The triumph of arab liberalism over Islamism
Take a second and turn that phrase over in your head a minute, because it’s actually a very complex, multifaceted idea and it stands in stark contrast to everything that’s been said about Islamism (mostly) prior to this point. And let’s face it; I’ve been fapping like a motherfucker these past couple of weeks, and that just won’t do.
As invested as I’ve become in developments in MENA (Middle East/North Africa), it’s completely in opposition to my own interests for my head to be in Disneyland over this shit. As anxious as I am to see these folks succeed, I should be taking the hardest possible look at what the worst-case scenarios might be — blowing smoke up my own ass won’t make me any more right no matter how good it feels.
And gratefully, I have awesome sites like The Daily Dish and Real Clear Politics to help. Love them both hugely even when they piss my off so bad I want to punch my monitor. Knowing and being able to address the arguments that OPPOSE the outcome that represents one’s own bias is, as I’ve said elsewhere, the most crucial part of the critical thinking process; developing an informed opinion is not about “winning” an argument, it’s about being right.
Let’s begin by defining what, for me, is the best case scenario, because it’s not about touchy-feely bullshit like overthrowing oppressive regimes or self-determination or liberal democracy, it’s about an opportunity, on a cultural level, to learn an important lesson that needs to be revisited with each new generation. Namely, that people are people, everywhere. It’s easy and natural to wind up thinking that groups of people, particularly if they’re distant from one geographically or is otherwise anyone we’re not in actual contact with, should be completely alien. In my view, 9/11 simply reinvented the Evil Empire as The Axis of Evil, and suddenly, once again, there was an entire people dedicated to killing us because they hated our magnificence.
The protests and revolutions occurring in MENA right now are driven by young, liberal technocrats who embrace plurality on a secular level, reject Islamism and don’t really give a flying fuck at a rolling donut what anybody else thinks, “anybody else” being the west, naturally. But I’d have to be the first to admit that in terms of my own countries interests, what I see the best case outcome as being and what the worst case outcomes might be don’t mesh at all.
In thinking about this post and how to organize it out of pity for someone who might mistakenly read it, I realize that I simply don’t have another frame of reference right now outside of Egypt and Libya at the moment. And that really is the potential downside; idealistic college kids reshuffle the deck and wind up with governments even more hostile to the US and worse? Reducing availability of oil we rely on not just to support some kind of luxurious, bourgeois lifestyle but non-negotiable necessities like food.
But the real issue is that this frame attempts to conflate a whole series of issues that don’t necessarily belong together and can’t be properly evaluated except individually. And then I look at the recent vote in Egypt and try to view the issue realistically; the Twitter kids got in bed with the military and the military pulled the same old shit — and won. I mean, shit, half the fucking country still can’t run for office because they happen to be women. That’s a far cry from when I was squeeing to hear Egyptians say stuff like “the next thing we need to do is legalize the weeds and the gay bars”. But in fairness to myself, while I completely cop to indulging the emotional high, I also had pretty low expectations — I wasn’t worried about the Muslim Brotherhood (in spite of the fact that they really did have some influence in the outcome) and I figured ultimately the outcome would be for the best. As Sandmonkey pointed out in his blog (next post, down, it really IS a great read), what the result really did was to illustrate exactly how much of an uphill climb it’s really going to be.
While this affects the US, that’s a far cry from any part of it being about us, and there’s actually more anti-western sentiment on the part of regimes currently threatened by revolutionaries than there is on the part of the people in the street. Unless you bring up Iraq and Afghanistan, in which case it’s completely understandable and I share the exact same perspective; even assuming completely blameless intentions on our part, there is no way in hell we want to actually become involved. Call it the moral hazard of realpolitik; the outcome best matched to our interests is the one that arises completely organically.
So WTF, Libya?
It’s pretty easy to distance one’s self from the “third neo-imperialist crusade for oil” crowd among the weekend hippies and damned if it doesn’t feel FUCKING AWESOME to do it. Ironically, just like the hawks would dismiss you if you said you’d always been opposed to the invasion of Afghanistan/Iraq (a way of saying that you were lying and only stopped when they proved too tough), the peaceniks don’t have any problem dismissing such claims out of hand, themselves. Which is fine; I can tune them out. But then you have to go after the serious arguments, not the Palin/Bachmann Obama-derangement syndrome bullshit, and Andrew Sullivan and the Daily Dish have been great for this.
