My Weekly Reader 21 May 2018.

It can be difficult even for diplomats and foreign policy scholars to know a foreign country.  The Soviet Union long constituted a black box to outsiders.  Censorship, propaganda, and tight police surveillance of foreigners and their Soviet contacts kept Westerners from the fuller understanding that can be achieved of an open society.  If that was true of a great power in a long period of international confrontation, it can also be true of minor states on the outer periphery of world affairs.

Take the case of Libya.  The resources needed to foster an understanding of any foreign society are—in economic terms—“scarce.”  To understand Libya, it would take learning Arabic.  There aren’t a lot of people with the ability and commitment to do this.  It would take living in the country for an extended period to develop a sense of the society.  There aren’t many people with a reason to do so: oil industry people, diplomats, journalists, and the occasional academic.  One could try to develop human contacts in such a way as to not get them killed by the regime.  That last is a matter of personality and training.

Would it even be worth the trouble?  The United States had—and has—little reason to invest scarce resources in what amount to backwaters.[1]  Libya is a geographically large country made up mostly of desert.  Only six million people live there, many of them semi-nomadic tribesmen.  It has abundant oil and natural gas reserves, but so do many other places in the Arab region.  Saudi Arabia and Egypt rank much higher than does Libya.  Then, there’s the whole Israel versus the Palestinians engouement.  Since 2003, Iraq has occupied a central place for many specialists.  All of these soaked up the attention and scarce human resources of the American foreign policy establishment.  Americans largely depended upon the expertise of other countries with a reason to care more deeply about Libya.  Chiefly this means France, whose former colonies and current pawns surround Libya, and Italy, once the colonial ruler and now just a boat-ride away from a place teeming with people who don’t want to stay there.

Occasionally, however, Libya intruded upon American attention.  From 1969 onward, Libya had been ruled by a savage dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.  In the 1980s, his malevolence got the better of his self-control.  He had meddled in a civil war in Chad; he had sponsored murderous international terrorism in the West; and he had tried to acquire nuclear weapons.  All of these initiatives had gotten Libya a series of bloody noses, with the promise of worse to come.  At this point, Qaddafi’s self-control got the better of his—international—malevolence.  He went back to persecuting his own people and left other people alone.  Libya fell off the radar screen.

Then, came the “Arab Spring”[2] of 2011.  In January 2011, anti-government protests began in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.  In February 2011 they broke out in the eastern Libyan port-city of Benghazi.  Quaddafi vowed to drown the rebels in their own blood.[3]  “Humanitarian intervention” soon followed.  The governments of Britain and France outraged by the prospect of a massacre of “people everywhere [who] just want to be free,” wanted military intervention to protect Benghazi.  They didn’t want to send troops and they didn’t have the airborne command and control systems, or targeting drones, or air refueling capacity to make air-strikes work too well.  So they dragged on the United States to do its bit.[4]  Next thing you know, not only have the government forces headed for Benghazi been bombed to smithereens, but the Quaddafi government has been bombed out of existence.

This “success” had untoward consequences.[5]  Western experts believed that Libya had a good chance at a peaceful transition to a democratish state.  However, one now-experienced observer of Middle Eastern affairs has remarked that “the terrible men who ruled the countries of the Arab world had destroyed almost everything that might hold their societies together without them.”[6]  That proved about right—in Iraq, in Egypt, in Syria, and in Libya.  Libya came apart like a leper in a hot-tub.[7]  Islamists fought secularists, the long-suppressed regions fought each other, and gangs of criminals seized what they could.  After this failure of yet another Rodney King moment, the French, the British, and the Americans quickly threw up their hands in disgust.  One American official later characterized the change in attitude as “the hell with it.”  “Humanitarian intervention” soon ended.[8]

Other foreign powers did not.  They intervened to pursue their own interests.[9]  The criminals in coastal towns went into the migrant-export business, deluging Italy with desperately poor people who had used the Trans-African highway system[10] to reach Libya.  The flood of unwanted immigrants contributed to, but isn’t the only cause of, the rise of “populist” parties in Europe.

Could any of this have been foreseen?  Probably not, given the relative ignorance of Libyan conditions.  Still, there doesn’t seem to have been any worst-case analysis on the part of proponents of humanitarian intervention, nor any reflection on how far their own countries would be willing to go if conditions went South in a hurry.  But this is an old story.  “In his experience, premonitions of disaster were almost invariably proved false, and the road to Calvary entered on with the very lightest of hearts.”[11]

[1] The same went for Afghanistan and almost anywhere in Africa.

[2] The term alarmed many historians.  It made them think of the “Springtime of the Peoples” in the Revolutions of 1848-1849 in Europe.  These revolutions carried all before them for a time.  Then the revolutionaries, coalitions of people united only by what they were against—the current regime—fell out over what they were for.  The old guard regained control.  Firing squads, cavalry arriving in villages with coils of rope around every saddle horn, dungeons, and clipper ships packed with emigrants to America followed.  However, History is a college major in steep decline.  It offers only entertainment and the vicarious experience subjected to rational analysis that might lead one to not do something spectacularly stupid later in life.  Apparently there is no market for it.  “Viddy well little brother.”

[3] OK, that’s a cliché.

[4] Reportedly, the American military and intelligence chiefs were opposed to this intervention.  They had more wars—in Afghanistan and Iraq—than they could conveniently handle.

[5] See: “The Shores of Tripoli” and “The Hacked Election.”

[6] Dexter Filkins, New York Times Book Review, 20 May 2018, p. 24.

[7] Same as did Syria.

[8] Apparently governmental humanitarianism has a much shorter half-life than does NGO humanitarianism.

[9] Two things here.  First, Qatar supported the Islamists, Egypt and Russia supported the not-so-Islamists.  Same as in Syria.  Second, one aspect of America’s post-Cold War “triumphalism” has been the belief that other countries don’t have a right to their own foreign policy.  It should come as no surprise—although apparently it does in Washington—that other countries disagree.

[10] It’s not the American interstate system.  Still, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-African_Highway_network

[11] Pat Barker, Regeneration.  I forget the page number.

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