Last week, when Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey toured the Middle East, aligning himself with the Arab Street despite his dodgy credentials to do so, a Turkish analyst on Twitter rejected that this was ‘neo-Ottomanism’ on his country’s part. If the region had anything to worry about, it was the neo-colonialism of the Western powers, as shown by Libya. His use of this word annoyed me. Colonialism is a specific thing: taking over a country and moving in your own people. It is different from, but overlaps with, imperialism: taking over a country and ruling it yourself. Something else entirely is the idea of ‘informal empire’: ruling a country by influencing and/or coercing its leaders.
The Libyan intervention is many things – indeed, I have called it all kinds of things – but it is not neo-colonialism. It is absurd to think Britain and France have the resources, will and the required mindset to take over the country and start shipping in its missionaries, businessmen and soldier-adventurers to remake it in their own image. One can argue our goal is informal empire, but if you are going to argue that, use the proper fucking phrase, no matter how incongruous it would be. Libya does not meet the criteria laid down by historians Gregory Barton and Brett Bennett to qualify as part of any Anglo-French informal empire; indeed, it would be a stretch to argue that Iraq and Afghanistan fulfil the criteria:
[A] willing and successful attempt by commercial and political elites to control a foreign region, resource, or people. The means of control included the enforcement of extra-territorial privileges and the threat of economic and political sanctions, often coupled with the attempt to keep other would-be imperial powers at bay. For the term informal empire to be applicable, we argue, historians have to show that one nation’s elite or government exerted extraterritorial legal control, de facto economic domination, and was able to strongly influence policies in a foreign country critical to the more powerful country’s interests.