Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Hemingway in Libya
“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
--Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
On March 28 2011, President Obama addressed the nation, explaining what all we were doing in Libya, and why. For big nerds, you can click on this link for a transcript of the President’s address. The President gave a very good speech, describing the forty years of Gaddafi’s reign, and how--all in all--Colonel Gaddafi is no Thomas Jefferson. “When our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act,” is how President Obama put it.
To the extent we have a dog in the fight that is Libya, President Obama did a good job of presenting his case: “Gaddafi declared that he would show ‘no mercy’ to his own people…if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte [700,000 people]—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region, and stained the conscience of the world.” Additionally, such a massacre would have driven “thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful—yet fragile—transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.” With the support of a United Nations Mandate, and working with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), western Europe, a few Islamist nations (Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates), and some vagaries from the Arab League, the US is 1) NOT engaged in unilateral action, and 2) effectively blocking Gaddafi’s counter attacks on the rebels.
Still, President Obama knew that not everyone would be happy with his actions. He addressed criticisms from two separate groups: 1) me, personal—which was quite nice, actually; and 2) morons, who apparently in a fit of nostalgia, want Libya bombed back to the stone age.
My Big Fat Greek Gripe
I fall into the group of people who oppose any outside military action in Libya. So far, after an extensive survey, I seem to be the only person on the planet (besides Colonel Gaddafi) who feels that way. President Obama chides me for asserting that I am creating a “false choice” for intervention, “even in limited ways.” Spoil sports like me are quick to point out—in the President’s words—that “there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government,” and the US cannot bomb every one of those nations.
The problem with me, according to President Obama, is that simply pointing out how life is still nasty, brutish, and short for most of the planet “cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.” This newly formed Coalition had a “unique ability to stop that violence,” and therefore grabbed at that chance.
So—what is my problem? Well, even I have to admit this is a far cry from President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Here, President Obama has authority from the UN Security Council, a real “coalition,” limited goals, and minimal lying. In March 2003, President Bush violated the UN Charter; sent a “coalition” of 1) US troops, 2) US “contractors”, and 3) some British soldiers; had no clue about the region or the operation; and couldn’t open the Presidential mouth without lying. So that is progress, I suppose.
Here’s what is not progress: we are bombing largely civilian populations in a “nation” where no one can be certain what is happening. That’s bad.
In sum, here’s my beef. First, before we talk about a “massacre that would reverberate across the region,” how about looking at a few regional massacres that not only failed to reverberate, but left no stain anywhere—let alone on the world’s conscience. Second, America has once again wheeled out our goldfish-like memory (ie it lasts for all of three seconds), showing willful ignorance as to what “Libya” is, and how the Middle East got to be the way it is. Finally—and most importantly—despite professed good intentions every time, the track record of America’s military interventions are abysmal.
Forget Ozzy--Hama Rules!
In Longitudes and Attitudes, Thomas Friedman’s 2002 published collection of his New York Times columns post September 11, one of the first essays is “Hama Rules.” Hama was (past tense intentional) the fourth largest city in Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. In February 1982, Islamists extremists were trying to topple Assad’s dictatorship. Believing the roots of this incipient rebellion to be in Hama (rightly, but even if he was wrong, that was beside the point), Assad pounded the entire city with artillery for days. Once the city was flattened (metaphorically), Assad flattened what was left (literally) with bulldozers. Amnesty International estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 Syrians were killed.
Friedman describes how he visited the former city, and how far from hiding this atrocity, Assad WANTED Syrians to visit the site. Assad had a message he wanted to deliver, about the consequences of organized opposition. “This was ‘Hama Rules’—the real rules of Middle East Politics,” Friedman concludes, “and Hama Rules are no rules at all.” Prior to reading Friedman’s book, I had never heard of Hama. No reverberations, no stain.
Here’s a massacre I have heard of, though. Between September 16 and 18 1982, the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon were surrounded by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF allowed Christian Lebanese Phalangists to enter the camps, and slaughter between 800 and 3,500 civilians. Israel responded by creating the Kahan Commission, to determine who was responsible for the slaughter. The Commission concluded that Israel bore “indirect responsibility,” that then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon “bears personal responsibility,” and that Sharon should be immediately dismissed from his post as Defense Minister. After reading the Kahan Commission report, Mr. Sharon became so chagrined, he left politics altogether, becoming a recluse too ashamed to show his face in public—because he reverberated from the stain he left on the world’s conscience. Well, sort of: Sharon refused to leave the cabinet, then Prime Minister Begin refused to fire him, and Sharon went on to become Prime Minister, eventually dying in that office (massacre reverberations & staining notwithstanding).
