Friday, April 01, 2011

On the wrong side of recent history

The West's unwanted war in Libya
When the first Arab pro-democracy uprisings shook the thrones of aging autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt in January, France had got itself on the wrong side of history.

Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie had enjoyed a winter holiday in Tunisia, a former French colony, oblivious to the rising revolt. She and her family had taken free flights on the private jet of a businessman close to President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and then publicly offered the government French assistance with riot control just a few days before Ben Ali was ousted by popular protests.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon had spent his Christmas vacation up the Nile as the guest of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the next autocrat in the Arab democracy movement's firing line, while Sarkozy and his wife Carla had soaked up the winter sunshine in Morocco, another former French territory ruled by a barely more liberal divine-right monarch.

Meanwhile, in the other corner:
the international air campaign against Gaddafi's forces might never have happened without the self-appointed activism of French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, a left-leaning philosopher and talk-show groupie, who lobbied Sarkozy to take up the cause of Libya's pro-democracy rebels.

Libya was the latest of a string of international causes that the libertarian icon with his unbuttoned white designer shirts and flowing mane of greying hair has championed over the last two decades after Bosnian Muslims, Algerian secularists, Afghan rebels and Georgia's side in the conflict with Russia. Levy went to meet the Libyan rebels and telephoned Sarkozy from Benghazi in early March.

"I'd like to bring you the Libyan Massouds," Levy says he told the president, comparing the anti-Gaddafi opposition with former Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, who fought against the Islamist Taliban before being assassinated. "As Gaddafi only clings on through violence, I think he'll collapse," the philosopher told Reuters in an interview.

On March 10, Levy accompanied two envoys of the Libyan Transitional Council to Sarkozy's office.

To their surprise and to the consternation of France's allies, the president recognized the council as the "legitimate representative of the Libyan people" and told them he favored not only establishing a no-fly zone to protect them but also carrying out "limited targeted strikes" against Gaddafi's forces.

In doing so without consultation on the eve of a European Union summit called to discuss Libya, Sarkozy upstaged Washington, which was still debating what to do, embarrassed London, which wanted broad support for a no-fly zone, and infuriated Berlin, France's closest European partner.

He also stunned his own foreign minister, who learned about the decision to recognize the opposition from a news agency dispatch, aides said, while in Brussels trying to coax the EU into backing a no-fly zone.

Guambat confesses to a very personal interest in things Libyan. As the young eldest son of a couple of farm kids from Tennessee, escaping to see the world, Guambat went thru the middle and end of his single-digit years in Tripoli, Libya, guest of the US military service employing his father, unbeknownst icon of the US Marine hymn, From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.

If nothing before had done the trick, his life in that remarkable stretch of ancient civilization and barbarism inured him to the humdrum and compelled him to the exotic, the crossroads of history, old and new, legended and overlooked.

Guambat was living in a duplex, cinder-block kennel of enlisted men's base (and they did mean base) housing, in absolute bliss. Across the "street" from his home lay, first of all, during the Suez Crisis of 1956, a machine gun nest, but most of the time a long stretch of coastal plain which dropped off to the teasing shores of the Mediterranean, where he perfected his swimming, snorkeling, jelly-fish awareness and sunburn-made home-grown nose peal skin.

His parent took him to picnic in the ancient ruins of long ago Roman Leptis Magna and Sabratha and other bygone refuges of other bygone days, where no one else was round except the odd nomad and the odd but expected ghost of the past. Guambat's Dad would casually and regularly pick up old Roman coins and, like the honest citizen he was, turn them in to the local archivists.

His "house boy" and apartment block guards would spirit him off in old black horse-drawn carriages to the Old Town and dusty villages of Libyan hosts, with their sweet candies, delicious cakes, raucous markets and marvelous Italian sodas. His neighbors were from Greece, Italy, England, Turkey and Egypt, and he played with their kids, but he didn't notice it much, except their sandals, which he thought were a bit wee, but elegant. The streets commonly filled with herds of sheep shepherded by nomads just passing through.

The temperature got to the 120's F on some days, and so cold on others that Mom lit a kerosene room heater of the likes he hasn't seen since. Ice came in big blocks from the ice man to sit in the box on top of the food cooler, and Mom rinsed all the fresh vegetables in some kind of prophylactic chemical to kill the organic things (feces and such) that other wise found its way into the food chain.

Flies were kept under control by tying bunches of leafs together and hanging them in shady places and sprayed with DDT and god knows what.

It was a place of pomegranates and olive trees and citrus groves and camels sauntering to and fro up and down inclined walkways to pull goat-skins full of water from timeless wells to spill over into mazes of water ways irrigating lifeless dessert and bringing sweet dates to life and happiness. Of hammered copper and smokey fires brewing strong, black, sweet, peanut floated tee drunk out of small glass cafe glasses. Of minarets and minaret-like memorials to Remus and Romulus, men in baggy white pants and long-tailed white tunics and women draped in heavy white barakans, head to toe.

Libya has far distant, distorted, enhanced and special memories for Guambat. He wonders what side of history they are on. And whose.

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