The Green Lantern Theory of State-Building

In a recent post on Human Rights Watch’s World Policy Blog, Hanan Salah nicely summarizes the poor state of state-building in post-Qaddafi Libya:

The main problem affecting both justice and security is that armed militias still maintain the upper hand. They have various agendas—financial, territorial, political, religious—and operate with impunity two years after the Qaddafi regime ended. Successive interim governments have failed to assert control over these militias, preferring to contract them as parallel forces to the army and police. Consequently, they retain a stranglehold over key security objectives, such as protecting Libya’s oil fields, making it ever harder for the government to break their financial dependency and hold on these lucrative opportunities. The structure of the militias and related armed groups, their shared interests, political aspirations, and the tribal nature of Libyan society are further complicating factors.

This passage gets at the chicken-and-egg problem that makes state-building so hard, not just in Libya but everywhere. “Justice and security” are the chief public goods a state exists to provide, but the provision of those goods depends on widespread obedience of state authority, and that authority is hard to construct.

What bugged me about Salah’s otherwise excellent post was the use of the verb “prefer” to indicate why this authority isn’t cohering faster in Libya. “Prefer” connotes choice, and I’m not convinced that the officials comprising Libya’s internationally recognized government have very much of that. They face an array of entrenched militias that are probably profiting handsomely from control of their various fiefdoms. Those officials supposedly command an army and police force of their own, but those organizations are still small and under-resourced. Worse, the revenue streams that could make the national army and state police stronger—including oil—are often controlled by the very militias those forces are supposed to be beefing up to defeat. Under these circumstances, how exactly are Libyan officials supposed to persuade these militias to cooperate? Give them a stern talking-to?

To be fair, Salah’s post is hardly the first place I’ve seen this line. Actually, I think it’s fair to say that this is comparative politics’ version of the Green Lantern Theory that Matt Yglesias coined to describe neoconservative U.S. foreign policy and Brendan Nyhan has since extended to the American presidency. In the Green Lantern Theory, political outcomes are mostly a matter of will. If the state doesn’t cohere, it’s because the people tasked with doing it lack the spine to fulfill their charge as duly chosen leaders.

If we reject the Green Lantern Theory of state-building and recognize that power is at least as important as will, it’s tempting to think that outsiders can goose the process with an infusion of armed forces, or at least the money and training an internationally recognized government needs to build up its own. The growth of the state is stunted, so a few costly doses of hormone therapy should do the trick. In fact, as Reuters reported, Libya’s prime minister recently made just this plea at an investment conference in London:

If the international community does not help in the collection of arms and ammunition, if we don’t get help in forming the army and the police, things are going to take very long… The situation is not going to improve unless we get real and practical assistance.

In fact, politics isn’t nearly as mechanical and modular as this idea implies. Before embarking on a new state-boosting mission in Libya, foreign governments would do well to take another look at Somalia, which has been the target of similar treatments for the past two decades. As Alex de Waal describes in a recent post on the LRB Blog,

[President] Hassan’s Western backers have not yet squared the circle of pouring money and guns into a client government to fight a counterinsurgency, and preventing that government from becoming rentierist, militaristic and corrupt. Rent-seeking pervades the whole system: the president or defence minister must bargain separately with each military unit to secure its loyalty for each operation. And even then, he cannot order a Somali unit to enter a ‘liberated’ town where the locals won’t welcome it. It’s no surprise that Somalis hedge their bets against the time when the [Somali Federal Government's] international sponsors tire of a Sisyphean counterinsurgency and sell out their erstwhile proxies. Even if al-Shabab were defeated, it wouldn’t solve Somalia’s problems. The corrupt rentierist system of government, which gave rise to al-Shabab in the first place, would be more entrenched than before.

Much the same could be said of Afghanistan, too.

And this is the Great Frustration of applied social science: prescription doesn’t always follow from explanation. Even if we can understand pretty well why state-building is so hard, we still can’t figure out how to control it. Whether that’s a curse or a blessing will depend on whom you ask, and therein lies the essence of politics.

Did Libya Cause Mali?

Did the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya cause the ongoing crisis in Mali?

A lot of people seem to think so. Number 4 on Max Fisher’s “Nine Questions about Mali You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask” is: “I heard that this whole crisis happened because of the war in Libya. Is that true?” Yesterday on the BBC’s This Week, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan seemed to answer in the affirmative when he described Mali as “collateral damage” from Libya.

The accounts I’ve read from people who closely study the country generally attribute the crisis in Mali to two things: 1) the resumption of armed rebellion in northern Mali in January 2012; and 2) the mutiny and coup that ensued in March. As I understand those experts’ arguments, the scale of the current crisis is due to the intersection of these two. Neither the rebellion nor the coup alone was sufficient to produce the state collapse that is compelling the large-scale international response. If neither was sufficient alone, then both were necessary.

