Tag Archives: libya

Puzzles of the Orient: a random note on the Republican Debate

Last night’s debate didn’t strike me as something worth liveblogging on twitter or even commenting about as I posted in the middle of it. That anything much is going to be said that’s new or original is hopefully something no one came into the debate expecting. In passing, still, one strange entanglement of talking points caught my attention and seems to speak to something rather horrifying about the politics of not only the Republican Party, but the United States and even the broader world.

In the midst of the debate, Senator Marco Rubio argued that the supportive relationship between the US and Israel in contrast to the combative and hostile relationship the US has with almost every other country in the region made sense, saying:

“For goodness sake, there is only one pro-American free enterprise democracy in the Middle East. It is the state of Israel. And we have a president that treats the prime minister of Israel with less respect than what he gives the Ayatollah in Iran. And so our allies in the region don’t trust us. […] all those radical terrorist groups that, by the way, are not just in Syria and in Iraq, ISIS is now in Libya. They are a significant presence in Libya, and in Afghanistan, and a growing presence in Pakistan.

Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia. They are coming to us. They recruit Americans using social media. And they don’t hate us simply because we support Israel. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own.”

While his criticism of Arab or Islamic communities highlighted the sexism he perceived, the point seems deeply interconnected to other ideas about how societies should work. Not only should women be able to drive cars, they should be able to vote. It’s hard to imagine that kind of plea for “modern” women’s rights without accompanying ideas about “modern” political rights and other expectations (in Rubio’s mind that goes hand in hand with free enterprise, notably).

Mere minutes later, Ohio Governor John Kasich in his own words gave the audience “a little trip around the world”. He transitioned from describing a military strategy towards Russia to one in the Middle East, which in turn led him to saying this about the political culture of the region: “Saudi Arabia, cut off the funding for the radical clerics, the ones that preach against us. But they’re fundamentally our friends. Jordan, we want the king to reign for 1,000 years. Egypt, they have been our ally and a moderating force in the Middle East throughout their history.”

The limitations on free speech in Saudi Arabia are, of course, far more extreme than the limiting of funding for radical clerics. The regular and increasing use of the death penalty by the government there is primarily used on clerics critical of the Kingdom, especially those critical because of sectarian disagreements. Overwhelmingly, it’s the Shia minority clerics targeted with that and other state controls designed to limit their communities’ voices and shutdown opposition. They are also famously one of the governments in the region which most systemic restricts women’s rights – to drive, to go out in public, and to control their bodies and appearance. Those, in Kasich’s words, are “our friends” because of how they restrict their people and simultaneously, in Rubio’s view, someone we are locked in an existential struggle with… because of how they restrict their people.

Virtually no one – from Politico to the Seattle Globalist – pretends that the current government in Egypt is democratic. Politico’s coverage touches on a particularly interesting point, that sitting president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a product of the military exchange programs run by and within the United States. In short, he was more than a little groomed for his current strongman role, with his wife beside him, notably in a hijab not in the more veiling niqab. When it comes to other women, however, his defense of the use of “virignity tests” to assess rape and harassment claims by women participating in the street democracy movements in Egypt speaks for itself. Much like Saudi Arabia, the same despotism that is woven into the fabric of how we decide that part of the world is categorically deserving of criticism, and yet oddly also, its saving grace.

Hopefully I don’t have to explain the irony in a debate where most of the Middle East is criticized as undemocratic where another person calls for the Hashimite dynasty in Jordan to rule for a thousand years. It’s worth noting that’s not just simply a millennium of rule, it’s another millennium.

It’s worth noting that even if Kasich and Rubio understood each other as disagreeing, they both continue to address the realities of political life in the Middle East with a common assumption. If you look at the autocratic and patriarchal aspects of life in that part of the world and judge it as exotic and foreign and Other to a US-backed alternative, at least one of the mistakes you’re making is overlooking the ways in which the US has encouraged these undemocratic and restrictive politics. If you look at the dictatorships and call them our friends, you’re insisting that popular rule in the region would inherently be incompatible with US interests and those are more important. Rubio looks at the region shaped by US and other foreign meddling and wonders how it got that way, while Kasich simply shrugs and notes we have to keep them in line. In either case, there’s a denial of the violence inherent in US policy, stretching back decades.

