes in support of a popular uprising against a hated regime.

The country has since disintegrated, defeated in its attempts to build a democracy. Yet this is not really down to religious or ethnic divisions in a comparatively homogeneous nation of conservative Sunni Muslims. It is more the legacy of trying to build civil society in a nation without such traditions after a recent history of colonial invasion, reinvented monarchy and then decades of dictatorship by a maverick ruler who wrecked his nation’s civil society.

That does not mean it was wrong to support those seeking dignity and freedom.  Libya has held three fair elections, all of which saw liberal and centrist success. Unfortunately the West, scarred by its experiences in Iraq, was reluctant to become too involved in the country’s post-conflict reconstruction, while those in charge did not want help despite making silly mistakes such as putting militias on the state payroll rather than disarming them.

President Obama says that this failure was his biggest foreign-policy regret. One regular visitor told me that whenever he goes to this benighted country he is asked why the West deserted Libya during its descent into darkness.

But despite the gravity of the problems, hope is not totally lost as the United Nations tries to broker a deal among rival forces panicked by arrival of the jihadists. On Saturday, representatives from Libya’s two, rival parliaments held direct talks for the first time; one source involved in negotiations said the aim was to persuade both sides to give up power and effectively start again. ‘I remain medium-term optimistic,’ he said, despite the difficulty of dealing with so many warlords. ‘But the danger is like Somalia with two entrenched sides, all those militia and now outside forces coming in.’

This is a chilling prospect given Libya’s oil wealth and its proximity to Europe. Yet British foreign policy should be biased on the side of democracy and human rights rather than towards despotic regimes that cannot last for ever. If there is criticism of our actions, it should be for failing to provide enough support for those trying to build a decent country. And most fundamentally, for still backing cruel regimes such as Saudi Arabia that lurk behind so many of the problems inflaming the Middle East and North Africa.

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