Monday, May 14, 2012

Libya Redux

"Libya has no army. It has no government. These things exist on paper, but in practice, Libya has yet to recover from the long maelstrom of Qaddafi’s rule. The country’s oil is being pumped again, but there are still no lawmakers, no provincial governors, no unions and almost no police. Streetlights in Tripoli blink red and green and are universally ignored. Residents cart their garbage to Qaddafi’s ruined stronghold, Bab al-Aziziya, and dump it on piles that have grown mountainous, their stench overpowering. Even such basic issues as property ownership are in a state of profound confusion. Qaddafi nationalized much of the private property in Libya starting in 1978, and now the old owners, some of them returning after decades abroad, are clamoring for the apartments and villas and factories that belonged to their grandparents. I met Libyans brandishing faded documents in Turkish and Italian, threatening to take up arms if their ancestral tracts of land were not returned."
I know this is not news, but; you cannot bomb a place into civilization.

The reason I didn't want my country getting involved in Libya's problems was not because I hate Libyans.

It's because through thirty-odd years of adulthood I have never seen military force "solve" problems.

Weapons can, sometimes, if everyone involved is smart, and cautious, and above all, lucky, kill people who are causing problems and destroy objects that are threatening lives, liberties, or security.

But without some sort of willingness, capability, and the resources to employ both to either rebuild or construct something better than what was killed and destroyed the result is madness:
"We’re the national army, we want to go to the front line.’ They didn’t stay one hour. One of them pissed his pants. They say 35,000 men have joined the national army. I tell you, if all 35,000 came here, they could not get past our 200 men. Until there’s a true government, no one will give up power.”
No shit?

Because - and the post-civil-war Libya should remind us, again, that military force simply replaces one set of problems with another.

We had a very impassioned debate here back in March a year ago, about our ideas, and ideals, concerning the West's part in the Libyan civil war.

And yet here we are, a year later but largely silent, as Libya devolves into the sort of terrifying half-civilized ruin that sounds more and more like the aftermaths of the other disastrous internal collapses that are Somalia, and Liberia, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Chechnya...

And yet...I listen to the rhetoric that occasionally fountains up regarding Iran and think; who ARE these people who seem to think that "more rubble, less trouble"? And why do they not tremble when they look at Libya today?

I did then. Back in March 2011 my summation to seydlitz was:

"1. I think that the U.S., and Obama, will get absolutely zero political or military capital out of this. If it works, it will be treated like Kosovo was, or Gulf II was, and will be overwhelmed by domestic events.

2. I think the rebels will turn out to be more shambolic, less competent, and more vicious that we think. I think Libya will, in the long run, turn out to be the same mess it has been since independence. In other words, I think that all this will mean a cup of warm spit (see above).

3. I think the very best that will come of this is that some people who would have died won't. But that's a very dim prediction, and it might just end up the other way around, if Gaddafi's people turn out to be more tenacious, and the rebels more vituperative, than they look right now."

Well, Gaddafi's people were a little more tenacious but we flattened in the end. But from the linked article above it seems that the rebels are, if not more vituperative, at least as incompetent, shambolic, and vicious as they seemed to me then and still do.


  1. And now we hear calls to do the same thing in Syria. Which is going to be worse because the Assad family hasn't been nearly as incompetent as Gaddafi was.

    When will we learn?

  2. Escalation leads to victory, except when it doesn't and instead leads to counter-escalation.

    Our enemies would rather see their villages and towns burn than hand them over to us. Militant organizations long ago realized that, like the US, all you have to do to stop a functioning society is hit its organizational weak points.

    When your enemy is committed to cutting off his nose to prevent you from being able to make him smell something, there is no dealing with him. But there is no form of escalation either, that will get him to do what you want.

    No idea how to solve that sort of a problem, but I do know that escalation will not do the trick. This is unfortunate because it appears to be the only play in the US's book currently.