Did Libya’s collapse cause one or both of these events? It certainly seems to have played some role. As proponents of the “Libya caused Mali” line have pointed out, the resumption of rebellion in the north was driven, in part, by an inflow of fighters and arms fleeing Libya after the fall of their patron and purchaser, Moammar Qaddafi. The resumption of the Tuareg’s rebellion, in turn, appears to have helped trigger the military coup. After seizing power, the putschists sometimes identified the government’s weak support for their fight against the rebels as the motivation behind the mutiny that evolved into a coup when it encountered little resistance.

To make strong claims about the importance of Libya to Mali, though, we have to believe that one or both of these things—the rebellion and the coup—would not have happened if Libya hadn’t imploded. Here, I think the assertion that “Libya caused Mali” gets much weaker.

On the fight in the north, a recent Think Africa Press piece by Andy Morgan asserts that the resumption of rebellion had been planned for some time, suggesting that Libya’s collapse was not a necessary condition for its occurrence. “In truth, neither Gaddafi’s fall nor AQIM nor drugs and insecurity are the prime movers behind this latest revolt,” Morgan writes. “They are just fresh opportunities and circumstances in a very old struggle.” Morgan’s account isn’t gospel, of course, but it does imply that rebellion could have and probably would have recurred in the north regardless of Gaddafi’s fate. Libya’s collapse seems to have affected the timing and possibly the strength of that assault, but it doesn’t appear to have been necessary for its occurrence.

The connection between Libya and the March 2012 coup is even more tenuous. Statistical models I developed to forecast coups d’etat identified Mali as one of the countries at greatest risk in 2012 before the coup happened, and that assessment was not particularly sensitive to events in Libya. The chief drivers of that forecast were Mali’s extreme poverty (as captured by its infant mortality rate) and the character of its pre-coup political institutions. One of the models takes armed conflict in the region into account, but it’s not an especially influential risk factor, and the impact of Libya’s civil war on the final forecast is negligible.

This forecast suggests that a coup in Mali was entirely plausible absent the rebellion in the north, and that impression is bolstered by the reporting of Bruce Whitehouse from Bamako in a March 2012 blog post:

The way [coup leader Capt.] Sanogo went on to justify the coup was inconsistent and wide-ranging. His initial responses to questions about his troops’ demands indicated that their primary concerns centered around living conditions, pay, and education and job opportunities for their children. When prompted about insecurity in northern Mali, however, he claimed that this issue “occupied 70 percent of their preoccupations.” (During a later interview, Sanogo again had to be reminded about the rebellion after listing the factors that led to the coup.)

The statements of actors engaged in the politics in question aren’t always (often? ever?) honest or reliable, but in this case they align with the information we get from the statistical model. It really isn’t that hard to imagine a coup occurring in Mali in 2012 regardless of events in Libya.

In retrospect, it’s easy to construct narratives that connect Mali to Libya. What’s harder is to imagine the other ways things might have unfolded and assess how likely those counterfactual histories are. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but I think this quick accounting shows that we could have arrived at something very much like the current crisis in Mali even if the Gaddafi regime had never collapsed. That doesn’t mean events in Libya have had no effect on the crisis in Mali, but it does suggest that the one is not the cause of the other.

Libya Revisited

Since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime a little more than a year ago, Libya has served as a Rorschach test for American and European observers of international relations—a complex and disorderly swirl of political events onto which we typically project our prior beliefs about the circumstances under which military intervention in other country’s conflicts is smart and just. Where observers whose biases tilt toward the “justice” part of that equation tend to see averted atrocities and nascent democracy, self-described “realists” usually spotlight the persistence of militia-fed violence and the secondary effects of Libya’s collapse on its neighbors in the Sahel as grounds for arguing that NATO should never have stepped in.

A recent article in the Economist offers fresh support for proponents of that intervention. In a dispatch entitled “Rising from the Ruins,” a magazine not known for its bleeding heart informs us that,

Since the colonel’s death in October last year at the hands of rebel fighters, Libya has not only held national elections, followed a fortnight ago by the presentation of a diverse government, albeit that not all of its members have been endorsed. It has also started to build a new system of civil administration that may one day form the backbone of a law-abiding and prosperous society.

The piece nods in the direction of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the fears of terrorism and religious extremism that were amplified by that assault, but it goes on to suggest that those fears may be misplaced.