Andrew’s made no secret of his vehement opposition to Operation Odyssey Dawn and if I had to make any criticism of how he’s couched his position, it’s so all-over-the-map that it’s easy to lose the thread of what his real objection is; the same kind of unilaterally declared war that turned Iraq and Afghanistan into quagmires. Certainly I agree with him at least conditionally on some of the points he’s raised thus far, although like him, I have to admit there’s a whole lot that can’t be called more than speculation at this stage.
The notion that the UN/Arab League coalition is a smoke-screen for Obama to start a third war being an example; in my mind, it was about not saying “hey, we want to occupy you and protect the oil fields”. Nor do I want to “forget Poland” and diminish or understate the value of our coalition partners in this effort. But when people start going off about “Why now? Why so selective?” I look at it and know the whole thing came together at the last minute, predicated on circumstances that have already changed. Libya is widely described as the point where the Arab Spring stalled and we were sending the message that you could just send in some thugs to Kent State the hippies in the square and we’d look the other way. While the Clintons were out lining up votes, all the cool dictators started pulling this shit.
But I’m also completely willing and comfortable with taking the UN resolution and what’s being said about our role in it at face value and I not only get the Bush/Cheney comparisons, I relish them. This wasn’t about meeting with big oil to divide up the spoils, or invading Qatar to fight Al Qaeda in Libya, we may even pull this off with minimal waterboarding. In attempting to divine the long-term implications of what motivates Obama and like political figures, Sullivan and co. frequently refer to “the long game”, because often those motives seem pretty opaque unless one attempts to understand them from a more long-term perspective.
The mission, such as it is, might more accurately named “Operation Level the Fucking Playing Field” and the long game in this equation is accepting it at face value when Obama says that the revolution is up to the revolutionaries to win or lose. Nobody wants to think about that second outcome, but there it is. From a strategic perspective, we’re talking about a fight that started out with rocks and guns Libyans were buying for themselves combined with defections from the general army against Soviet-era heavy weapons.
And maybe we “ooops” Gaddickhead and his brood and maybe we don’t; that’s not the mission, even if there does seem to be some disorganized if mutually supported agreement that regime change is the outcome we’d like to see. But the notion that we’re going to be drug into an actual campaign while the Libyan revolutionaries struggle to capture Tripoli? I’m counting on that not happening, and at the cost of having the mission result in a stalemate as a consequence.
But neither do I think it necessary to over-think this possibility just yet. Then again, I’m going with the Wolfowitz-esque “cakewalk”, here. From what I’ve seen, the high-end estimate for Gadafi’s (and I purposely refuse to try and spell his name “right”; it’s been a verbal shoe-toss for me, lately) forces is 60k, most of them mercenaries. Cutting off supply routes via a no-fly/no-drive zone is just about taking out the big guns. As much infowar as is surrounding this crap, reports of human shields in Tripoli and elsewhere really leave me hopeful that coalition efforts will be very judicious in acquiring their targets and so far they appear to be, a hit against a logistics center in his palace notwithstanding. The dynamic’s a hell of a lot different when collateral damage is an outcome that will be failed or avoided by Libyans, themselves.
But what about the other countries where we’re not intervening, the economic impact, where does Odyssey Dawn fit in? Certainly it’s not some magical talisman we can rub on Arab Spring countries and have them blossom forth into liberal democracies (hell, not all of them even want one), but the last couple of days, established regimes have shown a greater willingness to negotiate before shooting people in the head, particularly in Yemen where there were so many high-level defections that Abdullah Saleh is pretty much finished (bonus: we didn’t have to go in and blast on one of our guys).
And the economic fallout is what it is; if you’ve got to talk about the money right now, let’s get back to talking about the need to raise taxes and cut entitlement/defense spending. So far, the literal impact for us has been the result of stock market speculation and there’s not much to see but the jitters of wallstreet crackheads maintaining an emotional market.
But this whole thing about the coalition stuck playing big brother and getting drug into a quagmire? The long game is a short game. It’s a patronizing, insulting take not only on a lot of incredibly brave Libyans who rightly deserve to be called “lions”, but a projection antithetical to both western and arab street interests even if the cost is for the revolution to fail and Gadafi to remain in power. The crucial difference is that Libyans don’t have a choice; they can fight or they can wait to be slaughtered.
At the end of the day, we have the democracy we do because only a minority of us will even get off the couch to vote at all, much less apply ourselves to the degree required of an informed electorate and no matter how cynical one is and how stacked the deck seems, we do not put in the work. For my end of it, it’s been a product of watching people die in the hundred and thousands the last few weeks for a shot at fucking things up for themselves in similar fashion.
Forget any bullshit about “one nation among equals”. Arabs are the coolest fucking people in the world, right now. Damned straight I’m excited for them, as messy as this is all gonna be.