Stories by Tim Hodgson

Tim Hodgson is a journalist, essayist and critic based in Bermuda.

Libya Air War Has Lasted Longer Than Kosovo Campaign

June 14th, 2011 at 3:32 pm 5 Comments

Andrew Gilligan’s account of the floundering campaign against Qaddafi in the UK Spectator.

For all the ritual incantations about ‘intensified’ attacks and ‘heaviest bombing yet’, the bombing is and always has been relatively light. Across the whole operation, the number of Nato strike sorties — only a proportion of which actually result in airstrikes — has averaged 57 a day, less than half the number in the alliance’s very similar mission in Kosovo, and a mere fraction of what the US and Britain did in Iraq.

The number of strike sorties in the seven days to last Tuesday [ie May 31] was 366, the second lowest in any week since Nato took control of the operation, bringing the daily average down to 52. The claim of intensification is not a total lie — the attacks are becoming more focused — but nor is it true for the whole country. Nato’s military commander in Libya, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, admitted last week that for all the alliance’s work, ‘there remain a significant amount of forces’ available to the regime.

By the way: the Libya campaign has now lasted longer than the air war in Kosovo.

America’s Greatest Superhero Turns 70

April 3rd, 2011 at 1:06 am 4 Comments

It remains the most memorable blow ever struck for liberty in the history of American popular culture. When the first issue of “Captain America Comics” appeared on newsstands 70 years ago, the cover depicted a flag-draped symbol of young American manhood administering a crushing uppercut to Adolf Hitler’s jaw.

It was a knock-out blow to fascism delivered by the giddily idealized embodiment of American virtue. And it gave vicarious expression to the impulses of a country where the public mood had been on a war-footing for months.

Cover dated March 1941, the crude but galvanizing imagery amounted to a declaration of war on Hitler, a full nine months before the Führer declared war on the U.S. in the days following Pearl Harbor.

At a time when isolationist voices were still cautioning against American involvement in another European war, this was FDR’s pro-war case rendered in four primary colors and reduced to its essentials.

As Captain America vaulted into the Berghof, he interrupted Hitler watching a U.S. munitions plant being dynamited by fifth columnists on a TV screen. The Eagle’s Nest, littered with logistics maps showing his sinister territorial ambitions on America, delivered a message with all the subtlety of Cap’s jaw-breaking haymaker: Hitler was not just the mortal enemy of European civilization–he was America’s mortal enemy, too.

The cover art ensured the book sold out in days. The dynamic stories inside in which careening, non-stop action threatened to burst out of the restrictive panels, ensured readers came back for more. Super-patriotism and super-heroism proved an unbeatable combination. The second issue of “Captain America” had a print run of more than a million copies.

In 1941 the comic book industry was as very youthful as the audience it appealed to–an audience aware it would soon be donning uniforms and being called upon to perform Captain America-style acts of derring-do against the Axis.

Superman had rocketed from Krypton into the national consciousness just three years previously.  Batman had only started stalking Gotham’s City crime-haunted streets in 1939. Comic books featuring the two characters (no one called them super-heroes yet) sold millions of copies a month.  What’s been described as a “mushroom-growth” of rival New York publishers appeared almost overnight, all trying to replicate National Allied Publications’ phenomenal success. Nothing worked. Dozens of long-underwear characters appeared on newsstands and just as quickly disappeared. The would-be contenders could have inspired the Charles Atlas campaign, a fixture of comic book advertising for decades. Yet they were all 97-pound weaklings compared to National’s twin titans. Until Captain America bound past a Gestapo bodyguard to deck the Führer.

Captain America was co-created by New York cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. There had been an earlier comic book super-patriot (The Shield) and Captain America’s success ensured there would be dozens more in an industry where plagiarism was and remains every bit as much the prevailing “ism” as in Hollywood.  But none could compete with Captain America’s unbounded vitality, unembarrassed love of country and, most crucially, the sense of near-universal identification he inspired. That’s because the character amounted to an almost primal exercise in wish-fulfillment on the part of co-creator Kirby.