On the ground, the picture, though far from uniformly rosy, is more hopeful. Many of the new state structures and services…are being created from the bottom up rather than handed down by a central government that is still only embryonic. The new powers in the land are council leaders, a sort of cross between mayors and regional governors. Some are doing well.

By “doing well,” the author seems to mean “doing what governments are supposed to do,” namely, providing order and delivering basic public goods:

Regional structures are taking shape. Rickety they may be, but they increasingly trump those in the capital, where political rivalries and the fear of being accused of corruption have led ministers to duck hard decisions. Some cities are creating their own economic links with the outside world…Dynamic local leaders have improved services. The streets of a range of coastal towns are far cleaner than in Cairo or Tunis. Rubbish-collecting lorries and street sweepers in tidy overalls are out every morning. Hospitals have reopened. Most important for ordinary Libyans, services such as tap water and electricity—disrupted during the rebellion—are working just about everywhere. Children are back at school.

I’m not a Libya pro, and I can’t offer any first-hand accounts of developments there from my desk in suburban Maryland. What I can bring to the table is the perspective of a longtime observer of democratization and state collapse. From that perch, I think the skeptics are mostly wrong. Critics of NATO’s intervention are right to bemoan the violence and injustice and spillover that Libya’s collapse has brought. The mistake they make, I think, lies in their failure to consider a realistic set of alternatives to NATO intervention and where they would have led.

My sense of the plausible alternatives starts from the observation that the Libyan state under Gaddafi was a personalist regime—a system in which political authority is almost wholly concentrated in the hands of single individual—and all personalist regimes collapse eventually. As Barbara Geddes has shown in her excellent work on authoritarian breakdown, personalist regimes rarely survive the death of their “big man,” and the ensuing breakdowns are often bloody.

Given these facts, the idea that would-be interveners were choosing between fomenting instability or returning to authoritarian stability is false. Without any nudge from NATO forces, Libya in 2011 had already slipped into civil war. At that point, its possible futures included a quick and brutal restoration of order under Gaddafi, a quick rebel victory, or a protracted civil war. Absent foreign intervention, either brutal repression or a protracted civil war appeared to be the most likely trajectories, while a quick rebel victory seemed highly unlikely.

It’s easy to see that every one of these scenarios would have been bloody. What’s more often overlooked, I think, is that every one of these scenarios would also have led to state collapse followed by a long and messy period of state-building. The only real difference is in the timing. Even if the Gadaffi regime had managed to restore control in 2011, Geddes’ research suggests that it would merely have postponed its day of reckoning; the factional scrambles we’re seeing today would have occurred eventually, only after another episode of brutal repression and probably after another eruption of civil war. Meanwhile, a prolonged version of the conflict that started in 2011 would have entailed its own form of state collapse, de facto partition, that would have produced many of the same negative repercussions we’re now lamenting (militia justice, spillover effects) while merely delaying the arrival of the positive ones. By helping to hasten the rebels’ victory in a fight that started without them, NATO’s intervention merely accelerated the arrival of a tumultuous but inevitable period of political transformation.

Some critics of the NATO intervention are comfortable with the decision to intrude in Libya’s civil war but critical of the hands-off approach the United States and Europe have taken to state-building. What I think we’re seeing in dispatches like the one in this week’s Economist, however, is that the absence of a heavy foreign footprint in post-Gaddafi Libyan politics is actually serving the country pretty well. Rather than weakly empowering a favored cadre and encouraging massive rent-seeking, the less intrusive posture the United States and Europe have adopted in Libya is allowing state-building to proceed of its own accord.

Now, instead of swinging away at a foreign-funded piñata, Libya’s regional factions have to choose between swinging at each other or working out ways to get along. Because none of those regional factions enjoys a significant coercive advantage over its rivals, there are strong incentives to refrain from the former, and that seems to be helping push the latter along. As James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, it’s impossible to remove the causes of factionalism, so the best we can do is to try to control its effects. The crazy-quilt character of post-Gaddafi politics may be hindering the emergence of a powerful central government, but it also naturally protects against one alternative that Madison saw as a graver threat than faction, namely, a tyranny of the majority. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that the state produced by this halting process will ultimately prove more durable than any construct we would have gotten from another foreign-funded, “high modernist” state-building binge. If Afghanistan and Iraq are any guide, that’s actually not a very high bar to clear.

The Libyan Surprise

Libya doesn’t have a democratic government yet, but after yesterday’s elections, it’s awfully close. As Juan Cole summarizes, turnout for the national vote was good, violence was scarce, and voters were ebullient. If the national assembly these elections were choosing manages to convene and to appoint a government, Libya will have crossed the threshold to electoral democracy for the first time in its history.

