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The Arab Spring: Confounded Again... And Again

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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.