Kirby was a compact and socially awkward man intent on escaping from Hell’s Kitchen armed only with a pencil and a seemingly boundless imagination. Born Jacob Kurtzberg, this son of Austrian Jewish immigrants legally Gaelicized his name, partially for professional reasons, partially as a tribute to his idol Jimmy Cagney — another scrappy bantamweight from New York’s Lower East Side. Largely self-taught, he began selling his work professionally while still in high school.

Collaborator Simon has been credited with creating the concept and look of Captain America. But 21-year-old Kirby provided the animating spark. The division of labors between the two men was always blurred – working to deadlines almost as foreshortened as Kirby’s trademark figures, they both wrote, edited and drew.  But “Captain America” – the first title which allowed free rein to his full creative energies – was always more informed by Kirby’s frenetic visual style, breakneck pace, and almost berserker-type rage when it came to bullies, thugs and bigots, a rage he largely sublimated in his daily life but which overflowed into his artwork.

Captain America began as 4-F Army reject Steve Rogers, before being transformed by a refugee German Jewish scientist’s potions into a “super-soldier”. But he had no super powers, per se. Rather, his frail form was amped up to the peak of human abilities (those who either volunteered or were drafted would soon undergo similar physical transformations – by way of boot camp rather than mysterious serums).

After a Nazi assassin kills the formula’s creator, Rogers is left as America’s lone super-soldier. Recognizing his value as a propaganda weapon as well as a weapon of war, he is outfitted in the flag by his military handlers, his chain-mail shirt and shield intentionally reminiscent of a crusader’s. Then he is dispatched to fight Nazi spies and saboteurs and their Axis allies.

No longer ineligible for military service, he serves undercover in the ranks as a no-longer sickly but still put-upon Private First Class Steve Rogers. But once he dons his star-spangled uniform, he goes from schlemiel to Übermensch. Routinely abandoning his post to take  America’s colors into battle against the Axis as Captain America, PFC Rogers just as frequently finds himself assigned to KP duty for missing roll-call. Every grunt would soon identify with the military’s dual emphasis on individual initiative and strict routine. Every grunt lived in hope that slipping into a uniform would turn him into a hero.

Kirby and Simon worked on “Captain America” for a year before a royalties dispute with publisher Timely (forerunner of today’s Marvel Entertainment Group) prompted them to decamp for National.

In 1943 Kirby was, as he said, “handed an M-1 and a chocolate bar and told to go kill Hitler”. He followed in his most enduring creation’s footsteps, putting on a uniform sporting an American flag shoulder patch rather than wrap-around red and white stripes, and marched off to war. He arguably never took those army fatigues off again until the day he died in 1994.

A member of George Patton’s Third Army, PFC Kirby landed on a body-strewn Normandy beach ten days after D-Day and spent the next year under fire as Allied forces pushed towards the German frontier. He came to hate war as only a combat veteran can. He witnessed both battlefield carnage and the atrocities which had taken place behind the wire-fencing of a concentration camp. He was haunted by nightmares about World War Two for the rest of his life.

Kirby partially exorcised his demons by way of his prodigious post-war output. For more than four decades he refought the war in literally thousands of comic book parables which pitted moral absolutes against one another kitted out in Western, gangster and super-heroic drag. In the process he became comics’ most celebrated – and prolific – creator, his personal visual motifs co-opted as the industry standards. He resurrected Captain America – mothballed after the war – even while creating or co-creating the current roster of Marvel’s upper-tier characters in the ’60s with editor Stan Lee (the office boy during Kirby’s first go-round). The revived Cap has arguably never been better served since Kirby returned him to his original setting for a series of retellings of his wartime exploits.

“Hitler had to be destroyed, there was no choice and I was glad to do my duty …,” Kirby once said, adding his abhorrence for war never blinded him to the fact while it is always an evil, in the case of the Axis it was very much the lesser of two evils.

A self-identified New Dealer and a lifelong liberal, Kirby would have scoffed at the idea conservatism played any role in his thinking or his storytelling. But it did.

Captain America was created as a direct response to the prevailing spoiling-for-a-fight national mood. Commercial considerations played every bit as much of a role in his origin as his creators’ patriotism. But Kirby’s take on the character, fusing an innate, inchoate conservatism with an immigrant’s passion for defending the freedoms and opportunities America provided, resonated precisely because it was so visceral it could never have been counterfeited.

That striking-a-blow-for-liberty cover of the first “Captain America Comics” remains instantly familiar today even to those who have never cracked a comic book. It’s been endlessly reprinted and parodied (Joe Simon himself produced a take-off featuring Cap flooring Osama Bin-Laden after 9/11). Homages have been paid in all manner of media. In 2000 its imagery provided the point of departure for Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay” (Chabon’s dedication ends: “Finally, I want to acknowledge the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I’ve ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, King of the Comics” ). Doubtless the iconic punch will feature in the upcoming “Captain America: The First Avenger” summer blockbuster.

There seems to have been a case of mistaken secret identity when it comes to Captain America. Forget PFC Steve Rogers. Cap’s real alter ego was PFC Jack Kirby.

Kennedy Biopic is Bad, Not Slanted

April 2nd, 2011 at 12:49 pm 4 Comments

It’s doesn’t last a thousand days like the Kennedy Administration. It only feels like it does.

“The Kennedys” miniseries, abruptly dropped by the History Channel amid hints of none too subtle pressure from the namesake family (as reported by FrumForum),  premieres in the U.S. this weekend on ReelzChannel.  This publicity will likely ensure a record audience for the little-known cable-caster, but the story of the miniseries’ disappearance from the History Channel is far more enthralling than the show itself.

This isn’t the exercise in rabid revisionism keepers of the JFK flame had feared and some on the right were hoping for. Ideologically neutral, “The Kennedys” isn’t bad — or slanted — history, per se. It’s simply bad television. By the time the eight-hour presentation wraps up, it’s an open question as to how many viewers will have been able to endure it.

The show’s producers say they modeled its structure on “The Godfather”, a latter-day Greek tragedy masquerading as a crime family saga in which hubris is punished by a series of unthinkable, seemingly unending tragedies.

But they’re overreaching.

Better to think of “The Kennedys” in terms of “Dallas”: a dynastic soap opera about a family so very wealthy members even sport  haute couture gym shorts to backyard games of touch football (since no one working on the show could distress a costume, the likelihood of them producing something distressing to Kennedy partisans must  always have been remote).

All the stock soap characters are here: the overreaching patriarch; his long-suffering wife who dispenses wisdom and iron discipline in equal measure; the sometimes loving, sometimes feuding  young ‘uns; their achingly beautiful spouses; the adorable grand young ‘uns.

So are all the stock soap opera situations. Feuds between father and sons.  Sibling rivalries. Affairs of the heart (a lot of them). Only affairs of state provide the backdrop and motivations for this generation-spanning saga, not Texan oil.

The now-familiar chronicle of triumphs and tragedies is so superficially presented in the script, the psychological and emotional portraiture so very one dimensional, the miniseries’ family dynamics really do end up owing more to Bobby and J.R. Ewing than to Bobby Kennedy and J.F.K.

Tom Wilkinson dominates the proceedings as a rapacious, splendidly vainglorious Joe Kennedy,  his twin fixations on power and respectability in WASP-dominated America Writ Large in every scene he appears in. Forced by history to transfer his ambitions for founding a political dynasty to runtish, bookish spare Jack (Greg Kinnear) when heir-apparent Joseph Jr. dies in World War Two, he’s equal parts kingmaker and Stage-Father From Hell.

Greg Kinnear’s performance as John F. Kennedy amounts to neither characterization nor caricature. If Martin Sheen inhabited the role when he played J.F.K. in a 1980s miniseries, Kinnear seems to be merely squatting here.  He hits all of his marks, delivers some of J.F.K.’s most famous lines (along with the screenwriters’ less inspired ones) in yeoman-like manner. But so does the audio-animatronic Kennedy figure in Disneyworld’s Hall of Presidents.  And the robot wouldn’t have made for ideal casting, either. There’s something bloodless about Kinnear’s portrayal of a man who even his enemies conceded was the quintessence of political charisma.

The rest of the cast of seemingly thousands — everyone in the Kennedy legend from the crew of PT 109 to mobster Sam Giancana to, yes, Marilyn, makes at least a cameo appearance — is entirely serviceable.

Only poor Katie Holmes, who goes the Minnie-Mouse-On-Helium route in her efforts to channel Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s slightly breathless elegance, is entirely out of her depth. Embarrassingly so.  She seems to have blundered onto “The Kennedys’” set while en route to an appearance in a Tina Fey skit.

All of the political-cultural Kennedy touchstones are on display here — from the dubious Pulitzer Prize for a largely ghost-written “Profiles In Courage” to the nail-biting 1960 election to the Berlin Wall speech. And, unavoidably, Dallas. So is the prescription drug abuse and the like-father-like-sons womanizing kept off-camera in previous dramatizations.

But those concerned the production would be to the Kennedys what Showtime’s upcoming “The Borgias” is to that Renaissance-era dynasty  — a raunchy pageant of family and political intriguing, wild sexual couplings and Machiavellian ruthlessness — need not have worried.

“The Kennedys” is not right-wing,  made-for-TV iconoclasm. But it was made for television.  And the show violates every single one of television’s first nine commandments  — “Thou shalt not bore” (the tenth is “Thou shalt have right of final cut”: and conservative producer Joel Surnow, creator of the arresting beat-the-clock action drama “24″, did).

The cowardice of the History Channel, which argued straight-faced this production didn’t meet the rigorous standards it employs when fact-checking documentaries about Roswell, Nostradamus  and the Bermuda Triangle, is inexcusable. But so, too, is the dreariness of this multi-million dollar undertaking.

An artist, JFK once said, must always be free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. How sad Surnow’s vision only took him as far as re-imaging the Kennedys’ unruly history as a generic prime time soap.

Is Libya’s Star Defector a Fake?

April 2nd, 2011 at 1:12 am 12 Comments

Is Libya’s most important defector to the West really on a deep-cover diplomatic mission? One of the architects of the 2001 prosecution of two Libyans charged with downing the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie thinks it is possible.

One of Qaddafi’s most reliable allies – and most feared enforcers – Moussa Koussa arrived in England on Wednesday from Tunisia. He has reportedly been seeking medical treatment and is now being debriefed. Both the U.K. and U.S. heralded his defection as a stunning coup since he is the highest-level member of the dictator’s palace guard to abandon him since the popular uprising began in January.

But Robert Black, the Edinburgh University law professor emeritus who engineered the special trial that convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, said Koussa may well be playing a double-game with the full knowledge and encouragement of the U.S. and U.K.

“Has Moussa Koussa really defected? There are some indications that this may be a diplomatic mission – negotiating an exit strategy for the Qaddafi regime – rather than a defection,” Black said at his blog, listing some of those indications:

2. He was accompanied to Tunisia (but not beyond) for his flight from Djerba to Farnborough by Abdel Ati al-Obeidi who remains a trusted counselor of Qaddafi (and a trusted intermediary in the eyes of the U.K. and U.S.).

3. If Koussa had defected, he would surely have negotiated immunity from prosecution for any personal involvement in Lockerbie (if Libya was implicated in any capacity, Koussa would inevitably have been personally involved). According to U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, no such immunity has been granted. This suggests that his visit is already covered by diplomatic immunity.

Some intelligence analysts agree. They say a defection story may have been floated for a combination of plausible reasons: as a face-saving maneuver for a proud Qaddafi while Koussa discusses the final terms of his exile; as a morale-booster for rebel forces; and, perhaps most consequentially, as a feint allowing for Anglo-American input into the shape of whatever Libyan government emerges if the strongman exits the stage.

Neither the U.K. or the U.S. wants to exchange Qaddafi’s regime for an Islamist-dominated one on the Mediterranean. Koussa might be able to play a post-Qaddafi role in shaping that next regime.

