Western Intervention, Is It Ever Helpful?
September 22, 2011
Dan Hind / Al Jazeera
Commentary: "Reporters and commentators have been assuming that Britain, France, and the US should somehow take the lead in helping Libya's transition, as though the occupation of Iraq has taught valuable lessons and that the West should somehow take responsibility of nation-building. The clear lesson from Iraq should instead be that the West should stay out of Libyan affairs. At every stage US-UK involvement in Iraqi politics played a negative role."
According to Greg Muttitt, a London-based writer, the best thing the West can do for Libya is to leave it alone.
"We should watch out for Western interpretations about what Libyan society is like."
-- Greg Muttitt, author
September 21, 2011) -- Plenty of people will be on hand with advice for the Libyans in the months ahead. I thought it might be useful to think a little more about how best people outside the country might be able to contribute. I turned to Greg Muttitt, a London-based writer who has made an intense study of the politics of Western intervention and Iraqi resistance in the years since the invasion of 2003.
In the interests of transparency I should add that I commissioned Greg's book, Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq when I was an editor at Random House.
I began by asking Greg about what he made of the reporting about Libya he'd seen in the Western media in recent weeks. "Reporters and commentators have been assuming that Britain, France, and the US should somehow take the lead in helping Libya's transition, as though the occupation of Iraq has taught valuable lessons and that the West should somehow take responsibility of nation-building. The clear lesson from Iraq should instead be that the West should stay out of Libyan affairs. At every stage US-UK involvement in Iraqi politics played a negative role."
Another thing that's striking in Western coverage, according to Greg, is the low level of knowledge about Libyan culture, society and politics. There's a lesson to be learned from Iraq. Starting with a very vague understanding of the country and its politics the Western powers created a system that emphasised sectarian identities, even though Iraqis themselves didn't think that way.
"We should watch out for Western interpretations about what Libyan society is like. It is in the West's interests for the Libyan political class to be weak and isolated, so it can be easily influenced from outside. That doesn't mean that officials and generals have to sit down and work out a 'divide and rule' strategy. But everyone is tempted to see things in terms that suit their interests. Western policy-makers are no exception. There's ample evidence of that in recent history."
The Western powers, in other words, will find the Libya that suits them in the months ahead. They might find that it is divided tribally, or between 'moderates' and 'Islamists'. Those of us who wish Libya well should resist the temptation to believe what plausible voices in the mainstream media tell us about the country.
Advice and Interests
I wanted to ask Greg a bit more about the way that Western governments tried to influence events in Iraq after the invasion in 2003.
"The word most commonly used in Iraq in this context was 'advice.'"
Governments have interests and the 'advice' they offer is inevitably shaped by those interests. Greg explains: "I put this point to a British civil servant working on the Iraqi economy. He accepted the argument and said, 'well we don't go around advising countries to set up cooperatives and hold big consultations' ... I looked at this in relation to former senior executives of major oil companies 'advising' Iraq on its oil policy. It wasn't that they were corrupt or doing favours to their old employers or anything like that. From the way they saw the world, foreign multinationals were obviously the best placed to run the Iraqi oil industry."
The Americans and the British will aim to support Libyan politicians that they feel they can do business with. They will tend, quite naturally, to think that they helping moderates, but these moderates will also be willing to work in ways that suit the Western powers.
"In Iraq Bremer said he promoted exiles because they understood democracy better. What that meant in effect was that they were also more likely to be pro-American. Everyone likes to think they are promoting democracy and human rights."
So the most useful thing the European powers can do is to leave Libya well alone. I wanted to ask what foreign citizens can practically do to support Libyan self-determination and to frustrate their own countries' attempts to meddle.
"The key thing here is to connect, to listen to Libyans and to learn about the country. If all we have is government relaying its perspective, or mainstream media reporting with all its shorthand and sensationalism, a Libyan voice, apart from the elites chosen by the West, will be absent from the debate about the country's future."
A handful of independent and mainstream journalists did crucial work in Iraq, helping people outside the country to know what was going on. Greg singles out Ahmed Mansour at Al Jazeera, Jonathan Steele at the Guardian and Anthony Shadid at the Washington Post in the established media: "The independent ones were especially important; Dahr Jamail, Rahul Mahajan. There were activists, too, people like Ewa Jasiewicz, Jo Wilding."
These people did the crucial work of finding out what Iraqi society was actually like. They found people who were struggling to make the best of things in the chaos after the invasion. People on the ground were able to find grassroots activists. And the relationships built then had a huge significance later.
"I did most of my work with the oil workers' trade union, which has been the target of much government repression. A lot of this is because the union has played a central role in the (so far successful) campaign against a new oil law. At various times the Iraqi government tried to arrest the union's leaders, seize their equipment, transfer them, and so on. The union has been very effective at building the right connections within Iraq, but at those times of crisis, international solidarity made a real difference. The AFL-CIO and the TUC wrote to the Iraqi government in their defence, for example, when the Iraqi government was threatening to attack them."
Those who want to help Libya, Greg is clear, will be most effective if they learn as much as they can about the country and take their lead from the Libyans themselves.
"We should reject the agenda of the military and of civil servants in our own countries, but strengthen our cultural links and our solidarity with grassroots Libyan civil society. Those independent journalists and activists who bravely travelled to Baghdad in 2003 to meet Iraqis and make sense of the culture and politics -- they were heroes, in fact the only non-Iraqi heroes of the whole episode.
Meanwhile, parts of the anti-war movement worked very closely with members of the Iraqi diaspora in Britain who could help interpret events and guide campaigning. If we are serious about helping the Libyans, that's the lesson to learn - that we should show humility in learning from Libyans about their country rather than bombarding them with lectures about democracy and how to run an economy."
There's a chance for Libya now that Iraq didn't have. There is no foreign army of occupation in the country. Those of us who want to see an end to Western meddling in the region have a responsibility to pay attention to what our own governments are doing and to do what we can to learn about a country that is emerging from decades of dictatorship.
Real Libyan democracy will be the achievement of the Libyan people, not a gift from outside. And it will be a reversal for the foreign powers, who have so little time for 'cooperatives and big consultations'. Make no mistake, whatever happens in Libya will reverberate around the Middle East and the wider world.
Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind
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