Sunday, March 27, 2011

Libya: He's a Rebel

The Libya Ambivalence
Toward a Shallower Ambivalence

Like I said, if you're ambivalent about the Libya intervention, you're not alone. Among those who share your ambivalence is, reportedly, Barack Obama. Almost tautologically, being president puts you in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't environment. But that's why you get your own library for a retirement present.

I'll tell you one thing, though: if these guys are for it, I'm taking another look.

So, out of the seven misgivings we ran down on Friday, the first was that the faction we're supporting are no angels. To be sure, the forces aligned against Qadaffy are far from homogeneous. And I'm sure that many decent people are motivated to take up arms to end his rule. One can grant, though, that the Colonel is a loathesome tyrant, and still have cause to question the wisdom of backing the rebellion.

Out of all the links I tossed up on Thursday, the most counterintuitive was the one from Thomas C. Mountain. He discusses the role of organized crime groups in Benghazi involved in human-trafficking to ferry cheap labor from Africa to Europe. Qadaffy, he says, had cracked down on the Benghazi mafia, with help from the Italians. In retaliation, says Mountain, the gangs have been "funding and supporting the rebellion," and using it as an excuse to storm prisons and free incarcerated traffickers.

This LA Times story discusses the racist pogroms carried out against African guest workers by rebel groups, convinced they are mercenaries for Qadaffy. This Libyan, however, vehemently denies charges of racism among the rebels, and hurls counter-charges at the Qadaffy regime. Qaddafy has long exploited cheap African labor, he says, and collaborated with Berlusconi in warehousing migrants for European purposes. In this context, it sounds more like a turf war between rival gangs. Rebel charges that Qadaffy is using black African mercenaries may be well-founded, but that doesn't mean every African in Libya is a Qadaffy spy, either.

Next come charges of religious extremism among the eastern rebel groups. Fundamentalists concentrated in eastern Libya, allied with the doddering King whom Qadaffy overthrew in 1969 (with tacit Western approval), are angry with the Q-Man for his supposed lack of fealty to the Koran. Qadaffy himself claims in turn that many of the rebels are allied with al-Qaeda. The thing is, he may have a point. Wikileaks cables show that the region provided a sizable portion of the volunteer forces opposing our troops in Iraq. And captured al-Qaeda membership logs show a disproportionate number of recruits from Benghazi and thereabouts. This needn't discredit the entire rebel coalition, but neither is it especially comforting.

So these are the people we're providing air cover for, and thinking of arming. Robert Fisk, again, reports that the arms would come, with plausible deniability, through the Saudis. UK Defense Secretary Liam Fox provides today's plausible denial. Given our history of arming Islamic militants in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to ask the question "what could go wrong?" is to answer it.

Under the circumstances, it's unsurprsisng that oil-dependent Western powers would show an interest in avoiding a protracted conflict, co-opting whichever anti-Qadaffy elements are willing to make deals, and trying their best to manage the transition. Unsurprisng, but hardly lauadatory.

If you're not unsettled enough by all this, try sorting out the various claims that this will end in a stalemate, a partition, a bloody civil war, or a quick end to Qadaffy's reign. We'll take up those concerns a couple more misgivings down the line.

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