According to diplomats, Koussa has come to be viewed as a trusted partner by both the U.S. and the U.K. as well as a skilled go-between with the sometimes obdurate Qaddafi. But his past is not very clean.

In the late 1970s Koussa once served as Libya’s de facto ambassador to the U.K. at its London People’s Bureau (Qaddafi-speak for embassy). He was expelled in 1980 after two Libyan opposition figures were assassinated in London and he publicly celebrated Qaddafi’s program of liquidating “stray dogs”, leading U.K. tabloids to label him the “Envoy of Death.”

His rehabilitation by the West is particularly remarkable since Koussa has long been suspected of helping to choreograph a series of terrorist incidents including the 1984 shooting from inside the London People’s Bureau which killed a female police officer; the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco which killed two U.S. soldiers and injured 230, including 50 American troops; the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in which 270 people died; and the 1989 bombing of a French airliner over the Saharan desert which killed 171.

But within days of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks, it was Koussa who persuaded Qaddafi to embark on a policy of rapprochement with the West given they now shared the common objective of containing Islamist militancy. (Osama bin-Laden had long been inciting unrest among Libyan Islamist groups in the east of the country.)

Koussa later convinced the dictator to abandon the Libyan nuclear weapons program in return for the full restoration of Western diplomatic and economic links. He is also credited with providing the West with information which helped to expose Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s black market in illicit nuclear weapons technology transfers.

Scottish police have said they would like to interview Koussa concerning the Lockerbie case, but in what “The Times” called “an unusual intervention”, Foreign Office officials later said Koussa was not the “prime suspect” in the Lockerbie bombing. And they also failed to rule out the possibility Koussa might leave the U.K. before investigations are completed.

“Surprise, surprise,” commented Robert Black.

Fox Promotes Latest Birther to Prime Time

April 1st, 2011 at 2:53 pm 59 Comments

The seemingly discredited Birther Faction of the GOP just received the Jaws of Life: Fox has announced that Donald Trump will have a regular weekly spot on Fox & Friends.

Although it remains unclear whether Trump’s Presidential ambitions are genuine or just more personal brand-building, his recent shout-outs on behalf of Birtherism have brought new energy to the fringe movement.  Now Fox will amplify Trump’s message—and whatever else the maverick businessman chooses to bloviate about, every Monday morning.

But Trump is not the only putative GOP presidential candidate to flirt with Birtherism. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is also going the Birther route. The man who accused Barack Obama of demonstrating “factual insanity” during the 2008 campaign has been evangelizing on behalf of Birtherism  in an on-and-off way for months. Last year he warned against the President’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview.” More recently came the apocalyptic declaration that America could well become “a secular atheist country” — one possibly dominated by “radical Islamists.”

Michele Bachmann has avoided a Trump-like full-on embrace of Birtherism; and yet when asked on “Good Morning America” if she would “state very clearly” the president was a Christian and an American, Bachmann dodged the question.  She segued instead to her talking points about the stimulus.

Only Tim Pawlenty has publicly distanced himself from the current Birther feeding-frenzy. But hardly in full-throated style. Other possible G.O.P. standard bearers are maintaining a cautious silence.

So why the embrace of a crackpot theory—that the President was not in fact born on American soil, in Hawaii, as otherwise proven—by influential public leaders and potential Presidential candidates? Why this obsession with the president’s birth certificate rather than his policies at a time the U.S. is fighting three wars and a despondent economy?

Perhaps given the recession-driven economic and social dislocation of recent years, given the disruptions and uncertainties caused by a decade of war, it’s not surprising those who believe themselves marginalized have embraced a one-size-fits-all rationalization for their woes. And it’s reminiscent of those coded Republican “Southern Strategy” appeals of an earlier generation.  Whether it’s Birtherism now or Bircherism during the Cold War, fevered conspiracy theorizing can find passionate – if limited — audiences during times of national stress and trauma.

But Republican presidential hopefuls should be offering compelling solutions to those same problems — dreaming dreams of victory which fire the imaginations and win the votes of the many, not indulging the paranoid fantasies and prejudices of the few.

But so far the only Republican of note to do anything like refute the Birtherism paranoia is, ironically enough, the man Barack Obama replaced in the White House.

In an under-reported speech at Southern Methodist University, George W. Bush — still preaching the virtues of “compassionate conservatism”  — put Birtherism and its associated manifestations into the correct historical and political context:

“What’s interesting about our country, if you study history, is that there are some ‘isms’ that occasionally pop up,” he said. “One is isolationism and its evil twin protectionism and its evil triplet nativism.  So if you study the ’20s, for example, there was an American-first policy that said, ‘Who cares what happens in Europe’?’ And there was an immigration policy that I think during this period argued we had too many Jews and too many Italians, therefore we should have no immigrants. And my point is that we’ve been through this kind of period of isolationism, protectionism and nativism.

“I’m a little concerned that we may be going through the same period. I hope that these ‘isms’ pass.”

He’s not alone in thinking so. But those best placed to accelerate such a process, those capable of demonstrating contemporary conservatism is not a racially-exclusive ideology or a culturally intolerant one, remain entirely more fixated on nativism’s short-term political utility. They seem to have spared nary a thought for any long-term harm it will do to either the country or their own cause in ’12.

Is Al Qaeda Gaining the Upper Hand in Libya?

March 30th, 2011 at 3:14 pm 12 Comments

A Libyan rebel commander who recruited his countrymen to  serve as jihadists in the Iraqi insurgency has said radical Islamists “today are on the front lines” in the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.

Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi told an Italian newspaper this week that some of the Libyan jihadists he recruited to fight multi-national forces in Iraq had returned home to participate in the rebellion.

They “are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists,” he said, adding that the “members of al Qaeda (in Iraq) are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader.”

The charismatic al-Hasidi, who has emerged as one of the most visible rebel spokesmen in the ongoing anti-Qaddafi  unrest, belongs to an Islamist group called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

The  organization mounted a series of spectacular guerrilla attacks against Qaddafi’s military near Benghazi and Derna in 1995 and 1996, reportedly killing dozens of soldiers.

He also fought with anti-coalition militias in Afghanistan. Captured in Pakistan in 2002, al-Hasidi was handed over to the U.S. and later repatriated to Libya. Qaddafi’s regime kept him in prison until 2008.

While al-Hasidi’s LIFG does not fall under the al Qaeda umbrella, the two groups share similar radical Islamist ideologies and militant strategies. In 2001 the U.S. designated LIFG a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

In an interview with CBS News Tuesday night President Obama said the role of al Qaeda and other Islamists in the Libyan civil war is being assessed by U.S. and allied intelligence agencies: “That’s why I think it’s important for us not to jump in with both feet,” he said, “but to carefully consider what are the goals of the opposition.”

“There’s an operational advantage for militants in any place where law enforcement and domestic security are weak and distracted,” said Steven Simon, author of the Sacred Age of Terror and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Simon suggested last month that while the current wave of Arab revolts had largely bypassed al Qaeda and its credo based on the twin tenets of religious fundamentalism and militancy, Libya might prove to be the exception.

At the weekend, al Qaeda encouraged Libyan insurgents to continue waging war against Qaddafi in a videotaped message posted to jihadist websites.  The message, recorded by a senior Libyan al Qaeda commander, was the organization’s first high-level statement on the revolt.

Earlier this week Chad’s president Idriss Deby claimed al Qaeda plundered  Libyan military arsenals in rebel-held territory, acquiring weapons including surface-to-air missiles “which were then smuggled into their sanctuaries” in the Saharan desert.

Chad’s president also backed Qaddafi’s assertion that the protests in Libya had been fomented, in part, by an al Qaeda network active in the North African country.

“There is a partial truth in what he says. Up to what point? I don’t know,” said Deby. “But I am certain that (al Qaeda) took an active part in the uprising.”

