Thursday, 31 March 2011


Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of the Libyan intervention, it is at least minimally reassuring to think that adults are in charge of it. Try reading through the comments of the leading Republican spokespeople without falling off your barstool doubled up with laughter. We can now observe, with something between amusement and terror, what the relentless pandering to resentful, mean-spirited ignorance has produced: an aggrieved electorate demanding that the world conform to what Sarah Palin says it is, or else.

Michelle Bachmann 1: ‘We don’t know if this is led by Hamas, Hezbollah, or possibly al Qaeda of North Africa’. Or possibly the ACLU.

Michelle Bachmann 2: ‘President Obama is taking sides with Palestine over Israel’. (?!)

McCain: Working with allies and partners is a ‘luxury’. ‘There are times when we have to act alone’. Great idea, has worked out well for the United States in recent years.

Newt Gingrich: Establish the no-fly zone. Do not establish the no-fly zone. Attack. Do not attack. Make me president as I am always right even when contradicting myself.

Sarah Palin 1: ‘If we are merely taking a back seat to the Arab League, to the United Nations, to NATO leadership, while we just put our fingers up in the air and decide what the political winds are around the world’.

Sarah Palin 2: ‘Not necessarily knowing and believing that the U.S. interests must come first in this’. Good thing the constitution doesn’t require a president be capable of pronouncing complete sentences.

It’s one thing to drum up absurd fantasies for use in domestic politics. It’s quite another to carry those fantasies into the dangerous realm of international affairs and war as was amply demonstrated by Bush II’s criminal—and failed—attempt to conquer Iraq.

Palin is only the most egregious example of throwing any and everything at the base that sounds combative and undermines Obama even—especially—when she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. That no longer matters, and years of encouraging wacko non-issues like Obama’s birthplace has planted deep seeds of mass dementia in the body politic.

Bipeds who cry and stamp their feet when the external world does not conform to their desires and demands are called little babies. They are cute even when turning purple.

They should not be given responsibilities or allowed to play with matches.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Down with government regulation!

I don’t understand why the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives didn’t wait a few weeks to change the name of the Committee on Education and Labor to the Committee on Education and the Workforce [which they actually did--no joke]. After all, wouldn’t it have been a fitting tribute to the 147 members of the ‘workforce’ who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire [above] exactly 100 years ago today?

I guess the idea that members of the ‘workforce’ actually form part of a social sector called ‘labor’ is anathema to the Tea Party-inspired team, along with anything called ‘regulation’. Just two weeks ago we in New York saw a good example of what our world would look like if all those nasty, government-run regulatory bodies just went away once and for all. Something like this:
That’s the scene of a casino-bound tour bus that jackknifed into a signpost and was cut in two on March 11, killing 14. The investigation continues, but some witnesses said the driver was falling asleep. One survivor described the scene this way: ‘People were decapitated. You couldn’t make a horror film that was nearly this bad’.

After the deadly incident, New York State inspectors set out to spot check the vehicles that ply the highways around our city, many of them very cheap, seat-of-the-pants operations that suggest what life is like in China where the rules are basically whatever the powerful cliques say they are that day.

The Transportation Department’s inspectors stopped 14 buses in their random review, and took every one of them out of service for safety violations. Our Tea Party friends would undoubtedly prefer to ride in buses not subjected to this sort of intrusive, Big Government, Obama-inspired Nazi-Fascism. As long as they’re well equipped with Glock sidearms and an assault rifle or two, why would bus riders need any old damn gubmint snoopers around?

It’s been 100 years since those 147 sweatshop seamstresses perished because they couldn’t escape the flames. That crystallized for many the idea that workplaces (where the ‘workforce’ works) might need some rules governing safety and health. Those rules might even need someone empowered to enforce them, and that would be the job of, um, say, like, the government?

But now that the government is the big enemy of Virtue (along with teachers and civil servants), we can look forward to a time when buses will go careening off the road any old time of day, and no one will be able to do jack shit about it. What a wonderful, constitutionally-pure time that will be!

Monday, 21 March 2011

Will wackiness win out or self-destruct?

