Saturday, May 14, 2011

It's not you. Really. It's me.

It seems like we spent much of the months of March and April talking here about Libya.

And then, as with almost everything except male enhancement products and Paris Hilton, the entire Libya pottage dropped off the news cycle.

Well, a small article on the Beeb yesterday noted that one Mr. Mahmoud Jibril, described as the "deputy leader of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council (NTC)" met with several U.S. suits at the White House on Friday. These included the U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilan. Among the things the TNC asked for, apparently, was recognition from the U.S. as the "government of Libya".

The U.S. officially said; no.
"White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Thursday that such a step would be "premature". The US has said it is up to the Libyans to decide their government, not foreign powers."
And yet...just a couple of months ago U.S.-taxpayer-funded ordinance was flying all about Libya in an orgiastic foreign-power-y feu-de-joie of...ummm...helping the "Libyans decide their government". The U.S. and its allies have been pasting the Libyan capital with projos in apparent hope that Mister Gaddafi will walk under a 1,000-pound bill of impeachment, or something. We've frozen his assets, trash-talked his regime, for all I know we've even offered candy to his Virgin Bodyguard.Our policy towards Libya, whilst not as vigorous as seydlitz might have preferred, seems to be decidedly tilted towards one side of this nasty little scuffle.

But we won't jump all the way in the bed with our BFFs the TNC.


Call me simple.

I don't get it.

During the Bush years I would often read editorials, especially in Middle Eastern publications like Al Jazeera, complaining that our foreign policy towards that troubled region not only made no sense but was actively confusing. We would say one thing while doing another...that actively undermined or contradicted what we were saying. That we were either being hypocritical, or simply duplicitous, in pretending to want "democracy" and "freedom" while bankrolling the usual crew of loathsome dictators, tyrants, oligarchs, and thugs.

And I would have to admit...what else could we do?

To allow popular sovereignty in most Middle Eastern countries would be to accept a much higher risk of war between them and our real BFF, Israel. Which would have been risky in a global sense because Israel, backs to the sea, might have used its nukes and sent the entire eastern Levant, and perhaps half the globe, up in flames.

But...that's a done deal, now. The dominoes - Egypt, Tunisia - have fallen or - Yemen, Syria, Libya - may be falling. The Arab publics have seen their pharoahs overthrown; we can hardly rebuild those pyramids now.And here, especially, it seems to me like a nearly perfect situation for us to do well while doing good. Libya is not a real player in the Arab-Israeli Great Game. A TNC-Libya will probably be more "Islamic" than the late-Gaddafi Libya, but then, that was almost inevitable. Until the Arab world undergoes its own Enlightenment political islam will always be a factor there.

Here was the opportunity for a supposedly post-Bush U.S. to walk the walk, to formally ally with an Arab "democracy" - to, in my cynical view, force an Arab government to willingly and publicly take the U.S. hand in alliance, putting the lie to the "arab street" and its contention that Arab rulers only side with the United States because of greed and cowardice.

And yet on Friday it was..."premature" pal up with an Arab government that is only greedy for survival and only afraid of the nutjob that it's rebelling against?

I'm not going to pretend that these TNC characters are adorable, fluffy, democracy-loving peacemongers. Surely they'll bring in trouble enough in time.

But we're helping bomb their enemies!Wouldn't it make some kind of sense to give 'em a hug today?

Sometimes I think I have absolutely no understanding of foreign policy at all.


  1. The TNC doesn't seem to really be a political entity yet, it seems to be a bunch of guys who hate MQ somewhat more than they hate each other. At least for now...

    The whole Libyian adventure was ill-conceived by the West. Little questions (a partial list below) seem to have been ignored in the heat of the moment and now they are coming back to haunt us in the form of sad and angry people who feel cheated and used. Can you think of a better way to make a terrorist?

    - What is NATO really able and willing to do, especially without the US?
    - Who are the leaders in Libya, really? (applies to both sides)
    - What is the desired endgame, kill MQ or exile him, bring him to trial?
    - How will this affect our standing with the guys that really matter in the Middle East, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran?

    But Libya is and always will be a side-show. The main show is going on in Syria and Yemen and the outcome is still uncertain, particularly in Yemen.

