Some More (Unsolicited) Advice for the Libyan Rebels

Oh what fun we’ve had in the last six weeks! You folks were winning. And then you weren’t. And then the French and the American air forces showed up, allowing you to win again. And now you aren’t. To be crass, it’s like a tennis match. With tanks and bombs.

It’s clear at this point that not all Libyans support the uprising against Muammar Qaddafiy. Many do. Possibly even most. But not quite enough. Qaddafiy still commands a fairly well organized army, one that is still fairly cohesive despite being pounded from the air and losing both armor and artillery and the ability to effectively use armor and heavy artillery. It can still defeat you on the ground. What we had all hoped would be a fairly happy rerun of the December 1989 revolution in Romania has not happened. Qaddafiy has far more support in Libya than Nicolae Ceaucescu had in the end, and I suppose we can thank the tribal nature of Libyan society, as well as the fact the The Brother Leader had put many of his close family members in charge of those bits of government most important to him. (Modern state institutions like Egypt’s or Romania’s, with their desired basis in professionalism and competence rather than familial closeness, can easily betray a dictator if they see their best interests served in doing so. Political parties are also not families. Family is, well, family.)

So, some advice. As romantic and wonderful as a charge across the desert in Toyota pickup trucks is, beating the crap out of regime forces with the help of French and American fighter jets, it’s clear you’ve strung yourselves out too far and aren’t a coherent enough fighting force to effectively hold territory. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The French and Americans really are on your side. Don’t take the alleged impartiality of the UN Security Council resolution too seriously. The West is working for you. The presence of CIA advisors should be proof of that, not to mention all the bombing. Take advantage of that. Form a defensive line somewhere — I’d recommend Ajdabiya, but I understand y’all may be retreating from there as well — and then, with the help of all this allied air power, hold it. (For inspiration, let me suggest to you Surah 105 of the Qur’an, which relates the account of how God sent the birds to drop stones on Abraha’s army besieging the Ka’aba in Makka and destroy that army. If such a comparison, birds sent from God with the US and French air forces, seems blasphemous to you, consider that Kuwaitis were more than happy to make that link after the 1991 war to liberate their country.)
  • Organize, organize, organize. Yes, as I noted, the dash across the desert probably seems adventurous and romantic, all Lawrence of Arabia/Norman Schwartzkopf-like. (And perhaps there are stories from Libyan history as well.) But you aren’t an army, you are an armed mob. And the difference is being able to stand, defend and hold a position. Which you can’t. Even becoming a militia at this point would be an improvement. Slow down. Time is now on your side. Qaddafiy cannot legally re-equip his army (tanks and howitzers gone are gone for good), and allied air power will continue to wear it down. If Qaddafiy thinks he can outlast Western force, I’d suggest a quick Wikipedia search under “Hussein, Saddam” and “Milosevic, Slobodan.” (This may also inspire you to slow down.) Westerners may come off as sissies initially, but when we decide to wage war, we are relentless.
  • Form a proper government already. See the above section on organizing. You are getting there. But even Cote d’Ivoire has a proper, internationally recognized government.
  • But realize now your are conquering a country, not liberating it. Western reporters wandering around Tripoli a few days after the bombing began, in allegedly unminded moments, would get snippets of talk from Libyans stating something to the effect of “a week more of this and Tripoli will rise.” Maybe. But it has been nearly two weeks now, and none of the cities currently under Qaddafiy control have rebelled. It could be those under Qaddafiy’s rule — some, many, or most — are still oppressed by his regime and still too frightened to rise up. But it could also be that, at least in places, there is significant real support for Qaddafiy and his war aims. It is impossible to tell with dictatorships. It could also be the intervention of NATO has changed how Libyans in Qaddafiy-ruled areas view their government. Like Russians facing the Wermacht in 1941, they may be willing to fight for a regime they hate because it is fighting against foreign force. I do not know. But once it was clear this was no longer a mass, popular rebellion against a hated government and had become a civil war, the obvious outcome is that someone was going to be defeated and ruled against their will.
  • Foreign forces are coming ready or not. I know y’all have said you don’t believe you need foreign troops to help. And some of you may actually believe the UN resolution authorizing the war prevents foreign soldiers from intervening. It doesn’t. The West has already committed itself to the success of your increasingly haphazard rebellion, and if defending Benghazi and protecting Misurata cannot be done from the air, well, then it will be done on the ground, probably with French Foreign Legion regiments and U.S. Marine battalions. This will likely make any regime partisans fight all that much harder.
  • Get ready for a long war. It’s nice that Mousa Kousa showed up in London, resigned his old job and denounced his former employer. He also doesn’t matter much. Until the Qaddafiy regime leaders on the UN Security Council resolution 1970 list of sanctioned people and people prevented from traveling start defecting, the regime is still solid and still united and will still stand whatever ground it holds. You are going to have to take that ground meter by meter, probably, especially at the end. This is why you need to organize. To break Qaddafiy, you will need to break his state. Every bit of it. Without tiring or flinching. It’s very likely going to take awhile. And when you are done, you will have to rebuild just about everything from scratch. This is the course you have committed to.
Again, I suspect I have told y’all anything you don’t already know. And I haven’t said anything your supporters in Washington, Paris and London don’t already know too. May God be with you.

Obama’s Speech

I haven’t listened to a presidential speech in a while. I boycotted all of Bush Jong-Il’s speeches, and was right to do so, since listening to him simply made me angry. And up to last night’s speech on Libya, I had also ignored Barack Obama. When presidents talk, I just get angry. Last night was not much different.

Mostly it was twaddle and nonsense. Americans are not “reluctant” about using force, given the number of times we’ve gone to war since 1950 and the constant state of war since 1948. If anything, we are less reluctant about killing brown people now than we ever have been, merely because there is no other great power to threaten us if we go too far. Obama mentioned the Libyans who helped the pilot whose F-15 fighter-bomber crashed without also noting that the Marines who came to rescue the pilot fired upon those same Libyans and injured a number of them (and killed several, if I remember the reports right).

