Wednesday, March 16, 2011 68 Comments

Libya, the nadir achieved

This morning my stepfather - a former Hill staffer, National War College professor and author of several specialist historical monographs; an absolutely typical Washington insider - asked me what I thought "we" should do in Libya.

We? Do? As I replied, American foreign policy has found its nadir in every dimension. Is it moralizing, but unrealistic? Is it realistic, yet amoral? Neither! It is as unreal as it is immoral, as criminal as it is insane. "We had fed our heart on fantasies, / The heart's grown brutal on the fare." While the trope is anything but new, this spring its diabolical clarity burst out with a passion too bright to believe. Does the Devil shine? Is he passionate? He does, he is! Warning: ugly pictures ahead.

Nor is the sin merely that of the organs - State, the press, the NGOs. Oh, no! The sin is in our hearts. The nation itself stands at the bar. True, the organs are irresponsible. So was Hitler. Hitler was popular, however, and so are the organs. Hitler depended on his popularity; so do the organs. If we repented in our hearts, they wouldn't last a minute. Were the German people guilty? They were, and so are we.

These crimes are ours. These crimes are yours. These crimes are mine. Whatever I have done, whatever I have said, I have not succeeded; so these crimes are mine. And ours, and yours. Useless to deny it! Scroll down and cringe.

Through the organs - the press's eye, the tongue of State, even DoD's cold and useless fist - it is America herself, the Great Spectator, for whom all puppets dance and yell, kill and die. And not just America - for in 2011, America is bigger than America, not a continent but a planet. International public opinion! The international community! In 2011, anyone anywhere with any kind of education is an American. Race, color, language, citizenship - details, archaic details. Everyone on Twitter: American. The global hive mind is born, and born American.

Could the rough beast be here? In January, we saw our first Twitter revolution. In February, we got our first Twitter military coup. Now it's March, and we have our first Twitter civil war. Jack Dorsey in Vanity Fair:


"That dead young soldier in his blood:"


"We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare."

No clear fact to be discerned? We have that over Yeats: it's quite clear. At least, I think so. Let me explain.

The American, being human, being descended from a long line of chimpanzees and their still more foul hominid spawn, craves status, importance, meaning, in a word: power. But power is hard, oh so hard, to come by in his whip-broken, fixed and empty life of pleasant boredom. The solution? Oh, solution there is none, for power does not grow on trees. Power is here in America, as everywhere; power in America is locked up tight as Katrina van den Heuvel's ass. It's open to someone, perhaps, but not to him.

Still he can fantasize. He has an XBox, for one. On the screen he is general and king, mayor and priest, warrior and detective. But alas, it's all just triangles, and worse yet he knows it. Oh, for a real Matrix, with a proper blue pill that actually works.

So he finds fulfillment in the "news." Control his reality? Not even his dog obeys him properly - if his lease permits a dog. But there is another kind of screen, and on it whole countries! Egypt, Libya, Tunisia... millions and millions of people! Real human beings!

And best of all, he finds, these human beings care what he thinks. He matters to them - for he is America, America the world. International public opinion! Who can resist it? "Join us or die," says international public opinion. Of which our Twittering protagonist is one small part. Here, he finds his power. And he uses it.

Egypt is not the world. Egypt is a backwater. And to Egypt, Tunisia is a backwater. And to Tunisia, Libya is a backwater. Does the candle admire the sun? The candle hopes, all its life, to be mistaken for one small part of the sun. If the sun jumps off a cliff, the candle jumps twice. If the sun does not jump, but just says "jump..."

Suppose you're an Egyptian novelist. Or an Egyptian filmmaker, a surgeon, a programmer - any of the real, American professions. All those cheering crowds, demanding "freedom," getting "freedom," full - so our trusted friends of the press were quick to tell us - of filmmakers, surgeons, programmers - Americans.

And indeed, you saw them on the screen. Impossible not to see the type. The camera lies; it cannot invent. There they were, born Americans, hipsters even, with the mere misfortune to be born in Egypt. How unjust, that a man's citizenship should depend on the geolocation of the obstetric ward! But such is the system, a paint chip of the irrational and reactionary past, in which nations for some reason existed and mattered - how weird.

