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The Arab Spring — which indeed is a global spring — is a struggle, an upheaval, for fundamental justice and humanity. That’s the problem.
We —the Washington Consensus, the post-colonial West, the world’s military and economic overlords — have no more enthusiasm for this awakening, this cry for genuine democracy and equitable distribution of resources, than the tottering autocrats of the Middle East, most of whom (exception: Muammar Gaddafi) are our allies.
In an excellent analysis of the Libyan situation last month at muftah.org, Mohammed Bamyeh, a University of Wisconsin sociology professor, wrote: “Just as in other parts of the region, Libyan society over the last decade has become more modern than its regime. As in Tunisia and Egypt, a key factor in galvanizing the Libyan revolution was autocratic deafness to this fact.”
He defines “autocratic deafness” as “a structural inability for the regimes to hear their peoples’ grievances or to understand them as little more than childish noise, which could be allayed with economic or other types of transient gifts, rather than as demands for fundamental political change.”
He adds: “In this environment, the demise of the old Arab order has become certain.”
What Bamyeh is talking about is not — cannot be — limited to the Middle East and North Africa. The “old Arab order” doesn’t exist in some sort of sublime independence of the economic interests of the West. These autocracies are regional extensions of a Pax Americana that is also convulsing, though far more slowly, from the passionate and courageous demands for change emanating from the Land of Oil.
What about our own autocratic deafness? The movement toward lasting peace and fairness, in the West as in the Middle East and elsewhere around the planet, has been in slow flower for a while now, occasionally erupting in outbursts of social change, but when it comes to international relations, we’re still ruled by Rome.
The geopolitics of today’s world is a hellish cauldron of competing and temporarily interlocking interests, with violence, coercion and domination the only known standards for conflict resolution. Despite widespread poverty, hunger and disease, most of our energy has gone into fighting ourselves. Military spending worldwide was an estimated $1.63 trillion in 2010, a jump from the previous year of 1.3 percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The larger consciousness so many of us feel emerging, which is so visible now in the Arab world, has little or no relationship to the traditional exercise of power.
Thus, even if there is a humanitarian impulse in the Obama administration’s temporary stewardship of American global relations, the only way this impulse can express itself is violently, and in relationship to other violence. Despite the absurd ineffectiveness of bombing campaigns to effect a given end, despite the certainty that we will kill Libyan civilians both immediately and over time (through the probable use of depleted uranium and all the other toxic hazards of war), and despite the danger of trapping ourselves in a third military quagmire, we embark on a regime-change operation in Libya in order to help the anti-Gaddafi rebels, about whom we know almost nothing.
“While the Libyan uprising is new and unpredictable, the US/NATO response is not,” Yifat Susskind, director of the international women’s human rights organization MADRE, wrote recently on Common Dreams. “The latest U.S. war follows a familiar pattern of military intervention in the name of humanitarianism.”
The real reasons for our Libyan intervention are far more complex, of course, than the smiley-face of humanitarianism, but I pause right now in a state of wonder at our geopolitical cluelessness about nonviolent action. When we began bombing Libya, we began imposing precedent and predictability on a process — an actual democratic uprising — we didn’t understand at all. We had no idea how to support such a process; we could only co-opt it. And if we succeed, in a year or two, in helping the rebels oust Gaddafi, at whatever cost in lives, we’ll have a compliant partner in power in an oil-rich country. And that’s what matters.
This too, as far as I’m concerned, is autocratic deafness. It’s more concealed — less domestically repressive — than the variety practiced by our Middle Eastern allies. Indeed, the brunt of the repression is exercised beyond the borders of First World nations, not just militarily but economically, via the World Bank, IMF and global corporations, which, with the help of our plutocrat allies, keep poor countries in a state of crippling debt while their resources hemorrhage.
“The people of the Arab world have begun to do their part,” Mark LeVine wrote recently for Al Jazeera. “What is necessary now is for citizens in the West to join the fray by taking on their militarized and finance-dominated governments with the same passion as their counterparts from Tunisia to Bahrain have taken on their autocratic systems.”
This prospect wouldn’t seem very likely if it weren’t for the efforts of the Republican Party, which, lacking serious opposition, has committed itself to bringing the autocracy home.