Western Recklessness

Hugh Roberts

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, while 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. During the Cold War, both the Western powers and the Soviet Union had an interest in courting nationalist governments, and the competition between them gave the nationalist governments some room to manoeuvre. With the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the West was in a position to impose terms, and has been increasingly hostile to nationalist regimes. This hostility has expressed itself through the Western impulse to intervene, even if some shreds of the old discourse of respect for national sovereignty can still be heard. In the cases of Iraq and Syria, the Ba’ath Parties have offered relatively easy targets for Western condemnation: given the harsh and dictatorial nature of these regimes, the West has been able to deploy human rights arguments of a politically liberal character. But these arguments should not be confused with the motives behind Western policy.

The eclipse of the nationalist tradition has also tended to deprive religious and other minorities of the protection they received from modernising nationalist governments in their heyday. The West has continually made an issue of the victimisation of minorities by the nationalist regimes, and has supported the minority-based movements that have challenged them, from Kurds in northern Iraq to Berberist movements in the Maghreb. This support for ethnic and other minority movements is the product of a dogma, which is that the nationalist tradition is in its essence anti-democratic and authoritarian, cannot evolve towards democracy and must be opposed and supplanted in the name of ‘pluralism’. The pluralism that the West has promoted and patronised is that of a variety of forms of ‘identity politics’ that have gained ground at the expense of the national idea. At the same time, the West has of course been deliberately undermining national sovereignty in the name of globalisation. Tony Blair has made this explicit with his talk about the end of the Westphalian order.

Meanwhile, many members of minorities, especially the more mobile, professional, middle-class elements, have sought 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 to endorse 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 recently in Pakistan, where twenty people died in demonstrations against ‘Innocence of Muslims’, the anti-Islamic video produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian Egyptian immigrant to the US, 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 the video than the several million Copts who still live in Egypt and are undoubtedly appalled by what 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. The 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 key reason for the intensity of the demonstrations in the Muslim world from Tunis to Jakarta is not that Muslims are exceptionally thin-skinned, or 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 whenever any of their rivals begin to do so.

The situation in Egypt now is an extremely interesting illustration of this. For a time the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seemed to hold the whip hand and to be able to dictate to the Muslim Brothers. But since Mohamed Morsi acquired what seems to be the substance of presidential power, a new element has been introduced into the situation. The degree of rhetorical support they have been giving to the ‘Arab Spring’ constitutes an inhibition on the Western powers. Given the strength of the Brothers, the West is playing along for the moment. But there are surely reservations. The Morsi presidency has an agenda that is in some degree independent. Relations between him and the army on the one hand, and between him and the West on the other, will be a matter for negotiation. The outcome is by no means certain, not least because of the role the Salafists have taken up since their extraordinary breakthrough in the legislative elections. They have a substantial constituency and unexpected political ambitions. This has put the Muslim Brothers under considerable pressure. The Salafists saw an opportunity in Nakoula’s video to seize the initiative. The Brothers’ reaction was to protect their own constituency, and to try to seize control of Egyptian Islamic outrage from the Salafists. What we’re now seeing is a competitive mobilisation of Islamist supporters.

The logic of these events in Egypt is broadly replicated in many Muslim countries. This is what the eclipse of the modernist nationalist tradition has led to, and Western – 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.