  2. Well, I agree that recognition is premature. This is rebel movement, not a "government" in any sense of the term. A "hug" isn't going to do jack shit. If we want to back this horse, then we need to get off the pot and back this horse. There's no use in giving political recognition if you're not committed to ensure they will actually become the government and not end up at the end of a noose or in exile.

    I was against getting involved in Libya precisely because I figured that our intervention would the half-assed endeavor it is (and I also didn't think there was much in it for us). And from across the Atlantic it seems like the Europeans, for all their talk, are dithering just as much. Seriously France, WTF?

    Here's where I stand - if France, the UK or whomever wants to put their boys on the ground and help these rebels out, then I think we should give them all the US firepower we can to enable them and the rebels to roll up Qaddafi. If we want to covertly arm the rebels, fine by my. However, absent that commitment from the Europeans we are doing the right thing by limiting our involvement, to include political recognition and everything that comes with it. If short if the Europeans are willing to own this along with attendant consequences (whatever they may be), then I think the US should then do what is necessary to ensure the rebels win. Problem is, I don't see that.

    As a side note, it will be interesting to see if Congress does anything considering the 60-day War Powers Act time limit is coming due in five days

  3. Chief,
    Does the name CHALABI ring a bell?

  4. Jim,

    Funny you mention it, I thought of the same thing.

  5. It's worth noting that for all their unwillingness (or inability) to actually join the TNC rebels on the ground, the French HAVE recognized them as the putative government of Libya.

    And I find your terminology a bit comical, Andy; what were we in 1777 if not a "rebel movement not a 'government'" for all our pretensions? Had the Bourbons not been willing to hazard their troops, cash, and munitions we might all now be wondering when our Parliament in London was going to commit more of our forces to the adventure in North Africa.

    I was against this for all the reasons I expounded back in April, and those reasons haven't changed. But it is obvious to me that we're backing, in our half-assed way, this TNC outfit. So at this point, what's the squeamishness about making the deal out front and public? Sign a formal treaty with the mooks, and give it to the Senate to either ratify or not. Either way, we get a clear-cut political decision instead of this jackassed barely-Constitutional mess. What is "limiting our involvement" getting us?

    What, do we think that Gaddafi will win and turn around and be our asshole buddy so long as we don't give his rebel enemies a formal diplomatic embrace? Are we that stupid?


    jim: Chalabi as a put-up job from the get go by the people who wanted Saddam out. How does this situation resemble the fake "Iraqi National Congress"? Say what you want about these guys, they DO seem to be a genuine internal rebellion.

    If anything, this situation reminds me of the many mujaheddin factions we played footsie with in Afghanistan back in the 80's. A bunch of them were no more than scruffy rebels, bandits, and badmashes. No matter - if they said they’d kill Russians we funded 'em. For some bizarre reason we seem to give a shit (not much, maybe a quarter of a shit) about who rules in Libya. Well, the most effective way I can think of to NOT end up sending in U.S. troops to some are we’re told it critical is U.S. interests is to ensure that the local ARVNs can fight well enough not to NEED us. That’s the other situation this reminds me of; the way we backed the French-favored “government” in Saigon after WW2.

    Maybe we're getting smarter, by running these foreign adventures on the cheap and sly...or maybe...hell, I don't know. Like I said, this doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Why not either pal up to them or take our jacks and go home, leaving behind a handful of intelligence officers to keep an eye on the place. Why keep dicking around like this?

  6. Chief,

    There are some pretty major differences between Libya today and us in revolution. We've been involved in Libya for 2 months - France didn't formally ally with us until 1778 - 18 months after the Declaration of Independence - only after it became clear we had a real chance of winning. There was also the continuing French-English tensions which doesn't exist today, so France had a real interest in seeing the colonies split from England. We have no similar interest in Libya.

    Anyway, if you want to send US troops to libya, then yeah, we should formally ally with the rebels and recognize them as the legitimate rulers of Libya. Why would we want to do that? Unlike France and the US revolution, we don't have any interest in Libya beyond the satisfaction of seeing a dictator get his due and supporting our European allies. Like I said, I'm more than willing to lend whatever help we can as long it's France or whomever that owns this thing by committing their own troops. What I don't want to see is the US saddled with the post-conflict consequences when Qaddafi is gone and saddled we would be should we take ownership of overthrowing Qaddafi.