Two events occurred last week—a congressional committee vote and dispatch of a letter—that raise the question of whether the biped colony centered in North America is stampeding toward Buffalo Jump or has merely allowed its most infirm and disoriented members to satisfy their desire to graze on locoweed. Snotty contempt aside, you have to wonder how far the nutjobs will go before the reality-based community starts to have second thoughts.

First, all Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee—that is, every single, last mother’s son of ‘em—voted against an amendment recognizing the existence of global warming. Not to do anything about it, mind you, just that it is. Rejected unanimously. As the Scientific American’s John Rennie quipped, the action recalls the grand lawmaking tradition of the Indiana state legislature’s 1897 vote to redefine the value of pi.

It’s marvelous that our empowered freshman class of Republican zealots have discovered what to do about annoying aspects of our physical universe: you simply prohibit them. Democrat Edward Markey, using traditional congressional debate language, said that he planned to ‘rise in opposition’ to the bill but would not do so because he feared ‘Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating’.

Meanwhile, the Florida delegation to that same august body distinguished itself in an entirely different way, and this time it was a bipartisan show of bloody-mindedness with a strong whiff of old-fashioned corruption. It seems that the IRS is proposing new regulations for bank accounts in the United States that would require greater transparency, exactly as we are demanding from the notoriously opaque Swiss.

Despite our resentment at Switzerland, almost all foreigners can bank secretly in the United States today and evade taxes due to their home governments. The new regs would force them to pay what they owe instead of stashing their dubious lucre here scot-free. Sounds like a no-brainer, but our Florida solons objected in a letter to Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner:

Because of the privacy laws of the United States’, they wrote, ‘nonresident aliens are estimated to have deposited over $3 trillion in U.S. financial institutions’. This has occurred, the letter continues, because the United States has ‘refrained from taxing the interest earned by them or requiring their reporting’.

Think about it—we are sitting on huge piles of money that got here from who knows where, but no one should ask too many questions about its provenance or (heaven forbid) tax the interest because otherwise, it will leave! Three guesses where this Mount Everest of cash is sitting and who owns most of it? Well, lo and behold, it’s Latin Americans who have deposited their hoards in. . . Florida, of all places. What a coincidence! I’m also confident that the entire $3 trillion was legitimately earned through legal business endeavors. But I digress.

Nicholas Shaxson, author of the book Treasure Islands on offshore tax haven scams, estimates that this Fort Knox of secret dough would generate twice the total U.S. foreign development assistance budget if proper taxes were paid on it. The IRS went after UBS bank and the Swiss for hiding North Americans’ secret stashes just as the Florida banks are hiding the South Americans’, but by contrast Mexico and Peru have no clout and have to lump it.

As mentioned above, the Florida delegation is comprised of members from both parties, and every single one of them signed on to the whiny letter to Geithner asking for the IRS regulation to be strangled in its crib. So there we have it: outlaw global warming and facilitate secret Swiss-style bank accounts in Pompano Beach for Latin American billionaires. Now there’s a forward-looking program.

Have things always been this venal and backward? Has unbridled selfishness always ruled the land? Perhaps, but Greed now seems out of its golden closet and covered in rhinestones. It is as if our rulers sneer at the idea of requiring, or even asking for, our consent.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


Lawlessness and lawfulness lie at the heart of the rebellion in the Arab world. Aside from the many economic and structural issues spurring people to revolt, it’s amazing to witness how often the cries that go up from the crowds that gather to risk their lives include ‘Freedom!’ along with ‘Allahu akbar’. We need the insights of literature to fully understand how the police states of the Middle East have sapped the life out of whole generations and how Arab youth aren’t willing to submit to them the way their parents did.

The Egyptian revolution began when two policeman—who are famously petty thieves and extortionists in Egypt—beat a young fellow to death in his cybercafé because he refused to pay them a bribe. So not only did people have to fear the usual horrors if they dared to act politically, neither could they escape brutality and harassment in their search for everyday survival.

Now watch this video about a completely unconnected topic:

Economics blogs have been banging away at this issue ever since the housing market turned south. I could not competently recapitulate the technical details, but suffice it to say that the situation they describe is not merely bad behavior by a bank here or there. It is the complete meltdown of the rule of law. People forced to deal with the mortgage industry are now at the mercy of financial behemoths that are not only Too Big To Fail but also completely unbound by their own contractual obligations.

