Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wailing Walls: Slouching from Benghazi, Part II

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. This piece is continued from Part I: The Skirt from Sirte.

The Magical Monied Muammar's Comeback Tour, or: 'The Most Disgusting Story Ever Told'

The only Tea Party worth a damn on this whole godawful planet is in Libya. And unlike our morbidly obese Rascal-scootering Glock fetishists ardently fighting for the right to die of untreated diabetes, the Libyan Tea Party is standing and fighting and dying and maybe going to lose. How fitting that a bloody, highly fluid totaler kreig is taking place today in Libyan cities like Tobruk, the same place that another Desert Fox, Herr Rommel, hunted the Brits for months during World War II. As Gaddafi regains military momentum to a degree I thought impossible, his forces sweep through recaptured cities like the sludge of a tsunami, smearing city blocks, whole families annihilated as if by the flick of the Colonel's finger.

I am positive that despite the crushing losses of cities like Brega, Ras La'nuf and Azawiya, rebel morale is higher than that of their adversaries — if only because, if the rebel front collapses, Benghazi and everyone in it will be subject to a Saddam vs. Shia kind of payback, a scouring that will make Hama seem like a mere urban redevelopment project.

In 1989, following the U.S. "Gulf of Sidra" air strikes, Gaddafi put down a brief internal revolt with ferocity, leaving a few unlucky protestors hanging like pirates on the lampposts of Tripoli. Gaddafi's odious war-criminal son, commando leader Khamis Gaddafi, subjected the city of Zawiya to a relentless artillery siege before taking it, concussing it into sand. The Khamis Brigade has since retaken the oil refinery port a half hour outside of Tripoli, and the retribution has been swift: mass executions, Sabra and Shatila style corpse-bulldozing, even the destruction of safe haven mosques. Now they surround Benghazi, seat of the revolution, trying to drive the revolutionaries into the desert and, failing that, demolish the city. There will be no mercy, as there hasn't been thus far.

I am torn on the issue of external military intervention. Perhaps it could provide Gaddafi the black eye the rebels need to slough him off. But it will mark the beginning of the Libyan War, full stop. And frankly, I doubt the motivations of intervention's most forceful advocates, and you should too. David Cameron is the kind of Tory who drove Lord Byron to die in Greece, and the egocentric Sarkozy still smarts from Gaddafi's role in strangling his beloved Mediterranean Union in the crib.

As I alluded to last time, Gaddafi has spent the past fifteen years ingratiating himself with the "good guys," flipping over small-fry terrorist schemers, churning the oil, scrapping his two-bit nuke program. This is a pretty impressive feat for a guy who made his name sponsoring full-throated bloody murder against American and British civilians. Those governments might not give a shit about anyone else in the world, but killing their people is sure as fuck off-limits. Gaddafi nearly killed Margaret Thatcher herself through his IRA support, hit U.S. servicemen several times in Europe, and downed Pan Am Flight 103, at a cost of two hundred and seventy Brits and Yanks.

We live in a world where Obama's kaffeeklatch with toothless ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers was a major campaign issue, yet Gaddafi — a man so radically unhinged and pathologically vainglorious that he makes Saddam look like Thomas Pynchon — was embraced by a startling coalition of Western elites. The difference was that he could buy them. These supplicants pocketed blood money ripped from the heart of Libya. The darkest stain, the damn spot that won't come out for decades, came from Gaddafi's billfold, crumpled and stuffed into the pockets of owl-eyed trans-Atlantic mediocrities dispatched to Tripoli with all the dignity of a bachelor party stripper van. Gaddafi has spent the last two decades buying respectability, and my, what a bargain it is when you know the right people. They deserve to be hounded into suicides for this, to never live this down. So let's name names.

