After only a few days of allied military action, the Libyan nightmare has been averted, and the rebels are now marching westward again. Like the invincible Serbian juggernaut of yore, the power of Muammar Qaddafi, which frightened Secretary Gates, has been shaken. President Obama has done an admirable thing. On March 18, he gave a speech explaining his decision. The speech was both ringing and baffling: as the poet said, I wish he would explain his explanation. What follows is a commentary on some of the president’s statements.
If spring comes, can winter be far behind? We are just concluding one of those rare hours when history could be viewed with something other than contempt. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia introduced a new movement of freedom, and demolished the cultural pessimism that confined such longings to people like us. The revolt in Libya, also animated by a democratic aspiration, exposed not only the depravity of a dictator but also the cravenness with which he was received in the wood-paneled precincts of some of the immensely important people of Washington, New York, and Cambridge.
Barack Obama’s policy toward the Libyan struggle for freedom is no longer a muddle. It is now a disgrace. Here is what his administration and its allies have told the world, and the Libyan dictator, and the Libyan rebels, in recent days.
As the dictators fall, the clichés fall, too. Cairo and Tunis and Tripoli are littered with the shards of platitudes about what is possible and what is impossible in Arab societies, in closed societies. Civilizational analysis lies in ruins. Idealism, always cheaply mocked, turns out to be a powerful form of historical causation, as disruptive of the established order as any economic or technological change, and even more beneficent.
“This violence must stop.” So President Obama declared the other day about the depravity in Tripoli. This “must” is a strange mixture of stridency and passivity. It is the deontic locution familiar from the editorial pages of newspapers, where people who have no power to change the course of events demand that events change their course. This “must” denotes an order, or a permission, or an obligation, or a wish, or a will. It does not denote a plan. It includes no implication, no expectation, of action.
Whatever the satisfactions of the liberal view of the world, simplicity is not among them. I do not mean that liberalism has a corner on complexity: there has been altogether too much liberal vanity of that sort. I refer, rather, to the liberal picture of existence. The picture is not of the one but of the many. Liberalism is a grand retort to the dream of oneness, which was a beautiful philosophical fantasy with sordid political consequences. From Parmenides to Marx—mystics and materialists have both propounded such a vision—the monist temptation flourished.
There are two ways to think about the impact upon Israel of the collapse, fast or slow, but inexorable, of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. The first is to be concerned for Israel. The second is to be concerned about Israel. Until the peace treaty with Egypt was concluded in 1979, it was said about Israel, and rightly, that it was surrounded by “confrontation states.” The accord with Egypt, followed by the accord with Jordan, destroyed the monolithic character of the security threat to Israel.
Item: “In recounting Saturday’s deliberations, [administration officials] said Mr. Obama was acutely conscious of avoiding any perception that the United States was once again quietly engineering the ouster of a major Middle East leader. … ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”—David E.
The contours and consequences of the uprising in Egypt—which, after decades in which Hosni Mubarak destroyed the civil society of his country and stifled the most elementary aspirations of his people, was perfectly inevitable—are still unclear. About the justice of the protestors’ anger there can be no doubt. But the politics of the revolt are murky.
One expects to discover, as one’s experience of the years grows great, that life is too short, but it is disagreeable to discover that life is also—I do not want to say too long, because only a fool would want the light to go out, but long enough for one to suffer the marginalization, and even the disappearance, of values and causes and of course people that one loves. The world does not care about anything forever. Its forward movement will not be broken. The relentlessness of time is a condition of progress, but even when it does not bring progress it is relentless.