The Libyan campaign is over — to whose benefit? It’s a question probably better directed to Nicholas Sarkozy.
The accounting is far from over, but the Department of Defense said late last summer we spent something under a billion dollars since kinetic military action was launched over Libya six months ago. That sum was our contribution to a NATO expedition whose stated aims were to prevent a bloodbath in the insurgent capital of Benghazi and, as the situation on the ground evolved, to help the Libyan National Transitional Council overthrow the 40-year rule of Moammar Gaddafi.
In late September, General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Army’s Africa Command, told the Associated Press that the NATO mission was essentially over and, apart from a few odds and ends such as searching for missing munitions and helping the Libyan Coast Guard get back on its feet, or perhaps its flippers, there was not much left to do. Good luck, fellows, you’re on your own now.
Actually, Moammar Gaddafi was still at large as General Ham spoke (and as we go to press), but if the goal was to overthrow his regime in the hope that a better one would take its place, we can surely say, “Job well done,” even as we keep our fingers crossed. The conventional battle against the regime took longer than the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, but look at how long the aftermaths have been in those. Particularly with a big political year coming up, this is as good a time as any to ask ourselves just what we are up to.
So, Libya: Did it advance our larger aims in the Arab-Islamic world, our commercial interests, our security? Such questions were first raised by sensible people in the U.S. and Europe when, last spring, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain got it into their heads that it would be well if Libya’s dictator, an outspoken enemy of the West, a virulent anti-Semite, an unapologetic supporter of terrorists and pirates, a violent meddler in the affairs of many African countries, and an acrophobe, bit the dust. The opportunity was there because for several weeks an insurgency based in the Libyan east had been battling Gaddafi’s security forces.
Insurgencies begin with specific, usually local grievances: in Libya families of victims of the Gaddafi regime’s brutal political repression demanded an accounting—their relatives’ remains, actually—emboldened by a wind of rebellion that was then blowing across North Africa and was being felt as far away as Yemen opposite the African Horn and Bahrain on the Persian Gulf.
Tyranny takes different forms, as do responses to it. Morocco is an authoritarian monarchy that proposes to transform itself into a constitutional one. The Algerian version resembles nothing so much as an American city political machine as imagined by Dashiell Hammett in Red Harvest, while Tunisia under the Zine Ben Ali machine was essentially a Mediterranean kleptocracy with a veneer of French-inherited administration, in which an extended family of showy, grasping arrivistes had a deal going with the commercial and trading classes of Tunis and Sfax, a narrow circle whose economic success could not absorb the expectations of a youthful, educated population.
How these societies (and those further east) functioned was not well understood in the popular media, who were almost unanimous, both here and in Europe, in describing the rolling movements (which began with a real fire, a terrible self-immolation by a young Tunisian protestor against police arbitrariness and bureaucratic thickness, the two usually going together in tyrannies) as a revolt of “hope,” for “dignity.”
Possibly too many observers never get beyond their college courses in modern history in terms of developing frameworks for revolutionary situations, and fall back on Dickens’s famous peroration, “It was the spring of hope, the autumn of despair…”
However, quite apart from what eventually happens in A Tale of Two Cities, Libya, the only country where Western words of support were followed by deeds, is not France.
MOAMMAR GADDAFI displayed a number of characteristics familiar to observers of tyrannical regimes. He combined the buffoonery of Benito Mussolini and the ruthless cruelty of Saddam Hussein, the ethnic or tribal paranoia of Josef Stalin, and the predilection for spectacular gestures of Abdel Nasser. A narcissist, he had the attitude that past sins, including air piracy and terrorism on land and sea that killed hundreds and the repression at home that killed thousands, could be forgot or forgiven; and in this, it must be said, leaders of the Democracies, as they used to be called, erred in thinking that their observance of protocol would be taken as such by the pirate-dictator, who on the contrary reacted with fantasies about political and romantic conquests imputable to his brilliance, charm, charisma, handsome looks, costumes, tents, who knows? Dictators are mad; no one would take them seriously, except that they find ways of monopolizing the use of force.
When they lose this monopoly, they are doomed. In Morocco this was not a problem, as the royal army, purged of mutinous elements by Mohammed VI’s father Hassan II many years ago, is loyal. In Algeria, there are factions and rivalries in the army and security services, but they have tended to close ranks against disorder or reform—these sometimes go together—that would undermine a system that works well for them. Since the rather limited movements for change of last January, almost all emanating from the Berber region of Kabylie, the government has sought to spread the wealth obtained from hydrocarbons, increasing subsidies of whatever is available, including new housing.
The Tunisian and Egyptian situations brought out the lingering fissures among the Western allies regarding the attitudes to adopt toward the post-colonial states. This is what caused the military and other security agencies to hesitate before turning on their putative leaders. (Hosni Mubarak comes from the military, Zin Ben Ali from the police.) Would the American instinct to go with the flow prevail over the French one to save the regime and remind it who saved it, whenever possible, by increasing the influence of the advisors already there? In Tunisia, the French foreign minister took this position almost as by rote.
The Obama administration hesitated as the movements demanding the departure of Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali swelled, but so did conservative commentators and public figures. When they realized that if they tried to stand fast with either leader they would set themselves up for a humiliation like the indelible one they suffered during the Suez crisis half a century ago, the French switched horses, coming out for human rights, democracy, and the overthrow of tyrants (and the firing of foreign ministers for gaucheries). It was this that set the stage for the anti-Gaddafi coalition that emerged soon after.
France flying to the rescue of a rebellion against tyranny is a story we Americans learn in grade school. It is a good story, with a basis in historical fact: the French radicals of 1792, having overthrown their own monarch, declared war on the other crowned heads of Europe and sent their ragged armies to the Rhine and beyond.
In a peculiar way, the French revolutionary tradition finds a distant echo in the Bush administration’s foreign policy ideas, premised in a faith that democracy can be exported and, by corollary, that pre-emptive strikes against a tyrannical regime, particularly when it poses a real and present danger, constitute a legitimate form of defense, rather than an aggression under international law.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?