And of course there’s the idiocy of humanitarianism. I cannot even begin to express how foul and evil a justification this is for making war, the helping and bettering of others and the protection of the “innocent.” Obama stated as one justification for bombing Qaddafiy’s forces the fact that Muammar Qaddafiy used his air force to bomb civilians in cities who could not fight back. If this is a criteria for intervention, I wonder when the United States and its NATO allies will bomb Israel in defense of Gaza, which itself is regularly pounded from the air by Israeli fighter-bombers and whose people cannot adequately fight back or defend themselves against attack.

Oh, right. Never.

I have long had a disdain for much of the ethics of war in the West, with Just War Theory and all of that. I have been told I do not understand how these things work, and maybe that’s fair, but I don’t see the long, deliberative process at work that these processes of reasoning out when a government should go to war seem to require or mandate. All I see is justification after the fact, the decision to go to war first and then a self-righteous declaration that war is being fought allegedly not for our advantage, but to benefit of the people we are “helping.” George W. Bush could have given most of that speech, and it was completely in line with Obama’s intention to have America continue to dominate the world he set forth in the Nobel Peace Prize* (sic) speech. I also see essentialism at work, that the people making the decision to go to war are good people, the people they are fighting are bad people, and the people they are defending are innocent people — and it is always this way. There is never any reflection about the suffering our actions cause, and that we might not be the people we think we are, that the evil will so clearly see in others also resides in us, and is easily empowered by our self-obsession with our goodness and righteousness.

I also do not understand this focus on “innocence.” I remember from the time of the Bosnian War, meeting various Leftists in the United States and reading European Leftists who complained the Bosnian Muslims were not properly “innocent” because they (unlike European Jewry in the WWII) had the audacity to fight back, and thus were undeserving of help. Theologically, this makes utterly no sense, since in the Christian frame of ethics, none are innocent save Jesus Christ. “Innocence” should not be a requirement for assistance. But this also becomes self-serving, because we decide to justify our help by determining the people were are aiding (by bombing them) are “innocent” somehow and the people we don’t help are clearly guilty and deserve to be bombed by whoever isn’t us that’s bombing them. Again, this isn’t well-thought out prior reasoning, it’s after-the-fact justification. Always.

(Honest, I really do not understand this, and am convinced the desire to “save innocents” and inflict “justice upon the guilty” is really an excuse to exercise power, dominate others and inflict suffering upon people. I see no other reason for any of it. Helping them is only a cover for these things. If someone could explain this innocence thing, I’ll listen. I won’t be convinced, but I promise I’ll listen.)

And that last bit leads to another important point — every bleeding heart humanitarian has someone’s suffering they simply do not care about. Or are willing to empower and call righteous. (See Gaza.) So, in the end, their humanitarianism is completely situational and very selective. And they refuse to be called on this, since they are self-righteous — good people waging war to defend the innocent from evil. As an excuse to wage war, it is too noble, to attractive. It will lead, has already led, to far too much war, destruction, and domination.

Obama did touch upon the one real reason the West should act — because had Qaddafiy won two weeks ago (and if he still wins), refugees will flood not only Egypt and Tunisia, but Italy, Malta and Greece as well. Hundreds of thousands, probably more than a million. Qaddafiy would have been in charge of a broken, sanctioned, blockaded, impoverished country with few resources. Libyans would have suffered greatly under those sanctions, as Iraqis did in the 1990s. He would have had no reason to behave himself in Africa or elsewhere, and his connections with some of the world’s worst regimes would have been the only economic ties he would have been able to retain and strengthen. The material support Qaddafiy gave to Al Qaeda in Iraq beginning in 2007 would have continued, and probably also strengthened. (That many Iraqi veterans of the anti-US war in Iraq are now fighting Qaddafiy’s regime is proof that even dictators can face blowback.) Once Europe and the world more or less committed itself to supporting the rebels in their struggle to overthrow Qaddafiy, they were in.

And there is only on way this ends — with the death of most or all of the senior Libyan officials on the sanctions list of UN Security Council Resolution 1970.

I have the same argument for those who complain about the West’s “failure” to stop the Nazi efforts to exterminate European Jews in WWII: the only way to help them is to the bring the war to as quick an end as possible. You “protect” the civilians of Libya by waging a war that removes the threat as quickly as possible. That threat, as just about everyone has concluded, is Qaddafiy’s government. Obama and Nikolai Sarkozy do seem to understand that, and they do seem to be waging war toward that end (even if they are rather cagily or stupidly saying they aren’t).

So I don’t so much object to Obama’s actions as I do his language, which is dishonest, deceitful, self-righteous and self-serving in the extreme. And those words he did mean — all that crap about humanitarianism — are frightening and horrific. Because they promise war without end.


* Some people suggest Obama ought to return his Peace Prize. That isn’t fair. The Nobel committee was merely premature in giving him the award. Sitting American presidents who have won the prize — Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919 — have always done so after they waged their wars of mass destruction and slaughter (Roosevelt the Philippines War, Wilson the Great War to End All Great Wars and Make the World Safe for Democracy and Reparations). The committee acted in haste. Obama needs at least one more war, and then he will be properly eligible for the Peace Prize.

What The Resolution Really Says

Something caught my eye the other day as a read through UN Security Council Resolution 1973 — the resolution that authorizes military action against Libya to “protect civilians.” This is the operative section is paragraph four, which comes after wading through many paragraphs of preamble (“Recalling,” “taking note of,” “reiterating,” “considering,” blah blah blah):

4. Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council …

Two things. First, the purpose of the resolution makes the defense of civilians and civilian areas under attack the purpose of the military action. This, of course, is cover for assisting the rebels, but suppose the military situation turns, it could just as easily be invoked by Qaddafiy’s government to demand protection for Tripoli. It won’t happen (the protection, not the call), since the goal of the intervention — at least from the Anglo-French perspective — is the end of Qaddafiy and his government. Neither country will use their military to protect him or his forces, or cities he controls, even if the “law” allows it.

