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Reflections on the Revolution in Libya

August 17, 2011

Having finally read Reflections on the Revolution in France this summer, coupled with consistently seeing stories of a prolonged and ill-defined war in Libya, got me thinking – perhaps the former can provide some guidance to the latter. Thucydides told us history repeats itself, right?

To start, this isn’t to say that there is a direct historical parallel between France’s revolution, inspired and founded on the abstract goals of the enlightenment, and that of today’s Libya.

But, the larger purpose of Burke’s treatise was an expose on human nature – a work to shepherd future generations, with principle and prejudice, through unknown tribulations. In this regard, Burke is quite apposite.

To Burke’s dismay, supporters of the French Revolution held liberty as a justifiable end in itself – boundaries to freedom were a secondary concern. It seems that a similar rationale has compelled the Obama administration: “For more than four decades, the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant – Moammar Gaddafi. He has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, and murdered opponents at home and abroad.”

Surely there was a humanitarian crisis in Libya. People were on the verge of being slaughtered and the western world understood the moral qualms of standing idly by. But, the war’s supporters blurred, if not ignored, the line between safety and freedom. Burke showed they were two different, independent concepts: “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”

The aspirations of immediate liberty that have motivated the United States and NATO’s diplomatic recognition of the Benghazi-based government are the very sentiments Burke fought against. It’s not that these are not ultimately valuable ends, but we are employing dangerous and self-destructive means. Burke continually asked the question that exposes the shortsighted thinking of this brand of brash change – what comes next?

Burke was not an a priori opponent to change. He understood that a society must alter its patterns in order to preserve itself. However, it was vital to assess by what medium such evolution took place. Looking back on England’s own history of political change, Burke underscored the necessity of restraint and conditioning in societal change: “At both those periods [the Restoration and Revolution] … They acted by the ancient organized states in the shape of their old organization, and not by the organic moleculae of a disbanded people.”

However, within such rapid and sudden opportunity for self-determination, these parameters don’t exist – the Libyan identity does not possess the social norms for its own preservation. From the land’s time under the Ottoman Empire (beginning in 1551) to today, the Libyans have not had any democratic characteristics in their system of governance.

Libya will be without the pillars that cultivate a lasting attachment, as Burke noted, between the people and the state: “We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age; on account of those from they are descended.”

Libya’s new social institutions will be abstract, ungrounded and perilously novel (not to mention be organized by dubious characters). Whatever emerges from their leadership will be a construct susceptible to manipulation and divergent interest, for the reasons Burke explains discussing ephemeral loyalty of a people with a lost connection to tradition: “Their attachment to their country itself, is only so far as it agrees with some of their fleeting projects; it begins and ends with that scheme of polity which falls in with their momentary opinion.”

If the transitory period of progress is not allowed and guided by the West, Libya will fall victim to the radical potentials of the human conscience. We are a war-weary nation. But we have accepted a newfound responsibility. It will require time. But, we must now heed the cautious advice of Burke and remember: “Our patience will achieve more than our force.”

“Reflections on the Revolution in Libya” – Ricochet


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