Because the securitization of mortgage loans exploded into a mass grab for the quick cash, the all-important chain of title was mishandled fatally and cannot be repaired. That means that hundreds of thousands of homes were bought from parties that did not have the right to sell them and further that many, many foreclosed properties now coming onto the market in an accelerating flood will never have undisputed title histories and in some states already cannot obtain title insurance for new owners.

This is not about accidentally buying a stolen car from someone in a parking lot that turns out to have phony papers. Rather, it goes to the heart of our capitalist economy and the safeguards that are supposed to establish the ownership of property and the fulfillment of contracts. A solution is unlikely even if Obama were not entirely obedient to the banks and showed any inclination to make them swallow the losses that would be required to fix what they broke. Which, needless to say, he does not.

The rule of law is not a pretty abstraction that only Egyptians have to worry about. It is the basis of our freedom too, and it’s no wonder that a society that could blithely endorse the permanent imprisonment of people neither charged with nor convicted of any crime is now facing the destruction of its own right to be protected by a set of rules that everyone—even Goldman Sachs—must obey. In coming years I believe we will see more and more examples of business affairs experiencing a paradigm shift in which well-connected mafiosi play by one set of rules, and the rest of us get another, i.e., a system that Hosni Mubarak’s accountants would have gazed upon with placid contentment. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


What changed in the last few days or even hours to make military action against Qaddafy not only feasible but the right thing to do? Making war against a sovereign state should not be embarked upon lightly, especially when the purported enemy poses no threat to its neighbors. (We’ve seen plenty of misuse of the ‘humanitarian’ intervention trope lately.) But the unfolding catastrophe did merit a response, and no one can fail to heave a sigh of relief that the Libyan people now stand a chance of escaping the despot’s wrath.

Qaddafy’s rapid success in crushing the rebellion against him despite the desertion of substantial numbers of officers and troops meant those who rose up against his tyranny were undeniably exposed to the massacre he openly threatened to carry out. The reversal of fortunes was surprising. Maybe his tactic of murdering troops who refused to fire on civilians was sufficient to get those remaining to obey, or maybe Qaddafy always had a degree of genuine support from his generals especially as they saw the army splintering and their command structure on the verge of collapse.

Next—and probably decisive for Europe and the United States—Qaddafy’s loony-tunes defiance finally went too far. His deputy foreign minister made the fatal goof of threatening to retaliate for any attack by targeting air and naval traffic in the Mediterranean, and given the regime’s obvious indifference to civilian life, that is not a state of affairs that NATO can tolerate.

Finally, the Arab League and the more conservative U.S. allies among them gave the operation cover by endorsing the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. It was an extremely rare move followed by the decision of Russia and China to stand aside and permit the UN Security Council to authorize the intervention. Legally and practically, the decision to halt Qaddafy’s reign of terror is a far cry from W’s solo cowboy act in Iraq.

That’s the political side in which states look out for their interests, and I don’t have illusions about the relative weight of the well-being of the Libyan people in the decision-making processes of Sarkozy and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the human side offers ample motive to endorse the intervention as well as we see the nefarious impact of the Qaddafy strategy on the movement for democracy around the Arab world.

On the same day as the UNSC decision and the arrival of French jets over Libya, the Yemeni regime mowed down civilian protesters in the streets of that capital, and the Sheikh of Bahrain set loose the police once again to crush that popular movement. In my view, these despots took a leaf from Qaddafy’s book (albeit not the Green one) and apparently decided that Mubarak lost because he didn’t go far enough in putting his own people to the sword.

The distraction of the Libyan drama has permitted Obama and his team to avoid acknowledging these uncomfortable parallels with Qaddafy’s brutality, which would be much more difficult to condemn given that the Yemeni dictator is a key ally in the great war on terror and has cooperated with ongoing drone attacks in his territory against alleged al-Qaeda-like figures. It is more than a little disturbing as well to note that dozens of civilians were killed in Pakistan in a disputed attack occurring on the same day. One does not ask for consistency from governments, but it is rather rich that Qaddafy is not to harm civilians and can be set upon by NATO for doing so, but meanwhile NATO permits itself to do the same halfway around the world.

