Declassified CIA Files Confirm US Support of Saddam in Gasing Iran

Note that this has been widely-known that the US supported Iraq in various ways during the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s;  these recently declassified files merely confirming it further. As Foreign Policy notes:

In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.

The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.

U.S. officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks, insisting that Hussein’s government never announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” he told Foreign Policy.

And here is the most chilling part for me:

But the CIA documents, which sat almost entirely unnoticed in a trove of declassified material at the National Archives in College Park, Md., combined with exclusive interviews with former intelligence officials, reveal new details about the depth of the United States’ knowledge of how and when Iraq employed the deadly agents. They show that senior U.S. officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks. They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.

Needless to say, I’m pretty sure this is one reason the Iranians haven’t been very cooperative, in addition to the US-backed coup against their democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953, and our subsequent installment and support up of the authoritarian Shah thereafter. Given that many other Western government and firms also supported Iraq in its war, Iran’s cynical and isolationist foreign policy isn’t surprising.

This isn’t to leave its authoritarian government off the hook either, however; this  merely allows them to find more legitimacy for their refusal to work with the US, a feeling that has in any case been mutual.

The Arab Spring’s Best Photos

From Foreign Policy:

Photojournalists John Moore and Peter Madiarmid — along with Chris Hondros, who was killed last year while reporting in Libya — were announced as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography on Monday. In naming the three Getty photographers as finalists, the Committee cited “their brave coverage of revolutionary protests known as the Arab Spring, capturing the chaos and exuberance as ordinary people glimpsed new possibilities.” Here are some of their most iconic shots.

Click here to see some of their award-winning work.

The Massacre at Homs

As I write this, the Syrian city of Homs is being brutally assaulted by government forces, which are reportedly repressing more demonstrations in at least a dozen cities throughout the country. The regime’s cruelty is boundless, as even young children are targeted. The following slideshow gives just a small, mostly atmospheric glimpse into this bloody crackdown.

Incredibly, the beleaguered citizens are still unrelenting in their protests. Were I in their position, I honestly don’t know if I would have ever kept it going at this point. Human will is a remarkable thing.

If you so choose, you can read more about my reflections on this conflict herePlease feel free to weigh in.

Syria’s Struggle and the Question of Intervention

A member of the Free Syrian Army stands guard as anti-Syrian regime protesters hold a demonstration in Idlib, Syria, Feb. 6. The US closed its Syrian embassy Monday and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a dramatic escalation of Western pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up power, just days after diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to end the crisis collapsed. AP Photo

After nearly a year of civil strife and mass protest, the Syrian regime has still managed to cling to power, killing over 5,000 people in the process. Its brutality and cunning have so far assured its survival, at a great cost to innocent lives, and though violence is nonetheless escalating to a near-civil war, there seems to be no foreseeable end to the bloodshed.

The courage and tenacity of the Syrian people astounds me. Their efforts have been periodically written off every time the army unleashes its artillery, tanks, and snipers to obliterate any demonstration. Yet they’ve continued to reemerge against all odds, no matter how much the regime ratchets up its barbarity. It’s become a battle of willpower, a game of chicken – who will give in first?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to face such overwhelming odds without ever backing down. The choice between your life and oppression is not an easy one to make, and I’m eternally grateful I don’t have to worry about it. It seems that they have so little to lose after decades of despotism, that the risks are inconsequential. How else can we explain this so-far unconquerable urge for freedom no matter the cost?

It saddens me to see a people strive to better their conditions, only to be put down like cattle. So many innocent people have died, and continue to die even as we speak. I’m typing away about their fate, powerless to do anything about it. While I go about my daily routine in my comfortable life, their being starved, tortured, terrorized and massacred, all for the heinous crime of demanding a say in their own future.

This recent video from CNN was particularly heartbreaking. The country looks increasingly like a war zone, and neither side seems to be prevailing with any certain. I fear this conflict will continue to drag on, bleeding the country dry for some time. You can hear the deep sadness and hopelessness of the activist being interview, and most palpably the sense of frustration: while the Syrians get butchered for their efforts, the world is impotent to do anything about it (Russ and China recently vetoed a UN resolution that would have condemned the atrocities).