  7. We, or rather the current "Bushist in Chief", has decided that our, or rather the ramshackle elite that calls the shots for what currently passes for the USA's, interests are in playing this out.

    Their real interest here is in backing the reaction - nobody who counts wants anything approaching an actual democracy (that would go fundamentally against Bushist principles - our only guiding light). MQ is after all a man they can deal with, unlike democratic representatives who are soooo difficult to make sleazy deals with. The LAST thing our masters, or rather our "elected representatives", want is that sort of lot to deal with.

    On the last thread on this topic I asked the question as to how Al Qaida would be resuscitated . . . looks like that question has been answered . . .

    Also Strauss-Kahn's take down (call it Spitzer II), indicates the future role of the US in international affairs. "Sleazy deals done dirt cheap", which are at least something that befits our character, or rather the political character we have allowed this country to become . . .

    It, as before, all comes down to basic political questions . . . I truly doubt that the US masses will realize that before it's too late . . .

  8. Seydlitz,

    I think you are conflating questions of "why" with questions of "how." Overthrowing Qaddafi and fostering democracy in Libya is probably a good idea - achieving this with military intervention probably isn't the best way to go about it especially if we decide to do the dirty work that the rebels are currently incapable of.

    On AQ resuscitation - well, their narrative is that the US is at war with Islam and a military intervention in Libya isn't going to counter that narrative. AQ isn't interested in democracy in Libya or anywhere else and they surely are completely opposed to "infidel" soldiers fighting muslims on muslim land.

    Curious as to how you'd respond to this:

  9. Andy-

    Yes, I follow Bacevich rather closely, had read that article some time ago. He's arguing as usual when this topic comes up that Washington follows "the Rules", and I don't see much to argue about there.

    My argument was and is that Obama is inconsistent, turns on a dime to make an important policy decision and then the next day starts backtracking on it, only to turn on a dime in the opposite direction a bit further down the road. All this influenced by domestic US politics, or rather the corrupt reality of current US political relations. We've seen this numerous times, the Libyan example being simply the latest.

    We should be supportive of democracy in the Arab world, that was the reason supposedly for Bush's war in Iraq, his so-called "freedom agenda", but then that never really was what the Washington Rules wanted. Our hopelessly confused Libyan policy simply reflects this fact imo.

    As to Al Qaida, it seems obvious to me that we have to rethink our assumptions on that one. My comment as to "resuscitation" saw AQ as providing a useful prop for US policy, linking AQ/Islamofabulism with the Arab Spring would be in the best interests of the Washington Rules and of course our (remaining) autocratic proxies in the ME. To this we must now add the reality - which is hard to dispute imo - that AQ/OBL was essentially a state-sponsored entity. OBL would have never lasted as long as he did nor would have felt as secure as he obviously did were that not the case. The open question at this point is which other states, besides Pakistan, were its sponsers . . . ?

  10. Brits are pushing hard. Their efforts at the ICC have finally resulted in getting an arrest warrant for Qaddafi:

    And the Brits are also going after his bride.

    But Seydlitz, I have to wonder what the deal is with Europeans going after Qaddafi but ignoring massacres in the non-oil state of Syria? Could it be oil? Or maybe that hot British wife of Bashar Assad, Asma?

  11. Let me try and be a little more explicit about why I think this past Friday goes to the heart of the immense geopolitical dysfunction re: the Middle East within the Beltway.

    First, let's consider the entire business of "who rules in Libya"?

    If this is peripheral to the U.S. (which is my opinion, frankly) then the sound policy of the U.S. towards this rebellion would seem to be hands-off, "call me when you work things out". We might well send some intelligence officers and deniable private parties - which we probably have - and an official "observer", but that would seem to be the plausible limit.

    But, of course, we're already past that point.

    So it would seem that the official assessment in D.C. is that the question of who runs Libya is NOT peripheral to U.S. Middle East interests. So at this point the options seem to be pick a side and back 'em.

    But right at the moment we seem to have backed into the very worst position possible.

    We've bombed Gaddafi's people and his own residences. Assuming he wins, he'll probably try and curry favor with us, but will he forget that?

    And we've flirted with the rebels but haven't been willing to drop our skivvies and get into bed with them. If they lose, Gaddafi will remember the flirtation. If they win, they'll probably remember the hesitation (when they needed us most).

