The Libyan campaign is over — to whose benefit? It’s a question probably better directed to Nicholas Sarkozy.
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AT CRUNCH TIME, as when we are attacked on our own territory, our reaction is to draw our terrible swift and righteous sword, not send out election monitors and community organizers. The disruption of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, harboring al Qaeda, met very little criticism. The campaign was efficient, brutal, and short. Though unable to destroy al Qaeda, we dispersed the Taliban and provided a shield behind which various Pashtun clan leaders could quarrel about what to do next. France, which had experienced terrorist attacks from Islamic or Arab movements every few years since the 1950s, could not disapprove of our policy in principle. President Jacques Chirac’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, expressed his country’s support, as did most other leading foreign policy leaders in the world.
But the French government disapproved of our application of the Bush administration’s attack on Iraq. There was no casus belli, Villepin argued, as there had been during the Kuwait affair a decade earlier. Saddam was dangerous, and the way to guard against him was to sustain the same Euro-U.S.-Arab alliance successfully mobilized in 1990, in effect containing him.
The Bush policy makers countered there was a “break-out” danger, as there was evidence that the Iraqi Baathists either had or were actively developing weapons of mass destruction and were in a de facto alliance with the Islamist movement, in the short term transcending deep doctrinal differences.
The argument for the legitimacy of this attack was somewhat obfuscated by the quarrels between the administration and important desks within the national security agencies—notably the Central Intelligence Agency—regarding the exact nature of the threat to us and our allies, the links of the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, the state of its weapons development programs, the contacts of these to other regimes (or factions within them), including those in power in such places as Pakistan, North Korea, and possibly still more, and other issues of what the security specialists call “threat assessments.”
Whatever one makes of these debates and their effects on our clarity of purpose, the important question ends up as one of political judgment. What the French disapproved of was our fervor at going after the tyrants of the Arab world. Perhaps the idea was not that different from what their ancestors had done in the 1790s, but that was two centuries ago. There may have been profoundly corrupt reasons for this disapproval. Investigative reporters demonstrated that Saddam was using the “oil-for-food” program to cheat the arms embargo on his regime and buy the good will, or at least the forbearance, of international leaders. But even apart from this, the French did not agree that our overarching plan was sound. Not only were we overextending our human and economic resources, they said, the Arabs would never buy into our declarations of political altruism.
Our plan was frankly Wilsonian: the only way to end the Islamist threat and, at the same time, bring about real political reform in the lands of Arab-Islam is to promote—if necessary, impose—democracy. With some important exceptions in the political class and among opinion makers, the French simply did not buy this. They viewed reform in Arab countries as unrealistic except in the very long term. Their diplomacy emphasized the recognition of states, whatever their nature, and rejected contacts with and encouragement of opposition movements, except when it clearly suited them—a significant exception, but never publicly acknowledged.
IT IS TOO early to say whether our revolutionary foreign policy in the end will prove to have been the more prudent and decent and effective in the lands where our bayonets and armored vehicles have sought to promote it. But the question does bring us back to the Libyan intervention, in which the roles were almost mirrored. This time we were slow on the uptake, but we agreed to give full diplomatic and political support to the adventure, and, crucially, to provide supplies and munitions.
The Obama administration had sound reasons for taking a back seat in the NATO expedition. If we are in a long war for the promotion of liberal democracy, why not implicate other liberal democratic states in the enterprise? Moreover, it is of little comfort to a president reading daily casualty figures on two fronts to be told by armchair military analysts that it would be “easy” to open a third one and overthrow Gaddafi. On the contrary, he feared still another quagmire to add to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had every reason to be wary of the irrational exuberance that had predicted Iraq would be a “cakewalk.” Even if it is reasonably certain that our forces can defeat Arab armies in the field, what sort of analysis is it that neglects the consequences to us of our own battlefield victories? Since the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 1790s, the Arabs never have won any wars in the field. Nor have they lost any at the peace conferences, either.
Contrariwise, going into Libya seemed the logical continuation of our campaign for democracy in the Arab world, the ultimate rationale for our efforts. Libya, in a sense, was proof-by-continuation. In the same way, small victories were cheered in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion: the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon, and the stated renunciation, by Moammar Gaddafi, of his nuclear program. Lebanon was a short-lived success. If we were so serious about spreading democracy in the Middle East, why were we not there when the country was taken hostage by Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored terrorist army, following the assassination of its liberal democratic leader by Syrian-Hezbollah terrorists?
After 10 years of efforts and no-follow-throughs, going into Libya might have elicited some skepticism, and indeed it did, not only from Democrats who, like the president, had opposed the original Bush policies, but Republicans and conservatives who not only wanted to know what was in this for us but who had grown wary of just what sorts of changes we really were sponsoring.
Someone will have to explain why we place democracy ahead of freedom in our global-improvement schemes. Democracy without liberty, after all, does not necessarily produce free societies. But societies based on concepts and cultural practices premised on freedom evolve in democratic directions.
IT IS NOT at all clear why the French and the British, two old nations whose historical experiences demonstrate this axiom, were so anxious to raise the democratic banner in a clannish, tribal country like Libya, one moreover whose people have been browbeaten by 40 years of fascistic rule that cut them off from the habits and practices of free peoples. It is disappointing that, with our own recent and current experience of bringing democracy to Arab societies, we did not, evidently, raise any alarms on this score.
Nor does it seem to have occurred to either our own or our French allies’ specialists in the region that there is an indigenous population in Libya whose very name, Imazight, means “free men.” Known since Roman times as Berbers, they of course vary, like most minorities, in their relationship to the central regimes. Gaddafi disliked the Berbers—one of his many dislikes—and it was neither surprising nor unexpected that they gave him no support, when not taking part actively in the insurrection, during the recent civil war. On the contrary, their fighters held the far west while the Benghazi-based Transitional Council’s troops were losing ground to the regime’s forces, until the NATO aircraft (and in particular French assault helicopters) saved them. It was a Berber offensive out of the town of Nafusa, near the Tunisian border, that turned the tide and led to the September march on Tripoli.
Although Gaddafi called the Imazight Israeli and U.S. agents (a capital crime) and severely repressed the use of their language (as did the other North African states), and although they represent at least 10 percent of the Libyan population, the first reaction of the Transitional Council was to snub them, placing near the top of its proposed new constitution—the same that American democracists are hailing as proof that our Wilsonian crusade is unstoppable—that the only language in Libya is Arabic.
Libya is distant and strange, but it is not the other side of the moon. Yet we use what we know selectively—we prefer to make use of information when it comforts, or can be interpreted to comfort, our professed goals. It is quite possible that there is not a single democrat on the Libyan National Transitional Council. It may well be that the insurgency’s best troops are trained Islamists, veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. It may be that what we ought to do is split up the country, create a pro-West, pro-Israel Berber state which, not unlike the Kurds in the distant Arab east, will serve as an aircraft carrier of freedom. But we must know what we really want in Libya and what our role should be.
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