But what can the world do? Syria is a populous country with a far stronger state and security apparatus. It’s religious and ethnic diversity may give way to Iraq-style sectarian violence once the regime were to be toppled. Getting involved may cause more problems than anything.
Besides, no country is in the position to intervene, even if it were sure to work. Aside from the considerable lack of public support for any overseas venture, any operation effective enough to dislodge the regime would require boots on the ground, and an expensive and long-term commitment that most currently cash-strapped nations can’t afford. Furthermore, many people, me included, would doubt the humanitarian sincerity of any intervention, given the long precedent of strategic selectiveness.
So all we can do is watch and hope? Provide moral support and solidarity, but nothing more practical? Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may work, including freezing the bank accounts of state officials and banning them from travel. But will that really bring down a government fighting for its life and privilege? Who’s to say it won’t hurt ordinary Syrians more, given that they’re already enduring food and water shortages due to both government action and economic turmoil.
Its times like this that I wish we had superheroes, someone who could fly in like Superman and pummel those tanks and artillery units. I wish there was a standing UN army that could rapidly deploy to defend besieged citizens from their malicious rulers. Even in an era of increasing globalization and interconnectedness, we’re still unable and unwilling to address the periodic violence that is exercised with impunity. Some would argue that it’s for the better, given the capacity for abuse and mishandling. I sometimes wonder if someday that won’t be the case, and the world as a whole will be a better governed place.
I know that’s just the nature of this complex and disunited world; I know that there are too many dynamics and factors involved, across economic, social, political, diplomatic, and military spectrums. But that doesn’t make me any less saddened, no matter how many times I’ve had to see and study it over the years. All I can do is watch, wait, and hope. My heart goes out to the people of Syria. I think the regime is weakening, and that its fall will be inevitable. But it’ll come at a heavy cost, and there’s no telling what will come after. Syrians will have no choice but to press on. They’re fighting for their own fate after all, so perhaps it’s ultimately fitting that they do so on their terms.
Be grateful for your freedoms and comforts. Never take any of it for granted. I should be so lucky to be sitting here, in comfort and stability, upset about the fate of others fighting for what I was so fortunate to have, by mere accident of birth.

What Children in Saudi Arabia Are Taught

Saudi Arabia is infamous for its repressive and quasi-theocratic regime, and its vast human rights abuses. Indeed, it is one of the world’s few absolute monarchies (it’s called Saudi Arabia after all, denoting ownership of the state by the ruling Saud family). The Saudi government imposes and enforces an extremely conservative and rigid form of Islam known as Wahhabism, which among other things relegates women to the role of second-class citizens (though many of them are well-educated), criminalizes homosexuality and blasphemy with death, imposes harsh punishments such as public floggings and beheadings, and stifles any criticism of Islam or the authorities.

While there’s been an effort for reform and moderation (including from within some elements of the government), and while many Saudi Arabians are far from pleased with the state of their country or this extremism, the religious and political authorities (who are often one and the same) retain a strong grip on security forces, the media, the judiciary, and – perhaps most damaging – education.

The following are excerpts from a twelfth-grade textbook from Saudi Arabia, Studies From the Muslim World, which is standard across every school in the nation. It covers many of the subjects you’d find in any other textbook, but also includes virulently anti-Semitic propaganda, especially in a chapter devoted to Palestine and the Palestinian cause.

The struggle with the Jews is not political but religious. (Page 91):

Whoever studies the nature of the conflict between the Muslims and the Jews understands an important fact, [namely that] this is a religious conflict, not a dispute about politics or nationality, or a conflict between races or tribes, or a fight over land or country, as some describe it. This is a deeply rooted enmity, a conflict between truth and falsehood, between monotheism and polytheism, between heresy and faith.

There has in fact been a growing religious dimension between Arabs and Jews involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was initially more of a territorial and ethnic dispute. It’s hotly debated as to whether religion is just another instrument of furthering each side’s cause, or whether it is actually a catalyst in and of itself. I’m honestly undecided, as I’ve seen convincing arguments for both propositions. Perhaps it’s a mix of the two?

The Jews spread corruption, fitna (chaos, conflict) and conspiracies. (Pages 91-92)

In modern times, Jewish influence has cut deeply into several Western countries, and [the Jews] have taken control of their economies and media. These countries were exploited for the Jews’ benefit, and the two sides [i.e., the Jews and the West joined forces and] combined their interests in order to wipe out Islam. . . .”[After] the Jews strayed from the correct religion brought [to them] by Moussa [Moses], peace be upon him, they did not take root in any land, nor did they legally own any land. They wandered in [various] regions, for wandering from place to place and being divided is in their nature. The Jews lived as oppressed minorities throughout the world, and caused corruption in every land they entered. In every country where they settled, they were a source of trouble and fitna [struggle or conflict]. They build up their confidence by frightening others, which is why the peoples hated them and why they came to be known for their deceit and cunning.

