Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Arab Spring: Confounded Again… And Again

Originally published on The Huffington Post 9/14/12

An expanded and updated version was published in The Guardian as “The west must be honest about its role in Libya’s violent chaos” on 9/16/12

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who at the time of Gadaffi’s violent death said “now comes the hard part” acknowledged after the heinous assassination of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three brave colleagues in Benghazi that she was “confounded.” “How could this happen?” she asked, and in a country whose revolution we supported and whose dictator NATO helped overthrow?

Coupled with the rising anger against the United States in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere, the Libyan events must make Americans wonder what is happening to the Arab Spring. It is not enough to blame the rabidly anti-Muslim movie that was the immediate provocation for the Libyan attack. Or to pretend the Benghazi attack was an “isolated terrorist event” as U.S. officials insist.

In truth, this tragic murder of a diplomat who was a friend of the Libyan revolution was not just a confounding aberration in a “city we helped save from destruction” (in Clinton’s words). Rather it is evidence of ongoing chaos that has afflicted Libya since the welcome overthrow of Gadaffi’s regime. And a symptom of just how long and perilous the path is from a revolution that decapitates a dictator to a stable democracy in which the rule of law is systematically enforced.

Just a few disturbing highlights from the anarchy of the past months during which the National Transitional Council and, recently, the elected National Congress and new Prime Minister, have proven themselves, for all their admirable intentions, incapable of enforcing order and the rule of law in their country against the scores of tribal militias who actually rule Libya;

There are at least 100,000 armed fighters roving Libya with heavy weapons (including rocket propelled grenades like the ones used in the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens); the government has been unable to disarm them or prevent them from using these weapons against one another and the government; last winter the New York Times headlined: “Libya Struggles to Curb Militias as Chaos Grows;”

  • On June 6, a roadside bomb was detonated in front of the very same American Consulate in Benghazi from which Ambassador Stevens was fleeing, though there were no casualties; in a similar attack in the spring, the British ambassador was targeted though not hit;
  • For the past several months, armed groups have been looting and burning Sufi Mosques around Libya, while police forces stand passively by; Salafist extremists have been blamed, but there have been no arrests;
  • Last May, the interim Prime Minister’s offices in Tripoli were attacked by militia forces; four people died;
  • In April, rival armed militias from Zuwarah and Ragdalein clashed in the Tripoli region, with at least 22 deaths reported;
  • Saif Gadaffi remains imprisoned by the Zintan militia that captured him; it detained the lawyer sent by the International Criminal Court to represent him, and no date for a transfer to the government — let alone a trial — has been set;
  • In January, protestors in Benghazi ransacked the offices of the National Transitional Council, fueling suspicion that the some insurgents aspired to a separatist Benghazi government;
  • Al Qaeda is a local player in Libya: the militia that took Tripoli last summer was led by a former al Qaeda fighter, Hakim Belhaj, held by Gadaffi in a Libyan prison until Saif Gadaffi helped release him as “rehabilitated” before the insurgency;
  • Even before the revolution succeeded, the leader of the insurgency forces, General Abdul Yunnes, was murdered in Benghazi in an assassination that has not even been investigated yet alone solved;

This then is a story not of a few aberrant events culminating in an isolated attack on Ambassador Stevens, but of ongoing chaos for which the lame Libyan government has had no answer. Secretary Clinton certainly was on target in alluding to how “complicated” the world is. But such complications have historical antecedents that have been largely ignored.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn is from the history of revolutions: overthrowing tyranny does not in itself establish democracy, but more often yields anarchy. And from anarchy and disorder come renewed tyranny. The French Revolution led to Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy; the Russian Revolution ended with elimination of their rivals by the Bolsheviks — call them the secular Salafists of their time. The Iranian overthrow of the Shah resulted in the rule of the Mullahs. Does anyone think, given the cast of characters fighting him, that if Bashar Assad falls, the result will be democracy?

This is not to oppose revolutions, which are in any case products of historical forces that cannot be stopped. Nor is it to criticize the idealistic revolutionaries who overthrew the 42-year old Libyan dictatorship in Tripoli or the military regime in Cairo. It is, however, to ask whether we can expect from Western governments in London or Paris or Rome or Washington a greater appreciation of the risks involved in supporting revolutions unconditionally, blind to the complicated and contradictory forces revolution always unleash. It is to ask them to stop pretending every act of tribal hubris or militia violence is aberrant, and that Libya and Egypt are otherwise populated exclusively by aspiring democrats and liberty loving computer geeks.

