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Give compromise a chance – at a distance

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted March 7, 2011

Last week, Hugo Chavez (of all people) swooped in and offered a compromise peace proposal for Libya. Although short on detail, it attracted the attention of the Arab League; that body was still considering it at the time when the United States and French governments rejected it. Chavez doesn't seem to have much credibility, despite him winning esteem in the Middle East – North African area for condemning Israel. The only leading Libyan figure who smiled on the idea was Gadaffi himself; both his eldest son and the rebels have rejected the idea. If anything, the offer has strengthened their desire to fight to the finish.

Still, the idea has something to recommend it. There's a definite tendency for successful rebellions in Muslin countries to pave the way for Islamist governments. Given the war on terror, and what kind of governments sponsor or nurture terrorists in their territories, a new Islamist government would not be that great an outcome. After the cheering is done, that's what Libya might end up becoming. The insistence upon all-or-nothing solutions only aids such a long-term outcome.

Diplomacy doesn't have that good a reputation because military action is more exciting. Seeing the troops march to a foreign land brings up or intensifies patriotic feelings. Even when one's own country is not involved, a war between sides easy to peg as heroes and villains is exciting. It gives us something to cheer for. Compared to people marching on the street to defy a dictator, and former troops abandoning the dictator for the rebels, diplomacy is a thin tea.

Particularly since diplomats tend to live in a depressive world of "bad" and "worse." It's hard to find a clear-cut option in the diplomatic world, as diplomats are good at ferreting out the downside of any ostensibly great manoeuvre. Also, in the diplomatic world, it becomes apparent that your own country's point of view is not shared in many other countries. Moreover, what you consider normal and good isn't either. Diplomats are natural Ecclesiastians, as increasing knowledge of the world does increase sorrow. If war is hell, then diplomacy is permanent purgatory.

But, diplomacy is the prime means of preventing wars that need not be fought. War is hell, as the number of PTSD-inflicted veterans clearly shows. Someone struck down by post-traumatic stress disorder has gone through hell on earth. One of the aims of diplomacy is to save soldiers from being sent into hell-holes except as a last resort.

Another aim is to come to resolutions that prevent worse trouble from bubbling up down the road. There's enough of a track record in Muslim countries to reasonably expect more trouble should an Islamist government take root. And, sadly, there's enough evidence to have a reasonable apprehension of an Islamist government taking root in Libya. Al-Qaida's #2 man, Ayman al-Zawahri, is already snuffling around Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood has a claim of being oppressed by the old regime, which has given them credibility in the ranks. Sayyid Qutb, the mastermind behind radical Islamism, was jailed by Nasser. Mubarak was Nasser's successor's successor. Libya is less of a prize for radical Islamists that Egypt, but they've been relentless in seeking influence over as many Muslim countries as they can. Ever since Iran's 1979 revolution, they've allied themselves with rebels and insurgents seeking to overthrow non-democratic governments. That's why Osama bin Laden was kicked out of Saudi Arabia.

It's the goal of every radical Islamist to create a caliphate linking Muslim countries together: an Islamist answer to the Soviet bloc. The more countries brought under Islamic governments, the more feasible such a goal appears. Even if a caliphate is unobtainable, an Iranian-headed alliance isn't.

An Out-Of-The-Box Suggestion

The moment may have passed for the American government to follow through on this idea, but it's worth considering. It borrows from the history of monarchy, with the dictator taking the place of the monarch. What I'm proposing as a compromise idea is a limited dictatorship with the limits being imposed by an elected legislature.

In monarchies, this idea has long stood the test of time. The best example is the U.K., which combines the supposed opposites of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy into one reasonably functioning whole. The reason why the idea of limited dictatorship hasn't occurred to anyone is because modern dictators have excelled at turning elections into shams. Theoretically, Stalin's U.S.S.R. was a limited dictatorship. In practice, it was a dreadfully efficient terror state. The example of Stalin suggests that limited dictatorship is as unworkable as limited monarchy is workable.

But that's because of the way the Communist government was purportedly limited. The makers of its sham constitution acted as reasonable people who expected the absolute ruler to act reasonably too. Limitations on dictatorial power are not achieved through reasonableness. Dictators are men of force, of coercion; they only respect force. Limited dictatorship can't work unless the dictator is limited by a successful uprising. Sadly, the Kronstadt rebellion wasn't successful.

Limited monarchy was a device to placate rebels who were angered at the use of absolute power. The specific outrages vary. For example, the English Glorious Revolution was touched off by the Roman Catholic James II having a Catholic son. Regardless of the proximate causes, limiting absolute power through unrest has expanded freedom – without the demons that revolution tends to unleash. Witness Russia in 1917.

By suggesting this for Libya, I'm not following in Chavez's wake. Hugo Chavez is a military man at heart; any solution he comes up with, if any at all, is likely to divide Libya up into two separate regions. He, as military men are wont to do, is likely thinking of an armistice-based split of the country: Gadaffi's Libya and an autonomous Authority where rebels would govern. We've seen what trouble that leads to in Israel: a 'peace' that acts merely as a ceasefire. A more specific drawback of that plan is the question of the oil fields and refineries.  
On the other hand, endorsing the rebels' efforts by turning Gadaffi into a President-for-Life facing a strong and vibrant legislature would let both sides save face. Gadaffi could say he's kept his position as supreme leader, and the rebels could say they've wrested real power from the dictator. They would have, in the same manner that power has durably been wrested from absolute rulers all through history. For once, the term "democratic dictatorship" could be used without slyness, snigger or headache.  

I'll grant I can be accused of being a meddler, or an impractical dreamer, for suggesting it. Certainly, it's not a low-risk proposal. Gadaffi's vanity is such that he might well take umbrage at the idea. Moreover, the Obama Administration flip-flopping yet again wouldn't add credibility to the United States in the region. This idea would best be left to an ally for whom compromise is not a sign of weakness or vacillation. The U.K. and Canada come to mind.

It isn't an ideal solution, but workable solutions on the world stage rarely are. Even the new United States had to face Shay's Rebellion, one of the preludes to the Revolution of 1800 that gave the new country the Bill of Rights. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching the gold market. He can be reached at danielmryan@primus.ca. (C) 2011 Daniel M. Ryan

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