Some of Gaddafi's bribetakers had not even the pretensions of morals, happy to crack the Libyan market through the most corrupt crony means. The most wrenching source of information on the workings of Gaddafi's "state of the masses" comes from those U.S. diplomatic cables Children of the Corn star Julian Assange has chosen to release. Of these hundreds of reports, a few central concerns emerge: Libyan cooperation on anti-jihadist crackdowns, palace gossip on Gaddafi and his feral offspring (more on that shortly), particularly blatant instances of state repression (as with the torturous jailing of late democratic activist Fathi el-Jahmi) and economic analysis.

While a few cables accurately describe how "as many as a third of Libya's estimated one million families live at or below the poverty line," an underclass treading water with large food subsidies, many more concern foreign direct investment in Libya and the baksheesh necessary to grease the wheels. The Gaddafis knew which tinsel to dangle before the world as they ramped up the neoliberal charm offensive:
Cough up two Libyan intelligence ghouls for a Hague trial over the Lockerbie bombing in 1999, along with almost $3 billion in compensation to the victims' families.
Build an export free trade zone in the deprived minority Berber city of Zuwara.
Cooperate with the U.S. Army's Africa Command (though Gaddafi used the first meeting to urge the First Army to invade and dissolve Switzerland).
Cultivate strong ties to American and European business interests, opening up the Libyan market to their exports and the oil fields to multinationals.
"Stress [their] commitment to transparency in declaring its Chemical Weapons Convention-related equipment" and disarm their nuclear program — through ex-MI6 agent/BP executive Mark Allen.
Dangle the prospect of elections for "some key offices" and for the drafting of a constitution.
It's as if "Mad Dog" Gaddafi had been neutered and fitted himself with a comfortable golden straitjacket, as if he was relying on neoliberal hacks like Tom Friedman and "liberal autocrat" fanboy Fareed Zakaria to flatten the world for him and chart a course to prosperity. It's almost as if that's literally what happened.*

*That's literally what happened. Jesus Christ. Read that link and tremble at the prospect of more dictators acquiring not fissile material nor anthrax, but the devastating loose nuke of a highly-regarded Newsweek cover piece on Chinese entrepreneurship, or the smoking gun of a mushroom cloud of an entire book chapter on how skateboards will transform the Indian paradigm.

Some of Libya's mosquitoes, being elected pols or intellectuals, deluded themselves into thinking Gaddafi had been peeled off into the pro-Western tyrant camp, or that his sons would lead a top-down democratization effort, or that economic ties were in the best interests of everyone. I have nothing against engagement with odious regimes on matters of common interests, like arms controls — except when those common interests actively beggar the Libyan populace, fill the coffers of torture-cellar apparatchiks, stultify the very real pro-democracy movements in Arab nations. This was the neoliberal consensus, for years: that Gaddafi's "sudden" acquiescence to Western pressure was a victory of the Iraq War, that penetration of Libyan oil fields was a worthy reward, and, so that they could sleep at night, the carrots Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's influence threw up were a promising sign of a democratic tomorrow.

If Gaddafi and sons wanted to become players, they needed to make the right connections, prove they were good boys now who'd play by DC's rules for George Bush's second term. And the Gaddafis had no problem finding well-connected intellectuals who'd give them the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. While failing to register as lobbyists for a foreign government, The Monitor Group, a Pinkerton-style hired-gun outfit for the Ivy League set, dispatched some big-name academics to Libya, with one crisply delineated goal: "Enhance the Profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi." In their pitch, Monitor practically shed tears for the lion of Libya: "Gaddafi….[is] a man of action and a man of ideas … [he] is well known but poorly understood, particularly in the west." And for the low, low price of $250,000 per month and a $2.5 million baller expense account, that's the image Gaddafi got.

