The arguments for and against toppling the nasty dictators of the Middle East go back to the late 1970s when Paul Wolfowitz first began agitating for the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Wolfowitz was a typical neoconservative. They are often mischaracterised as “right-wing” or even “hard-right”. This description could not be further from the truth. Ordinary decent conservatives are as repulsed by “neocons” as the left. There is nothing conservative about the encouragement of anarchy. Neoconservatives are dangerous radicals, who have the advantage over Trotskyists (the movement which spawned them) of being highly politically competent. This makes them especially dangerous.
Wolfowitz and company got their way on Iraq in spring 2003, when President George W. Bush finally did invade. The neoconservatives had come close in 1991, but had failed to convince President George Bush to press on from Kuwait all the way to Baghdad. This time round – there was no faltering. The neoconservatives adeptly exploited 9/11 to press their case. In the confusion created by Osama Bin Laden, the neoconservatives triumphed. The rest is history.
Those who opposed the Iraq War often did so on realist grounds. Foreign policy realism is about protecting your nation’s interests above all, and turning your nose up at dictators if you simply have to deal with them – on grounds that they bring stability.
Neoconservatives bucked this trend – as Michael Gove showed recently, because they reject the Western alliance with amongst others Saudi Arabia, or indeed Saddam Hussein. In this they join, amongst the British left, public figures like Mehdi Hasan and Owen Jones.
Where the neoconservative and their leftist critics differ however is in their criticism of secular dictators. Hasan, Jones, as well as further left figures like George Galloway, all argued against Iraq largely on grounds that what would come after Western-led regime change would be worse than what was there before. Ten years later, Britain balked at intervening to topple Bashar Al-Assad. Many of the same arguments re-surfaced. Maintain the status quo, said the leftists and the traditional conservatives, while the neoconservatives and the “muscular liberals”, figures like Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton, argued that to do so was as ethically preposterous as continuing to back Saudi Arabia.
We now face the curious situation in Libya where a return to this pre-intervention status quo is possible and likely. A neo-Gaddafi is rising – General Khalifa Haftar, who has secured the backing of the United Arab Emirates, France’s Emmanuel Macron and now also UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Having spent so much energy deposing Gaddafi in 2011, we are now backing his replacement.
How should the left-wing who opposed the Libyan and Iraqi invasions respond now a neo-Gaddafi is on the rise? Surely, given their prior arguments, they must back the rise of Haftar – because he will surely return Libya to stability. Yet they are remarkably silent.
This is the moral dilemma coming out of the aftermath of Libya, what we might call “the Haftar paradox”. If so many have fawned for so long to get Libya back to how it was before – to really turn back the clock to pre-2011 – what better opportunity than General Haftar? The UN-recognised government is a shambles. None of the rebel groups come close to being ready for power. His part of the country is genuinely relatively stable – which is what opponents of Western intervention have often based their arguments on. If a “neo-Hussein” came along in Iraq, might we also back him?
The thought of anyone though, let alone the left, actively backing someone like Haftar, rankles. This is exactly as it should, as he is such a nasty man.
The key organisation lobbying for Haftar’s rehabilitation in Westminster is the UAE-backed Conservative Middle East Council, populated by Conservative party foreign policy realists. There is something particularly objectionable about such a torrid state guiding British foreign policy, but you can at least appreciate that conservative foreign policy realists are being coherent. They wanted Gaddafi to stay, and now they want a neo-Gaddafi to return. They are unashamed in this.
The position of the left is far more ambiguous and muddled. When a “neo-Mubarak” returned to take control of Egypt, in the form of General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Jones, the prominent Guardian columnist, wrote: “Egypt is in the grip of a violent tyranny – with the west’s backing.” Will he be saying the same of neo-Gaddafi Haftar? He is yet to.
George Galloway certainly is. He says “we must hope for someone like him” to take full power and rebuild the Libyan state. Like the conservatives, Galloway should at least be praised for his coherence. He opposed the war on grounds it would create chaos, and here he is backing a return to non-chaos.
No such coherence is coming from others. The prominent journalist Ian Sinclair, for example, has fiercely criticised the West’s backing “of a potential war criminal”, Haftar, saying that such support is “dangerous”. He is right of course, but how do we square that off with his prior opposition to toppling Gaddafi?
Maybe there is a qualitative difference between backing a dictator into power – as the West is now doing in Libya – and urging his maintenance when he is already in – as the West has always done and will continue to do across the Middle East. The problem is the anti-war left are both criticising this maintenance of dictators, while also opposing their removal.
It is not to say that the left are wrong or right in this. It is just that we can’t possibly know based on their various statements. At least with the neoconservatives you know they will uniformly go careering around the world trying to install democracy with force, and do this predictably and repeatedly.
At least with the conservative realists, you know that they will back dictators no matter what, as demonstrated by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s support for both Haftar now and President Bashar Al-Assad in the past. At least with the truly radical left, like George Galloway, he is prepared to be explicit in his support for neo-Gaddafi Haftar.
For all the criticism he has received on foreign policy, and his deep personal interest in it, save for some murmurings on Yemen, Corbyn’s foreign policy manifesto remains unstated and unknown. Perhaps failing to grapple with these dilemmas is at the heart of it.
How the democratic socialist left move now, in response to Britain’s paradoxical and hugely historic backing of Haftar, will hopefully offer more clarity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.