The 10th anniversary year of 9/11 is proving a signal one in many respects. The Arab uprising began against rulers whose tenure was simply a Cold War hangover — an uprising that the invasion of Iraq helped delay by years. The pro-war party’s routine about extending universal values, down with cultural relativism, boo, yah, etc, was shown to be mere noise, as rebelling Libyans actually pleaded with former colonial masters to help them — only to see Greg Sheridan, Christopher Hitchens, Miranda Devine, Nick Cohen, Alan Howe, et al, desperate to talk about anything else.
I thought the insouciance with which these people treated the mass slaughter and waste they helped create in Iraq was odious, but I really wasn’t prepared to see the fruits of their utter and total hypocrisy. If they believed even a skerrick of what they had said in the past decade, they would be clamouring for a no-fly zone, as a legitimate interim government has requested. As Gaddafi’s forces launch a counter attack, the silence continues. There are umpteen reasons why that may be a bad or difficult idea — politically, morally, logistically — and after this is all over, who knows what we’ll find about the groups who fomented the uprising. They may stretch back to Tehran and Langley.
But that should be of no consideration at the moment. The will of the Libyan people is clear. The government they are rebelling against has no legitimacy. There’s plenty of realpolitik conservatives and very far leftists to argue the non-support case. Where’s the genuine and full-throated advocacy to assist a fighting people from those who made the most noise about applying a universal standard, regardless of ethnicity. Nowhere.
The Libyan revolution is creating that universal standard, rebelling in the name neither of Allah nor pan-Arabism, nor a nostalgic anti-colonialism, nor a poor-me anti-Zionism — in the name of nothing, except “we the people”. The damn revolution that everyone from the Tea Party to umpteen Badiou reading circles looked for is actually here, its success or failure may depend on the prevention of a few bombing runs, and a weird displacement effect is occurring.
No one seems to want to actively consider what our relationship is to the Libyan rebels and the interim government in Benghazi. Instead it’s being treated as a spectator sport, wherein two barely differentiated bands of wogs slug it out, while we invoke a cosmetic two-minute hate against one side, while avoiding the question of whether we have an actual obligation to a people rising up that goes beyond spectatorship. Again, the paradox is obvious. Before the Iraq invasion we were told we had an obligation to the Iraqi people precisely because they weren’t rising up, due to the lethality of Saddam’s regime.
It was their very absence of a revolutionary act that told us that we must do it for them, an argument that pro-war ex-Marxists and “last superpower” Maoists were rather keen on. Once you establish that inaction as, deep down, permission to bomb people in their own name, what the hell do you do with an actual revolution by the people themselves? It becomes less gauchiste, than merely gauche, an excess that causes embarrassment for the spectator.
The great sin of the Libyans is that they have left no role for the West but a supplemental one — to support a people making their own history. To do so would be to make one further acknowledgement that the West’s leadership has passed. It would also expose the contradiction in spruiking Western values as there for everyone. Hey, just because we said freedom, etc, was universal, doesn’t mean you can have it. It’s ours. If we merely support you in creating these universal values by your own collective struggle, will and sacrifice, then what are we? Just a vast expanse of malls, museums, and cable repeats of Friends.
Quite aside from our current account deficit, we have a grievous meaning deficit, a want of purpose. The Iraq war filled it for a while, then its failure reopened the question. A successful Arab uprising would retrospectively reduce it to bloody, meaningless farce, a confirmation of our fatal lack of will, capacity and resolve. A successful Arab revolution in its own name would, in one respect, erase the boundary between the West and the rest, thus leaving the West without an easy, monolithic other to define itself against.
To actively support a revolution there, rather than impose an invasion, would create kinship, collectivity and above all equality between us and rising-up Arabs. That above all, must be avoided. Arabia must be either an enemy, a colony or a petrol station. There are no other choices. Worse still, the spectating populations of both sides would see that we are people in common, unbranded by ethnicity. Universalism’s all very well, but a common humanity is just one step beyond. Solidarity crowds out fear, and then where would be?
Whatever happens, the neocon era is over, as is the glib trumpeting of Western supremacy. Support, don’t support it, the Libyan revolution has bookended it. With us, without us, should it prevail, it resets the agenda. Should it fail, Gaddafi will hang its leaders from the lamp-posts, and we will pass under to buy his oil again. Our economy may survive, our myth and self-conception won’t.