    Lose-lose, all around, ISTM. With the added liklihood that the current stalemate might devolve into failed statehood, with the unpleasant prospect of a Somali on the southern Med.

    Like I said; there's a fair argument for going all in or staying all out. What I DON'T see is a reasoned argument for doing what we've been doing.

  12. FDChief-

    "Like I said; there's a fair argument for going all in or staying all out. What I DON'T see is a reasoned argument for doing what we've been doing."

    I don't think there is a rational argument. The "Rules" demand that we attempt to re-impose the status quo which is impossible, but that doesn't mean that backing the reaction won't in fact happen.

    At the same time, all the happy talk about "Obama and change", and about "our values" (which funny enough includes the Wolfowitz brand of neo-con as well), fit hand in glove with the aspirations of the Arab peoples and the "Arab Spring" . . . as least rhetorically, although the Obama/Wolfie concept of "change" was always joined at the hip with their "interests" narrowly defined.

    So imo there is a "schizophrenic element" here as they attempt to follow two contradictory paths at the same time.

  13. Andy: You're correct, of course, that the Great Power rivalry element is not present in 2011 versus 1778 (tho I'll bet that a good portion of the neocon and liberal-interventionist argument in favor of going full-rebel is based on their perception of this as a "pseudo-great=power" competition between the West and the islamic political movements in the ME - mistaken, IMO, but I'll bet that's part of their worldview...).

    But if you look big-picture I think there's more similarities than differences. The Great Power, looking (as Great Powers always do) to further its influence in some peripheral region, has to choose what to do about some local squabble. In 1778 France was looking for a local advantage over Britain; today we're looking for a local advantage over the islamist parties and a boost for the prestige of our local allies in Europe.

    And I'm not so sure that the French had us picked as the sure winners by 1778; yeah, Saratoga was nice, but Monmouth was a draw, and the early battles in the South made us look as amateurish as the smackdown around Misrata. I think it was more a case of figuring that the American rebellion presented a good opportunity to poke the Brits in the ass, and if the rebels lost, oh well, they were no worse off than before.

    And, just for the record, I'd argue that in the short term the Bourbon government made the wrong decision. The U.S. proved to be worthless as an "ally", and the money spent on supporting our rebellion was money the French crown didn't have. The combination of the damage the fiscal irresponsibility did to the royal treasury combined with the philosophical damage the American creed of liberty, equality and fraternity did to the royal mandate helped defenestrate the Bourbons and bring on the Revolution and the Empire.

    In the long run a United States was a net positive for France, but I'll bet if you'd asked the comptroller-general at Versailles about it in 1788 he'd have had something pretty bitter to say about us...

  14. mike-

    What happens in the Gulf and Syria won't spill over (in terms of refugees) as in the case with Libya. Imagine the chaos should MQ regain control of the entire country, the masses of refugees attempting to get to Europe . . .

  15. seydlitz: I think that much of the argument in D.C. for intervention boils down to:

    1. Gaddafi! Bad!
    2. This is an opportunity to help the Middle East towards Western liberal democracy
    3. Helping the TNC will increase our standing in the ME.

    #1 is just silly - there's a lot of scum and villainy in the ME, and we have no real idea what comes after Gaddafy.

    #2 is idealistic but mistaken, given our priorities in the ME. Arab democracies will not be any more disposed to make peace with Israel, and they won't have any particular reason to treat the U.S. favorably given our history in the reason.

    And #3 might actually be the case, if we were handling this in a more coherent way. But as I suggest above, ISTM that at the moment we've found a way to keep everyone as pissed off at us as possible.

  16. "given our history in the REGION". Sorry.

  17. FDChief-

    I see it differently. I don't think there is any actual consideration as to what is in the best interests of the US in terms of the "Arab Spring" in general, or Libya in particular.

    Whatever happens will be more driven by our elite's fear - fear of upsetting the Israelis, or even worse at this point, the Saudis. Consider our response to what is happening in Bahrain . . . that is if you can find any response at all.

    Our political capital has never been lower, our prestige in the region never worse. Nobody really thinks our support reliable, our word trustworthy. We've reached the point where we're peddling OBL's alleged porn and nobody's listening . . . Our confusion reflects the political depths we have sunk ourselves . . .

