“Barack Obama has now fired more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace Prize winners combined.”
It’s good for a laugh. A cheap laugh. The blogger who wrote this clearly doesn’t have any appreciation for the reality that confronts American presidents on a daily basis. No doubt he or she also did not have any family in Benghazi last week, when a desert breeze stood between Qaddafi’s tank columns and the certain massacre of the city’s population. Can anyone- Arab, European, American- honestly compare our intervention in Libya in 2011 to Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan in 2001? Really? Have we become that morally unhinged? Iraq and Afghanistan were all about an insecure, fearful United States lashing out at nations because it didn’t have the means to locate and punish the trans-national movement responsible for 9/11. Libya is about a coalition of mainly Western powers reluctantly resorting to force to protect ordinary people from their own self-appointed leader. Do NATO countries have their own, selfish reasons for bombing Libya? Of course. No nation in the history of nations acts out of pure altruism. France and Italy are concerned about North African refugees overwhelming their shores. Britain and America worry about Al Qaeda stepping into a vacuum. Everyone worries about the free flow of oil and upward pressure on its price. Interestingly, all these risks have the potential to grow exponentially if you go down the path of using force. So, are we really being selfish and sinister by bombing Libya, protecting only our own interests, or are we, instead, ignoring them for a greater cause? Hmmm. It’s infinitely more complex and larger than this question alone.
There is something bigger here. Say whatever you want about mission creep in Libya, international spinelessness in Bahrain, or heavy-handed government brutality in Syria, the paradigm has forever changed, and unambiguously for the better. Since the 9/11 attacks, conflict between the “West” and the “Muslim world” had been framed, indeed defined, by two primary actors- one state and one non-state. On one side, Western governments and their partner regimes (Israel and our Muslim allies) declared their war on terror. They faced off largely against trans-national groups- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hizbullah, Hamas- entities who by their very nature and ideology challenged the notion of the modern nation-state itself. Conspicuously absent on either side of the battle lines was the most important actor of all: Muslim civil society, the entity who alone has the power to reinvigorate stagnating communities and provide a viable long-term solution to violent extremism.
No longer. The Arab Street has emerged. Unruly, leaderless, fickle- and yet, it has forced both sides to contend with it and can no longer be discounted derisively as “not ready for democracy” or “too chaotic and unknowable to be trusted”. Both primary actors in the conflict have had to reconfigure their strategies to account for this new and potentially pivotal player, and the upshot so far is encouraging. Western governments have for the most part aligned their policies more with the aspirations of the Street while trans-national actors seem too dumbfounded even to react.
Indeed, the hidden story in all of this, the elephant in the room that no one has talked about seriously: where is Al Qaeda? Why the strange silence during the region’s most volatile hour in decades? Numerous self-styled experts have claimed that instability and chaos were this organization’s preferred milieu, creating the space for its operatives to challenge the legitimacy of national governments. What better opportunity than the upheavals in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where secular strongmen tied to American patronage have come under immense pressure. Is it perhaps because Al Qaeda has nothing to say to the largely young, secular groups and moderate Islamists who have tipped the scales of the system? What would they offer them? Brutal caliphates like those that are going swimmingly well in Saudi Arabia and Iran? Perhaps more important, these popular awakenings have relegated a key plank in the Al Qaeda public relations machine to history’s dustbin: the string of corrupt secular regimes controled by Western puppetmasters and dismissive of their own people. The edifice of this once potent recruiting tool is now crumbling, and Al Qaeda does not know what to do.
On the other side, it does not help Al Qaeda (or Hizbullah, Hamas and the Taliban) that Western governments have for the most part abandoned or severely criticized the Arab partner regimes they once blindly supported in the name of stability. This is a shrewd gamble by Western leaders and one that has completely blind-sided the trans-national movements. There was once a time when Islamic groups could claim the mantle of representing the real Arab and Muslim Street, the aspirations of the hidden majority who were oppressed by their rulers. They spoke the language of the Street, prayed to the same God, were from the same villages and neighborhoods. How could infidel foreigners compete with this narrative? It turns out they can. It turns out that the protesters, even the swelling cohorts of avowedly religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, have a set of values that are more in line with the peoples of the West than the disconnected, disparate old sheikhs of political Islam. This is a new generation after all. They are cognizant of tradition, as they should be, but it can’t compete with the latest technology or fashion.
It’s true that there are many unknowns and that the progress so far is fragile and reversible. Qaddafi’s counter-revolution in Libya may win out in the end or cause permanent stalemate despite Western intervention. Military elites in Egypt and Tunisia could simply reshuffle the seats of power and continue to stifle their societies. More extreme strains of political Islam could take advantage of weakened states to fill a populist vacuum. But here’s the thing: America spent a trillion dollars and countless lives in the first decade of the new millennium trying to manufacture a liberalism that would drain the swamp of extremist ideology in the Muslim world. That failed and continues to fail. Meanwhile, in the space of a single month, without an American boot on the ground, we’ve had more meaningful, organic change in the region since the collapse of Ottoman rule a century ago. Moreover, if it were not for Western influence and assistance behind the scenes- not just in Libya but most notably in Egypt and Yemen- the Arab popular revolt could have very easily taken a different, far more gruesome turn. Much of the Arab Street views Western governments as their protectors today even as they remember a time when the West enabled their oppressors. The alternative, for those who watch the region closely and care about its people, is unimaginable. If the West had indeed abandoned the people of Libya in the name of stability and status quo, what would be the message to the Arab Street? We lecture you a lot about democracy and human dignity, but when you actually put your lives on the line for it, we cannot help you. What hate-filled ideology would Arab youth, enraged by Western empty promises, turn to then?
Fortunately, this was not the outcome thanks to tremendous courage by Western leaders. Perhaps we should be applauding their stand with the Arab Street instead of denigrating it. Does Al Qaeda and its franchises enjoy the same stature today as NATO or the UN as the protector of Arab rights? Are they even relevant anymore to the unfolding drama?
This begs the question: Why do we continue to enforce transformation at the barrel of a gun in places like Afghanistan when Muslim civil society has proven that it has the capacity to do it more organically and at far less cost, in multiple venues across th region? After all, if we have learned one lesson in the last decade of bloody experiments, it is that if societies are not ready to do it for themselves, we cannot and should not do it for them.