New political understandings are being launched each day, it seems. From one quarter comes what we might call Praetorian Realism, an acknowledgment of Samuel Huntington’s scenario for the military disciplining of civil chaos in modernizing lands.1 From another comes Matrix Realism, emphasizing the army’s role in the institutional order of the Arab countries.2 In this expansive intellectual climate, with its growing range of options, perhaps there’s room for one more entrant. Let’s call it Tribal Realism, the aim being to bring anthropological insights to bear on our political prospects abroad. Tribal Realism might have a number of practical applications, but its immediate goal would be to vet Western political speeches to delete all references to “the people” of Libya, or Iraq or Afghanistan. It will then try to decompose this popular collective noun into its actual constituent parts. Admittedly, removing such a warmly democratic term as “the people” will leave a sizeable hole in the prevailing rhetoric, exposing speechwriters for assorted presidents and prime ministers to a pressing need for workable replacements, but the benefits should outweigh the costs.
For one thing, it will expose the enemy, too. From his Bedouin tent, Colonel Muamar Qaddafi has said he would not dream of harming “his people”, let alone shooting and shelling them, and he undoubtedly means it. Correctly understood, however, Qaddafi’s people are, first, his family, consisting of his wives and children; next, his clan; then, his tribe; and finally, by a no doubt deplorable process of geographical attenuation, those tiny insignificant figures in the direction of Benghazi, who hardly count at all. Once we grasp this meaning of the term “people”, we will see that Qaddafi is telling the truth. In the colonel’s ethical universe those who deserve his exclusive concern are the men and women he regards as kin. In contrast, that unruly rabble to the east may legitimately be hunted down and mercilessly killed. That is what desert chieftains have historically done when they could. That is what men like Qaddafi see as their duty to do, and that is what his numerous dependents—“his people”—expect him to do.