It is difficult for a foreign country to dismantle the military, administrative and intelligence infrastructure of another country and establish a stable political order thereafter.Last week the French parliament voted to continue their country’s involvement in NATO airstrikes in Libya to remove Muammar Gaddafi.
I hold a strong scepticism about foreign interventions seeking to promote democracy, development, human rights etc in poor countries. However genuine their intentions, such interventions hardly produce good outcomes. I believe that the real engine of change should be local social dynamics i.e. those most affected by a problem should be the ones to structure the solution to it.
As the French parliament voted, I was watching (for the second time) a movie called Green Zone about American occupation of Iraq and the misguided and naïve idealism about introducing democracy into that country. In the early part of the movie is a conversation between a Central Intelligence Agency operative (Mattie) who has lived in Iraq for many years and a Political Officer from the Pentagon (POP) on how to manage post Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The focus of the debate is on a one Ahmed Zubaidi, an upstart politician who had been in exile for the last 30 years. POP tells Mattie that Zubaidi has emerged as the leader to bring democracy to Iraq. But Mattie feels it would be improper to have someone who has been out of the country for 30 years take over leadership in a troubled country.
POP: He is the best we have for a stable democracy right now.
Mattie: Go onto the streets and find ten people who know who he is.
POP: He is our friend, Mattie, he has been helpful and our office is satisfied with the information he has been giving us.
Mattie: This guy is not reliable, his information is not reliable. He has been selling us crack.
POP: (getting angry) This is exactly the reason people are beginning to lose confidence in the agency, Mattie. You are questioning every single piece of intelligence that is coming in to a point that we cannot make any progress.
Mattie: We cannot hand over the country to an exile nobody has ever heard of … and a bunch of interns from Washington.
POP: You are the Middle East expert. Do you have another idea?
Mattie: We need to use the Iraqi army to hold this country together. This country is a powder keg of ethnic tensions. Now that Saddam is gone, they are the only ones who can hold it together.
POP: We cannot explain that to the American people. We beat the Iraqi army.
Mattie: Well, they are still out there and they are looking for a place in the new Iraq.
POP: Then they will be waiting a long time.
Mattie: They did not all follow Saddam. There are officers out there we can work with if we can make it worth their while.
POP: Let me tell you something; we have spent too much American treasure and too many American lives for us to put a Bathist General in a position of power – Jesus!
Mattie: Do you have any idea what is going on outside of this Green Zone? It is chaos; it is revenge killings every night. People are asking why we cannot stop this. We are losing the population.
POP: Democracy is messy.
Mattie: If you dismantle this country, cut the army, you will have a civil war in six months, I guarantee it.
POP: Ok, let’s move on.
It is difficult for a foreign country to dismantle the military, administrative and intelligence infrastructure of another country and establish a stable political order thereafter. It succeeded in post war Germany and Japan – but those seem to have been exceptions. Everywhere else, including the Tanzanian occupation of Uganda in 1979-80, such interventions lead to state collapse resulting into widespread violence and impunity. As we cheer NATO’s struggle to remove Gaddafi, reminders from Iraq and Afghanistan are too vivid to ignore.
To solve the problems of any country requires making very many complicated tradeoffs, giving difficult concessions, making hardnosed compromises etc. This is the kind of negotiations that produced post apartheid South Africa. It is the kind of deal-making that made Barack Obama pass through Congress the Healthcare Bill in America last year.
You cannot build a country on the basis of abstract ideals because there is no textbook good solution. A policy or institution does not work because of its intrinsic qualities but rather how those qualities interact with other variables in the society. What is technically good as “best practice” elsewhere can produce disastrous results when implemented in a society without considering other factors and combinations in a country.
Therefore, a solution for any society cannot be based on an abstract theory. It has to evolve organically from multiple negotiations, renegotiations, concessions and compromises with many diverse groups. Of course sometimes a decision may be forced down the throat of one group by another, and this may be necessary to move on. But force alone cannot be a sustainable basis of power and problem solving. The software of rule is legitimacy and what is a politically legitimate process may be technically inefficient and slow.
As the French and NATO allies struggle to “save” the people of Libya from the tyranny of Gaddafi, this may be an important reference point. They need to let the rebels seek a solution by themselves. Left on their own, they may find more effective ways to defeat Gaddafi or creative ways to accommodate him and his entourage. In other words, the balance of forces on the ground in Libya should be the ones to shape its political trajectory, not the lofty motives of foreigners about abstract ideals.
If Gaddafi is defeated by rebels who are being propped by NATO and his military and security infrastructure is destroyed, NATO will be required to put boots on the ground to ensure a stable political order. Yet even with NATO on the ground we would see Libya become a breeding ground for terrorists. From this perspective, therefore, external assistance should be marginal and secondary to the equation. NATO should allow sufficient space within Libya for domestic forces to find an agreeable solution. Trying to impose a solution on the country is not a formula for success.