Following the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Egypt and the U.S. consulate in Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that though the actions of protesters that resulted in the deaths of ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans of should “shock the conscience” of all people, U.S. involvement in Libya would remain unchanged. She described our nation’s efforts in that country as “noble and necessary,” but in light of recent events, perhaps American dedication to exporting democracy to the Middle East and North African regions ought to be questioned.
The United States has committed itself to aiding both Egypt and Libya in light of the protests which resulted in regime changes for both countries during the Arab Spring. In many ways, the United States views its relationship with these nations as essential in working to oppose the Islamic extremists who attacked our nation eleven years ago: If we can “convert” an Islamic nation with a troubled past to a westernized democracy, then maybe we’ll finally have an ally in the region that’s proven difficult to manage in the past. In other words, the United States senses immense strategic benefit to working so closely with nations such as Libya and Egypt. In light of the recent attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in those nations, however, it is time to re-examine our priorities.
The United States has been attempting to “export democracy” since we invaded Iraq in the events following 9/11 (though really we made other attempts before then—think Cold War era), and in that time we’ve been brought into a host of messy conflicts that have resulted in far fewer democracies than we had anticipated, and also a much larger loss of American life. Our counterinsurgency (or COIN) strategy in Afghanistan, for example, has made it difficult for American troops to act with the goal of eliminating threats, and our insistence on training members of the local Afghan police force has resulted in more American deaths when corruption once again reined in village politics, causing the trainees to turn their guns on the trainers.
Now, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, we’re seeing the same problems in Libya and Egypt. Yes, protesters claim that the attacks are backlash from a U.S.-made video that depicted the prophet Muhammad in a “satirical” manner (though some sources claim that the attacks were planned), but these attacks are only a symptom of a greater disease. Islamic nations, because of their religious beliefs (extreme or otherwise—just ask Turkey) have a difficult, if not impossible, task when it comes to adopting Western democracy. Westerners and Middle Easterners have different worldviews, which quite naturally impact their thoughts and opinions concerning government. Americans want to protect the right of the citizens of Libya to assemble peaceably and to make a redress of grievances via their use of free speech, but the citizens of Libya apparently do not wish to assemble peaceably. They have lived in a culture of violence and terror for so long that, in many ways, it is all they know. It is incredibly presumptuous of the United States to believe that by training some public officials or some police officers, the long-oppressed people of a tortured nation will be able to free their collective psyche from those bonds and begin to govern themselves in the way that Americans and Europeans do. It won’t happen and it hasn’t happened.
But, in order to pursue this mission, which, yes, might be high-minded, we’re willing to continue to sacrifice the lives of our citizens. Perhaps this mission is, as Secretary of State Clinton says, noble, but it certainly isn’t practical, and it is far more altruistic than our nation can afford to be. We have been at war for nearly 11 years, yet we’ve accomplished few changes in these tumultuous regions.
Elections still have to be closely monitored, Americans are still hated, and we’re left babysitting not just one or two nations with defunct governments, but now four. It is impractical to insist that the United States abandon its efforts immediately, but it is also clear that the progress we hoped to make, and the changes we hoped to bring are neither quick nor easy, and that if we continue down our chosen path we can expect a lot more loss of life before we can ever hope to see real results.