Since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime a little more than a year ago, Libya has served as a Rorschach test for American and European observers of international relations—a complex and disorderly swirl of political events onto which we typically project our prior beliefs about the circumstances under which military intervention in other country’s conflicts is smart and just. Where observers whose biases tilt toward the “justice” part of that equation tend to see averted atrocities and nascent democracy, self-described “realists” usually spotlight the persistence of militia-fed violence and the secondary effects of Libya’s collapse on its neighbors in the Sahel as grounds for arguing that NATO should never have stepped in.
A recent article in the Economist offers fresh support for proponents of that intervention. In a dispatch entitled “Rising from the Ruins,” a magazine not known for its bleeding heart informs us that,
Since the colonel’s death in October last year at the hands of rebel fighters, Libya has not only held national elections, followed a fortnight ago by the presentation of a diverse government, albeit that not all of its members have been endorsed. It has also started to build a new system of civil administration that may one day form the backbone of a law-abiding and prosperous society.
The piece nods in the direction of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the fears of terrorism and religious extremism that were amplified by that assault, but it goes on to suggest that those fears may be misplaced.
On the ground, the picture, though far from uniformly rosy, is more hopeful. Many of the new state structures and services…are being created from the bottom up rather than handed down by a central government that is still only embryonic. The new powers in the land are council leaders, a sort of cross between mayors and regional governors. Some are doing well.
By “doing well,” the author seems to mean “doing what governments are supposed to do,” namely, providing order and delivering basic public goods:
Regional structures are taking shape. Rickety they may be, but they increasingly trump those in the capital, where political rivalries and the fear of being accused of corruption have led ministers to duck hard decisions. Some cities are creating their own economic links with the outside world…Dynamic local leaders have improved services. The streets of a range of coastal towns are far cleaner than in Cairo or Tunis. Rubbish-collecting lorries and street sweepers in tidy overalls are out every morning. Hospitals have reopened. Most important for ordinary Libyans, services such as tap water and electricity—disrupted during the rebellion—are working just about everywhere. Children are back at school.
I’m not a Libya pro, and I can’t offer any first-hand accounts of developments there from my desk in suburban Maryland. What I can bring to the table is the perspective of a longtime observer of democratization and state collapse. From that perch, I think the skeptics are mostly wrong. Critics of NATO’s intervention are right to bemoan the violence and injustice and spillover that Libya’s collapse has brought. The mistake they make, I think, lies in their failure to consider a realistic set of alternatives to NATO intervention and where they would have led.
My sense of the plausible alternatives starts from the observation that the Libyan state under Gaddafi was a personalist regime—a system in which political authority is almost wholly concentrated in the hands of single individual—and all personalist regimes collapse eventually. As Barbara Geddes has shown in her excellent work on authoritarian breakdown, personalist regimes rarely survive the death of their “big man,” and the ensuing breakdowns are often bloody.
Given these facts, the idea that would-be interveners were choosing between fomenting instability or returning to authoritarian stability is false. Without any nudge from NATO forces, Libya in 2011 had already slipped into civil war. At that point, its possible futures included a quick and brutal restoration of order under Gaddafi, a quick rebel victory, or a protracted civil war. Absent foreign intervention, either brutal repression or a protracted civil war appeared to be the most likely trajectories, while a quick rebel victory seemed highly unlikely.
It’s easy to see that every one of these scenarios would have been bloody. What’s more often overlooked, I think, is that every one of these scenarios would also have led to state collapse followed by a long and messy period of state-building. The only real difference is in the timing. Even if the Gadaffi regime had managed to restore control in 2011, Geddes’ research suggests that it would merely have postponed its day of reckoning; the factional scrambles we’re seeing today would have occurred eventually, only after another episode of brutal repression and probably after another eruption of civil war. Meanwhile, a prolonged version of the conflict that started in 2011 would have entailed its own form of state collapse, de facto partition, that would have produced many of the same negative repercussions we’re now lamenting (militia justice, spillover effects) while merely delaying the arrival of the positive ones. By helping to hasten the rebels’ victory in a fight that started without them, NATO’s intervention merely accelerated the arrival of a tumultuous but inevitable period of political transformation.
Some critics of the NATO intervention are comfortable with the decision to intrude in Libya’s civil war but critical of the hands-off approach the United States and Europe have taken to state-building. What I think we’re seeing in dispatches like the one in this week’s Economist, however, is that the absence of a heavy foreign footprint in post-Gaddafi Libyan politics is actually serving the country pretty well. Rather than weakly empowering a favored cadre and encouraging massive rent-seeking, the less intrusive posture the United States and Europe have adopted in Libya is allowing state-building to proceed of its own accord.
Now, instead of swinging away at a foreign-funded piñata, Libya’s regional factions have to choose between swinging at each other or working out ways to get along. Because none of those regional factions enjoys a significant coercive advantage over its rivals, there are strong incentives to refrain from the former, and that seems to be helping push the latter along. As James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, it’s impossible to remove the causes of factionalism, so the best we can do is to try to control its effects. The crazy-quilt character of post-Gaddafi politics may be hindering the emergence of a powerful central government, but it also naturally protects against one alternative that Madison saw as a graver threat than faction, namely, a tyranny of the majority. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that the state produced by this halting process will ultimately prove more durable than any construct we would have gotten from another foreign-funded, “high modernist” state-building binge. If Afghanistan and Iraq are any guide, that’s actually not a very high bar to clear.