On Saturday, March 12, an American naval battle group anchored around the aircraft carrier Enterprise gathered in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of civil-war-torn Libya, ready to provide either humanitarian aid or military intervention as the drama in that polarizing nation unfolds.
This staging of military force is reminiscent of another assembly that occurred in the same region on a March day in 1986 as the United States faced off against Muammar Gaddafi (alternately spelled Gadhafi, Khaddafy, or Kaddafi, etc.) who at 41 years in office is the longest ruling non-royal head of state.
By virtue of his garish wardrobe, his act of granting asylum to notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, his elite force of 40 virgin bodyguards (known unofficially as the Amazonian Guard), his voluptuous blonde Ukrainian nurse, his provocative proclamations, rumors of his complicity in terrorist violence, his verbal provocations to the West and overall eccentricity, he has never remained out of the media spotlight.
Gaddafi first came to power when he and a cadre of junior officers overthrew King Idris I in 1969. In staging this coup, they emulated Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egyptian Revolution of 1952, which is viewed as a pivotal point in both Arab history and Third World politics because it inspired the subsequent overthrow of several governments in the Middle East. Gaddafi quickly adopted a policy of opposition to the West, and to America especially, earning the enmity of no less than President Ronald Reagan, who dubbed him “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Throughout his reign, questions have been raised about his sanity, but he is undoubtedly a wily manipulator and a master of political presentation, alternately adopting the causes of Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, and pro-socialism, as the needs fit the situation to achieve his own ends.
The production of oil in the 1960s transformed this traditionally impoverished nation into one of the most affluent in the region, and Gaddafi used this jackpot to finance such radical military outfits as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and any group considered oppositional to imperialism. He also earned American loathing, because of his suspected culpability in a rash of 1981 terrorist bombings in France and Italy.
Allegations of Libyan involvement in a series of airport firefights and hijackings spurred the U.S. deployment of warships off Libya’s coast, leading to a series of armed engagements between aircraft and ships from both forces on March 23, 1986. Libya suffered the loss of several vessels and dozens of personnel. Additionally, on April 5, a 2-kilogram bomb exploded in “La Belle,” a West Berlin discotheque frequented by off-duty African American servicemen, which prompted a U.S. airstrike in which several Libyans died and one American aircraft was shot down.
In the years following, a number international incidents further strained international relations, especially the 1989 detonation of a bomb on a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all its passengers and crew, along with 11 townspeople hit by debris as the plane plunged to the earth. The bomb contained Semtex, a Czechoslovakia-manufactured plastic explosive heavily exported to Libya, raising suspicions that Gaddafi was behind the attacks, although the Libyan government has always denied responsibility.
Regardless of the veracity of these claims, Gaddafi has significant ties within the American infrastructure. The best known of these is arguably the one with another controversial figure, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan paid a visit to Libya and Gaddafi in 1984, with a delegation that included Jeremiah Wright, President Barack Obama’s former pastor. Gaddafi, in turn, made overtures to Farrakhan with a $5 million interest-free loan, and in 1996, the promise of an outright gift of $1 billion. The Clinton administration quickly moved to block the donation, in keeping with U.S. policy preventing financial ties between this country and Libya.
These provocative behaviors may be balanced by the memory of a $220,000 loan extended to presidential sibling Billy Carter in 1979, a man who, aside from his famous brother, Jimmy Carter, was most prominently known for the prodigious amounts of beer he drank. The loan was in exchange for Billy’s role as a lobbyist for unspecified Libyan business ventures within the U.S.
A more troubling association is the one alleged by American law enforcement involving ties to a South Side Chicago-based street gang led by Jeff Fort. Starting out as the Black Stone Rangers in the late 1950s, the group metamorphosed over the years into the Black P. Stone Nation, and became affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It also became one of the early beneficiaries of affirmative action projects, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program. By the mid-1980s, the group adopted an Islamic faction that called itself the “El Rukn Tribe of the Moorish Science Temple of America,” or El Rukns for short. Through police wiretaps, they were linked to Gaddafi, who allegedly financed them and supplied them with weapons, in a scheme to carry out attacks on police stations, military bases, and other targets within the United States. A contingent of El Rukn leaders supposedly made trips to Panama and Libya to meet with Gaddafi’s delegates.