To ignore these lessons is to ignore our own long, difficult and costly journey to democracy, achieved only after eighty years of slavery and at the cost of a bloody civil war.

Washington and its allies tend to ride a see-saw, blindly supporting dictatorships whose depredations they underestimate and then blindly supporting revolutions whose consequences they misjudge. And now the U.S. is planning to send drones, marines and naval vessels to try to redress a chaos it inadvertently helped precipitate and should at least have anticipated. The taboo against “American boots on the ground” in Libya is broken.

If then we fail to engage more deeply with democratic revolution’s complications; if we do not look more honestly at the rough realities of the cultures in which the Arab Spring is unfolding; and if we continue to think we can “bring democracy and liberty” to Tripoli and Cairo and Damascus overnight rather than allow them time to realize democracy and liberty on their own — a long, slow, painful process measured by decades rather than months — these boots and drones will undoubtedly have their own new unforeseen consequences that in the months ahead will be confounding us all over again.

Yes, We Built This — We the People of the United States

Originally published on The Huffington Post 8/31/12

President Obama certainly stuck his foot in it back in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13. Trying to explain that public infrastructure plays a role in successful businesses, he told the crowd: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” No surprise, then, when six weeks later the Republican National Convention — led by vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan — rocked with cries of “We built this!” Not the government! Us! How dare the Nanny State and its “central planning”-minded President take credit for the entrepreneurial know-how and personal zeal of America’s real wealth-creators, you and me!

Well, actually Ryan is right. And Romney too. In saying “we built this,” they express what Obama meant but failed to clearly say. The key to our success as a democracy lies in that crucial word “we.” Yes, we built our firms and small businesses, built our families and communities, built our civic institutions and built our nation. But “we” doesn’t mean “me” or “you.” No one can say “I built this.” Because we all know, as Mitt Romney reminded us again last night, that behind every me is a powerful we that includes me but also my supportive spouse, the parents who raised me, the children who inspired me, the pastors who preached to me, the educators who taught me, the good communitarians like Mormon minister Mitt Romney who gave me solace in bad times, and the venture capitalists like businessman Mitt Romney who gave my business a jump-start in better times.

In Romney one could actually hear the echo of Hillary Clinton: it really does take a village. Behind me stands a strong family, a helpful neighborhood, a nurturing community and a democratic society that secures the conditions for building a thriving business. “That’s how it is in America,” the nominee exclaimed, his Mormon faith glowing:

We look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad. It is both how we live our lives and why we live our lives. The strength and power and goodness of America has always been based on the strength and power and goodness of our communities, our families, our faiths.

President Obama could agree with every word, but might add one more phrase — “and our civic institutions and the democratic laws we pass with and through our representatives.” In a democracy, government is also part of the “us,” along with family, neighborhood, church, community and civil society. In a democracy, government is not the enemy of “we,” we are government.

The founding Declaration of Independence the Republicans rightly celebrate asserts that we are endowed with inalienable rights by the creator, but also says that “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the government.” It’s called democracy and it is the key to our liberty. Government is not the enemy, it is us and part of what empowers us in realizing our rights, building our communities, establishing our businesses. Our citizenship makes us strong, not weak.

Perhaps the real contrast is not between Obama and Romney but between Romney and Ryan. For Ryan sometimes talks like a devotee of Ayn Rand. When he talks about we it sometimes feels like he has in mind that solipsistic slew of Nietzschean solitaries incarnated in Rand’s protagonist Howard Roark (in The Fountainhead), the architect-hero who boasts “I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need…I am a man who does not exist for others.”

But Mitt Romney exists for others and embraces community. He is no Howard Roark even if he picked one as his Vice President. So let’s not argue with Ryan about whether “we built it” or the government built it. Let’s remind ourselves that what makes America exceptional and Americans free is that when we talk about “we,” it is John Dewey’s “great community,” the greatness of “we the people” to which we all belong: old-timers and new immigrants alike, regardless of race or religion or sexual orientation. America isn’t mine or yours, it’s ours.

And in a country conceived in liberty, government was never our enemy but the common instrument through which we pursue and realize our common goods and secure and extend our precious natural rights to all. Yes, we built this. Republicans and Democrats. White and Black people. Women and men. Straight and gay people. Legendary Founders and recent immigrants. We is “We the People of the United States,” and our exceptionalism lies not in a war on government or a fading global empire but our deeply democratic character that refuses to pit citizens against their elected representatives and knows that “we” means “all of us.”