I couldn’t sleep last night, haunted by a world gone crazy.
I dreamt that a purported Israeli, with the support of one hundred rich American Jews, pretended to make a feature length film aggressively mocking the Prophet Mohammed and Muslims in general – Islamophobia and anti-Semitism combined!
The faux film producer uploaded a mock trailer to YouTube. Along with thousands of other clips, it was ignored. But then when the film was dubbed into Arabic, the demagogues of the world all played their roles – the clash of civilizations as mediated performance art.
Radical Islamic clerics worked as film distributors (monstrous monstrators as my Daniel Dayan might put it), bringing the clip to the attention of the mass media and the masses. Islamist and anti-Islamist ideologues worked up their followers, happily supporting each other in their parts. Feckless diplomats in embassies tried to assure the public that hate-speech isn’t official American policy. Analysts identified root causes.
The clash of civilizations was confirmed. All the players needed each other, supported each other, depended on each other. A marvelous demonstration of social construction: W.I. Thomas would be proud of the power of his insight. Social actors defined the clash of civilizations as real, and it is real in its consequences.
A reality confirmed with a jolt when I awoke, knowing full well about the global attacks on American embassies and symbols, and the tragic death of a man who was determined to go beyond clashing clichés, the heroic American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. The American right, including the marvelous Mitt Romney and Fox News talking heads, denounced President Obama’s purported support of the attacks and failure to stand up for American values, including the freedom of speech — this from people who worry about the war on Christmas. It’s a surreal reality this morning.
And this morning, wide-awake, I am savoring Marvelous Mitt’s recent . . .
Read more: The Clash of Civilizations and Class Warfare: The Videos
A third irremovable Arab president has fallen. Muammar Qaddafi’s final fate, like that of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh currently in Saudi, recovering from an attempted assassination, is still unknown. But one thing is pretty sure: like Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Husni Mubarak, Colonel Qaddafi is the third political victim of the Arab spring. Quite a deed, if one remembers the proliferation of de facto monarchical republics in the Arab Middle East in the very recent past.
While there is much to rejoice in this news, many questions arise concerning the political and military developments of these last months in Libya. In this post, I will focus on the media coverage in and around Tripoli. Next week, I will analyse the emerging Libyan leadership.
It is striking to see how the most recent military developments in Tripoli are mostly portrayed as a “rebel-driven campaign.” To be sure, we are told of how NATO allies coordinate aerial attacks in their support for this the apparently final offensive, but very little is said about the active role that Qatar, France and England have taken in arming, equipping and training the Libyan rebel forces (not to mention intelligence gathering and strategic planning). It is, in fact, probably as much a victory of the Transitional National Council (TNC) as it is of the countries which have thrown in their lots in the hope of securing a substantial share of the (oily) pie and to obtain a prominent role as future regional leaders. Yet, very little has been said about the active role of the U.S. in the unfolding events. “Leading from behind,” Obama’s unique strategy, is perhaps more of a media performance than a military reality. The U.S. has been very much involved.
One can find evidence that the USA is not waiting, arms crossed, to see what will happen in the Cyrenaica and Tripolitana. An article in yesterday’s New York Times reveals pro-active American involvement in planning the future of a post-Qaddafi Libya:
. . .
Read more: Who Won the Libyan war?
A while ago, I read a frightening piece in The New York Times, on looted weapons in Libya. The hopeful side of the report is that the opposition to the brutal dictator (who has systematically attacked unarmed citizens) is militarily empowered, using the weapons of the dictatorial regime against the dictatorship. But the Times report emphasized the dangers. With arms now circulating outside the formal control of the state, there is a high likelihood that some of them will reach the black market and get into the hands of terrorists outside this zone of conflict. C.J. Chives, the Times reporter examines particularly this dangerous side of recent events there.