Whether you view this as a cultural war or a strategic conflict, the Republican debate last night offered only variations on viewing the average person in the Middle East as lesser, with no alternative to that.

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France and the Maghreb are getting trigger happy

A sort of a hierarchy is developing in Western Africa in the wake of the French intervention in Mali (which was simultaneous with a US-backed raid in Somalia, it should be noted). To summarize – France has begun air strikes on people who are not citizens of their country, who are not on their territory, and who aren’t service members of a state they are at war with. Such incidents are of course quite common, but that doesn’t make them any less severe infractions against the norms the United Nations was supposed to establish. Come to think of it, the privileges of a permanent seat for the allies in World War II on the Security Council aren’t even remotely in the same sort doubt nearly seventy years later.

While France is gunning down “militants” or “combatants,” Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya have purportedly sealed their borders with Mali to isolate the Touareg rebels in the North (French language link). There’s of course the obvious tension of those Arab-dominated states shutting down an effort to create an explicitly Berber state, as well as their interest in appearing moderate to western nations such as France who have made quite clear that they don’t mind killing North African “combatants” or whatever euphemism is en vogue. Of course, doing this for show risks alienating further the Berber minority domestically just as much as it hopefully maintains their status internationally.


(Just for reference in that and the following paragraph, here’s a map of Mali, from here.)

Of course, supply lines are typically remade in the face of such bans, so I expect smuggling to endanger the typically already marginal civilian populations in southern Algeria and Libya as well as Northern Niger (which would be an ideal detour around any purported blockade on the Malian-Algerian border. The extreme poverty of the region, a byproduct of not only the harsh environment but also French colonial misrule, would make those prospects quite attractive, in spite of the risks.

And of course, there’s the lot of the Malians under French scopes. Beyond those revolting against the admittedly quite undemocratic Malian government, there’s the inevitable “non-combatant” casualties. And as the border controls are also restricting importation of fuels into the region, the poverty found in Mali just as in much of the surrounding region will only be worsened. The intervention so far has both worsened the consequences of being proximate to rebels and the obvious point in rebelling, which is a unfortunate mixture of impacts to have.

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The year regionalism reared its head in Africa

TW: civil war, colonialism, exploitation

In recent history, the primary boundaries that defined politics in many African countries were ethnic or religious. For much of the past half-century, the driving questions concerned who would rule whom, originally in response to colonial occupation by successive foreign powers across almost the entire continent and then in relation to the local hierarchies colonial powers had twisted to their own ends. Where a given person lived took something of a backseat to what kind a person they were. Or at the least, the political and academic perception was that most conflicts in Africa related to ethnicity, race, or religion. To the extent that region was discussed, it was framed as a distraction that needed to be viewed in the light of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial migrations.

But in 2012, especially the later half of it, a series of unconnected political events in various African states made it clear that regional identities had power – whether as proxies for ethnic distinctions or as political divides in their own right. A backdrop of significant if decreasing poverty and newly discovered resources concentrated in certain areas has only heightened the stakes in many countries. With such long odds, what are essentially civil wars have broken out in more than a few cases.

For the US, the most pressing instance of the growing presence of regionalism in many African states this year was likely that in Libya, after the attack on the Benghazi consulate which killed several Foreign Service members and the US ambassador to Libya. The fact that many Libyans were appreciative of his prior assistance in the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime while many others remain deeply threatened by the American power he represented is at least in part reflective of the regionally divided nature of Libya at the moment. In fact, since the earliest days of the revolution, some Libyans argued that the potential power of regionalism in Libya shouldn’t be overlooked.