Ever heard of The Imposed War? How about the First Persian Gulf War? The former is the name in Iran, the latter in Iraq, of the September 1980 to August 1988 Iran-Iraq War. That eight years makes it the longest conventional war of the Twentieth Century. Over half a million people died on both sides. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq initiated the war, and was well on their way to losing it, when the Western Democracies got behind Saddam. The newly re-equipped Iraqi army was then able to push the Iranians back. Eventually, the exhausted nations allowed themselves to be forced into a UN brokered cease fire—one that preserved the same borders. Minimal reverberations, and even less conscience staining, all from a war that changed nothing.
I could do this all day (see, e.g. Lebanon, the Jordanian Civil War, Afghanistan, etc etc), but I trust you get the idea. Here’s my point: don’t shame me for being a Hard Hearted Hannah, hoping on the outside chance that I haven't noticed an endless parade of massacres.
There is a reason why the “middle east” (roughly from Morocco to Afghanistan) is screwed up. Back in the day, the United States decided to support the imperialist ambitions of Western Europe, and oppose the indigenous anti-colonial movements. Hoping to piss off the US, the Soviet Union supported the anti-colonial movements, thus turning those movements into “socialists” (unspecified). Once the colonial regimes collapsed, the new secular dictators (Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, et al) claimed to be “socialist,” because that was the secret word that made the Soviet duck drop down and give you money cf Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. Now, the Americans and British did not like those professed “socialist” dictators, preferring dictators “capitalist” (whatever that meant). So, the US and UK started building up various fundamentalist Islamist movements, because the secular dictators could not easily suppress an Islamist-based movement (if you’re even vaguely interested in this history, Robert Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam is an excellent book). Which then brings us to where we are today: crappy former socialist dictators, insurgent Islamist movements, and a generation of hip hop groovy cats from Nowsville unwilling to tolerate fifty years of economic stagnation.
My point is, there are no easy answers in the Middle East, and pretty much anything you do is going to result in a massacre—and shamefully, there is almost no chance of anyone’s conscience being stained, or reverberations felt.
“If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You’re Going to Wind Up Someplace Else”
So says my favorite Hegelian philosopher, Casey Stengel. What’s the problem with intervening in the Arab world? For starters, they only all LOOK alike (even the Iranians, who aren't even Arabs). But they're not all alike. I can’t give you the link, because a green curtain has descended over the New York Times (ie you need to pay to peek), but Thomas Friedman’s column on March 22, “Tribes with Flags,” was especially helpful.
Mr. Friedman quotes Mr. David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, asking rhetorically “is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or is it fundamentally a tribal civil war?” There’s a big difference between the two. Friedman identifies two different types of states in the Middle East. One he calls “real countries,” because they have “long histories within their borders, and strong national identities.” In that group, Friedman places Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Iran. The second group, Friedman calls “Tribes with Flags.” Those “states” have boundaries drawn by colonial powers, containing “myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together, but have never melded into a unified family of citizens.” What does that mean? That means those nations are more confederations of rival gangs, under the direction of an overlord. Why is that bad? Because those states have no real national identity or consciousness. In other words, democracy a la one person, one vote is virtually impossible, because each tribe holding power (in Friedman’s phrase) “lives by the motto ‘rule or die’ — either my tribe or sect is in power or we’re dead.” So who all are the Tribes with Flags? Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates—and Libya.
Friedman concludes by pointing out that it was no accident that the three nations where the Middle East Democracy movement first took root were in Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran. Those are “nations,” where “citizens” are banding together to oppose a centralized authority. But as uprisings spread to some of the Tribes with Flags, all of the uprisers voice the same language of “democracy.” Hence the question: is that “democracy” as in “one person, one vote”? Or do you mean “democracy” as in “my tribe in, your tribe goes to hell”?
What do we know about the rebel opposition in Libya? Here’s a hint: it rhymes with “nothing.” What do we know about Gaddafi? Well, he's clearly not the James Madison of the Arab world—but that’s the wrong measure. Is Libya a nice place to live, especially if you are a woman? No. But I would argue, by any measure, day to day life is much worse in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (especially if you are a woman), than it is in Libya. For many years, almost alone in the Arab world, Libya was reclaiming land from the Sahara Desert, taking concerns over their environment seriously. Additionally, Libya was more “westernized” in terms of education, and allowing some individual freedom in cultural areas—such as modes of dress.
Am I saying Colonel Gaddafi is like Abe Lincoln, only more honest? Absolutely not. For example, Libyans really suffered through Gaddafi’s long and pointless wars, trying to annex Chad. Still, you could do much worse. No, Libya has not been a paragon of progress over the last forty years of Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Nevertheless, prior to Gaddafi’s coup when he seized power, Libya was in far worse shape.
