Libya, obsolete paradigms, and Rip Van Winkle

Lisa Anderson’s research of political systems in Libya reveals that standard Middle East Studies paradigms don’t fully apply.
faculty seminar
middle east studies

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I’m still experimenting with what I’m going to blog about here. I’m thinking of sticking with an odd mixture of technology and academia, which might work out well since I’m considering doing my upcoming thesis on technology in the Middle East, specifically blogging. So, here’s a purely academic post to start things off.

On Tuesday Dr. Lisa Anderson, AUC’s Provost and former professor at Columbia University, came to speak at a faculty seminar at the Middle East Studies Center. She’s a political scientist by training and started her academic career by studying Libya. Her talk focused on the role of traditional social studies disciplines in the study of the Middle East.

General social studies separated into more specialized disciplines in the early 1900s as progressive governments in the US and Europe became increasingly interested in understanding the dynamics of the social “here and now.” New disciplines of social studies emerged with the explicit purpose of improving governance, public administration, and economy. Economists researched and theorized how to stabilize and grow a capitalist economy; political scientists looked at the processes that created a stable democracy; sociologists tackled the dynamics of the changing progressive societies. Social scientists not explicitly concerned with the issues of “here and now” also emerged; those not interested in “here” entered anthropology while those not interested in “now” created the discipline of history.

Over the past century, scholarship in these disciplines has been rather entrenched along this foundational paradigm: research to improve capitalism and democracy. Because of this disciplinary emphasis and paradigm of US/Western-style economics and political systems, any research on other systems of government or economies are always done in terms of the “Western” social science paradigm.

For example, every class I’ve taken on Middle East politics always focuses on the processes of democratization and the persistence of authoritarianism. Elections (fair or not), development of civil society, the emergence of political parties—these are signs of “political development” for a political scientist. Economists look at how liberalized a state’s economy is—how open for investment and primed for capitalism it is. In a way, strict disciplinary social studies of societies outside the US and Europe seem to place other countries on a linear progressive timeline; studies of Egyptian politics reveal how democratized Egypt is or isn’t.

Not all countries—not even Egypt—fit into this standard disciplinary framework. Did Nasser really care if his Arab Socialist revolution fit into a future program of democratization? No way. He didn’t even think of it. Arab political scientists don’t generally look at it that way.

This theme of trying to fit the Middle Eastern peg in the academic square is well pronounced in Libya, which, because international sanctions for the past few decades, has been pretty isolated. According to Dr. Anderson, the case of Libya shows the limits of traditional Western social sciences.

Muammar Qaddafi, the crazy Libyan dictator surrounded by female bodyguards and who made up his country’s name, has ruled Libya for 40 years. He’s been operating with a unique paradigm of political and economic theory that doesn’t jive with the standard Western view. He published a three volume exposition of his political and social views in 1975 called The Green Book. Qaddafi’s view of Libya’s political paradigm is completely different from Western disciplinary political science. For Qaddafi, the ideal political system is more of a radical, romantic, Rousseauian world where each individual represents themselves and has an innate skepticism of the state. His theory of the Libyan economy makes no mention of the market, the main protagonist of “standard” economics. Sociologically, the individual in Qaddafi’s Libya is not the fundamental unit of analysis—the family or tribe is. In practice there are no political parties or parliaments in Libya; each community runs itself with town hall-esque meetings. His social theory seems to be working for the most part.

In the 80s, because of different international incidents involving Libya, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, America and most of the international community imposed strict sanctions on Libya, aimed at isolating and punishing them. All relations between America and Libya were effectively destroyed and Libya entered what she called a “Rip Van Winkle” era; life continued in total isolation in Libya under Qaddafi’s political and social theory.

In 2004 (about 20 years later…just like Rip Van Winkle, oddly enough) the sanctions eased and American and the rest of the world began diplomatic and academic contacts again. Because of the sanctions, Libya had missed out on the techno-political revolution of the internet. There were no banks; nobody knew what a credit card was. Dr. Anderson visited several universities in 2004 after this long isolation and found a globe in the center of the reference area of the library—North Asia was still labeled as the USSR.

Don’t go under international sanctions on the eve of a technological revolution. It’s not a good idea. At all.

As the conflict and tension between Libya and the rest of the world began to thaw, American social scientists got excited. They could finally observe Libya’s progress in democratization and economic liberalization; Libya was on the path. Once the sanctions ended, Libya started assimilating into the new world order. It officially apologized for its limited involvement in the Lockerbie crash. It disbanded all attempts at a nuclear weapons program. It was given a rotating seat on the UN security council. Condoleezza Rice even visited and on the eve of George Bush’s presidency, in January 2009, the US and Libya exchanged ambassadors.

However, despite all this apparent liberalization and openness in Libyan politics and the subsequent disciplinary excitement in political science, Libyan experts like Lisa Anderson see a different reality. Qaddafi is following his own trajectory, totally outside the traditional paradigm. He’s not progressing towards democracy—he’s already got a pseduodemocratic Era of the Masses political and economic system and is happy with it. He’s realized that in order to continue with his social revolution, he has to be somewhat involved with the world, and so he presents a facade of integration.

For example, when the Libyans ended their WMD program in 2006 and turned over all their nuclear material, all the machinery was still boxed up in crates. American politicians and political scientists applauded the IAEA for catching and stopping Libya before they could unpack anything. A widespread rumor/theory in both Libya and in academic and political circles, though, claims that Libya never had a program for WMD development. Their infrastructure and level of development couldn’t have handled such a large project. According to this theory, Libya bought the materials from North Korea so they could have something to turn over to the UN and the USA. So, they announced their weapons program, were condemned by the international community, bought some nuclear machinery from Korea, turned themselves in, reduced international sanctions, and improved their reputation in the world.

The same theory applies to the Lockerbie apology. Two Libyans were partially responsible for the bombing, so the majority of the blame was placed on Libya, despite several other claims of responsibility from other international non-state actors. Most Libyans today fully believe that Libya had no real connection to the bombing, yet Libya settled on a large payout with the families of the victims and offered a full apology. Following the apology sanctions were further lightened.

Libya was merely paying cynical lip service to the absurd US-led world order. As Dr. Anderson stated:

If you’re playing the game that cynically, are you really playing the game? Libya is just playing the game; they think it’s just nonsense.

If you’re studying a country that considers the “standard” world political, economic, and social system as an absurd game, can you really fully understand it if you study it using disciplines created by that system for the explicit purpose of improving the system? Standard Western political science is still stuck looking at the “here and now” of the early 1900s. Libya doesn’t fit the social science mold at all—traditional social sciences therefore fall flat on their faces.

I’ve found that the same principle can be applied to other countries in the Middle East. When Egypt held elections in 2005, President Mubarak allowed a second candidate to run for the first time ever. Disciplinary political scientists praised his move as an important step towards liberal democratization. Mubarak won by a landslide through rigged elections and imprisoned his opposing candidate, Ayman Nour.

Great big step towards democracy, or false expectations rooted in a skewed and incorrect social science paradigm?