Harvard's Joseph Nye soft-pedaled his Bedouin pillow talk in the pages of Arab-bashing Likudnik rag The New Republic, where, in between not mentioning his status as a paid Libyan lobbyist, he betrayed some cautious optimism at Gaddafi's gestures. Even worse was Demos think tank urchin Benjamin Barber, whose 2007 op-ed on Gaddafi is a truly stunning, abjectly tasteless steroid-fueled parkour leap of logic, even by the Hooters-level standards of the Washington Post's editorial board. Again, without disclosing that he is being paid to enhance the rep of Gaddafi and Libya, Barber launches into a turgid paean to "a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat," who alone in the Arab world, "has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country's role in a changed and changing world." This is too delicious, I'm just gonna quote one part verbatim:
Libya under Gaddafi has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally.
Writing a paragraph like that is the journalistic equivalent of the moment at which Moe and Larry begin pushing a piano up a rich dowager's staircase. It is posturing so comically wrong it begs with the radiation of ten thousand suns to be proven worthless, to be answered with the karmic "splat" of Curly caroming off a chandelier. But at least in the Three Stooges' case, they never get paid at the end of the reel for doing such a shitty job. The demon Barber of K Street, Nye, Francis Fukuyama, even the Prince of Darkness himself, Richard Perle — all of them made out like the nuked survivors in The Omega Man, darting around the world, nibbling on their pounds of flesh.

For good measure, Monitor Group even gave some cover to the next generation of Libyan scrotal electricians, like, to borrow a memorable phrase from Barber, "Gaddafi's gifted son, Saif al-Islam" — whose Ph.D. thesis they ghost-wrote.

Let's jump back a few years. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi followed the game plan of several of his fellow prospective Arab heirs: give yourself a portfolio in the government with strong suction and an endearing reputation. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad rushed through a military stint before becoming Baba Hafez's anti-corruption czar, a plum posting meant to burnish his modernizing credentials. It's a tactic that probably won't fool your own citizens — they know which way the wind blows — but it has never, ever failed to sucker the Western "foreign policy establishment." Case studies include: Fareed Zakaria boner-inducer Gamal Mubarak, Star Trek cameo player King Abdullah, and George Washington University human rights honoree/Muzzie muzzler King Mohammed VI of Morocco. In mushily condemning the American abandonment of Mubarak, The Economist, without any apparent sense of irony, pondered: "Will Mr Obama abandon gradual reformers such as King Abdullah or King Mohammed as soon as enough people turn out on the streets of Jordan or Morocco?"

Anyone stupid enough to believe that either king is a "gradual reformer" not only does not deserve to be editing a glossy opinion weekly in which they are responsible for manipulating the English language, but also needs to be electro-spazzed by a CIA snatch team, renditioned like a trussed three-point buck to Amman and subjected to the not-so-gradual reformation of a Jordanian genital interrogation. Why on earth would King Abdullah slit his own throat by forming a truly liberal, democratic Jordan? A real reformer wouldn’t last five minutes in a royal court. He'd be sidelined by any number of his underlings and hung out to dry, probably in connivance with the neoconservative movement.

The stupidity inherent in this position is perhaps only excusable when possessed by a well-intentioned, pleasant-enough sort of beigest policymaker who thinks convincing Saif Gaddafi to cough up a few prisoners is the most a regime can be liberalized. Maybe that's excusable. But not today. Not now. These bastards do not get a pass because they were our bastards. It's not our country, and it's not our decision.

The point is, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a "gradual reformer," unless reform means the kind of free marketeer liberalization of graft that Gamal Mubarak proved would be so popular with Egyptians. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's February 20th televised speech, in the midst of the regime's initial crackdown, stripped his makeover as the great white hope of Tripoli off his face like a chemical-weapons peel. He wasn't exactly subtle:
The army now will play a key role to enforce security and restore things back to order... A firm stance is required. The Libyan army is not the Egyptian or the Tunisian army. Our army will be in Libya, and Muammar Gaddafi will be in it until the last moment... We will eradicate them [enemies] all.
Whoops! Not much room for misinterpretation there from gifted pro-global governance reform guru Saif al-Islam. Except maybe at the London School of Economics: this Tiananmen screeching, after all, is not what you want to hear from one of your grad students who has just pledged you £1.5 million to build a "virtual democracy center."