An enduring bond
American businessman Jomo Salade (not his real name), a longtime exporter of African artifacts, proclaims that much of the bad press Gaddafi receives is a result of the pro-African ties the Libyan has pursued, noting his long support of post-colonial rebels, especially in South Africa. Before one accepts the precept that Gaddafi is Satan incarnate, the possibility must be considered that much of this reputation has been fostered by a biased media and the American tendency to denigrate any regime not acting within the parameters of Yankee benefits and American interests.
Salade urged the perusal of media outlets outside the sphere of U.S. influence, including Chinese and Russian news sources. Notably, iconic activist Nelson Mandela still fondly refers to Gaddafi as “brother leader.”Mandela is said to have been instrumental in smoothing things diplomatically in the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster, famously bypassing a United Nations-sponsored air embargo to visit that beleaguered nation in 1997.
Mandela has remained steadfast in his support of Gaddafi and Libya, in remembrance of their previous support of him in his country’s struggle against apartheid. This allegiance has continued in the presence of considerable criticism from normally cordial allies, including the United States. Mandela has summed up this position with the following statement:
“This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy.”
Salade believes that much of the dissent in Libya challenging the Gaddafi regime comes from two major factions. Many within the younger generation have long been dissatisfied with the slow process of promised social reform. On the other end of the spectrum, are the hard-line Muslim fundamentalists, who resent Gaddafi’s efforts to make Libya a secular state. This latter statement is an intriguing idea, since it presents the novel notion of Gaddafi as a moderate. It should also be noted that Gaddafi has recently blamed al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden for the current uprising.
In keeping with his proclamations of Pan-African solidarity, Gaddafi has intervened to prevent the mistreatment of Black Africans who come to find employment in Libya as “guest workers,” and counts mercenaries from the dark-skinned Tuareg nomadic tribesmen as a vital part of his security force.
The outcome of the internal strife within Libya is still up in the air. In spite of a moratorium freezing much of this volatile head of state’s assets across the globe, he is by all accounts beating back the opposition and retaking the territory initially lost.
The Arab League of neighboring countries is said to be supportive of a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone (in which no aircraft are permitted in the conflict country’s air space, and theoretically will eliminate or reduce military activity). But efforts to gain final authorization within the U.N.’s Security Council have stagnated, as has international recognition of the National Transitional Council–the principal body of rebel forces within Libya.
Gaddafi reportedly still has vast fortunes in the currency of various nations socked away in the country, at banks and covert locations, along with substantial funds in the accounts of family members and trusted minions throughout the world. The accessibility of such a fluid war chest will likely impact this resilient Middle Eastern strongman’s ability to sustain national control.
A Middle East Brief: Revolt in the Desert
The current turmoil in the Middle East remains a focal point, because so much dissension is occurring within a small geographic region over a short period of time. Within a few weeks, instability has emerged in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Tunisia, Yemen, and escalated into major insurrections in Egypt and now Libya.
Root factors behind this mass dissatisfaction vary from country to country, yet there is a commonality within this region, which was shaped by the aftermath of World War II, says James L. Gelvin, a professor of history at UCLA specializing in the Middle East.
Most of this region has teetered on crisis–when not stabilized by authoritarian rule, often imposed by outside influences or the dictates of global powers spurred by the allure of natural resources. Among the reasons for the present unrest:
First and foremost is the breakdown of the social compact between governments and the population. Most of these governments, be they monarchies, populist regimes, etc., were shaped by the postwar machinations of western powers, because of the economic advantages the area offered, including admission to the region through the strategically important Suez Canal which connects the Mediterranean and the Red seas. But most important is ready access to the lucrative oil fields.