The second thing, however, is more interesting. The resolution explicitly excludes a “foreign occupation force.” This has been taken to mean (by the press) no ground troops, but that’s not what the words say. It doesn’t say “foreign combat force,” it says “foreign occupation force.” This is enough wiggle room to drive the French Foreign Legion or a Marine Expeditionary Unit through. The difference, in my mind, is simple — no one can send troops in to occupy and govern Libya, but it says nothing about troops in to help the rebels fight.

I’m not saying that will happen, or was even planned. But lawyers write these documents very carefully. If they had wanted a resolution that would explicitly forbid all foreign (non-Libyan) ground troops from being in the country as part of this, it would have said so. That it doesn’t suggests someone (in Paris, probably) wanted to keep the option open.

Not How You Help Anyone

Sometime in 2004 or 2005 — probably mid-spring 2004, I do recall the season — I sat in a rather posh little cafe having lunch with Amatzia Baram discussing what was then the state of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. Baram was one of Israel’s leading experts on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a sometime advisor to Israeli Labor governments, and of course a decorated veteran of the IDF. He is also very charming and very funny. I had taken a class from at Georgetown during his sojourn in the United States (which included a stint at the spectacularly misnamed US Institute for Peace). He had taken something of an interest in my career, and was curious as to how I was doing and where I was going.

But we were also discussing the problem of Iraq. I had opposed the invasion, and he — while not opposing it — did not consider it particularly wise. He also said the occupation had turned out to be a disaster, though he believed on both points, the invasion and the occupation, that there really was no choice.

I disagreed. I said there was a choice.

Baram liked a challenge. In his class (which was people mostly by overeager undergrads begging and whining for an “A” because otherwise Goldman Sachs would not look kindly on their applications), we did an interesting little role play exercise — he was Saddan Hussein and students each took the role of April Glaspie, hoping somehow that we could say something to dissuade Saddam from his August 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait. I still believe that telling Saddam, when he referred to Kuwait as a “Gerbil’s hole,” that even gerbil holes are someone’s home, was clever. But nothing could probably have kept the Iraqi army in Iraq that summer.

In any event, Baram asked me what the choice was. I said it was simple: grab a chunk of Iraq, the southern part of the country from Al-Nasiriyya east, including Basra, and hold the far western board with Jordan, and then mobilize and equip an Iraqi rebel army. (It would have been harder in the north, given the lack of Turkish cooperation, but it could have worked given the lack of control Iraq had over its own air space.) Provide them air support, let them organize the government, and then let them do the fighting. With support. As they gained parts of the country, Iraqis would have likely defected and rebelled, knowing they were backed by US air power, and that there was an Iraqi alternative to the Baa’ath government. It had the beauty, I argued, of keeping the United States out of direct control of any kind over Iraqi civil government, and it invested Iraqis in their own liberation.

I think it would have worked, allowing the Iraqis to rise up and seize their own dignity and liberate themselves. Baram dismissed it out of hand, saying it would not have. We’ll never know.

So we come, a few years later, to Libya. I admire and respect the rebels, and was very optimistic — too optimistic, it turns out — for their prospects during the first few days of the uprising against Qaddafiy. I had hoped the rebels would be able to prevail without Western military help. It became clear about 10 days ago that wasn’t possible. And once that became clear, I had hoped any Western military assistance could have cooperation given to a roughly equal partner.

And now that hope has been dashed too.

The statements that came out of Washington and Paris (and I’m guessing London too, though thank God Tony Blair has shuffled off to retirement and we’re not hearing his prissy and sanctimonious voice on this) in the last few days, since the passage of UN Security Council resolution 1973, has been maddening, reminiscent of Bosnia and Kosovo and some of the more thoughtful neoconservatives on Iraq. “We must protect civilians from the Qaddafiy government, which has lost all international legitimacy.”

I can see this nonsense coming out of Washington, but for Sarkozy to say it, when his own government recognized the rebels a week ago as the legitimate government of Libya, boggles my mind. It’s as if that rebel government, for the purposes of war-making, no longer exists.

This is the West’s moralizing at its worst. We protect the innocent from the evil. We are the powerful good who always ride to the rescue. Our bombs always fall with the noblest of intentions, and that makes those killed by them less dead. The Libyans have become objects — as people always seem to — in our self-obsessed moral drama. Always helping innocent victims against evil. Always doing good in a world full of bad.

Our idea of helping people is to do for them, not to do with them. This permeates the entire ethic of help grown in the West, its secular and religious notions.

Instead, the Libyans can and should have been full partners in a fight for dignity and freedom. Recognize their government and they become full participating subjects, partners, and not merely objects in a liberation and protection fantasy that we have created, in which we are the only real moral actors and everyone else is simply a spectator or an object, who exist only to receive the order we do. I would have thought someone in the Quai d’Orsay would have gotten that (Washington is incapable of understanding that non-Americans and non-Israelis have any sense of dignity, certainly any dignity worth fighting and dying for), but clearly not. So, the cavalry flies off across the Mediterranean. To save the innocent people of Libya!

(They aren’t so innocent. Many senior figures from the Qaddafiy regime now inhabit the rebel government. You do not get to be Qaddafiy’s interior minister by holding ice cream socials. You do not rebel against a government like Qaddafiy’s merely by marching and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Innocence should not be a requirement for help, but it seems morally to be.)

I fully expect the Libyan rebels and the exiles supporting them to wholeheartedly accept the assistance. It saves their rebellion, and any hopes they have for an immediate future of a Libya they govern. But the stakes have changed. Because they no longer really are partners in their struggle. The language used by Western leaders clearly states that. Had Obama or Sarkozy talked about aiding the Libyan rebels, or had Washington recognized their government (which it should), that would be one thing. But the talk is of protecting civilians. The same kind of nonsense talk the prolonged the Bosnian War, and deprived the Bosnians the right to fight and die like dignified human beings.

