Saturday, March 19, 2011

Libya and the Danger of Universal Principles

There’s a problem when world leaders announce fervid support for universal principals: there is no way those high-flying words are not going to be flung back at them at some another time, during some other crisis. When they will have no choice but to lie or duck and scamper for cover.
Case in point:  At the Elysees Palace in Paris today, President Nicholas Sarkozy’s declaration after France, the U.S. and several European and Arab states met to work out the mechanics of the no-fly zone over Libya.
France and its partners are acting, Sarkozy declared, to support the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Libyan people--unarmed civilians who have risen up to overthrow a detested dictatorship. There is no way the international community could stand by and watch innocent civilians be slaughtered. This was the same justification cited by President Obama the day before after the U.N. Security Council vote.
Sarkozy took no questions after his statement. Nor did Obama. For good reason.
-Questions such as—Mr. President, how do you justify intervening in Libya to prevent the bloody repression of a popular uprising, when we watch as your good allies, the Saudis--move their forces into Bahrain to quash a popular uprising in that country (where U.S. warships are permanently based.)?
-Or, Mr. President, do you have anything concrete to say about plans for U.N. intervention  in Yemen, where more than 50 demonstrators were shot down in cold blood, by snipers dressed as civilians, but apparently carrying military I.D.? 
-Or, President Sarkozy, does your declaration mean that France is now going to move militarily in your former colony, the Cote D’Ivoire, where your foreign minister has just condemned “a deliberate massacre of civilians” by the forces of President Laurent Gbagbo, the after another bombardment  killed almost thirty in Abidjan.  Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power after losing an election has resulted in the deaths of thousands. So , Mr. President??

-And, while we’re at it, Mr. President, what should the U.N. or your allies do if the people of Zimbabwe rise up?  Or the folks in Shanghai?
Our leaders’ dilemma is made much worse by technology.
There was a time, before the Internet and mobile phones, before satellites, and  24/7 television, when events took time—sometimes weeks or months--to unfold, When negotiations—say, between rebels in America and the British Crown, transpired with the stately speed of a sailing ship, when word of massacres and revolts could be written off as rumor, repressed for months or be buried for ever.
No longer.
Now events move at the speed of the Internet.  Once isolated villages in Tunisia and Yemen and the Northeastern coast of Japan are all part of the global village. Billions across the planet can both report and witness. Ambassadors become figures of ceremony, looking on with the rest of us as world leaders, who once had days or weeks to ponder their communications, now address each other directly, responding almost instantly—blustering, menacing--with no time for thought or reflection.  Bouncing off each other like billiard balls.
The result also is that the duplicity that underlies what we call “affairs of state,” --the  hypocrisy and cynicism that used to be veiled by vague declarations, by time and distance—that deception becomes ever more blatant.
Such as the Orwellian exchange recently on Al Jazzeera English--when a representative of the Iranian government excoriated a Saudi official for using its army to repress the popular democratic uprising in Bahrain. And the Iranian did it with a straight face, mind you.

On the other hand, the leaders of the United Arab Emirates have managed a bow to all sides:
They are participating in the Saudi-led repression in Bahrain. But their Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.H Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, also showed up today in Paris to announce UAE backing for the no-fly zone and the rescue of the democratic uprising in Libya.

Being an accomplished statesmen, I imagine the good sheikh made that statement with a straight face, as well.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Libya 2011-Iraq 1991

Rebels rise up to overthrow a bloody dictator and the world looks on as the revolt turns into a stand-off.  Libya in 2011 is a distant echo of Iraq in 1991, when Iraqi Shiites and Kurds erupted after U.S. forces defeated the Saddam’s military after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

That led to one of the more shameful episodes in America’s dealings with Iraq:  an American president calling for an uprising, then turning his back, leaving tens, possibly hundreds of thousands to be slaughtered. I recounted that sorry affair in a documentary about “The Trial of Saddam Hussein”,excerpted on Youtube. See part5 and part 6.

In fact, it was President George H.W. Bush who, in February 2001, as the Iraqi army was being driven from Kuwait, called on the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

That call was rebroadcast in Iraq by clandestine CIA radio stations and printed in millions of leaflets dropped by the U.S. Air Force across the country. Problem was, the Iraqis didn't realize until it was too late that Bush and James Baker, his pragmatic secretary of state, didn't really mean it.

When it looked as if the insurgents might actually succeed, the American president turned his back. The White House and its allies wanted Saddam replaced not by a popular revolt which they couldn't control but by a military leader more amenable to U.S. interests. They were also fearful that Iranian influence might spread in the wake of a Shiite takeover. In fact, however, American officials refused to meet with rebel leaders desperate to explain their cause.

Though Washington explained later explained they had turned against the uprising because key Arab allies in the region, like the Saudis, were fearful of a Shiite victory in Iraq, in fact, the U.S. later turned down a Saudi proposal to continue aiding the Shiites.

So, as the United States permitted Saddam's attack helicopters to devastate the rebels, American troops just a few kilometers away from the slaughter were ordered to give no aid to those under attack. Instead they destroyed huge stocks of captured weapons rather than let them fall into rebel hands. According to some of the former rebels in Iraq, American troops prevented them from marching on Baghdad.

Then, as Saddam's forces began carrying out the horrific acts of repression, American forces were ordered to withdraw from Iraq. And all the while George H.W. Bush answered calls for the U.S. to act with denials that the U.S. had any responsibility in fomenting the rebellion in the first place.

In the end he agreed to provide a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds in the North, but that was only because the plight of the Kurdish refugees was being dramatically broadcast around the globe by CNN. Bush had no choice. There was no such TV coverage of the slaughter of the Shiites in the South. So no need for Bush to react.

(The description of the U.S. role in the 1991 uprising is recounted at length in my book Web of Deceit-a History of Western Complicity in Iraq from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush--and (as mentioned above) in video form, from a segment of a documentary I did on the Trial of Saddam Hussein, which is posted on Youtube )