Even allowing for the uneasy relationship between reporting and reality from both sides in Libya’s civil war, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime seems on its last legs. Feeling jubilant over the downfall of Libya’s tyrant wouldn’t be a hard task as a rule. A particularly loathsome specimen even by Middle East standards, Gaddafi’s departure would have felt like a net gain for humanity as well as for his own country in 1969, when he seized power; in the 1970s, when he was murdering his rivals and opponents; in the 1980s, when he was sponsoring and facilitating terrorism all over the world; and in the 1990s and 2000s, when he was merely assassinating dissidents while pretending to turn over a new leaf.
But, except for token shows of force, no one took him on. He was virtually rehabilitated, even fussed over at the 2009 G8 summit by the very NATO leaders who spent the last few months trying to dethrone and preferably pulverize him.
It may happen now — it probably will — but it may not do any good. The “Arab Spring,” a phenomenon that has aroused the enthusiasm of many, has aroused mainly apprehension in me.
On February 23, I wrote that “to optimistic observers, especially to eastern seaboard liberal-democratic types, the ouster of Tunisian tyrant Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January amounted to lighting a long fuse to blow up all tyrannies in the Middle East. Pessimistic observers agree that the fuse has been lit, except the ensuing explosions aren’t going to herald something better, such as democracy, but worse, such as theocracy.”
My concern only increased when I saw much of the Western media not being able to tell the difference between a popular uprising and Egypt’s military ridding itself of Hosni Mubarak. I wrote that the question to ask wasn’t “Will the protesters win?” but “Will the protesters win if they do?” The answer seemed to me very much in doubt in Egypt, and increasingly so as the Arab Spring wore on. A month later, on March 30, I wrote that for the Obama administration “going into Libya, win or lose, may dwarf all foreign policy errors of the Bush administration combined.”
Talking not just about Libya but the region as a whole, I suggested that “toppling a number of repressive, corrupt, inefficient and bellicose dictators friendly to the West and replacing them with equally repressive, corrupt, inefficient and bellicose dictators hostile to the West is the most likely outcome of the events that began in Tunisia in 2011. For historical models, think of the Ayatollah Khomeini replacing the Shah of Iran.”
Beginning in the 14th century, the Ottoman Sultans had a force of captive Christians, called Janissaries. In our times, incongruously, it was a role NATO was beginning to assume. History’s greatest military alliance assembled to defend democratic Christendom’s frontiers, ended up as (unpaid) mercenaries protecting Islam’s. Having acted for Muslim insurgents against Serbia in Kosovo in 1999, NATO’s Janissaries were now acting for Muslim rebels they knew next to nothing about in Libya.
I wrote that if we were lending our top guns to people, it might be salutary to have a street address for them — and NATO didn’t for Libya’s rebels. Who were they? As I wrote five months ago, “many of the Arab Spring’s stalwarts we’re invited to cheer, far from being friendly to liberal democracy, seem implacably and permanently hostile to it.”
Commentators sanguine about the possibility of something good emerging from all the sound and fury included several I respected, such as Fouad Ajami. While admiring their optimism, I remained a pessimist. It seemed to me it wasn’t democrats spearheading the opposition to ruling Arab strongmen in the region but military or tribal competitors — at best. At worst, they were jihadists. Replacing killer colonels and ophthalmologists with Taliban-types in the Arab world seemed no cause for celebration to me.
I agree with the Middle East Forum’s Daniel Pipes. The noted American commentator wrote a couple of days ago that he wasn’t joining those ready to party over the political demise of the foul Libyan Colonel just yet.
“The NATO intervention in March 2011,” Pipes wrote, “was done without due diligence as to who it is in Benghazi that it was helping. To this day, their identity is a mystery. Chances are good that Islamist forces are hiding behind more benign elements, waiting for the right moment to pounce, as roughly happened in Iran in 1978-79, when Islamists did not make clear their strength nor their program until the shah was well disposed of. Should that be the case in Libya today, then the miserable Gaddafi will prove to be better than his successors for both the Libyan subjects of tyranny and the West.”
Indeed. For the West to welcome the replacement of a friendly despot with an unfriendly democrat may show altruism, but welcoming the replacement of a friendly despot with an unfriendly despot shows only naiveté. As for pursuing replacement policies without finding out who is about to replace whom — well, there’s a word for that, too. It’s called negligence.