By Michael Ignatieff
The views expressed are his own.
We like to think we made it happen. First in Kosovo, now in Libya, we believe our air power made it happen. Western politicians are taking the credit, but the truth is, we didn’t make it happen, any more than we made the Arab Spring happen and the air operation itself would never have been approved at the UN without the green light from the Arab League. The people of Libya, the peoples of the Middle East made it happen. We all need to understand how little of this is about us. Otherwise we risk succumbing to the illusion that we can shape the future in the Middle East.
The power we exercised in the sky gives us little control over what happens next. This is not just because we don’t have boots on the ground. Even when we did in the Balkans, we never controlled the way events rolled out after the air campaign was over. The people of the Balkans wrote their own history after the intervention and the people of the Middle East will do the same.
We called Libya a civil war and intervened to help one side win, as we did in Kosovo. But Libya was not a civil war. The dictator didn’t have deep enough support to turn it into one. It was a revolution, a people against a regime, rising up without any instigation from us, with nothing but rage, humiliation and hope to guide them. We gave them air cover and they made a revolution.
Let us not be romantic about revolutions, but let us also remember the hope they carry . The revolutionary moment—the discovery that ‘we the people’ brought the dictator down–gives the Libyans a chance to come together and build something out of the ruins. The people have discovered themselves. They have discovered their sovereignty and they will not willingly surrender it to gunmen or extremist Islamists, here or in Tunisia or Egypt. In Syria, in Yemen, in Algeria too, the people will see what the sovereignty of the street looks like and long for it too.
All revolutionary situations are poised between exhilaration and terror, and Libya is no exception. There are too many guns in the street, too many militias, too little authority and order. Revenge will be taken. Scores will be settled. Theft and vandalism will be legitimized as justice. Revolution could topple into civil war unless an army and a monopoly over the means of force are re-established. But those crowds, men and women all waving the same flag, the kids with their hands on their hearts, singing the anthem perched on their parent’s shoulders, are actually stronger than the men with guns, if they only could find a politics to express their power.