Finally, I do know this: Gaddafi will leave Tripoli, when six of his friends carry him out by the handles—as the old Frank Sinatra Rat Pack joke goes. President Obama can talk all he wants to about a “limited war,” but that note is not on Gaddafi’s trumpet. Gaddafi is one king that if you are going to fight, you are going to have to kill him, and I do not mean maybe. And if you do kill Gaddafi, what do you have to take his place? The record of peaceful transition in that part of the world is not good.
In conclusion, what I (me, personal) want is that in addition to asking “will the US intervention in Libyan save the people of Benghazi from a massacre?”, someone (somewhere) will think to ask “will US intervention in Libya result in massacre of the people of Tripoli?”
(An answer to the second question would also be nice).
First, Do No Harm
Much of President Obama’s speech included affirmations of what good people Americans are, with the best citizens, the best soldiers, the best diplomats…As a group, we’re good enough; we’re smart enough; and dog gone it, people like us! And why not? Face to face, we’re just plain good folks. Which is really a problem, because the further away people get from sitting down and having coffee with us, the bigger the bastards we really are.
America has built up quite a record of military interventions, and for the most part, that record is not good. For example, in 1954, the US engineered a coup in Guatemala, destroying a democratic government. What followed was one of the dirtiest of dirty civil wars, from roughly 1960 to 1996, resulting in the brutal murders of over 200,000 people. Even today, Guatemala is largely an ungovernable war zone. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama—all of central America, (except for Mexico, Costa Rica, and Belize) has largely consisted of American created police states.
Moving to South America, “September 11” means something completely different in Chile. On September 11 1973, a US engineered coup d’etat destroyed the region’s longest running Constitutional democracy, with the military bombing the Presidential Palace. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Columbia…you pick any place you want, they’ve all had at one time or another vicious police states, largely created and maintained with US support. What is it like living under such a regime? Try reading Jacob Timerman's Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number.
Where has US military invention not made a bad situation worse? Not Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. Afghanistan is another nation that has suffered unimaginable devastation, beginning in 1978 when President Carter began supporting what would become al Qada and the Taliban, in an effort to needle the Soviets.
If you’re looking for more specifics, Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq examines a pile of precedents. We have—frankly—a terrible record when it comes to preventing “massacres.” Our good intentions (giving America the benefit of the doubt—which is, actually, undeserved) have paved many a road to hell.
Need one more illustration? Me neither, but here goes: this month we celebrated the eighth anniversary of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. President Obama gave a rough cost estimate of one trillion USD, which I think is low. But even at one trillion, how big a number is that? The 2009 estimates of Iraq’s population are roughly 31 million people (four times the size of New York City), with a gross domestic product (2009 estimate) of $111 billion USD (adjusted for purchasing power parity. If you care what all that means exactly, hit the link and read all about it at Wikipedia). That trillion dollars breaks down to approximately $30,000 per Iraqi—in a nation where the per capita income is $3,570. MAYBE it wouldn’t have worked, but for the same money, President Bush could have announced that if only everyone in Iraq promised to stay home, watching television and stop supporting the government, America would pay everyone’s bills for the next eight years. Saddam Hussein still might have been able to hold on to power—but that plan beats the hell out of anything Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) ever came up with.
But by any measure, the Iraq invasion and occupation was not money well spent.
Which brings to mind another column by Mr. Friedman. On March 29 (“Lucking for Luck in Libya”), Mr. Friedman concedes he doesn’t know Libya, but:
"[M]y gut tells me that any kind of decent outcome there will require boots on the ground — either as military help for the rebels to oust Qaddafi as we want, or as post-Qaddafi peacekeepers and referees between tribes and factions to help with any transition to democracy. Those boots cannot be ours. We absolutely cannot afford it — whether in terms of money, manpower, energy or attention. But I am deeply dubious that our allies can or will handle it without us, either. And if the fight there turns ugly, or stalemates, people will be calling for our humanitarian help again. You bomb it, you own it."
I don’t know Libya either—but I do know an air war hasn’t been enough to create a new nation state anywhere: somebody is going to have to play policemans (sic) on the ground. And if no one is willing and/or able to do that, tomahawk missiles will only make a bad situation worse.
When President Obama says “[G]iven the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right,” he has a point. But an even better point would be to look at the probable consequences before we leap, maybe even before deciding “what’s right.”
