Whilst the Libyan military’s cringe-inducing attempt at God Save the Queen has become the must-see highlight of Boris Johnson’s latest overseas visit, it shouldn’t overshadow his remarks about the British intervention there.
According to The Times, the Foreign Secretary has said that the United Kingdom was “over-optimistic” about what could be achieved by overthrowing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – and suggested that the push towards democracy had been counter-productive:
“I certainly think we were way over-optimistic of what would happen when we got rid of Gaddafi. We thought elections in 2014 would be a solution and actually they made things worse.”
Scepticism about overseas intervention has been the dominant sentiment since the collapse in enthusiasm for the Iraq War, but it’s interesting that Johnson is so willing to identify the push for rapid westernisation as a fundamental weakness in the post-intervention reconstruction effort.
A hallmark of the ‘neoconservative’ era of American intervention, as opposed to its hard-nosed and amoral Cold War precursor, has been sincere attempts to establish functioning, American-ish democracies in the countries invaded. Whilst a threat to the West might justify the initial invasion (although not in Libya’s case), the new Anglo-American doctrine of war was that we had to leave countries we invaded in a better, and more western, state than we found them.
This noble goal causes many problems. By necessity it makes any post-intervention occupation both long and expensive, and sets the bar for success so high that it is very difficult to achieve. The insistence on the rapid introduction of US-style republican democracy also has its drawbacks: the social and institutional foundations for a functioning democracy are sometimes weak or nonexistent, and liberal-minded monarchs who might have played a unifying role in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are excluded for the sake of American doctrine.
In Iraq and Libya, the lack of a coherent demos has seen the introduction of democracy lead to great division and instability. In Egypt, during the ‘Arab Spring’, the West ended up quietly accepting a military coup after a democratic election returned the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to office.
Despite all this, intervention doesn’t deserve to be dismissed. That the shortcomings of post-intervention societies are on display, whilst the horrors an intervention may have prevented are mere counter-factuals, should not lead us to conclude that we ought always to keep the troops at home.
Nor need we fully embrace the old Cold War doctrine, when the imperative of defeating global Communism led us to back any monster as long as they were our monster. For all Russia’s posturing and China’s ambition, the world doesn’t face any threat that might necessitate a return to full-fat ‘realism’.
But what Johnson’s comments illustrate is that advocates of intervention need to come up with a more plausible win condition than turning Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into America-on-the-Tigris. They need to define an outcome which can give Western strategists a realistic blueprint for a ‘successful’ intervention.
In many instances, that may involve establishing or doing business with a regime which isn’t democratic. But if it upholds the rule of law, respects the rights of its citizens, and creates the conditions for reconstruction and growth, perhaps that’s good enough.