Revolutions are all the rage these days. Some, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, are successful. Others, like those in Iran and the quickly-squashed uprising planned for China, are not. Some, like those in Bahrain and Yemen, continue on with an uncertain outcome. At least one is turning ugly faster than the news can keep up.
As of Tuesday, violence engulfed Tripoli, the capital of Libya, and Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi vowed to fight to the last bullet. A Libyan civil war has immediate and interesting political ramifications for the United States. In the Egyptian, Tunisian and Iranian protests, the Obama administration publicly backed the pro-democracy demonstrators, setting a precedent that, politically speaking, would be difficult to avoid in Libya.
So, President Barack Obama has to back the democracy-chasers in Libya. That's fine, because America has a long and cherished history of trying to instill democracy in the developing world. We need look no further than the failed experiment in Iraq to see that American-mandated democracy isn't the way to go. Rather, our support can foster a nascent democracy. We'll support the pro-democracy Libyans in defiance of Qaddafi because we've talked ourselves into a corner in which that's the only thing we can do.
Historically, the U.S. has shown no ideological aversion to foreign meddling in civil wars: We brought the French in for our revolution (which was basically a civil war); the Confederates were courting Britain during the Civil War; we're happy to arm and supply any pro-Western faction that crops up internationally; and since the Theodore Roosevelt era, we've seen ourselves as the policemen of the world. These examples are underscored by the overwhelming hegemony of the American military that, while weakening, is still stronger than that of any other nation. In short, we're good at meddling.
Assuming we back the Libyan revolutionaries, however, we will have to make a policy decision almost immediately: Do we stop at rhetoric? Or should we give the Libyan rebels the arms that they'll certainly need? Funds? Should we divert some of our own troops, jets and ships in order to bolster the revolutionary militia?
And when we do these things – if we do these things – can we ever deny the same aid to other nascent democracies?
Consider the idea of the Jasmine Revolution in China, which had been planned for Feb. 20 in the country's largest cities. Reportedly, China shut down mass communication channels and sent security forces out to make sure that no protests materialized. If the protests had gotten off the ground, if the revolutionaries were to gain any traction and ask for United States support, could we deny them? No, not if we had helped Libya. But where Libya is a small country, China holds the second-largest economy and the largest population on the planet; the political, economic and military repercussions of our supporting protesters there could be incredible.
Nevertheless, it may be impossible for America to avoid such entanglements in the coming weeks and months. Ideologically, our very fundamental values are being demanded in oppressed nations controlled by administrations we have long been wary of. Can America ignore democracy in its infancy? No, no we cannot.