Libya: Does 2019 Rhyme With 1911?
Winston Churchill starts his history of World War I, The World Crisis, in an unconventional place and time: Libya in 1911, rather than Sarajevo in 1914. The reasons for this are both complex and, at least for me, convincing:
- In 1911, an Italian invasion and colonization of what had been the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (today’s Libya) highlighted Turkey’s spiraling inability to hold on to distant territories.
- Italy’s success in North Africa encouraged the Balkan states that had recently shaken off Turkish rule—Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia—to make grabs for the Ottomans’ remaining European lands in two wars in 1912-1913.
- This fighting and scramble for real estate heightened the endemic violence and mistrust in the Balkans, thereby helping pave the road that led to Sarajevo, Gallipoli, the Somme, the rise of Bolshevism, and the other horrors of World War I.
I wonder whether the current civil war in Libya might not potentially have wide and disastrous repercussions similar to those of the events of 1911. Today’s Libyan factions have attracted support from multiple regional (Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates) and external (France, Italy, and Russia) players, including the deployment of pilots, technicians, and trainers. This makes possible an incident resulting in, say, the deaths of Emirati pilots flying for General Haftar’s Libyan National Army or Turkish advisers supporting troops of the rival Government of National Accord. A development like this could spark a broader conflict between the coalitions of states already at loggerheads in the Persian Gulf and Syria—leading to an unpredictable, 1914-ish cascade of second- and third-order consequences. As Bismarck remarked of the Balkans in the late 19th century, a broader international conflict could come out of “some damned foolish thing” in North Africa.
The history of pre-World War I Libya and its consequences is unlikely to repeat itself exactly, but I do fear, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that it could very easily rhyme with what’s happening there now.