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.

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