The regime’s erstwhile useful idiots had a hard time reconciling their love of brunching at Saif al-Islam's with the sudden, (to them) unprecedented evidence that he might not be such a good guy. David Held, his LSE advisor and a board member of Saif al-Islam’s Orwellian pro-democracy think tank, waxed lyrical:
Watching Saif give that speech – looking so exhausted, nervous and, frankly, terrible – was the stuff of Shakespeare and of Freud: a young man torn by a struggle between loyalty to his father and his family, and the beliefs he had come to hold for reform, democracy and the rule of law. The man giving that speech wasn't the Saif I had got to know well over those years.
The view is very different from a Mayfair cricket match than it is from a Tripoli prison cell, I guess. The aforementioned Barber was even worse, in a really, really hilarious non-mea culpa recently published in Foreign Policy:
Who got it wrong? I don't think anyone got [Saif al-Islam] wrong… The naivete is the people who want to rewrite history and now want to specifically indict the intellectuals who were there trying to work on the inside during times in which Muammar Qaddafi was totally in power with no seeming hope of his being taken out, times when he was a new friend and ally of the West.
That's a whopper. I hope Mr. Barber rewards our silly naivete by paying for some LSE reeducation for the rest of us dum-dums who thought Saif looked like a born thug from the cradle to the grave. Maybe he could dip into the Gaddafi slush fund that was funneled his way to subsidize our tuition.

Or maybe Mr. Barber could get a second opinion from Mohammed Nabbous, the most prominent pro-democracy journalist working in Libya today — except that one of Saif al-Islam's snipers blew his brains out at close range with a rifle in Benghazi the other day as he sat unaware in his car, reporting on the military's breaking of the UN ceasefire. Also, since Nabbous's family is pretty middle class to begin with, and will have to pay for the funeral, they might come up a little short trying to cover Barber's consultancy fee. Although, given how flawless and insightful his Libyan analysis has been thus far, it may be well worth the sacrifice.

When you look at Gaddafi's son — he has seven of them, but seriously, I mean any of them — I hope you get the same urge I do: to break their glasses with the flat of your hand, spit in their eyes, clumsily scuffle and yank on their ties and drag them halting and yelling into the stairwell of whatever horrific Roman nightclub they're hosting Beyonce at, eternally condemning them to a cavedwelling exile where no Swiss waiters will ever have to fear them again.

You, the reader, as a consumer of Western media palaver and a taxpayer, should resent the fact that our "intellectuals" actively cultivate mass murderers and Trump-esque gluttons as our point men in the Middle East. Tears for Saif al-Islam, that corrupted man. "In this business, ya gotta have ethics kid," advised Johnny Caspar in Miller's Crossing. And ethics is knowing that no matter how many checks you cash, the Gaddafis ain't gonna be the ones to liberate Libya.

The first stop in the Gaddafi comeback was the easiest. To quote an actual expert on Libya, Dartmouth's Dirk Vandewalle:
The really nefarious aspect of this is that it reinforced in Gaddafi's mind that he truly was an international intellectual world figure, and that his ideas of democracy were to be taken seriously. It reinforced his reluctance to come to terms with the reality around him, which was that Libya is in many ways an inconsequential country and his ideas are half-baked.

Of course, this above-board political and intellectual foreplay was prelude to the economic dry humping the West and Libya were about to get down to. And in this sphere, Libyan economic governance was only marginally more corrupt than that of your average Wall Street boardroom. Gaddafi and his sons have all the vulgarity of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, but with none of the transcendent wit. Their life ethos, when separated from the chaff of their silken suits and Queen's English, is the same as Henry Hill's in Goodfellas: "Got hit by lightning? Fuck you, pay me."

