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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Libya, Repainting the Shutters

Momentum is a funny thing. God’s adrenalin. When you have it, it’s the soul of the world, the only thing. When you don’t, it’s everything. It’s why the Boston Celtics, only six minutes away from a 2010 championship, lost. It’s what swept and backed America’s North after the Battle of Antietam in 1862. It’s what’s flying us to Libya. Libya today is as much about the possibility of the “Arab Spring” losing steam as its rebels losing ground to Qadhafi (how Muammar’s son Saif spells the name) loyalist firepower. How do help the "Arab Spring" stay alive? With Egypt, as with anything else, we feel the ironic pinch— that our strength and our fragility peak at the same time. Hubris never, ever knocks at the front door; it slinks up quietly next to you. It's difficult not to get caught up, but there was nothing inevitable about the revolution in Cairo.  

What gets lost is in today’s whirl of airstrikes, mission creep, and nuclear meltdown response is the more indelible human story. Quake and tsunami survivors huddle together, carving chopsticks out of wreckage. Indian and Pakistani truckers take a time‑out in Amritsar to share tea, stories, and language while they’re barred from bringing commerce across the border. In Libya, after rebel success in Benghazi, shopkeepers stand with buckets of white paint, repainting their shutters, which, under a Qadhafi decree, were required to be a monochrome green (“He made us hate green.”). The smell of fresh paint soon met with tomahawk fumes. Was this the smell of jasmine?   

Traveling between America’s interests ("realpolitik") and values ("moralpolitik") can make anyone seasick. What justifies “humanitarian” is cloudy. With so many internally displaced, will we forget the looming humanitarian crisis in Libya? Moreover, the U.S., France, and England talk of success “on the cheap”. But, the discount price tag is printed in red as brave youth from Muscat to Misurata pay with lives and muscle. We’re in Libya as much as Libya is in us.

Policy is more salty than sweet and less about being even­‑handed and consistent than about navigating constraints and a second-best world. Starting with the lowest common denominator— Libya is nearly three times the size of Texas and ten times the size of Iraq. Nearly all of its six and a half million people live on a thin strip of coastal land one thousand miles long and ten miles deep on the sun-drenched Mediterranean. Militarily, it’s deemed more “manageable”. 

Beyond physical geography, the human geography of the “Arab Spring” is a mixed bag of 28‑year‑olds marching to the drumbeat of democracy, centuries old Shi’a‑Sunni fractures, and tribal rivalries. Many experts downplay the strategic importance of Libya. They emphasize the greater weight of Shi’a protests in Bahrain and Syria, both under the gravitational pull of Shi’a‑majority Iran. Don’t forget Saudi Arabia playing its cards, squelching protests in Bahrain and Yemen. These experts are correct, but they miss the point. When it comes to something as delicate and potent as momentum, everything matters. Below the veneer, a Libyan Spring is the backdrop to a Bahraini Summer.      

One day we may recall interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and now Libya akin to applying leeches during surgery (though they’ve made a slight comeback). While, thankfully, there will never be an app for it, we’ll likely improve our follow‑through, glide less awkwardly, forge unlikely multilateral government‑business‑NGO‑military coalitions more gracefully, and wield Joseph Nye’s “smart power” more naturally. 

For now, clumsy as it may be, we’ve made an impressive go at it. Within hours, the U.S. froze over $32 billion worth of Libyan assets. Arm-twisting aside, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) both agreed to impose a no‑fly zone. Qatar and U.A.E. are now patrolling the skies over an Arab neighbor. Following an F‑15 crash, Libyan rebels brought one of the pilots, who safely ejected, coffee, flowers, and medical care. Some waved French flags. Who could have imagined? A significant realignment may be underway. In guiding a more democratic Middle East and North Africa, this is what opportunity looks like.

Libya’s question marks mount up and its outcome is impossible to telegraph. Qadhafi may be holed up with his cache of arms and nearly 150 tons of gold. What will happen to Qadhafi’s Green Book? The rebels may want to bide their time, build their council, structure, theory, strategy, and arms before moving forward. Important will be their ability to keep control of Misurata, 150 miles east of Tripoli, Libya’s commercial center and third largest city. It’s also possible that the rebels will not take Tripoli, leading to a stalemate and an East Libya playing its vast oil reserves off of West Libya’s power. Ajdabiya is crucial as water and electricity supply chokepoint to Benghazi and the east. Fortunately, in a huge win, rebels took control of it. Protecting the rebels in their path westward in Libya is another fulcrum for change from Algiers to Manama.  


When we were younger, during those late March Nor’easters, my brother and I would assemble massive, five‑foot‑diameter snowballs, more like boulders. I’d imagine these behemoths gaining speed and size, indiscriminately crushing bad guys and assisting teenage, mutant ninja turtles. Within a few days, they’d disappear into the ground.