Indeed it’s scary. Nihilists of various sorts might obtain missiles that are capable of attacking commercial airliners. As someone who often flies abroad for professional and family purposes, I am particularly concerned. This security threat is very real, Chives reports, because in relatively recent past examples of state arsenals being looted by civilians, Uganda in 1979, Albania in 1997 and Iraq in 2003, the fear has been confirmed.
When I was reading this article, I thought about another circumstance when such fear in the end seems to have proven unfounded, and in which I was peripherally involved. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 led many to worry that terrorists, who had been armed and supported by the Soviet bloc, would become rogue and free floating. Further, there was the fear that their preferred weapons, sophisticated plastic explosives, specifically semtex, might be used in new ways, not disciplined by the logic of the cold war. It was in this context that I became a suspected terrorist.
I was coming home from a two month trip around the old Soviet bloc in the late winter of 1990. This visit would later become the basis of my theoretical travelogue, After the Fall: The Pursuit of Democracy in Central Europe. I . . .
Read more: Reflections of a Terrorist Suspect
President Barack Obama gave a powerful speech today, one of his best. The president was again eloquent, but there is concern here in the U.S. and also abroad in the Arab world, that eloquence is not enough, that it may in fact be more of the problem than the solution. The fine words don’t seem to have substance in Egypt, according to a report in The Washington Post. There appears to be a global concern that Obama’s talk is cheap. Obama’s “Cairo Speech” all over again, one Egyptian declared. Now is the time for decisive action. Now is the time for the President of the United States to put up or shut up. (Of course, what exactly is to be put up is another matter.)
This reminds me of another powerful writer-speaker, President Vaclav Havel. Havel is the other president in my lifetime that I have deeply admired. Both he and Obama are wonderful writers and principled politicians, both have been criticized for the distance between their rhetorical talents and their effectiveness in realizing their principles.
Agreeing with the criticisms of Havel, I sometimes joke about my developing assessment of him. I first knew about Vaclav Havel as a bohemian, as a very interesting absurdist playwright. I wrote my dissertation about Polish theater when this was still his primary occupation, and I avidly read his work then as I tried to understand why theater played such an important role in the opposition to Communism in Central Europe.
I then came to know him as one of the greatest political essayists and dissidents of the twentieth century. At the theoretical core of two of my books, Beyond Glasnost: The Post Totalitarian Mind and The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times are the ideas to be found in Havel’s greatest essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”
However, as president, Havel was not so accomplished. He presided over the breakup of Czechoslovakia, a development he opposed passionately, but ineffectually. He sometimes seemed to think that he could right a political problem by writing a . . .
Read more: Reflections on President Obama’s Speech on the Middle East and North Africa
In a post submitted before Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, Gary Alan Fine poses a question that is especially pressing after this latest development in the ongoing global wars. -Jeff
Coming out of a bar late one night, a patron finds his friend on his hands and knees searching desperately beneath a streetlamp. “I lost my keys under my car and I must find them,” moans his friend. “But why, if the keys are under a car, are you searching under this lamp?” “Well, the light is much better here.”
This is an old chestnut, none too clever, but one that has powerful political resonance, helping to explain flawed policy decisions. Why, if we worry about the menace of Al Qaeda, have we gone to war against two states – Iraq and Libya – that have distant, even hostile, relations with our terrorist foes. The light is better there.
A student of mine, Michaela DeSoucey, currently at Princeton, wrote her doctoral dissertation about the battles to ban foie gras. She asked the question why is it that animal rights activists chose to make the banning of foie gras a central issue, despite the small amount of foie gras consumed by Americans, as opposed to veal, much more common on American tables – or chicken. Neither baby cows nor poultry sleep under 300-thread count sheets. Her argument is that battling foie gras producers is a far easier task than the cattle or poultry industry. Yet, each battle provides a rich vein of publicity. Foie gras is what DeSoucey labels an easy target: it is, if one can pardon the culinary-mixed metaphor “low-hanging fruit.” Activists hope, but do not expect, that such targets can provide a wedge for other bigger enemies. Not yet.