If the Libyan war drags on for any length of time, these contradictions will resurface with painful clarity, and Qaddafy will make hay out of them as resistance to ‘western colonialists’. Hugo Chávez will have plenty to say, too. This Guardian commentator has issued a cogent warning about possible unintended consequences of the intervention, for example, how the enthusiastic ‘Arab street’ eager for freedom might suddenly get cold feet if they see their efforts leading straight to foreign intervention. If the U.S. had not accumulated such a miserable record in the region to date, these worries would be far less.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

We the people

Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis and Yemenis clamor for democracy and pour into the streets risking their lives to obtain it. We, on the other hand, who presume to enjoy its fruits already have ample reason to inquire what it is exactly. It’s hard to see nowadays what the rule of the governed in our country is precisely comprised of given the subtle but relentless crushing of political expressions not in conformity with our rulers’ long-term intentions and plans.

Take, for example, the presidency of Barack Obama. He awakened a surprising movement three years ago of people sick of George W. Bush and appalled by the carnage in Iraq and the systematic jettisoning of our core values, like the rule of law and basic human rights. Those not particularly exercised by foreign debacles were shocked and disgusted by the incompetence shown after Katrina, the wholesale delivery of the family farm into the hands of Bush’s rich friends via crippling tax cuts and finally the banking collapse. We mobilized, canvassed, donated, paid attention, believed, voted and celebrated.

So what did our democratic exercise bring about? Endless war in Afghanistan that no one takes seriously but that the Pentagon refuses to give up. Extension of the Bush tax cuts. Equally incompetent handling of disaster of the Gulf oil spill. The biggest banks writing checks to themselves on our account, enabled by Obama’s ex- and future-banker advisors. Continued backhanded endorsement of the crimes of Guantánamo, ongoing snooping into our private lives, and the appalling torture of an American citizen not convicted of any crime, now personally and publicly endorsed by the cool new president. A health insurance reform so whittled down and compromised by its proponents and so effectively blasted and undermined by its enemies that even its good provisions may end up being Pyrrhic victories. And perhaps worst of all, an utter failure to join battle with the reactionary forces building all around us that anyone not part of the Beltway circuit can see.

In December there were reports that Obama’s re-election plan is to ‘persuade hardcore liberals to swallow their anger’. Really inspiring, dude! Of course, only a ‘hardcore liberal’ could be so rigidly zealous as to want pointless wars and the transfer of our national wealth to the Koch brothers to end.

The Republicans, by contrast, are so terrified of their ‘hardcore’ base that Mormon old-timers like Orrin Hatch are frantically kneeling at the Tea Party tents trying to figure out what kinds of crazy shit have to be offered to the fringe elements lapping up Glenn Beck’s conspiracy theories to keep them from further revolt. But Obama’s disappointed troops are to be firmly ruler-thwacked back into line and reminded, YOU HAVE NO ALTERNATIVE TO US. Although the activist base will mostly buckle and conform, the hordes of newly politicized youth will be totally elsewhere and are probably lost to political action for a generation.

If we think we have it bad, consider the poor liberal-minded Brits: after having their stomachs churned for a decade by the unctuous creep who birthed New Labour, they turn to the Liberal Democrats as an alternative only to be rewarded with a Tory lapdog carrying out an insane austerity program in the midst of mass unemployment and signing off on huge bonuses to failed executives at virtually state-owned banks. So where exactly on the ballot is a guy to put his ‘X’ to indicate ‘I dissent’??

The contrast between the fervor and determination of Arab democrats voting with their feet to face down tyranny and our credulous acceptance of the constrained terms of our democratic structures is striking. Being skeptical of all two-legged creatures and their doings, I am inclined to look not at the failings of a particular class of bipeds but at the less visible forces that might be at work.

The steady elimination of anything resembling a liberal alternative in our western societies seems to be indicative of a consensus among the ruling elites that they simply no longer need a vibrant and prosperous middle class of its post-war dimensions. The America we old-timers grew up in with most people doing fairly well and most people’s children doing even better isn’t required for the late capitalist system to thrive—as demonstrated ably in once-peripheral countries like Chile, Indonesia and China. These societies, it occurs to me, are likely to be the wave of the future: hierarchical, fairly closed systems, sometimes autocratic, sometimes less so, where the masses are permitted to survive, but the real benefits accrue only to the top 10 or 20 percent.

