Dark times breed – maybe demand – dark humor. Iraq and Afghanistan taught me as much. The coronavirus makes it plain as day; so does Donald Trump. Look, the guy is a buffoon and – if you happen to be the wrong color or live in the wrong country – kind of a monster. But he is (sometimes) funny. I mean, that Nancy "Antoinette" Pelosi ice cream ad: "Let them eat cake [ice cream]?" It killed! (And serves notice for Uncle Joe to brace himself for what’s coming). Trump wasn’t exactly wrong about Pelosi either.
Still The Donald’s obsessions are what strike me as equal parts horrifying and hysterical. On this count, the gold standard has to be Trump’s "Thanks Obama!” meme-like propensity to blame anything and everything – including COVID-19 (and the temperature in the White House) – on his predecessor. He’s rarely right, of course, but this Trumpian proclivity reminds me of another darkly jocular anecdote.
Back in 1987, when Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (the now deceased Brooklyn Democrat) visited a CIA-run Nicaraguan insurgent training camp, a U.S. intel agent introduced him to one of the “Contra” fighters. This future war criminal – the U.S.-backed death squads slaughtered thousand of civilians – was wearing a ball cap that read "Admit Nothing – Deny Everything – Make Counter-Accusations." Asked where he got it, the contra officer replied "the special effects shop in Langley,’’ Virginia – where the CIA is headquartered. Hilarious, right? Well, the Agency thought so, at least, since it became an unofficial organizational motto. Indeed, when George W. Bush’s outgoing CIA Director Porter Goss spoke at a 2006 Ohio college graduation ceremony, he led with this crowd-pleaser:
“If this were a graduating class of CIA case officers, my advice would be short and to the point: admit nothing, deny everything and make counter-accusations."
One thing is clear: Trump seems to have learned his blame-Obama mantra – and standup delivery – from the clandestine service. Only, entertainer that he is: Trump’s turned it into an art-form.
Now, count me normally sympathetic with Jimmy Dore’s recent argument that Americans should ignore the Trumpian "village idiot" and focus on systemic rot; but sometimes The Donald isn’t all wrong. In fact, that’s one of the problems with corporate media coverage of the president – the reflexive opposition to all things Trump has reached levels of absurdity. If the president came out against Mussolini, I’m pretty sure MSNBC would air a flattering Benito biopic.
In all seriousness though, when it comes to one of the world’s worst, and most intractable, civil conflicts – in Libya – Trump’s basically correct: it really was Obama’s fault. In fact, he’s even admitted as much. Unlike Donald, and though it took awhile, Barack has the capacity – if only occasionally – to acknowledge error. During his last year in office – by which point thousands of locals had been killed – Obama confessed, on Fox News no less, that his handling of the Libyan intervention (though, notably, not the mission itself) constituted the "worst mistake" of his presidency. That was for public consumption: privately he famously called the Libya affair a "shit show.”
It seems perverse that the ongoing, so-described Libyan cataclysm was brought to you the president who not altogether flippantly proclaimed his to be the "Don’t do stupid shit" foreign policy. But here we are, and here Libya is: embroiled in its "third” civil war since the U.S.-fostered regime change operation in 2011, with its national carcass carved up into competing warlord, militia, and criminal gang fiefdoms.
If You’re Not Confused, You Aren’t Paying Attention
Today’s Libya is an astonishingly bewildering place. Nonetheless, it’s worth summarizing the broad contours of a never-ending and – over the past year – escalating civil war that’s proved confoundingly complex for even expert observers. In fact, the traditional descriptor of "civil war" – which usually implies two discrete sides – only vaguely applies. Given the broad array of ethnic, religious, and criminal militias involved – and cultivated by various and nefarious foreign actors – it seems anarchy might be the more appropriate Libyan label.
In the most simplified sense, Libya’s is basically a pick your poison situation. The two loose coalitions battling for power (or maybe just loot) are General Khalifa "human rights-abuse" Haftar, and the corrupt, some say Islamist-tied Government of National Accord (GNA). So, generally speaking, in the country’s east you’ve got a vicious warlord who cynically waves the "terrorism" bloody shirt to scare up French, Russian, and Gulf States support. Out west, there’s the impotent – though technically "internationally recognized" – GNA, which desperately clings to Tripoli (the capital) thanks to mainly Turkish largesse and the infusion of thousands of Syrian mercenaries. Until the Turks’ massive recent uptick in support turned the tide (for now), the GNA appeared on the brink of collapse.