The well-known special relationship between the United States and Israel no doubt comes to mind. Many Muslims (and non-Muslim Arabs for that matter) view a perverse nexus between Jews and the Western world; most actions undertaken unilaterally by either Israel or America are commonly viewed as having the support of the other – the actions of each state are almost indistinguishable.

Again, there’s a debate about causality here: did Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia already view the Jewish people as pernicious influencers and power-brokers (an age-old stereotype long prevalent in the West as well), or did this emerge ipso facto as an explanation for the political and military alliance that has bounded the two states, and presumably their strategic interests, together?

The Qur’an describes the corruption of the Jews (Pages 92-94)

The noble Koran is the best source to acquaint us with the [Jews’] personality and psychological makeup. The expressions ‘Jews’ and ‘Children of Israel’ appear more than 63 times in the book of Allah, may He be exalted. They were the nation charged with ruling the earth, but Allah took their [role of] leadership away from them due to their corruption and destructiveness, and because they killed the prophets. The following are a few brief descriptions of some of their traits, as they appear in the noble Koran…

You can read the link for more details, but among the traits and condemnations listed are the attacking of Allah, the killing of the prophets, lying, deception, sinning, bigotry, deviousness, cowardice, envy, and a “lust for life,” which I’ve interpreted to be reference to the lack of emphasis on martyrdom in Judaism (though the concept does indeed exist, albeit not to the degree that extreme Islamists no doubt would prefer).

Such deep-seated hostility towards Jews is curious, given the Koran’s many positive pronouncements about the Jewish people (often regarded as fellow “People of the Book). Of course, there are also less-than-flattering lines about them as well, which goes back to a common problem among many religions: the existence of contradictory, ambivalent, or ambiguous teachings that are codified within a presumably inerrant text. As in Christianity, both liberal and fundamentalist religious people can draw justification for their respective theological view from the same source, even if it contradicts. But that’s for a different post.

After reviewing just a sample of this, is it any surprise that Saudi Arabia churns out so many murderous Jihadists, from the masterminds to the foot-soldiers? I imagine many of these people would never have ended up as fanatical killers were it not for this sort of perverse propaganda being regularly drilled into them throughout childhood. We’re at our most impressionable in youth.

It disgusts and saddens me to know that millions of children are being indoctrinate this way, ingrained with bigotry and closed-mindedness that they otherwise wouldn’t develop without such teaching drills. Of course, Saudi Arabia is hardly the only offender in corrupting the minds of youth – arguably, there are tens of millions of young people the world over who are being taught similar inanity and hate.

My only consolation is that more and more young people, even in some of the more intellectually blighted areas, are becoming savvy enough in their utilization of communications technology, namely the internet. It’s hard to know for sure, given their obvious secrecy, but I’d like to image that more and more of these young people see through this and other horrible teachings, and know better than to take it seriously.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that a good number don’t, and are lost after years of imprinting that often costs their lives, and possibly other’s.

Note: My attention to Saudi curriculum is strictly a matter of practicality, since I happened to stumble upon this sample textbook. I’m in no way singling out or “picking on” Saudi Arabia or Islam for this sort of thing, as it’s obvious that other ultra-fundamentalist faiths and political ideologies engage in similar practices (I just don’t have the material on hand to discuss it). I also know that propaganda comes in various forms and degrees – even the so-called developed world no doubt engages in subtle but pervading forms of intellectual manipulation. I’d be interested in finding textbooks from other countries, rich and poor, democratic or authoritarian, to see other examples for myself.




A Great Guide to the Arab Spring

As the Arab Spring approaches it’s one year anniversary just a couple of months from now, public attention to this regional upheaval is waning. Interest seemed to have tapered off towards the end of Libya’s Civil War, with a brief boost upon Qaddafi’s death.

Of course, the world goes on even when no one’s looking, and this unfinished event is no exception. Tunisia has just elected it’s leaders, who’s ability to rule remains to be seen; Libya is still trying to build a political system from scratch, while Egypt is once again facing protests and clashes. Meanwhile, violence in both Syrian and Yemen has not subsided, while each of their strongmen’s grip on power appears tenuous.

