The Libyan war was presented, and is being defended by its authors, as a "humanitarian" intervention. A "massacre" was supposedly in progress, and we had to act immediately – there was no time to step back and ponder the possible consequences. Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern plenipotentiary, was certain that 100,000 opponents of the Gadhafi regime would be killed if government forces took Benghazi. There was no time to think: we had to intervene in the name of humanity. A mere few weeks after NATO extended its umbrella over the city, however, and the rebels are already contemptuously rejecting humanitarian aid from at least one NATO member, as The Economist reports:
"Last week, gun-toting youths on Benghazi’s docks chased away a ship carrying ambulances and humanitarian aid from Turkey, on the grounds that its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was using the country’s NATO membership to limit the military alliance’s bombardment of the regime’s forces."
So much for the "humanitarian disaster" that was supposed to be taking place in Libya. I guess it wasn’t as much of an "emergency" as the more credulous among us were led to believe.
The latest evidence of the Libyan rebels’ growing cockiness is the reception given to a delegation from the African Union, which is seeking a negotiated settlement. They were met at the dock by a howling mob:
"Other rebellions seeking international legitimacy might have welcomed their first visit by heads of state. Not Libya’s. No sooner had the leaders of Mali, Mauritania and Congo-Brazzaville landed in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, than they were set upon by a Libyan mob, demanding their departure."
Fearing for their physical safety, the AU delegation never got off the boat.
In a world of competing nation-states, many armed to the teeth and with a long history of aggressive behavior, diplomacy is all that separates us from the jungle. This is why diplomatic assets, including embassies and diplomatic personnel — as well as personnel with internationally-recognized NGOs such as the Red Cross, Red Crescent, etc. — are generally considered inviolable.
When the Khomeini regime in Iran allowed the "students" to take over the US embassy, in 1979, and hold US diplomats hostage, it separated itself from the ongoing international dialogue that ameliorates the natural hostility of states. The embassy takeover made Iran into an international pariah, a status from which it is only just beginning to emerge.
The way a nation conducts itself on the diplomatic front is a key measure of its legitimacy. It tells us who and what we are dealing with – who’s in charge, and to what degree we can depend on their adherence to contractual agreements, such as international treaties regarding trade. In short, it tells us whether we are dealing with a "real" government, or a semi-organized mob that could change its collective mind the next day.
Not that the dividing line between a "legitimate" government and a gang of ordinary criminals is always crystal clear. As a general proposition, however, respect for the physical security of diplomats is the line that distinguishes the former from the latter.
However, one can deplore the rebels’ breaches of basic diplomatic norms and yet sympathize with their hostility to the AU – a gang of petty despots and kleptocrats – which once named Gadhafi its "president." As The Economist puts it:
"In many Easterners’ minds, their origins alone were sufficient to condemn the AU delegates. Protests erupted as soon as the African leaders landed. For many Libyans, the African Union, which in 2009 named Colonel Gadhafi its president, epitomizes the foreign projects on which the colonel frittered the country’s oil wealth in his search for international adulation, while leaving his people in penury."
What other government leaders do we know who fritter away the nation’s wealth on foreign projects in a search for international adulation – and hegemony – whilst leaving their own people in penury?
Gadhafi’s international pretensions were a major feature of his 40-year reign. He fought a series of wars – including a decade-long conflict with Chad – aimed at the creation of satellite states in the African interior. The idea was to establish the "Green" equivalent of the Warsaw Pact, a pan-African alliance with Libya at its core which would follow the principles laid down in the Gadhafi’s "Green Book" and extend Libyan influence into Central Africa.
When practiced by a tinpot dictator on such a relatively small scale, Gadhafi’s efforts to export his "Jamahiriya" system to the rest of Africa are clear evidence of the dictator’s megalomania. However, when essentially the same policies are advocated and implemented by the US government – most recently, the abortive attempt to "export democracy" to Iraq at gunpoint – the pathological nature of the project escapes notice.
Gadhafi’s efforts to establish himself as the African Napoleon ended in disaster, just as the American conquest of Iraq and Afghanistan is every day proving itself to have been a colossal waste of human lives and resources. In Libya, before the rebellion, Gadhafi would brook no criticism of his foreign adventurism, just as in today’s Washington any effort to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan and/or cut the military budget is met with cries of "Impossible!" and shortly ruled out of order.
Of course, very little of what America spends under the rubric of "defense" actually goes to defending the continental United States. The great bulk of it – 58 percent of discretionary spending – goes to maintaining what the late Chalmers Johnson called an "empire of bases," a global network of overseas outposts where our centurions stand guard over local satraps and protectorates, from Okinawa to Bahrain. (Don’t be fooled by the "GDP" fraud, which fails to distinguish between debt-financed government spending and private production: attempts to measure military spending as a proportion of the mythical "gross domestic product" only obscure the real impact of this major drain on our productive resources.)
Just maintaining this vast domain requires a regular outlay of resources that easily dwarfs the defense budgets of the top ten military spenders on earth. And the spending doesn’t stop there, because this empire – like any and all bureaucracies – is constantly seeking to expand itself, sending out new tendrils at the first opportunity.
Gadhafi strutted about on the international stage like some comic opera character, proclaiming the superiority of his Jamahiriya ideology and conjuring visions of pan-African, Pan-Arabic grandiosity, engaging in wars of conquest and handing out bags of cash to "revolutionary" grouplets in the West who would parrot his line. This went on for some 40 years. And then, finally, one day he was strutting, and the very next day he was scrambling to stay in power.
Gadhafi’s fatal error was that his ambitions were larger than his resources: he acted out his delusions of grandeur in the international arena, while on the home front his people seethed. As the worldwide recession settles in for the long term, putting the squeeze on projects that were marginal in any event, countries like Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt are the first to explode – but they won’t be the last.
The lesson for us could not be clearer, although I doubt anyone in a position to influence matters is capable of learning it. As our leaders strut their stuff across the international stage, proclaiming this or that "doctrine," and solemnly declaring their willingness –nay, eagerness – to go to war in defense of this or that floating abstraction, the money is running out, and their long-suffering people are falling into penury. Today, they are strutting – but tomorrow will they, too, be scrambling to hold on to power?
The global economic downturn is hitting the nations of North Africa and the Middle East hard: the sclerotic regimes that have ruled the region since the demise of Europe’s colonial empires, too brittle to resist the pressure from below, are shattering. The same pressures have already emigrated to Europe, and here in the good old US of A, the crisis is crystallizing a massive discontent that could turn, at any moment, into a massive populist upsurge replicating – and even intensifying – the furious energy we have seen unleashed on the streets of Cairo. Yet our "leaders" in Washington are still allowing themselves to be diverted by largely invented overseas "crises," when the real crisis is right here at home. As our elites ponder Gadhafi’s fate, and presume to sit in judgement, they would do well to heed the lesson of his undoing – for it may presage their own.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN