Last week, four American diplomats were killed when armed men attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The attackers’ apparent motivation was that someone, apparently American but with an uncertain identity, posted a video on YouTube several months ago that deliberately defamed the Prophet Mohammed. The attack in Benghazi was portrayed as retribution for the defamation, with the attackers holding all Americans equally guilty for the video, though it was likely a pretext for deeper grievances. The riots spread to other countries, including Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, although no American casualties were reported in the other riots. The unrest appears to have subsided over the weekend.
Benghazi and the Fall of Gadhafi
In beginning to make sense of these attacks, one must observe that they took place in Benghazi, the city that had been most opposed to Moammar Gadhafi. Indeed, Gadhafi had promised to slaughter his opponents in Benghazi, and it was that threat that triggered the NATO intervention in Libya. Many conspiracy theories have been devised to explain the intervention, but, like Haiti and Kosovo before it, none of the theories holds up. The intervention occurred because it was believed that Gadhafi would carry out his threats in Benghazi and because it was assumed that he would quickly capitulate in the face of NATO air power, opening the door to democracy.
That Gadhafi was capable of mass murder was certainly correct. The idea that Gadhafi would quickly fall proved incorrect. That a democracy would emerge as a result of the intervention proved the most dubious assumption of them all. What emerged in Libya is what you would expect when a foreign power overthrows an existing government, however thuggish, and does not impose its own imperial state: ongoing instability and chaos.
The Libyan opposition was a chaotic collection of tribes, factions and ideologies sharing little beyond their opposition to Gadhafi. A handful of people wanted to create a Western-style democracy, but they were leaders only in the eyes of those who wanted to intervene. The rest of the opposition was composed of traditionalists, militarists in the Gadhafi tradition and Islamists. Gadhafi had held Libya together by simultaneously forming coalitions with various factions and brutally crushing any opposition.
Opponents of tyranny assume that deposing a tyrant will improve the lives of his victims. This is sometimes true, but only occasionally. The czar of Russia was clearly a tyrant, but it is difficult to argue that the Leninist-Stalinist regime that ultimately replaced him was an improvement. Similarly, the Shah of Iran was repressive and brutal. It is difficult to argue that the regime that replaced him was an improvement.
There is no assurance that opponents of a tyrant will not abuse human rights just like the tyrant did. There is even less assurance that an opposition too weak and divided to overthrow a tyrant will coalesce into a government when an outside power destroys the tyrant. The outcome is more likely to be chaos, and the winner will likely be the most organized and well-armed faction with the most ruthless clarity about the future. There is no promise that it will constitute a majority or that it will be gentle with its critics.
The intervention in Libya, which I discussed in The Immaculate Intervention, was built around an assumption that has little to do with reality — namely, that the elimination of tyranny will lead to liberty. It certainly can do so, but there is no assurance that it will. There are many reasons for this assumption, but the most important one is that Western advocates of human rights believe that, when freed from tyranny, any reasonable person would want to found a political order based on Western values. They might, but there is no obvious reason to believe they would.
The alternative to one thug may simply be another thug. This is a matter of power and will, not of political philosophy. Utter chaos, an ongoing struggle that leads nowhere but to misery, also could ensue. But the most important reason Western human rights activists might see their hopes dashed is due to a principled rejection of Western liberal democracy on the part of the newly liberated. To be more precise, the opposition might embrace the doctrine of national self-determination, and even of democracy, but go on to select a regime that is in principle seriously opposed to Western notions of individual rights and freedom.
While some tyrants simply seek power, other regimes that appear to Westerners to be tyrannies actually are rather carefully considered moral systems that see themselves as superior ways of life. There is a paradox in the principle of respect for foreign cultures followed by demands that foreigners adhere to basic Western principles. It is necessary to pick one approach or the other. At the same time, it is necessary to understand that someone can have very distinct moral principles, be respected, and yet be an enemy of liberal democracy. Respecting another moral system does not mean simply abdicating your own interests. The Japanese had a complex moral system that was very different from Western principles. The two did not have to be enemies, but circumstances caused them to collide.
The NATO approach to Libya assumed that the removal of a tyrant would somehow inevitably lead to a liberal democracy. Indeed, this was the assumption about the Arab Spring in the West, where it was thought that that corrupt and tyrannical regimes would fall and that regimes that embraced Western principles would sprout up in their place. Implicit in this was a profound lack of understanding of the strength of the regimes, of the diversity of the opposition and of the likely forces that would emerge from it.
In Libya, NATO simply didn’t understand or care about the whirlwind that it was unleashing. What took Gadhafi’s place was ongoing warfare between clans, tribes and ideologies. From this chaos, Libyan Islamists of various stripes have emerged to exploit the power vacuum. Various Islamist groups have not become strong enough to simply impose their will, but they are engaged in actions that have resonated across the region.