For anyone interested in keeping up to speed on the status of each nation involved in this upheaval, and to read more about it, check out CNN’s comprehensive page on the unrest in the Arab World. It’s a pretty good resource, and it’s full of up-to-date news as well as opinion pieces on everything from what the future holds, to the challenges that remain. This historical event is far from over, and merits at least a cursory check up.

Images From Tripoli

I know I’ve accorded a disproportionate amount of attention to Libya, and to a lesser extent the Middle-East in general (especially countries affected by the Arab Spring). I suppose I can’t help my romantic attachment to popular revolutions, especially when they seem as close to Manichean as this one is. Take note, however, that I’m well aware of the ambiguity of such things, and of the complex – even potentially devastating – aftermath that follows. But Qaddafi is clearly evil, and the rebels are as close to being the “good guys” as any ragtag alliance of diverse and enigmatic interests can be. I’ll take that for what it’s worth, and hope for the best, whatever my sobering intuition as an IR and Polisci major.

With all that said, here is a brief but captivating slideshow of the aftermath following the rebel takeover of Tripoli, which as of this post remains contested but mostly under the control anti-Qaddafi forces.

End of Days: Photos of Qaddafi’s Last Stand. 

One can only hope it is. The situation is still so precarious. So much could go wrong, and history is full of examples of revolutions being reversed after months of success. Granted, I doubt Qaddafi will ever re-take all of Libya. But it’s still highly probable that the country could be partitioned, or worse still continue in a semi-normal state of steady, intermittent warfare (there are cases of civil wars going on for at least a decade, if not more; pre-secession Sudan was one such example).

But looking at all the joy and excitement that is pouring out of the (mostly) liberated capital, I cannot help but maintain my optimism, however guarded it might be. These pictures show the truly human element of the conflict, one that is all to easy to overlook , since, as in most cases, we see conflict either through facts and figures, or through dehumanizing images of fighters behind masks and uniforms. In these photos, I see people’s faces and expressions; I see a liberation force composed of mostly average, young men tearing down symbols of oppression; i see people making way for a new life, after four decades of stagnation, oppression, and isolation.

I see a lot of hope. If they’re seizing the potential to create a new and free state, however difficult and distant the prospect, then I see a cause for excitement.

A Turning Point in Libya – and the UN?

As of a few days ago, the situation in Libya was starting to seem hopeless. The uprising appeared to be losing it’s momentum ,as Qaddafi’s forces successfully held back the rebel’s efforts to dislodge the bloodthirsty dictator; they even began taking back cities that had fallen under the control of the “Libyan Republic,” also known as the Interim Transitional National Council. Several cities were facing protracted and confusing conflicts, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to determine who was winning where, and what exactly was going on.

Furthermore, as the recent events in Japan shifted the world’s attention away from the Arab uprisings, it seemed the wily Libyan autocrat (and for that matter his Bahraini counterparts) would exploit the opportunity to crush the rebels once and for all. Sitting on billions of dollars of cash, and hunkered down in his fortified headquarters,  Qaddafi had the means to keep the fight going for as long as it’d take. However tenacious and courageous the rebels may be, they would be no match for his resources, especially given his willingness to massacre entire towns in order to pacify them.

All the while, the world was contemplating the typical questions that arise in the face of such a crisis: what do we do? What should we do, if anything? How would we do it? I saw my fair share of diverse perspectives. In the non-interventionist camp was all or some of the following: that this was an internal matter, best left for the Libyans to resolve; that intervention would deligitimize their grassroots efforts; that the US should not, by principle, play the role of global police; and that any involvement would risk civilian lives and muddle us in yet another controversial and expensive Mideast quagmire.

On the other hand, many argued that the international community had an obligation to intervene, due to humanitarian concerns. Qaddafi was brutalizing his own people with mercenaries and his personal security force; the Libyan rebels began their efforts peacefully, and were only fighting to protect themselves and remove their murderous tyrant after four decades of abuse. Most interesting was the argument that the Western powers, after coddling other autocratic regimes in the region, and failing to take a meaningful stand during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, had to atone and do what was right to help the people.

Then there was the argument concerning how to get involved. Almost no one wanted foreign boots on the ground. Rather, the prevailing idea was the enforcement of a no-fly zone, by which foreign air forces would prevent Qaddafi’s planes and gunships from attacking civilians, while also neutralizing his air defenses. This would essentially be “intervention lite” – supporting the rebels and making their efforts easier, while not taking a central role. A similar idea called for arming the rebels directly, though that didn’t seem to get much stock.

Of course, this strategy has it’s own flaws and criticism, and it’s effectiveness is debated. It’s previous uses – during the Bosnian War and in Iraq to protect the Kurds from Saddam during the 1990s – were mixed at best in terms of effectiveness. Many have pointed out that most of the fighting in Libya is occurring between ground forces, and relying on aerial assaults would be incomplete and ineffective in a largely urban conflict. Indeed, while many Libyans – and indeed Arabs throughout the region – had specifically asked for a no-fly zone, a good number also seemed uncertain or downright opposed to the idea.

In any case, all this debate seemed ultimately trivial – every humanitarian crisis spurs analysis, deliberation, and all sorts of journalistic and academic commentary. But rarely does any of it amount to any sort of meaningful policy or action. The powers that be, as well as most of their constituents, fail to seriously take action. There is a long and historic precedence for this, from Rwanda and Somalia, to the situation in Darfur.

Thankfully, this time was different.

The International Community Takes a Stand

In any unusually bold move, the United Nations Security Council approved of a resolution on March 18th calling for the enforcement of a no-fly zone and mandating that international military forces could defend embattled civilians by force (albeit only through aerial and naval means). None of the 15 members voted against the measure, although a few abstained (unsurprisingly Russia and China were among those not to support the measure, though they were widely expected to outright veto the measure rather than back down). It’s always been difficult to get international consensus on anything, let alone something as touchy as foreign intervention. This made the UN’s prompt and practically unanimous decision all the more surprising, especially considering it’s track record. While I obviously would’ve preferred such action to have been taken some weeks ago, I’m still quite pleased that it happened at all.

Following this declaration, several western powers – the US, UK, France, and Canada – commenced with their respective military operations (Operation Odyssey Dawn, Operation Ellamy, Operation Harmattan, and Operation MOBILE). France in particular has been taking a leading role in the crisis; not only was it the first to recognize the Libyan Republic as the legitimate government of the people, but it was among the first to initiate military operations and – as of my writing –  the first to take down several of Qaddafi’s forces. Nearly a dozen other mostly European countries are either directly contributing or otherwise lending their support, with several others expression their intentions to do so.

The effectiveness of all this is still too soon to determine. It’s been verified that several of Qaddafi’s assaults have been held back or thwarted, and so far there are no confirmed civilian deaths (which was a major concern).  Just recently, it was a reported that one of the dictator’s command centers was destroyed, though he remained defiant and continued to claim that he would “fight to the death.” In fact, his forces remain in control of a town near the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, despite supposedly declaring a ceasefire following the passage of the resolution. It looks like the multinational force will be in it for the long-haul, which raises concerns as to the long-term objectives of this conflict. Will Qaddafi concede defeat, or will international forces wind down in response to a protracted conflict? What comes after his fall? What do the foreign powers do then – guide the rebels and help build a new government, or back off and let them take it from there?

My Personal Take on the Subject

I’ve been musing about all these questions myself. As an international relations major, conflict – particularly with respect to humanitarian intervention – is a central topic of concern. There are all sorts of ethical and practical concerns to keep in mind, an no decision, policy, or solution is perfect or entirely acceptable.

Personally, I support intervention in Libya and currently support actions being undertaken by the UN-mandated task force. In my opinion, international involvement is warranted in the face of overwhelming human rights abuses. I understand that in practice, this is a very difficult endeavor: there are dozens of countries in which human rights are regularly abused, and to be involved in all of them militarily would be a costly and unfeasible affair. In an ideal world, we’d have the willingness to apply all of our well-equipped and idle troops to humanitarian missions. But in reality, such commitments are generally beyond what both politicians and the public would find acceptable (hence the emphasis on seeking – or creating – “strategic” or “national security” interests whenever such calls for intervention arises).

But with all that said, Libya’s situation merited particular attention: it began as a peaceful protest and escalated into a war due to Qaddafi’s own viscous predations.  After four decades of human rights abuses, as well as a long history of exporting his brutality, Qaddafi deserves to be taken out, especially now that he is weaker than ever. In any case, our level of involvement is rather small in terms of costs and risks. Supporting these courageous rebels is the least we can do given our own indifference towards – and at times tacit approval of – autocrats in the region.