    We remain "the essential nation" only in our own minds . . .

  18. mike: I agree with seydlitz that the southern Europeans have some legitimate concern re: potential refugee problems (although I'd argue that the Iraqi Civil War created a far greater number of refugees that fled to far less stable nations (Syria and Jordan) and the fallout so far has been very, very muted). Not sure why the Brits care, unless its to make sure the French don't look badass while they're not...

    But seydlitz, that's a French, Spanish, and Italian problem. As Andy says; if the southern tier NATO nations want to kick some Gaddafy ass as a precautionary measure, good on 'em. I can't see that as a primary U.S. policy concern.

    Again, I don't see this as a problem because of Obama and his team not being consistent. I see it as a problem because a) I still DON'T see this as a primary U.S. foreign policy concern, but even if I did I'd be skeptical because b) we've managed to find the perfect path between the reasonable alternatives, and will likely end up being distrusted and even despised by the eventual winners, whoever they are...

  19. "Whatever happens will be more driven by our elite's fear - fear of upsetting the Israelis, or even worse at this point, the Saudis."

    While I'd agree that this is true (to a point, for much) of the Middle East I'd argue that Libya is an oddity for the very reason that our actions there contradict much of our policy elsewhere in the region.

    Given our tepid (but, to my mind, generally sensible given our public priorities in the area) reaction to the various popular unrest in the area, you'd think that we'd have been at most mildly involved here; some spies, maybe a diplomatic observer or three, some covert aid to the Brits and French. Instead we spend a week flying the flag all over Libyan airspace. Sure, that's over now, but the branding is still there; this is still being seen as a "U.S.-involved" conflict.

    I agree that we've shat the Middle East bed in a lot of ways. But I'd argue that it has as much to do with our impossible-to-fulfill objectives of simultaneously pleasing the Arab regimes AND Israel. We might as well go hike the Appalachian Trail.

  20. FDChief-

    "But seydlitz, that's a French, Spanish, and Italian problem."

    Actually, it's not, it's a European problem, due to Schengen . . .

    Once you're in Italy, there's nothing stopping you from going to Holland, or Denmark, or beyond . . .

  21. FDChief-

    "this is still being seen as a "U.S.-involved" conflict."

    Agree, perhaps more at home, but the Euros feel that they were left in the lurch, and with our clumsy handling of the TNC, we reap nothing and yet pay a part of the bill. So much of this sort of thing is solely based on perspective and image, or "how one looks" or "what seems to be happening" . . . and in those areas, we look weak, due to our domestic political dysfunctions imo . . .

  22. Technically, yes, an immigrant influx would be a Euro-wide problem. But look at the reality. France has a substantial Algerian migrant problem, but I have never heard of this becoming a German problem. The Algerians seem to stay near the "core" Algerian expat community. Same with the Indonesians in Holland, the Pakistanis in Britain, and the Turks in Germany.

    So what stops you is that you're a Libyan. You don't speak Dutch, you know nothing of Holland, you have nobody there to help you get on. So you tend to stick where you are.

    I don't see this as the apocalypse it's being portrayed in some of the European media. The possibility is there, yes, but I think its smaller, and the potential for social upheaval is less, than is feared.

  23. FDChief-

    "I don't see this as the apocalypse it's being portrayed in some of the European media. The possibility is there, yes, but I think its smaller, and the potential for social upheaval is less, than is feared."

    Agree, but it is still a political issue throughout Europe, and the perception is that there is enough on the European plate right now, so waves of North African refugees, mostly young men who should be home building their countries futures, and not selling pot in France? They should be at home.

    MQ coming back ensures this problem at least "medium" term.

  24. The immigrant problem is indeed primarily where they enter, but the entry countries are putting more and more heat on the northern countries for funds and border enforcement personnel, because the Schengen treaty calls for this. A lot of these illegals enter the southern tier headed north, but are intercepted or cannot drum up the resources to do so. Greece finally called the cards on the rest of the Schengen states to pitch in, or they would make it less difficult for the illegals to get on their way northbound. 150 additional border police showed up two weeks later.

  25. seydlitz, Al: Ah. Got it. Well, that IS a fine kettle of fish.

  26. Pretty scathing editorial today in The Guardian: