No-fly zone, updated

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows, to judge from those calling for a no-fly zone over Libya.  I am generally a strong opponent of US military action abroad, but I think a no-fly zone is justified in this case, to prevent further massacres.  One recent evacuee from Libya claimed a single bombing session in Tripoli had killed 590 people, and overall casualty estimates have already mounted into the thousands.   As noted in an earlier post, the great complication with respect to a no-fly zone is the astonishing number of foreign workers in Libya.  If Qaddafi is ready to massacre his own people, we can only assume he’ll gladly do the same to foreigners.  Workers from poor countries, like Bangladesh (a reported 30,000), run particular risks, because they have no effective governmental protection.  To the extent that a no-fly zone will help limit Qaddafi’s forces to a much smaller geographic space, the advantages of no-fly for people like these Bangladeshis likely outweigh the risks of doing nothing.

If one accepts the need for a no-fly zone, how to get one over Libya?  First, all those Libyan diplomats who have resigned or, like the delegate to the UN Human Rights Council, have declared they now represent the Libyan people, and not the Qaddafi regime, could band together and demand that the international community protect Libyans from Qaddafi and his hired murderers.  Libyan Ambassador to the US, Ali Aujali, could speak for his colleagues and make such a demand, aimed specifically at NATO.  Second, a delegation from the liberated Libyan cities like Benghazi could demand protection from the international community and place itself under the UN’s aegis.

Thumbs up to the UN HR Council for creating a committee to look into human rights violations in Libya.


Sitting in Paris, March 19th, first day of the no-fly zone.  The sad part is that taking so long has meant the air attack will be far more substantial than it would have been three weeks ago.  Based on previous no-fly zones, we can expect bombings of airports, air defense systems, command and control centers, and, in this case, perhaps naval resources, too.  This attack will also hit ground forces, given their proximity to (and shelling of) Benghazi.   Hard to know how precisely it will work, without far more detailed military knowledge of Libyan capabilities (and damage already done to them). It’s easy to forget, when thinking about how large conventional armies are ill suited to occupation of hostile areas, how efficient the major power militaries are in conventional conflict: Libyan forces are unlikely to be any more successful than Iraqi ones were in 2003.  That said, the direct military efficiency, vis-a-vis the opposition military, does not mean efficiency in avoiding civilian casualties.  The truly awful part of the need for a much broader attack now than would have been needed three weeks ago is that civilian casualties will surely be much more substantial.   These bombings, accurate though they might be in historical terms, still create widespread carnage.

Surely everyone wishes for it all to end as quickly and as peacefully as possible, so that the sufferings of the Libyan people, which seem to have been largely ignored in all the geopolitical machinations, can come to a merciful end.  Alas, it seems that will happen only when Qaddafi is gone: at this point, after all that has been said and done, no compromise is possible with him or with his sons.  The West has now committed itself to regime change.  Given the widespread desertions by high-ranking members of the old Q regime (for example, among diplomats), one might expect in the next week to see some sort of coup d’etat, followed by a ceasefire and negotiations.  Given the situation in Libya, the most likely scenario is the death of the Qaddafis: it’s hard to see them surrendering.

The good part is that the charade of the cease fire has brought so many more countries on board; even Chancellor Merkel is here in Paris today.  One can only wonder if Saudi support for the bombing of Libya comes with the quid pro quo of doing nothing about Bahrain.

An Odd Couple: Libya and Oscar

An Odd Couple: Oscar and Libya

QaddafiEvents in Libya continue to outpace the world community’s response to what is happening.  Yet, like any action film, in our hearts, we already know the final result: Qaddafi will lose power.  What we don’t know is how many people will die in the process.  The drama playing out, however, brings to mind that it’s Oscar month, so it’s time to hand out the awards in some special categories.

Our first category is, Most Ridiculous International Response.  Voters had great difficulty choosing a winner, because there were so many nominees.  Not surprisingly, the vote ended in a tie:  French President Sarkozy and US Senator Kerry, for proposing economic sanctions against Libya.  Voters wanted to know what possible good are sanctions against a man who has just publicly announced that he will burn his country to the ground?

The comedy Oscar for Most Buffoonish Response goes to PM Berlusconi of Italy for his statement that it would be inappropriate to “disturb” his close friend Moammar Qaddafi at this time.  Many voters objected to Berlusconi’s eligibility in this category: they believed a professional buffoon should not be permitted to get an award for acting like a buffoon.

The Oscar for Most Despicable Response had a surprise winner.  Not to be outdone by Berlusconi and the Right, the Left had its own champion step forward, Pres. Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.  Ortega denounced the demonstrators and called Qaddafi to express his solidarity in these “moments of tension.”

The Oscar for Most Devious Response goes naturally enough to a wily old tyrant, Fidel Castro, who offered an oblique and vital rhetorical strike on behalf of his old friend: he warned that NATO was about to invade and conquer Libya.  Mr. Castro’s verbal sally, designed to put that intervention in terms odious to many people, and states, around the world, might be the most effective support Qaddafi has thusfar received.

Given the universal hypocrisy of world leaders, voters thought it might be unfair to award a single Oscar for Most Hypocritical Response, until Pres. Ahmadinejad of Iran came out with his hilarious comments about how awful it was that the head of a government would use force against peaceful demonstrators.   He seemed shocked that any legitimate head of government would countenance the shooting of his own people, and stood up forthrightly for the right of all humans to express freely their opinions.  To be fair to the Iranian government, it did follow legal procedures with respect to its own dissidents:  the Iranian Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the execution of two of the presumed leaders of the recent demonstrations.