So you're an Egyptian novelist, striving for recognition. Everyone and his asshole, of course, has a novel and wants to be a Real Novelist. Who is the sun in your world? Whose beam lights upon you, and makes you a Real Egyptian Novelist? Mubarak's brother, perhaps? Or some smelly mullah at al-Azhar?

Of course not. An Egyptian novelist is a Real Egyptian Novelist if his novels are known and praised in New York, London, maybe even Paris. (That would be American London, of course, and American Paris. After the 20th century, is there any other?) Is there any force, in Egypt and of Egypt, great enough to dub any Egyptian a Real Egyptian Novelist? Of course not.

Which makes Egypt, as Egypt, a non-country. And its government a non-government. How unfair, that our Real Egyptian Novelist - a citizen of the world, toasted in London and feted in Paris - should return home to be governed by backward, nyekulturny peasant-thugs.

And it is. It is. It is unfair. The noble should not be governed by the base. The base should be governed by the noble. History teaches us nothing less. To govern the base is the duty of the noble; to be governed by the noble is the freedom of the base. When this pyramid inverts, the sky turns black and roaring ogres stalk the land.

On the other hand, if Egypt wanted to be governed by the noble, it had Lord Cromer. If it wanted to be governed by foreigners, it had Lord Cromer. To the extent that it contains a 20th-century civilization, it can thank Lord Cromer. But Lord Cromer is dead and there are no more of him, so Egypt resorts to the best available substitute - Twitter and the State Department.

There is no shortage of human nobility, or at least gentility, in these institutions. For that matter, there is no shortage of educated, capable, intelligent and energetic Egyptians - in short, of American Egyptians, in the best and broadest sense of the world. There are not millions of them, let alone tens of millions. There are certainly tens of thousands. All they lack is one small commodity: the power to rule Egypt.

Not that they are without power. Anything but! Thanks to their American friends, thanks to State and CNN and Human Rights Watch and all their many Twitter followers, the Egyptian liberal is anything but powerless. If he was powerless, Mubarak would still be in power. But Mubarak (via Sadat) wore America's ring, took America's money and sold America his soul. After 35 years of dependency, the Egyptian regime was defenseless against Foggy Bottom. Extra, extra - read all about it in the Post.

The Assads were smarter - they stayed Soviet clients, and later transferred their allegiance to Iran. No "Arab Spring" for them! Peace with America was the death of Nasser's Egypt, albeit with a somewhat delayed fuse. Lesson: on an American planet, anti-Americanism is the only path to independence. A shitty, pissant, perpetually unsafe independence - independence nonetheless. And independence, which is sovereignty, which is power, is the ultimate freedom.

Mubarak, while he ruled, was free. Those he ruled were not free, for to be free is to rule. Now the novelists and filmmakers and surgeons are free, for they rule (for now), and Mubarak is not free - in fact, he's under house arrest. And so it goes. Someone always rules; everyone else is always ruled. Political reality in three words: sovereignty is conserved.

Did I say they rule? They feel like they rule - for no one rules them. Like Clapton, they feel free! Bop-bop-bop-bo-bop-bop! But, since the Egyptian liberals do not in fact rule - since they do not in fact govern - since they cannot in fact govern - no one rules. Everyone rules. This is anarchy, real anarchy, a temporary but very unpleasant state. The liberals have the power to un-rule Egypt; rule it, they cannot.

A small fact occasionally noted in the unashamed press: since Twitter twittered their old rulers out of power, both Egypt and Tunisia have been essentially without police. Salon (of all outlets) tells us:
Since Mubarak's ouster, Egypt has been gripped by a crime wave not seen in years, with a marked rise in armed robberies, arson and street battles between rival criminal gangs over territory.
No shit. This is after a month. After a year? When the gangs get smart, and turn into political parties? Which they acquire paramilitary wings? Sovereignty is conserved. You can spread it around, though, but don't expect to enjoy the result.

For the Egyptian liberal, "freedom" means government by liberals. Or at least, the absence of government by non-liberals. For now he has it, with a small frisson of carjacking. If he moved to America, he could have freedom forever! But alas, the immigration process is so difficult. (And apparently there are gangs here, too. Ah, liberals.)