Western leaders are hypocrites no matter what they say or do. All people are. But the powerful are especially vulnerable to such charges, usually because they are so self-righteous about the power they use and when and why they use it. If “protecting civilians” oppressed by their own governments (or not, from the standpoint of Paris) is the gold standard for the use of virtuous power, then where do you stop? Who will protect the civilians of Bahrain? Of Yemen? Of Palestine? Or of those Libyans who die from Western bombs or rebel guns? Oh right. Nobody.

This isn’t to say the rebellion isn’t worth supporting. Qaddafiy and his government are worth getting rid of. The Libyans themselves tried to, and bless them, it wasn’t quite enough. Absent the rebellion, the West would be right not to topple even an odious regime like Libya’s. But I had hoped this time might be different. That we could treat the Libyans like equal women and men in a fight for liberty and dignity. The chance was there.

But clearly, we’re not capable of taking it.

What if Qaddafiy Wins?

I have a confession to make. It is very difficult for me to remain a principled non-interventionist with the events in Libya.

I’m trying, but really, I’m not trying all that hard. I’m not going to cheer the Pentagon, or it’s moral (or -giggle- immoral) equivalent in Paris, as policy makers and planners and generals and staffers struggle with what to do and how to handle the rebellion in Libya. But all the same, it would be nice to see the militaries of the West do something, well, useful for somebody, and bombing Qaddafiy’s army, air force, command and control centers and logistics would be useful. It would be nice if that somebody were not Lockheed Martin, Boeing or SAIS. I do not know if that is possible or not.

My ambivalence here is based largely on my experience in the U.S. Army in Panama in the 1980s. I did not sign up to be a soldier in 1980s Central America, but there I was. I was a clerk in an MP unit on the Pacific side, at Ft. Clayton. To say that I hated every minute of it would be a significant understatement.

On one hand, I saw what the huge American military presence meant for many Panamanians. It became clear we were an occupying army, and most of the Panamanians I met were sullen and angry about it. Even with the unrest of the 1970s and Omar Torrijos’ wresting of the Panama Canal from American sovereignty. I watched the ships pass through the Panama Canal out my barracks window: Japanese freighters, mostly, with the occasional cruise ship and even Soviet transport. I loathed riot control training, our morning exercises learning to beat Panamanians. We had no business being in Panama. The canal wasn’t worth a single life. Not one.

And yet this was also the time of Manuel Noriega. And I remember how fraught our relations with the Panamanian Defense Forces were. Long before the general became a big deal in the United States, there were regular incidents between his forces and ours. The military police were on the forefront of this because as part of the canal treaties, a number of U.S. military facilities were jointly patrolled with the PDF. Panamanian soldiers regularly drew weapons on Americans, ran smuggling operations to steal from the military stores, and generally worked to make our lives fairly difficult. One afternoon, a friend and I wandering around Panama City had to run from four machine-gun toting PDF soldiers who wanted to ask us questions. “Never let them detain you,” was one of the first things we were told when we arrived, because our safety under the status of forces agreement could never be guaranteed.

There was a PDF unit whose symbol, painted on the side of the trucks they drove around Panama City and Balboa, was a crude drawing of a dog holding a severed human arm — dripping blood — in its mouth.

One afternoon, an elderly Afro-Panamanian who worked at one of the army barracks shining shoes (and in the evening playing steel drums in a calypso band) asked me: “We see what his soldiers do to you. You see what his soldiers do to us. You Americans have the power. You can do something. You should.” I didn’t disagree with him. As one soldier in the middle of the mess, I was powerless to help or save anyone but myself. And the people who commanded us had other ideas — supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, for example.

And so when George H. W. Bush finally invaded Panama in December 1989, destroying the not-so-vaunted PDF and eventually capturing Noriega and spiriting him away, I had mixed feelings. (I was not there for the invasion.) On the one hand, it was another example of American brutality at work. On the other, it was actually reasonably well fought, and a truly odious regime — and its military — were eradicated. I do not know how Panama is run today, but I’m guessing it is a better place to live an ordinary life than it was in 1987.

The most serious disagreement I have with the invasion is that Noriega didn’t owe Americans justice. He owed Panamanians. He never should have seen the inside of an American courtroom or prison. He needed to be handed over to a mob of his countrymen and then strung up from the tallest tree in Panama City. And left to swing long enough for the tree sloths to climb down and cling to his body.

I have no such experience of Libya. I have known some Libyans, exiles, who I have come to like and respect. Some years ago, I watched Libya’s UN ambassador threaten a Libyan exile I had attended grad school with. I won’t shed many tears should the West go to war to help the Libyan rebels. I won’t demand my government do that, and I’ll caution about consequences. But I’m not going to be all that opposed.

I do not know how the fighting in Libya will end. Qaddafiy right now appears to have the edge in terms of sheer firepower, but the rebels are highly motivated to fight in ways Qaddafiy’s forces are not. It took a lot of pounding for Qaddafiy’s troops to take Zawiya. It looks bleak, but two weeks ago, it looked like Qaddafiy was doomed. So, anything could happen. And I can do nothing about it regardless.

But something to consider: what if Qaddafiy wins? Because that’s a possibility. What will remain is a Libya that is internationally isolated — recognized by many governments in the Third World but not in the First — and I suspect sanctions will be tightened as Western regimes, embarrassed, harden their stance. It will become difficult if not impossible to legally trade of do business with Qaddafiy’s Libya. The West may even put in place a military operation to impose a blockage on Qaddafiy’s Libya, to ensure that sanctions are adhered to. It is the natural extension of a no-fly zone, and if that is imposed, it will likely stay in place.

And what will remain is a broken Libya, one in desperate need of reconstruction and unable to secure much legally. Rebuilding will take place, to the extent it will take place, in an environment of serious material scarcity. The people, and not Qaddafiy, will pay the price of sanctions, the same way Iraqis did following the end of the Kuwait War in 1991. Qaddafiy’s government will, of course, use access to food and medicine and rebuilding material as a tool to reward and punish. And that doesn’t even begin to touch how his regime will brutalize people — especially in the east — who rose up or fought for the rebels.

