[Marxism] Buyer's remorse over no-fly zone in Libya

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 24 19:32:28 MDT 2012


Libya and the Recklessness of the West
Hugh Roberts 22 September 2012

Libya no longer has – or is – a state. The political field throughout 
most of the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by the various 
fiercely competing brands of Islamism. The religious field has been in a 
state of profound disorder since the abolition of the Caliphate 
following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. 
A degree of order was effectively restored to it by intelligent 
nationalist movements which, once in power, promoted a ‘national Islam’ 
the better to subject religion to raison d’état and curb its more 
dangerous and sectarian enthusiasms. But Western policy since the end of 
the Cold War has been relentlessly opposed to the nationalist tradition 
and its exponents throughout the region.

The eclipse of this tradition has tended to deprive religious and other 
minorities of the protection they received from modernising nationalist 
governments in their heyday and has induced many of them, especially the 
more mobile, professional, middle-class elements, to seek refuge in the 
West. The resulting diaspora has become a well of bitterly resentful 
attitudes towards – and occasional insulting caricatures of – those 
forces left in possession of the political stage in the countries the 
émigrés have abandoned. It has been encouraged in this behaviour by the 
tendency of Western governments to rely on diaspora personalities as a 
source of endorsement of their own wishful thinking and self-regarding 
readings of reality in the region and as a source of personnel to be 
parachuted into power – or at least office – in each and every regime 
change effected by Western military muscle.

In an advertisement broadcast last week in Pakistan, where 20 people 
have already died in demonstrations, President Obama invoked America’s 
tradition of respect for all faiths and Hillary Clinton insisted that 
the US government had nothing to do with the insulting video. I shall 
leave it to the American Muslims who endure humiliating mistreatment at 
the hands of frontier and other US police forces to comment on the first 
point. Of course, the Obama administration is no more responsible for 
the production and dissemination of Innocence of Muslims than the 
several million Copts who still live in Egypt and are undoubtedly 
appalled by what Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has done. But the United 
States has certainly had a hand in reducing the Middle East and North 
Africa to its present degraded political condition. And the Obama 
administration bears a massive responsibility for the present condition 
of Libya.

The official optimism that masquerades as news these days assures us 
that Libya has been liberated and democracy is under construction there. 
But what is being constructed is a superstructure without a base. By Max 
Weber’s widely accepted definition – ‘a state is a human community that 
(successfully) claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force 
within a given territory’ – Libya today is a stateless country. 
Yesterday’s demonstration in Benghazi against Ansar al-Sharia – the 
group accused of the attack on the US consulate – may seem to offer 
hope, but it will take a lot more than one popular protest against one 
Islamist militia to rescue Libya from this catastrophic condition.

Obama made a calamitous wrong call in endorsing the Nato intervention in 
March 2011. His defence secretary Robert Gates and, initially, Hillary 
Clinton both knew that it was against the American national interest to 
be drawn into another war with an Arab and Muslim country, but Obama 
listened to Susan Rice and Samantha Power and allowed himself to be 
panicked into capitulating to Cameron and Sarkozy of all people, when 
what he needed to do was to emulate Eisenhower’s firmness towards London 
and Paris in 1956. He reckoned he could get away with it by ensuring 
there were no US casualties and thereby evade the constitutional 
requirement of congressional approval by pretending that it was not a 
war at all. The war that was officially denied has now yielded its first 
crop of American casualties and if the US responds by getting drawn 
further into Libya’s internal affairs the war may well resume in 
earnest, with little scope for an exit strategy.

As the International Crisis Group’s North Africa director at the time, I 
opposed the Nato intervention because I could see that it would mean not 
merely Gaddafi’s overthrow but the destruction of the state when the 
rebellion was yet to acquire the political and organisational capacity 
to construct a new state. An intelligent application of what Americans 
call ‘soft power’ could have facilitated a political transition while 
preserving the necessary minimum of state continuity. But it turned out 
that statesmanship of that order was not available.

The reason Muslims have been demonstrating from Tunis to Jakarta is not 
that they are exceptionally thin-skinned and liable to throw tantrums at 
the drop of a hat, nor even that US policy has given them plenty of 
other grounds for grievance over the years. It is that Islamist 
movements now collectively dominate but nowhere monopolise the political 
field and are bound to mobilise their supporters to the hilt whenever 
any of their rivals begin to do so. This is what the eclipse of the 
modernist nationalist tradition has led to, and Western – and by no 
means solely American – policy is responsible for it. The result is 
growing anarchy in the region from which Americans and American 
interests cannot realistically expect to remain immune.


A comment from an LRB reader:

Idrees says:
24 September 2012 at 12:05 pm

Hugh Roberts believes that the uprising against Gaddafi and foreign 
intervention have destroyed the Libyan state and made attacks like the 
one on the US embassy inevitable. A state, he quotes Max Weber, is ‘a 
human community that (successfully) claims a monopoly of the legitimate 
use of physical force within a given territory’. By this standard, he 
says ‘Libya no longer has – or is – a state’. But under Gaddafi it was 
one, so presumably it met this criteria.

So what made Gaddafi’s state so deserving of preservation? Because it 
was part of the ‘intelligent nationalist movements’ which had been able 
to ‘curb [Islamism's] more dangerous and sectarian enthusiasms’. Alas, 
the US wouldn’t have it. It destabilized nationalist formations and 
unleashed the suppressed forces of sectarian intolerance. And protests 
form Jakarta to Tunis do not signify so much resentment over US drones 
policy, support for Israel, or its murderous presence in Afghanistan, as 
the ‘eclipse of the modernist nationalist tradition’, whose avatars were 
men like Muammar Gaddafi.

That’s NGO wisdom in a nutshell. It seems hopelessly trapped in a time 
when the voice of a foreign subject was still of no consequence. Since 
we oppose US intervention in Libya, we must also trivialize the wishes 
and achievements of the Libyans. If they are showing signs of 
empowerment, lets belittle them, and contrast the present state of 
affairs with the more absolute stability of authoritarian rule. Our 
criteria for evaluating the merits of other governments cannot possibly 
be their representativeness, but how peacefully they settle into our 
hegemonic order. By that criteria, post-2003 Libya, the preferred 
destination of rendition flights and Blairite junkets, cannot possibly 
be bested by the democratic anarchy of the present.

More information about the Marxism mailing list