Blast From the Past

27 03 2011

“All this has happened before, and it will happen again.”

Since last I added anything to this blog, a massive amount of newsworthy stuff has happened. I’ll take them in order of importance (in my opinion).

Despite the fact that various celebrities have been doing their best to distract us, the US public has actually been paying attention to non-celebrity-related information. Granted, that non-celebrity-related information is pretty important stuff, but this has never before been an impediment to the feckless American public from quickly losing interest once some media-celebrated attention whore exposes a nipple, says something desperately stupid, or drives a car into a school bus full of nuns. It’s as if the general population in the US wasn’t composed entirely of thick-skulled sub-morons with the attention spans of drunken gnats. Who are these people, and what have they done with the easily-distracted masses of citizens we’ve all come to expect?

Next on the agenda is an agenda. Various state politicians seem to be bent on re-making the country in their image- one state at a time. This would be less of a problem if that image was not a dystopian wasteland filled with technopeasants and their corporate overlords. Worse, these politicians seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that they have the power to do so despite all evidence and case law to the contrary. Between the upper mid-west states trying to destroy public employee unions, the regularly-scheduled xenophobic legislation coming out of Arizona, and the nonsensical rulings of the Texas Commission To Replace All Book Larnin With The Bible, the overall results of the last big election cycle has been a non-stop churn of Willful Public Stupidity- with a side order of Political Hubris. Assuming the voting public can maintain their current level of attention to such important matters, the next election ought to be a doozy.

One of the situations which has maintained its odd grasp on the American attention span is Libya. While the world dithered about no-fly zones, the rebels in Libya were learning the age-old lesson of what happens when enthusiastic but unskilled mobs encounter trained killers with few morals but lots of good equipment. After getting almost to the outskirts of Tripoli, the undisciplined rebels started getting their collective asses handed to them by Gaddafi’s remaining cadre of troops plus the few thousand mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa the “Brother Leader” had managed to hire. In the space of a week, the rebels had gone from knocking on the gates of Tripoli to desperately trying to protect Benghazi. Literally in the nick of time, the French, British, and US cavalry arrived to save the day- sort of. The Libyan military has the same relationship to the modern militaries of the US, France, and Britain that the rebels had to the Libyan military. No contest. Without landing a single soldier (despite the presence of 1200 Marines off the coast), the international coalition enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya eviscerated Gaddafi’s armored units wherever they were spotted out in the open. This had the effect of breaking the siege of Benghazi- arguably a good thing, since Gaddafi had made very clear his intent to send his killers through the city house by house to eliminate the rebels. It also had the unintended effect of sending the surviving Libyan armor into the cities. Such is the case with Misurata, where Libyan tanks are indiscriminately shelling the city- slaughtering civilians while simultaneously using the proximity of civilians to protect them from air strikes.

Personally, I do not agree with the current UN decision (although I understand it). If the idea was to protect the civilian population, air power alone won’t be enough. Either go in with everything (politically untenable), or look the other way while Gaddafi slaughters the rebels and sows the smoking ruins with salt. The UN in particular and the world in general have a long history of choosing the latter. We collectively sat on our asses while innocents were butchered in Rwanda and Darfur, for example. While I’m on the subject, we’re doing exactly that in the case of Ivory Coast and Bahrain. Either shit or get off the pot. If the international community is going to use force to protect innocent lives, we need to do so across the board. That includes Chechnya, Iran, Ivory Coast, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and any other place where unrest threatens to destroy the lives of innocent civilians. If we (the international community) are willing to use military force against the sovereign government to protect Libyan civilians, then the same rules should apply to Britain, Russia, France, China, and the US as well.

Lastly, we look at Japan. The earthquake was bad enough- the worst in Japan’s history- but Japanese engineers have been building in anticipation of just such a calamity. The buildings and infrastructure adequately withstood the shaking. The tsunami was another matter. Nothing man-made was going to do much good in the face of a thirty-foot wall of water with enough water behind it to reach sixty miles (one hundred kilometers) inland. The catastrophic effects of the tsunami (upwards of ten thousand dead and hundreds of thousands displaced) have actually been overshadowed by another effect of the tsunami- the damage to the nuclear reactors at Fukushima.

