The Limits of Knowledge in a Revolutionary Scenario

The precise nature of the rebel groups the US, France, and Britain are supporting in Libya remains somewhat mysterious, which has raised a lot of eyebrows among skeptics of the operation. And, certainly, I think this is legitimate grounds for doubt. As Aswini Anburajan says:

Knowing thy allies should be as critical as knowing one’s enemies, as the U.S. learned in supporting and arming Afghan rebels in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. The BBC reports that Nato Operations Commander, Admiral James Stavridis, has said that there are “flickers” of al-Qaeda activity among the rebels, but overall there’s a question mark in who these individuals are.

I would in some ways go stronger than this. One of the big issues is that there are pretty strict limits to how much one can really know in any given situation. When a country is occupied by a Soviet invading army or run by a nutty dictator, opposition is bound to be pretty diverse. And when opposition politics takes the form of armed combat, the resulting situation is just inherently difficult to predict. The act of combat is often radicalizing in different ways, and war itself creates novel leadership dynamics. To take a familiar — and benign — example, George Washington became the preeminent leader of the newborn American republic as a result of the prolonged armed struggle with England. That wasn’t a pre-existing fact about the conflict, it was a product of the conflict. In a less benign, but in some respects similar, way the French revolution elevated Napoleon to the heights of political leadership. Even less benign is the case of Lenin. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that as of the February Revolution in Russia that Bolsheviks were the predominant actors among the opposition to the tsar, but nonetheless within a year they were running the show.

In Libya it’s not just that there are things we don’t know about the rebel groups. We simply don’t know what’s going to happen in the days and weeks to come. We don’t know which people will get killed, we don’t know which people will emerge as heroes in battles that haven’t yet been fought. The situation is fraught with uncertainty that I just don’t think is within our power to resolve at this point no matter how hard we try.