The longue durée of Libya’s history, and its effects today

Johan Galtung was on Al Jazeera yesterday talking a lot of sense about the Western intervention in Libya. Much of what he said flowed naturally from his status as something of a peace activist (and often outspoken critic of the United States) and might therefore be dismissed as idealistic or tendentious. Yet one should not sweep aside some of the truly important points he made on the topic of legitimacy and history, relevant not only here and now in Libya but in future Western interventions around the world. In particular, Galtung stressed the need to consider the psychological effects of having NATO warplanes bomb yet another Muslim country, given the sensitivity about this across much of the Arab and Muslim world, and the tenuousness, given the region’s recent history, of Western legitimacy and credibility there.

Galtung made this case quite well with regard to Libya. He intimated that despite the signs of local thankfulness for the Western intervention, the convergence of interests and of agendas may very well unravel, first because it is not every Libyan who is welcoming this intervention, and second, should missiles start going astray or the great hopes of the resistance movements somehow go unfulfilled, it will be quite easy for Ghaddafi’s supporters to pin the blame on the Western attackers. In such an instance, it would also be important not to forget that Ghaddafi still has the potential, among some sectors of society, to pose quite effectively as an anti-Western charismatic leader, launching a counter-crusade against Western colonialist.  He may have lost the veneer of a revolutionary a long time ago, but the spell, or what Galtung called the ‘magic of the revolution’, still has possible potency.

On that front, I was particularly interested in the care Galtung took to place current events within the longue durée of Libyan and regional history – something I fear the Western world often forgets to do or dismisses as unimportant. In particular he pointed to the fact that it is just Italy, France and Britain – the countries now involved in the bombardment – who colonised Libya for much of the 20th century, since 1911 in fact, something that will be a much more immediate memory among the colonised rather than the colonisers. ‘In other words ‘ Galtung said, ‘you will have among the 350 million Arabs, so many, such a percentage, who will say “just what did we say?; here they go again; we know them; it’s the same old game”‘. In a similar vein, Galtung asked, what are the likely psychological effects of the fact that this intervention marks the 100th anniversary of the first-ever instance of aerial bombardment, carried out by Italy in Libya in 1911, and resulting (much as today) in apparent ‘collateral damage’ (then called ‘frightfulness’).

Galtung does not offer any easy solutions to this dilemma. He does speak to what might have been an alternative to the use of force by the West, or its effective involvement in a civil war. This which would have included a much more assertive and active Arab League or African Union, playing a strong role in getting the competing sides to the negotiating table. He also puts his hope in the ability of the United Nations Security Council to ‘administer humanitarian action in a humanitarian way’, which would need to involve constructive participation of the BRIC countries, so as to engender the needed legitimacy.

We can argue about the viability of these international and regional organisations, but I think Galtung is onto something when he talks of the West’s genuine credibility gap in many of the places it is asked to intervene. This does not have to mean paralysis but it would be foolish to confuse our way of viewing these wars with how they may be seen, or come to be seen, by those on the ground.

You can see the whole interview here.

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12 thoughts on “The longue durée of Libya’s history, and its effects today

  1. Thomas says:

    Great post, David.

    For those who are skeptical of Galtung’s reasoning because they stand on the other side of the political spectrum, check out pages xviii to xix (18 and 19) of Bernard Lewis’s thoughts on history in the Muslim world in his The Crisis of Islam, readily available in preview here: http://j.mp/gbD3t8.

  2. David Betz says:

    Very interesting, David. Thanks for drawing attention to this, particularly the symmetry of events now with the hundredth anniversary of aerial bombing–something which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    I’d like to add two thoughts/observations for discussion/criticism.

    First, there is, it seems, an assumption that the action in Libya stems from some Liberal instinct, some inexplicable residue of enthusiasm for advancing democracy by arms. I don’t think this is right at all. This looks to me to be much more ‘primal’ in origin. It’s fear, honour and interest again, as always. There’s fear–lots of it–of refugees, of being seen as on the wrong side of the ‘Arab Spring’ wherever that is headed. There’s honour–more exactly a reaction to the craven and dishonourable way in which Western governments (not least the UK and France) have dealt with and toadied to the Gaddafy regime in recent years. And there’s interest in the form, obviously, of oil contracts. Bottomline is that they really, really want Gaddafy dead, they’re itching to say it, but can’t. I find it hard to believe that anyone in UK gov has an appetite for a long-term intervention on the ground or is deluded enough about our capabilities to think it possible.

    Second, it’s clear that the US was browbeaten into this, has practically nil enthusiasm for this adventure of Europeans, and regards the whole situation as a hot potato which it would very much like to drop tout de suite. This is rather tricky because Europe really does have non-trivial interests in North Africa which it can’t ignore much longer. For the US the action is discretionary. Their shores are a long way from Tripoli. For Europe that’s not so much the case. Which kind of puts the spotlight on the fact that Europe generally has disregarded its defence liabilities for quite a long time now–a state of affairs which it may not get away with much longer. This, of course, has knock-on effects on public spending/social model etc which not many politicians really want to deal with.