Better authors have covered the “Nuclear Power for Dummies” and “Radiation Exposure for Dummies”, so I won;t belabor those topics. I will ask a cogent question: how is it that the enormous death toll of the tsunami has so completely been eclipsed by the fight to stave off a complete meltdown at Fukushima? Is it just because it involves (insert spooky voice) radiation? At worst, if Fukushima Daichi or Daini melt down, the area will be uninhabitable for a long time. It would probably completely transform Japanese culture and possibly cripple Japan as an industrial nation. That’s just economics. We are not facing the specter of huge numbers of dead people from a meltdown, and everything else can be dealt with. We are facing the reality of large numbers of actual people who are facing lack of food, water, and medical care because everything that could have dealt with those problems was destroyed by the tsunami. Not potential victims- actual real live people. Let’s do what we (the international community again) can to help those people so the Japanese government can focus on the fight at Fukushima.

Speaking of Fukushima, there are fifty or so people still at the plant, fighting to get power restored and keep the reactors cool. These people are firefighters, engineers, and middle managers, for the most part. Every last one of them volunteered for the job, despite the knowledge that they were risking their lives. It’s been a couple of weeks, and already several of them have fallen victim to high doses of radiation. The rest of them are still on site, desperately fighting to repair damage caused by a thirty-foot wall of water and the subsequent problems with the reactor systems. If you pray, add these men and women to your prayers. I do not pray, but I am awestruck by their heroism. The least we can do is make sure their sacrifice is not in vain.

Current status: Humbled

Current music: Waiting for the End by Linkin Park

The Shores of Tripoli

7 03 2011

A most un-civil war is going on in Libya. It hasn’t been getting a great deal of press here in the States, but the rest of the world is watching.

By the way, There are somewhere on the order of two hundred different ways to spell the name of the Libyan leader, and the man has been known to use at least three different variations of the spelling himself, so I’m not gonna get into it. I’ll use the spelling I got from Al Jazeera over the weekend and stick with that. Feel free to get outraged or annoyed by my choice.

After more than four decades, a lot of the people in Libya have finally had enough of the “Brother Leader”. Most of the eastern half of the country is in open revolt, and Qaddafi’s influence appears to be mainly limited to the area immediately around Tripoli and a few partisan strongholds such as his home town of Sirte. Here’s a map:

The map belies the real picture, of course. Libya only has about six million people, and two million of them live in Tripoli. Even with that advantage, he seems to have thoroughly botched the response to the initial demonstrations last month. In the face of peaceful protests, Qaddafi sent in armed goons who had no compunction about using live munitions against their own citizens. When some of his troops refused to fire on fellow Libyans, Qaddafi reportedly had several hundred of them executed by more “loyal” troops. When he started losing control of some of his military units, he resorted to hiring mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. At the moment (subject to change on short notice), Qaddafi seems to have a large percentage of his core military units on his side, along with several thousand security personnel within Tripoli, an unknown number of mercenaries (many of whom seem to lack even basic military training), and the members of his home tribe, the Gaddadfa. This makes the numerical odds slightly in the rebels’ favor, offset significantly by the better training and equipment among the loyalist troops (units of which are commanded by his sons).

After managing to really piss off a significant percentage of his remaining populace, Ka-Daffy was somehow surprised when the peaceful protests turned to open revolt. The initial successes of the rebels may have been a surprise, but Qaddafi had only himself to blame. Aside from his monumentally thick-headed response to the initial protests, Qaddafi has been segregating and isolating his people for forty years to prevent any serious rivals from emerging. As an unintended consequence of his political maneuvering, the isolated segments of Libyan society finally managed to find common ground: They really hated Qaddafi’s guts, and were in no mood to accept the “Brother Leader’s” son as the new head of the government. The scattered tribes and fragmented social groups within Libya didn’t have much else to lose, either- especially after Qaddafi declared he would hunt them down house by house. Now, it’s win or die.

So far, there has been a lot of dying in Libya. Unconfirmed estimates of the death toll keep spiralling into the multiples of thousands, and Qaddafi’s remaining “loyal” military seem to be going out of their way to attack hospitals being used by the opposition. There have been documented cases of Libyan tanks firing on hospitals in rebel-held territory, and loyalist troops have been seen riding in commandeered ambulances, firing indiscriminately into crowds. Helicopter gunships and strike aircraft have also been employed against civilian populations, although these incidents are becoming less common. Qaddafi (or his advisors) might be getting leery of possible international intervention if he keeps bombing unarmed civilians, or they might just be conserving fuel and ammo in the face of arms embargoes and a huge lot of actual armed civilians to use for target practice.

