"I don't think anybody disputes that Gaddafi has more firepower than the opposition," President Obama said at a recent White House news conference.
"I believe that Gaddafi is on the wrong side of history [emphasis added]. I believe that the Libyan people are anxious for freedom and the removal of somebody who has suppressed them for decades now. We are going to be in contact with the opposition, as well as in consultation with the international community, to try to achieve the goal of Mr Gaddafi being removed from power,” the president offered in response to journalists’ questions.
First, the president’s comments at his news conference were most revealing. Let’s examine that supposition: Are the Libyan rebels on the wrong side of history in the Arab world?
You don’t have to get too far into Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis’ many penetrating histories and analyses of the Arab world and Islam before you recognize a pattern. For 1,400 years, we have seen an unvarying succession of rulers—Beys, Deys, Wazirs, Sultans, etc.—who have held power in this vast region. None has come to power through anything like consent of the governed. Pericles of Athens ? No. The Roman Senate? Not in the least.
The history of this region is replete with one strong man after another who came to power through force and who remained in power so long, and only so long, as he had the ruthlessness to kill or exile any rivals for power.
So when our president tells us that Gaddafi is on the wrong side of history, we have to ask: Whose history? Muammar Gaddafi is certainly not out of sync with the unbroken history of his region and culture.
Second, Napoleon’s cynical comment that “God favors the side with the larger artillery” seems at least worth considering here. Napoleon may actually have had greater artillery support at Waterloo than his British and Prussian foes, but he was nonetheless defeated by charging, bayonet-wielding British infantry.
We have yet to see in the ranks of the Libyan rebels—who seem to spend much of their time dangerously firing their rifles in the air—the kind of discipline, skill, and determination required to take down an entrenched tyranny.
Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence, the hapless James R. Clapper, put his chips on Gaddafi’s surviving in testimony before Congress last week.
The White House was at pains to “walk back” Clapper’s statements, but he clearly said he expected Gaddafi to prevail.
Third, and this is most intriguing, where does that “wrong side of history” idea come from? President Obama was at pains to tell the National Prayer Breakfast of his conversion experience. He certainly sounded sincere. But “The Wrong Side of History” trope is drawn from Karl Marx. It presumes that there is a dialectic—a great impersonal, inevitable force moving through time and space. It presumes that history is going one way. Thus, to Marxists, you can be “on the wrong side of history.”
Not all “wrong siders” must be Marxists, of course. At the beginning of the 1990s, it was fashionable among big thinkers to speak of “the end of history.” It seemed then to some that democratic free enterprise systems had proven themselves superior by defeating Nazism and outlasting Communism that there would be no reasonable debate about the future shape of governments and economies—only a variety of ways to get there.
That was before 9/11. That was before the U.S. and the Free World were confronted with a global conspiracy against religious freedom, constitutional government, and human rights.
I have confidence that we must and shall prevail over jihadism. But I would not say that our victory is assured by some inevitability of history. Ronald Reagan often said that every generation has the task of defending freedom. That task now falls to us.
Talk of the “wrong side of history” can only induce passivity. And it also invites the charge of arrogance. After all, who is this president to decree which way history is going?
So far, the history of this administration in foreign policy has been one of muddling through. It’s hard to be on “the “right side of history” (if such there could be) when most of the time you are straddling the fence.