Feature

Victory in the Desert

The Libyan campaign is over -- to whose benefit? It's a question probably better directed to Nicholas Sarkozy.

By From the November 2011 issue

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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.

AT CRUNCH TIME, as when we are attacked on our own territory, our reaction is to draw our terrible swift and righteous sword, not send out election monitors and community organizers. The disruption of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, harboring al Qaeda, met very little criticism. The campaign was efficient, brutal, and short. Though unable to destroy al Qaeda, we dispersed the Taliban and provided a shield behind which various Pashtun clan leaders could quarrel about what to do next. France, which had experienced terrorist attacks from Islamic or Arab movements every few years since the 1950s, could not disapprove of our policy in principle. President Jacques Chirac's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, expressed his country's support, as did most other leading foreign policy leaders in the world.

But the French government disapproved of our application of the Bush administration's attack on Iraq. There was no casus belli, Villepin argued, as there had been during the Kuwait affair a decade earlier. Saddam was dangerous, and the way to guard against him was to sustain the same Euro-U.S.-Arab alliance successfully mobilized in 1990, in effect containing him.

The Bush policy makers countered there was a "break-out" danger, as there was evidence that the Iraqi Baathists either had or were actively developing weapons of mass destruction and were in a de facto alliance with the Islamist movement, in the short term transcending deep doctrinal differences.

The argument for the legitimacy of this attack was somewhat obfuscated by the quarrels between the administration and important desks within the national security agencies--notably the Central Intelligence Agency--regarding the exact nature of the threat to us and our allies, the links of the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, the state of its weapons development programs, the contacts of these to other regimes (or factions within them), including those in power in such places as Pakistan, North Korea, and possibly still more, and other issues of what the security specialists call "threat assessments."

Whatever one makes of these debates and their effects on our clarity of purpose, the important question ends up as one of political judgment. What the French disapproved of was our fervor at going after the tyrants of the Arab world. Perhaps the idea was not that different from what their ancestors had done in the 1790s, but that was two centuries ago. There may have been profoundly corrupt reasons for this disapproval. Investigative reporters demonstrated that Saddam was using the "oil-for-food" program to cheat the arms embargo on his regime and buy the good will, or at least the forbearance, of international leaders. But even apart from this, the French did not agree that our overarching plan was sound. Not only were we overextending our human and economic resources, they said, the Arabs would never buy into our declarations of political altruism.

Our plan was frankly Wilsonian: the only way to end the Islamist threat and, at the same time, bring about real political reform in the lands of Arab-Islam is to promote--if necessary, impose--democracy. With some important exceptions in the political class and among opinion makers, the French simply did not buy this. They viewed reform in Arab countries as unrealistic except in the very long term. Their diplomacy emphasized the recognition of states, whatever their nature, and rejected contacts with and encouragement of opposition movements, except when it clearly suited them--a significant exception, but never publicly acknowledged.

IT IS TOO early to say whether our revolutionary foreign policy in the end will prove to have been the more prudent and decent and effective in the lands where our bayonets and armored vehicles have sought to promote it. But the question does bring us back to the Libyan intervention, in which the roles were almost mirrored. This time we were slow on the uptake, but we agreed to give full diplomatic and political support to the adventure, and, crucially, to provide supplies and munitions.

The Obama administration had sound reasons for taking a back seat in the NATO expedition. If we are in a long war for the promotion of liberal democracy, why not implicate other liberal democratic states in the enterprise? Moreover, it is of little comfort to a president reading daily casualty figures on two fronts to be told by armchair military analysts that it would be "easy" to open a third one and overthrow Gaddafi. On the contrary, he feared still another quagmire to add to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had every reason to be wary of the irrational exuberance that had predicted Iraq would be a "cakewalk." Even if it is reasonably certain that our forces can defeat Arab armies in the field, what sort of analysis is it that neglects the consequences to us of our own battlefield victories? Since the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 1790s, the Arabs never have won any wars in the field. Nor have they lost any at the peace conferences, either.

Contrariwise, going into Libya seemed the logical continuation of our campaign for democracy in the Arab world, the ultimate rationale for our efforts. Libya, in a sense, was proof-by-continuation. In the same way, small victories were cheered in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion: the "cedar revolution" in Lebanon, and the stated renunciation, by Moammar Gaddafi, of his nuclear program. Lebanon was a short-lived success. If we were so serious about spreading democracy in the Middle East, why were we not there when the country was taken hostage by Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored terrorist army, following the assassination of its liberal democratic leader by Syrian-Hezbollah terrorists?

After 10 years of efforts and no-follow-throughs, going into Libya might have elicited some skepticism, and indeed it did, not only from Democrats who, like the president, had opposed the original Bush policies, but Republicans and conservatives who not only wanted to know what was in this for us but who had grown wary of just what sorts of changes we really were sponsoring.

Someone will have to explain why we place democracy ahead of freedom in our global-improvement schemes. Democracy without liberty, after all, does not necessarily produce free societies. But societies based on concepts and cultural practices premised on freedom evolve in democratic directions.

IT IS NOT at all clear why the French and the British, two old nations whose historical experiences demonstrate this axiom, were so anxious to raise the democratic banner in a clannish, tribal country like Libya, one moreover whose people have been browbeaten by 40 years of fascistic rule that cut them off from the habits and practices of free peoples. It is disappointing that, with our own recent and current experience of bringing democracy to Arab societies, we did not, evidently, raise any alarms on this score.

