Libya begins a long walk to an uncertain destination

It is easy to forget that despite its sprawling landmass, the population of Libya is not much different from that of the island of Ireland, or Scotland. Ninety percent of the people live in less than 10% of the area of the country and the majority of those live in just two cities. Much of the rest is desert, including much of the landscape between the two main cities, Benghazi and Tripoli.

So protecting the people of Benghazi by air offensive was not the same tall order it has proved in mountainous Afghanistan, for instance. That is, after all, where UN Security Council Resolution 1973 began…  A point not lost on our favourite old curmudeon, Simon Jenkins:

The mission creep of intervention in Libya has been a classic. Britain and France said they were establishing a no-fly zone “to save Benghazi” from putative attack, and soon found themselves taking sides in a civil war. This escalated into a bombing campaign against Tripoli to “defend the lives of the Libyan people”, and then into a claim that this was impossible without toppling, and even possibly assassinating, Gaddafi.

Likewise did British and American troops go into Iraq merely to “find weapons of mass destruction”, and into Afghanistan merely to “eliminate al-Qaida bases”. There would be no Nato forces on the ground in Libya, then only special forces, then a complete panoply of close air-support for Benghazi troops – and now, British defence sources admit that troops may be necessary to “help keep order”.

He continues:

The UN basis for the intervention, supposedly to prevent “massacre in Benghazi”, showed how tenuous was the case for British aggression to achieve regime change. Britons might fervently will freedom on Libyans, as on Egyptians and Syrians, but how these people achieve it is their business, not Britain’s. The more we make it our business, the less robust their liberation will be.

Mr Jenkins is nothing if not consistent

The nub of the problem was tricked out a few hundred years back by one Nicolo Machiavelli. In Chapter Four of The Prince, he posited that there were two types of kingdoms: those that were easiest to overthrow (which were commensurately the toughest to keep); and those that were tough to overthrow, but once ensconced very unlikely to be easily lost.

The illustrative examples he gave were pre-Revolutionary France, and the Turkish empire:

The entire monarchy of the Turk is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses. But the King of France is placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril.

The causes of the difficulties in seizing the kingdom of the Turk are that the usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the kingdom, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by the revolt of those whom the lord has around him. This arises from the reasons given above; for his ministers, being all slaves and bondmen, can only be corrupted with great difficulty, and one can expect little advantage from them when they have been corrupted, as they cannot carry the people with them, for the reasons assigned.

Hence, he who attacks the Turk must bear in mind that he will find him united, and he will have to rely more on his own strength than on the revolt of others; but, if once the Turk has been conquered, and routed in the field in such a way that he cannot replace his armies, there is nothing to fear but the family of the prince, and, this being exterminated, there remains no one to fear, the others having no credit with the people; and as the conqueror did not rely on them before his victory, so he ought not to fear them after it.

The contrary happens in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed.

Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

Gadaffi has been in charge of the country since 1969. Despite his Islamist rhetoric and at least in the first half of his rule, agressively anti western foreign policy stance, in the urban centres of the country people have adopted many western ways. Still, it might be useful to think of Libya as typical of Machiavelli’s Turk, with democratic ambitions to become more like France.

As Daniel Swerver notes in The Atlantic:

There is no constitution in Libya, so no clear constitutional succession. The revolutionaries have wisely written their own constitutional charter, but the real challenge will not be on paper. It will be in the avenues and alleys of Tripoli.

That faces Libya both with great opportunity and great danger. With such immense oil wealth in such a tiny nation, the potential peace dividends are huge. But there’s a hell of a gap to cross between dictatorship and the Transition Council’s stated ambitions towards some form of democratic oversight.