Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libya and a War of Definitions

I tend to be less precise and less insistent about definitions than some folks, but I do want to make a few un-bold assertions about the state of play in Libya (and nearby) based on my understandings of the key concepts.

First, the war is, indeed, a civil war.  Some folks want to call it something else like a rebellion or a revolution (more on that in a second), but a civil war, to most scholars, involves two-sided combat between combatants within a country.  Usually, one of the combatants is the government.  If only one side is killing the other, as in mass killings and/or genocide, then it is not a civil war.  Perhaps the Libyan conflict started out as a mass killing, in an effort to repress the protestors, but the rebels have been fighting back, killing Qaddafy's troops for about six months now.  If one wants to get supra-technical, the usual standard is 1,000 battle deaths.  No doubt that we are beyond that. 

Second, it is far from clear that this will produce a revolution.  I think I might have mentioned this last spring at some point, but, in my mind, a revolution involves more than just a change in leadership.  We do not know yet what the form of the new government in Libya will be.  The constitution of the rebels is vague at best, and will only be worth more than the paper if folks follow through.  Looking at the other "revolutions" of the Arab Spring, it is not clear yet that significant political change will be occurring.  Egypt is still led by its military, so thus far we would code that case as a coup d'etat and not a revolution. If we want to go all Skocpol on this, a revolution involves changes in the shape of society and how government changes to match.  Just changing the guys at the top is not sufficient for a revolution and perhaps not even really for regime change, which suggests a change in the type of political system, not just the two or three goons at the top.

We need to be realistic and patient (six months from beginning to end of the civil war would not be a bad outcome at all).  We do not know what will emerge here and how long whatever does emerge will last.

This is the end of the beginning, as they say.

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