Realism, Idealism, and Chaos in Libya

A Libyan rebel celebrates victory over Qaddafi in Tripoli.

The apparent victory of Libya’s rebels over the Moammar Qaddafi regime has sparked much celebration but has also raised troubling questions about what comes next.  Specifically, can Libya’s rebels avoid infighting, resist the temptation to seek bloody reprisals against former regime loyalists, and form an effective government that represents Libya’s people?  As foreign policy analyst and former National Security Council official James Lindsay notes in his blog: “These celebrations are as understandable as they are premature. The tyrant is leaving, but who or what replaces him remains to be decided.”

It is likely that there will be at least some period of post-Qaddafi chaos in Libya, and this chaos and uncertainty is viewed differently by the two dominant perspectives on world politics: realism and idealism.  Realists focus on the national interest and emphasize pragmatism, stability, and the maintenance of a balance of power.  They do not favor humanitarian intervention (unless it also promotes their country’s economic, security, or other interests) and they generally view the chaos and uncertainty associated with regime change as more problematic than the continued human rights violations produced by an entrenched, tyrannical, but generally predictable autocracy.  So for American realists, pursuing regime change in Libya, Iraq, Egypt, or elsewhere is a dangerous game that could result in worse outcomes (e.g., more anti-American regimes or chaotic safe havens for terrorists) than the status quo. 

Idealists, on the other hand, focus more on global concerns (including human rights and poverty) and view systematic human rights abuses and repression as a more serious problem than the chaos and uncertainty that regime change normally produces.  For idealists, stability is not valued if it is perceived as unjust, and transformation (albeit risky) is embraced as a viable policy goal.  Idealists are optimistic that democracy and peace can emerge from the chaos, while realists (as is the case on most issues) are more pessimistic about claims that the future will inevitably be brighter.  Noted realist Stephen Walt writes in his blog:

“Whether our intervention was necessary or wise, however, depends on how the post-Qaddafi Libya evolves.  We can all hope that the worst doesn’t happen and that Libya’s new leaders exhibit Mandela-like wisdom and restraint…But it will be no small task to construct a workable government in Libya, given the dearth of effective institutions and the potential divisions among different social groups.  And then there’s all that oil revenue to divide up, which tends to bring out peoples’ worse instincts.  As in Iraq, therefore, ousting a discredited dictator is likely to be the easy part, and the hard part is just beginning.”

What do you think?  Is stability or transformation a wiser foreign policy goal?  Or does it depend on the situation?  Are the “stay out” realists or the “get involved” idealists vindicated by the post-Qaddafi chaos in Libya?

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3 responses to “Realism, Idealism, and Chaos in Libya

  1. Pingback: Is the Best Hope for Democracy Its Short-Term Suppression? | World Politics News Review

  2. Pingback: Can Realism Solve America’s (and the World’s) Foreign Policy Problems? | World Politics News Review

  3. Pingback: Reciprocity, Secrecy, and Blowback | World Politics News Review

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