Internally, the populations of these countries benefited from extensive social support systems, in the way of government subsidies such as consumable goods and other financial assistance.
Governments provided staples including education, employment, healthcare, and so on. Gelvin elaborates:
All the governments were committed to national planning, nationalism, strong state intervention into the economy, and were welfare states providing their citizens with a number of benefits, including universal education, healthcare, employment, and subsidies on food and fuel. For these benefits, the government demanded compliance.
This worked well until the economic crisis of the 1970s, initiated by the stock market downturn of 1973-1974, the 1973 Arab oil embargo (prompted by American support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War), an overall energy shortage, and a simultaneous rise in inflation and drop in economic growth. It was further complicated by the International Monetary Fund’s pressuring the Egyptians to increase privatization (a shift in control of private services and businesses from state of government management to private individuals or groups) and erosion of the social protections that previously served as a safety net for the masses.
The two factors specific to the Egyptian unrest are youth and the labor movement. Unlike the current trend in the U.S. population, where the median age is skewing toward middle age, 30 percent of the Egyptian citizenry range between ages 15 and 29, a percentage duplicated in Tunisia. These populations include a huge proportion that is highly educated but finds few employment prospects; they make up “the core leadership” of the rebellion. Compounding this is an economy that on the surface is expanding but only benefiting a select few at the top, while the general public must struggle without the assistance of the social safety net that previously served as a buffer from poverty.
Scorched earth and deluge
U.S. policy has always centered on two basic principles. First and foremost, it has been unwavering in its support of the Jewish state of Israel. This loyalty is arguably a major source of Arab hostility toward America specifically and the West overall. One might argue that America inherited this role of imperialist enemy from the British, who previously held sway throughout the area for much of the 20th Century.
Second, American policy has primarily focused on the security of its access to that region’s petroleum deposits. Toward that end, it has often turned a blind eye to the internal strife that has been a staple of many of these countries–provided they did not interfere with America’s two primary motivations. Any understanding of conflict within this area of North Africa and Central Asia must stem from these two concrete propositions/premises.
The oil-rich Arab world is more dependent on outside food sources than any other segment of the globe, according to a recent United Nations (U.N.) report. The global fixation on Middle Eastern petroleum is counterbalanced by that region’s dietary dependence on their neighbors’ cupboards. This appetite has recently been inhibited by the specter of drought in Russia, a major purveyor of groceries for North Africa and Western Asia.
Pakistan, another major wheat producer, has the opposite problem, because that area’s farmland has been flooded by torrential monsoon rains, resulting in price-gouging, while the Russian Federation has simply banned wheat exports altogether. Another U.N. report has speculated that these events might lead to a repeat of the 2006 spike in food prices and rioting throughout Africa.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S. acres of wheat and other grain fields are being plowed under to take advantage of congressional incentives encouraging the transition to corn for conversion to biofuels, a practice that is pursued in Europe as well, which means fewer sources of sustenance for the Near Eastern pantry.
Ramifications on the home front
America will be impacted by these proceedings, primarily because of its addiction to petrol. Although each of these individual countries has its own infrastructure, as noted by Professor Gelvin, this is balanced by shared similarities which will inform coming events.
Gelvin predicts that the telling factors in the region are:
1. What the military decides to do: Will it side with the protesters, the autocrats, or, as in the case of Libya, split apart?
2. What is the breadth and depth of the opposition? Does it represent a broad swath of society, particularly the young and workers?
3. What cleavages are there in society (sectarian, regional, tribal) that might divide the opposition movement or be exploited by governments?
This first point has manifested itself already with the Egyptian Army’s withdrawal of support for President Hosni Mubarak, who was then forced to resign. The second factor was revealed with the progression of the Libyan civil war, where the opposition has been beaten back, after initial success in a few early battles.