In 2008, I packed my bags to head off to Tripoli, where I began my current vocation of advocating for Western diplomatic, economic, cultural, and humanitarian engagement in Libya. Ethan Chorin was my inspiration. He was the US Foreign Service Officer who wrote the Department of Commerce’s commercial guide, which helps American companies operate in Libya. He also wrote a chapter in Dirk Vandewalle’s definitive compendium Libya Since 1969: Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited, which brilliantly puts forth the case for the inevitable impact that American business presence would have on promoting political freedom in Libya. Freedom has since come to Libya and the role of the internet and foreign diplomatic and commercial engagement was quite critical in its arrival, so it is surprising to learn that Chorin has forsaken his earlier convictions. His new book, Exit Gaddafi: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution, lays out his revision.
Chorin presents a detailed, readable, and informed blow-by-blow account of the events of 2011. He elegantly frames the narrative with morsels of Libyan fiction which confer an epic, fable-like quality to the events of the revolution. Furthermore, Chorin expertly peppers the text with an insider’s anecdotes about Libya’s key personalities. Both devices give the reader a taste of Libyan culture and an appreciation for developments on the ground. He uses interviews with high ranking officials to dissect both how the Gaddafi regime attempted to combat the uprisings and how the rebel movement evolved over time. All of the above makes Exit Gaddafi a pleasure to read and a valuable contribution to the emerging scholarship.
Yet Chorin’s real legacy is his unique version of the events which led to the uprisings, especially his focus on the causative role of the US-Libya relationship. In so doing, he presents the most succinct and engaging account yet in print of the secret diplomacy that led to Gaddafi paying off the Lockerbie families and renouncing his WMD program. Chorin puts forth the fascinating – yet likely erroneous – thesis that Gaddafi’s brilliant negotiating turned the Lockerbie families from the greatest opponents of Libya’s normalization with the West into its greatest proponents. According to Chorin, greed lured Western diplomats and businessmen into Gaddafi’s masterful gambit. Furthermore, Chorin asserts that the Bush administration’s policies towards Libya were primarily shaped by its desire ‘to prove’ that its strategy in Iraq was having a successful deterrent effect elsewhere. He simply dismisses the concrete counterterrorism advantages garnered from intelligence sharing.
This bears little resemblance to the reality I experienced. Few State Department or FCO officials were under any illusions about Gaddafi (as demonstrated by Wikileaks cables), many felt Libyan HUMINT seriously strengthened the fight against Al-Qaida, and no official I ever met was primarily motivated to approach Libya to demonstrate that America’s Iraq policy had encouraged other rogue states to come clean. Rather, Western diplomats and companies engaged Libya, because it was both in their interests to do so and because engagement could be used as a means to open Libya to the internet, educational exchanges, infrastructural investment, foreign scrutiny, and outside cultural influences. A by-product of this new openness was to raise the ambitions, aspirations, and know-how of ordinary Libyans. If North Korea could have been pried open in a similar manner only through dealing with Kim Jong-Il, wouldn’t policymakers have been wise to do so? And wouldn’t it have made the glorious reign of Kim Jong-Un (aka The Great Successor) less likely?
Chorin rightly points out that, prior to engagement, the international sanctions regime (1992-1999) neutralized Gaddafi as a player on the global stage, while lifting them did add oxygen to his delusions of regional and global leadership. But, like all sanctions regimes, it severely harmed the Libyan people, limited external contact and influence, and left appalling gaps in Libya’s physical and human infrastructure. Ending the sanctions and engaging Gaddafi was a moral and strategic necessity. In trying to elaborate how changes in high politics affected the Libyan domestic scene, Chorin peculiarly places the U.S. as a central actor in Libya’s internal changes, downplaying both the home grown struggles between Saif’s al-Islam Gaddafi’s ‘reformers’ and the hardliners of the Revolutionary Committees as well as the fact that the British and Italians were always more closely plugged-in to the country’s domestic politics. This distorted American-centric view, allows Chorin to weave a ridiculous 21st century morality play where ‘big oil’ and K-Street lobbyists nefariously sold the Libyan people down the river to improve their bottom lines.
Although Chorin acknowledges that an ‘unintended consequence’ of Western policy was giving the Libyan people the tools to overthrow their tyrant, he maligns Western actors as naively ‘played’ by Gaddafi to boost his prestige and leverage. He never so much as entertains the possibility that the West ‘played’ Gaddafi in return – which, given how things shook out for the Colonel, seems quite likely to me. More crucially, Chorin’s argument neglects that many Western nations (especially the US and UK) remained deeply ambivalent about the Gaddafi regime and understood that its song and dance of economic reforms were not accompanied by a genuine opening of public or commercial space. This deep ambivalence allowed for Western diplomats and businesses to strengthen the nascent Libyan private sector, covert and overt civil organizations, and those few individuals within the Gaddafian bureaucracy who advocated real change. Crucially, the détente between the West and Libya allowed British and American diplomats, researchers, and corporations an insider’s perspective from which to become truly acquainted with the main actors in Libya. The acquisition of detailed personal knowledge and contacts was essential for the West’s supportive role in the 2011 uprisings.
In short, a balanced and detached appraisal of the role of the West in the years 2003-2010 in helping or hindering the Libyan people’s realization of their aspirations has yet to be written. Yet when future diplomatic historians grapple with the problem, they will likely conclude that the West’s decision to engage with Gaddafi was morally and strategically justified. Chorin’s mea culpa on behalf of the West simply confuses today’s readers about how the West is received in post-Gaddafi Libya. Rather than being spurned for supporting Gaddafi, British and American diplomats and companies are greeted with appreciation and gratitude for supporting the Libyan people in overthrowing him. It is crucial that we not lose sight of this essential fact in the wake of the tragic killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. As Senator John McCain acknowledged at Hilary Clinton’s January 23rd testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, American failings in Libya have been from engaging too little not too much.
If we can learn anything from the events of the last five years throughout the Middle East, Libya should be held up as a poster child for a Western diplomacy that seriously engages with Muslim populations rather than just propping up their dictators. Conversely, events in Iran over the same period have shown the manifest failure of the alternative policy of consistent non-engagement diplomatically followed by non-support for the Green Revolution. Western engagement with Libya from 2003-2010 engendered a Gaddafian Glasnost and Perestroika which ineluctably led to the crumbling of the ancien regime. There was and could be no ‘Arab Spring’ in the North Korea of Kim Jong-Il, the USSR of Stalin, or Gaddafi’s Libya of the 1980s. Western engagement with Libya directly and by design (not indirectly and accidentally as Chorin claims) led to Gaddafi’s fall. Its agents should be patting themselves on the back rather than publically self-flagellating.
Jason Pack is a researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University, President of Libya-Analysis.com, and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan Forthcoming June 2013). Since 2008, he has worked in Tripoli, London, and Washington promoting academic, commercial, and diplomatic exchanges between Libya and the West.