A timely and decisive response to madness

In an extraordinary display of bozotic madness and ferocious bellicose, Muammar Gaddafi today threatened to treat his own people the way the Chinese treated theirs at Tiananmen. He also encouraged vigilante action against protesters, whom he accused of being drug-crazed advocates of breaking up Libya or turning it into an Islamic state, and threatened to execute as many people as need be.  He offered vague reforms of municipal governance but little else of substance, while denouncing the Libyan people’s lack of gratitude for all he had done for them.

This was one of the extraordinary moments of our time:  an autocrat of almost 42 years standing unable to comprehend that his people want him out.  He is trying to re-instil fear in Libya and could temporarily succeed.  Certainly nothing in his speech today suggested that it would be safe to continue demonstrating in Tripoli.  Rarely has a thug outlined more clearly his murderous intentions.

The Libyan people will decide their own reaction to Gaddafi’s ranting.  I find it difficult to suggest what they should do, given the risks they will have to run if they return to the streets.  I’ll be surprised though if they don’t try to return to Green square, or someplace else symbolic in Tripoli, by Friday.

What should the international community do?  The most immediate hopes lie in the Arab League and the UN Security Council.  The Arab League meeting today is unlikely to do much, since its members are all frightened that their country might be next.  But they need to consider the possibility that failure to act against Gaddafi may in fact increase their own risks.

The UN Security Council needs to take definite serious action at its meeting this afternoon.  I suggested yesterday the litany of things they could do.  In the harsh light of today, I would recommend the following, in priority order:

  • Declare the need for “timely and decisive response” under the 2009 report of the Secretary General on the responsibility to protect;
  • Send the Secretary General to Tripoli to negotiate an international observer mission aimed at protecting Libya’s population from war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • Freeze assets and ban travel of regime principals.
  • Prohibit arms sales.
  • Begin discussion of further measures:  no-fly zone, deposit of proceeds from Libyan oil sales into a UN-managed account, freeze on oil exports.

These are complicated issues that need to be carefully examined for their feasibility and usefulness.

In the meanwhile, the Sixth Fleet should be moving assets towards the Libyan coast, even if that will give Gaddafi something to cry “imperialism” about.  I doubt any of his planes or helicopters will fly if a carrier battle group is close by.

In his 2009 report, the Secretary General said:

…when confronted with crimes or violations relating
to the responsibility to protect or their incitement, today the world is less likely to
look the other way than in the last century.

Let’s pray he was correct.  Now is the time to prove it.

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Time to act

Here is President Obama’s statement from three days ago:

I am deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur. We express our condolences to the family and friends of those who have been killed during the demonstrations. Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly. The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.

This statement had a good impact in Bahrain, where the monarchy saved its skin by withdrawing army and policy from Pearl square and allowing the Crown Prince to make a truly conciliatory statement.

But today was a day of carnage in Libya according to many reports: jet fighters strafing demonstrators, thugs shooting into crowds, perhaps 250 fatalities. While the State Department has expressed “grave concern” and ordered an evacuation of its own personnel, President Obama has been silent and no specific counter-action, even an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, has been announced. We need to hear from the President what he is prepared to do.

It is time to act.  The Twittersphere is full of recommendations for a no-fly zone, which would be fine by me if the UN Security Council can move quickly to order one.  I am not convinced that unilateral U.S. action along those lines would be welcomed even among the protesters in Libya, and we should note that it would prevent defections like the two colonels who flew to Malta today. But letting it be known that one or more aircraft carriers is moving towards North Africa even before the UNSC acts could inhibit some of Gaddafi’s worst behavior.

What else could be done?  The Arab League is said to be meeting tomorrow to discuss Libya.  That is only a good thing if they drop their usual hesitancy to criticize a reigning sovereign and denounce Gaddafi’s attacks on his own people.  I hope the Americans are demarching (that diplomatese for talking to/asking) every Arab League capital by morning pointing out that what Gaddafi is doing is counterproductive and will rouse the public in many other countries.

In any event, I trust the Americans are making it clear in Tripoli that what is going on needs to stop right away.  It is not only Libya that is at risk–if Gaddafi succeeds in his effort to repress the demonstrators, which is possible though unlikely–you’ll see every tyrant in the Middle East copying his lead.  That would not be a pretty picture.

PS:  A few more things the UNSC could do:  freeze assets and ban travel of regime principals, prohibit arms sales, send the Secretary General to Tripoli to negotiate for deployment of a group of observers.

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Who represents Libya?

Tripoli map

I was curious: who represents Libya in the U.S.? The question arose in my mind in part because of Saif al Islam’s catastrophically miscalculated speech last night. Gaddafi’s heir apparent was trying to imitate the tone of Bahrain’s Crown Prince with the content of Mubarak and Ben Ali. It went over like the proverbial…

The answer is that Libya does not seem to be represented in the U.S. for public relations purposes.  The only agent of the Great Socialist People’s Arab Jamahiriya registered with the Justice Department (in 2008) is the law firm of White and Case LLP.  The contract is limited to legal services in connection with U.S. litigation matters pending against Libya.

I’ve often wondered why foreign governments have PR representation in the U.S., when most of what the PR firms do should be done by embassies.  But Libya obviously needs something more than its embassy if last night’s performance by the heir apparent is the best its authorities can do.  A few of Libya’s diplomats and reportedly the Justice Minister have resigned, Gaddafi has  gone underground and his democracy-touting, LSE-educated preferred son should be in hiding by today too.

The outcome in Libya is still uncertain, but it is not likely to be as peaceful or as consensual as what appears to be happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.  While reports are sketchy, it appears demonstrators have seized military supplies, and the regime still maintains tight control of the capital.  Of course net result could also be more definitive than in other places, one way or the other.