But my concern is not with the pantry, but with the atlas. Here we are battling in Libya, while Syria falls into chaos. Americans and our NATO allies have determined that it is crucial that we overthrow the Qaddafi regime, even though that regime is opposed to Al Qaeda as are we. And, frankly, it is becoming a vexing pattern. We . . .
Read more: Easy Targets
I probably got carried away describing President Obama’s Libya policy as a “self-limiting revolutionary solidarity approach.” I know I should be careful in applying my formative political experience to unrelated circumstances. False analogies are often foolish. They can even be dangerous. But, I drew upon my experience to express my admiration for the precision and cogency of Obama’s approach, concerned that many observers, especially my friends on the left, didn’t understand the significance of what the President is trying to accomplish. Things are very different now, and we should face these differences. But even so, the combination of realism and idealism, balancing insights into capacity and aspiration, reminded me of things past, from Gdansk, not Baghdad.
The President sought to highlight the humanitarian justification of our military involvement in Libya. He also emphasized that the involvement had to be limited. Surely, this had something to do with cold calculation about the overextension of the American military, but principle was also involved. For Libyans, Obama attempted to express support for the principle that it was for them and not for us to determine their future. And for Americans and for the rest of the world, Obama tried to make clear that in order for an international military effort to be truly international, it can’t have an American face. The U.S. not only cannot afford to be the world’s policeman. It should not be. If the world needs policing, then the world should do it, or more precisely a coalition of countries, not led by the United States. Yet what seemed clear to me was not clear to everyone, despite the President’s widely recognized eloquence. And this wasn’t only true on the left, as was demonstrated here by Gary Alan Fine in his post on Friday.
I agree with Felipe Pait’s reply to Fine’s post. I too think that Fine exaggerates. “From observing the fact that the Obama administration has cautiously decided to use limited military force in Libya to worrying about the danger of invading a dozen countries is a long jump,” Pait wrote.
DC Week in Review: Libya and Emotional Politics
What would a world look like if an Empire – an unnamed, teetering superpower – could fly to war without cost and no loss of life to its soldiers or the civilians of its target? We may soon find out. Finally we discover the true meaning of a “war game.”
Our waltz through the North African skies provides the test. After a week of bombing of Libyan military targets, apparently not a single American or NATO soldier has been killed. And, despite the pathetic attempts of the Tripoli regime to demonstrate otherwise, there seems not to have been many (or any) civilian casualties. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to war we go.
Add to this happy scenario the pressure to fund the battles not by taxing the burghers of Calais or the burgers of LA, but the suggestion that our military strikes be funded through the frozen assets of the Libyan regime. While President Obama denies that the money will be touched, honey pots are hard to resist. So just so long as we forget the families of Libyan soldiers, it’s all good. We feel noble about saving lives without costing ours. Bombers have the wings of a dove.
It is true that there is no endgame in sight, and it may be, as has been reported, that Al Qaeda militants are working with the rebels and, who knows, the oil ports may close, but everything is now a training mission. And, perhaps, as we roll the dice, the outcome will be sevens, not craps. Endgames are for Dr. Kissinger, not for Dr. Pangloss.
The charm of brutal dictators (think Mubarak, think Duvalier, think Saddam, think Charles Taylor) is that they have ravaged the wealth of their nation, secreting it away where we can get it. Their greed can fund our moral display.
Perhaps the mission in Libya, despite a wartime death toll that would make the citizens of Sendai weep with envy, may yet . . .
Read more: War Games
President Obama explained himself and his administration’s policies last night. He was precise about means and ends in Libya: use force to stop a massacre, use politics to support regime change. He reminded me of a revolution past. In Central Europe in the 80’s, there was a self-limiting revolution. Now, in North Africa and the Middle East, we have the self-limiting revolutionary solidarity by a superpower, as strange as that may seem.
