Commentary Magazine


Libya and Liberty

The Wall Street Journal has published a story, an editorial, and an op-ed on Libya’s first multi-party elections since the early 1950s. And while complex election rules make it difficult to know the precise outcome, the Journal reports that “Libya’s vote is expected to curb the sway of Islamic groups.”

“Ideology is dead,” according to Mahmoud Jibril, the U.S.-educated former Qaddafu-era economic official who defected to become the face of Libya’s revolution last year. “We stand for inclusiveness,” he said of the coalition he leads. According to Ann Marlowe of the Hudson Institute, “this coalition is not liberal or secular in the Western sense, but it supports a civil state and is opposed to the values of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party.”

“This is the day that we fix the past,” Maryem El-Barouni, a 23-year-old medical student told the Journal’s Margaret Coker. “We’ve come through a very bad period. This is our chance to feel freedom.”

About these developments, several things can be said. The first is that some critics of the Libyan intervention can still find dark linings in what has occurred. The second is that the Obama administration deserves praise for having intervened. The president’s actions, in concert with our European allies, toppled a brutal dictator and prevented slaughter at minimal human and financial cost to America and the West. Third, Libya’s transition to self-government has a very long way to go and much can go wrong. Still, at this early juncture, the intervention can be fairly judged to have been a success.

But there are some additional points worth considering, and I’ll do so in the context of Peter Collier’s superbly written biography Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick. In it, Collier points out that during the Reagan years, Kirkpatrick was “slightly agnostic” about democracy promotion, that she was skeptical of America’s power “to democratize the world,” and that she was fearful we would be drawn into “expansive, expensive” global projects. She was critical of the Iraq war in part because Iraq lacked “the requirements for a democratic government: rule of law, an elite with a shared commitment to democratic procedures, a sense of citizenship and habits of trust and cooperation.”

On Iraq, Jeane might (or might not) have been correct. It’s too early to tell, just as it is in Egypt, where right now the path to freedom appears to be rockier than what we’re seeing in Libya. It’s certainly true that not every nation on earth is ready for self-government. There are prerequisites, and often outside assistance, that are necessary. But it’s also the case that many nations that have moved successfully toward self-government over the decades didn’t start out with all the “requirements for a democratic government” firmly in place. Even successful journeys can be slow and characterized by setbacks (for more, see America and its Civil War). In addition, as Robert Kagan pointed out in his 1997 essay in COMMENTARY, Kirkpatrick’s brand of realism represented a “strong repudiation of the policy followed by the Reagan administration, which made a very high priority out of promoting democracy in such places as El Salvador, Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea.”

So if elections are not an elixir, it’s also the case that any prudent American strategy needs to accommodate itself to the fact that people in other lands do not want to live in chains. They aren’t keen to live in a police state. The Egyptians overthrew Hosni Mubarak without us lifting a finger. It was an organic uprising, one Mubarak might have averted if years earlier he had put in place reforms.

One final observation: most of us come to these debates with a predisposition for or against democracy promotion (my tropism is toward it while Jeane’s was away from it). It shapes the way we interpret things. But what we tend to learn is that human societies are enormously complicated, and no theory or ideology has perfect predictive powers. There are unintended consequences – some good, some bad – to almost every large undertaking. And human beings, let alone tribes and entire nations, often act in ways we can’t anticipate. Which means that in some places, Kirkpatrick’s skepticism about democracy was misplaced, just as in some places my advocacy for democracy may well hit the rocks.

Conservatism properly understood is skeptical about elevating creeds above human experience. It takes into account habits and customs, what Burke referred to (not unfavorably, by the way) as “prejudices” and “superstitions.” That doesn’t mean conservatism should ever be agnostic about human freedom, as freedom is (I would argue) based on the teleology and design of human nature. It simply means that in anticipating unfolding events, some degree of humility – on all sides – is in order.

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