By Barry Rubin
Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mark Kirk, and Marco Rubio are going to regret their Wall Street Journal op-ed on Libya. I don’t even have to critique the piece but just to quote it in order to show why:
“Last Thursday we arrived in Tripoli to the promise of a free Libya. We saw a city that is surprisingly secure and orderly. We visited al-Jdeida prison and spoke freely with detainees—a testament to the commitment of the Transitional National Council (TNC) to democracy, transparency and the rule of law. At the end of the day, we walked through Martyrs’ Square, where Libyans cheered and thanked America and our NATO allies.”
Now compare this to eyewitness accounts like this one or to many others available in the media, showing how the rebels, with NATO’s help, are bombarding civilians in Sirte, or accounts of torture and execution of prisoners, or the massive looting in every town captured by the rebels, and the weapons sold by them to terrorists.
One less excuse for this disconnect with reality in Libya is that mass media coverage, terrible in Egypt, has been far better there. “Everybody is getting their knives out,” said Mohammed Benrasali, who runs the civilian stabilization team in the same city where the Republican senators are all ga-ga about remarkable order. The headline of that article in the same Wall Street Journal as the senator’ piece? “Discord Riddles Libyan Factions.”
Yet here we see the senators as naive tourists peering at Potemkin villages: finding orderly cities, content prisoners, and a wonderful new regime.
There are deadly tribal and regional hatreds, murderous prejudices against those with black skins (rationalized by the fact that some were mercenaries for Qadhafi), veterans of al-Qaida some of whom are leading militia commanders. Yet these men sound like President Obama bubbling away about the perfect glories of the Egyptian revolt.
A more realistic perspective toward Libya would be, “You broke it, you bought it,” or perhap better, “You fought for it, you bought it.” Any love cheering Libyan crowds feel for America is the result of NATO bombing of their enemies. But what happens as they choose up sides and don’t like it if U.S. policy favors their new enemies?
Trying to ensure that the new Libya is friendly to the United States requires some tough and cynical action, and it almost inevitably ends up with the kind of misleading recriminations seen in Iran (Why did we support the shah? No wonder they hate us!) or Egypt (Why did we support Mubarak? No wonder they hate us!)
In dealing with Third World dictatorial-style societies the dislike is inseparable from the strategic advantages. If you are too romantically idealistic in the evening, you’re more likely to be self-loathing and heart-broken when you wake up the next morning.
Innocents abroad, indeed. Why should these four senators in effect stake their reputations on uncritical praise of a largely unknown and untried coalition that might end up producing an Islamist regime. It is one thing to support the triumph of pro-Western forces, it is quite another to designate heroes without actually knowing who they are and what they will do. It is the TNC, after all, which has declared Sharia law not just a major source for the new government’s legislation but the major influence on it.
Oh, by the way, nothing could be more obvious than the fact that the TNC isn’t really running anything at all, or that NATO’s operation made the European militaries look bad–as European officers know full well in private conversations–because it took them so long to deal with the far weaker forces of the Libyan dictator. Why the romanticization of the TNC which is composed not mainly of courageous pro-democratic dissidents but of ex-Qadhafi officials? What do these American politicians think the TNC’s commitment to transparency and democracy is going to look like in a few months?
Who advises these people? Don’t they have the sense at least to adopt a tough, national interests’ tone? How about reserving judgment? Haven’t they learned anything from the disgraceful behavior of Senators John Kerry and Arlen Specter or then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Syria?
I guess this proves such naivete isn’t just a left monopoly but something of an American characteristic. That’s what many Middle Easterners and Europeans believe. It’s one thing to favor democracy and human rights, quite another to be over-eager to see them where they don’t exist.
“We also observed many of the serious challenges that remain. We spoke with some of the 28 militias that are still deployed across Tripoli. We saw the enormous task ….” Blah, blah, blah. Twenty-eight militias in one city? Doesn’t that sound like more than just a “serious challenge?” And if there are 28 militias than how can the TNC be in charge?
The four Republican senators’ message is a reasonable one: It would be a good idea to try to make Libya into a country having a pro-Western regime, at least in a strategic if not in a sentimental sense. But when one starts out like this how can it possibly end well?