Five years after the Arab Spring, Western forces and intelligence teams are preparing the Libyan battlefield for another intervention in its horrific civil war. The only way to make sense of this half-hearted return is to see what Washington cannot: that a progressive worldview is incompatible with an imperial project.
Libya is broken not because it was invaded or because warring ethnic divisions collapsed the regime. It is broken because the revolutionary desire of Libyan citizens to adopt western political values was clumsily abused by the adolescent, contradictory and self-centred worldview of Washington elites.
Recall the media’s explanation of the uprising: social networking. The internet is the quintessential American invention. Everyone who engages with it is educated on US progressive values. During the 2011 uprising, rioter’s looked like Libyans, but their clothing, technology and speech was all Western.
The very bones of the internet are named “freedom of speech” and “egalitarianism”. No wonder the uprisings were delivered to us as a demand for democracy and a desire for civil rights. How unjust, the Americanised rioters yelled, was the misfortune of being born in Libya! Borders are meaningless in this digital world! Indeed. Boundaries are precisely the reactionary artefact the US imperial project wishes to erase.
The progressive message was delivered worldwide over decades by the tongues of the US State Department, the press’s eye and by the Department of Defence’s cold and useless fist. Libyan liberals thought they understood the message: Democracy is assured, now rise up with the full support of the US empire!
But they were mistaken because the US imperial project contains a contradiction. Progressivism will not cease until every country is democratic and free. There are no enemies in this worldview, only citizens who are not yet naturalised.
Yet progressivism itself precludes Washington from forcing countries along that route. It wants the world to be “free” but they must come to that conclusion themselves. Using weapons to compel others is antithetical to liberal progressivism. That would be walking a dangerous path to colonialism or much worse.
So President Barack Obama surveyed the Libyan situation in both 2011 and today, testing the weight of the contradiction, and chose the only action available in this ideology: small footprint with speedy extraction. Just enough to cripple dictators or jihadists, but avoiding the attachment of nasty colonial strings to Washington’s “liberal” Libyan puppets. And puppets they most certainly are.
Since Libyan liberals do not in fact govern today – since they cannot in fact govern – no one section rules. Everyone rules, including the Islamic State which adores a vacuum. This is anarchy, real anarchy, a temporary but very unpleasant state. American war planes assisted in 2011, but the necessary American help was non-existent. It was left to Libya’s liberals who discovered the ugly truth that although they have the power to un-rule Libya; rule it, they could not
Once Twitter twittered the old dictator out of power, the country was without police, riven by rebel factions and the remnants of Moammar Gadhafi’s officer corps. The gangs became smart, turning into political parties and acquiring paramilitary wings. The lesson was simple: Sovereignty is conserved. You can spread it around, but don't expect to enjoy the result.
Beltway elites missed this lesson. Washington exhorted the Libyans to revolt, and when they lost it was none of its business. Because after helping their liberal Libyan friends commit spectacular political suicide in 2011, it is back for more. Behold foreign-policy “realism”: ie, selective isolationism. It’s a good thing jihadists now threaten Libyan, because killing terrorists is less intellectually demanding than reappraising a defunct progressive political ideology.
Bombs won’t change anything if the fundamental problem is the incompatibility of progressivism with the maintenance of an imperial project. Until American elites figure out a workable model to govern this empire, Special Forces will deploy again and again, to no effect. Not just in Libya either.