The desire to overthrow Gadhafi came from two impulses. The first was to rid the world of a tyrant, and the second was to give the Libyans the right to national self-determination. Not carefully considered were two other issues: whether simply overthrowing Gadhafi would yield the conditions for determining the national will, and whether the national will actually would mirror NATO’s values and, one should add, interests.
The events of last week represent unintended and indirect consequences of the removal of Gadhafi. Gadhafi was ruthless in suppressing radical Islamism, as he was in other matters. In the absence of his suppression, the radical Islamist faction appears to have carefully planned the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. The attack was timed for when the U.S. ambassador would be present. The mob was armed with a variety of weapons. The public justification was a little-known video on YouTube that sparked anti-American unrest throughout the Arab world.
For the Libyan jihadists, tapping into anger over the video was a brilliant stroke. Having been in decline, they reasserted themselves well beyond the boundaries of Libya. In Libya itself, they showed themselves as a force to be reckoned with — at least to the extent that they could organize a successful attack on the Americans. The four Americans who were killed might have been killed in other circumstances, but they died in this one: Gadhafi was eliminated, no coherent regime took his place, no one suppressed the radical Islamists, and the Islamists could therefore act. How far their power will grow is not known, but certainly they acted effectively to achieve their ends. It is not clear what force there is to suppress them. It is also not clear what momentum this has created for jihadists in the region, but it will put NATO, and more precisely the United States, in the position either of engaging in another war in the Arab world at a time and place not of its choosing, or allowing the process to go forward and hoping for the best.
As I have written, a distinction is frequently drawn between the idealist and realist position. Libya is a case in which the incoherence of the distinction can be seen. If the idealist position is concerned with outcomes that are moral from its point of view, then simply advocating the death of a tyrant is insufficient. To guarantee the outcome requires that the country be occupied and pacified, as was Germany or Japan. But the idealist would regard this act of imperialism as impermissible, violating the doctrine of national sovereignty. More to the point, the United States is not militarily in a position to occupy or pacify Libya, nor would this be a national priority justifying war. The unwillingness of the idealist to draw the logical conclusion from their position, which is that simply removing the tyrant is not the end but only the beginning, is compounded by the realist’s willingness to undertake military action insufficient for the political end. Moral ends and military means must mesh.
Removing Gadhafi was morally defensible but not by itself. Having removed him, NATO had now adopted a responsibility that it shifted to a Libyan public unequipped to manage it. But more to the point, no allowance had been made for the possibility that what might emerge as the national will of Libya would be a movement that represented a threat to the principles and interests of the NATO members. The problem of Libya was not that it did not understand Western values, but that a significant part of its population rejected those values on moral grounds and a segment of the population with battle-hardened fighters regarded them as inferior to its own Islamic values. Somewhere between hatred of tyranny and national self-determination, NATO’s commitment to liberty as it understood it became lost.
This is not a matter simply confined to Libya. In many ways it played out throughout the Arab world as Western powers sought to come to terms with what was happening. There is a more immediate case: Syria. The assumption there is that the removal of another tyrant, in this case Bashar al Assad, will lead to an evolution that will transform Syria. It is said that the West must intervene to protect the Syrian opposition from the butchery of the al Assad regime. A case can be made for this, but not the simplistic case that absent al Assad, Syria would become democratic. For that to happen, much more must occur than the elimination of al Assad.
Wishful Thinking vs. Managing the Consequences
In 1958, a book called The Ugly American was published about a Southeast Asian country that had a brutal, pro-American dictator and a brutal, communist revolution. The novel had a character who was a nationalist in the true sense of the word and was committed to human rights. As a leader, he was not going to be simply an American tool, but he was the best hope the United States had. An actual case of such an ideal regime replacement was seen in 1963 in Vietnam, when Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam was killed in a coup. He had been a brutal pro-American dictator. The hope after his death was that a decent, nationalist liberal would replace him. There was a long search for such a figure; he never was found.
Getting rid of a tyrant when you are as powerful as the United States and NATO are, by contrast, is the easy part. Saddam Hussein is as dead as Gadhafi. The problem is what comes next. Having a liberal democratic nationalist simply appear to take the helm may happen, but it is not the most likely outcome unless you are prepared for an occupation. And if you are prepared to occupy, you had better be prepared to fight against a nation that doesn’t want you determining its future, no matter what your intentions are.
I don’t know what will come of Libya’s jihadist movement, which has showed itself to be motivated and capable and whose actions resonated in the Arab world. I do know that Gadhafi was an evil brute who is better off dead. But it is simply not clear to me that removing a dictator automatically improves matters. What is clear to me is that if you wage war for moral ends, you are morally bound to manage the consequences.