Friday, April 01, 2011

The most important fact about Libya is not in Libya

I'm tired and have been struggling with a bad case of writer's block so I won't be surprised if on reviewing this tomorrow I find typos and garbled sentences. Don't you be, either.

Our war in Libya is now about two weeks old and the main thing that has come out of it so far is the conviction that Barack Obama, recently dubbed here as PHC, should henceforth be known as GHC - that is, instead of as President Hopey-Changey, as Generalissimo Hopey-Changey. He has apparently decided that the US military is his to use in any way he sees fit, any time he thinks appropriate, anywhere in the world he in his own personal, not-to-be-judged opinion thinks merited.

He has by both his actions and his words argued that he can send US military forces into combat - and don't give me any crap about "surgical strikes" or any of the rest of that bull; when you send your air force against people who can shoot back, that is combat - without even the pretense that there was a threat to the US, without even bothering to make a claim about about some danger to even a single US citizen. There was nothing - nothing except a reference to some vague, amorphous, overall "foreign policy interests." Foreign policy interests, that is, as he defines them.

He sought no approval from Congress; he did not even engage in the wimpy and meaningless charade of "consultation" - even though most of those who have commented on it have said they think that if he had asked for approval, he would have gotten it. So why not get it? Because he just goddamn didn't think it was necessary and wanted to make the point that it was not necessary. Asking for approval would imply Congress has a role in when and where the US military is to be employed - and that it precisely what he wanted to deny. "It's my air force and it'll go wherever and do whatever I want it to and I don't need your stinkin' approval. Bombs away."

Even Shrub didn't go that far: He at least claimed "getting the 9/11 attackers" as justification for his war on Afghanistan and some "imminent" (and yes, they did use that word at least twice) danger as justification for his war on Iraq. He at least went through the motions of Congressional authorization for attacking Afghanistan - which he then stretched beyond rationality to justify invading Iraq, but he at least pretended to have authorization. Not here, not any more. We have gone from a Constitutional principle that while the president, as the commander-in-chief, has ultimate authority over how military forces are deployed, Congress decides if and when they are deployed; to one where the president can respond to an immediate attack or threat before getting Congressional authorization; now to this Obama Doctrine where an attack or threat is no longer required and the whole idea of Congressional approval becomes a gray fog of "maybe at some point if it's not inconvenient for me."

You think that's overstated? It's not: During a classified briefing for members of the House on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton said the administration would simply ignore any moves by Congress to exercise its Constitutional powers. In the words of Rep. Brad Sherman,
She said they are certainly willing to send reports [to us] and if they issue a press release, they'll send that to us too.
In other words, "'Shut up,' she explained."

Barack Obama, the supposed Constitutional scholar, has shit on the Constitution and disgraced himself, the office of the presidency, and the best principles of the nation. And instead of the condemnation such arrogance, such centralization of power, deserves, it has in too many cases been ignored, downplayed, or worst cheered by people who damn well should know better but are just so happy to have a "liberal" war president ("We're not weak! We're not weak!") that they lose - or rather willingly abandon - the capacity for rational thought.

When George Bush raised the notion of "preemptive war," a policy of, as it was described, attacking real or imagined enemies before they became serious threats and so supposedly preventing such threats from arising, it was quite properly met with a chorus of condemnation from the left. But not this time. Not when PHC - excuse me, GHC - is in charge. Rather, a distressingly, depressingly, large number of ostensibly liberal or left voices have instead been a hallelujah chorus: "He's gone to the UN! He's working with NATO! That is just so totally different from Bush that it's just, just awesome! Thank you, sir, may I have another?"

Admittedly, a few of those heads have begun to clear: For one example, Rachel Maddow, who at the start of this was so awestruck by GHC's awesome awesomeness that his butt must have been wet for a week from the kissing she gave it, has lately been expressing a more hesitant tone of "Okay, now what - we got into this, how do we get out?"

Such doubts, while late, are welcome and certainly richly deserved. This war was founded (as most wars are) on platitudes and lies, so much so that even the flacks and hacks already can't make a good show of conviction in claiming it's all about "protecting civilians" like we were told at the start; indeed, it would be hard to find anyone who still makes that claim in more than the most perfunctory way. While that loss of conviction in original claims is also true of most wars, the fact that in this case it has become so obvious so quickly marks it as something special even in those blood-stained annals.