That would explain why we have witnessed the steady marginalization of unionism and now the latest round of attacks on public workers as the last bastion of workers’ collective strength. Why tax and spending policies shift more and more of national income into the pockets of the wealthiest and why both Democrats and Republicans rush to do the bidding of the mammoth financial entities sitting at the pinnacle of the pyramid. Why the next big enemy of the nation’s future is the bad old Social Security system that Obama and the Republicans agree is somehow broken and needs to be ‘fixed’.

The Egyptian revolution showed how unstable these unjust, stacked systems can be in the long run. But in a given lifetime it’s quite feasible to bully and terrorize and marginalize people even if they once thought they had a right to a decent life, security, public services and basic comforts. As George Carlin said about how we’re being forced into accepting our fate as outsiders pressing our runny noses up against the window of real life: ‘It’s a big club, and you’re not in it!’

Monday, 14 March 2011

Suspense and slaughter

The prospect of a massacre in Libya by a vengeful Qaddafy is so disturbing as to make commentary on the subject at least superfluous and perhaps slightly obscene. But our usual parochial topics shrivel in the face of this drama and carnage.

If we like, we can suppose that our clamor to respond in thus and such a way will have an impact, however negligible, on the actions of states, including our own. I am less sanguine than many in this respect to judge from the debates raging throughout the Internet and conclude that the proposed no-fly zone or some other action to stave off this outcome will either occur, or not, as the bosses determine.

Perhaps I am fatally skeptical and jaded, but I find it impossible to believe that anyone among the Camerons and Obamas and Sarkozys will act out of concern for the well-being of the Libyan populace. But Qaddafy is a long-time enemy even if the Libyan oilfields recently caused many among today’s hosanna-chorus for the revolutionaries to allow themselves to be seduced in the Colonel’s desert tents.

Would similar protestations of outrage and concern be emanating from western capitals if it were the Saudi royal family engaged in a bloody fight to the finish instead of the Qaddafy tribe, even if half the peninsula’s population were to be sacrificed? Just today, Saudi troops rolled across the causeway to aid the Bahraini monarch to suppress his internal revolt, and if the choice comes down to democracy or loss of key allies in the Gulf, I suspect we will be hearing a much more nuanced discourse on the use of force against civilians.

While it is now fairly clear that the military initiative has passed to the loyalist troops under Qaddafy’s command, I cling to the possibility that the apparent triumph of hardware and armor might not be the last word. The situation, while depressingly grim, remains volatile, and evidence abounds that there is more trembling awe of the Colonel in his own ranks than affection for his robe-swaddled person. Rebel sources say splits within loyalist troops mean that many remain loath to fire upon their fellow citizens to defend the Qaddafy family playboys. Successful resistance to the current onslaught by any of the towns or cities held by the opposition might put the entire civil war on a new footing.

But perhaps I indulge mere wishful thinking.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The agony of prudent restraint

It detracts nothing from the hair-raising accounts pouring out of Libya to say that the idea of overt foreign military intervention, even to end the slaughter, is unrealistic and unwise. I wish it were not so, but all the lists of possible actions by the United States and the Europeans that I have seen suggest that the correct course for them is not to transform the current civil conflict into a war between the existing Libyan government and the West. Instead, there are indirect options that make sense: humanitarian assistance, continued blockage of Qaddafy’s access to money and arms and, and possibly some turning of a blind eye to arms acquisition by the popular militias. As William Pfaff says on Truthdig:

‘The essence of the general Arab uprising is that it has been popular, authentic, spontaneous, democratic and (with respect to established international political and economic interests) disinterested. This has been its marvel and the source of its strength’. Any open role by the Western powers, says Pfaff, will only discredit all that and ‘could be a bloody blunder’.

Obama and the Americans generally would have a much greater margin of maneuver had the Bushite lunatics not blown U.S. credibility beyond repair with the Iraq conquest of 2003, not to mention decades of enabling of Israeli expansionism, theft and abuse of refugees. Dressing up the Iraq invasion as humanitarian intervention convinced no one but gullible voters at home, and the debacle unfolding since means Obama can never be seen as a neutral player.