Nor does it seem to have occurred to either our own or our French allies' specialists in the region that there is an indigenous population in Libya whose very name, Imazight, means "free men." Known since Roman times as Berbers, they of course vary, like most minorities, in their relationship to the central regimes. Gaddafi disliked the Berbers--one of his many dislikes--and it was neither surprising nor unexpected that they gave him no support, when not taking part actively in the insurrection, during the recent civil war. On the contrary, their fighters held the far west while the Benghazi-based Transitional Council's troops were losing ground to the regime's forces, until the NATO aircraft (and in particular French assault helicopters) saved them. It was a Berber offensive out of the town of Nafusa, near the Tunisian border, that turned the tide and led to the September march on Tripoli.

Although Gaddafi called the Imazight Israeli and U.S. agents (a capital crime) and severely repressed the use of their language (as did the other North African states), and although they represent at least 10 percent of the Libyan population, the first reaction of the Transitional Council was to snub them, placing near the top of its proposed new constitution--the same that American democracists are hailing as proof that our Wilsonian crusade is unstoppable--that the only language in Libya is Arabic.

Libya is distant and strange, but it is not the other side of the moon. Yet we use what we know selectively--we prefer to make use of information when it comforts, or can be interpreted to comfort, our professed goals. It is quite possible that there is not a single democrat on the Libyan National Transitional Council. It may well be that the insurgency's best troops are trained Islamists, veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. It may be that what we ought to do is split up the country, create a pro-West, pro-Israel Berber state which, not unlike the Kurds in the distant Arab east, will serve as an aircraft carrier of freedom. But we must know what we really want in Libya and what our role should be.

SUCH A QUESTION does not occur to the French government, which took the lead in the whole Libyan affair. Nicolas Sarkozy's Libyan policy fits into at least three long-term goals, and the Berbers figure in none of figure. There are, first, France's enduring interests in the region. Taking a strong position with the new regime is a way to ensure that France has a chance to supplant Italy in that country, which is important because relations with the other big, regional supplier, Algeria, are always fraught. Cornering the Libyan market--until the war, Gaddafi's best European friend was Silvio Berlusconi--gives France a card to play in the quasi-permanent commercial and strategic chess game with Algiers.

France's fumbling of the Tunisian regime-change two-step created the impression, not that France was on the wrong side of history, but that it did not know which side of history it should be on, or even that it knew which side was which. This may, for all that, have been commendable--you have to be a neo-Wilsonian to be arrogant enough to know which side of history the Arab spring will end up on in any given country. Sarkozy, however, has, or had, a policy.

The Sarkozy policy consists of a hard line on Iran, a firm but flexible line on Algeria--he is probably the least easily pushed-over French president since the independence war (which ended in 1962), probably because he does not have the complexes of the generation that lost it--a supportive line on Israel which he fudged during the recent statehood offensive at the UN. He aims to address the issue of mass emigration to Europe from the South by means of a Mediterranean Union that would do for the Arabs and North Africans what the European Union did for the Greeks.

In the perspective of the next two or three generations, to Sarkozy it looks better to set the countries of the Mediterranean rim on the path toward Greecedom than to keep them in their present state. This will slow emigration, quiet the Palestine-Israel issue, and isolate Iran's mullahcracy.

Having overseen an intervention in Côte d'Ivoire earlier this year which brought that country back into the French orbit while putting an end to a de facto 10-year civil war between north and south, Sarkozy surely recognized in the Libyan affair an opportunity to send a clear signal that France's return to Africa was not a one-off policy but was valid for the duration.

The troops backing the rebels who eventually won in Côte d'Ivoire, along with guns and money, the aircraft carrier De Gaulle off the Libyan coast, and the assault helicopters and bombers in its air space, these and other acts speak louder than some of Sarkozy's more cryptic words about Africa in the past few years, such as a weird speech in Dakar in which he suggested "African man"--whoever that is--stands outside of history. It is an interesting idea, no doubt, but clearly a pole apart from what Sarkozy is actually trying to do in Africa, which is involve France in the continent's history.

It cannot be entirely by accident that Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda who is not known as a Francophile, visited Paris in early September. The purpose is to clear up some misunderstandings dating from the Rwandan catastrophe of two decades ago. Kagame viewed the French government, at the time presided by François Mitterrand, as complicit in the massacres that have not improperly been called a "genocide." The French government then protected some of the Hutu militias as they fled Kagame's forces, and helped them establish bases in eastern Congo, where they contributed to the Hobbesian calamity that befell that region. The French also alleged that Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front committed anti-Hutu massacres on its way to taking over the country. The idea now, however, is to examine ways of working together for peace and development in Africa.

LIBYA WAS PERHAPS the best place for Sarkozy to advance this grand agenda. Gaddafi is an international bandit, he is one of the most vociferously anti-Semitic Arab leaders, and of course the country's location makes an attack from Europe tactically plausible. Libya's oil reserves, some 40 billion barrels, cheaply extracted and far from completely mapped (much of the vast country is unexplored), easily shipped out to markets, render it a desirable protectorate, if that is what Sarkozy has in mind, though he not likely to call it that, but rather a laboratory of democracy.

For Sarkozy--unpopular, up for re-election in about six months, beset by intra-European Union economic and monetary woes--this might seem an unlikely time to position himself as an Africain. It is not even certain that what he has been doing will endear him to Africans or Arabs, not that it matters if you are a serious neo-colonialist, so long as they fear you. Are the French voters paying attention? Right now, no; but as the presidential campaign gets serious in the coming months, having an Arab policy--and an African one--may help Nicolas Sarkozy fend off challenges from the National Front on the right and the Socialists on the left. The invasion of Algeria, in the 1830s, bought some time for an increasingly unpopular king, the last Bourbon Charles X. Then he was swept away by the Parisian peuple.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.