You say you want a revolution
In one of its debates, the PBS Newshour on Wednesday gave us a fascinating battle of perspectives on foreign policy. Two former high-level State Department officials gave opposing arguments on what the West should or should not do about Libya, where the pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces are fighting it out.
I was struck by the feeling that many of us are easily carried away by the projection of our own culture on the rest of the world. John Lennon’s old Beatles song “Revolution” popped into my mind. So did Woody Allen’s movie “Bananas”.
Everybody is for democracy and freedom, of course. And aren’t we the experts in it, and so we have some obligation to encourage these movements? I get it. We think that these principles and ideals are cool and it is up to us to enforce them. But we have to be very careful before basing national policy and the lives of many people on sloganeering.
This perspective may be just as arrogant as attitudes were at the beginning of Europe’s colonial and imperialist orgy hundreds of years ago. Europe was serious about religion then, and had engaged in hundreds of years of sectarian war to prove it. At the dawn of the age of exploration, they carried the “white man’s burden” to the uncivilized, who were often, in fact, quite civilized.
On PBS, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who had worked for Hillary Clinton in Obama’s State Department as director of policy planning for a couple years, is considered a hawk among Democrats.
She said flat out that the young people of Libya and throughout the region are demanding democracy and are asking for our help — specifically to down Qaddafi’s air force. She kept her argument general, devoid of specifics.
Opposite here was Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations who had held the same job in the State Department for Colin Powell in Bush No. 2’s State Department. He is harder to peg. He calls himself a realist and sounds conciliatory as if he’d be a natural match for Obama.
He warns that intervention in Libya would be dangerous with little chance of success. He asks, “Who would we be helping? We know we hate Gadhafi, or people do. But are we so sure that those we would be helping are good guys?”
Haas gets around to mentioning tribal allegiances in Libya. “Why are we so confident that we know enough about the tribal structure of Libya, about the various clans that are competing for power … ?”
Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, raised the threat of tribal civil war early in the conflict, but the composition of the rebels is anything but clear. Clearly there has been some inspiration from the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, but the character of conflict seems to be much different. For one thing, Qaddafi started shooting quickly, and for another the rebels, including some chunks of the army, immediately started shooting back. From everything I’ve read, the people who came out on the streets in the other countries had no weaponry to shoot back.
Last week, Foreign Policy had an article that had a jaundiced take on revolution in the Mideast in general: Think Again: Arab Democracy. The author Thomas Carothers, vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote, “In a few countries, like Libya, the coherence of basic state institutions has long been shockingly low. In much of the region, there is little historical experience with pluralism. A hard road ahead for democracy is almost certain.”
Libya has a very long history of engagement with Europe dating back to the early days of the Roman Empire. After Mohammed sparked a messianic series of conquests, the Arabs and later the Turks ruled the territory for centuries until it became an Italian colony again. Independence has meant a monarchy for 20 years and then a coup by Qaddafi, who was best known for many years for sending terrorists to Europe, including the downing of the airliner over Lockerbee, Scotland.
Nonetheless, by the end of the day Saturday, after a long debate, The Arab League urged the imposition of a no-fly zone under United Nations auspices. The American reports I read cast this as an important development in the struggle between Westerners who want to intervene and those who don’t.
It might be a good idea to listen to Arab voices. Thanks to the Internet, we can read Al Jazeera directly, or at least the English version of the Arabic news service, on Libya. The report said, “Arab inaction on the Libyan crisis could lead to ‘unwanted foreign intervention’ and fighting among Libyans, the foreign minister of Oman (Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah) warned.”
The report quoted him: “If the Arab League does not take responsibility to prevent a downward spiral, that could lead to internal fighting or unwanted foreign intervention, the Libyan crisis poses a threat to the stability of Arab states.”
One of the most informative things I’ve read about Libyan is a report in The Daily Mirror from Sri Lanka, a very poor country off the Indian subcontinent. Sri Lanka, with a Buddhist majority, has a stake in Libya since its young men are among the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Libya.
In an editorial called Libya, Tribes and Islam: Who’s fighting whom, Ameen Izzadeen says, “Age-old rivalries among Libya’s tribes have resurfaced to add fuel to the burning rebellion in the oil-rich east, where the people have often complained of favoured treatment for the western part of the country in the distribution of national wealth.”
I hope Izzadeen’s attitude toward the West is at least recognized by our policymakers: “Preparing to pitch camp in the bloody desert is the imperialist West which, salivating over Libya’s oil, is pushing for a United Nations approved no-fly zone as part of its plan to invade the country on the pretext of humanitarian intervention.”
It’s well worth reading before anyone starts stamping their feet for military action.