Same War, Different Country

SAY, did you see the news from Libya — the last country we bombed because its leader crossed a red line or was about to? Here’s a dispatch from Libya in the Sept. 3 British newspaper, The Independent:

“Libya has plunged unnoticed into its worst political and economic crisis since the defeat of Qaddafi two years ago. Government authority is disintegrating in all parts of the country putting in doubt claims by American, British and French politicians that NATO’s military action in Libya in 2011 was an outstanding example of a successful foreign military intervention, which should be repeated in Syria. … Output of Libya’s prized high-quality crude oil has plunged from 1.4 million barrels a day earlier this year to just 160,000 barrels a day now.”

I keep reading about how Iraq was the bad war and Libya was the good war and Afghanistan was the necessary war and Bosnia was the moral war and Syria is now another necessary war. Guess what! They are all the same war.

They are all the story of what happens when multisectarian societies, most of them Muslim or Arab, are held together for decades by dictators ruling vertically, from the top down, with iron fists and then have their dictators toppled, either by internal or external forces. And they are all the story of how the people in these countries respond to the fact that with the dictator gone they can only be governed horizontally — by the constituent communities themselves writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above. And, as I’ve said before, they are all the story of how difficult it is to go from Saddam to Jefferson — from vertical rule to horizontal rule — without falling into Hobbes or Khomeini.

In Bosnia, after much ethnic cleansing between warring communities, NATO came in and stabilized and codified what is in effect a partition. We acted on the ground as “the army of the center.” In Iraq, we toppled the dictator and then, after making every mistake in the book, we got the parties to write a new social contract. To make that possible, we policed the lines between sects and eliminated a lot of the worst jihadists in the Shiite and Sunni ranks. We acted on the ground as the “army of the center.” But then we left before anything could take root. Ditto Afghanistan.

The Obama team wanted to be smarter in Libya: No boots on the ground. So we decapitated that dictator from the air. But then our ambassador got murdered, because, without boots on the ground to referee, and act as the army of the center, Hobbes took hold before Jefferson.

If we were to decapitate the Syrian regime from the air, the same thing would likely happen there. For any chance of a multisectarian democratic outcome in Syria, you need to win two wars on the ground: one against the ruling Assad-Alawite-Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite alliance; and, once that one is over, you’d have to defeat the Sunni Islamists and pro-Al Qaeda jihadists. Without an army of the center (which no one will provide) to back up the few decent Free Syrian Army units, both will be uphill fights.

The center exists in these countries, but it is weak and unorganized. It’s because these are pluralistic societies — mixtures of tribes and religious sects, namely Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and Turkmen — but they lack any sense of citizenship or deep ethic of pluralism. That is, tolerance, cooperation and compromise. They could hold together as long as there was a dictator to “protect” (and divide) everyone from everyone else. But when the dictator goes, and you are a pluralistic society but lack pluralism, you can’t build anything because there is never enough trust for one community to cede power to another — not without an army of the center to protect everyone from everyone.

In short, the problem now across the Arab East is not just poison gas, but poisoned hearts. Each tribe or sect believes it is in a rule-or-die struggle against the next, and when everyone believes this, it becomes self-fulfilling.

That means Syria and Iraq will both likely devolve into self-governing, largely homogeneous, ethnic and religious units, like Kurdistan. And, if we are lucky, these units will find a modus vivendi, as happened in Lebanon after 14 years of civil war. And then maybe, over time, these smaller units will voluntarily come together into larger, more functional states.

I still believe our response to Assad’s poison gas attack should be “arm and shame,” as I wrote on Wednesday. But, please do spare me the lecture that America’s credibility is at stake here. Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, and our credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilization has missed every big modern global trend — the religious Reformation, democratization, feminism and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism — and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so.

We’ve struggled for a long time, and still are, learning to tolerate “the other.” That struggle has to happen in the Arab/Muslim world, otherwise nothing we do matters. What is the difference between the Arab awakening in 2011 and South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s? America? No. The quality of local leadership and the degree of tolerance.

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