December 4, 2011
A Revolution, whatever the hell that is!

Slowly, the Arab Spring is sliding into the category of those events that were proclaimed anything short of the Second Coming, but will take up little more than a brief chapter in our children’s history books, and I doubt anyone but the most callous of tutors will force her students to remember it by the time our grandchildren go to college.

In some countries, the Spring petered out as fruits ripened and then wilted, as leaves turned brown and finally fell. In others, it turned into a complete perversion of what it ever was, seeking to replace secular dictatorships with no less dictatorical religious fan

There is a distinct lack of asking questions - mainly because those questions would make a rather large array of people look like total morons. Too bad, because they are total morons, and showing a few up is always a good thing.

I’m not going to go into the debate about interventionism, but rather focus on a single point: why, if all these movements were proclaimed to be great big revolutions, has it all ended in such a lacklustre way?

Not to be rude (oh yes, heck yea to be rude, actually!), but if you’re on tv commenting on foreign affairs, chances are you have no damn idea as to what a revolution is.

You have, for one, never seen one. I doubt that apart from 1989, there had been a real revolution in the First World. And if you seek to go beyond that, I’m afraid the next stop is the Boston Tea Party. Or the Paris Commune. In either case, they’re far, far behind us.

Secondly, the idea of a revolution has become value-laden - undoubtedly with a positive value. How many college kids pull that old chestnut about wanting to “change the world” in their application essays? Unthinking and unquestioning we accept that such change is for the better, whether out of a conviction that this is the Worst of All Possible Worlds or some sort of (rather ill-founded) belief in universal human goodness, whereas there is no guarantee that such change will 1) be meant to make things better, 2) will actually make things better (the latter being much less likely than the former). Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Gaddafi all wanted to change the world - look how well that one turned out in the end.

Thirdly, the Cold War era and Hollywood (and this is not a criticism against them - all fiction tends to center around a conflict and unavoidably one of them has to be the bad guy) have impressed on Western society the idea that anyone who is fighting a dictator actually likes freedom, the First Amendment, Burger King, apple pie and Harry Reid. At least after 9/11, we ought to have learned that people fighting the baddies may well fight the baddies because they’re better at being a baddy (got that, Hollywood? Pay attention, there’ll be a quiz later). Just because the Muj’ were fighting the Soviets who hated American democracy doesn’t mean they automatically wished for American democracy. During the entire Afghan mess (the one back in the 1980s), everyone got away without ever asking what motivates the Muj’ and what their beef is with the Russians. Their problem wasn’t the fact that the Soviets operated a fundamentally unjust system, and did even that quite badly. Their problem was that the Soviets operated a bad system that was secular and bad, rather than their preferred option, which is Shariah-based and bad. Had that fact received the attention it deserved back then, it would have been an instance of the bee landing on the nettle - someone would get stung, and you truly didn’t care which one.

Boundless enthusiasm for just about everything revolutionary ended us up in the mess that was Odyssey Dawn - quite apart from having a conspicuously stripperesque name, it ended with what was by all descriptions a political defeat. Gaddafi got whacked, yes - but Libya remains about as stable as a Soviet nuclear power plant at vodka o’clock, and is well on its way to be the newest addition to the failed state register. It took almost a decade of US military presence in Iraq to mollify and eliminate some of the Shi’a-Sunni grudges built up by Saddam’s preferential treatment of the Sunni - what Harvard-educated idiot thought a few bombing runs are going to end in peace and jolly hockey sticks in a country where people working for a deranged despot’s secret police may share an apartment block with their very own victims? The Libyan bombing run was very politically correct. We didn’t stay. We most certainly didn’t want to impress any unpopular views, like the one that democracy is cool and flogging women isn’t, on them. We sure as heck didn’t touch their oil. With the newsroom of the New York Times pacified, it would have been a good idea to actually figure out what’s next. What came next instead is not doing very much at all and handing over the whole shebang to NATO, which couldn’t wait for the rebel leaders to finally sign some random chit that says Libya is now liberated and they can go home. They did so. Tl;dr: we can’t even properly go into a country and fix things. Odyssey Dawn was the equivalent of reacting to Hitler’s invasion of Poland by flying a few sorties, then, upon a bunch of random Poles signing a letter saying ‘actually, all’s well’, going home.