So yes, at first it was all about "protecting civilians," or so we were repeatedly told. That, it was said, required a "no-fly zone" over the eastern part of Libya which almost literally with the next breath became a no-fly zone over the whole country. The cruise missiles started flying even as the target list was being expanded from no-fly to no-planes as Libyan jets were destroyed as they sat on the ground. Then the excuse became to save Benghazi from a "massacre," the evidence for which consisted largely of blatant assertion but which was used to justify attacking Qaddafi's ground forces and his compound in Tripoli, the connection of the latter with the claimed mission going unexplained. Meanwhile, the area where "civilians need our protection" seemed to move west and east along with the rebels' advances and retreats: By last weekend the US had deployed AC-130 gunships and A-10 attack aircraft, which are designed for close air support, not for enforcing a "no-fly zone."

And now the idea of arming the rebels is being openly discussed (Obama: “I’m not ruling it out. But I’m also not ruling it in.") as it's revealed that CIA agents are and have been for some time on the ground in Libya, making contacts with the rebels and obtaining intelligence to coordinate air strikes.

Combined with the clear desire of Western (and some Arab) nations that this ultimately leads to Qaddafi being gone, all of it bears less the marks of humanitarian protection of non-combatants and more the marks of choosing sides in a civil war.

But that, despite what it means for GHC's power-grab, comes as a thrill to some, such as, for one prominent media example, Ed Schultz, whose giggling delight at seeing Libya bombed (something he has desired ever since PanAm 103 went down over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988) has become an embarrassment to at least some of us who have enjoyed his strong and long-standing pro-union, pro-worker opinions. He won't even accept calling the rebels "rebels." Oh no, he insists, they are "freedom fighters." Admittedly, part of that is him taking enjoyment in throwing the right wing's slogans back at them, but part is clearly a conviction born of his hatred of Qaddafi for having "killed Americans" (as if there were no non-Americans killed on that flight) that has lead him to the, if you will, faith-based conclusion that any opposition to Qaddafi is by definition "pro-freedom." It's a great example of truthiness, the quality of something being "true" simply because you want it to be.

But there are serious reasons to question that belief, a belief that runs far ahead of the facts. One of the purposes of those CIA agents is to gather information on the identity and goals of the rebels because Western nations don't actually know a lot about them. Der Spiegel (Germany) asked the question directly:
For the international community, the intervention is[, or at least is presented as being,] about defending the fundamental values of freedom, human rights and self-determination. But the question is: Are all those who have a say in Benghazi just as interested in freedom, human rights and self-determination?
(The phrase in brackets is my addition.)

The available answers are not encouraging.

The BBC (UK) presents some of the leading figures in the rebel council as a mix of people with real human rights credibility and former members of Qaddafi's government, who may well be more interested in jockeying for power after Qaddafi goes down or Libya breaks in two. For example, two men it cites as being seen by many as possible leaders of the rebel army and perhaps of a divided Libya are Abdul Fatah Younis, Qaddafi's former interior minister and Khalifa Haftar, who had been head of the armed forces.

While Haftar broke with Qaddafi over 20 years ago, Younis had been in charge of Libya's special forces for the past 41 years. He had served Qaddafi ever since the 1969 coup that brought the dictator to power. Now he claims to be all-out for democracy. When asked what kind of democracy, he says, vaguely and basically irrelevantly to the question,
I dream of a genuine democracy in which we Libyans can lead a five-star life,
a democracy he quite weirdly says can be easily established precisely because, as Der Spiegel notes,
Libya is a political no man's land. There are no parties or unions, and the highest form of political organization are soccer clubs. The only thing this country can draw on is the ruling elite in the leadership circle surrounding Gadhafi and his children,
a ruling elite in which Younis was a central figure for more than four decades. (So maybe his notions about democracy are not so weird after all.) On the broader front,
after six weeks of revolution, the tone is no longer being set by the youths, lawyers and professors that were there at the beginning, but also an increasing number of defectors from the old regime. Most of these men, in their ironed shirts and ties, were ministers, ambassadors, military officers or businessmen, and many of them had ties to Saif al-Islam, one of Gadhafi's sons. They all had good lives under the Gadhafi regime, and now that want to salvage what's left. Since the air strikes began, it's been clear that the end is coming for Gadhafi. So they are pushing their way to the forefront. ...

