Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 March 2011

Help Wanted: Leader for Libya

[For comment on Tom Friedman’s recent views, click here.]

Extraordinary position available. No previous experience necessary or possible. Essential qualifications are: (1) not being crazy, (2) preferring deals to slaughter, and (3) knowing that the West intends to pay handsomely for the oil, not steal it.

The successful candidate will be well respected in his locality, his tribe and neighboring tribes. He will understand Libya―all of it―and have a plan for unifying it by spreading oil money around. He will be good at networking, with contacts or spies in all tribes, including Tripoli’s.

The following are desirable but non-essential qualifications: (1) tribal leadership, (2) fluency in a European language, and (3) knowledge of the West. Reluctant candidates will be given equal opportunity and highly prized. Warlords and ex-patriot sycophants need not apply.

Benefits are: (1) interesting work, (2) fabulous opportunities for self and family, and (3) a chance to become an historic figure, the Kemal Atatürk of North Africa. Unfortunately, there will be no vacation for the first two years.

The successful candidate will be expected to remove a strong pretender by waging successful civil war or co-opting the pretender’s allies, in minimum time and with a minimum of civilian casualties. He must work hard and not be intimidated by international politics, major-power bluster or credible threats of assassination. Western nations and a few fellow Arabs will provide some help from the air.

The chief interviewer will be the people of Libya. Apply to Washington, Paris or London for access to vetting and aid in communication.

The position is open now. Time is of the essence, so please apply today.

Tom Friedman’s Western Hubris

In apparent recognition of the folly of his despairing column a few days ago, Tom Friedman wrote today that the “lid” of tyranny “may be coming off all 350 million Arab peoples at once.” The recipe for this long-delayed desideratum, he insisted, has three ingredients: (1) citizens who see themselves as part of a unified, modern state, (2) self-determination, and (3) a neutral arbiter, which (in most cases) would be the very forces that installed the tyrannies in the first place.

Tom Friedman gave us the useful concept of a flat world. For that contribution alone, he deserves respect. He also has many years of experience and deep contacts in the Middle East.

But those things are what make his conclusions so puzzling. Despite all his knowledge, he just can’t seem to understand the flat world that he described so well in another context. Nor can he seem to get over his own sense of cultural superiority and give locals their due.

For starters, Friedman forgets history. It was we Westerners who drew lines on maps to create mongrel states out of desert, ignoring ancient tribal boundaries and trade routes alike. We (mostly the British Foreign Office) did so with the explicit goal of “divide and conquer.” Our conquering, of course, used proxy tyrants infused with a single prime directive: make way for western industry, and keep the oil flowing, and you can do whatever else you want. Stability for industrial progress, at the price of tyranny, was our common Western bargain.

So it was Western “neutral arbiters” who midwifed the birth of Arab tyrannies in the first place. And it was we Americans who conveniently maintained them since the decline of the British Empire early in the last century. Until Friedman acknowledges and understands this central historical truth, any prescription he offers for the Middle East will be quack medicine.

More important, the greatest lesson of the Internet age is that all people are essentially alike. That is the true teaching of Friedman’s flat world.

When modern communication gives people a choice, they opt for peaceful commerce and prosperity---for getting along and making money---every time. It doesn’t matter whether they come from an ancient self-superior culture like China’s or from a Nomadic desert culture like Libya’s. It doesn’t matter whether they wear business suits, turbans or kaffiyeh and robes.

All people have the same desires to live in peace and provide for their progeny. Those desires, not our “neutral arbitership,” were what turned Iraq around from the civil war we had inadvertently triggered. The Sunni sheiks’ sons took our money to fight “for” us, but they did so only after rejecting Al Qaeda’s policy of “kill, kill, kill.”

If we are to assist the Great Arab Awakening, we have to get over our cultural ignorance and false sense of cultural superiority. Each Arab “nation” (which in many cases is an artifice of the West) is different. It is true, as Friedman says, that the army in Egypt is playing a positive role. Its professionalism and restraint, enhanced by decades of peace and Western tutelage, is helpful.

But that doesn’t mean that every Arab nation needs the like to escape the darkness of tyranny. The previously nomadic sheiks of Libya traveled, bartered and traded peacefully for centuries before oil and Western war created the caricature of a state we see today.

Was there no justice, mercy, or common sense in any of the old nomadic traders or tribal leaders? Were they all vicious barbarians like Qaddafi, just waiting for modern Western technology and weapons to increase the flow of cash and blood? Package it however you like, Friedman’s insistence on Western arbiters answers those questions “no, there was not,” and “yes, they were all barbarians.”

A more reasoned approach would be to recognize that Nelson Mandela (whose leadership model Friedman lauds) was hardly a product of Western arbitership. He is a creation of Western prisons, where he stewed for 28 years in his own solitude, wisdom and good sense.

There is one other truth that Friedman, of all people, should know well. Tyranny breeds terrorism. Hezbollah is a creature of Syrian tyranny. Hamas in Gaza has three parents: Saudi tyrants, Assad, and the Israeli trade embargo. You have only to compare the Palestinian Authority under Abbas to see the difference.

Or look now at the happy Kurdish trade with and inside Turkey. Now that Saddam’s tyranny is gone, at whatever horrendous cost, the Kurds are too busy making money to fight for “freedom.”

As for Al Qaeda, its central goal is removing the Saudi tyrants. Its jihad against the West is just a means to that end. Free Saudi Arabia, and Al Qaeda will have no reason for being, or at least its many fellow travelers will turn away.

That is another central truth of Friedman’s flat world. Offer people a chance at freedom to live, work and worship in their own way, and they have no interest in alleged foreign “enemies.” Suppress their cultures, languages, religions, and/or desires for simple prosperity and justice, and you must focus their wrath on foreign bogeymen in order to turn it away from you.

Kim Jong Il knows this well, but the principle is as old as Caesar. Somehow, we forget to apply it to men who wear turbans and dress their women in veils.

As the lid of tyranny blows off all over the Arab world (and in Iran!), the “unsolvable” problem of Israel and Palestine will suddenly become tractable. Arabs and Muslims everywhere will focus on improving their own lives, which many now have no power or freedom to do.

To help this happen, we Westerners need to step back from our own hubris and acknowledge others’ humanity. We need to rely more on the commonality of human beings and their innate wisdom, and less on our own alleged cultural superiority. We need to know others’ cultures enough to discover the value and promise in them. And if we can’t do that, we just need to get out of the way.

If we can achieve such a rare state of humility, who knows what miracles we soon may see, not just in Greater Arabia, but around the world?

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  • At Wed Aug 24, 06:36:00 AM EDT, Blogger radagast44 said…

    Interesting article. I share your optimism. I think we are on the verge of a tipping point that will affect Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and ultimately sub-saharan Africa, Saudi Arabia, and the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

    Still very pessimistic about Pakistan, though.

  • At Tue Aug 30, 06:09:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Radagast44,

    Sorry to post your comment so late. We're traveling and have only limited Internet access.

    I agree with your "tipping point" analysis, as does Tom Friedman in his recent writing.

    As for Pakistan, I vacillate between optimism and pessimism, as illustrated by the following two posts: optimistic and pessimistic. I take some comfort from the fact that China seems to be Pakistan's closest friend and is the globe's current best example of pragmatism.




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