Of Levant and Leviathan: Cautionary Tales from a Turbulent World

By Muhammad Idrees AhmadDecember 6, 2016

Of Levant and Leviathan: Cautionary Tales from a Turbulent World
A SPECTER is haunting the Levant — the specter of Hobbes.

As the democratic upheavals that swept the Arab world in 2011 have given way to bloodshed and instability, Western mavens are reverting to old verities. The Arab world is “not ready for democracy” they say. To restore order, to contain passions, and, above all, to protect the West from the twin dangers of terror and migration, the Arab world will need its Leviathans. For most of the post-colonial era, friendly autocrats had protected the West from these threats; they are being called into service again. If dungeons and dictators are the price of security, they reason, at least the costs are borne by others.

The United States’s dalliance with “democracy promotion” was brief and had already ended in Iraq by 2010. The Arab Spring was a blip. In Iraq, despite Nouri al-Maliki’s determined effort to shape the outcome of the 2010 parliamentary elections, his sectarian bloc had secured fewer seats than a cross-sectarian alliance led by Iyad Allawi. In a surprise move, the US government backed Maliki to serve as prime minster for a second term. “Iraq is not ready for democracy,” General Ray Odierno was told by Chris Hill, an Obama Administration official, “[it] needs a Shia strongman.”

The Shia strongman took the US endorsement as license to enact his sectarian agenda, harassing Sunni leaders, purging the army, and giving friendly militias a free hand to terrorize the Sunni population. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which Iraqi Sunnis had earlier expelled, saw an opening and returned in the role of a would-be defender of Sunnis. And later, as Syria’s Alawite strongman made similar use of his impunity, ISI found further opportunity to expand its franchise (adding the “S” in the process).

Barack Obama’s response to the Arab Spring was unenthusiastic. He had participated reluctantly in the NATO campaign to oust Gaddafi. But since the overthrow, as Libya has collapsed into chaos, the perceived lessons of Libya — conflated with the perceived lessons of Iraq — have congealed into an isolationist ethos that discourages situational responses to crises. The dogmas of doctrinal realism, which had gone out of fashion after Bosnia and Rwanda, once again guide foreign policy. Unless national interest is at stake, say the “realists,” there is no moral imperative to intervene.

This is the wisdom that Obama followed in Syria — and the effects have been disastrous.

But even as Aleppo replaces Srebrenica as a metaphor for tolerated mass atrocity, there is little sign of regret or reappraisal. Indeed, the proponents of inaction have retrenched and, conscious of a losing argument in Syria, have reached for a winning proposition in Libya. Libya, they say, is the fate that awaits Syria should the West intervene to impose a no-fly zone. Like Iraq, they argue, Libya was an avoidable war of choice.

This argument is appealing as long as it is insulated from fact and logic.

Consider Iraq and Libya. In 2003, Saddam Hussein was disarmed and contained; his worst crimes were over a decade behind him; and while he was still greatly despised, there was no imminent humanitarian crisis requiring military action. In 2011, Libya was in the middle of a revolt, the regime was armed and dangerous, and it was ruthlessly suppressing a popular revolt. The Iraq War had little international support; the Libyan intervention had the backing of the UN, the EU, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The comparison is strained.

Consider Syria and Libya. In Libya, the West intervened to prevent large-scale atrocities and, at the cost of 72 civilian deaths, cut short a civil war that had killed up to 10,000; over two years of relative peace followed, even if by failing to protect Libya’s nascent experiment in democracy, the West left it vulnerable to subversion. In Syria, the West was reluctant to intervene, set red lines it was reluctant to enforce, chose allies it was reluctant to assist, and made enemies it was reluctant to confront. The result? Despite the Western abdication, violent deaths in Libya since the beginning of the new civil war in 2014 number 5,851; the Syrian War has killed up to half a million. And while the Libyan crisis has created 27,517 refugees and 435,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), in Syria the number of refugees and IDPs is 4.8 million and 6.5 million, respectively.

Such juxtapositions were ignored when a British parliamentary committee gave its official imprimatur to inaction in September, based on a Hobbesian reading of Libya. “Stable government is the sine qua non for the resolution of Libya’s on-going humanitarian, migrant, economic and security crises,” said the Committee’s final report; but ahead of the 2011 NATO intervention, “the threat to civilians was overstated” and former Prime Minister David Cameron pursued an “opportunist policy of regime change,” ignoring available “political options” — namely, direct negotiations with Saif and Muammar Gaddafi.

The Committee had no occasion to be incommoded by the fact that 83 percent of Libyans consider democracy the best form of government and 75 percent supported the NATO intervention — because no Libyan was invited to the hearing. The Committee Chair Conservative MP Crispin Blunt had assembled a panel of witnesses that would reinforce his “realist” assumptions.

