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James Miller

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When It Comes to Libya, The 'Experts' Miss the Most Important Point

Posted: 08/25/11 06:49 PM ET

We all watched the dramatic scene unfold over the last few days. On Saturday we reported a dramatic uprising, and the media wondered if it was premature. By Sunday the opposition fighters were closing in, the people of Tripoli seemed to be taking up arms, NATO was launching frequent airstrikes, and by Sunday night/early Monday morning it became clear that the long-declared "stalemate" was a thoroughly poor evaluation of the reality on the ground. By Tuesday morning the city of Tripoli was almost entirely under opposition control, and by Tuesday afternoon the opposition fighters were dancing on the symbols of Muammar Gaddafi's pride and strength.

The debate has already begun about the significance of the event. Robert Dreyfuss posts a ridiculous, partisan analysis that this was a war for oil, Obama's War. Matt Osborne offers an impressive analysis that would seem to counter this, arguing that the Libyan conflict was born of water-and-wheat power struggles, a Libyan-fought and Libyan-won conflict of which the Libyan people should be proud. While we ask, "Where are Gaddafi and sons?" we will see a lot of alarmist analysis and economic pondering, we will hear about symbolism, and we will be told lots and lots about what happens next

There is a crucial point that most of this analysis has missed. How and why did the experts, Obama's military advisors and the media get this story so wrong at almost every step of the way? The answer will explain what the West is still failing to adequately understand about the "Arab Spring."

Between them, Tunisia's Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi ruled their countries for almost a century (24 years, 30 years, and 42 years, respectively).  That can be set alongside some different math: the Egyptian regime fell 18 days after protests started, and Ben Ali went in 29.  Libya is on day 186, Syria on day 162 (and counting) of protests, and Yemen maintains an edge at day 208. Beyond this, Mohammed Bouazizi, the unemployed fruit vendor in Tunisia, lit himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, sparking the first of the Arab Spring protests, in Tunis, the next morning -- exactly 250 days ago.

In 250 days, three governments have fallen, and two more are well on their way. The momentous events were not triggered by presidents or coalitions, "regime change" or terrorism, but rather by the actions of the people within those countries. As the world, and even the "experts" who study, report and advise others about the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, remain surprised that these events happened and continue to happen, they continue to miss the obvious point: these events are connected, and the world is changing faster than their worldviews can adapt.

We need to look no further than Libya in order to see this dynamic playing out. At the beggining of the conflict, the Obama Administration struggled with the decision to get involved in a no-fly zone over Libya. The list of objections was lengthy. Libya is a nation-state, but somewhat in name only. It is comprised of tribes, tribes that could war with each other if and when Gaddafi's regime fell. The opposition was not an easily identifiable group, did not have a name and had no clear leader. It was unclear whether there was enough of a reistance on the ground to overcome Gaddafi's war machine. And, even if there was a strong enough opposition, would it be led by someone who would just become the next tyrant?

The U.S. had recent experience with overthrowing Middle Eastern governments and attempting to replace them with a weak political organisation that is somewhat favorable to U.S. interests. That adventure has not gone so well. And speaking of U.S. interests, Libya was not necessarily a front-line concern for Washington, given that its oil reserves and geographic position were not as significant as those of other countries. 

In other words, going into Libya militarily, even if it was only to establish a no-fly zone, did not make a lot of sense because it did not match any of the standard criteria on the checklist of the Western power structure. And the Obama Administration had dragged its feet on taking a position on the unrest in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, three countries where the U.S. had a lot to lose. Obama, to his credit, had spoken with the leader of each country and quietly encouraged them to work toward more human rights and more democracy, but he waited until the Egyptian president was hanging by a thread before he requested that Hosni Mubarak step down. According to these calculations, made by the military advisors, and by many pundits, the U.S. was on the losing end of the Arab Spring already, and the worst-case scenario was a new "quagmire accomplished" in Libya.

Yet, by some miracle, the U.S. convinced the United Nations to allow NATO to get involved in Libya. Why? Back in March, I explained that the human rights activists in the Obama Administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Advisor Samantha Power, were convinced that if the U.S. did not act, then it would find itself on the wrong side of history. They persuaded Obama that they were right, and Obama threw his weight, behind the scenes, into an appraoch to U.N. and NATO allies, convincing them to pass a resolution and establish an air campaign "to protect civilians" in Libya.

But that didn't quiet the critics. The opposition National Transitional Council began the military pushback against the Gaddafi regime, established law and order in captured territory, distributed medicine and reopened hospitils, kept oilfields closed out of concern for the safety of the workers and established legitimacy by reaching out to many of the tribes, villages and cities in the country. Still the media continued to doubt: "Who are the rebels? Can they be trusted? Are they working for al-Qaeda? Aren't they a bunch of rag-tag soldiers who will be crushed by Gaddafi's might?" These were legitimate questions to ask, but when the evidence was piling up around them that the NTC was a legitimate, though fledgling, organization, the media continued to doubt.

Doubt, in and of itself, is not a problem. Lack of evidence is a problem. For instance, once the NTC had established approval from all the major tribes and regions of Libya, and despite the fact that there has not been a serious challenge to the authority of the NTC, why does the media continue to ask these question, even after the imminent liberation of Tripoli? General Younis, the commander of the Libyan armed forces, was killed, apparently by forces loyal to the NTC (clearly an example of the old power structure flexing its muscles), but the troops that were loyal to him kept fighting against a common enemy. Still, the media and the experts doubted the "unity" of the freedom fighters. When evidence of rights abuses by insurgents was discovered, the NTC dealt with it and those abuses seemed to stop, so why are allegations still haunting their steps?

There is a larger problem with the way the West is approaching this issue. The old power structures still exist, but all evidence points to them fading. Regimes are falling apart, though remnants remain. Tribalism is giving way to unity, though old divisions still threaten that unity. Al-Qaeda, in almost 20 years, has failed to do what the Arab Spring has done in 250 days. Iran, Israel, weapons of mass destruction, Western imperialism... all of the old bugbears have proven false alarms. They still exist, but their importance, and influence, is fading quickly.

Problems persist in Tunisia and Egypt,  and questions remain about Libya, but what is unquestionable is the dedication and spirit of the youth of these countries, a brave and defiant youth that will not sit down while the old powers hijack their revolutions. Perhaps there are still forces that wish to coopt the Arab Spring, but the indications are that these forces are weaker than their predecessors. Yes, these movements are rooted in a new way of thinking, or at least a new embodiment of an old way of thinking -- through the persuit of equity, freedom, democracy and unity, the people will triumph, not the power-hungry.

This way of thinking has toppled three regimes, and each success has inspired the others. The eyes of the world now need to focus on Syria, Yemen and perhaps Bahrain, Palestine and Jordan. One of these countries is likely to be "next," the next domino to fall which will push the chain reaction a little further, or a lot further, down the road. Syria is the likely candidate, and as it is the lynchpin in the region, the fall of the Assad regime has the capability to shake all countries in the region to their core.

The Arab Spring is far from complete, even in the countries where the ruling regime has been toppled, but it shows no sign of slowing, and it shows no sign of being a threat. The sooner we realise this, our eyes will be opened. We will see military successes of a rag-tag organisation as early victories in a campaign bent on success, we will see peaceful protesters marching into gunfire as a sure sign that the spirit of the movement refuses to let obstacles, or even death, stand in its way. If we really open our eyes, we will learn that the only thing to fear from Arab Spring is that if we stand in the way of equity and democracy, our allies, or even ourselves, might be "next," and if that happens, it will be a fate that we signed up for.

 

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