Obama’s thoughtful Cairo speech in 2009 looks more and more astute in hindsight, and it’s a shame he didn’t stick to his guns but instead buckled to Republican pressure to drop the expressions of respect and the appeal to a fairer relationship with the Arab world. Given the decades of support for all the reactionary, kleptocratic regimes in the Arab world, including Washington’s ongoing marriage with the corrupt and reactionary Saudis (from whence sprang the 9/11 gang), there is no future in turning the Libyan uprising into yet another war between NATO and an Arab country, no matter how much people hate Qaddafy.

Meanwhile, Juan Cole reports that Tunisia has just dismantled its secret police, making that country freer than the United States in important aspects. There is no longer any NSA-like entity legally permitted to listen in to Tunisians’ telephone and Internet communications—a right we no longer have here at home—and we can look forward to Tunisia restoring the rule of law and legal protections for detainees just as Obama is pounding the last nail into that coffin here at home with his decision to make the crimes of Guantámano permanent.

That’s a good illustration of why although the Libyan drama is heartbreaking, the Arab world’s revolt against tyranny is their business, and they have to manage it for better or for worse. The United States has no moral and very little practical standing to try to turn its outcomes to western advantage and should take this opportunity to defend universal human rights as best it can by matching the statements emanating from the State Department with any measures to that end that circumstances allow, short of military action.

Pfaff advises that ‘western policy planners, military men and even humanitarian enthusiasts do well not to blunder into things they know nothing about’ and reminds his readers that W had to have someone explain to him the difference between Shiites and Sunnis as he gave the order to spend our retirement money on his vanity war. Or as the Hippocratic Oath commands, First, do no harm.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Is Qaddafy weaker than he appears?

As a group western commentators and reporters on the ground in Egypt repeatedly erred on the side of pessimism and excessive belief in the power of arms over spirit. If we were to look back at the coverage of the mass movement that overthrew Mubarak, there was a point just before the final push in which the herd wisdom nearly declared that the revolutionary surge was over, deflated by the overwhelming coercive power of the state. (The Columbia Journalism Review should commission a study.) Instead, and quite suddenly, the televised interview with the famous Egyptian Google employee galvanized the largest march to date into Tahrir Square, and a few days later the pharoah was dust.

Although the violence and carnage is far worse in Libya, I wonder if the reporters now declaring Qaddafy’s comeback almost complete are not making the same mistake. As Juan Cole pointed out this morning, retaking Zawiya on the outskirts of Tripoli should have been a snap for the Libyan loyalist army. Instead, it’s already taken three days and bogged down considerably.

While the U.S. and European states contemplate whether they should rush to the rescue—and this may indeed be required to prevent further genocide—it is not yet clear that Qaddafy’s terrified troops [such as those pictured above], shot at from the front and threatened with death from behind, can overcome the local resistance (the one that our papers insist on calling ‘ragtag’). Even eventual ‘success’ there may be more of a Pyrhhic than a real victory.

Reporters from fancy papers and important television networks aren’t accustomed to feeling the pulse of a nation or taking into account the power of an awakened populace ready to die for its freedom. They’re far more attuned to the thinking and plotting of people like themselves, heads of state and mighty bureaucrats and those who make a half-million dollars a year in elite jobs and think the world revolves around them, as it usually does. They may have excellent ‘sources’, but what is happening today in North Africa and the Arab world inevitably must escape their analytic and perceptive capacities because they are blinded by their long sojourn at the top. For this reason I reserve judgment on what events will occur next and do not believe every interpretation I read in the papers.

Monday, 7 March 2011

How to help

In a few weeks or months after the Libyan civil war is resolved, we may look back and marvel at the tenacious determination and sacrifice of that population. To see people so fed up and enraged that they are ready and willing to die is terrifying as well as inspiring, but words fail at the sight of a megalomaniac set on slaughtering all of them if need be to preserve his reign.

