Libya and Somalia: Foreign Policy as Political Theater
Our two great "victories" illustrate the case against intervention
October 9, 2013
A Note to My Readers
I’ve got some pressing business to take care of, and so no column today. But I’ll be back on Friday, all fresh and sassy.
The US government may be in "shutdown" mode, but the American Empire is still operating at maximum capacity: this was underscored over the weekend by twin raids in North Africa, one that ended in the capture a high-profile Al Qaeda leader in Libya – wanted for the 1998 attacks on American embassies in East Africa – and the other failing to nab Ahmed Abdi Godane, a.k.a. Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, purported leader of the shadowy Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s Somalian affiliate.
These raids are being touted by the President’s partisans as a great double-headed victory, a triumph of Obamaism in the foreign policy realm, and a welcome diversion away from the budget standoff. As usual, these cheerleaders of the Royal Court not only exaggerate but also invert the real significance of the events. For the reality is that both "victories" in our endless war on terrorism underscore the abject failure of America’s foreign policy of global intervention, and specifically the more subtle variety espoused by the present occupant of the White House.
The capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his nom-de-guerre Anas al-Libi, illuminates the real outcome of this administration’s Libyan regime change operation, touted by the Samantha Power-"humanitarian interventionist" crowd as an unmitigated victory of Goodness over Evil. We were told, at the time, that the horrific Gaddafi regime was planning a "massacre" in Benghazi, and that if we didn’t act immediately, horror would ensue.
Well, we did act – and horror did indeed ensue, although not the sort anyone in the US government had the imagination to anticipate. Gaddafi was overthrown, a regime presumably more amenable to our regional objectives was installed, millions of dollars in US aid followed – and the result was and is a country controlled by jihadists. While militias flying the black flag of Al Qaeda took effective control of Libya, with the "central government" either powerless or unwilling to stop them, Senor al-Libi, a terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head, was walking the streets of Tripoli for months, just as if he were a tourist taking in the sights.
We are still fighting a war in Afghanistan the stated goal of which is to deny Al Qaeda a "terrorist haven," and yet we established just such a safe haven in Libya by force of American arms. Where is the sense in that?
In Somalia, the situation on the ground is more complicated, but the outcome – and the lesson – is the same: American actions led to the consolidation of a terrorist movement that has now taken root among the population and defies all efforts to root it out.
A pocket of anarchy in a continent not exactly known for its orderliness, Somalia has long been the victim of Euro-American predation, first by the Portuguese, who were followed in due course by the Italians, the Egyptians, the French, the British, and finally the Americans, who eventually handed over the shattered remnants to local warlords. I’ve written about Somalia’s long and tortured history before, and won’t repeat myself here: suffice to say that Washington has always regarded it as a pawn in the larger geopolitical game our policymakers are perpetually playing, and our present agenda merely exacerbates the blunders of the past.
The US having failed to rein in the warlords with the failure of "Operation Restore Hope," one of Bill Clinton’s more egregious foreign policy disasters, Team Bush repeated the dizzying pattern of allying with formerly demonized enemies by embracing the warlords after a new "threat" appeared on the Somalian horizon, post-9/11: the Islamist "court" movement, which sought to restore national unity and some semblance of civilization to a country destroyed by decades of clan warfare.
I should put scare quotes around the word "country," since, like most African nations, Somalia is not now and never has been a unified entity: its vaguely defined borders crisscross the real boundaries long established by clan claims and ethnic divides, spilling over into Ethiopia and neighboring Kenya: invalidated by religious, ethnic, and clan divisions, the lines imposed by the colonial era have kept the region in a state of perpetual conflict.
In any case, the infamous warlords, whom we once chased through the rubble of Mogadishu and environs, have now been embraced by Washington as the only salvation of a nation that threatens to become yet another "terrorist safe haven." Although the Islamic Courts movement was supported by what remained of the business community, as well as the general populace, Washington balked at the emergence of a popular government explicitly devoted to the imposition of Sharia law. While no such compunctions complicate our longstanding support for a similar regime in Saudi Arabia, right across the Red Sea, the difference need not be explained.
I detailed the harrowing history of America’s support for the destroyers of order in Somalia in 2006, when I warned of the consequences of Washington’s overt support for Ethiopia’s invasion of the country. As the armies of Ethiopia’s brutal dictator, Meles Zenawi – a former pro-Albanian Marxist – swept into the Ogaden region, murdering many thousands and pillaging without respite, US aid poured into his coffers.
Eventually the Bush-Zenawi effort failed to defeat the Islamic Courts Union, made up of 13 separate groups united to fight off the invaders, and, as Scott Horton puts it in his excellent account:
In 2008, with the help of what had been the youngest and least influential group in the ICU, al-Shabaab (‘the youth’), the people of Somalia finally drove the Ethiopians out of the country after two years of fighting. At that point it appeared the Bush administration had simply run out of time, and so Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a deal with the old men of the ICU. The U.S. government would let them take power in Mogadishu if they would accept the form of the Transitional Federal Government the Bush administration had created. That way the Republicans could at least save a little bit of face in their failure.
"The former ICU leaders took the deal. They were immediately denounced as traitors and American lackeys by the armed young men who had won the war. Al-Shabaab vowed to fight on. It was only then – years after the whole mess began – that it declared loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda….