The map of Tripoli is courtesy of BBC.  Thank you!

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Qadhafi bets all or nothing

Libya, a country with no constitution and officially no chief of state, is turning into the next test for popular revolution in the Middle East/North Africa. De facto autocrat Muammar Qadhafi is using military force and foreign troops (believed to be mostly from Chad) to try to repress popular rebellion, which is strongest in the eastern city of Benghazi.

An oil rentier state that depends on petroleum for 80% of its government revenue, Qadhafi enters the fray with a sterling survival record:  he has ruled since a military coup in 1969, despite supporting terrorism and rebellion abroad in the 1970s and 1980s, the downing of Pan Am 103 by a Libyan agent in 1992, his decision to give up terrorism and the pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003, and an extraordinary number of more bizarre incidents in between.  Here he is giving one of many over the top speeches:

Can this strange man get away with turning off the internet, using deadly force on protesters and hold on to control of his jamahiriya (state of the masses)? He is apparently drawing on both his army and foreign mercenaries for the purpose, but there are signs the regime is cracking: people are speaking out in their own names, some troops are said to have come over to the side of the protesters, there are rumors that Qadhafi has left the country and his son Saif al Islam is right now blaming it all on drug-crazed, drunk protesters who want to divide Libya, establish Islamic emirates and precipitate foreign intervention.  He offers reform, money, local control, a constitution.  He says the army is with Qadhafi. The regime or chaos is his overall message.  Sound familiar?

It could be the final cry of a dying regime, but a lot depends on the wisdom of the protesters:  they need to maintain nonviolent discipline, keep their numbers high, reach out to the security forces and try to get a bit more international news coverage.

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Bahrain gets smart, others continue crackdowns

Bahrain’s monarchy got smart today, withdrawing the tanks and the police, allowing Pearl square to fill again with protesters, sending the Crown Prince out to give a conciliatory speech, and telling the protesters they could stay, presumably as long as they are peaceful. The Crown Prince is talking reform, sectarian harmony, dialogue. A smart move that went over well, to judge from the limited evidence available from my Twitter feed (credit to @SultanAlQassemi and @Emile_Houkayem). And now more evidence from CNN:

No such conciliatory moves elsewhere. Libya, with its internet communications cut off, is reportedly killing dozens of protesters and trying to scare the rest into submission. Benghazi is especially restive. Yemen has unleashed thugs and police in both Sanaa and Aden. Algeria walloped a small demonstration with obviously excessive force, presumably as a lesson to others. Iran continues its crackdown, which faces the challenge of a big “Green Movement” demonstration called for tomorrow. Saudi Arabia, obviously nervous, is denying it has any problems, even as it detains political activists in anticipation of demonstrations called for March 11.

It is of course impossible to predict where and when a popular revolution will succeed in one of these anachrocies (that’s my word for a regime that has outlived its legitimacy). None of them seem to me immune. A lot depends on the capabilities of the organizers to turn out a big crowd that crosses social divides, stays nonviolent despite provocations, and attracts some international attention. But I might bet today on the Khalifa monarchy outlasting the others.

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Why the violence?

Violence isn’t new to the wave of Tunisian flu that is sweeping through the Arab world, but it seems to be getting worse, hitting Bahrain, Libya and Yemen during more or less the past 24 hours.

Why?

The short answer:  this is the regime response to seeing the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt taken down.  While some accounts are not clear, it is certain that the violence in Bahrain this morning was initiated by the police, who attacked a peaceful (and mostly sleeping) encampment in Pearl Square unprovoked.  Police and allied thugs seem to have been initiating violence in Yemen as well.  The accounts of events in Libya are sketchy, but I would bet that there too the police are rioting.  Kings and presidents are concluding that Ben Ali’s mistake was to flee without a fight and Mubarak’s was to step down without cracking down.

How should peaceful protesters deal with this development?  They are unlikely to beat the police and thugs in a street fight.  What they need to do is mass greater numbers, stay particularly attentive at night, befriend the security forces, beef up their connectedness to foreign and domestic journalists, and make sure their own cadres include people from across the social, ethnic, sectarian and other divides.  If they can’t do these things, they need to stay away from confrontation until they can.

You can also hope that the Americans will be telling the regimes in Sanaa and Manama that crackdowns of the sort they are pursuing are counterproductive and likely to spawn more violence.  But I doubt Washington has all that much sway in either place at the moment, and they surely don’t want one of those regimes to fall without a safety net in place.

President Saleh is no doubt declaring himself indispensable to the war on Al Qaeda, but there really isn’t much time before the “use by” date on that bag of potatoes.  One way or another, he is finished within the next few years (if not the next few months).  Time to get some sort of safety net in place, preferably a more democratic one with some prospect of holding north and south together by sharing power between them.

Qadhafi is of no concern in Washington–they would just as soon he take his tent to the desert.

But the Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain is a real dilemma for the Americans.  You know:  5th fleet vs. the possibility of a Shia (some presume Iranian-dominated) regime.  But the question for the Americans (and for the regime) is whether the kind of police riot the monarchy indulged in this morning will make things better or worse.  My bet is worse, maybe much worse if it turns what has been a mild-mannered expression of dissent into a sectarian war that the Sunnis are likely to lose. It is not enough for the monarchy to have allowed municipal and legislative elections last fall.  And the 5th fleet is more in danger from getting behind the curve than getting out in front of it.  Mr. Obama needs to remember what he said about universal rights–they won’t stop at Manama.

Nor should they if they are going to make it all the way to Tehran, where in many respects the violence and crackdown is at its worst.  That is the good news:  the theocracy is feeling threatened by Tunisian flu.  It dreads the fate of Mubarak, as well it should.

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