Power in Egypt - and the world has many Egypts - is a simple game of rock, paper, scissors. In Egypt there are three kinds of people: sheep (liberals, upper-class), dogs (nationalists, lower-class), and wolves (Islamists, beyond class). Sheep (with a big hand from Twitter and State) beat dogs, dogs kill wolves, wolves eat sheep.

If our twittering hipster is especially hip, she's seen Persepolis and met the wolves. And indeed, the wolf form is natural to humanity. It is our society, the civilized European system with lots of sheep and some dogs and a very, very rare wolf, that is anomalous. And if it keeps behaving as it is, the anomaly will not take long to rectify.

The "Arab Spring" is springtime indeed for the violent, ruthless young man with a mission. Mubarak's dogs, equally violent - indeed once Nasser's wolves themselves, for fat authority turns wolves into dogs - tamed the most violent of wolves with the most wolfish of methods. The dog, half wolf himself, speaks the language of the wolf. The sheep looks at the wolf - and sees a sheep. And there has never been any shortage of wolves who speak sheep. Baa! Baa!

In the dog state, so long as they minded their own business, within very broad definitions of their own, a sheep could live as a sheep. Now we see the sheep state, young heaven for wolves. Even the dogs turn into wolves - what's an old Mubarak thug to do? Thuggery is all he knows. The old firm has disbanded. The jihad is hiring. Allahu akbar! Indeed, Islam is the future in Egypt - if I were an Egyptian, I'd be working on my raisin right now. Sovereignty is conserved; power creates its own popularity. In anarchy, violence is power, and the wolves have it.

The tragedy of Egypt is that if the dogs and sheep did not respond to different masters, if the sheep did not have Twitter and Harvard to follow, the sheep would do what sheep do naturally and follow the dogs. Who would in turn love and cherish the sheep, and kill the wolves. This is the difference between Mubarak's Egypt and Elizabeth's England - both societies with a small educated elite, a vast base of varlets, an absolute ruler and an active, efficient secret police.

In other words, if Egypt's natural intelligentsia was not Americanized, if it was not drawn away from its own country and its own leadership by the lure of Twitter, it would have no choice but to participate in the government of its own country. Which would, in turn, lose much if not all of its peasant-thug character, having better talent to draw on than peasant thugs. If this hypothesis is correct, it's the apparent solution - the Americanization of Egypt - which creates the problem.

So the American liberal, who is not after all dumb, if he was genuinely concerned about the Egyptian liberal, would observe reality and tell his tawny friends: chill out. Deal with it. You cannot rule Egypt; we are not the British Empire, we are not going to rule it for you. Yet someone will rule Egypt, as they have since the Scorpion King was a little boy. Do you even begin to know how much worse than Mubarak it can get? If you don't like peasant thug secret policemen, apply for a visa or just come illegally. Learn a little Spanish and pass for Mexican. Or, you know, just deal. I mean, it's not like our permanent government is that great either.

But no. And here is the American's sin: from his own cupidity, from his ennui and folly and innate, instead of using the power of America in the best interest of Egyptians, or even in the best interest of Americans with an Egyptian passport, what does he do? To entertain himself, to get his TV jollies, shouting hosannahs and clapping himself on the back, he assists his Egyptian friends in committing horrible and spectacular political suicide. Is the American moral? Is he realistic? He is both criminal and insane. His nightly news is quite dramatic; his gas goes up by a dollar a gallon; his friends are devoured by wolves. Hell, it's America, we're bored and rich.

Thus brains on the road. And thus, Libya - which is to Egypt as Egypt is to New Jersey, at least culturally. Thus America, twittering away, says to Libya: "Come on! Have a revolution! It's fun! Don't miss out! Besides, we're all done with Egypt and we're getting bored bored BORED!"

Only... Libya is not a recipient of American aid. Libya has no well-funded democracy movement. Libya has no branch of Human Rights Watch. Libya cannot be entirely free of novelists, poets, filmmakers, surgeons and programmers - in short, liberals - but it's about as liberal-free as North Africa gets.

