The Known Unknowns: Iraq And Libya


Among the many many things we do not know about Libya is the answer to a critical question. Did the events of the last month add up to the people of Libya peacefully trying to secure democracy only to be gunned down by a tyrant? Or was the rebellion more tribal, only briefly non-violent, and driven by the kind of opposition all tyrants provoke over time? Is this Egypt, in other words? Or Iraq? One can see elements of both, but I should simply confess: I don't know the core explanation. Tom Friedman notes:

It is no accident that the Mideast democracy rebellions began in three of the real countries Iran, Egypt and Tunisia where the populations are modern, with big homogenous majorities that put nation before sect or tribe and have enough mutual trust to come together like a family: “everyone against dad.” But as these revolutions have spread to the more tribal/sectarian societies, it becomes difficult to discern where the quest for democracy stops and the desire that “my tribe take over from your tribe” begins.

I have to say that, given the tribal, post-totalitarian chaos of Libya right now, I suspect the latter is the most powerful force. If that's true, we have done all anyone can reasonably ask: prevent one massacre in one city. But what if Qaddafi wants to conduct another cleansing in, say, Misurata? That's why the self-righteous pieties of the interventionists strike me as riddled with the kind of ignorant certainty that prevailed before 2003. Money quote:

The problem, after all, is political: a popular democratic revolt was savagely attacked by a tyrant and his mercenaries and some of his army... The Libyan people are in the midst of an armed revolt against a dictator who is in the midst of an armed campaign to crush them ... The president may not wish to be embroiled in an internecine Libyan conflict, but there he is. He should console himself that it is not a civil war, but it is a war nonetheless.

In the article in which this sentence appeared, you can find references to Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Egypt, Kuwait, but nothing but two quick asides about Iraq and Afghanistan - and neither aside grapples in any serious way with the obvious lessons. One is that tyrants can have allies within their own countries, especially countries riven with sectarian or tribal divides. We may find it impossible to believe that anyone could support Qaddafi in Libya, but the truth may be a little different. The US could not cope with the insurgency in Iraq because it had persuaded itself that there could be no insurgency against the removal of such an obviously crazy, despicable mass murderer as Saddam.

But there was an insurgency. It appeared very quickly. And our attempt simply to transpose onto a country we did not understand our own cultural biases, our own democratic impulses, and our own internal debate about intervention ... turned into a disaster whose costs have far outweighed the benefits.

I understand and respect the humanitarian motives of the interventionists. What I cannot understand, after the last decade, is their certainty.

(Photo: A Libyan rebel sits on the back of a pick up truck as rebel forces massed a second day on several kilometres from the key city of Ajdabiya to try to attack government forces that have encircled the town on March 22, 2011. By Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty.)