Monday, October 10, 2011


"Already people are claiming that the euphoria and calm after the fall of Tripoli could have been predicted and can be easily explained. But such civility was not inevitable; it could not have been assumed from Libyan history or culture. Libya shares many features of countries where anarchy has prevailed. Like Afghanistan or Iraq, it has a distinguished history and has experienced periods of stability but lacks the essential trinity of the international state-building apostles: ‘a vibrant civil society’, ‘rule of law’ and ‘good governance’. It has a rapidly growing young population, which is only partially educated, and few jobs. The traditional forces of tribe and Islam co-exist with more cosmopolitan aspirations, as they do in the rest of the Islamic world.

Many of the positive things that can be said about Libya can be said about other more troubled countries – right down to the small details. Libyans, like Iraqis and Afghans, remember a moderate, tolerant, Western-friendly country in the late 1960s and 1970s, which fell unexpectedly victim to leaders – and an ideology – alien to its indigenous culture. In the same way, the Lebanese writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb maintained that there was nothing preordained in Lebanon’s civil war, that Lebanon had been ‘at peace for centuries’. And in the Balkans in the 1990s, people insisted: ‘I did not even know people’s ethnic group – I have a Serb father, a Croat mother … We were Yugoslavs.’

All these countries can offer equally plausible explanations of why things go right and why things go wrong. One Libyan woman said, ‘it is orderly because there is not the corrupt, gangster class in Libya that there was in Iraq’; but Suleiman, a 20-year-old businessman from Benghazi, replied that under Gaddafi every businessman paid bribes of more than half the value of the contract. An older Libyan minister said there was no looting because the population was ‘educated’, but Suleiman complained of how bad his schooling had been, and how ignorant and isolated Libyans had become. Huda, a young woman working with the TNC, suggested that the paperknives had not been stolen because Libyans were wealthy; others emphasised rural squalor and 30 per cent unemployment. One of the most senior members of the new government said that the mid-level civil service worked well, regardless of the ministers. All other Libyans assured me that Gaddafi had ‘hollowed out the state’ and left nothing functioning behind....

But it would have been easy to take the same factors – a weak Gaddafi state, a light foreign footprint and a weak rebel government – and assume these were ingredients for disaster. This is why the major lesson of the post-1989 interventions should not be a renewed confidence in ‘the responsibility to protect’, or a belief that we have found a new secret recipe in targeted air-power. We shouldn’t think we know how to construct ‘a transitional administration’; even to attempt to pin down the common elements in the successful cases – population size, GDP per capita, ethnic composition – would be misguided.

These events are inherently unpredictable. There are no universal traits that condemn a society to anarchy when the leviathan falls. The violence I witnessed in Iraq, and felt was the inevitable result of a revolution, was in fact specific to that moment in that place and in particular to its Shia parties, their fraught and contradictory relationship to their neighbours and to their nation. But even apparently clear differences between countries aren’t as helpful as they seem. For example, Libya, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, has no serious ethnic or sectarian divisions – no Arab-Kurd, no Pashtun-Tajik, no Sunni-Shia divides – but this on its own can’t explain the difference: Libya’s neighbour Algeria has no Shia population and has nevertheless experienced decades of civil war.

The lesson of all this shouldn’t be inaction. Intervention isn’t doomed to fail – countries can turn out unpredictably well, as well as unpredictably badly. If we cannot come to any satisfactory conclusions on the London riots – a limited event, exhaustively documented, in our own capital – what sense can we make of why they did not riot in Tripoli?"

Rory Stewart, "Because we weren't there?" The London Review of Books. 9 September 2011, in

"To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it only wants to show what actually happened."

Leopold von Ranke, The History of the Latin and Teutonic Peoples from 1494 to 1514. (1824).

Rory Stewart is perhaps for some of us, the only, I repeat the only good thing to have come out of the Iraq debacle. A graduate of Eton and Balliol College, Oxford with a a First in PPE, Stewart spent his early years in an unusual fashion for someone of his generation: a gap year with the corps d'elite Black Watch unit, and following his graduation from Oxford entering the equally elite Foreign Office where he was posted to among other places, such hot spots as East Timor and the Balkans. Between 2000 and 2002, he undertook a 'walking tour' in the manner of such 'traveler' luminaries of the past as the recently deceased, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Robert Byron, of Afghanistan, Persia, Pakistan and India. Traveling by foot upwards of ten thousand kilometers. In 2003, he was appointed deputy provincial governor of two Iraqi provinces in the British sector in the south of the country. His erste-klasse book: 'The Prince of the Marshes', is perhaps the best description of the 'on the ground', experience of the Iraqi morass circa 2003-2004. After stints at Harvard University among other places, Stewart stood and was elected to Parliament for the Conservative Party in 2010. One hopes that he will go far in his new career. With all that being said, what does one make of Stewart analysis of the Libyan Intervention? Simply put, Stewart cogently points out the fact is that per se there are no single overriding variables which ensure that intervention x, y, or z will or will not succeed. Each and every intervention has to be undertaken or not, on its own merits. Just as there were pre-existing historical aspects which perhaps made the Iraq War by definition unwinnable, similarly there were pre-existing historical and other variables which made the Libyan intervention and the intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia successful. In short, what Stewart shows to us, is that history cannot (per contra to the writings of Political Scientists and International Relation theorists) be predicted, planned or compiled on a spread sheet. As Leopold von Ranke, the founder, of modern, scientific history noted, history is an empiricist, not a predictive activity. History can of course provide us a certain degree of insights into specific situations and contexts. It cannot provide us with a blueprint. Caveat lector, statesmen & diplomats!


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