Libyans will flee this broken, brutalized, impoverished country in Mariel style, taking to boats to flee to Italy, Malta and even Greece, filling refugee camps in Egypt and Tunisia. If European governments are afraid of a refugee crisis now, they will have a significant one on their hands should Qaddafiy win the war.

Finally, Qaddafiy will have absolutely no incentive to behave himself internationally. He may never bomb another disco again, but he will have all the incentive in the world to make life difficult for Western nations by supporting dictators and warlords in Africa. (This also, it should be noted, makes life really miserable for Africans.) And because all, or even most, trade with Libya will likely be illegal, Qaddafiy will create (or further develop) networks with dictators and other shady characters who will be happy to sell him whatever he needs. And as sanctions drag on, European oil firms will find access to Libya’s crude far too tempting, and something akin to the corruption of the UN’s Iraq oil-for-food program will quickly arise.

So, it is better, at this point, to simply screw up the courage and commit to aiding the rebels. Not just with a Libya-wide no-fly zone, but also with ground strikes to destroy Qaddafiy’s armor, artillery and supply sources. To destroy his communications. Because the rebels deserve better than valiant deaths. And because Qaddafiy really deserves to swing from the tallest lamp-post in Tripoli.

Some Unsolicited Advice for the Libyan Rebels

I have been watching the uprising in Libya with a fair amount of interest and excitement. It is exciting to watch people toss off a such a horrific and vile government. I’m cheering for the rebels, and I hope they do manage — in the end — to get the Brother Leader and make him swing from the tallest lamp post in Tripoli. (Such a fate should also have been Manuel Noriega’s in Panama.) My excitement is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that they will, in the end, create another government. But there’s no real alternative to that. Whatever they build (and it will have all the flaws any coercive power will have), it will be hard-pressed to be worse than what they are currently trying to (and generally succeeding) in tearing down.

But generally I am rooting for the rebels. I pray for them, and wish I could do more. I know, here in the middle of rural northern Illinois, I cannot. I won’t ask my government to do anything — I don’t trust my government and the power it wields. I cannot and will not advocate it act. That would make me a hypocrite.

I’ve had a run-in with a representative of the Libyan government, their UN ambassador in the late 1990s, Abuzed Dorda. He was at Georgetown not long after I graduated, and he threatened a former classmate of mine who comes from a fairly prominent family of Libyan expatriates. It was something along the lines of, “We don’t punch people in the nose in Libya, and anyone who says otherwise gets a punch in the nose. Is so-and-so your father? Because we know how to deal with troublemakers in Libya. We punch them in the nose.” It was that kind of thing.

On the other hand, some years before, I worked for a small African American newspaper publisher in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco, Muhammad al Kareem. He was a member of the Nation of Islam (yes, wrap your head around his employing me for a moment) and there were two things in the world he was proudest of: the picture he had taken with Lewis Farrakhan at a Savior’s Day commemoration when Muhammad was a member of the Fruit of Islam, and a photo Muhammad had taken with Muammar Qaddafiy the day the U.S. bombed Libya in 1986. (It just occurred to me how few degrees of separation there are between me and Qaddafiy.) Muhammad was in Tripoli that night, and if you think I have a bad attitude toward the U.S. government, you ought to have heard him tell that story. (I have some fun stories of my time with Muhammad, but that is neither here nor there right now.)

So, I’ve seen a couple of sides of this. Still, the world will be a better place without Qaddafiy ruling Libya. Better he could take an early retirement on Montserrat, or join the deposed sons and grandsons of Idris at the roulette wheel in Monaco, but Qaddafiy is not the retiring kind. From his cold dead hands…

I’ve tried not to despair over the recent news out of Libya. I want the rebels to win, I want them to win quickly and with a minimum of bloodshed. That won’t happen, and it looks like the fighting in Libya could go on for a while. I also want them to win without international intervention — I really like the idea of a people rising up and toppling their own government without outside help. But that idea may meet the reality of a government that cannot be made to go quickly and rebels who simply don’t have the power to make the government go. It is still early, and as one Middle East analyst noted to the BBC today, the generals who defected are only beginning to organize their forces in the east of the country. The rebels have every incentive to create a real, highly motivated fighting force that could liberate their country. I hope they do. I hope they eventually get the dictator.

Anyway, I have a couple of thoughts. Some suggestions, ideas which may or may not be worth anything.

  • Form a government already. I really love this “leaderless” uprising, but the time has come for the rebels and the exiles to get together and create a government. The “international community” which has, for the most part, sided with the rebels rhetorically, needs a put-up-or-shut-up moment, and with many of Libya’s diplomats having defected, now would be the time to have a council of some sort claim to be the legitimate government of Libya and make an appeal for international recognition. Now, I understand from a Radio France International report that there was a meeting in Benghazi on Sunday for just that purpose and this is good. I get that it is one thing to run an ad-hoc rebellion, and another to actually cobble together a government, and I also get that no one person may have the standing to be a face for a new regime. (I also get y’all may have very good reasons for not wanting a single leader.) But you need something — a National Salvation Council, a Committee For the Restoration of Decent Government in Libya, the Rotary Club of Greater Benghazi, anything — that will present a real and effective alternative to Qaddafiy. Even if you have to struggle to make nice for the cameras, a group of well-spoken exiles and Qaddafiy defectors sitting at a table for a press conference asking the governments of the world to recognize them, to help with refugees and eventual reconstruction as well as simple moral support would do wonders. Make all those flags mean something.
  • Don’t Support Half Measures. (Here’s where I feel like a hypocrite.) Don’t agitate for a no-fly zone. It won’t get you what you want — international military support without actual intervention. A no-fly zone is intervention, and all have, at some point, resulted in actual intervention. No-fly zones are ways for politicians to assuage their guilty consciences and say “we’re doing something!” without actually having to wage real war. Only they end up becoming real war eventually. And you won’t have any control over how or when international military action will be taken. (Exhibit A: Srebrenica.) Don’t simply limit a request for help to what you believe you can get. If you have to ask for the West to help, ask for effective help: an air campaign that will wipe out Qaddafiy’s air force, supply lines and command and control. You may even want to ask for ground support. This will require that the nations “helping” have some people on the ground to coordinate the air support (forward observers to target, for example). This will an easier sell if you have a government in place, but probably the hardest thing for a government to agree upon. But the rebellion itself was not a half measure, and if any group of people get that, it’s you. Like the man from az-Zawiya told the BBC on Sunday: “We will fight until we win or we die. There is no choice.”
  • Appreciate the nature of Western “help.” You are going to be used. I suspect, however, the Libya’s rebel leaders — both defectors and exiles — are cynical enough to appreciate that. I also suspect that whatever change of regime takes place in post-Qaddafiy Libya, it will be a state that will more or less fit in to the neo-liberal order (that’s what happens when your brightest minds all attend and then teach at elite universities!). Some in the West will help because they truly believe in your cause. Some will help because they are embarrassed they did business with Qaddafiy and hope to do business with you folks someday (this is why no one should ever get a photo shaking hands with of kissing a dictator). Some will help because they want some control over how the events in your country play out. Figuring out who is who (especially the third group) will be a task but I think you are all up to. And while you are at it: use them back!
  • Someone’s going to lose. This is obvious, but is also means that whoever wins, the country will remain divided. The original hope was probably that a quick popular uprising would push the institutions of the state to topple or kill Qaddafiy (Exhibit B: Romania). That did not happen. The Brother Leader has been able to mobilize some kind of support, and it likely isn’t all at gunpoint or paid for. Whoever wins, some portion of the country will be governed against its will. This is now unavoidable. Make sure it isn’t you.
I have no idea how much any of this was worth. Not much, I suspect. May Allah subhana wata’ala be with you all and grant you all quick victory.

