Iraq Lite and the Real Libyan Scare

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[JF Note: The guests who have appeared here over the past two months have generally not engaged the breaking news of the moment. I think that's mainly because each has used the time to explore his or her own special topic or perspective, which is what I asked people to do. Also, there may be some deference or hesitation about using a guest platform to make direct political arguments. The post below, by Piero Garau, is a worthy exception. He is Italian, and he has extensive experience living and working throughout Africa. His comments below parallel my own post a few hours ago -- which he hadn't seen when he submitted these views.]

By Piero Garau


Seen from the other side of a very small sea, the Mediterranean, developments in Libya do not look reassuring at all.

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Rome, Italy: Among the rejoicing for the resolve finally shown by the Western World and the relief over the avoided Benghazi slaughter, what bothers a few independent spirits is the usual, recurring question that always comes up when we suddenly find ourselves involved in waging yet another war. Why?

Up to 17 February 2011, we were perfectly happy with Muhammar Qaddafi. We bought his oil and gas, we did very good business with him, we sold him our goods. Most importantly, he had been tamed. The peccadilloes of his youth, such as downing passenger planes in the skies of Scotland, had been forgiven. What was important was that he had stopped ranting against the US and Israel and given up on providing help to their overenthusiastic foes. Everybody knew that he was a ruthless and violent dictator, but it was far more convenient to picture him as an eccentric Bedouin who loved sunglasses, tents, amazons and colorful clothes.

But after 17 February 2011, things changed radically. All of a sudden, it appeared that he could rapidly be swept away by huge Libyan crowds that had materialized out of nowhere. This was worrying, because it was not easy to imagine who exactly would end up taking over the country, its oil and gas, the revenues from its oil and gas, and more importantly, the weight that could be pulled with the revenues from its oil and gas. But the wave of enthusiasm that the media had spread about the New Arab Awakening was simply overpowering.

Unfortunately, Libya did not have a powerful and US-dependent army to count on to calm down enthusiasm and excesses once the dust settled down. Nevertheless, the only course of action was to pretend that once the hateful dictator was removed, Libya, too, would find its own Road to Democracy. The party line was clear: condemn the dictator, show sympathy to the uprising, but otherwise do nothing at all, urgently.

Things, however, started to get really worrying once it became clear that, against all odds, Qaddafi had mounted a successful counterinsurgency campaign and stood a very good chance of taking full control of the country once again. We were thus faced by two equally unpalatable scenarios. First scenario: the insurgents manage to get rid of the dictator after all, but are likely to feel rather angry at Qaddafi's former friends who had not lifted a finger to help. And then, who could save us from the prospect of an Al- Chavez (see picture), a new strongman with no favours to return to the West? 

Second scenario: Qaddafi squashes the insurgents. See first scenario: we would have to deal with the one we had condemned as an international criminal. Not a good prospect. 

So, the course of action had to be taken to follow the adventurous route of a confused and politically troubled leader, Nicolas Sarkozy. Just before the end of the last quarter, a resolution was passed at the security council and a new war could start. 

The rest we know. For the time being, we have an Iraq Lite: removal of the hateful dictator with other means than diplomacy, but this time with no ground troops - just hell from the air. At this very moment, the media are gloating in portraying and describing the feats of Mirages, Tomahawks, Tornadoes. What we don't know is what will emerge out of this mess.

Piero Garau is an Italian architect and urbanist who worked with the UN and taught at the University of Rome. Illustration above by Piero Garau for Poerio Press.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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