Events in Libya seem to confirm it all over again:
In the crowded trauma room of a threadbare hospital, a procession of bedraggled soldiers files in, bearing a grim catalogue of wounds: shrapnel in the neck, gunshots to the chest, burned legs. Fierce fighting erupted here last week as a coalition of army, police, tribal militias and neighborhood volunteer forces launched a campaign dubbed “Operation Doom” to evict jihadist and Islamic State forces from their strongholds. . . .In other words, General Hifter is exactly the sort of figure so often thrown up by chaotic conflicts, an ambitious SOB with no respect for human rights who rises to power because no one else is doing anything decisive to bring the war to a close and restore some sort of normal life.
At a rally I attended for two slain activists, the eastern government’s minister for culture and media struck a defiant note, lambasting the United States Navy for waiting offshore but doing nothing against the Islamic State, and accusing Israel of supplying weapons to the jihadists. The audience roared with applause when he mentioned the name of Operation Doom’s architect: Gen. Khalifa Hifter.
General Hifter is Libya’s most powerful and polarizing figure. A former confidante of Muammar el-Qaddafi and longtime army officer who defected in the 1980s, he launched “Operation Dignity” in 2014 — an unsanctioned military operation to drive Islamist militias from Benghazi and end a wave of violence and assassinations that had plagued the city.
But he didn’t stop there. General Hifter tried to bring the war to Tripoli and topple the government and its Islamist factions. It was a threat that contributed to the division of the country. Supporters questioned if he had gone too far by labeling more moderate militias as terrorists. When I met General Hifter last year, his contempt for political Islamists of all stripes was clear. “There are three options for them,” he said “in the ground, in prison, or out of the country.”
I wrote a few days ago about the completely different situation unfolding in Kurdish Syria, where a weak, pluralistic democracy is organizing a decent military effort. So the rise of strongmen is not inevitable. But if it is to be prevented -- if revolutions are to lead to a genuinely better state, and not just a different sort of tyranny -- then either people have to work very hard and selflessly for a long time to make it happen, or the fighting has to be led by a George Washington sort of figure who genuinely wants democracy to take hold. Both circumstances are unusual.