  3. Anon: My thinking then (and now) is that if we as a nation want to back a side in these civil wars we should do it like sensible nations do; go ahead and come out formally on the side we favor, make a deal in the form of a treaty or pact (and submit the damn thing to the Senate like the Constitution tells us we're supposed to) and then go we have much more latitude to influence events.

    If we're not willing to do that, then we need to stay the hell out.

    In most of these Third World civil wars there's no "good guys"; both sides are often some variation of vicious thugocracies. One is usually worse than the other, but, as here, the only choice is between a brutal dictatorship and a brutal anarchy (or a brutal mobocracy).

    Syria is a good case in point, Pluto, not just because the Assad government is more competent than Gaddafi's regime but because the opposition is not much more than a bunch of Sunni jihadis and ex-Syrian troopers combined with plain old desperate people without a clue how to put the place back together after they blow it up to kill Assad's crew.

    The bottom line is that a hell of a lot of the world is completely unprepared and unsuited for "democracy" as we define it. Western Europe and North America are blessed with relatively widespread wealth, education, respect for civil laws and institutions, and the tradition of civilian rule and peaceful transitions of power. It's not that they can't get there. But they can't get there through the application of high explosive from a foreign fly-by, and never will.

    So getting stuck into these places doesn't actually do much "for" them. Instead it just blows hell out of what they have in the way of infrastructure, at worst. At best, it kills some troublesome people...but most of these places are awash with troublemakers. We seem to cling to the Godwin's Law notion that all the trouble there is caused by "a Hitler", and that killing him (or them) will let freedom reign.

    We forget that 1) Post-WW2 Germany was a huge one-off, with a nation that HAD all those Western advantages and had just been decapitated by some unscrupulous men that, once deposed, was capable of returning to Western norms, and 2) than we DID spend decades occupying and overseeing that return.

    Places like Libya and Syria have NEVER had any real history of good governance or civil society. If we dumped every kiloton of ordnance we have on them we couldn't bomb them into political stability.

    The thing that frustrates me about these is that they are a perfect example of the facile and boneheaded "thinking" that seems to now dominate both Western publics and elites. There's a case to be made for helping these sorts of places out of the political, economic, and social hole they're in. But it isn't EVER easy, it isn't ever cheap, and there's never any promise that the locals will succeed or even if they do, be grateful to their Western allies. And it seems like the mere existence of that reality prevents the Western leaders from ever allowing or encouraging an adult discussion of the case, preferring instead to issue glib promises and pat answers and then - as in this case - studiously ignore the ugly results.

  4. One of the aspects of Libya that doesn't get reported much is the effort to track down and prevent Libyan weapons from proliferating, particularly MANPADS like SA-7's. These things were literally strewn across the desert along with a host of other hardware. Weapons from Libyan cache's have been instrumental in the recent violence in Mali, for instance.

    At the end of the day, the Libya operation probably doesn't matter a whole lot to the US, and the problems we're currently seeing likely would have happened at some point given that Qaddafi's regime couldn't last forever, but there's always going to be blowback and much of it can't be predicted.

  5. "The country's oil is being pumped again".

    1.5 million barrels per day @$100 each.
    $150,000,000 per day.

    I suspect that any organized national government would consolidate the oil revenues and turn off the gravy train for those who are becoming incredibly rich off today's oil production. Thus, no organized national government has emerged.

    Anyone know where the money is going?

  6. FDChief-

    I don't think the interventionist argument was that we could "bomb them into civilization", which is a bit crass in any case because the assumption is that they have none. Neocons think that, but I'm not a neocon, quite the opposite, nor am I "bushed" . . .

    Rather the choice was to intervene and stop MQ from destroying Benghazi, or sit back and let it happen. I argued for intervention a year ago and I still think it was the right thing to do.

    On your thread I commented:

    --This intervention is the opposite of Iraq, which I never supported. This one I do support. There is no need for any occupation and we can most likely do it mostly with air power and let the French, Italians or preferably allied Arabs send in a limited number of ground troops to mop up whatever the locals can't. Once MQ's gone, we drop it in the Libyans' lap and it's "see ya'll around" . . . --

    Which is what happened, although it took longer to knock MQ out than it looked like it would initially.