Even the other encouraging trends in the Middle East—the seizure of the secret police headquarters in Egypt, the demands for constitutional rule in Jordan and Bahrein, the ousting of hated satraps from the ancien régime in Tunisia—fail to distract from the potential for carnage in Libya. The idea of a no-fly zone such as the one imposed on Saddam for years is tempting and attractive given our sense of impotence and sympathy for a civilian population as vulnerable as the cities of Europe exposed to the Nazi war machine a century ago.

But the intervention in Iraq did not have a happy ending, to say the least, which raises the question of whether or not a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace would work. ‘Work’ in the sense of enabling the revolutionary forces to dispose of Qaddafy swiftly, restore order and rebuild the society, utilizing the country’s oil wealth for the people’s well-being instead of decadent parties with American pop stars.

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question, but I think it is worth raising given the stakes. Libyans are heroically inclined to fight and die for their freedom and their country’s future, and this provides a telling psychological advantage over the terrified and coerced troops of the dictator. How would this key element shift once American or European warplanes began bombing Libyan soil to eliminate Qaddafy’s air defense system? Would the madman of the desert’s hysterical railings against the ‘colonial’ powers acquire an echo of plausibility among his remaining loyalists?

War is a strange animal. It is fought with tanks and planes, hand grenades and ammunition belts. But it is fought by human beings, which makes the outcome more than a matter of materièl. I hope the world finds the right way to put the necessary tools in the hands of the people trying to end this nightmare and Qaddafy's crimes.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Stand clear

The Qaddafy family threatens to go ‘door to door’ to stamp out the revolutionary upsurge, presumably meaning to pull out those who dare to protest and slaughter them in the streets, and I’m old enough to remember a regime that did exactly that, but with the material and moral support of the good old U.S.A. I refer, of course, to the fascists in El Salvador, who crushed their revolution in the 1980s by, among other things, shooting down the Catholic archbishop of the capital while he said mass in the cathedral.

Some people were shocked, but not the assassin-enablers at the State Department whom I witnessed mobilize their propaganda resources to justify and spin the crimes of their allies. I especially remember one gruesome incident, in which two dozen civilians were literally dragged from their homes and shot in the streets, because I asked the State Department spokesman if that ‘would constitute a human rights violation’, which he could not concede because of the Reagan Administration’s decision to avoid that language. He then went off the record and blamed it all on the bad-guy Treasury police, rather than the good-guy regular cops and soldiers that the U.S. was training not to do those naughty things. The assembled scribes from the major papers dutifully took shorthand and regurgitated it that way.

The result was that my parents’ neighbors in Ohio largely accepted that the communist menace in Central America had to be crushed and that the Salvadoran union leaders, students and villagers all systematically dragged from their beds and murdered by the thousands was a small price to pay for our safety. Sort of like the official line on the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad of the mid-2000s.

It’s easy to be on the right side in Libya, but the loose talk of ‘no-fly zones’ and even military intervention to help the good people there throw off the yolk of oppression is disturbing. We don’t even have to look back 30 years—W’s debacle in Iraq and Obama’s in Afghanistan are adequate reminders that the western powers should be encouraged to keep their military resources to themselves as long as possible. While it is terrible to see the ongoing carnage in Libya, the steps taken so far to restrict access to money, encourage defections and threaten human rights prosecutions over further atrocities seem to me correct and prudent steps, at least for now.

By contrast, British Prime Minister Cameron’s team has looked amateurish in shooting from both hips. His foreign minister got egg on his face by repeating a vague rumor that Qaddafy was en route to Venezuela, and Cameron’s own eagerness to talk gunboats and warplanes was quickly scotched by a more cautious White House.

In any case, it’s not clear that either the British or the Americans have military resources to deploy for any length of time were they foolishly to get themselves engaged in actions of any complexity in the Mediterranean. The buzz has died down about the state of our troops, but a recent article in New York magazine about the high rates of clinical depression and PTSD in Iraq/Afghanistan veterans suggests a fighting force that will need a generation to recover.

For better or worse, it’s the Libyans who will have to find a way to neutralize their local madman willing to destroy his country in order to ‘save’ it. There seem to be ample military resources available to the democratic forces from those who switched sides, and more can be expected. It should be easy enough to find ways to assist them without turning the revolution into an excuse for more Pentagon adventurism in the desert.