In the spring of 2011, for the few foreigners present on the terra incognita that was Libya at the time, there was no doubt. Tanks were closing in on Benghazi. The inhabitants of Misrata, besieged and starving, expected to perish. The entire country hung under the threat of the rivers of blood promised by Gaddafi’s son.
The international community had two options.
It could pretend that it saw nothing. It could refuse to hear the SOS that the Libyan people, in near unanimity, were sending. In so doing, it could reinforce the Libyans’ feeling that the West was the natural ally of tyrants. And, as in Darfur and Rwanda, as it soon would do in Syria, it could allow the war to reach the end of its terrible logic, exacting, week after week, tens of thousands of deaths.
Or it could hear that SOS. It could reject the scheduled massacre and, in so doing, send for the first time a message of hope to a rebellious Arab people: “You may or may not succeed. You are going to make what you will and what you can of this revolution, to which we are giving you a few keys. But it is not for us in the west to decide that some people are made for democracy whereas others are not.” And, in so saying, the west could intervene to help topple one of the most enduring and blood-thirsty dictatorships on the planet.
Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, and Barack Obama made the second choice.
And, just as the French Terror did not negate 1789, just as Vladimir Putin does not cast a retroactive pall over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet system, similarly no subsequent violence, no retrospective prophesising, will ever invalidate that choice or lessen its nobility.
The mistake – and there was a mistake – came later. Broadly speaking, that mistake was to have declared victory too early. You cannot, in a day, escape a dictatorship. You cannot, in a day, build a state worthy of the name.
And the truth is that the state whose gradual demise we have been reading about in recent days never truly existed, having never been properly organised in the first place.
One member of the coalition should have helped train a police force. Another should have supported the program of disarmament and reintegration of the former combatants, a program begun without means by young, democratically inclined rebel commanders. France should have supported the idea of a Libyan national school of public administration that was proposed by my compatriot Hugues Dewavrin, an idea that I presented to Sarkozy and François Hollande, the two major candidates in the French presidential elections of 2012. The Arab countries that joined the west in the anti-Gaddafi coalition should have taken further steps to secure the oil wells over which the militias are presently fighting.
Instead of which, we got nothing. At best, another version of the naïve “democratic messianism” that had already proven so costly to American neoconservatives; at worst, the cynical short-termism of leaders who, once the cameras are turned off, leave the stage, throwing away the keys as they go.
Look at what is happening today. Watch as the embassies close, one after the other. This disappearing act – done while writing off all of Libya as a doomed nation – is it not a fairly accurate depiction of what has been happening for the past three years?
At the same time, it is not yet too late. It is five minutes to midnight, but it is not too late.
There is still one thing I want to say on behalf of long-suffering Libya, a country for which I have very strong feelings. The militias, of course, are a fact of life. Daily killings, alas, are a reality. But no less real is that when the religious zealots killed human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, thousands of citizens defied the murderers by giving her a magnificent funeral.
No less real is that, the day after the execution of the brilliant American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, the entire city of Benghazi took to the streets to demand nothing less than “justice for our brother Stevens”.
The reality is that an international force mandated by the United Nations would be welcomed with open arms and would have little trouble taming the death squads that presently sow so much terror while being so wholly unrepresentative of today’s Libya.
The country has held two free elections since the fall of Gaddafi. Both elections were clear-cut defeats for the Islamists. The first brought to power for sixteen months the most democratic and pro-western leader that the Arab world has produced in a long while: Ali Zeidan. The second, held 25 June, saw only 30 Islamists elected to the 188-seat legislature that has just convened in Tobruk despite calls for a boycott by the jihadist minority.
Libya, in other words, is not a country of Islamic fanatics.
If one defines civil war as a situation in which all of civil society is overcome with fratricidal hate and in which everyone chooses their side and their army, Libya, though it may be prey to militias that are holding civilians hostage, is not in a state of civil war. And that is why I say that it is not too late for the west to help the Libyan people to enter the third year of their revolution.
Translated from the French by Steven B Kennedy.
Bernard-Henri Levy is the author of La Guerre Sans L’Aimer and Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism
This article first appeared on newrepublic.com