October 27, 2011
The following column appeared in the Easy Reader on March 31, shortly after NATO forces began their air campaign over Libya. I reprint it here to remind you of my early take on the situation in Libya; next week, I'll offer an update.
On the cover of The New Yorker magazine for March 14, a drawing by Barry Blitt depicts Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, as a scarecrow, dressed in military finery, stuffed with straw, and mounted on a stick, with a desert landscape below. Flying around the scarecrow is a flock of white doves, several of them pulling tufts of straw protruding from its arms and head, another unraveling the braids on the uniform, gathering nesting material for spring.
The drawing is entitled, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
How quickly hawks snatch doves in flight, scattering their feathers in the wind.
Barely a month ago, as Blitt was pitching his idea to The New Yorker's editors, it seemed to much of the watching world that the near-miracle of peaceful revolution wrought in Tunisia and Egypt would replicate itself in Libya. Mass protests calling for Qaddafi's resignation were met with a waffling similar to that of those aged dictators to his east and west: a show of force followed by the promise of concessions. Qaddafi's brutal crackdown against the demonstrators in mid-February shocked even his own government, with two of his air force pilots flying their French-built Mirage jets to asylum in Malta and several of his ambassadors and diplomatic staff resigning their posts.
A few more days of demonstration might have toppled the regime. But for reasons as yet unclear, the center of nonviolent opposition did not hold. Disaffected military personnel seized arms and munitions in outlying regions and persuaded some of the citizens to join them in battle. Quick as that, protesters had become rebels; civil resistance had become civil war.
Thus allowed to play the game the way he liked it, Qaddafi set about smashing the revolt with attacks from air and ground — and almost immediately drew much of Europe into the vortex of violence. This crazy-as-a-fox colonel had been pushing the buttons of the West for 40 years, now threatening, now cozying up, back and forth — first a Communist and then an anti- Communist, first a terrorist and then an anti-terrorist. Having blown up the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and then having initiated a chemical and nuclear weapons program, he turned right around and apologized, proffering reparations to the Lockerbie survivors and dismantling his WMD's, hoodwinking none other than George W. Bush in 2004 to rescind Libya's terrorist status, thus clearing the path for multi-billion-dollar arms deals with France, Italy, Germany, and Russia, among others. It is those very weapons, so readily supplied to a country lacking a single external threat, that he's now using against the rebels, and that the U.S. and NATO are now firing their missiles at to take out.
So here we go again.
Another megalomaniac Little Caesar twirling the great powers around his finger. Another internal conflict inflated into an international one. Another military intervention in the name of protecting civilians with so-called "pinpoint bombing" that inevitably results in the death of civilians they are bombing to protect. Another commitment to topple — or not to topple, can't get quite clear on that one yet — the dictator with only the vaguest knowledge of who will take his place. Another rejection of Colin Powell's doctrine that every entrance strategy must have an exit strategy.
And thus far, despite it all, the latest Little Caesar remains, laughing at the world while his country goes up in smoke.
How can this be, and so soon, too, with Iraq so fresh in the mind?
President Obama's defense of military action in Libya, outlined in his address to the nation on Monday, is based on would-have's and could-have's: "We knew if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. ... A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders .... The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship .... A failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America."
Preemptive war is a war of would-have's.
But since we're speculating, there is another set of would- have's to consider: What would have happened had the Libyan resistance remained nonviolent? What would have happened had the militants been left without external assistance? Would those democratic impulses dawning across the region have been strengthened or diminished had the "international community" opted against force?
Oh yes, and one could-it-be: Could it yet be that in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and even Palestine, those things with feathers will continue to pick at their respective scarecrows?