However, it has plenty of tribesmen, Islamists, etc, who love a good fight. Also, Libya appears, from pictures, to be positively infested with .50-caliber "antiaircraft" guns - possibly a legacy of the Reagan bombing. Do you know what happens when someone's head takes a .50-caliber round? Scroll up. Whether he's a tribesman or a filmmaker, the result is roughly the same.

Most important, Qaddafi had let his anti-Americanism slip. Since 2003, terrified by the invasion of Iraq, he'd done almost what Egypt did in 1978 - made kissy-kissy with the West. And since he was originally a Communist, not a fascist, colonialist, or other Nazi, the West had no shortage of Davos people ready to make kissy-kissy back at him. Result: it became a bit difficult for him to persecute Libyans for kissing up to the West.

So when Twitter and Obama came calling... everything was ripe for a nice, telegenic civil war. There was no civil war in Syria, there was no civil war in Iran, because the evil thug dictators of these countries had not made Libya and Egypt's mistake of "engaging" with our organs.

Why does civil war happen? Civil war is by definition a conflict between two power centers that wish to rule the same population. In this case, the two power centers are Qaddafi and Twitter, ie, America. If Qaddafi's regime was too weak to survive a little push, no civil war. If America couldn't get its hooks into any Libyans, no civil war. America, however, is too gutless to use its own weapons, so it has to rely on Libyan volunteers seduced by its Twitter feed. If its puppets had won, of course, everyone would have sworn they won on their own - just like in Egypt. But the rebels are losing, so they cry: where are Obama's airstrikes? And not without reason.

And history rhymes once again, for Libya's failing revolution looks remarkably like one 20th-century event: Poland's Warsaw uprising. Stalin exhorted the Poles to revolt, then stood aside as the SS ate them for breakfast. We exhorted the Libyans to revolt, and when they lost it was none of our business. Behold our foreign-policy "realism": ie, selective isolationism. Which is selective morality - which is hypocrisy. To start again, start with amorality, and work up.

Morally, the comparison favors Stalin. Few ever accused Stalin of hypocrisy; he was just ruthless. He at least had a reason - a concrete interest - for pulling his trick. (He wanted to kill off the Polish leadership before he took Poland for himself.) America's actions, however, are actually against our collective interests; they are motivated entirely by sadistic boredom. We love a revolution because it's good TV. When one fails, we're sad and we cry. But frankly, it adds suspense next time the show is on.

And it's not just TV. Drama is drama, and the same trick works just as well in text - for the benefit of sophisticated intellectuals like you and me. Do you read the New Yorker? Do you subscribe to the New Yorker? Here is Jon Lee Anderson, in the New Yorker:
On Saturday, in Brega, I met Osama BenSadik, a forty-seven-year-old Libyan-American who had returned to his homeland from Martinsville, Virginia, to help the revolution. He was offering his services in the hospital. (He is a volunteer firefighter in Henry County.) He told me, full of passion and pride and fear, that his twenty-one-year-old son, Muhanad, a second year medical student and a Boy Scout, who had been in school here in Libya, had gone to fight at the front line. “Tell America to come and help, because if we don’t, if we let the Libyan revolution fail, then we—you and I and all of us—would see things we could never imagine,” he said.
And sure enough:
At Ajdabiya hospital yesterday, I ran into Osama BenSadik. He crumpled in my arms as I walked up to him, and his whole body heaved as he wept. Muhanad had been killed, fighting, not far from Brega, Saturday morning. BenSadik sobbed with a father’s inconsolable grief.
Perhaps that was his med-student brain we saw, on the road. Anderson is incorrigible:
In truth, even if a no-fly zone is imposed now, it might not be enough to stop Qaddafi’s advance. Its real value, as far as I have been able to ascertain, would be the symbolic importance, the morale boost it would give the fighters, to allow them to feel that they are not entirely alone in the world.
Does Osama have any other sons? Perhaps Jon Lee Anderson could get them killed too. Do you subscribe to the New Yorker? Do you give these people money? Scroll up, look at the picture, then run to the toilet and vomit.