Libya: History Interrupted

Characterized by uncertainty and experiment, intervention has become nothing more than a bad habit, driven increasingly by non-political concerns at a time when international politics is itself in crisis.


"Bad Habits". Photo Credit: Flickr/Miguel M. AlmeidaALONG with many others at the busy Middle Eastern market in Oakland, California, I was recently given a leaflet condemning the “imperialist” aggression of coalition forces in Libya. Distributed by a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party of America, the statement was read with curiosity by shoppers and diners, who were also engaged in watching images of the bombardment broadcast by Al-Jazeera on a giant screen above us. After some conversation with the man handing them out, the market’s owner acknowledged that there was some truth in the leaflet’s claims, but nevertheless said of the coalition forces, “today I’m with them”. His agreement with the narrative of imperialism, in other words, was matched by a self-consciously temporary disagreement with it. Was this position naïve or realistic? 

Like his ideological enemies among the ranks of the imperialists, Oakland’s revolutionary communist was concerned with the “logic” of history, or rather with the long-term patterns and precedents that he thought lent meaning to the coalition’s intervention. And yet it is precisely such a narrative, whether defined in terms of class struggle, national self-determination or the “march of freedom” that seems to be missing, both in Libya and among the protestors elsewhere in the Middle East. Apart from the fact that they were entirely unforeseen, after all, these “revolutions” not only appear to lack a clear political genealogy in the region, but are also marked by the absence of any identifiable ideology, utopia or indeed established leadership. What is most interesting about the rebellions is instead their working out of new and as yet undefined forms of self-rule outside the purview of political parties as vanguards or representatives of some already constituted people. 

This interruption and diversion of our familiar narratives about class or nationality causes as much anxiety among those on the Left as on the Right, both groups being eager to push events in a predetermined direction informed by the “logic” of history. It is this uncertainty that leads to worries that civil strife might provide room for Islamic militancy. As it turns out, however, the only reality these fears have possessed has been a rhetorical one. And of this the best examples are no doubt provided by the statements of Colonel Gaddafi, who before the coalition attacks tried to characterize the protests as being inspired by Al-Qaeda, and after them by himself adopting the vocabulary of militancy in calls for jihad against the crusader enemy. 

The interruption of conventional historical narratives that defines so many of the struggles in the Middle East today have the effect of destabilizing the logic of “imperialism” as well. For however violent, the intervention of coalition forces has been marked by caution and uncertainty, betraying its lack of a clearly stated goal in an improbable and unpredictable situation. Rather than being characterized by mere deception regarding the control of Libyan politics or oil, therefore, the intervention has been forced by the dissonance of the revolts themselves into an experiment that is open to popular opinion and motivated by a desire to be on the right side of an unknown history. If nothing else the coalition has to demonstrate the continuing relevance of an “international community” that seems to have been left out of the new politics emerging from the Middle East.

The historical logic that drew previous NATO-led interventions belonged either to the superpower politics of the Cold War, or to the resolution of conflicts that had emerged in its wake. Vietnam, Korea and the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan are examples of intervention of the first kind, while Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo provide illustrations of the second. With Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror, of course, and even Libya today, outdated Cold War regimes are still being toppled, but now intervention has lost whatever realpolitik it once possessed. For if interventions in the past had sought to secure allies and markets for the West, without much concern for the democratic nature of the regime to be instituted, those in the present are dominated by grandiose visions like remaking the Middle East.

The abject failure of such impossible visions in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in a Libyan adventure that lacks both a grand vision and realpolitik. Characterized by uncertainty and experiment, intervention has become nothing more than a bad habit that is driven increasingly by non-political concerns like “humanitarianism” at a time when international politics is itself in crisis. The same was true of intervention in the Balkans, of course, but there received ideas about religious and national states allowed for the making of dysfunctional new countries as wards of the international community. The difference with the revolts in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East is that they possess no conventional utopia or historical logic, serving instead as interruptions that are transformative of politics both in the region and internationally.