The macabre output of all this: some 6,000 dead and 140,000 displaced in just the last 11 months of revamped clashes. More troubling, it’s decidedly unclear whether either side – should one ever emerge victorious – possesses the capacity or legitimacy to unite and rule the country.
Pandemic and (Foreign) Patron Accelerants
Enter corona. Contra widespread calls for COVID-induced global and local – from the UN’s Libyan envoy – ceasefires, the months long siege and battle for Tripoli rages on. As virus cases increase in a shattered, vulnerable – and medically ill-equipped – country, militias have even shelled hospitals amidst a raging pandemic
Furthermore, the conflict has morphed into a sordid back-to-the-future mercenary war reminiscent of 1960s Africa. Libya’s foreign mercenaries may not carry slick old school monikers – like "Mad" Mike Hoare in the Congo – but, along with thousands more (usually Syrian) Arab fighters, the maelstrom even includes European soldiers of fortune. These are mainly Russians. Both sides employ hired guns, and here there’s an odd twist: Libya has become a sort of microcosm (or associated theater) of the simultaneous civil war in the Levant. The twice-victimized Syrian fighters that Turkey recruits from its refugee camps and cross-border opposition-held areas currently combat Russian mercs whose government in Moscow backs their sworn enemy Bashar al-Assad.
While the mercenary presence provides some throwback romantic flavor, the Libyan civil conflagration has become a decidedly distressing full-on regional proxy war. Worse still, US"allies" currently fight on opposing sides. Rather awkward, that – if typical of American-induced "blowback." Specifically, Haftar’s wide array of strange bedfellows include Washington-affiliated theocracies (Saudi and Emirati), secular Arab authoritarians (Egypt), America’s oldest ally (France), and even its favorite nemesis (Russia). Meanwhile, the GNA’s main benefactor – Turkey – is also a NATO ally (if sometime frenemy).
Long before the Libyan crisis turned into a full-on foreign feeding frenzy, the NATO-led, and U.S.-masterminded, 2011 takedown of the Ghadafi regime had serious unintended consequences. Out of the Libyan chaos, combatants streamed south and helped enflame a Ghadafi-arms-dumps-infused Tuareg ethnic rebellion in Mali. More broadly, Libya’s havoc spawned a generation of Islamist, economic or purely adrenaline-inspired fighters who blanketed the region to its south and west and worsened increasingly out-of-control conflicts in the Sahel. Additionally, ISIS franchises soon sprung up both there and in Libya itself.
Furthermore, a post-Ghadafi – and Africa-wide – refugee wave inundated Europe with millions of generally unwanted indigent victims of a war that France and the UK spearheaded. The resultant, and wholly predictable, political backlash helped – in a bit of British Tory karma – usher in Brexit and Boris Johnson alike. Meanwhile, Washington and Paris are still jointly battling – if counterproductively – the Libya fiasco’s boomeranging blazes in Mali, Chad, Niger, and – frankly – across the entire African Sahel.
Heck, this is Blowback 101: a war waged on false pretenses which created ever more endless wars that the domestic military-industrial complex demands in order to rake in equally endless profits. Consider it sort of – what we in the military bureaucracy used to call – a corporate defense industry "self-licking ice cream cone."
The Washington "Formula" – Libya Edition
From a certain point of view, the current Libyan tragedy coheres with a decades-old distinct Washington-interventionist formula. It has five simple and easy to follow steps:
- Start an undeclared war based on lies – in this case that Ghadafi responded with, and would escalate, a genocidal massacre of the opposition (he didn’t) – once the recently cooperative (and lately WMD-renouncing) dictator has outlived his usefulness.
- Counter criticism with the convenient cudgel of humanitarian swan songs – in Libya cloaking shameless regime change in the vagary of the international Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – or by rolling out the classic Munich myth (whereby tinpot Ghadafi becomes a modern day Nazi genocidaire). That this time Washington didn’t "appease" the Hitlerian strongman proved, according to President Obama, that "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different." He failed to add one key caveat: that is unless, of course, the atrocities occur after – and in greater numbers – the war Washington started in order to ostensibly avoid them.
- Once the regime change adventure fails, pivot inward and politicize the entire debacle for domestic consumption and partisan advantage. Thus, in Libya’s case, the real issue centers around the absurdly boundless Benghazi scandal; specifically, what then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew or didn’t know and when (about a later embassy attack) and not so much – and this is critical – her decisive role in cheerleading the destruction of the country in the first place. By such crude, exceptionalist, measures, the four Americans tragically killed in the Benghazi assault become the story; not, naturally, the thousands more Libyans who lost their lives in the post regime change chaos.
