Armed Prophets of Revolution

8 March 2011


At the present moment the most strategically interesting place on the planet is Libya. Both diplomats and the popular press seem hesitant to call this a civil war (yesterday’s Financial Times’ headline nearly acknowledged this fact, saying, “Libya closer to full-blown civil war”), but if we are going to call a spade a spade, then we need to call the conflict in Libya a civil war. Government forces hold several cities (Tripoli, Sirte, Bin Jawad, and others that Gadhafi’s forces sought to re-take yesterday and again today), rebel forces hold several cities (Tobruk, Benghazi, Grega, possibly Ras Lanuf, Misrata, and Zawiya), and there are ongoing clashes between government and rebel forces. Each side, government and rebel, has its strengths and weaknesses, and there is no indication that one side or the other will suddenly collapse, though this remains a possibility for either party to the conflict.

So civil war it is, and civil war in a land made for war, according to the great documentary series about the Second World War, The World at War:

“This land was made for war. As glass resists the bite of vitriol, so this hard and calcined earth rejects the battle’s hot, corrosive impact. Here is no nubile, girlish land; no green and virginal countryside for war to violate. This land is hard. Inviolable.” (The World at War, opening words of the narrator to “Episode Eight: The Desert: War in North Africa” )

The same stretch of desert now divided east and west between Libyan government and rebel forces is the same stretch of desert the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) and the British Western Desert Force during the Western Desert Campaign 1940-1943. Richard Holmes in his BBC documentary Battlefields said of North Africa that, ” desert fighting was a tactician’s dream” with its perpetually open flank and tanks moving in the desert like ships at sea.

Now seventy years later, this battleground is to be fought over again. At first it seemed that Gadhafi was so unhinged that he would be incapable to taking the kind of action that would be necessary to preserving his regime, with his statements that all his people loved him and his attempted scare tactics to the West that the instability in Libya was due to Al Qaeda. Gadhafi’s befuddlement, however, did not last long, and he has been consolidating his control over the coastal cities still within his grasp as well as striking back at cities under rebel control.

A great deal is being said and written about the situation Libya, but there is little in the way of hard information that one can count on from either a tactical or strategic perspective. We know that some Libyan airforce pilots have defected, but we also know that government planes are engaging in attacks on rebel cities (probably striking Ras Lanuf as I write this). We know that Libya has a history of stationing its armed forces close to the Egyptian border, thus positioning materiel in an area now controlled by rebel forces, but it has been widely reported that Gadhafi has been allowing the armed forces to deteriorate fearing a coup. Like many dictators, Gadhafi chose to place his trust and his money in a hand-picked private army whose loyalty he can count on.

There has been discussion of enforcing a “no fly” zone over Libya, which would neutralize the government’s air superiority, but this would involve the reduction of Libya’s air defenses, which many Western nation-states are entirely capable of doing, but which they would hesitate to undertaking for appearances sake. Far more likely is the supply of intelligence, expertise, and precision weaponry to the rebels. Recall that during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that the US and Pakistan facilitated the introduction of Stinger missiles, carried by donkeys over traditional smuggling routes, which had the effect of partly neutralizing Soviet air superiority.

High technology precision weaponry of the kind that can be carried by one or a few soldiers is one of the great levelers of contemporary combat, neutralizing advanced and expensive air and armored assets. If such resources are made available to the rebels in Libya, they will not need a no fly zone to succeed. The rebels have only to endure. Each day they survive adds to their credibility and makes Gadhafi look weak for being unable to enforce a security regime within the borders of his own nation-state. Strategic Forecasting has argued that the rebels would have great difficulty marching on Tripoli to take the city, and this is no doubt true, but they need not take Tripoli if they can convince the outside world that they represent the future and Gadhafi represents the past.

If Gadhafi confines himself to fortress Tripoli with a few thousand well-armed loyalists, events will squeeze him as be becomes more marginal over time. It is true that Gadhafi has an enormous amount of oil money flowing in to pay mercenaries and to buy weapons, and there will always be mercenaries willing to fight and industries willing to sell arms, but there will also be those who look to the rebel forces as the future of Libya, and they may cut deals with the Rebels. There is a pipeline to Tobruk, and in the coming months the revenues from the oil flowing through the pipeline (if it is not cut) may ultimately accrue to the rebels. Tobruk will likely be able to hold out for and extended period of time. We know from the experience of the Second World War that Tobruk is eminently fortifiable, and can outlast an extended siege.

If the rebels fail to convince the rest of the world to deal with them, or if the rebels cannot get high-tech high-precision handheld weaponry, or if the rebels get weak in the knees, then their resistance will collapse. That is a lot of ifs. One can formulate a similar list of “ifs” for Gadhafi and his loyalists. Both are vulnerable, and since it would be so difficult for either party to the conflict to dislodge, much less annihilate, the other, both are most vulnerable to political and diplomatic developments. While there are many industries and nation-states around the world that will continue to be happy to take Gadhafi’s money, he has few friends in the world. There are autocrats and dictators that share interests with Gadhafi, even they will withdraw and keep their silence as Gadhafi becomes marginalized and ineffective.

If we view recent social unrest in the Arab world as a regional movement in an area of the world in which the nation-state system has never put down deep roots (it has been called a region of stateless nations and nationless states), we can see the early non-violent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as the idealistic youth of the movement. But the idealism of youth cannot long endure when confronted by the realities of entrenched power, especially when that power is jealously held and not willingly surrendered. In Libya, aspirants to non-violent regime change will be forced either to give up hopes of ousting Gadhafi, or it must win a civil war in order to remove him. Gadhafi will not be toppled from power by protests in Tripoli.

That being said, the aspiration to the ideals of non-violent regime change is the most powerful force that the rebels have on their side. As I observed above, it is the political and diplomatic maneuvering rather than the maneuvering of soldiers that is likely to be decisive in Libya. Nevertheless, the rebels must show that they can fight when necessary, and this they have shown. Now they must show that they can take losses and still sustain the fight.

We should not view the outbreak of violence in Libya as the failure of a non-violent movement, but rather as a revolutionary movement coming to maturity. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are far from consolidated, and there remain protests. The future of the governments in these nation-states is not yet determined. The shape of regional politics and the fate of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will be determined, in part, by what takes place in Libya. It is still entirely possible for no substantive changes to occur in Tunisia and Egypt; if the rebels in Libya are successful, it will make it possible for non-traditionalist regimes to come into power in Tunisia and Egypt, thus consolidating the gains of the early non-violent revolutions. We must see the whole movement in regional context, and judge its success or failure on a regional level.

This is as much as to say that the rebels fighting in Libya are the armed prophets of a social revolution, and, as we know from Machiavelli, unarmed prophets fail whereas armed prophets sometimes succeed:

It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VI

The non-violent social revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were the work of unarmed prophets, and the arms remained in the same hands who possessed them prior to the revolutions. Such revolutions would be easy to undo. Circumstances have forced the prophets of revolution in Libya to take up arms and become armed prophets.

Immediately before his classic reference to armed and unarmed prophets, Machiavelli wrote about the difficulty of establishing a new political order:

“…it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”

This is precisely the difficult thing that the revolutionaries in the Arab world are attempting to do: to introduce a new order of things. They are visionaries and prophets, and they face all the problems that Machiavelli elaborated. The difficulty of being a prophet requires for success that one become an armed prophet, and this is what we see occurring in Libya. If the Libyan armed prophets of revolution are successful, they will provide yet further proof of concept and facilitate revolutionary regional change.

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