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Lessons of Libya (and Syria, and, Some Day, Iran)

August 23rd, 2011 - 8:54 pm

First, for those trying to figure out what’s going on in Libya: this sort of event does not lend itself to “live”  coverage. Wars and insurrections are very foggy, and reporters cannot possibly check the information they are given.  Pictures on your screen are as likely to deceive as to inform, as you’ve perhaps learned in the past few days. The pictures told you that Gaddafi’s regime had fallen, that the rebels were in control of Tripoli, and that the Gaddafi kids were captured. Not so.

This is not necessarily the result of “bad reporting.” It’s built into the whole business of round-the-clock tv news “coverage.”  The networks have to put video on the screen and they have to say something about the videos. We historians are better placed.  We can wait and then explain it retrospectively. Which is easier, but not automatically more accurate.

So the first lesson is: wait. When it’s over, we’ll probably know that. Meanwhile, there are people with a very strong interest in convincing the outside world that gray is black or white.  Live with the gray. Mostly things are gray in a fog.

Second, a lot of the language used to describe some of the forces in play is quite misleading. You’ll have your own by now;  my own favorite is “elite forces.” Gaddafi’s EF turned out to be just the usual Middle Eastern gunmen/thugs. In older times, he had very sexy East German female body guards, which was much more fun.

Consider Saddam’s EF: the vaunted Republican Guards, who disappeared in a nanosecond when General Mattis’s Marines advanced on Baghdad.  Or consider the Iranian EF that were supposed to take on the Saudi military in Bahrain. They scampered back to mother as quickly as they could.

The other very misleading words are “control,” or “in control.”  How many times was one side or the other said to “control” Libyan territory, only to be told that the situation had flipped within hours?

It’s better to suspend judgment.  Yes, it’s easy for me to say, but the journalists and the policy makers have to reach conclusions. They have my sympathy.  Really.

Part of the confusion comes from bad intelligence, and thus the third lesson is that, if you want to play an effective role in war and/or revolution, you had better get some relationships established before the fog rolls in. We were very late to this game, in part because a succession of American administrations mostly limited their efforts to having good relations with the top guy and his henchmen.  We have virtually zero intimacy with the Iranian opposition (at least the people who matter, the ones inside Iran), and, while we are trying hard to catch up elsewhere (think Libya and Syria), and many of those efforts are well done by talented Americans, we’re at a real disadvantage.

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