To do business in Libya is to go through al-Cosa Nostra — the Gaddafis and their cronies — and there is no more significant and representative example of this than the chief Gaddafi court bagman, a man with the moral authority of a used whippet and the first name of a Soprano: Tony Blair. Though the Colonel had been talking the panties off of some Bush-era vacuities, it was Blair's trip to Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte in 2004 — shortly after the PM had met with the Lockerbie families — that brought Muammar in from the cold. It also brought both of them into the black; completely coincidentally, Anglo-Dutch petroleum octopus Royal Dutch Shell announced it had inked a £550 million deal with the Libyan government for exploration rights of their offshore gas fields.

In 2007, Blair again showed up in Libya and topped himself, once again making rain, this time for the universally beloved pelican killers of BP — this time to the tune of £900 million, snagging a quarter of a billion in defense contracts for the death merchants of General Dynamics further down the line. This time, there was just one small hitch: Gaddafi demanded the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Bassett al-Megrahi before he'd finalize the deal. BP and General Dynamics executives who had been promised a seat on the tent floor with Tony and Muammy were snubbed, made to sulk in the sand, kicking the camel. Megrahi was released two years later, granted compassionate leave for a rare case of terminal cancer that does not kill the afflicted.

I'm sure it also had nothing to do with the big-stack dickhead poker player tactics Gaddafi employed to juice up the BP deal, constantly threatening to pull the plug on the same company whose Libyan oil interests he had nationalized in the 1970s. BP nervously lobbied Gordon Brown's government to give Gaddafi what he wanted, while shortly thereafter, Justice Secretary Jack Straw deemed it in "the overwhelming interest of the United Kingdom" that al-Megrahi be released. But what's a mass murderer amongst friends? Especially when this is the way Libya always manages its affairs. In cable after cable, the modus operandi is the same: manage foreign investment through his sons and constantly make life difficult for the bloodsuckers.

In 2008, high oil prices made Gaddafi ballsy enough to squeeze Italian oil firm ENI for new contractual terms that slashed their production share — a shot across the bows of other energy oligarchs like ConocoPhillips, Hess, PetroCanada and Occidental. Even once a deal is signed, the Gaddafi regime buries the terms in the deck and deals three card monte, locking in the aforementioned firms for thirty-year deals and then constantly threatening to reopen the terms. And if you don't meet their terms — if they don’t like your attitude — they'll tell the firms to go pound rocks.

Consider the hilarious failure of scumbag war-profiteer outfit Bechtel, which spent a year and a million dollars trying to land a billion-dollar contract to build a port in Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte. Bechtel comes off as a frat boy playing it nice as he desperately tries to nail a Delta Chi pledge — only to have the sisters cockblock him right as he convinces the poor girl to go watch The Notebook at his place. Evidently something about the project annoyed Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi's "reform-minded" heir, who with a phone call, scuttled the deal.

But hey, so what if their corporate governance is a joke? The firms will do whatever they can to deliver the goods; the total lack of transparency and systemic cronyism just makes 'em hungrier. Enough firms paid the price to get at that oil, put up with warring meathead Gaddafi sons long enough to license a Libyan Coca-Cola franchise — a Cola War so absurd in concept it sounds like the beginning of one of Dave Barry's wretched fiction forays — flooding the state bank with cash as they sought to make some foreign investments of their own.

Sleazy money-making, that's how Gaddafi bought respectability and remade himself. I remember the general amazement at the corruption case of beloved Yukon plane wreckage Senator Ted Stevens — that a man with four decades in the Senate could sell his soul for a comped Laz-E-Boy and some home renovations. It doesn't even rate when compared to the neocons, though: how the most hawkish, savage dynamos of mighty interventionism would start stripping on the pole the moment one of the Arab sugar daddies glanced their way.

Respectability wasn't the most obscene totem Gaddafi bought with his people's money. Using the cudgel of British foreign investment, Gaddafi even extracted a truly breathtaking commodity from Blair at their 2007 meeting — the training and arming of Libyan troops by the best and brightest of the Queen's men, as well as access to NATO intelligence. The martinets of Sandhurst can be proud of their students: Libyan troops have acquitted themselves expertly at shooting unarmed protestors in the heads with British weaponry. Libya bought, for a relatively low price, British connivance and complicity in the highly predictable massacring of their own citizens. You've come a long way, baby. And in the mid-2000s, elected politicians took notice.

