Libya: the West’s Response

I’ve been concerned in recent days about the number of twitterers, journalists, and commentators from the Middle East who want to see Europe and the US materially or militarily involved in Libya.

What we’ve witnessed in the past few months is a radical shift in power in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Abu Dhabi, etc.  And undoubtedly this is the kind of popular change that supposedly danced like sugarplums in the heads of neo-conservative dreamers like Paul WolfowitzWilliam Kristol, Robert Kagan and John R. Bolton and spurred Bush on to force a regime change in Iraq in the hopes of spreading democracy to the greater Arab world.

Hopefully, we can all agree that the invasion of Iraq did not produce any creditable spread of democracy in the Middle East. Yes, Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly a nasty bastard and,  yes, there were some very loud voices in the Arab world who also (although they would hardly admit it now) encouraged America to this adventurism.

However, what we are seeing in North African and some of the Arab states is really a homegrown desire to shrug off old models of autocratic rule in favour of something more democratic.

But it wasn’t so very long ago, just in case our memories deceive us, that the US was all smiles with Mubarak and Britain was helping Qaddafi repatriate one of the terrorists responsible for the Lockerbie catastrophe. These rulers, who we now are so happy to see overturned, were recently relied upon to quell fundamentalist Islamic movements in the region and provide us with oil. And it has been our support of people like Mubarak that lead to a virtual absence of any creditable democratic opposition Egypt, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many of these rulers allowed the spectre of vibrant Islamiscists opposition to exist in order to scare the pants off the West and garner donations for their military might. They might get rid of the rest of their opposition, but they kept the fundamentalists on the boil to show as exemplars for what, if the dictators were left unsupported, might inherit the power. And indeed, in some of the countries currently going through changes, they might. But hey, we wanted them to exercise their democratic rights, and now they’re doing it. Suck it up.

Indirectly but ironically, the foreign policy hawks have perpetuated their own worst fears by getting into bed with these bastards.

Now we have Libyans demanding that the US come in to help them overthrow Qaddafi. But the Arab world needs to learn, not from our rhetoric or what we say, but from our history.

Almost all significant and lasting regime change is brought about by civil war. They are bloody and tragic and live a very long time in the minds of the people in countries where they occur. America’s civil war is still written about, still referred to, still argued over more that a century after it occurred. The Spanish civil war still drives politics in Spain. Even the English civil war lives on in scars across the landscape – in buildings and destroyed churches, in the way English parliament is constituted and in what powers still reside with the English monarchy.

It is important to remember that Vietnam also had a civil war. After WWII, with the resumption of French rule in Vietnam, the country split apart fighting over how to either accommodate being in the French Union or get rid of them. What turned the Vietnamese civil war into something much longer and more tragic was the interference of the US, China and Russia.

As heartless as it sounds, these popular uprisings taking place in the Middle East must be fought and won by their own citizens. It will cost the shedding of their blood. And ultimately their victory will be all the more historically precious to them because it does. For the West to interfere in it is to delegitimize the internal and popular nature of these changes. It would give movements like Al Qaeda excuse after excuse to point to the West and represent it as overbearing and hegemonic.

In the west, during our various civil wars and violent revolutions, we learned that it was the tragic and bloody sacrifice of idealists that bought us the stable systems we have now. And it is the memory of those sacrifices that make what we have so precious. Freedom is NEVER wrestled away from despots without bloodshed. It is never attained painlessly. If it were, we would not place such a high value on what was won.

It would be nice if all the peoples of the world could transition seamlessly to democratic self-determination without a drop of blood being shed, but that is not yet within human nature to achieve. And until then, Libya needs to gain this freedom with its own hands.