  3. Formerly Grant says:

    Personally I’m of the opinion that he mentioned the Arab League, African Union (which holds a good number of leaders indebted to Qaddafi) and the U.N because he doesn’t want to admit that there wasn’t an alternative for intervention. It was either those Western powers or none and he might be worried of appearing to be someone who can’t find an answer and yet criticizes the actions.

  4. I have to wonder whether Galtung is correct to assume that a significant Arab percentage do not want Western intervention.

    Having justr returned from a week backpacking throughout Tunisia and was quite open about my role as a Jundee in the Jaish. To a man the Tunisian people and traders all asked when the UK would send in ground troops to remove Gaddafi as he is an “animal, dictator, beast, drug addict etc etc”.

    They were all hoping for the UK to helm the solution to the problem. They all had time to tale me stories of family members and Berber colleagues who had been treated terribly under the Gaddafi regime.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      Tunisia might not be the best place to sample from. Of course I’m not sure which Middle Eastern nations might be good places to poll right now since a large number of them have either gone through protests and revolution, have suppressed protests and revolution or are currently going through protests and revolution.

    • I do not think that what you are portraying and what Galtung is suggesting are mutually exclusive. Sure there will be a lot of support for Western intervention, but it is not universal. And once that intervention is in full effect, or if the plan goes awry, it is important to be aware of the seams that may come undone, due to the history we share and other factors (some form of nationalism for example).

  5. Fnord says:

    From a military pov, its interesting to see the lack of analysis on how the european inability to act on its own is tied to NATOs Out Of Area concept post Kosovo and how we have become addicted to the US in the years since 2001. Its a sad fact that the European nations do not have the capacity for hindering a bloodbath on its own doorstep, that we have no independent CoC, no logistics base, and so on. Its a tough choice the EU must face in the coming years, wether to end the addiction to the US and build a separate capacity.

    On Galtungs points: Its basically a damned if you do, damned if you dont. I thinkt he deciding factor will be wether we actually allow a democracy of sorts to come to the east, where the old mujahedin who fought the US are also allowed a voice. If those folks are targetted, we may well really end up with mud all over our faces and a somalia close to home.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      This is purely (for now) an air campaign and NATO acting under the U.N resolution seems to be the best way to handle this. I suspect that if this were a situation where the existence of one of the member states were threatened they would be able to do far more than what they are currently showing on a peacetime setting.

  6. jackbrown says:

    Steve’s experience mirrors my own in another neighboring country; people here who would normally be totally against such an intervention, from intelligentsia to cab drivers were either for the intervention or had pretty nuanced reasons not to be.

    Regarding the post, I don’t know if the last hundred years really counts as the longue duree of Libyan history. I’d probably call that the recent history…

  7. Henry Shieh says:

    Since when is there “universal” approval of anything in any society? Arab societies are no less fractured and fractious than our own. We like to pretend that all cultures are based on “shared values”, but upon closer examination many of these values are interpreted differently by different groups within such culture.

    • Of course. The point is that there is a tendency to impute commonality between freedom-loving people everywhere, when in fact the definition of what it means to be free and preferences of how to reach that end will differ greatly. I am not suggesting moral relativism to a degree where human rights is just some construct to be dismissed where they do not ‘culturally apply’ but simply that two groups with different historical experiences are likely to pursue a common aim differently, with different sensibilities and, therefore, with unpredictable outcomes (at least for those unaware of our disparate starting points and narratives).

      @jackbrown: fair point re what is longue durée and what is recent history.

  8. I reckon anyone investing their time attempting to analyse the present Libyan situation may just be falling under the thrall of past glory. Well, okay glory might be somewhat glib –

    What I mean is that Rommel’s team definitely had it right when they said they were ‘swanning about the desert like a mob of arses with ears’ – rings true for me.

    But nowadays Libya does mean something to someone – and not necessarily just native Libyans.
    It is reasonably clear that the place, as far as Libyans are concerned, has to be trashed – yet again.
    They haven’t really had a good trashing since Rommel tried to secure the place.

    I live a long way away from Libya.
    That doesn’t mean I don’t self-interestedly care about what happens when some outside agency sets up Libyan against Libyan.

    My own neighbours in Qld Australia aren’t exactly noble types – nor are many of those being imported into the state with the ‘somewhat disrupting but absolutely necessary demographics change we must all endure.’
    In other words someday, sometime, what with all sorts of social and commercial pressures – a similar thing might happen here in dear old QLD, OZ.

    Maybe someone might decide to incite one half of the QLD population against the other in a mutually destructive squabble over what is left of the natural resources here.

    Back to Libya for the precedent -
    With some previous planning one side in that conflict might be able to call on the help of an outside agency.
    Now, who would be able to negotiate that?
    A peasant like me and his disorganized rabble of mates – or the sort of person who already has intimate contacts with ‘Bastards r’ Us’™ ?

    Don’t really have to search too far back in history, do we?
    Wouldn’t we be better off running a tote on who might be next?

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