Friday, March 25, 2011

A Few Things About Libya that Worry Me

Like the almost all of my friends, I will be very glad to see Colonel Gadhafi get his deserved end. The rebellion in Libya has stirred hope for seeing him face the consequences for his actions and for the people of that abused country to finally have peace and freedom. Unfortunately, reality has a way of never quite working out the way you’d like and I am afraid that in Libya we are going to see that saying proved true.

In the cold light of day, some facts are very disturbing. As one who hopes for success in this venture, I am dismayed by the contradictions in the course we seem to be following.

Several weeks ago, the leaders of the “coalition”, including President Obama said Gadhafi "must go." But the resulting United Nations Security Council resolution under which we are acting does not say that. We have begun hearing people in our Administration like Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen say that Gadhafi may remain in power indefinitely. Even National Security Council staffer Ben Rhodes said, "It's not about regime change."

If that is the case, then the operation, to "protect civilians," could be of unlimited duration. Libya might very well be divided between the Gadhafi regime in the west around Tripoli and a rebel regime in the east around Benghazi and maintaining the rebels will require military force. The United States is currently in command of operations, but says that command will be handed off to others in "days, not weeks.” I have heard this Saturday is a target date for this to occur.

The news reports make it clear that the overwhelming majority of military forces in action are American. Putting a British or French officer in command will not change that and putting U.S. forces under foreign command will very weaken support for the enterprise here at home.

There is a saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee. This enterprise is beginning to look like that to me. The policy satisfies advocates of humanitarian intervention, who remember Bill Clinton's regret that he didn't intervene to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. Unfortunately, in appears that in order to satisfy those who oppose the United States acting unilaterally, it took time to get the U.N. Security Council to act. As a result we missed the moment when it seemed possible that recognition of a rebel government or imposition of a no-fly zone would topple Gadhafi. The delay gave him time to launch a counterattack that made him strong enough to withstand the limited military action.

In an attempt to satisfy the anti-war crowd at home, President Obama accepted limits on U.S. involvement. Obama was trying to satisfy skeptics of military action, like our own Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who publicly pointed out the difficulties of maintaining a no-fly zone. We have seen Obama do this kind of thing before, like when announced his surge in Afghanistan and at the same time announcing a deadline for the beginning of troop withdrawals. The result in Libya is a policy whose means seem unlikely to produce the desired ends.

In the process, the President has jettisoned some of the basic tenets of his party's (Democrat) foreign policy. "It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action," candidate Obama said in December 2007. But Congress was not asked for “informed consent” or, apparently, consulted in any serious way about this decision to take military action in Libya.

Instead, members of Congress, like the general public, heard the President make the announcement in Rio de Janeiro. That's quite a contrast with George W. Bush, who sought and obtained congressional approval of military action in Afghanistan in September 2001 and Iraq in October 2002.

I am afraid that this action is not likely to remain attractive to American voters if it fails to result in the overthrow of Gadhafi and leads to an open-ended military commitment in a nation where our vital interests are not at stake. The hard truth is, that is exactly what it looks like what is going to happen.

The other hard truth is that the longer this takes and the more obvious it becomes to the armchair generals here at home that the only way to get rid of Gadhafi is with “boots on the ground”, the more we will begin learning about the rebels we are committed to supporting. Some of the “truths” there are not going to go down well with the American people.

First of all some of the facts are well documented, and at odds with wishful thinking. What many in the West seem not to realize is that the revolt was started in Benghazi on February 15-17th by the group called the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition. The protests had a clear fundamentalist religious motivation, and were convened to commemorate the 2006 Danish cartoons protests, which had been particularly violent in Benghazi.

The NCLO web site, which is in Arabic, carries a document (Arabic; Google Cache; legible in automatic translation) dated February 15th (the day the protests began), which clearly spells out NCLO's objections to Qaddafi's rule. 

The main points of "Qaddafi: Islam's no. 1 enemy" are as follows:
• Qaddafi has closed an Islamic university and a seminary, has forbidden some Islamist publications, and has thrown thousands of Islamist activists into jail.

• Qaddafi has urged to put the Qur'an on the shelf, as no longer appropriate for this age.

• Qaddafi has made fun of the Islamic veil, calling it a "rag" and a "tent".

• Qaddafi has dared to say that Christians and Jews should be allowed to visit Mecca.

• Qaddafi has rejected the Hadith and Sunnah, and said he follows the Qur'an alone.
(The last claim involves a curious episode. At one point, Gadhafi declared himself a follower of the "Qur'an alone" movement, which rejects orthodox Muslim punishments, like stoning for adultery, death penalty for homosexuals etc. This got him into some serious trouble. An international committee of scholars went to discuss the issue with Gadhafi. After being told that "if he did not repent and take back his statement, he would fall under the law of renegades and infidels [...] which would force true Muslims to kill him", Qaddafi "repented and took back his statement".)
None of this is surprising. The leaked State Department memos describe Eastern Libya (2008) as an area of fervent Islamic sentiment, where "a number of Libyans who had fought and in some cases undergone 'religious and ideological training' in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the West Bank in the late 1970's and early 1980's had returned [...] in the mid to late 1980's". There they engaged into "a deliberate, coordinated campaign to propagate more conservative iterations of Islam, in part to prepare the ground for the eventual overthrow by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) of Muammar Qadhafi's regime, which is 'hated' by conservative Islamists". While Qaddafi's position was perceived to be strong, the East Libyans sent jihadis to Iraq, where "fighting against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq represented a way for frustrated young radicals to strike a blow against both Qadhafi and against his perceived American backers".

It is these same religiously and ideologically trained East Libyans who are now the “rebels” we are supporting. Gadhafi's claims that all his opponents are members of Al Qaeda not very far off, in regards to their sympathies. Anyone claiming that the Eastern Libyans are standing for secular, liberal values needs to overcome a huge burden of proof. First, what is the social basis of such a movement, when neutral observers have been characterizing East Libya as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism? Second, if the revolt has started on religious grounds, when and how exactly has it radically changed its character?

These hard facts are not counter-acted by Abdul Jalil's statements of liberal, democratic purpose. As head of the National Transitional Council, he is the West's favorite partner in dialogue (and recognized by France as Libya's legitimate head of state). His reliability and control are, however, questionable. As Qaddafi's Minister of Justice until last month, Abdul Jalil's democratic credentials are dubious; he has not participated in the initiation of the revolt, has latched onto it when it seemed likely to succeed, and his organization's control over the rebel forces is unproven. Overall, the participation of former Gadhafi officials is no reason to assume that the character and aims of a revolt that started on fundamentalist religious principles have changed to liberal, democratic ones.

In the end, I am having nightmares that our leaders seem to be rushing to replace an already bad regime with one that could be even worse. The Obama Administrations lack of political savvy of Middle Eastern affairs combined with the French embarrassment with getting the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts wrong (and subsequent change of foreign ministers) and the British embarrassment with close ties to the Gadhafi regime (including the award of a PhD from the prestigious London School of Economics to Qaddafi's son) have caused our countries to jump in, trying to remedy their perceived previous failings. 

Lack of cool reasoning and ignorance of the facts on the ground might very well make the remedy worse than the disease.

Live Long and Prosper....

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