By Ajami, Fouad
Newsweek , Vol. 161, No. 04
Byline: Fouad Ajami
A perverse nostalgia takes hold in the West.
We were bound to come to it: a lament for the fall of Gaddafi. Mali had come apart, and there were "strategic analysts" bemoaning the demise of the Libyan dictatorship. Thousands of Malian Tuareg mercenaries enlisted by Gaddafi had returned to Mali with weaponry and little to do. In the Financial Times of Jan. 14, Gaddafi was described as the "West's ally in the fight against jihadist groups." Britain, France, and the United States should have spared him: he had kept the lid on disorder in the Sahara. To be sure, he had intended mass slaughter in Benghazi, but two years later, it was time to utter the impermissible: perhaps the West's strategic interest would have been served by his iron grip on his country.
A few days later, the nostalgia for the Libyan dictatorship was in full bloom. The four-day standoff at a natural-gas plant in the Sahara between the Algerian security forces and a band of terrorists led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, part pirate, part jihadist, was to serve as a vehicle for a full-scale revisionism about the fall of Gaddafi, and about the harvest of the Arab Spring as a whole. In a compelling piece of analysis and reporting, Robert F. Worth in The New York Times gave this revisionism its fullest expression to date. The jihadist surge in North Africa, he wrote, was proof that the "euphoric toppling of dictators in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt has come at a terrible price." Worth quotes the warning that Gaddafi had made as he attempted to hold off the tide. "Bin Laden's people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea. We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats." You have to hand it to Gaddafi: even as he brought down Western airliners and sowed mayhem wherever he could, he had a gift of posing as a useful ally of the West. To the bitter end, he held on to the claim that he was preferable to the chaos that would sweep in were he to fall. Little more than a year after he was pulled out of a drainage pipe and given the brutal end meted out to him, there was retrospection that the penal colony he ran was not such a bad thing for the peace of North Africa after all.
Two years on, we speak of the Arab rebellions in a manner we never did of the fall of communist dictatorships. A quarter century ago, it was only cranks who bemoaned the end of the communist tyrannies in Europe. There was chaos aplenty in those post-communist societies and vengeful nationalist feuds; those captive nations weren't exactly models of liberalism. In Yugoslavia, a veritable prison of contending nationalisms, the fall of the state that Josip Broz Tito held together by guile and fear, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder, had put on display the pitfalls of "liberty" after decades of repression. And still, faith in the new history was to carry the day.
That moment in freedom's advance was markedly different from the easy disenchantment with the Arab rebellions. Those had been dubbed an Arab Spring, and it was the laziest of things to announce scorching summers and an Islamist winter. The Arab dictatorships had been given decades of patience and indulgence, but patience was not to be extended to the new rebellions: these were to become orphans in the court of American opinion. American liberalism had turned surly toward the possibilities of freedom in distant, difficult lands. If George W. Bush's "diplomacy of freedom," tethered to the Iraq War, had maintained that freedom can stick on Arab and Muslim soil, liberalism ridiculed that hopefulness. This was a new twist in the evolution of American liberalism. In contrast to its European counterpart, American liberalism had tended to be hopeful about liberty's prospects abroad. This was no longer the case. The Arab Awakening would find very few liberal promoters.
Nor was American conservatism convinced that these Arab rebellions were destined for success. …