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Our geopolitical experts see the world with the innocent eyes of children (that’s a bad thing)

14 March 2011

Summary:  A child-like simplicity and innocence is the common element of the articles by our geopolitical experts advocating US military intervention in Libya.  Here we examine them, and contrast them with detailed reports from Libya.  This is the fourth in the series about Libya; links to previous chapters appear at the end.

What are the common assumptions of the interventionists (certainly not hawks or warmongers)?

  1. If we can intervene, we should intervene.  Few consider possible adverse consequences; they tend to see only the benefits and the worst-case costs of inaction.
  2. We’re too rich to consider costs (and prefer not to think of the more important costs, men killed and injured).
  3. We’re pure of heart and therefore can and should decide which government deserve to be overthrown.
  4. National sovereignty is an outmoded concept.  Excerpt for US sovereignty, which conservatives consider sacrosanct.  Other nations opinions about US actions — such as torture, indefinite detention without charge or trial, and routine rape of prisoners (even children, see section 5 here) – are irrelevant.  
  5. Gaddafi is a bad guy, therefore the rebels are good guys.  A new regime must be more favorable for the US.
  6. Good rebels always win, so we need not worry about fueling a long civil war.  Nor about what to do if we recognize the rebels and Gaddafi wins.
  7. The rebels’ leadership is begging for our military intervention.  False.  The Arab League has asked for a no-fly zone (but they’re will not do it, nor do they represent the rebels).

Of course there are good reasons to intervene in Libya.  The problem is that so many of the advocates present arguments that are little more than cartoons, waving away the costs and risks.  These articles provide astonishingly clear examples:

In fact since the collapse of the radical leftist groups after the end of the USSR – and 9-11 — Gaddafi has been a quasi-ally of the US.  Western oil companies get easy access to Libya’s oil.  He’s a secular bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.  His eccentricity makes Libya an obstacle to Arab unity.

Although it violates the interventionist narrative that dominates the news media, there are reports describing conditions inside Libya — especially the rebels.

(1)  Inside Libya’s Chaotic, Secretive Rebel Leadership“, Clare Morgana Gillis (journalist), The Atlantic, 10 March 2011 — “While defected generals struggle to lead an army, eastern Libyan civilians find a provisional government marred by secrecy and disarray.”  Excerpt:

General Omar Hariri was confirmed as the head of the {13 person} Military Council at a press conference on March 5, but the lines of his authority are difficult to discern in this haphazard and still uncertain command structure. His control is even less clear in the field of battle, where defected soldiers and civilian volunteers come together in a poorly disciplines, frequently chaotic rebel army. … Al-Sai’ih insisted that the membership of the military council, including its leader, is “classified and confidential.”

… Saturday was a rough day for 36-year-old Khaled Al-Sai’ih, the civilian coordinator between the National Libyan Council (the public face of the opposition, announced on February 27) and the military council, the membership of which remains secret for, they say, security reasons.

(2)  The Battle for Libya“, Nicolas Pelham, New York Review of Books, 7 April 2011 — Excerpt:

Unlike the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the revolutionaries in Benghazi and eastern Libya have taken control. Qaddafi’s revolutionary committees, people’s congresses, and security apparatus have disbanded, offering no interim stopgap. The defeated regime has no unions, political parties, or independent news organizations in eastern Libya. Even transitional institutions have to be built from scratch, by a population that for forty years has been severed from governing norms, and before that took lessons from Italian fascism.

The east now has a series of self-governing city councils, collectively owing their allegiance to the National Transitional Council, which also claims authority over the remnants of the armed forces. After the capricious, opulent colonel, the lack of charisma of its new leader, the former justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, comes as a relief. But for many in the youth revolution, the slight, elderly former judge with an old-timer’s red felt hat feels too old-school. In the first days of their uprising, he was still in Qaddafi’s government; he defected on February 21, after protesting the colonel’s “excessive use of violence” against protesters. Few understand what sort of institution now claims to govern them. Aside from Abdel-Jalil, all but six of its members have refused to identify themselves for fear of reprisals, and despite their promises of transparency they meet behind closed doors. The council’s first newspaper is as partisan and sycophantic as those it replaced.  Supporters emphasize Abdel-Jalil’s revolutionary credentials.

… After the successive attempted coups in the 1970s, Colonel Qaddafi sent the army into Chad, and in the rout that followed, thousands—senior officers among them — were abandoned and, according to still seething soldiers, disowned. Another purge followed in 1993 after generals from the Warfala tribe botched a coup. After that the colonel pretty much ditched his army. Instead, he formed paramilitary brigades, the most powerful of which were led by his sons. “He cut off our supply of arms and spare parts for our tanks,” complains a Chad war veteran, “and gave them to Sirte [i.e., Qaddafi] and his sons.” The navy, which also defected in the current uprising, suffered similarly. “I would rather go to sea in a dinghy,” said an observer with close ties to the National Council’s military committee.

