While Libya burns

Yoav Karny

The West must decide whether it has the stomach to go back to watching a leader commit genocide against his own people.

It's an unpleasant experience even for cynics: a dictator, whose sanity has always been in doubt, sends his son to appear on television to announce that he "will fight to the last bullet" against his people. The dictator then appears on television himself to promise to cleanse his country of enemies "house by house." Even in the fairly twisted history of our times, it's hard to remember when such a blatant declaration of intent was heard from a ruler against his subjects. The front page of a Swedish paper blared out: "Diagnosis: Hitler".

Muammar Gaddafi has always belonged to a different category. In the 1970s and 1980s, he played the role of the baddie in the Western narrative, usually justifiably, albeit sometimes with a degree of exaggeration. He intervened in disputes that were nothing to do with him, and intelligence services found his fingerprints in the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Sub-Saharan Africa, and even in the Caribbean. When it was necessary to scare young moviegoers, Hollywood scriptwriters invited Libyan conspirators, such as in Steven Spielberg's "Back to the Future", in which Libyans tried to steal Dr. Emmet Brown's uranium.

Libya's internal affairs, on the other hand, usually aroused less interest. In the early 1970s, Gaddafi dumped on the Libya people his "Green Book", a collection of revolutionary thoughts, clearly owing its inspiration to Mao Tse-tung's "Little Red Book". Later, Gaddafi tried such an idiosyncratic concept of democracy that its name cannot even be translated, and Libya rejoiced in the name "Jamahirya" (the country of the masses, or something like that). All this was more a source of amusement than a topic of serious discussion.

This week, we again became aware of that collection of thoughts. An Arabic newspaper published in London printed a caricature of Gaddafi beating his people with a huge tome entitled "Green Book". In the streets of Tobruk, fired-up Libyans were seen ripping the book to shreds, or burning it. The Libyans' everyday suffering has suddenly entered the world's consciousness.

$2,500 a day

This week too, the outside world did not quite know what to do about Libya's internal affairs. The White House did not manage to apply the Mubarak precedent to Gaddafi. The words "he should step down" failed to emerge from any official Washington mouth, although President Barack Obama finally uttered a sharp public condemned yesterday morning. Asked about Gaddafi's TV speech in midweek, a State Department spokesman replied with impressive diplomatic candor that "this is ultimately and fundamentally an issue between . . . the Libyan government, its leader and the Libyan people."

"The Washington Post" yesterday quoted an anonymous senior State Department official, who stressed how important it was to keep to the proper order of things. "There's a sequence here. The first step is to get American citizens out of harm's way. The second step is to fully document the human rights violations that are occurring. And the third step will be to take appropriate action under our laws."

The statement needs deconstructing in order to try to discern which part of it is blessed with the highest degree of insensitivity and cynicism.

What can be done about Libya, short of a declaration of war? A no-fly zone could be imposed, such as the US imposed on Iraq in the wake of the 1991 war to prevent then-president Saddam Hussein from massacring the Kurds and Shiites. Supplies could be parachuted to the rebels in Eastern Libya, and they could be protected from Gaddafi's naval guns. It is possible to demand of African governments that they should stop allowing Gaddafi to hire mercenaries from their countries. According to Ghanaweb.com, rumors in Accra put at $2,500 a day yes, a day the wage offered trained Ghanaians for joining Gaddafi's Pan African Legion. The report adds that there are ads in Nigerian and Guinean newspapers offering mercenaries $2,000 a day.

The devil you know

The American hesitance has not yet been seriously explained, and has already aroused criticism on the Right. It may more complicated that it appears. Maybe there is room to compare it with US conduct in Iraq after the crushing 1991 victory in the first Gulf War. Although the US encouraged the Iraqis to rebel against Saddam Hussein, it did not lift a finger when Saddam did to the Kurds and Shiites what Gaddafi is now trying to do to the Libyans. The Americans could have forbidden Saddam from using his helicopter gunships, and that alone would have been enough to change the situation.

President Bush senior, in contrast to his son, was bereft of almost any moral and ethical consideration when it came to foreign policy. He was a pragmatist to a fault, preferring the devil he knew to the devil he didn't. He knew that toppling Saddam Hussein would create a huge vacuum. He was not prepared for the US to fill that vacuum ("What could we do? Conquer Baghdad?" he later asked), and he did not want to take the risk of anyone else filling it. Bush the father was an absolute anti-adventurer. He even wanted the USSR to survive, because its dismantling would create too much uncertainty.

The possibility that Libya will break up into its constituent parts into its tribes, its clans, and its regions - is not a fabrication of Saif al Islam Gaddafi, the ruler's eldest son. He warned that Libya without his father would be "a new Somalia." Libya has no real national tradition. Its sole collective experience, important though it was, came 80 years ago, in an uprising against the colonial ruler, Italy. In that revolt, desert tribes coalesced around Omar Almukhtar, who was captured and executed (and was the inspiration for a 1981 movie, "Lion of the Desert", starring Antony Quinn).

A failed country of this size, in this part of the world, and with such huge oil wealth, is liable to endanger the Mediterranean and Europe. It is easy to imagine what will happen if the waters between Libya and Italy are filled with refugee boats. A Libyan vacuum will be an invitation to al Qaida, and will enhance the risk of its spread to Egypt, Sudan, and Central Africa.

Gaddafi was the last of the Nasserite revolutionaries in the Middle East. He seized power exactly a year before Gamal a-Nasser's death. Gaddafi combined populism, desert traditions, and hints of Islam with a nationalist, secular, and anti-Western ideology. He destroyed - or maybe not, we will soon know - the Senussis, a Sufi order, who had been dominant in Libya since the late 19th century. King Idris, Libya's one and only monarch from independence in 1951 until his overthrow by Gaddafi in 1969, was the head of the order.

During his long period in power, Gaddafi did not cease to abuse orthodox Islam, and declared the Hadith - the oral tradition of Islam - to be null and void. It is no coincidence that the Egyptian radical theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has returned to Cairo after a long exile, issued a fatwa against Gaddafi this week.

No decision-making process can ignore these facts. But there is only one unambiguous fact: Muammar Gaddafi is prepared to solve his political problems by massacring Libyans. 17 years after the Rwandan genocide, 35 years after the Cambodian genocide, the West will have to decide within days, maybe within hours, if it has the stomach to go back to being a passive observer of an attempt by a government to commit genocide against its own people.

Incidentally, the question whether anyone predicted the turmoil in Libya can be answered with a precise reference. Kindly visit the website of the Washington-based Fund for Peace, which ranks countries in order of their potential for collapse. In its 2010 Failed States Index, Libya comes in at 111th, well behind Israel, at 54th place, Turkey, at 89th, and Mexico, at 96th, and only 66 places above bottom country Norway.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 24, 2011

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2011

עוד דעות של Yoav Karny, Washington
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