[A] quasi-president and quasi-prime minister are in place, both jockeying for position. The new prime minister is Mahmoud Jibril, whose job it is to lead the new government that may or may not exist. ... The other man, the one people call "our new president" is Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, chairman of the National Council.

The one thing that unites these two men is that both were long-time supporters of the regime -- Jibril as an economic functionary and Abdel-Jalil as justice minister. ...

The sentences [Abdel-Jalil] speaks could have been lifted directly from a Soviet revolutionary handbook. "The National Council is legitimized by the local committees made up of revolutionaries in the liberated cities and villages," he declares.
That is, the rebel government is legitimate because it is supported by the rebels who support the rebel government. In light of that logic, I suppose this next bit wasn't surprising:
Asked when elections will be held, the president replies, "We're not concerned with these details."
Meanwhile, reports of rebels in Benghazi making mass arrests as armed gangs of young men roam the streets at night looking for suspected collaborators, of mistreatment of those taken prisoner, and of killings of regime supporters have been circulating for more than a week. (Sidebar: Are we now going to bomb the rebels to protect those non-combatants? Or does the protection only apply to those we endorse? Foolish question, I know.) The city is reported to be "descending into mistrust and fear" with people afraid to say anything either for or against the rebels or the Qaddafi regime, afraid to go out at night, afraid even to give out their telephone number. There are claims of death squads on both sides.
Benghazi's central hospital admits five, sometimes 10, patients each day with gunshot wounds. Two pick-up trucks outfitted with machine guns guard the hospital entrance and photos of missing people adorn the walls.
I have to say that if none of this sets off all kinds of alarm bells for you, if for you this adds up to "freedom fighters," then your definition of "freedom" is a hell of a lot different from mine.

If the bills still aren't ringing, consider the closing words of Der Spiegel's article:
The rebels' mood, exuberant and lighthearted in the beginning, has shifted. Their rhetoric is becoming increasingly tense and they dismiss any criticism as propaganda. One former air force commander -- now "spokesman for the revolutionary armed forces" -- says, "anyone who fights against our revolutionary army is fighting against the people and will be treated accordingly."

Another man [identified by the Los Angeles Times as Abdelhafed Ghoga], also a member of the National Council, talks about "enemies of the revolution" and declares that anyone who doesn't join the rebel side will get a taste of revolutionary justice: "We know where they are and we will find them."

These are the same threats, word for word, that Gadhafi uses to scare his opponents.
None of this, of course, means that Qaddafi doesn't deserve to be booted out and spend the rest of his miserable life in one of the dank, urine-stink cells in which so many of his opponents languished and died. Nor does it mean that the rebels will not force him out, although without a major Western military involvement, that possibility seems remote. But it does mean two things: One, talk of "freedom fighters," particularly of "freedom fighters" who should be armed by the US (or by France, which is by all accounts the NATO nation most willing to do just that) when so little about the rebels is known and what is known is so disturbing, is not only ignorant and foolish, it is downright frelling stupid.

And two, for us here at home the biggest legacy of this war will be the further erosion of Congressional Constitutional authority and the continued centralization of military authority in the hands of one person, the president. Another line will have been crossed. GHC insists that this war has not established some kind of "Obama Doctrine" to be applied "in cookie-cutter fashion" (as if such doctrines ever are) but what can't be denied is that this now stands as a precedent, one he or some future president can call on whenever they think it useful, one under which the president on their personal authority can order US forces into combat on whatever pretext or for whatever purpose, for however long, deemed to be in line with their foreign policy. Not only is no "imminent" threat required, there need be no threat at all - and Congress not only need not give approval either before or after the fact but can and should be ignored completely.

And if that notion, if the continuing move in that direction that this represents and establishes, does not disturb you, then not only is your understanding of freedom quite different from mine, your understanding of democracy and the nature of a free republic is as well.

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