For the claim that Gaddafi’s threat to civilians was exaggerated, the report drew on the opinion of think-tanker Alison Pargeter, who insisted that despite his eliminationist rhetoric, Gaddafi was unlikely to “launch some widespread massacre” — because he had prefaced his threats with “I’m going to go for the bearded ones.” She adds, however, that “in Gaddafi’s head, this was an Islamist rebellion, and he was going to go and hunt down those who were responsible.” In other words: Gaddafi was only going to kill bearded ones; but everyone that opposed him he presumed bearded (a serviceable presumption for the age of the “War on Terror,” one also embraced by Assad). Her co-panelist George Joffe of King’s College London echoed her views, though the report makes no mention of the fact that Joffe’s past work was underwritten by Saif Gaddafi’s foundation or that Joffe had written encomia for the Colonel’s son as a would-be reformer.

Things get worse in the report when the Committee moves from opinion to fact.

Consider Page 14: “During fighting in Misrata, the hospital recorded 257 people killed and 949 people wounded in February and March 2011. Those casualties included 22 women and eight children.” The footnote cites Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Committee concludes: “the disparity between male and female casualties suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians.”

Except these are not HRW’s conclusions — they are the estimates of a single interviewee, and the verdict is not the Committee’s — it is the interpretation of Alan J. Kuperman. Kuperman is cited in a separate footnote, which means that either the Committee was purposely misleading in citing the HRW report, or it was interpreting the report misleadingly as Kuperman had done.

Neither interpretation is supported by the HRW report. HRW speaks of (emphasis added) “disturbing accounts of shelling and shooting at a clinic and in populated areas, killing civilians where no battle was raging.” It quotes a doctor as saying that “hospitals in the city had documented about 250 dead over the past month, most of them civilians […] the actual number was higher because many people could not reach medical facilities.” It adds: “On April 3 and 4, Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 civilians wounded by gunfire and tank or artillery rounds […] Some described deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.”

On to page 15:

An Amnesty International investigation in June 2011 could not corroborate allegations of mass human rights violations by Gaddafi regime troops. However, it uncovered evidence that rebels in Benghazi made false claims and manufactured evidence.

Except, there is no such Amnesty investigation. The footnote instead points to an article by Patrick Cockburn that quotes Donatella Rovera of Amnesty speaking in a personal capacity, specifically on the allegations of mass rape, which Amnesty couldn’t corroborate but didn’t rule out either. The article does mention, however, that according to Amnesty, “100 to 110” people were killed in Benghazi and “59 to 64” in Bayda, and “most of these were probably protesters.”

More embarrassingly, the Committee quotes a passage on media credulity that it says are the conclusions of the Amnesty investigation. But the quote is from an International Crisis Group report cited by Cockburn. Tellingly, for a committee concerned with stability, the report makes no mention of the subversion in Libya by Egypt’s Sisi or Algeria’s Bouteflika.

Perhaps it’s hard to be intellectually consistent when applying 17th-century ideas to 21st-century reality. The mess in the Levant shows that the Western emphasis on stability hasn’t yielded friendly Leviathans. It has only left it with a field full of flailing monsters and people living in continual fear and danger. The United States is despised in countries where it has backed friendly authoritarians — because when self-determination runs up against Leviathan, life turns solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. People resent that. But in Libya — the one country where it resisted this temptation — the United States and Britain remain popular. The lesson of Libya then is not that it should’ve been treated more like the Levant, but that the Levant, too, should have been protected from Leviathan. Getting rid of Leviathan isn’t enough to guarantee democracy, because democracy also requires the strength to resist subversion. The failure in Libya was the hasty disengagement that left democracy vulnerable to subversion — mainly from extant and would-be Leviathans. But in a supreme irony of history, the fate that the United States had accepted for others now imperils its own democracy. Barack Obama wanted to foist a strongman on Iraq and Syria; he will now be surrendering the United States to one.


Dr. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (@im_pulse) is author of The Road to Iraq (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

LARB Contributor

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a London-based writer with a doctorate in sociology and a focus on international conflicts. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press). His writings have appeared in The New RepublicThe AtlanticAl Jazeera(America and International), Le Monde DiplomatiqueGuernicaThe NationalAdbustersIPS NewsPolitical Insight and the London Review of Books Blog. He has also appeared as an on-air analyst on the BBC, Al Jazeera, RAI TV, Radio Open Source and various Pacifica channels. He is a Lecturer in Journalism at the University for the Creative Arts and he co-edits Pulsemedia.org. You can follow him on Twitter: @im_pulse


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!