The Most Ruthless Usually Triumph

The Most Ruthless Usually Triumph

By David Warren - March 2, 2011

Libya retains the focus of the moment, for the media need a headline, but the background story is so much larger. The entire region is on fire, or very close to ignition, from Morocco to Pakistan, and we need to start thinking on this larger scale.

It does not follow, from the fact everyone is hooting, that Moammar Gadhafi will fall. He might, tomorrow, for all I know, or all anyone knows who is not clairvoyant. But as I recall, Saddam Hussein did not fall after the Gulf War of 1991. And the comparison is instructive. Every part of Iraq not directly attached to him through extended family and tribal networks (so tightly that they would share his fate) rose against him. And the world, beginning with the United States, was then as now urging his opponents on.

Saddam endured plenty of defections. Eventually, even "no fly zones" were established, to stop him from using airplanes and helicopters against the general population. But by the time these could be declared, and enforced, he had broken the back of the insurrection, and needed ground force only.

Saddam's consistent policy was to be more ruthless than any potential rival. He slaughtered people by the tens of thousands to retain power, on that occasion alone. And that was not the only occasion on which his power was challenged. The casualties in the Iran-Iraq war, that continued eight years from September 1980, may never be adequately counted. Mixed in with them were huge numbers from his own side that Saddam massacred "pour encourager les autres." Millions of Iraqis found themselves being minced between two satanic giants: the other, of course, being Ayatollah Khomeini.

Gadhafi is also ruthless. The difference between him and the fallen Hosni Mubarak is night and day. At no time, through the 30 years of his presidency of Egypt, was Mubarak capable of murdering a million of his countrymen to retain power. At no time during his 42 years of power in Libya, has Gadhafi not been capable of doing so. Individuals do have a role in history.

Yet here we come up against a hard fact of life, beyond individuals; one which we must try to understand when looking forward -not only in Libya, but perhaps throughout the realm of Islam. Ruthlessness works. And in almost every revolution in history, the most ruthless faction eventually triumphed.

Chance, or what looks like chance, can also come into this. In their several ways, Robespierre of France, Hitler of Germany, and Pol Pot of Cambodia, overplayed their hands. Lenin, Stalin and Mao did not: each bequeathed a regime of monstrous tyranny to his successors.

While it is impossible to predict the course of history in narrative detail, that is not what "learning from history" is about. History seldom repeats itself, in any melodic sense, but repeats itself constantly in rhythm and themes. We should grasp, for instance, that the American Revolution was almost unique in history, for ending so well. We should also grasp why. It was, from beginning to end, under the leadership of highly civilized men, governed by a conception of liberty that was restrained and mature. George Washington commanded, in his monarchical person, the moral authority to stop the cycle of reprisals by which revolutions descend into "eating their own." Nelson Mandela achieved something similar in South Africa.

Alternatively, a whole society -I am thinking here of the nations of Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall -may be so exhausted by revolutionary squalor that they long for return to "normal" life and have constitutional orders in their own, historically recent past, available as models. But even they needed Walesas and Havels.

Where such men exist, they are visible at any distance, from the start. Nowhere in the Arab world -and particularly not in Egypt, its centre of gravity -can such leaders be detected; only ridiculous pretenders. Nor do the conditions exist for wise statesmen to emerge. Nor have any of the Arab states a stable constitutional order to look back upon. Tyranny begets tyranny.

Gadhafi's most formidable opponents are the Islamists of Libya. Mubarak was haunted by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the spread of Islamism in Egyptian society, through the mosques. Even the Wahabi elite of Saudi Arabia know they face more radical Wahabis in their fragile kingdom, and the Shia Islamists among the populations that inhabit their oil fields.

As we should surely have observed by now, whether or not the Islamists command Arab "hearts and minds," they are not only the best organized force, but the most ruthless. They are also in possession of the simplest, most plausible, most easily communicated "vision."

It will take years, not weeks, for the Arab Revolution to be resolved. But the "New Caliphate" envisioned by Osama bin Laden is among the resolutions we should reasonably foresee.

© The Ottawa Citizen

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