"The story has been covered by few in the West. The best work has been done by intrepid investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill in his book Dirty Wars, which reveals that the US government meant to keep Sheik Sharif, the former head of the ICU, all along. The whole war was launched because it was ‘preferable’ that Sharif be ‘weakened,’ but ultimately ‘co-opted.’ He ended up staying in power until 2012."
What’s interesting is how the Obamaite policy of "weakening" its preferred front men and then co-opting and neutering them before letting them attain power is limned in Syria, where we’re funding what is essentially an Al Qaeda project in hopes of eventually hijacking it.
This pattern recurs in the Libyan example, where the co-optation strategy birthed a government that presides over exactly nothing and no one – and is in so much danger of being upended by radical Islamists that it must resort to fake "protests" over this brazen violation of its mythical national sovereignty. The Libyan "government" is no more real than the "Transitional Federal Government" we set up in Somalia ever was.
What has happened to Libya and is happening in Syria and Somalia – the result of this oh-so-subtle policy of co-optation – has handed Al Qaeda its greatest victories. A more stunning illustration of the libertarian principle that government action leads to the exact opposite of its intended result can hardly be imagined.
It also dramatizes the veracity of my theory of "libertarian realism": that foreign policy decision-making is a byproduct of domestic political and ideological considerations. It’s no accident – as the Marxists used to say – that these twin raids are now being hailed by the President’s cultists as yet more evidence of the commander-in-chief’s strategic genius at a time when Obama’s popularity is plummeting. The uses of foreign policy as political theater aimed at a domestic audience are all too apparent in this case. The timing of the Libyan and Somalian operations is certainly more than auspicious, signaling a new push at home to bolster the image of the President and his party as the congressional elections approach and 2016 looms large.
The policy of co-optation was long championed by Hillary Clinton during her tenure at Foggy Bottom. Together with then special assistant to the President in charge of "multilateral affairs and human rights" and now UN Ambassador Samantha Power, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Hillary led an Amazonian triumvirate who argued for US intervention in Libya and Syria in the name of "humanitarian" righteousness. This harkens back to the jewel in the foreign policy crown of the Clinton era, the Balkan wars, which resulted in the creation of "state" in the middle of Europe controlled by the Albanian Mafia.
That war, too, was fought on behalf of a sectarian Muslim movement supposedly co-opted by Washington and utilized as an instrument of US "national interests" – deployed, that time, against an alleged Russian revanchist "threat" to Central Europe. As Gen. Wesley Clark faced down the Russkies at Pristina airport, the Clinton administration was on the verge of not only reviving the cold war, but also of turning it into a hot war with amazing rapidity – and potentially disastrous results.
After eight years of neoconservative monomania, the Clintonian policy of co-optation made a comeback during the Obama administration. With the inauguration of the "cabinet of equals,” motivated by domestic political considerations, Obama unified the Democratic party after a bruising primary by ceding the foreign policy realm to Hillary. Libya, our continuing regime change operation in Syria, and increasingly overt intervention in the African theater soon followed.
Secretary of State John Kerry, although possessed of his own presidential ambitions, has been a faithful Clintonian in upholding and applying the co-optation campaign to new areas: a longtime advocate of regime change in Syria, he lobbied with Hillary for more aid and arms to the rebels and, since his appointment to State, has spent much energy and political capital touting their "moderate" credentials.
Somalia and Libya, the sites of these twin "triumphs" of America’s role as world policeman, represent the starting point and endpoint of a disastrous policy, respectively, with Syria signifying the midpoint. Libya today is precisely what its architects supposedly set out to prevent at all costs: a nest of terrorists who hate the US and only wish us harm. Syria is in transition, from the Gaddafi-like secular "socialism" of the Ba’athist regime to dissolution Libyan-style. Somalia is now feeling the tip of the American spear, as our special forces skirt around the implicit "no boots on the ground" doctrine of this administration – presaging Africa’s new prominence as a theater of US military operations.
The neocons did it in the name of military glory, "national greatness," and general animus toward the Muslim world: the neoliberals are carrying out nearly identical policies with a few minor thematic and operational variations. Indeed, the Clintonian policy of co-optation was taken up by the Bush regime in the latter stages of its disastrous reign, in Iraq’s Anbar province, where the "Arab Awakening" supposedly augured the alleged success of the "surge." The same strategic perspective, elaborated by Kerry-Rice-Power, energizes the present surge of our efforts in North Africa.
American foreign policy is all about continuity: we veer from one variation of interventionism and radical internationalism to another, like a drunken sailor in a china shop – to mix metaphors that illustrate both the expense and the deadly consequences of a failed and fast-declining imperialism. This deadly doctrine – deadly to American interests, as well as the peoples it victimizes – was stopped dead in its tracks when the issue of US intervention in Syria came to the attention of the American people. Activists from both right and left united against the prospect of yet another US regime change campaign in pursuit of vague and fantastical objectives – and the political class was stunned. Recent events, however, show us that the War Party never rests – and neither can we. How long before a more "robust" show of force in Africa is proposed? The countdown, I’m afraid, won’t be very prolonged.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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