Call it "pulling an Arafat." You transform the PLO toad, as Robert Fisk put it, from a superterrorist to a superstatesman, even as his nature changes not a whit. Then, when the truth you've concealed froths forth, in response to your actions whose effects you've also concealed — when the Second Intifada blows up in everybody's face — back Yasser reverts to superterrorist, the Damascene conversion forgotten. And so it is with Gaddafi; an obscene mutilator's attempts to get on the anti-Al Qaeda post-9/11 gravy train elevated him to player status, the slate wiped clean, until his fundamental rottenness in the face of a dignified pro-democracy movement could no longer be ignored, not even by the most venal opportunists in DC and London.

Remember how excited the Bushies were about Gaddafi? He was the only victory they felt they could chalk up in the darkest days of the Iraqi debacle. Sidestepping the dozens of bodies clogging the drainage pipes off the Euphrates, Condi practically fucked old Muammar, literally receiving an engagement ring and a locket with his craggy profile inside. It took the Libyan people standing and doing what every wretched piece-of-shit armchair Metternich lofitily demanded of Arabs — peaceful democratic agitation — to expose just how little those in the corridors of influence cared or care about Arab well-being, and how hollow was their PR campaign insistence that Dubya had cured Muammar.

Of course, not all the pols were that stupid; some were just corrupt. We don't even know how much Tony Blair has received in kickbacks from the Libyans in return for his friendship and Megrahi's release. The wraith has buried his wealth in a frighteningly arcane rigging of a dozen shell companies and limited liability partnerships called Windrush and Firerush Ventures, so murky a money trail that The Guardian literally asked its readers to help them try to trace it all. Blair insists, "I have never had any financial relationship with Libya or any part of the Libyan government," even as he serves as a £2 million per-year consultant for JP Morgan, a member "of the Libyan British Business Council, a lobby group set up to secure big money deals with the desert dictatorship."

You know money talks in this world when you can blow a few hundred American citizens out of the sky and two decades later invite John McCain over for a hot 'n' heavy slumber party in your breezy Bedouin tent, staying up late giggling and roasting smores. Diva McCain has to walk it back now, even go a little overboard by shrieking that Gaddafi's "insane" and needs to be firebombed out of North Africa. Forget about Gaddafi's positively Robespierre-ian repression of his own people; the true offense in the eyes of creeps like McCain isn't that he killed American civilians, but that he embarrassed true American patriots by playing possum with the West, breaking from the script that he'd be a nice good dictator like the Saudis or Mubarak.

And now we have the Libyan War, which I expect I have to write about next. There's a reason you will never ever see a no-fly zone in Bahrain, where the Saudi army is pressing in to kill protestors, or in Yemen, where Saleh's goons just blew away forty people. We live in a world where a Caligula in shades doesn't even have to pay vig to suppress any sense of moral outrage or decency in the flaking sclerotic souls of the American/European ruling class, simply by splashing oil and McDonald's franchise agreements and waterboarded Salafi jihadist detainees in their directions.

A greasy machinery of corporate scalphunters, K Street neocon ghouls, and publicly elected bribe-takers have conspired to surpass, in a post-modern version of the Stanford prison experiment, exactly how crassly exploitive they can be of the hapless, tortured people of Libya. But the only punishable offense for such a tyrant, the truly unforgivable one, is to prove, in the most violent terms, that nothing has changed: that the Western encounter with Libya didn't make it better, that nothing was reformed and nothing gained, that the sick got sicker — that Libyan autocracy was entrenched, not weakened.

Libya embarrassed Western pretensions and has no friends left, and now it will pay for it.

Continue to Part III: The Libyan War Is Decadent and Depraved