- Fight the blowback battles – and use them as circuitous justifications for future forever war. See, Uncle Sam’s is not to "question why" the post-regime change conflicts proliferated, "but to do or die:" to face each threat anew (and in the absence of context). Take the U.S. Africa Command. According to documents obtained by the Intercept, in 2019, AFRICOM took part in conflicts, or had a presence – what it calls "enduring" or "non-enduring" "footprints" – in at least seven countries currently plagued, in part, by Libya-chaos-heightened violence. Even if they’re equipped with that knowledge (and that’s a big if), rather than proceed with caution – fearing a trickle-down repeat from intervention in those brushfires – local commanders know only the "more” strategy: more troops, more bombs, more local proxy training, and always more money. It’s as though, afflicted with short-term memory loss, the Pentagon awakes each day to a fresh world, a clean slate, and begins its inertial militarism anew. Groundhog Day-style. (Though at least Bill Murray remembered the previous days)
- Finally, the US proceeds to wash – but also wring – its hands of (and at) the resultant mess. Congress holds no-one responsible. Zero accountability means zero impetus for real change. Failure and fantasy are positively reinforced until Quixotic windmill-tilting gathers an inertia all its own. Indeed, the media and the opposition party continue to promote and champion the should-be-discredited architects of disaster. The Democratic or Republican establishment might even run the militarist brainchild – Hillary anyone? – for president a few years later. Hardly anyone bats an eye. It is now safe to begin the cycle anew in some other distant imperial backwater.
If the whole Libyan (and Iraqi, Afghan, Syrian, and…wait for it: Iranian) – formula sounds an awful lot like that same CIA / Trumpian mantra – "admit nothing, deny everything and make counter-accusations" – then perhaps my verbose prose isn’t as convoluted as it seems.
Trump’s Obama-blaming: Neither Wrong Nor Helpful for Libya
Throughout all the recent Libyan madness, the US has indeed been uncharacteristically – if not completely – on the sidelines. Given America’s decisive role in creating this whole mess, there does seem something distinctly obscene in this somewhat laissez fare approach. Then again, it’s genuinely difficult to imagine how any US intervention – other than diplomatic – could improve the situation in Libya. Indeed, time and again, Washington’s meddling (especially of the military variety) has only amplified the suffering of Africans (and Arabs, and Pashtuns, and Persians).
Without a doubt, the Trump team’s occasional warlord apologism – ours is the president, after all, who admits to having "favorite dictators” – is more than a little disturbing. The Donald’s friendly phone chat with the Libyan military strongman last April – in which he "recognized Field Marshall Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources" – and decision to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning the bombing (attributed to the UAE) of a migrant detention center which killed 40 people, were unequivocally gross. Furthermore, lest we forget that Washington also, albeit indirectly, throws fuel on both sides of the Libyan inferno through its continued support of its NATO ally, and regional partner, war accelerants. It certainly doesn’t wastes much effort trying to reign in such pals.
All true and horrendous enough; but it must be said that Trump has shown some degree of restraint. At least he hasn’t sent in the marines…much. Establishment-minded national security figures – and the "left"-leaning media – were shocked, just shocked and horrified, back in 2017, when the new president "raised fears” of US"disengagement" from Libya. Yet, it’s worth recalling what – channeling his old anti-intervention, populist campaign self – Trump actually said. In response to the Italian (Libya’s former colonial masters) prime minister’s plea that America maintain its "very critical" role in the country, Trump fired back: "I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles."
Was the president’s response coarse? Definitely. Heartless? Sure sounds that way. But was he all wrong? I’m not so sure – at least on some level. Even if Trump’s basically correct on the merits, there’s something patently unsettling about the lack of responsibility and accountability from an America that bombed Libya into the current catastrophe in the first place.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the Obama "shit show" that Trump inherited – and is uninterested or (admittedly) unable to resolve – there are no easy answers. In this instance – unlike the White House climate control problem – Trump is kind of right to "blame Obama." Only I doubt the suffering Libyan people will take quite as much satisfaction as does The Donald.
For when it comes to the Libyan travesty, the only prudent predictive response to that old celebrity general, David Petraeus’s now famous (Iraq War) hypothetical – "Tell me how this ends" – is…not well.
And that much, at least, isn’t funny.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen