Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wailing Walls: Slouching from Benghazi, Part I

Note: As Libya descends into civil war, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria, posing as an American goy pursuing graduate studies in the Middle East. In his free time, he enjoys saying very little about himself, because he's terrified of Kachist/Islamist extremist internet aficionados.

The Skirt from Sirte

If there's a Middle Eastern dictator most likely to be Ceaucescued, lashed with electric cable to the missus on Christmas morning and Kalashnikoved off this mortal coil, it's Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, Leader and Guide of the Revolution, Bedouin Father of Africa, a man with the vanity and physique of John Travolta, but with an even worse record in bombing.

Speaking in relative terms with the rest of the Arab world, Libya is a backwater, Tripoli a stodgy desert strip with a measly six million inhabitants (Cairo has twenty million in its environs). Gaddafi barely treads water against the sea of neighborhood Arab tyrant brethren. The Syrian Hafez al-Assad, "Butcher of Hama" and father of Bashar, always had the best torturers, frying recalcitrant Islamists on super-heated bedsprings or cracking their spines in the kampfy "German Chair." The urbane yet ruthless King Hussein of Jordan had the best spooks; no other country would have had a Mukhabarat handler in the room when an Al Qaeda double agent greased seven CIA agents with a bomb belt.

Even Saddam Hussein (believe it or not) led the Arab world in development, achieving ninety-plus literacy rates and nearly-First World medical access, prior to his Iranian misadventures. For a diva like Muammar, this is some rough hummus to choke down. Gaddafi was always the Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes of the Arab League: petulant, a little out-of-place, unbalanced, and jealous enough to burn down that which tested him. And now he's headed out like Left-Eye, hurtling into a ravine spinning over and over, his passengers strapped in and unable to bail out.

Gaddafi was always a second-string Arab tyrant: the best war he had to his name was against Chad. Gaddafi's Libya got their asses kicked by a bunch of tribesmen from a country named after a frat boy, routed by guys literally driving Toyota pick-up trucks to the battlefield. It's a bad sign when you lose a war that sounds like a Delta House prank to people who sound like they might be in chinos. And yet Gaddafi so badly wanted to be Nasser Jr., the father of the Arab world and later the leader of Africa.

Over time, he distinguished himself in two ways. One was through the "Mad Dog's" energetic sponsoring of almost any guerilla movement to ask for his blessing: the psychopathic Palestinian gun for hire Abu Nidal; the nascent Shi'ite militias of the Lebanese Civil War; Gaddafi even shipped the IRA several tons of their workhorse explosive, semtex. The second was through his willing betrayal of all of these groups when push came to shove, because Gaddafi's single weltering belief is that of his own greatness. It's a disease, a slow rot, the vainglorious complex that transformed him from a charismatic, handsome military man of the people into a pouty, sour Naomi Campbell impersonator.

Muammar Gaddafi is a bipolar dressmaker who can't hold his Disaronno-and-coke diet, trapped in the decaying body of a Bedouin brave, his derangement not inflicted upon the scummy hangers-on of some sleazy Paris bar, but against a nation, with cordite and buckshot and tasers to the genitals. He always stood out amongst the colorless, sober Middle Eastern strongmen in the neighborhood, stolid men like Mubarak or Tunisian monster Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With his love of neon dashikis, squad of Charlie's Angels bodyguards and designer shades, he was always a political cartoonist's dream.

But to mock him is to completely miss the point, to make mincemeat of the tragedy. Confront the blunt reality of an unleveraged man willing to do anything to sustain his democracy of one. Institutionally, Libya long lacked the countervailing internal forces — a strong officer corps, foreign superpower puppeteering, a large civil service — that might have slowed his redefinition of the state as Gaddafistan. Gaddafi's megalomania is frighteningly real, and his delusions run untrammeled to a degree to which not even Mubarak, stunned by his people's hatred, succumbed. Gaddafi is the horrifying harlequin, a joke who isn't very funny.

Food for thought: he is the Middle East's longest-serving dictator, with forty-one years of experience. You do not survive the schemes of your underlings — or your bombing of a U.S. airliner — without possessing some serious cunning. So as adorable as it is to mock his penchant for face-lifts, or buffoonish attempts to seduce Christiane Amanpour, or his execrable, rambling diatribes — rants that make Mubarak sound like George Bernard Shaw — it plays into Gaddafi's hands, whether he knows it or not. Don't underestimate the first Middle Eastern dictator to understand what it takes to crush a popular revolution: killing, and lots of it.

Why did Iran's establishment survive the Green Protests? They kneecapped the revolutionaries through street violence, bottomless detentions and torture; in doing so, they didn't lose any of the regime's coercive institutional pillars to the masses. The cops, the military, the Pasdaran Revolutionary Guards and Basij goons — they all gritted their teeth and bashed their own countrymen, in the streets, in Evin Prison, in kangaroo courtrooms. Gaddafi's the Arab John Galliano, clinging to the mizzenmast of his sinking Dior ship, firing his blunderbuss madly at pirates, insisting it was a rotten raid, not a mutiny.

Both the Colonel and his jackal pack of satin-suited Eurotrash sons seem to get that, even as their regime's institutions crumble around them. Mass defections by the military have put professional troops and serious matériel in the hands of the nascent revolutionary front. While the Libyan military never lurked behind the throne in Libya the way the generals in Cairo did, the collapse of Gaddafi's armed forces was remarkable in its rapidity. Therein lies the risk Gaddafi took in so ruthlessly targeting the protestors, not even contemplating any bribes or token gestures towards the people: he alienated his own functionaries, made it unpalatable for men who defended his brutality for decades to continue to defend him. Embassy after embassy hoisted the old royal flag above their missions, as the Libyan UN ambassador denounced Gaddafi in no uncertain terms.

Gaddafi is now the ruler of a city-state, an area of control remarkably similar to the old colonial sanjak Tripolitania; startlingly similar to the Italians, he relies on indiscriminate air raids and vodka-swilling foreign mercenaries to retain that control. It's a unique riff on Middle Eastern history's deaf imperialism repeating its failures of conquest; only, in this case, the colony has become its own hegemon and failed to learn the lessons of itself.

Like Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi — Bedouin tribesman that he is — has long relied on tribal tensions and nepotistic appointments to divide his potential rivals. No surprise then, that the eastern province of Cyrenaica was the first to throw off Gaddafi. The home of the late King Idris, the man Muammar overthrew to come to power, he had ever since starved the region of resources and influence, relying instead on his tribal base in the west. Again, this is a strategy very similar to that of Saddam Hussein, relying upon his Sunni base west of Baghdad and, more specifically, his Tikrit tribal network — while depriving the southern Shiite provinces much of anything. Saddam lost control of four such provinces in the post-Gulf War chaos, in very similar manner to that of Gaddafi today, but regained them through a brutal, fast-paced helicopter-borne crackdown, blowing away "the head of the Iranian snake."

Gaddafi doesn't have the same military infrastructure Saddam's army had even at the conclusion of its stint as Desert Storm clay pigeons. His son Khamis's Praetorian Guard holds Tripoli and the Gaddafi hometown of Sirte, buffeted by their ragamuffin Saharan African mercenary militias; they have lost all their ancillary airbases and much of their military hardware. In spite of the air of logical anarchy Gaddafi fanned in his interminable televised diatribes, it seems like even he may be starting to get that the end is well nigh. Push will come to shove, and his position will not be tenable. The only question then is whether he wants to die or dash for exile. I say exile, but I'm hoping he surprises us yet.

If there is one thing I feel badly about for poor murderous Muammar — and this is a largely academic sympathy — it's for his sudden ejection from the "Good" Middle Eastern Bonebreaker Club, his membership stripped so shortly after he got his credentials. He was a pariah for decades, largely down to the Lockerbie bombing. But Gaddafi's record, as mentioned, is one of sudden betrayals: booting Abu Nidal out of Libya when he got too hot, "disappearing" militant Lebanese Shiite cleric Moussa al-Sadr, even blowing up at the Saudis and trying to whack King Abdullah after their "make nice" sit-down flopped. But then, since the late 1990s, he's made a largely successful venture into the hearts and minds of the West. And here, dear readers, as those neocon hearts are torn asunder by the images beamed from Benghazi, here is where the story of Libya gets even dirtier….

Continue to Part II: The Magical Monied Muammar's Comeback Tour, or: 'The Most Disgusting Story Ever Told'.