By Jay Holmes
After six months of listening to so many dire predictions of “stalemate,” events in Libya have entered a period of rapid change. The rebel council now controls most of the coastal cities. Uncle Momo’s second wife, his daughter, and two sons are in Algeria. Momo is clearly on the run.
We humans are predictable on some issues. Change, even when it involves the fall of an international terrorist, is scary, and it’s easy to find the dark lining to any silver cloud. Political commentators dread having to say something like, “Hell if I know.” White House spokesmen (all of them) do their best to create an image of an omniscient, god-like President with everything from his sock drawer to distant galaxies well under control.
When news consumers watch a news program they usually want something more assuring than, “This is Joe Hairstyle reporting live from a hash party at the Rixos Hotel. We’re having a heck of a time here, and we have no idea how any of this will end up. We’re asking our listeners at home to accurately predict the future and fax us a brief outline. Please FedEx us some decent scotch. The first viewer at home who faxes us the right information will receive an extra, extra small ‘I Love Meganetwork’ yellow T shirt. And now back to you Susie….” That just wouldn’t work. In spite of any hopeful view that Joe Hairstyle might secretly harbor concerning the future of Libya, he has to stay with “safe bets” to keep his bosses and the advertisers happy.
The safe bets on Libya are easy enough to formulate. For one thing, when a journalist spends a few days wandering by piles of freshly killed people and spends his nights listening to constant gunfire, punctuated by the occasional NATO bomb, it can become difficult to imagine anything positive coming out of a very grim reality. A glance at the history tells him (or her, but don’t make me explain that again) that “happiness” would possibly be an unrecognizable stranger in Libya.
Libya is in the Sahara. Libyans live next door to the Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. Their history is unhappy, and they appear to be “Islamic” in some fashion. The last 1300 years of history have left most of us not expecting anything like a reasonable neighbor from Islamic nations. When we add all of that up, it’s easy to devise negative predictions for Libya. All of those negative predictions might be right, but other possibilities are conceivable.
There is another side to Libya. Yes, Libya along with other Islamic nations, and along with the United States, Canada, France, and the UK, has spawned radicals that joined Al-Qaeda. But the vast majority of unemployed young males in Libya did not take the opportunity to join Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group. Al-Qaeda is there, and so are lots of other folks. So far, the sum of the available information indicates that Libya, as a society, is more similar to Miami than it is to Pakistan or Afghanistan, and that it will not embrace any form of radicalism.
The devil, even the vile Momo devil, should be given his due. Between his spasms of exhibitionist hysterics and insane, ridiculous pronouncements, Uncle Momo and his loyal servants did succeed in vastly improving health care and education. Momo forgot what his mother told him. Be careful what you wish for. Your wish may come true. It’s easier now to bump into an illiterate in Detroit than it is in Libya.
Education changes people, and often it changes them for the better. Even stilted, highly controlled education makes people aware of the horizon beyond their own personal misery. In professional education in Libya, the emphasis was on improving science and medicine. Law schools and political science professors might have been required to spew nonsense to their students, but it does not appear that science departments were required to do the same.
In addition to Libya’s vastly improved domestic education system, thousands of Libyans have attended schools abroad. Qaddafi wanted to build a technologically independent nation that did not need to beg Moscow, Washington, or anyone else for it’s weapons of mass destruction, it’s oil drills, or it’s air-conditioning, so he embraced education. His motives may have been partially cynical, but the results have been a more educated, more urbanized, and more cosmopolitan Libya. This is not your grandpa’s Bedouin tribe wandering through the Sahara.
Thirty years ago that might not have mattered much. The fact that Czechs, Poles, Frenchmen, Belgians, Norwegians, Danes, and the Dutch were all experiencing improving health care, better education, and fairly progressive societies did not prevent them from being overrun by the Nazis. All of those benefits did not prevent the Soviets from enslaving Eastern Europe after the Nazis were defeated. But there is no Nazi or Stalinist lookalike nation ready to step in and force Libya to accept its agenda. There are plenty of nations with outlooks that resemble that of Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot but they are not in a position to force their will on Libya.
Lots of terrible things might happen in Libya, but good intelligence work isn’t just about finding the negative possibilities or reporting what we think the leaders want to hear. The president wakes up knowing that Libya is a mess and doesn’t need the CIA or the NSA to tell him that. Good intelligence work delivers concise, accurate, and occasionally actionable information to the nation’s decision makers.
Effective Diplomacy is not about sitting at a pool somewhere sipping margaritas and waiting for an ideal ally to fall from the sky bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and petroleum. Effective diplomacy requires that we accurately assess the possibilities and move efficiently to influence and accept influence from potential allies while forging mutually beneficial relationships.
Effective statesmanship is not about accepting the worst possible outcomes and fretting over the future. Statesmanship is about identifying and accepting problems, creating opportunities to overcome them, and creating a better future than the future that would otherwise occur.
What would a cable TV news network have said of those frightened and mostly untrained rag tag rebels when they lacked the good sense to step out of the way of the mighty British Army at Lexington and Concord in 1776? We likely would have been treated to explanations of why the obviously dangerous and unruly New England farmers would never be able to force the British Army out of America. It would have been a reasonable prediction. It would have been the safe bet. For five years it would have looked like the right bet. In the end, it would have been the wrong bet.
Many terrible consequences might come out of the rebellion in Libya. A few likely will. But the good may come to outweigh the bad. I refuse to bet against the Libyan people. When the last of the bodies have been buried, they will continue along the difficult path of creating a better nation out of the destruction and chaos that we see there now.
Sure, I could be wrong. But somebody will be right, and for the sake of the Libyan people and for the world, I hope that I am right, and that their courage and sacrifice is rewarded with a better life.
Can you think of other times when the safe bet was the wrong bet?