Following the army’s failed attempts to gain control, Islamist groups emerged as the prime challengers, only to be similarly beaten down. In the mid-1990s, a group of jihadists returning from Afghanistan formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the Green Mountains around Beida. Claiming to be the heirs of the Beida-based Sanussiya religious order that fought a twenty-year jihad against Italian colonial rule, they waged war on Libya’s modern infidel. Hundreds of Islamists were rounded up, including many who had nothing to do with violence, and subjected to gross abuse. Students who had memorized the Koran recount being stripped naked and dumped with dogs trained to rape them. When they complained to the prison governor, they were told, “You are here to die.” In response to a riot in Tripoli’s political prison, Busalim, in 1996, Qaddafi’s guards shot 1,270 prisoners dead — all but thirty of them Islamists.

Paradoxically, the killing designed to liquidate Qaddafi’s opposition may turn out to be a cause of his demise. Collective outrage at the 1996 slaughter at Busalim prison further fostered ties between the elitist revolutionary and mass reformist strains of Libya’s political Islam, as well as smaller liberal groups.

… The Busalim survivors and others had prepared for the protests for weeks. In mid-December 2010, they set a date for February 17, 2011, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of an earlier Benghazi protest the authorities suppressed; and they found further inspiration in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. … Seizing the moment, Mohammed Busidra and other preachers issued fatwas declaring nonparticipation in street protests a sin. Under pressure from their young people, local tribal sheikhs echoed the call, declaring that anyone who suppressed the protests would lose tribal protection. A few bold army commanders in the east publicized their defection.

… In cities across Libya, Islamist groups have proved more efficient at responding to the collapse of authority. While council members squabble over positions and policy inside the courthouse, Islamist leaders escorted by followers with walkie-talkies emerge from their tents to mobilize the large crowds with sermons and open-air prayers in the square below. Mosques formerly required to close between prayer times are now open around the clock, and Friday sermons—in which politics was banned by Qaddafi—now call for an armed jihad against him.

Salim Jaber, who heads the religious affairs office of the Benghazi council, has transferred responsibility for food distribution to Benghazi’s poor from the local markets to the mosques. Unlike in Egypt where beltagiya, or street thugs, rampaged for several days through downtown Cairo, religious injunctions against looting ensured that attacks quickly subsided. Mosques organized collections of local weapons. And sheikhs on Benghazi’s new Free Libya radio have called on their followers to fill the vacuum left by departing migrant workers.

To a significant extent, Islamists have also extended their influence into Qaddafi-ruled territory. In Tripoli, leading preachers used fatwas to bring supporters out on the streets in defiance of curfews and militiamen who opened fire. Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghaliani, Libya’s most prominent cleric, also ruled against accepting bribes, curbing the regime’s attempts to buy loyalty.

— About the author:  Pelham is a senior consultant with the International Crisis Group.  He is the author of A New Muslim Order: The Shia and the Middle East Sectarian Crisis. (April 2011)

For more information

About Libya: 

About Egypt:

Other posts about Islam:

  1. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy, 1 March 2006
  2. Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
  3. Hatred and fear of Islam – of Moslems – is understandable. But are there hidden forces at work?, 3 August 2010
  4. Should we fear that religion whose believers have killed so many people?, 4 August 2010

See posts about al Qaeda here.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Chistopher Hitchens joins the children's chorus, permalink
    15 March 2011 1:53 am

    Don’t Let Qaddafi Win – Ignore the “realists.” If we do nothing, the situation in Libya can only get worse“, Christopher Hitchens, Slate, 14 March 2011 — Conclusion:

    “If the other side in this argument is correct, or even to the extent that it is correct, then we are being warned that a maimed and traumatized Libya is in our future, no matter what. That being the case, a piecemeal and improvised policy is the least pragmatic one. Even if Qaddafi temporarily turns the tide, as seems thinkable, and covers us all with shame for doing so, we will still have it all to do again. Let us at least hope that certain excuses will not be available next time.”

    Very vivid. Very emotional. Not very historical. Libya was unified as a colony by Italy in 1931. Until the UK and France split it in 1943. Until glued back together again in 1951.

    As for the “the situation can only get worse”, that’s just a wild guess. Without a shred of logic or evidence. Revolutions often result in regimes worse than those they replace.

    It’s a child-like analysis.

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