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September 09, 2011

Democracy can be dropped from 10,000 feet - says Cambridge history Professor Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

Libya shows that you can drop democracy from 10,000 feet. Or so argues Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge.

In the late 1990s, the former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd liked to point out that nobody sitting down to list British interests at the start of the decade would have ranked the former Yugoslavia very highly, and fewer still would have predicted that NATO would go to war there twice before the millennium. Whatever one thinks of Hurd's handling of the Bosnian crisis, he was right about that. By the same token nobody trying to predict Mr Cameron's foreign policy could have foreseen that his first war would be a humanitarian intervention in an Arab country, with the thinly-disguised aim of effecting regime change and democratic transformation. Had he not famously warned that democracy could not be "dropped from 10 0000 feet"?

It is much too early to say what the implications of his victory are for the coalition's future policy. The Libyan intervention does, however, cast the strategy of his predecessor in a new light. Mr Blair is best remembered, and most criticised for, his removal of Saddam Hussein and his support for Mr Bush's planned democratisation of the Middle East.

What is often forgotten is that the Labour government pursued two separate approaches in the Arab world, each based on fundamentally different principles, but with similar ends. In Iraq, to the consternation of the old Foreign office "Camel Corps", Mr Blair sought to disarm Saddam Hussein through regime change. In Libya, he deployed that self-same corps to persuade Mr Gaddafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction.

Part and parcel of the deal, was not only the resumption of mutually profitable economic links but also the establishment of intelligence cooperation against Islamist terrorists, who threatened Arab despots such as Gaddafi and the west alike, or so the thinking went. Sometimes this involved the rendition of terrorist suspects to Libya where they were tortured in ways not possible in western jurisdictions. Sometimes British and American intelligence agencies obliged their Libyan counterparts by handing over individuals in whom they had expressed an interest. There was a certain logic to this: if we wanted Gaddafi to do something for us that he would not otherwise have done, then we had to do something for him that we would not otherwise have done.

The dangers of this approach, however, are now apparent. One can argue forever about its morality. What is now beyond dispute is that the policy can be dangerously counterproductive. We are now in the embarrassing position where the supreme military commander of the victorious National Transitional Council, Mr Bel-Haj has just revealed that he was kidnapped by western security services and deported to Libya where he was tortured. It appears that Bel-Haj was not so much an international jihadist as a long-standing opponent of the regime, whom we handed over to cement the relationship, not because he posed a serious threat to western interests.

More generally, it is now clear that the strength of Islamism in pre-revolutionary Eastern Libya primarily reflected local opposition to the Colonel's regime, and that the rapprochement with Tripoli put us in their sights quite unnecessarily (there are enough good reasons for being targeted by Islamists, such as supporting Israel or promoting democracy). In short, our dalliance with Gaddafi created far more Islamists than he incarcerated.

Secondly, the Libyan intervention will cause us to look at the interventions of the past twenty years in a new light. In the 1990s, confidence in the ability to shape events through air power, grew steadily throughout the decade culminating in the NATO operation over Kosovo, which ended the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing without the deployment of ground troops in combat or the loss of any air crew. The more recent travails in Iraq and Afghanistan on the other hand, with their thousands of casualties, brought increased scepticism about the capacity of the west to promote political change by military means.

In Libya, by contrast, the rebels showed great courage, but they would have been massacred early on without NATO intervention, and they would probably not have taken Tripoli and toppled the regime had that support not been sustained until the conclusion of the campaign. Some may well now ask not so much whether the removal of Saddam Hussein required a full-scale invasion, or whether it might not have been effected through a combination of air power and local opponents of the Baathist regime, as the original PNAC plans had envisaged. More generally, the removal of Gaddafi will strengthen those who argue that the west should help those who would free themselves, but lack the power to do so. Within the Armed Services, the Libyan experience may therefore have the effect of shifting the centre of gravity back from the Army, which bore the brunt of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Navy and especially the Royal Air Force.

We do not know yet whether the National Transitional Council will bring democracy to Libya. We can say with confidence, however, that if it does, British bombs dropped from a great height will have had a lot to do with it.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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