The Libyan Question: What Now?

George Kennan, the diplomat credited as the author of the Cold War “containment” policy, wrote in 1993 that real self-government was possible only when a nation’s people “understand what this means, want it, and [are] willing to sacrifice for it.”

If they lack these qualities and become unstable states or trouble-making nations, the Western democratic countries are not, he wrote, “their keepers,” but have a right to ask of such countries — “governed or misgoverned as habit or tradition will dictate” — that “their governing cliques observe, in their bilateral relations with the United States, and with the remainder of the world community, the minimum standards of civilized diplomatic intercourse.” This is what Muammar al-Qaddafi has always rejected.

Kennan’s icy and isolationist doctrine was rarely practiced by Washington, since many such states also possess oil or other resources of strategic interest to the West. Also, the Cold War began a competition between the United States and Soviet Russia and China for the ideological allegiance of such countries which dominated international politics in the 1950s and 1960s.

After the Cold War ended, America rewrote that ideology into one that moved on from the Communist threat to the idea of promulgating democracy throughout the world in the belief that this could eventually put an end to global radicalism, terrorism and other international perversities. This new ideology was enthusiastically shared by neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike because it made the United States actual or potential leader of the world, and justified intervention into the affairs of nearly everyone.

Or so it seemed, until very recently, when Americans discovered that it also dragged the United States into the revolutions and civil uprisings of the backward nations with whom we had involved ourselves and had made commitments to. This is the problem today, and it brings us to the thorny question of what to do about Libya.

President Obama has been prudent to keep the United States in the background of the conflict in Libya, allowing France and Nicolas Sarkozy to take the lead, together with Britain’s David Cameron and the European Union. What do they do now? Neither they nor Washington have a U.N. mandate to depose and arrest Qaddafi and seek his indictment by international courts. Nor do they have a mandate to overturn the existing government in Libya, install a new one, build democracy, etc.

I believe this Arab Awakening must be left to the Arabs themselves to complete, and for whose consequences they must take responsibility. This has nearly everywhere been a popular rising. Only Qaddafi, thus far, has thrown his army fully into battle to repress his opponents. The situation in Bahrain has seen at least a part of the Sunni-controlled army defect to the uprising, which could prove extremely important because of the sectarian aspect of the rebellion there, with a Sunni monarch and a largely Shiite population. There is the same sectarian division in the part of Saudi Arabia near Bahrain, and the Saudi government seems to be not disposed to compromise. But speculation about that is currently pointless.

Essential to remember is that many, if not most, of these insurrections have deeper roots than the simple tyrant-oppressing-his-subjects scenario that dominates international discussion. In Bahrain and part of Saudi Arabia, a Shiite-Sunni conflict exists — a divide which usually also is economic and class-related in character. This in turn creates links to Shiite Iran and to the politically crippled, and predominantly Shiite, Iraq that has resulted from the ignorant and lethal American invasion of that country. In Yemen, the poorest of these, traditional tribal and historical conflicts exist between north and south that at one point had Marxist complications. Before that, Yemen experienced an Egyptian effort to unify Yemen with Egypt under the aegis of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “Arab Socialism.” Now, an Al Qaeda faction is active in Yemen.

Libya’s traditional divisions also are regional and at the same time tribal. Eastern Libya, where the uprising is successful, is Cyrenaica, and the monarchy which Qaddafi overthrew in 1969, that of Muhammad Idris al Senussi, was, as his name indicates, connected with the Sufi Senussi Brotherhood, in the past a powerful commercial and trading tribal association.

Qaddafi, as we have seen, continues to evoke considerable popular support in Tripolitania in the northwest, one of the three major regions (including Fezzan) that were only put together into the state of Libya under modern Italian colonialism.

It is perfectly possible that the country may again divide for reasons having little to do with the politics and ideologies of the 21st century. That could provide what could be called a natural solution to the national problem, and might be kept in mind. But these are not terms in which modern politicians think.

William Pfaff, a Paris-based columnist and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy.

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