Quite Possibly the Strangest Dream I Have Ever Had

I have had some very strange dreams, but last night’s was as strange as it gets and deeply unsettling.

I was a student in some kind of school of wizardry and magic, only it looked like a modern university, and I was staying in a small dorm room that was painted some color of dark tan. I had apparently discovered an enchanted rum that, if you took a swig of it before bedtime, would allow you to go wherever you wanted to in your sleep. So, taking a swig, I slept, and (of course) decided to go to Libya. Where else, right?

Once there, I started to wander around. I was in a city I did not know the name of, and things were unsettled. For some reason, once I got there, I decided to needed to go someplace and wait for a phone call. From whom and about what I do not know. At some point, I am waiting beside a bank of phone booths in a public place when I’m spotted by the militia — which is manned by nothing but in 11-year-old boys in gray-green jump suits wearing too-large helmets. They decide that my waiting by the telephone is suspicious and they call somebody. An expensive Mercedes with darkly tinted windows soon arrives, and they hand me over to a woman who looks like Hillary Clinton but who has short curly hair and speaks with a British accent. She is alone, commands me to come with her, and I do.

Soon, we are at a five-star hotel, which is more like a maze as we walk. She does all the talking, while I am wondering why I am not attempting to escape. The only things I remember her saying are, “you need to tell the nurse if you have any health problems,” and congratulating me on being able to navigate a particularly challenging passage. (It felt a bit like portions of Quake II, even as it looked like a five-star hotel.) Finally, we are in a first-floor loading dock where we are met by some people — men in shiny Italian suits (Arabs and Brits) and one Arab man who looks like a cross between Toichiro Mifune (from “The Seven Samurai”) and Omar Sharif. He holds a long staff in one hand, and it turns out he’s a senior sorcerer and torturer.

It is at this point in the dream I wake up to find myself in my dorm room surrounded by fellow students. They ask me if the rum works. I tell them no, it was only a dream, but then a package arrives — a half-drunk bottle of wine with the message “We’ll see you tomorrow” written with a grease pencil on the label. For whatever reason (dream logic), this convinces me that I really was in Libya. I scream.

Suddenly, I am back in the loading dock, chained to the wall. The woman is still talking. In fact, she does all the talking. She tells me the torture the sorcerer has planned for me is unique — he has made a drawing of me and posted it on the internet, along with various weapons. People will be able to use those weapons to hurt me as much they like when they use them on the drawing. (Enchanted Flash!) No one will be able to rape, decapitate, or kill me. But they will be able to inflict a great deal of pain. There doesn’t seem to be any purpose to any of this — no one has asked why I was there, or how I got there, there were no requests for information.

Finally, at this point, I really wake up. I’ve had much more terrifying dreams, but this one was very, very strange and deeply unsettling. I never really went back to sleep after this.

Some Reflections on the Revolution in Libya

It has been amazing to watch the events in the Middle East and North Africa in the last ten weeks, since protestors first took to the streets in Tunisia in mid-December 2010. Stunning, in fact, as people have acted and the creaky institutions that have governed them have reacted. The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have fallen, and the regime ruling Libya is soon very likely going to be relegated to the dustbin of history. It has been awe inspiring to watch.

I once said very publicly that the protest chant really should go, “The people united, we simply do not matter!” In this instance, I happen to be wrong, and I am glad to be wrong. Though I believe it is important to note, it helps that the people within the institutions that govern the people united are themselves not terribly united. It also helps when the people united are no longer afraid of the violence those who rule them can use, and will not let that violence beat them into submission.

We live in an interesting historical moment.

Several things impress me about the uprising in Libya in particular. The first was the early realization that an uprising there would not simply oust Brother Leader Muammar Qaddafiy, and would not do so easily. In fact, in order for Libyans to remove their brutal and corrupt leader, they were going to have to break the state he created in the process. And it seems they are doing just that, even as huge elements of Qaddafiy’s state defect.

The greatest risk of this was a lack of institutions or structures to govern Libya once Qaddafiy was gone. A friend and I noted in a conversation a decade ago that Libya was the Arab state most like Mohammad Siad Barre’s Somalia — a nation-state in which the dictator had either destroyed or co-opted all social structures and institutions with the state. There was no alternative to Siad Barre’s Somalia (so several well-educated Somali refugees described to me) except the clan structure, so when Somalis rose up and ousted Siad Barre, they by necessity had to destroy his state. No alternative structures quickly arose, and Somalia has been officially “stateless” for the last 20 years. (For any number of reasons, which I won’t go into here.)