According to prevailing theories of democratization, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Libya is an oil-rich country with no democratic experience in a part of the world where democratic development has lagged badly. Because of its oil, Libya is not poor, but decades of punitive rule by the Gaddafi regime left the country without the kind of organized “civil society” often cast as the workhorses of democratization. Theories of authoritarian breakdown predicted correctly that Gaddafi’s personalistic regime would end with a bang, but they also told us that democracy was unlikely to follow. Contrary to theories that see European and American democracy-promotion schemes as crucial catalysts of reform, democratization is occurring in Libya with virtually no outside prodding. Foreign forces helped tip the revolution against Gaddafi, and the U.N. has provided important technical assistance for the elections, but the impetus to the transition has really been domestic. Reflecting many of these conventional views, a statistical model I built to forecast when countries with authoritarian regimes would cross this threshold pegged Libya’s prospects for a transition in 2012 pretty close to zero.

Libya is also unusual in that it isn’t really a state right now, at least not a functional one. The National Transitional Council (NTC) that is supposed to step aside when the new assembly appoints a government is recognized internationally as Libya’s sovereign authority, but its domestic recognition is much weaker. By my reckoning, the Libyan state collapsed in 2011, and the NTC’s bumbling rule hasn’t reversed that process. I can’t think of another modern case where national elections were held successfully in a country that was as politically fragmented as Libya is today. The NTC is the nominal national government, but the country is largely being run by a melange of city and neighborhood councils and the revolutionary militias that midwifed their birth.

What the faithful might call a miracle, statisticians would call an outlier. Whatever tag we apply, this is clearly a happy surprise.

I don’t have much to say (yet) about why this surprise has happened. I will say that grand theories of democratization have failed plenty of times before, and efforts to construct new mid-range theories probably ought to wait a few more years for new patterns to cohere—not just in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia—before attempting to assert any new patterns with confidence.

Of course, even a successful transition would not put Libya on a glide path to a democratic future. As I discussed on this blog last year, most first attempts at democracy fail, usually within a decade of their start. At this early stage, there’s no reason to assume that Libya will also buck the trend on this side of the imaginary wall.

It might, though, and the fact that this possibility even exists is a welcome and delightful surprise—for the world, yes, but for Libyans most of all.

Why Didn’t Gaddafi Just Retire?

Close on the heels of his capture and apparent execution by Libyan rebels, we are learning that longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi amassed an astonishing personal fortune over his 40+ years in power. According to a story in today’s Washington Post (emphasis added),

Gaddafi secretly salted away more than $200 billion in bank accounts, real estate and corporate investments around the world before he was killed — about $30,000 for every Libyan citizen and double the amount that Western governments previously had suspected, according to senior Libyan officials…If the values are accurate, Gaddafi will go down in history as one of the most rapacious as well as one of the most bizarre world leaders.

That’s billion with a B, folks. If it’s even close to accurate, that fortune would have made Gaddafi the richest person in the world.

Gaddafi’s mind-boggling wealth poses a puzzle for political scientists who study authoritarian rule. With all that money stuffed under his mattress, why didn’t Gaddafi just walk away early in the course of the rebellion to enjoy a fat retirement? When you’ve already got $200 billion to work with, the marginal benefits of additional accumulation are going to be pretty thin. Instead, Gaddafi chose to stick it out, and look where that decision got him (warning: graphic).

Most theories of authoritarian rule solve this problem by fiat. Rulers are simply assumed to value staying in office over everything else, and at virtually any cost. If we start with that assumption, Gaddafi’s behavior is not puzzling at all–but recently “retired” Tunisian president Ben Ali‘s is. Recall that Ben Ali fled his country just a few weeks after Tunisia’s popular uprising started to gain steam, before it was apparent whether or not the challenge could be sustained. Clearly, retirement is an option for some dictators.

In short, I think we still have a pretty poor understanding of what motivates authoritarian rulers to cling to power (or not). This matters, because the better we understand rulers’ motivations, the better equipped we are as policy-makers or activists to design strategies that might drive those rulers from office and allow for democratization. Among the many things the Arab uprisings of 2011 will give the world, perhaps one of them will be a better grasp of how dictators decide when enough is enough.

PS. On October 23, The New York Times ran this story describing Gaddafi’s last days, based mostly on the account of one member of his inner circle. The story suggests that Gaddafi may have been willing to cede power and trying to flee the country toward the end, but it’s hard to put a lot of stock in the words of one man whose own fate was so closely tied to the colonel’s.

PPS. Over at the Monkey Cage, eminent political scientist Barbara Walter sees Gaddafi’s decision to stick it out as an unfortunate side effect of a strengthened International Criminal Court.


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