More optimistically, the extremely tight presidential elections in Ghana hinged on distinctly regional visions of how the nation should spend its accruing oil profits. Perhaps because the separate ideas are only mutually exclusive to the extent that Ghana’s resources are limited, the conflict has been decidedly peaceful so far. The election was less of a referendum on whether the population was interested in financing education or infrastructure, so much as which was a clearer priority. Hopefully the various regional identities in Ghana can continue negotiating through the continuing difficulties of how to manage its resources and solve its people’s problems.

Ghana’s fortunate solution was sadly something of an outlier, however. In Mali, what’s often described as a military conflict between Al Qaeda-allied islamists and a somewhat secular government, in fact has a clear ethnic and what’s more regional component. The fact that ethnically distinct parts of the country have until recently held respective monopolies on the country’s mineral wealth and political power, respectively, makes it remarkable that a civil war took this long to develop and is still largely unrecognized as having a hugely regional dimension. While the conflict in Mali began over the summer, tensions built up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where resources are concentrated in a thinly populated interior, which two ethnically distinct regions ring. That the one historically without political power has seen yet another outbreak of anti-government militias this November is again unsurprising.

And at the end of the year, there’s been a regional uprising in the Central African Republic (CAR), which as of New Year’s Eve threatened the stability of the prior government (French only, sorry). There’s already been much violence, but it’s hard not to hope for the current negotiations to work something out between the Northern rebels and the Southwestern government that spares the common people from having to live through further conflict.


(South Sudan gained independence in 2011 and has since maintained its sovereignty through 2012 in spite of local regional forces and continuing conflicts with the government of Sudan. Image from here.)

The newly independent South Sudan not only survived this year, but was proven to be anything but a fluke. Regional conflicts have already begun redrawing the map in Africa and clearly hold the potential to do so further.

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Clinton probably should have double checked her calendar

TW: torture, political killings, neo-colonialism

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the violence in Benghazi, Libya, which caused the death of four foreign service members, including the United States’ ambassador to Libya.

Clinton made one rather interesting point:

How could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and at times how confounding the world can be.

She then proceeds to make the case that the provisional Libyan government and the majority of the Libyan people are grateful to the United States. Specifically she mentions, “when the attack came yesterday, Libyans stood and fought to defend our post.” She makes an excellent case, but she leads with a declaration – that the United States was a force of liberation. While I don’t contest that conclusion, it’s not my place, the US Secretary of State’s place, or any American’s place to proclaim ourselves liberators.

Clinton notes that significance of the day of the attack – the anniversary of the terrifying Islamist attack that continues to influence the United State’s policies towards the entire Islamic world. Perhaps less well known is that the eleventh day in September is also the anniversary of the brutal US-backed coup against the democratically elected Allende Presidency in Chile, in 1973. A few days later in that same year, Henry Kissinger, then the National Security Adviser but who would hold in only a few days more the same position as Clinton does today, gruffly told then President Nixon, “we helped them,” nearly going so far as that the United States had liberated Chile.

Even as the current Chilean government seeks to ignore its history of repression, several thousand protesters took to the streets of Santiago on the same day as the attack in Libya. They commemorated the coup against Salvador Allende, painfully demanding that their country remember the thousands killed, tens of thousands tortured, and the democratic system destroyed as a result. The protest was an insistence that what they faced was a counterfeit liberation, disguising repression – a judgment which only Chileans can accurately make.

The next day, Clinton would call the United States “the greatest [global] force for peace, prosperity, and progress; and a force that has always stood for human dignity, the greatest force the world has ever known”.


(Civilian administrators being detained during the Chilean coup, September 11, 1973. Image originally posted here.)

Thomas Friedman once famously joked that American Exceptionalism was imperiled as Americans no longer “seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself ‘exceptional,’ only others can bestow that adjective upon you.” Perhaps even more damning is that we’ve forgotten that “liberator” is a description which only others can decide refers to you.

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