What Went Wrong in Libya
And where do we go from here?


We have been wasting this chance, like the first one. Our inadequate discourse on the issue is reducing the matter instead to one of how to retaliate. This is missing the real point: to make strategic good of the turn of events. Condoleezza Rice had the presence of mind after the terrible events of September 11, 2001, to tell her aides that they needed to look for ways to make strategic good of the situation. This common sense is mostly lacking today.

On Egypt, too, we have inadequate policies kept in place by an inadequate discourse. Both Republicans and Democrats speak only of drawing lines to prevent the Islamist Morsi government from going too far out on a limb with things we don’t like – such as egging on terrorists, or starting another war with Israel, or oppressing women and Christians. In this way, our political leaders would actually help the Islamist government consolidate power: America would make itself useful to Morsi as a balance against the impulses from his base to commit adventuristic mistakes early on, giving him time to build Brotherhood hegemony throughout the societal and power structures of Egypt. There is no discussion of how we could support the few surviving balancing forces and institutions in the country, the only forces that can limit Morsi’s consolidation of power. Yet it is the Islamist consolidation of power that is the big danger, the one that can do massive damage for decades to come to our ideals — and to our peace and security.

In Libya there was an anti-government attack on our consulate. In Egypt there was a pro-government riot against our embassy.

In Libya we face a majority-friendly populace and a friendly government. In Egypt we face a largely hostile majority, and a government with a hostile ideology but one that is still consolidating itself and receiving massive aid from us as a legacy ally. It is a government with a deep-rooted movement base, the Muslim Brotherhood. That movement in turn has a well-elaborated ideology that blames the West for the ills of the world. And it helped organize the riots against our embassy.

The main reason for the difference is simple. For decades, Libyans, like Syrians and Iranians, have suffered under a brutal anti-Western Islamist ideological dictatorship. They have had their fill of anti-Western ideological intoxication; they know the harm it has brought them. Moderate, pro-Western Muslims are a majority, genuine Islamists a minority. Egyptians suffered the opposite: decades of mediocre, gradual progress under a mild pro-Western authoritarian government, one bereft of ideological enthusiasms to dignify its corruption and hide the depressing aspects of life under it. This leaves Egyptians vulnerable to blaming the West for everything wrong and seeking new ideological enthusiasms, naturally of the anti-Western type. Some of those are leftist in the old-fashioned way. Others are Islamist, yet use an algebraic formula strikingly similar to those of the Marxist and fascist ideologies of the 20th century: The modern world, despite all its technical accomplishments, is decadent at the core, thanks to the disintegrative individualism of the West; a higher synthesis is needed to save the world. This synthesis can be supplied only by a non-Western society (or non-bourgeois class) that has not lost its roots in organic unity; it can regenerate those roots through faith.

In the light of this difference, it makes some sense for us to be helping in the overthrow of vicious and hostile governments in the Mideast, but it made no sense for the Obama administration to be helping in the overthrow of mild and friendly governments. 

It is to the Egyptian government that a logical America, one serious about its interests and ideals, would be applying strong pressures and considering what it can do to help the opposition. With the Libyan government, we would be strategizing together as friends and working on joint plans of action against the forces of chaos that we have left behind in the country.

The two cases are not just different. They are opposite.

Yet they are treated as virtually the same by the Obama administration, posing the same need to avoid inflaming the Islamist extremists lest they undermine the ability of the moderate Islamists to cooperate with us. This is the main reason why the administration tried to believe, and told itself at the highest levels, that the attack on our consulate in Libya was a popular riot continuous with the riots in Egypt – and blamable on an anti-Islamic video. The strategic line of relying on the Muslim Brotherhood “moderates” was the decisive factor in impelling the administration to deceive itself, and the country with it.