Libya: This Is War, Bloody and Terrible? Scarcely
Libya has dislodged from the headlines a nuclear catastrophe in Japan — on top of a seismic one — that's one of the epic dramas of the past half-century, and what's doubly weird is that the actual fighting in Libya is a series of tiny skirmishes of scant consequence.
The muscle-bound adjectives and nouns used to describe the military engagements — if they even deserve that word — in press reports remind me of a Chihuahua trying to mount a Newfoundland. Ambition far outstrips reality, which in this case is a nervous rabble of insurgents — maybe 1,500 or so at most — posing for television crews and then fleeing back down the road to the next village (or "strategic stronghold") at the first whiff of trouble.
This is a very small war. By my count, the mighty armies contending along the highway west of Benghazi would melt into the bleachers at a college baseball game. News stories suggest mobile warfare on the scale of the epic dramas of the Kursk salient in World War II. But most of the action revolves around one tank. I've seen it in hundreds of video feeds, the graffiti on its turret always the same.
Like the tooth passed from witch to witch in Greek myth, this tank performs many functions. Maybe that's why there's endless bickering about whether the U.N. resolution covers the supply of arms and heavy equipment. The war's PR men want to freshen up the visuals.
Everything is out of proportion. Gadhafi is scarcely the epitome of monstrosity conjured up by President Obama, Mrs. Clinton or Nicolas Sarkozy. In four decades, Libyans have gone from being among the most wretched in Africa to considerable elevation in terms of social amenities. Obama's hands are stained with more blood than the man who has given the world endless diversion through two generations. In terms of evil deeds, is Gadhafi a Mobutu, a Bokassa or any American president? Surely not.
Obama's speech this week, belatedly seeking to rationalize his latest war, was ludicrously disproportionate too: high-toned, offensive treacle about America's special role as savior of the afflicted, ladled over one more plateful of folly in the nation's downward slide.
These "humanitarian interventions" follow a familiar script: demonization, hand in hand with romantic effusions about the demon's opponents, whether the Albanian Mafiosi tarted up as freedom-loving Kosovars, or the Mujahideen in Afghanistan reinvented as Robin Hoods of the Hindu Kush.
The U.S.-led war on Iraq in 1991 included a propaganda campaign that produced such triumphs as the babies allegedly hurled by Saddam's troops from their respirators in a Kuwait hospital — a fraud I think I can claim to have been the first to expose.
Last week, I outlined some of the evidence that the freedom fighters of Benghazi might have close connections to al-Qaida, and since then, it's become a matter of some embarrassment to the NATO coalition. A senior Pentagon commander says, yes, there are intelligence reports suggesting an al-Qaida connection.
The Daily Beast this week had a very loosely sourced story about Libyans fighting with the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal area — some 200 — packing up and heading home to carry the torch of Islamic fundamentalism against Gadhafi and presumably the Great Satan shortly thereafter. There were reports relayed to the pope by Franciscan monks in eastern Libyan about these same al-Qaida connections. The pope was concerned enough to dispatch a special Vatican envoy to the London conference.
Shaukat Qadir, formerly a brigadier in Pakistan's army, and with excellent intelligence connections instructively deployed in his reports for CounterPunch, emailed me Wednesday night from Lahore that "Every single Muslim majority country has its share of Muslim extremists; it should be no surprise that Libya has some too. However, I would like the fellow who authored the Beast piece to tell me which individual in the Haqqani group the Beast's source has contacts with? To my knowledge Libyans in Afghanistan/Pakistan are less than 20 and, while some might have left, I have not heard of an exodus. I do not know if the Beast piece is a US government plant for justification but it is a carefully woven piece mixing little fact with lots of fiction."
It requires no great prescience to see that this will all end up badly. Gadhafi's failure to collapse on schedule will prompt increasing pressure to start a ground war, since the NATO operation is in terms of prestige, like the banks Obama has bailed out, too big to fail.
Libya will probably be Balkanized. The "allies" will stab each other in the back, seeking advantage. It's all reminiscent of Charles Dickens' great description at the start of "A Tale of Two Cities": "The Dover mail was in its usual genial position that the guard suspected the passengers, the passengers suspected one another and the guard, they all suspected everybody else, and the coachman was sure of nothing but the horses; as to which cattle he could with a clear conscience have taken his oath on the two Testaments that they were not fit for the journey."
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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