The risk, then, of Libyans ousting Qaddafiy (or his dying, because we didn’t see an actual rebellion as a possibility then) was the risk that in breaking the Libyan state, there would be nothing left except the clan structure of Libya, and the kind of perpetual struggle for control of the nation among the clans would arise. Libya would become a failed state. It seemed a remote risk, however, as Qaddafiy seemed fairly permanent. (Again, I’m often forgetting what is for me the great lesson of 1989 — no state or governing arrangement is ever permanent.)

But I don’t think this likely in Libya because of the exiles, who have done an amazing job at coordinating and probably planning much of the uprising. They will likely prevent Libya from becoming a Somalia-style failed state.

There is a substantial (substantial for a country of 6 million people) Libyan exile community in the United States and the United Kingdom (and probably Switzerland, Italy and Dubai). They may be small, but they are economically and socially influential and, dare I say, powerful. I’ve known a few. Not many, but a few. I’m guessing (and I have no direct evidence of this) that the exiles have been central to coordinating the rebellion in Libya. No, I’m not saying that they were fomenting revolution — Libyans were likely ready for revolution, given the nature of their government and the success of the uprisings against Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. But things in Libya appeared to work very quickly. From the time Mubrak resigned to the beginning of the Revolution of February 17 was six days. I think this was probably the planning window, because I don’t think the Libyan uprising would have started without Mubarak’s resignation — the Libyans had to have some hope that once the rebellion started, it could oust Qaddafiy one way or the other. Anything else would be a repeat of the failed uprising of 1996.

In was in these few days I suspect the exiles worked connections inside the country, polled Libya’s diplomats, registered websites ( was registered in the UK on February 16), arranged for ways to get cell-phone video out of the country, and printed all those flags. There was probably some long-existent planning for an uprising, and even some work once events in Tunisia proved successful. But without Mubarak’s resignation, I doubt very much the Benghazi uprising would have gone off when it did and the way it did. I’m guessing the revolution in Libya was quickly — but not hastily — planned.

More importantly, I think all involved in and out of Libya decided, with the inspiration of Tunisia and Egypt, that this would be it. There would be no turning back, and that breaking Qaddafiy’s state was a necessary element of ending Qaddafiy’s rule if that’s what it took to oust Qaddafiy.

The exiles will have to be careful how they proceed. It is important that while many Libyan exiles have had lots of al-Jazeera face time, the coverage has shown us a leaderless uprising in Libya itself. There is no Libyan Khomeini (from a revolutionary standpoint) publicly sitting underneath a tree in Paris and communicating his wishes via cassette tape to the protesting masses in Tehran. While their leadership is going to be essential in making sure Libya does not become a failed state, the exiles will also have to be very aware that they are not the people shedding blood and taking the real risks in the face of Qaddafiy’s violence. The exiles cannot simply assume leadership or demand property and privilege back. That will alienate too many Libyans who did the actual fighting.

I’m guessing Libya’s clan structure means that exiles are still pretty well connected to Libyans and Libya itself, and that clan structure will give their participation in ruling the country the legitimacy it might not otherwise have. It also helps, I think, that many of the exiles fled during Qaddafiy’s regime, and many were even part of it initially.

The next great decision the Libyans have to deal with is the desire by some in the West to “help.” I am suspicious of American desires to help. In part because I’m not sure how needed it is, but also because I believe in autonomy and dignity — in the end, the only people who can truly liberate Libyans are Libyans themselves. In rising up and ridding themselves of Qaddafiy, they will have done the impossible, and that proves they are mighty. There is always a whiff of elitism or Fabianism to the “humanitarianism” of the powerful in the West, and I suspect in some quarters, there is absolutely nothing more frightening than people freeing themselves and ruling themselves. The whole point of Fabian socialism — and I suspect all of elite Progressivism (which uses populist Progressivism) — is to do for people so they will not do for themselves. That Libyans would topple a dictator, even one with little (but some) cache in the West, is probably a serious threat to some. Intervention would be one way, I think, to keep the Libyans in line. People power is okay, so long as it actually doesn’t threaten any real change. If it does, it must be beaten down. Perhaps that is what Hillary Clinton was threatening when she made her ridiculous statement about Libya’s choices being “democracy” or chaos — pick the “right” leaders, ones acceptable to us, or we’ll make sure you’ll live with chaos.

I am, of course, inalterably opposed to any unilateral action on the part of the United States or its allies in Libya. The Libyan rebels appear to be handling this well by saying they don’t want or need Western action right now, but they reserve the right to ask for it under the auspices of the UN if they feel the need. That would make it “legal,” though the motives of Washington would always be in question. Will the Libyans use or will they be used? So, I hope and pray they don’t ask for “help.”

Now, on to the lessons we can learn from the Revolution of February 17. First, no state is safe. It turns out states are fairly brittle institutions, and when their legitimacy rests largely on force and coercion — as opposed to widespread consent and assent — then once people screw up their courage to face the state down, it breaks fairly quickly.

I don’t want to predict where the next revolutions can or will take place, but thinking about Libya with its exile community, a couple of examples come to mind. This revolution is probably the uprising the Cuban exiles would love to stage, but I suspect they can’t because the Cuban exiles likely do not have the connections or the moral legitimacy with enough Cubans to be able to coordinate an uprising. This is what happens when your anti-government fervor is based largely on a demand for restored property and privilege. I would hope that when the dust clears in Tripoli, Burmese exiles have a long sit down with some prominent Libyans and see what they can learn from this. I suspect Iranian exiles will be mobilized again, though like the Cubans, I suspect many of them lack moral legitimacy inside their former home countries. And the number of Iraqis living outside Iraq could also, at this point, help their suffering countrymen, who never got to liberate themselves from Saddam Hussein’s rule in the first place.