In response to concerns about long-term prospects, I personally  believe that once Qaddafi is dislodged – which I think is very likely if we keep the fight going – we should leave it to the would-be rebel government to take the reigns of it’s own destiny. Libyan society is very divided, and the rebels include a slew of diverse ideological persuasions. But ultimately, they all agree that the status quo is unacceptable, suggesting that any replacement of Qaddafi is unlikely to be as autocratic and genocidal. In any case, that’s for the Libyans themselves to sort out. As with most things, I’m taking a balanced approach:  we should help the rebels insofar as we facilitate their victory and protect them from the inevitable massacre that would follow Qaddafi’s victory. But following such a victory, it’s up to Libyans themselves to take charge, with the US and other powers at best providing technical, diplomatic, and economic assistance to facilitate their transition.

Of course, I have no delusions about the nature of this intervention. I know there are cold and hard strategic reasons for international involvement; Libya’s conflict was contributing to a spike in the price of oil, for example. I also know that such a no-fly zone is no guarantee of anything, and could very well fail, perhaps taking innocent civilians down with it (collateral damage is a sad fact of any conflict, especially when it involves the use of missiles and planes in an urban setting full of irregulars).

But I also know that no human action is one-sided. I doubt all the diplomats and leaders behind this operation were in it strictly for strategic or economic reasons. I’m sure many of them followed the same logic we all do: balancing self-interest and self-preservation with altruism and sincere ethical conduct. No action is entirely self-less, but few are entirely selfish either.

Which leads me to my next subtopic.

A Watershed for the UN and  for Humanitarian Involvement?

The actions of the UN and the international community are almost unprecedented by the rather low standards of humanitarian intervention. None of my sources, much less myself,  saw this resolution coming. Even fewer believed the war averse Europe and war weary America would actually contribute as much as they have to the effort. I’m very tempted to get romantic and excited about the prospects of this becoming the first of many such resolutions calling for international contributions to defending human rights.

Alas, I must always balance my idealism with my realism. For the most part, I’m cautiously optimistic. As I noted earlier, geostrategic interests with respect to the oil supply certainly had a part to play. But I also think that the world has seen the signs: the Arab world is slowly but surely challenging the status quo of autocracy and disenfranchisement, and the powers that be don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. In a globalized and increasingly interconnected world, we can no longer afford to ignore the crises in nations halfway around the world. As other countries rise in military, economic, and political power, I expect to see the emergence of more multinational efforts such as this one.

Then again, the fact that the major developing powers – Brazil, India, and China – failed to back this resolution, bodes ill for the notion of a multi-polar world.  So has the UN’s failure in other parts of the world, where only mostly poorer nations have shown an interest in getting involved in Peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and other such endeavors.  Ultimately, all we can do is wait and see: as protests continue in Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria, the UN and it’s major contributers will be challenged to act if things escalate. Even if it fails to be as bold as it was with Libya, I can be pleased that something was done.

In a world rife with injustice and apathy, I’ll take what I can get in terms of humanitarian gains. I’ll hope for the best, just like millions of people do everyday.

A Brief Synopsis of the Events in Libya

People of Libya! In response to your own will, fulfilling your most heartfelt wishes, answering your incessant demands for change and regeneration … have undertaken the overthrow of the reactionary and corrupt regime, the stench of which has sickened and horrified us all. At a single blow your gallant army has toppled these idols and has destroyed their images … From this day forward, Libya is a free, self-governing republic.

That was Muammar Gaddafi, following his coup against the monarchy of Libya on September 1st, 1969. As I witness the events unfolding in Libya, I’m saddened by the thought that Libyans have gone down this road before, and – were they to succeed – could once again tragically end up gaining false freedom.  Disturbingly, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt came to power under similar circumstances and with presumably similar noble aims. In fact, many of the world’s most noxious and venal dictators started off as populist warriors who aimed to overthrow the oppressive regimes of the time – only to become the very monsters they claimed to have destroyed.

In any case, the situation in Libya has been unfolding very differently from uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. No other country has yet reached the scale of violence and brutality that has thus far occurred (though Bahrain looked as if it came very close). Indeed, Libya’s protests have now escalated into what I would consider a full-fledged civil war. Several Libyan officials have resigned or defected, and many Libyan soldiers – reportedly including entire military units – have actually joined the ranks of the protesters, along with several tribes from the East and South.