So no, Mr. President, I am not convinced bombing Libya—even with a UN mandate and the support of a genuine coalition—is the right thing to do. Yes, that is terrible the threat to Benghazi; but do not act like that is any more of an extraordinary situation than what it is. Or that if push came to shove, the exact same situation wouldn't arise in Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan...(you get the idea). Second, there are no easy answers in that region, especially in Libya. Pretending that there are will hurt not only us, but especially hurt the Libyans. And finally, America’s record of military intervention is nothing short of disastrous.
I just don’t see a way (but I could be wrong) that innumerable Tomahawk missiles could possibly save the day for democracy in Libya.
But isn’t it pretty to think so?
And Now For Something Completely Bent
The bulk of the President’s address went on to explain why it was important that America’s intervention in Libya needed to be “limited.” Or in the vernacular: moron chat. Feel free to see for yourself how the President answered those critics.
While President Obama did not sway me with his clear, and carefully thought out address, I can still say that I respectfully disagree with him—which is way more than I can say, regarding the responses from the potential GOP Presidential Candidates of 2012. Our friends atPolitico (speaking euphemistically) document their uniform (if less than coherent) condemnation. Private Citizen Sarah Palin (always one of my favorites) calls President Obama’s speech “dodgy and dubious” (maybe one or the other, but certainly not both!), and coloured herself “profoundly disappointed:” the President “did not articulate really what our purpose was except for some inconsistent humanitarian effort there…He did not make the case for this intervention.” Does that mean Private Citizen Palin agrees with me, and thinks we should not have intervened in Libya? Beats me. Last week, Palin denounced the President for “dithering.”
John Bolton (who I hate) called the President’s speech “a dog’s breakfast as far as [Bolton] was concerned…It wasn’t much that was new and what was new was trivial.” No doubt Mr. Bolton anticipated the President announcing that from now on, Libya would be a US protectorate, not unlike the Canal Zone in Panama, Palau, the Marianas Islands…and all those people only John Bolton can see.
Rudy Giuliani, operating behind enemy lines on CNN, said that “the President’s speech tonight has made things even murkier than they were before…The whole purpose of this was to clarify our mission. Our mission is just internally contradictory.” NOTE: Mr. Giuliani did NOT say that he was personally hurt and offended that President Obama did not ONCE reference the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, but you know Giuliani was thinking it.
Commenting on the speech before the President gave it, Professional Empty Suit Tim Pawlenty said that a “no fly” zone should have been set up “sooner” than the time needed by President Obama: “They could have pushed [Gaddafi] out without much fanfare, I think, without much difficulty…They [the White house?] were indecisive and it (unspecified) lacked leadership in that moment.” Granted, Pawlenty is just nuts. If the US just unilaterally ran out and imposed a “no fly zone” (whatever that means) in Libya, that would have been an act of war, and a violation of he UN Charter. And forcing Gaddafi out of Tripoli without much difficulty or fanfare? Look what it took to get Norm Coleman out of the US Senate, for gods’ sake.
But I’ll give Pawlenty this much: he did say something concrete. Sure, it was stupid, but at least you see where he disagrees with the President. If you look at the statements of Palin, Giuliani, Bolton, and even Newt Gingrich, it is hard to tell where they disagree with the President—but they sure feel strongly about their disagreement. Do they want no intervention? Or do they want more intervention, including ground troops? Or are they opposed to the idea of a joint mission, preferring the US to do all the heavy lifting, militarily and financially? If you can tell, you’re smarter than I am (you probably are, anyway).
The single most mortifying news of the night, though, was the ugly spectre of the don Don Trump SEEMINGLY agreeing with me. Also on CNN, don Don expressed concern about who was supporting the Libyan rebels: “I really do want to know these people we’re fighting for, who they are…They call them the rebels like they’re these wonderful guys, but I hear they’re aligned with Iran, I hear they may be aligned with al Qaida…and to be honest, wouldn’t that be really very very sad if we’re bombing all of these things, killing all of these people one way or the other, and Iran ends up taking over Libya?” Yes Don, that would not just be merely sad or even very sad or even very, very sad. That would truly and sincerely be REALLY VERY, VERY SAD.
What’s even sadder, though, is The Don must be listening to The Little Man Inside his Pants again, because I am wholly at a loss as to who else would have told The Don that the anti-Gaddafi forces were Iranian or al Qaida affiliates.
What could go wrong, indeed...
In an effort to destroy what little interest there is in my notes, the powers that be don't allow pictures as thumbnails. Believing that the only possible reason for even scrolling to the end of this note (forget reading it) would be to download pics of Ms. Abbe Lane, copies suitable for downloading (if not framing) can be found at Hemingway in Libya.