A Further Perspective

Obama, Sarkozy, Gaddafi

What is democracy for if you cannot have big public debates?

By 3.15.11

Send to Kindle

In a breath-taking, yet characteristic, statement, President Obama said the other day that "it is in the interests of the United States, and more importantly in the interests of the Libyan people, that Mr. Gaddafi leave…" Who elected him, the American people or the Libyan people? And yet, is this not the typically perverse liberal formulation of why we do anything?

The anti-Gaddafi revolt began in Cyrenea in the Libyan east, which figures. Gaddafi's tribal roots are in Tripolitania, and his 1969 coup, which overthrew the pro-American King Idris I, represented an assault upon the latter's base and its religious networks. Like many other post-colonial states (including Iraq), Libya as a unitary state is a recent invention. It may or may not last, and the anti-Gaddafi rebels, for their part, assert their ambition to liberate the whole country from the aging tyrant and his regime of predators. In doing this they express the old anti-colonial reflex of "national liberation." Its practical consequence has been to provide a justification for the arbitrary and brutal rule of authoritarian elites that are almost invariably based on narrow tribal affinities but that claim to hold power in the name of a "state" that serves the "nation." A central purpose of this kind of post-colonial state is to inhibit the development, or more precisely re-development, of the consultative assemblies at the local, tribal, or regional levels that, as Bernard Lewis has stressed repeatedly, were the pre-modern, proto-democratic institutions commonly found in Arab-Islamic lands.

In Libya and elsewhere these institutions and the surviving religious networks are now, in a sense, taking their revenge after forty years of oppression. It is no more sure they can be revived than it is to expect a revitalized Russian duma. In Algeria, an attempt along these lines took place in Kabylie 10 years ago when village organizations called arch's, traditional local assemblies among the Berbers of this region, demanded respect for local grievances from the central government. The latter dealt with the challenge through a mix of concessions and repression. The recent demonstrations, though sparked by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, come out of the arch's movement; thus far the government has kept them from gaining any traction.

It is not entirely zany of Gaddafi -- nothing he does and says is as zany as at first appears -- to assert he is fighting el Qaeda. As a kind of Arab fascist -- Libya was under Italian Fascist rule until 1943 -- Gaddafi always saw the mosque as a challenge to his power, particularly the traditionalist mosque led by the Senoussi, whose influence was mainly in Cyrenea. Theologically, these share traditionalist and reactionary ideas with the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists (including Bin Laden's el Qaeda), without being quite so intoxicated with anti-Western venom. However, no one has heard them repudiate Gaddafi's anti-Semitism.

In this regard, it cannot be underscored too often that the upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East are occurring with practically no reference to the Arab-Israel dispute. Poisoned by the anti-Semitism of their leaders, the litmus test of liberalization in these countries will be the attitudes adopted toward Israel when things quiet down and new people take charge -- and toward the U.S.

Neither we nor the Israelis need to be loved by Muslims, but it must be made clear to them that their scorn and hostility come at a price. The statement by President Obama last week expresses a debilitating ambivalence about whom we really want to please, and it is not unique to American leaders. President Nicolas Sarkozy took a bold, some might even say reckless, position when he recognized the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council and suggested air strikes were on the way. One almost expected to see Foreign Legionnaires, backed by British S.A.S. teams, jumping on Tripoli. This is in fact, one can safely bet, what many Libyans and others in the region expected, even wanted. But they are used to hearing bold Gallic talk followed by explanations that the European Council, or the NATO council, or some other council, must be consulted. Consultation in multilateral councils is precisely what the dictators count on; it is a major reason why they are such great fans of the U.N., although they do not pay its bills.

The French, the British, and the others are, it is true, to some degree hostage to 30, 40 years of immigration policies that have resulted in large Muslim populations in their midst, or more exactly on the margins of their large cities. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe (census laws do not permit counting by race or religion, but typical estimates put Muslims at 10 percent of a French population of 62 million), and French foreign policy, explicitly or not, takes this into account.

France's Arab policy in fact pre-dates the immigration issue. From de Gaulle on, the axiom has been that you do not seek dust-ups with the Arabs, which is why regime change was viewed with so much distaste at the Elysée as well as at the Quai d'Orsay. De Gaulle did not want massive immigration from Muslim countries. It happened anyway, under rationales not that far removed from the ones we invented to encourage free trade and free movements of labor and undermine our manufacturing base.

Sarkozy knows that putting the Legion in Tripoli or getting control of the air is controversial, and he is going into a difficult election year. He also knows Libya is easier to handle than a huge political blowup in Tunisia or Egypt, not to mention Algeria. Why not make his move now, against a widely reviled zaim? Is he afraid Obama will pull an Eisenhower-at-Suez on him? Perhaps it is in anticipation of such a fiasco among putative allies that both Richard Haass and Henry Kissinger have in recent days warned that Libya must not distract us from a potentially far more dangerous blow up in the Gulf.

Even as he weighs risky foreign moves, Sarkozy must hold France's political center while competing for right-wing votes with a resurgent National Front. His recent critiques of multiculturalism, while well within the French integrationist tradition ("with the Republic, everything; outside the Republic, nothing"), can be heard with this background in mind, as can his adamant non to Turkey's application to enter the European Union, though it too is a traditional French response. Sarkozy, who has the most "diverse" government in French history, knows he will not have the Muslim vote anyway, but that does not mean he can beat the Front for the anti-Muslim vote. His very public firing of his Muslim advisor on Muslim affairs similarly appears to be not without political calculation. On substance the two men are very close -- Abderahmane Dahmany opposes the "communitarian" organizations that run counter to the ideal of "Republican integration" -- but he scolds Sarkozy for playing what we would call a race card by demanding a big public debate on the whole issue.

It is true the timing is suspect, but then again what is democracy for if you cannot have big public debates. This one follows upon last year's on "immigration and integration," which fell rather flat but which at least broke some verbal taboos.

Nicolas Sarkozy may be cheesy and politically inept and a short-attention-span man, but he at least he has the merit of remembering French national interests. The words of caution on Libya expressed by such eminent observers as Richard Haass and Henry Kissinger, echoed by high administration officials as the Secretary of Defense, are a reminder that too often our own tendency is to leap before looking and assume the interests, the aspirations, or whatever, as the kids say, of faraway peoples are the same as our own. Nothing could be less certain and it certainly does not help us to make such assumptions and to transmit the resulting hesitation to our European friends, especially during the rare moments when they are seized by an impulse to be bold. #

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.