The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition, an organization formed in London several years ago by Libyan exiles, has been credited with playing a titular role in  fomenting and leading these protests, and is the only organized representative of an otherwise ragtag alliance of numerous different factions all united under one goal: the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi. Otherwise, the opposition – as diverse as that of other protesters elsewhere in the region  – lacks a unifying figure or recognizable leader (more so than in Tunisia and Egypt, each of which at least saw a number of prominent figured involved, even if none were predominant).

Meanwhile, Libya’s noxious and murderous autocrat, who has stubbornly but unsurprisingly refused to budge, has resorted to using mercenaries to shore up his lack of support among the military (and the country as a whole for that matter).  Indeed, Qaddafi’s brutal suppression and inane attempts at rallying supporters strongly hint at his powerlessness and desperation. Even Mubarak and Ben Ali fell rather quickly without having their own state apparatuses turn against them or flee ( although comparing countries, even when they share similar circumstances, is always a difficult endeavor, given the multiple dynamics unique to each of them).

The turning tides of the rebellion certainly helps to reinforce the inevitability of his fall. As of the most recent updates, Libyan opposition forces control most of the country, especially the east, where rebel tribes in particular have a strong foothold.  I personally did not think the rebels would’ve been so successful, so quickly. I’ve seen and studied my fair share of revolts, and rarely do they go down well or last very long, especially against regimes as oppressive and entrenched as Libya’s. They’ve even managed to repel Qaddafi’s forces during an assault on their strongholds very close to the ruler’s seat of power.

That a diverse and leaderless collection of people – among them unemployed youths, the secular and  the religious, tribesmen, defecting troops, and other still others – could score such resounding victories against a four-decade-old regime is astounding, and reveals two things: the tenacity, bravery, and discipline of the rebels and the stupidity, corruption, and venality of Qaddafi and his increasingly frail regime. Though long believed to be one of the toughest regimes to crack, and the least likely to have ever changed let alone fallen, Libya now seems poised for a successful revolution. If the momentum continues, there is little doubt that Qaddafi may fall or flee within the coming week (despite what Qaddafi’s own son has to say about the situation).

In any case, my views on the events are ambivalent. On the one hand, I am inspired and taken aback by the courage and will of the people of Libya, who’ve defied all odds as they give one of the most intractable regimes in the world a run for it’s money. As I remarked somewhat romantically in my previous post concerning the unrest in the greater Arab world, I find it gratifying and enlightening to see a people long considered untouched by the values of freedom facing certain death in the name of it. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Libyans are said to have perished in just these past few days, and more will likely lose their lives as the fighting intensifies.

On the other hand, Libya’s revolution is also taking a far more grimmer tone than any other so far. Aside from the virtual state of civil war that it is enduring, there are reports of much brutality on both sides. Mercenaries and loyalists have terrorized the population with attacks against civilians, households, and mosques. Secret prisons have reportedly been uncovered by rebels, as have mass graves that likely date back to the horrific acts of state terrorism under Qaddafi’s rule. Troops refusing to crackdown on rebels have been tortured or executed. Meanwhile, several rebel factions have taken to lynching police officers and other security personnel, and killing mercenaries after they’ve been taken prisoner.

It’s a grim reminder that even the most seemingly romantic events, whatever their idealized aims, are as tainted by the worst of human nature as they are inspired by it’s greatest machinations. While I’m tempted to be excited about the seeming wave of democratization that is sweeping the region, I can’t help but feel both guilty and cautious; the former for allowing myself to get caught up in the romance of revolution without considering the moral ambiguity and bloody cost; and the latter for realizing that things are far from certain to improve from here on out. The quote from the beginning of this post cruelly sums up the precedent of past fights for freedom.

The bitter infighting that has characterized Libya’s rebellion may brew a lot of bad blood that could mire the country in instability and polarization for some time, even if Qaddafi were to fall. And the status of Egypt and Tunisia, the initial “victories” of the freedom fighters, remain ambiguous and concerning. Ultimately, there is no telling whether these revolutions will match those of Eastern Europe circa 1989, or resemble a long and tragic history of false positives that have bedeviled the region one too many times.

For what it’s worth, I still remain hopeful.

The Unrest in the Middle-East

Unfortunately,  I don’t have as much time to devote to this topic as it deserves. But I believe it merits at least a brief mention, given the remarkable nature of what is transpiring in the region.