Obama did imply a doctrine in the address. Use necessary and unilateral force to defend the safety of Americans, develop multilateral engagements whenever possible in pursuing American interests abroad, turn to the appropriate international organizations, try to form as wide an alliance as possible. If there is an opportunity to use force to stop a humanitarian disaster, there is a moral imperative to do so. On the other hand, diplomacy and political pressure are understood to be the most useful instruments to foster desirable political results, including regime change and fostering democracy.
I know that for many of my friends on the left, this summary seems naïve or worse. E. Colin R. commented on my last post, the “US intervention within Libya is not linked, IN ANY WAY, with an interest in promoting ‘democracy.’” There are of course much harsher judgments in the press and the blogosphere. They think that the Americans and their European allies are enforcing the no fly zone, protecting Libyan civilians and supporting the rebel forces of Libya, and not in Bahrain, because of oil and corporate interests, without any concern for democratic ideals. This is roughly speaking the position of the Noam Chomsky wing of the American political spectrum.
But what would the same people have said if we did not get involved in Libya? If we allowed a brutal dictator (whose high quality oil fuels Europe) to massacre innocents? “Obviously,” it would have been because we are not willing to upset the status quo, which provides for Europe the oil that it needs, We would have been revealed to be unwilling to support the . . .
Read more: Obama’s Speech on Libya
While the military intervention of Libya is both important and controversial, I am convinced that the importance and the controversy will be decided less by arms, more by speech. Talk, there and now, is decidedly not cheap, and this applies both to Libya and to the region. I have theoretical preferences that lead me to such an assertion. I admit. I am guided by a book by Jonathan Schell on this issue in general. But I think the specific evidence in Libya and among its neighbors is overwhelming.
The battles in Libya will yield one of three possible military outcomes. The Libyan resistance, with the aid of outside firepower, will overthrow the regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Alternatively, Qaddafi and company will prevail. Or, there will be a stalemate. Of these three logically possible outcomes, I think it’s pretty clear that a regime victory with a return to the status quo ante is nearly impossible, given the level of internal resistance and external armaments. The best the regime can hope for is a military stalemate, which it would define as a victory. Yet, both in that case and the case of the victory of the resistance, the door will be opened for political change. The form of the change, then, will be decided politically not militarily, by the word, not by the sword.
And the direction of politics will depend on what people are doing in Libya and among its neighbors in the region off the center stage, as I explored last week. The young modern forces that played such an important role in the transformation in Tunisia and Egypt may very well be outmaneuvered by Islamists or by those privileged in the old regime cunningly maintaining their interests. (A New York Times report suggests that this is the unfolding case). These are the three main actors: those who are trying to maintain their privileges, the Islamists of one sort or another, and the young protesters who played a key role in initiating the present course . . .
Read more: Arms and Speech in Libya and Beyond
Over the past week, I have been reviewing postings on other blogs which consider how things are going in the struggle in Libya. Particularly helpful were a series of posts by Juan Cole.
He developed a compelling account of why the war was necessary, i.e. to stop massacres , and to support popular sovereignty, and how the war was proceeding with international, including Arab and Turkish, support, achieving its goal of stopping a regime’s systematic murder of its own citizens.
He wisely warns against undo optimism and pessimism, “Pundits who want this whole thing to be over within 7 days are being frankly silly. Those who worry about it going on forever are being unrealistic. Those who forget or cannot see the humanitarian achievements already accomplished are being willfully blind.”
And he forcefully argued with critics on the left that they must learn “to chew gum and walk at the same time,” to support an intervention that saves lives and supports the developing autonomous democratic developments in the Arab world, and be critical of unwarranted international exploits of the great powers of Europe and America. “It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis…”
As I have already conceded, there are reasonable grounds to oppose this American and international involvement in Libya. The principled support for involvement is cogently presented by Cole. I’m convinced.
Later today, I will present my own judgment that the conflict in Libya will in the end be decided by words and not arms.