Journalists, like generals, have learnt lessons from the last war. Eight years ago, too many pundits bought the party line and proclaimed that the fall of Saddam Hussein would bring peace, prosperity, and democracy to Iraq. Having been proven so wrong, they do not wish to make the same mistake twice. So our airwaves crackle with fears that sectarian conflict could ensue in Libya, as in Iraq, or anarchy as in Somalia, and we in the west might miss the good old days of Muammar Gaddafi.
I think this is a misreading of Iraqi history and much too pessimistic. First, it ignores the devastating effect of twelve years of sanctions on Iraqi society and economy. Not only was infrastructure broken both in the cities and in the oil fields, but so was the spirit of the people. Sanctions, which did little to damage Saddam’s family, eviscerated the once proud Iraqi middle class. Had the Americans taken Baghdad during the first Gulf war, we might have seen a prettier picture. Iraq in 2003 was a much more damaged country than it was in 1991 or than Libya is today.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq may have been ill-advised and illegal but worse, it was incompetent. Hubris, a focus on domestic American politics, and blind ideological fervour made a dangerous situation catastrophic. If the Iraqi army had not been disbanded, and if the entire membership of the Ba’ath Party had not been excluded from power and influence, the insurgency would have lacked both fuel and spark.
Nato is not likely to repeat those American errors. The Libyan revolution, though aided by western air power, was made by Libyans and the destiny of the country is in the hands of its people rather than foreign occupiers. The rebel leadership includes many who previously served the Libyan government. Revenge and retribution will not nearly be as extensive.
Iraq, stuck between the great cultures of Persia, Anatolia, and the Arab Levant, is a frontier land and it has a cowboy culture of violence. Libyans are more Mediterranean, with the easygoing ways of people who have lived by trade for millennia. Its oil fields are relatively modern, it is not under foreign occupation, it does not suffer from a sectarian divide, and the great majority of its people are overjoyed to be free from dictatorship. Yes, the transition will have tricky moments, and yes, the new government may include people the west does not like, but Libya with its tiny population and 3 per cent of the world’s oil reserves has a bright future. Instead of fearing disaster, this might be a good time to buy some beachfront real estate near Tripoli.