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.

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.

Conversations With Diplomats

The events in Libya in the last week or so reminds of something that happened when I was working as a reporter at the United Nations in mid-2001.

I was an energy correspondent working for BridgeNews, and my job at the UN was to cover the Iraq Food-for-Oil Program (can I say Food-4-Oil?). At the time, before the attacks of September 11, there was some movement toward a “smart sanctions” arrangement to deal with Iraq, something similar to the technology controls that the Western nations had imposed on some imports to what was once the Warsaw Pact and its allies. I wasn’t at the UN often, but I was there for Security Council meetings (sat in on one once) about Iraq, and did get a couple of scoops by cornering Iraqi UN ambassador Mohammed al-Douri and chatting him up in Arabic, something no other American reporters seemed to be doing. In fact, few reporters seemed interested in the opinions of non-permanent members, and they were an interesting font of information.

(Al-Douri was a seedy little man with one bad eye who wore a shiny suit and a very bad comb-over, always fondling his prayer beads, and he reminded me a lot of Larry Storch.)

At any rate, one day, between sessions and stake outs outside the Security Council chamber, I decided to hang out in the diplomats lounge at the UN. The UN is a fascinating building, and it has that wonderful late 1940s feel of progress to it, with the grays and the wood and the frosted glass office doors. (All it needed was ductwork and it would be Brazil.) It was a bit run down, and CNN International was everywhere (this was about a year, I think, after Ted Turner committed his billion), and that’s where I learned that CNN International was as good as CNN was bad. I got an overpriced coffee and sat with my book. And watched people go by.

A junior Iraqi diplomat, someone I’d regularly seen with al-Douri as part of his entourage (I don’t remember his name, sorry), saw me, said hello in Arabic and asked if he could join me. We chit-chatted a bit — small talk, I think — where I learned Arabic and how long I’d been a reporter, how long he’d been at the UN. That kind of thing. Somehow, the conversation turned to medieval Islamic history, and as he and I were talking, we were joined by a man who identified himself as a member of the Libyan delegation. (Had a junior diplomat from Syria joined us, we’d of had our fourth for bridge.) The three of us talked for a bit, about Islamic history of course, but somehow, the discussion veered in the direction of government in the Arab world. The talk started, I think, with the problem of modern Arab governments and how they aren’t terribly representative of the will of their people. I responded something to the effect of, “yes, but that kind of thing is true here in the United States too.”

“Yes,” replied the Libyan a little more quietly. “But it is much, much worse in our countries.”

The Iraqi nodded his agreement and then the conversation got silent for a second as the two diplomats looked at each other. The talk then veered in another direction, toward small-talk, and then it became clear we all had places to go and things to do. I think an alarm may have sounded that the Security Council was going back into session.

I never saw the Libyan diplomat again. The Iraqi diplomat I saw later that summer after a member of the Iraqi delegation reportedly defected. He was dealing angrily with the the reporters following him around — including me — and not answering our questions. I stopped covering the UN in August, when BridgeNews ceased to be a real news agency. And after September 11, 2001, there was no talk of lifting sanctions on Iraq and replacing them something else.

That conversation stood out in my mind for a long time. I wonder what kind of courage it took for junior diplomats to say what they said about their own governments, given the kinds of governments they worked for? And I wonder what happened to both of them? Where are they now? What are they doing? I hope they are both okay. I hope they and their families are both well.

It doesn’t shock me that so many Libyan diplomats have abandoned their government, especially the junior ones. Both the Iraqi and the Libyan were bright, personable, professional, and well-educated. I suspect Libya’s current UN ambassador is probably tied up somewhere and locked in a closet.

Here’s to the people of Libya as they fight to overthrow their regime. Here’s to the Iraqis as they struggle with winning their independence from dictatorship and Americans. I hope that sometime, in the lifetime of both men who sat and shared a short conversation with at the United Nations almost 10 years ago, that it will stop being much, much worse in their countries. I pray and hope that soon it is better. Much, much better.