I’ve been trying to add to my knowledge of the Arab countries now in the “massacring-their-people” stage. All of the big powers have both rewarded and connived with Colonel Qaddafi to keep him and his family in power for 42 years. Not, by the way, that he is a king or anything. Moreover, he is not the first of the military colonels in the Arab world to take control of the state and turn it into a “revolutionary socialist” regime, so-called. More formally: the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. It’s been in power since 1969, which makes it the oldest continually ruling one-man regime in the world.
Anyway, in my search for new viewpoints on the Arab world, I came across an article by Stephen Walt, who is the Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard (his chair was donated to the Kennedy School by a good Zionist family; so much for the control bought by Jewish money) and co-author with John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, of The Israel Lobby,in which I play a supporting role. I’ve written about this book on The Spine and so have others in TNR like Jeffrey Goldberg.
Walt’s Libya article was published in Foreign Policy barely a year ago. So it has the reassuring quality of being up-to-date. In the few hours he had in Tripoli, the capital city, he had the opportunity to talk with various high officials and get a real feel for the country. Here’s part of what he had to say on January 18, 2010:
My own view (even before I visited) is that the improvement of U.S.-Libyan relations as one of the few (only?) success stories in recent U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Twenty-five years ago, Libya and the United States were bitter antagonists: U.S. and Libyan warplanes clashed on several occasions in the Gulf of Sidra, and Libyan agents bombed a discotheque in Germany that was frequented by U.S. soldiers. U.S. aircraft attacked Libya more than once, targeting Qaddafion at least one occasion (and killing his adopted daughter Hannah). Libya was also held responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 (though some recent accounts have questioned its culpability) and it had an active WMD development program and received substantial nuclear weapons technology from the illicit A. Q Khan network.
Yet a fortuitous combination of multilateral sanctions, patient diplomacy, and Libyan re-thinking has produced a noticeable detente in recent years. In a rare display of policy continuity, the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations managed to simultaneously keep the pressure on and keep the door to reconciliation open. (Great Britain played a key role here too, and the effort may have succeeded precisely because Washington remained in the background). This effort paid off in when Libya agreed to dismantle all of its WMD programs in 2003 and to re-engage with the West. (A key part of that deal, by the way, was George W. Bush’s decision to explicitly renounce the goal of “regime change,” in sharp contrast to his approach to some other countries.)
Libya has also been a valuable ally in the “war on terror” (having had its own problems with Islamic radicals), and Ghaddafi’s son Saif reportedly played a key role in persuading a Libyan-based al Qaeda affiliate to renounce terrorism and to denounce Osama bin Laden last year. Overall, the remarkable improvement in U.S.-Libyan relations reminds us that deep political conflicts can sometimes be resolved without recourse to preventive war or “regime change.” One hopes that the United States and Libya continue to nurture and build a constructive relationship, and that economic and political reform continues there. (I wouldn’t mind seeing more dramatic political reform—of a different sort—here too). The United States could use a few more friends in that part of the world.
What an insightful man Walt is.
But other less pretentiously identified people—not a “professor of international affairs at Harvard”—report other facts out of Libya.
Take, for example, The New York Times dispatch this morning by David M. Kirkpatrick and Mona El-Naggar in which “witnesses” from Tripoli described the capital as a war zone. Or the Reuters report about a “weeping Libyan [who] says 26 die in coastal town attack.” Apparently, airplanes and helicopters were used to spray protestors more or less at random. Estimates of the dead ranged from 500 to 700 half a day ago.
Walt has not been heard from with reference to his year-ago evocation of this wonderful country. He began that article with a citation to Sidney Verba, a much wiser professor of government at Harvard, who had said that one should not write anything about a country one hasn’t flown over. Having spent half a day there, however, Walt was encouraged to judge the country’s politics and its culture without a drop of doubt.
He has written this week again in Foreign Policy not maybe to express second thoughts about the murderous place he praised so fulsomely a year ago. Walt perorates about Israel, on which he’s always been a cheat, and about America and those of its citizens whom he considers disloyal. This time, however, Walt has gone over the top because he, in a cowardly manner, has effectively accused President Obama of caving to the Jewish—oops, no—the Israel lobby. Jewish interests over American interests and the wrong side of history, besides.
Now back to the hundreds of Libyan dead and their murder by the government which Walt thinks so civilized. I have been pilloried for observing that Muslim life is too often cheap to other Muslims. But in the case of Libya’s dictator, this sadly seems to be the case.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.