Voters wanted to offer special awards to Hu Jintao, Ban Ki-Moon, and David Cameron.  Hu Jintao and the Chinese Government get the under-the-radar award for their creative response to potential demonstrations in China: using electronic surveillance, they simply arrested the potential demonstrators at their homes, before they could start any public protest.

Ban Ki-moon and PM Cameron received great sympathy from voters, because, virtually alone among world leaders, they seemed genuinely disturbed at events in Libya and, reading their body language, genuinely frustrated by their inability to convince others to join them in effective action.  Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed “outrage” at the use of aircraft against civilians: in the diplomatic-speak of the UN, “outrage” is the equivalent of a nuclear response.  He has used the word only once before, for the Israeli air attack on the UNRWA building in Gaza in 2009, that is, precisely for the use of air power against civilians.

PM Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have been the most forceful Western statesmen; Cameron stated, the “vicious repression is appalling,” much sterner terms than those used by any of his NATO peers. One might even suspect that Cameron used Lord Owen to float the idea of a no-fly zone without directly tying it to his government: the contrast between the proposals of Kerry and Owen pretty much sums up the difference between Cameron’s obvious desire to do something useful and Obama’s desire to do nothing.  Cameron’s body language in Egypt suggested that he was biting his tongue about Libya: the sudden parroting of the Obama Administration line about getting a unified international response came as a bitter pill to swallow, to judge from the look on Cameron’s face in front of the cameras in Cairo.

Our final category is Most Feckless Response: the vote was unanimous, Barack Obama.  A British newspaper quoted an unnamed government source there saying of Obama, “he’s spent the last two weeks playing catch-up rather than trying to shape the course of events, which is not what we have come to expect from the leader of the free world.”  Pretty hard to argue with those sentiments.  Given that Sen. Kerry is often a foreign policy stalking horse for the Obama Administration, surely his ridiculous proposal of sanctions had to be cleared with the White House.  The American line that we have to have a “unified international response” sounds good, but given that autocratic governments hold two vetoes in the UN Security Council, and that dozens of governments around the world get their power from the barrel of a gun, calls for unified international action, such as creation of a no-fly zone or use of UN peacekeepers, will get nowhere on the Security Council.  (The SC’s toothless statement today, 2/23, just confirms the obvious.) Autocrats will not like the example of the UN defending a tyrant’s people from his murderous, lunatic rage.  The chances of a unified response that will save Libyan lives are Slim and None.

There remains some hope.  Qaddafi made the critical mistake of threatening to sabotage the oil fields:  killing Libyans does not seem to matter much to any Western leader other than David Cameron, but cutting off oil supplies is a different matter.  The natural gas pipeline from Libya to Italy has already been shut off, so the oil threat is all too real.

Voters felt that Pres. Obama could yet qualify for the Hero Award.  As the “leader of the free world,” he could take three immediate steps:   1) airlift desperately needed medical supplies to affected Libyan cities, like Benghazi; 2) enforce a no-fly zone; 3) send NATO forces to protect NATO nationals in Libya.  Western leaders have rightly shied away from step 2 on its own, because taking step 2 without taking step 3 will lead to an immediate massacre of Italian, French, British, etc. nationals in Libya.  Press reports from Malta suggest that Special Forces units from several European nations are already there, ready to be airlifted to Libya to protect their citizens.  Time to fly, before Slim leaves town.

Hisham Sharabi: prophet of change

Embers and AshesCommentators in the media repeat endlessly the mantra that events in the Arab world are a surprise, that no one could have expected this coordinated assault on the tyrants of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and who knows how many other states.  Yet Arab intellectuals have spoken of this moment for some time.  One of the leading intellectuals of the last generation, the late Palestinian historian, novelist, and social theorist Hisham Sharabi, whose memoirs of the late 1940s, Ashes and Embers, have been read throughout the modern Arab world, accurately foresaw this day.

Sharabi, in his 1988 analysis of the contemporary Arab world, Neopatriarchy, asked:  “Can we change the relation between the state and its citizens from one based on violence to one based on law? Perhaps, but only by legal means and by means based on public consent. … In concrete terms, the most immediate concern right now might be the question of human and political rights. … The new generation, which has known only repression and violence, will find in this objective a truly revolutionary task – if only it can grasp the radical significance of retrieving these rights.”


Ahead of his time as always, my dear friend Hisham wrote those prescient words a generation too early.  This generation, the Liberation Generation I think he would have called them, has taken up his challenge: they have grasped the radical significance of the struggle for human rights.  He recognized, too, that “taking the risk of non-violence and civil disobedience” in resistance to regimes that base their power on violence, rather than on law, is “true heroism,” as Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis, and others have shown in the wondrous winter of 2011.  Hisham would surely have delighted to see Revolution made by the Liberation Generation.  Their great challenge now is to transform revolutionary victory over states that rested on violence into institutional systems that enshrine the rule of law and justice.

C-SPAN Panel Featuring Jim Collins: Popular Uprisings in the Arab World

Video: Popular Uprisings in the Arab World Featuring Dr. James Collins

Feb. 7, 2011: C-SPAN panel discussion featuring Dr. James Collins, Georgetown University (19-minute mark). There is also a Q&A session at the end (1hour 21 minutes).

Also featured: Osama Abi-Mershed, Georgetown University;  Bassam Haddad, George Mason University; and Elliott Colla, Georgetown University