Finally, and maybe this is sheer fantasy on my part, but as the number of exiles and defectors from North Korea grows, this model presents one possibility for outside coordination reliant largely on internal networks to coordinate an uprising against a regime. I do not know if North Korean exiles are well placed, and any uprising in North Korea would likely have to start as a military mutiny.

The conditions in Libya are fairly unique, and so what has happened there over the last two weeks will likely not be repeated anywhere else. But we are not done with the Arab Revolutions of 2011. I do not know who the next Arab autocrat to fall will be — my early guess is President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, but this is only a guess. I do not know where the pressure on Gulf monarchs will go. As long as the uprising in Bahrain is primarily a Shia-Sunni dispute, the ruling Sunni minority have no reason to give any ground (and plenty of support from the Saudis to hold it). But apparently, the Bahraini Shia have suggested allowing foreigners living in Bahrain to be part of the political arrangement. If that gets the country’s Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos out onto the streets, that would be very interesting. (I doubt it will, but who knows…) I can think of a few creaking dictators outside the Middle East who need toppling (Robert Mugabe comes to mind), but I’m not sure the “Libyan model” is applicable there either.

Not much to do but watch. And wonder. And be amazed by it all.

The Lost Member of Spinal Tap

One of the amazing things about Brother Leader Moamar Qaddafiy of Libya is just how dissolute and seedy he looks. I described him earlier as looking like a schizophrenic homeless man. But he also looks like a washed-up and perpetually stoned rocker from the early 1970s. Especially in this poster, which looks more Haight-Ashbury 1972 than Hopey-Changey 2008:


I see a fourth-rate Keith Richard and Bob Dylan in that face. I see no creative energy in that face. I see aging headbanger, someone who always turned his amp up to 11, never saw a line of blow he didn’t snort, never saw a nubile young groupie he didn’t grope, never slept in a hotel room he didn’t trash, and who stopped mattering round about 1977 when he could no longer musically cope with disco and new wave. Maybe his career was briefly rejuvenated in the late 1980s, playing rhythm guitar for the unpainted Kiss, but he’s spent his life mostly in a drug-induced fog, playing the same four minor early-1970s hits over and over and over again with the same band of mates for aging fans and confused kids in small clubs and county fairs and watermelon festivals from Poznan to Portland.

Pity he couldn’t have overdosed on something substantial in 1973.

On Aging Revolutionaries and Irrelevant Liberation Theologies

Well, it had to be somebody. So it might as well have been Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega:

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega yesterday confirmed that he spoke with Libya’s Col. Muammar El Qaddafi and expressed his support to him and his government during the current political tensions in Libya. “I have been communicating by telephone with him. I’ve been talking to him, and logically he is fighting yet another great battle in the many battles Qaddafi has had to endure… and under these circumstances they have been looking for ways to engage in dialogue while defending the unity of the country in order to avoid its disintegration and prevent anarchy,” said President Ortega. “I relayed the solidarity of the Nicaraguan people to him and the Libyan people, the solidarity of Nicaraguan Sandinistas to him and the Libyan people, and that we were confident that that problem can be resolved… that it is a difficult situation and, God willing, that that situation can be resolved and be overcome.” Mr. Ortega delivered his remarks at an event in Managua commemorating Nicaraguan revolutionary hero Augusto C├ęsar Sandino.

Ortega and Qaddafiy are among the last two of a dying breed of 1970s revolutionaries. Qaddafiy hasn’t aged well, looking (and sounding) more like a mentally ill homeless man in need of a decent meal, a quiet place to sleep and a refilled bottle of thorazine (as opposed to the crack cocaine he self-medicates with) than the leader of an actual nation-state. Time has not been kind to Qaddafiy. It has been kind to Ortega. But maybe that’s because he wasn’t allowed to be Chairman of the Central Committee/Leader of the Revolution/President-for-Life. No, unlike Qaddafiy, Ortega had to take a few years off and then win a real, live, free election. Maybe that’s kept him so youthful looking — being out of power for a while.

There aren’t many of Ortega’s and Qaddafiy’s pseudo-revolutionary swaggering ilk left around. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe comes to mind, and he and Qaddafiy make quite a pair — brutal kelptocrats in need of two more for a proper round of no-holds-barred Texas Hold ‘Em. (“Loser of the hand has to take the revolver with one bullet, spin the chamber, put it to his head, and pull the trigger!” Oh, it must have made meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement so much fun!) Yasser Arafat is long dead, Omar Torrijos even longer dead. Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seiko are are deposed and dead and long disappeared. Julius Nyerere discredited and dead. There are more, I’m sure, swaggering leaders of third world “revolutions” (sic) who strutted onto the stage in the late 1960s and 1970s and promised bold new tomorrows full of liberation and progress, only to bury the people they governed under penury and oppression and bloodshed. And the occasional war.

(They couldn’t all be Nelson Mandela…)

So I’m glad that Qaddafiy, in what may be his last days or hours on earth, has one old “friend” he can find some consolation in. Because the rest are all gone. As he will soon be too. And eventually Daniel Ortega will be something Qaddafiy can never be — a retired, living ex-leader, drawing a pension and making speeches on the umpteenth anniversary of some Augusto Sandino or Sandinista-related activity. Perhaps even something of an elder statesman.

There was a time, and I want to say not so long ago, but 25 years is long ago, when Ortega was hot. Nicaragua was the Kingdom of God breaking in upon the world, and the Sandinista Revolution was the herald of that kingdom for a certain kind of liberation theologian who mistook the predictions of Marx with the prophetic promises of the Gospel, and the pseudo-revolutionaries of the 1960 and 1970s for prophets and saviors. I would ask what those liberation theologians would make of the leader of God’s revolution giving comfort to Qaddafiy as he is fighting “yet another great battle” — because it is ever so heroic to order planes to strafe unarmed people — but even condemned sinners deserve some comfort, and need confession and absolution. And Ortega, and his revolution, really are irrelevant now. Especially outside Nicaragua. I suspect most liberation theologians today wouldn’t know a Sandinista from a sacrament.

And no, they never were the same thing.