    The intervention did not create the situation, as Bush had done in Iraq, but helped end what was essentially a civil war. We are now in the aftermath of that, a society which is slowly rebuilding after 40 years of domination by a lunatic.

    "We cannot, save by an old, indomitable human hope, expect anything to rise higher that the life it comes from." Stark Young,

  7. Chief,
    I was unaware that we can make treaties with insurgent groups.
    Aren't treaties between nations.?
    If you use the Afgh Security Agreement it now appears that the Senate does not any longer have an advise and consent role. Our imperial Prez has coopted that function.

  8. "...a society which is slowly rebuilding after 40 years of domination by a lunatic."

    Why would you say that, seydlitz? Nothing I got from that article suggested that this society is in any way "rebuilding". Rather it suggests that, as is usually the case, that knocking the Gaddafi cork off the Libyan bottle released all the genies of chaos and destruction that his oppression had created and was suppressing while it lasted.

    I see no virtue in stopping Gaddafi from destroying Benghazi only to then stand by while the locals destroy it themselves. If the U.S. wishes to expend treasure to assist a foreign faction in a civil war, we should at least be willing to 1) force them to man up and acknowledge that assistance (and, jim, we've treated "insurgent groups" as political entities since the 19th Century. What was the Republic of Texas but a fancy name for rebels against Mexico? Sure, De Gaulle claimed to be "France" but there was no reason to make a formal deal with him as such unless we wanted to, which we did...) and 2) ensure that we understand what we are getting into before the first ordnance is released.

    This entire mess reeks. It was sidled into under the rubric of "protection" when it was clearly about defenstrating Gaddafi. It elided the very real dysfunction in the TNC/TLC/whatever-the-fuck-the-rebels-call-themselves and the very real probability that post-Gaddafi Libya would devolve into worse than a dictatorship; a failed state on the North African littoral, a Somalia within a long swim of southern Europe.

    And what's the MOST fucked up part is that we KNEW that the life it came from was a completely devastated, politically dysfunctional mess. The chances of anything other than what is in fact happening now come from a destruction of the Gaddafi regime were 1,000-1. We could have washed our hands of the entire mess, but insisted against all reason that somehow American ordnance would make the resultant toxic stew "rise higher".

    And so far as I can tell no lessons have been or will be learned from this. No political hammer has or will be taken to the foreheads of the people who insisted on doing this or stood by while it was done. The notion that somehow the U.S. can "help" a foreign revolution by bombing and strafing its enemies remains intact.

    So we'll see this nonsense all over again.

    Believe me, I'd like to see this place un-fucked, if for no other reason that the misery it's going to visit on its innocent people and their neighbors. But going at this the way we did ensured that we did them no favors at best, and helped in the deconstruction of their country at worst, while kicking the hard questions of when, why, and how a Great Power should intrude in local revolutions down the road.


  9. I think the main point here is that foreign powers do well to walk very carefully about other people's civil wars.

    My take on this is that we actually fucked up in ending the war TOO SOON, and without doing anything to contribute to a positive post-war reconstruction.

    Had this been allowed to run its course it might have gone several ways;

    1. Gaddafi might have won. That would have sucked, but we don't know what the long-term result might have been. It's possible that a declining Gaddafi might have gone the way that the declining Franco did, and allowed an opposition to form that would have ended up peacefully taking power from him once he croaked. It's possible that one of his kids might have been Charles II to his Charles I.

    2. The rebels might have won, but only after a longer period of opposition that might have enabled them to coalesce into a more stable entity. War, especially revolutionary war, is pretty savagely Darwinian and might have weeded out many of the current goofballs and fuckups running around with militias.

    3. The thing might have stalemated, with a "rebel" Libya and a "regime" Libya. We have no idea what the might have been would have been from that.

    But I'll argue that by jumping in and short-roping the entire business, then grabbing a hat (what little hat we had in this ring) we actually did the worst possible thing we could have done, and whatever we did in terms of "saving lives" is now being (or already has been) undone by the ensuing chaos.