What’s happening in the Arab world right now is unprecedented in a lot of ways. For one thing, there is the scale of protests, both within the respective countries involved and in the region as a whole. While there has been a long history of revolutions and social unrest throughout the region (particularly in each of the nations that are currently facing the most civil unrest), none of them have ever involved so many people, or occurred simultaneously in a regional and transnational manner. The protesters have mostly represented a broad cross-section of their respective societies: rich and poor, secular and religious, jobless and employed, and so on.

When a diverse number of people can come together and agree on common values – of representation, clean and accountable government, economic and social reform, and so on – the spirit of democracy becomes tangible and validated. Whatever their respective differences, the peoples of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, and other nations can agree on the same universal basics: that they should all be entitled to speak their minds, elect their leaders, and have a say in their own futures. Granted, many differences will likely emerge as time passes; everyone has a different idea about what democracy should look like, for example. But it certainly represents a great start, since Arabs are acknowledging the plurality of their political and ideological beliefs, a necessary precondition to any democratic society.

The transcendent nature of these protests is another tangential case in point. Despite national differences, included interstate conflicts, all the people of the Middle-East seem to be united together in their mutual calls for freedom and reform. The protests that are sweeping the entire region were triggered by national unrest in the small country of Tunisia. Middle-Easterners everywhere looked to that event with sympathy and understanding; they knew too well what the Tunisians were angry about and what they wanted, because they had the same experiences and the same desires . Thus, the unrest has begun to take a pan-regional character. Protesters from across both continents are united for the same goals and the same struggles. They’re communicating and assisting one another’s efforts, and looking to one other’s struggles for support and inspiration. Much as with Eastern Europe in 1989, the entire region is trying to collectively free itself from the same shackles.

And they’re doing it on their own. That is another high point in all these revolutions. Beyond a few perfunctory statements  from world leaders calling for peace and reform, these people are taking matters in their own hands. They’re not receiving international assistance, nor are they asking for it. They’re doing what we expect adherents to democratic values to do: take charge of their own fates. This speaks volume in a region that has long been influenced and intervened upon by foreign powers, particularly the United States, which had allied itself with many of these noxious regimes.

So far, America has (rightly) avoided being too involved in any of the protests, beyond making the usual calls for peace and freedom. While some have argued that it should play a larger role in supporting the Arab (and Iranian) public, I believe that America should limit it’s support to nothing more than it’s current diplomatic gestures, for two reasons:

1) The US has a bad reputation in much of the region, which is not entirely undeserved, given it’s closeness to the oppressive regimes of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia (among others).  Any US involvement, even with good intentions, would be seen as perverse and hypocritical, and would likely taint the vital grassroots nature of these civil actions.

2) Jumping off from my first point, these events are the makings of the people, and should remain as such. It’s not our’s or anyone else’s place but theirs to decide their own future. The fact that these calls for freedom and reform are being cultivated by the public as a whole is something to be encouraged and supported, but not infringed upon. By their very nature, the goals of liberty and democracy are best achieved by the people.

To reiterate, I’m not saying the US should be completely uninvolved. Some would argue that by nature of  our considerable presence in the region, we should have some sort of role. Furthermore, one can argue that we should atone to the Arab people for being complicit in their oppression by deciding to take a stand against these tyrannies. I whole heartedly agree with both sentiments: if these regimes continue to murder more of their people, as Libya and Bahrain have, then the US lead international efforts to weight in on their cruel leaders and demand they – at the very least – cease the crackdown. I’m merely suggesting that outside nations restrain themselves from trying to play too much of a role in shaping these countries’ future.

I’ll end this report by discussing what is by far the most important and enlightening lesson from these protests: that the values of democracy, liberty, and general freedom, while often nuanced, are more universal than we realize. For years we were believed, and we even taught, that democracy wasn’t compatible with Arab culture and society; that the people of the Middle-East weren’t keen on representative government or political freedoms; that Islamic values were inherently hostile to those of democracy. Yet now, as I write this, we’re seeing millions of these people risk their lives in the name of these things we long thought were alien or unimportant to them.

Granted, I’m well aware that it’s too soon to tell what sort of regimes will emerge from those that have been – and might still be – overthrown. I know that democracy, if it does come, will take a lot of time, and likely be nothing like what the average American would envision to be ideal form. Democracy is quite a broad concept, and it has many different forms, mechanisms, and societal influences from country to country.

But when millions of people start calling for the same things we all would – job opportunities, better education, political empowerment, less corruption, representation – I think it’s a very good start.