A word about international intervention. A great deal of blather has been forthcoming from many quarters about the lack of a coherent international response to the de-facto civil war in Libya. Some of this blather has been coming from Libyans fighting Qaddafi, in a weird sort of mixed message Americans should be familiar with by now. The rebels are almost universally of the opinion that they do not want foreigners getting involved, followed almost immediately with plaintive queries as to why the international community is not getting involved. I heard an interview on NPR this afternoon with a man fighting Qaddafi who said firmly that Libyans did not want any foreign help, but that they would remember who did not help them. I’m pretty sure that is a textbook definition of “discontinuity of meaning”.

In reality, there is a lot the international community could do, but not a lot that the international community could do as a matter of practicality. Among the rich western nations who could waltz in a declare peace at gunpoint (and make it stick), there exists a fiction commonly referred to as “international law”. This fiction has no basis in objective reality except for the fact that those rich western nations believe it does. Confused? Don’t be.

As long as the North Americans and Europeans believe that international laws have some effect, then those international laws have an effect. That effect may be largely in preventing the Europeans and North Americans from getting mixed up in messes like Libya, but it is a real effect- whether or not other countries routinely violate those same rules when it suits them. You see, the Europeans and North Americans also violate the rules when it suits them, but they feel bad about it afterward. A lot of the populations in Europe and North America do try to make their governments at least pay lip service to international law, with varying degrees of success based upon national temperment and how bad off a given country is economically.

That brings us to a weird little episode in the Great Libyan Tragedy/Farce- the arrest and detention in Libya of six SAS troops and two junior diplomats from the UK over the weekend. I’ve never worked with the Special Air Service, but I’ve worked with some American special-forces types who have. The SAS has a well-deserved reputation for being tough, disciplined, and very, very dangerous. The only way any group of SAS troopies could get captured by Libyan security guards near Benghazi would be if the SAS were under orders not to resist. The fact that the Opposition party in Parliament has been trying to make political hay over the incident is not exactly playing fair. The Government can’t explain the actual facts in open debate, and the Loyal Opposition knows this, so they’re trying to parlay the incident into a general impression that the Government has dropped the ball in this particular foreign mess.

Speaking of foreign messes, what should the international community do about the civil war in Libya? Visibly aiding one side or the other is politically undesirable, because it sets a horrible precedent which may come back and bite the ass of the intervening country when they have internal problems. Sitting back and watching what happens, while the preferred method of statecraft throughout the last few centuries, has the disadvantage of having a ring-side seat for the odd genocide (see Rwanda and Darfur for recent examples). Furthermore, the Libyan rebels do not want a few thousand US Marines coming ashore to deal with Qaddafi for them. Even at the cost of several thousand dead young Libyans (who have next-to-no training and have been trying to overcome well-equipped regulars with enthusiasm, AK-47s, and- sometimes- sticks), I tend to agree. If Libya frees itself from Qaddafi, the Libyans deserve to do it on their terms. If they ask for help, I think we should give it to them, but I want the Libyans to win.

So, what do we do? My suggestion would be to fly in planeloads of medical supplies and ambulances to Benghazi. Those cannot possibly be construed as military aid- except by that loon Qaddafi, of course. To assuage Qaddafi fears that the aircraft are bringing in only medical supplies and ambulances, allow a Libyan government observer (strictly supervised by a squad of Marines) and someone from the International Red Cross/Crescent examine each aircraft before it lifts off. So long as only medical supplies and ambulances are being delivered, there’s no harm in this program. If Qaddafi or his flunkies don’t agree or don’t like it, warn them very thoroughly that any attempt to interfere with the delivery of humanitarian aid will result in a large-scale repeat of the US bombing of Libya in 1986. In fact, every time a plane with Libyan markings comes within three hundred kilometers of one of the aid flights, NATO should destroy a few Libyan aircraft on general principles. After a couple of iterations of this program, Qaddafi will either stop or run out of aircraft.

On the ground, in the meantime, it’s turning into a meatgrinder. Qaddafi’s troops have better training and equipment, and a lot more of it. This is bad for the rebels. Unfortunately for Qaddafi, he can’t unleash all of that military might on the rebels, because a large portion of those forces are busy keeping the lid on in Tripoli and other areas controlled by the government. Pull those troops out of Tripoli to smash the rebels in Ras Lanuf, for example, and the populace in Tripoli might overwhelm the security forces left behind. All told, dear old Muamar is in a tough spot. I think that’s a good thing.


Current status: Interested

Current music: This Is Why We Fight by the Decemberists