What has the so-called ‘revolution’ achieved? Well, there’s a National Transitional Council now. It’s chaired by - watch this - Gaddafi’s justice minister. Yes, really. More tellingly, the dude has a zebibah the size of a 50p coin. The vice president is a human rights ambulance chaser. There’s a Senussi in the lot, with a claim to the Throne of Libya (I don’t even know if they have one, seeing as in their entire modern history, they have had all of one single king). Between March and November, they went through three and a half defence minsters. And this whole farce is sponsored overtly by Qatar and some other Arab countries, and not so overtly by God only knows who. Snapping up the displaced and distressed amidst a disaster was always a favoured tactic of Sunni extremists (viz. the radical Sunni madrasas set up in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan during the Afghan-Russian war, virtually entirely staffed and paid for by Saudi Arabia).

We’ve had the Arab Spring. It got us: a dead Gaddafi, and otherwise a whole lot of nothing. Egypt remains a crisis spot, as does Syria. Libya is on its way from a state run badly by a deranged megalomaniac despot to a state run badly by a set of somewhat less deranged but more cynical petty despots. When history sits in judgment, the Arab Spring will hardly go down as the revolution that changed it all. And that, alone, should temper our love affair with revolutions. The Taliban came to power by way of a revolution, and so did the Bolsheviks. Heck, the archetypical revolution, that of the French in 1789, ended in various assorted collections of psychopaths trying to kill one another in the name of the Revolution, and more absurd stuff. It is substance, not form, that matters. A revolution with all the fortitude it has, mainly made by fired up young people (same goes for war, sadly), is but a hollow shell lest that fortitude is filled by sound principles and a good ideas as to what to do once power is gained. The Libyans fought hard to seize power and get Gaddafi out - perhaps so hard that they spent no time at all figuring out what to do once they did end up winning. And that’s a bad, bad sign.

August 30, 2011
Statehood and survival

From Julian Lindley-French’s blog, a good insight as to why Libya isn’t necessarily bound to be a repeat of the Afghan/Iraqi fiasco:

And here’s the crux; Libya is also neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. Libyan human leadership capital is far better than that of either Iraq or Afghanistan. There is a middle class unlike in Afghanistan where it had been destroyed by the Soviets. Sectarianism of the sort we saw in Iraq is far less of a factor. Libya’s infrastructure has suffered far less damage than that suffered by Afghanistan and Iraq and with high-grade oil Libya can afford its own future.

I agree with Lindley-French’s broader point, but not with what the really important difference is. Disfavoured recently in the analysis of international relations, there has been little attention paid to comparing the traditions of statehood in the three states. In Libya, there has been a state of some description since the Carthaginian hegemony across the shores of North Africa established around 500 BCE. So for the last two and a half millennia, with the brief intermezzo of the ineffective Byzantine rule after the fall of Rome and before the Arab conquest. Carthage gave way to Romans by 74 BC who then channeled over into Byzantium who were kicked out around the mid-600s by the Arabs who then were supplanted by the Ottoman Empire who then were kicked out by the Italians who then were in turn chased away by 1951, when Libya declared independence. Compare that to Afghanistan, where the brief periods of united statehood are essentially minute anomalies of a history of virtually exclusively tribal society spanning 6000 years. Whereas Libya is about changing the locus of power in a state that has been in existence for half a century and in other political contexts has existed for much, much longer than that, Afghanistan was about creating something that has never really existed in reality, and Iraq was about doing away with as much of a fundamentally broken and corrupt state structure as it was possible. With nation–states losing control of the central position of analysis in international relations, analysis runs the risk of ignoring how important traditions of statehood are in examining the prospects of a political transformation.

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