Libya no longer has – or is – a state. The political field throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by the various fiercely competing brands of Islamism. The religious field has been in a state of profound disorder since the abolition of the Caliphate following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. A degree of order was effectively restored to it by intelligent nationalist movements which, once in power, promoted a ‘national Islam’ the better to subject religion to raison d’état and curb its more dangerous and sectarian enthusiasms. But Western policy since the end of the Cold War has been relentlessly opposed to the nationalist tradition and its exponents throughout the region.
The eclipse of this tradition has tended to deprive religious and other minorities of the protection they received from modernising nationalist governments in their heyday and has induced many of them, especially the more mobile, professional, middle-class elements, to seek refuge in the West. The resulting diaspora has become a well of bitterly resentful attitudes towards – and occasional insulting caricatures of – those forces left in possession of the political stage in the countries the émigrés have abandoned. It has been encouraged in this behaviour by the tendency of Western governments to rely on diaspora personalities as a source of endorsement of their own wishful thinking and self-regarding readings of reality in the region and as a source of personnel to be parachuted into power – or at least office – in each and every regime change effected by Western military muscle.
In an advertisement broadcast last week in Pakistan, where 20 people have already died in demonstrations, President Obama invoked America’s tradition of respect for all faiths and Hillary Clinton insisted that the US government had nothing to do with the insulting video. I shall leave it to the American Muslims who endure humiliating mistreatment at the hands of frontier and other US police forces to comment on the first point. Of course, the Obama administration is no more responsible for the production and dissemination of Innocence of Muslims than the several million Copts who still live in Egypt and are undoubtedly appalled by what Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has done. But the United States has certainly had a hand in reducing the Middle East and North Africa to its present degraded political condition. And the Obama administration bears a massive responsibility for the present condition of Libya.
The official optimism that masquerades as news these days assures us that Libya has been liberated and democracy is under construction there. But what is being constructed is a superstructure without a base. By Max Weber’s widely accepted definition – ‘a state is a human community that (successfully) claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ – Libya today is a stateless country. Yesterday’s demonstration in Benghazi against Ansar al-Sharia – the group accused of the attack on the US consulate – may seem to offer hope, but it will take a lot more than one popular protest against one Islamist militia to rescue Libya from this catastrophic condition.
Obama made a calamitous wrong call in endorsing the Nato intervention in March 2011. His defence secretary Robert Gates and, initially, Hillary Clinton both knew that it was against the American national interest to be drawn into another war with an Arab and Muslim country, but Obama listened to Susan Rice and Samantha Power and allowed himself to be panicked into capitulating to Cameron and Sarkozy of all people, when what he needed to do was to emulate Eisenhower’s firmness towards London and Paris in 1956. He reckoned he could get away with it by ensuring there were no US casualties and thereby evade the constitutional requirement of congressional approval by pretending that it was not a war at all. The war that was officially denied has now yielded its first crop of American casualties and if the US responds by getting drawn further into Libya’s internal affairs the war may well resume in earnest, with little scope for an exit strategy.
As the International Crisis Group’s North Africa director at the time, I opposed the Nato intervention because I could see that it would mean not merely Gaddafi’s overthrow but the destruction of the state when the rebellion was yet to acquire the political and organisational capacity to construct a new state. An intelligent application of what Americans call ‘soft power’ could have facilitated a political transition while preserving the necessary minimum of state continuity. But it turned out that statesmanship of that order was not available.
The reason Muslims have been demonstrating from Tunis to Jakarta is not that they are exceptionally thin-skinned and liable to throw tantrums at the drop of a hat, nor even that US policy has given them plenty of other grounds for grievance over the years. It is that Islamist movements now collectively dominate but nowhere monopolise the political field and are bound to mobilise their supporters to the hilt whenever any of their rivals begin to do so. This is what the eclipse of the modernist nationalist tradition has led to, and Western – and by no means solely American – policy is responsible for it. The result is growing anarchy in the region from which Americans and American interests cannot realistically expect to remain immune.