    For a change, the acronym for this one is TASF:

    THEY are so fucked...

  10. I would say that because I don't think the Libyans are going to collapse into some sort of "failed state". And you think they will and that the intervention is in some part to blame? Because if MQ were still in charge we wouldn't be reading articles like this, although the story would have been much the same? MQ's crackdown would have been permanent and vicious . . . how are we to compare them, the real and potential number of victims?

    Chief, you're more progressive than I am. Violence is violence, but it can lead to stability, even civilization in the form of the state, which is why we have states as you know. But it takes a good bit of political will to form the necessary moral and material cohesion to implement let alone establish a state. That's why the establishment of a state is always a sort of "Year 0" for the political community involved . . . 1776? Isn't it always at first on shaky legs, especially after such violence and destruction? Either the Libyans will succeed in forming and administering an adequate state or they will not, and it is the Libyan decision which really counts in the end.

  11. But...if it really IS the "Libyan decision" and was at the time, why didn't we treat it as though the TLC/TNC/whothefuckever really mattered? Why didn't we publicly treat with them? Why didn't they have operational control over our airstrike locations and targets? Why be so prissy about not getting involved with the locals other than as targets?

    So, yes, I'm saying it's VERY likely that this place will collapse into a failed state. The precedents elsewhere in Africa and Asia are pretty strong. And, yes, I'm saying that we helped. You say that Gaddafi's crackdown would have been "permanent and vicious"...but where is Pinochet? Where is Franco? Where, for that matter, is Stalin's "permanent and vicious" regime?

    I can tell you; not there. Not a republic, in Russia's case. But coherent polities, at least in part because the locals didn't get "helped" by outsiders flying over and bombing shit.

    So, yes, violence can lead to stability - provided that the violence is controlled and applied with deliberation - not (as in this case) the random violence of chaos. This isn't Boston, 1776; this is the Rheinland-Pfalz in the Thirty Year's War with the Libyan version of robber barons and landsknechte running wild, with no Prussia in sight.

    And, yes, it takes political "will" to form a successful state. It also takes a coherent populace, some history of political order, a consensus on what constitutes the state, order, and the populace. It takes a stable economic base.

    The reason I'm pounding on you, seydlitz, is that this intervention has been a complete and utter clusterfuck. It still is, and if you read the article I think you'll agree that there's no real reason to assume that the Libyans can do better than the Somalis are doing. Eventually something decent MAY arise from these ruins, but it may take generations, or it may take another dictator, or it may not come at all.

    And we here have hammered on the Bushies and their enablers, guys like Krauthammer and Hanson, for NEVER admitting that they were wrong, for not giving up on their neocon fantasy of "more rubble, less trouble".

    Well, this is the liberal interventionist's opportunity to hang you'all's heads and admit, yep, we fucked up.

    But I'm not hearing that. And you are a hell of a lot smarter and more geopolitically astute than fucking Dick Perle or fucking Wolfowitz or any of those other idiots.

    So if they aren't reconsidering...and neither are you...then I pale with the thought that I will be looking at the prospect of my son and daughter fighting in these damn pointless, destructive random overseas adventures long after I am dead.

  12. Chief-

    I read the article. Didn't see the same thing you did. It's a mess but it would have been a mess in any case. You equate mess with intervention, but the mess was probably unavoidable.

    BO also played this one badly, he was still talking with MQ after NATO was involved just to hedge his bets, not that this has not gone unnoticed by our Western Allies . . . As to prestige, look at the bin Laden killing . . . they're still using that as an argument as to BO's "toughness" which is essentially the same thing.

    You're much more of an idealist than I am, so while I see the utility of intervention I don't necessarily expect the best results.

    Should we have intervened to stop MQ from sacking Benghazi? I think so and that decision is already down the pike. I don't second guess stuff like that, but hopefully learn from it for the next time. What exactly is the lesson here as you see it? Don't intervene unless you plan to be committed for the long haul?