Thursday, March 31, 2011

Libya: Friends Like These

Our story so far:

The Libya Chapter
The Libya Ambivalence
Toward a Shallower Ambivalence
Libya: He's a Rebel
Libya: Qadaffy's Defenders
Libya: Place Your Bets

One of the lessons of the Egyptian uprising was supposed to be that the US has a lot more leverage in urging reform on our client states than in imposing it by force on our adversaries. When Barack Obama told the Egyptian military that they would lose legitimacy if they fired on their own people, they took the hint, greasing the skids for Mubarak, and placing their bets on being able to manage the transition as best they can.

It was a triumph of speak-softly diplomacy, and stood in marked contrast to George W's big-stick ethos. This month, the contrast is a bit less glaring. Where, for instance, were our concerns for human rights and democratic yearnings when Defense Secretary Robert Gates broke bread with Bahrain's inbred kleptocracy on the eve of their brutal crackdown? If he told them that violence would lead to a loss of legitimacy, they don't seem to have gotten the message.

In retrospect, of course, Obama is not too different from his 43 predecessors* in this regard. Note in particular the resumption of business as usual (after a bit of harrumphing) following the coup in Honduras. Recall also the lack of Official Concern at the massive loss of civilian life during Israel's siege of Gaza.

In fact, one Obama Administration official has given us the money quote of the week regarding our shifting rationales. This might be one for the ages:
Speaking to reporters this week, Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough conceded as much, saying that the White House doesn't “make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent.” Rather, “We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region.”
Well, now you tell us! That certainly clears a few things up. Still, even under that standard, our interests in the region require at least the appearance of support for popular aspirations - some of those movements may yet come to power. Even more than familiar disconnects like supporting thugs in "our back yard" or ongoing support for Israel, such appeances are compromised by our policies in two particluar Middle East countries: Bahrain and Yemen.

Bahrain, because as noted, our War Secretary dropped in the night before the clampdown  (much as Henry Kissinger did before the Butcher of Jakarta turned his attentions to East Timor). And Yemen, because we're already at war there, fer Gawd's sake - on behalf of the corrupt autocracy.

Now, if we're supposed to be mollified because our "lead role" in Libya lasted "days, not weeks" and the British and French are picking up the slack, maybe we will be. Americans have notoriously short attention spans. But Middle Easterners tend to have longer memories, and their recollections of Britain and France aren't always benign. The two imperial powers divvied up the regional map after WWI in a way that made corrupt autocracies almost inevitable. As economist J. W. Smith explains it,
Once small weak countries are established, it is very difficult to persuade their rulers to give up power and form those many dependent states into one economically viable nation. Conversely, it is easy for outside power brokers to support an exploitative faction to maintain or regain power. None of this can ever be openly admitted to or the neo-mercantilist world would fall apart. The fiction of sovereign governments, equal rights, fair trade, etc., must continue. To be candid is to invite immediate widespread rebellion and loss of control.
The leaders of Bahrain, like those of Kuwait, owe their priveliged position to the British Empire. As Finian Cunningham recounts, the indigenous Bahrani majority
view the ruling Al Khalifa family as something of an imposter that has abused the civility of the Bahraini people for the past 200 years. It is not a gross oversimplification of history when Bahrainis relate how the Al Khalifas originated from a Bedouin tribe in what became central Saudi Arabia and voyaged around the Persian Gulf as pirates and renegades seeking a base.
Pollster James Zogby says his data showed deep dissatisfaction among Bahrainis, far worse than in adjoining Gulf autocracies. The al-Khalifa clan numbers only between fifty and a hundred - with a 20,000 strong mercenary force keeping the population of 600,000 in line. The ruling elites have "destroyed vast swathes of coastline and indigenous livelihoods." The family has enriched themselves off the country's fishing, farming and petroleum resources, imprisoning and torturing any who object.

And despite this, they were met with peaceful protestors, who were not, at least initially, calling for regime change - only for democratic reforms.

And despite that, those peaceful protestors were shot down in the streets, assaulted in their hospitals, had a monument to their national pride demolished, and their country invaded by US-armed Saudi troops. The US response to this has been notably muted - perhaps because Bahrain is host to our Fifth Fleet. 

Meanwhile, Yemen, with its indistinct borders and on again/off again partition, is the poorest country in the Arab world. As in Bahrain, its leadership treats the country as a family business, and corruption is rampant. The security forces are responsible for "torture, inhumane conditions, and even extrajudicial executions."

Our ongoing "covert" involvement there - including weapons sales, security cooperation, counter-terrorism training, drone strikes and collateral damage - is a perfect illustration of the term mission creep. Or blowback. Or both. We're ostensibly helping the Yemeni regime combat an al-Qaeda presence, but as in Iraq and Afghanistan, our own presence there may be contributing to the strength of our adversaries. Moreover, this blogger contends that Saleh, like our friends in Pakistan, may be playing both sides of the al-Qaeda game.

Yemenis in both the north and the south are fed up with the 32-year-old Saleh regime, and in response to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, poured into the streets to protest and demand reform. As in Bahrain, the regime's brutal crackdown simply escalated matters. By March 4th, the number of protestors was in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.  Up to that point, dozens had been shot down at various times, but the deadliest incident came on March 18, the day before the bombing began in Libya. 46 peaceful protestors were gunned down, drawing a stark contrast between Western responses to the two violent regimes. Since then, Yemen has spiralled into further chaos, with defections from the armed forces and the regime threatening to bring an end to Saleh's rule.

Now to be fair, the numbers of dead protestors in Bahrain and Yemen combined pale in comparison to what is alleged in Libya. But to circle back, we ought to have more leverage with regimes that are nominally allied to us than we do over regional adversaries. One obvious solution is to whisper in the ears of whatever cooler heads prevail there, as we did in Egypt. And the pacifist prescription, of course, is to simply stop selling bombs to governments who use them on their own people - preferably yesterday. That would send as strong a message to surviving autocrats as our haphazard intervention in Libya does.

So all right, as per Mr. McDonough, consistency is not our strong suit. We intervene when it's in our interest, as great powers always have. When it's in our interest to look away when a client needs to maintain control, we look away. But it's worth remembering that until recently, Qadaffy was a reliable client, and not just to Dick Cheney and Silvio Berlusconi. Less than a year ago, the Obama White House was willing to sell him $77 million in weaponry.

* Of course I'm counting Grover Cleveland twice; he was a big man.


  1. Informative discussion of Bahrain, a case that underscores the arbitrariness of the US commitment to human rights; as well as the cynical way the human rights issue has been manipulated for self interested purposes.

    Surprising though that Mark initially had some hesitation about opposing US intervention in Libya.

  2. Yeah, I guess I surprised myself. But as I look back at my initial post I see that I was trying to be open-minded and take my own biases into account. Hence this series of posts, digging into the arguments and evidence as deeply as I can - time permitting. I do find myself less ambivalent the more I look at it.

    But I try to keep in mind the words of Ben Franklin: "The older I get, the more respect I have for other people's opinions - and the less I have for my own."