While Qaddafi has reason to exaggerate the part militant Islamic fundamentalism has played in Libya’s insurrection, his longtime regional enemy doesn’t.

Qaddafi has repeatedly blamed al Qaeda for inciting the Libyan unrest, saying anti-regime protestors were being manipulated by Osama bin-Laden and warning that Islamist militants will fill the power vacuum if he is toppled.

The Libyan strongman was the first to issue an Interpol arrest warrant for bin-Laden, charging al Qaeda with acting in concert with domestic Islamists to assassinate two German counter-terrorism agents in Libya in 1994.

Qaddafi’s concerns about al Qaeda and the resurgent Islamist threat helped prompt his decision to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction program and embark on a rapprochement with the West in 2004.

Casting himself in the once unimaginable role of an ally of convenience in the War on Terror, Libya was cautiously welcomed back into the international mainstream after decades of pariah state-status. Qaddafi’s own history of sponsoring terrorist violence, including the bombing of a Pan Am airliner out of the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, was partially forgiven if never actually forgotten on the even-the-craziest-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend principle of realpolitik.

Prior to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit in 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli provided her with a briefing which described Qaddafi as “a strong partner in the war of terrorism,”  lauding his efforts to contain the activities of Libyan jihadists returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The embassy said Qaddafi was routinely providing the West with “excellent” intelligence on al Qaeda and its allies and the quixotic leader was determined to “blunt the ideological appeal of radical Islam.”

Regime change is the unstated goal of the West’s intervention in what amounts to a Libyan civil war.

But President Obama is correct when he says the alliance should err on the side of caution when it comes to the opposition’s objectives . The idea, after all, is surely to change the Qaddafi regime for a Western-tilting, secular government, not a jihadist-dominated one.

Trumped Up Birther Charges

March 29th, 2011 at 7:50 pm 52 Comments

FrumForum asked yesterday: Is Donald Trump crazy or does he just hold an extremely low opinion of Republican primary voters?

The answer is yes on both counts.

Trump has taken up the birther case as part of his vanity presidential bid.  Even Glenn Beck, who tends to be to cogent political analysis what Monty Python is to Arthurian Lit., has dismissed the conspiracy theorizing as “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

But Trump has salvaged the Winged Lady of free-flying paranoid speculation about Barack Obama’s citizenship and constitutional eligibility to serve as president and attached it to the bonnet of his turbo-charged self-promotion machine.

Racing around the talk show circuit, the man who has been dropping hints about a presidential bid every bit as demurely scaled as his Atlantic City casinos has drawn the predictable rise from Whoopi Goldberg on The View, equally predictable smirks and softball questions from the Fox & Friends curvy couch crew. The discredited and once discreditable issue is being industriously repackaged for prime time by the “Draft Trump” camp.

As longtime Trump advisor Roger Stone told Politico yesterday, the crudest political calculus is at play. In a series of emailed comments about Trump’s birther stance, Stone said:

1) He believes he is raising a legitimate question. If there is nothing wrong why doesn’t the Prez simply release his birth certificate?

2) Notice Trump makes no allegation –  he is merely asking a question.

3) A solid plurality of Republican primary voters AGREE with Trump. In a split field with 5-6 candidates they are a significant group

4) Personally I think it is brilliant. It’s base building. It gives voice to a concern shared by many on the right.

5) The media immediately tries to marginalize anyone who raises questions about the lack of proof that Obama was born in the U.S. No other potential candidate has dared to speak up on the issue — politics abhors a vacuum. Trump’s poll ratings in the Republican primaries will go UP.

Most national polling on the question is in line with a CNN survey which found almost 60 percent of Republicans believe the president was definitely or probably born in the U.S.

Still, that means two-fifths of GOP voters entertain some questions about his citizenship. And although there have been suggestions of sampling error, a recent Public Policy Polling survey indicated fully 51 percent of likely GOP primary voters do not believe the president is really an American citizen.

So Trump and his cheerleaders have good reason to believe there’s traction to be gained in the primaries by hauling the birther issue from the political wings to center stage.

But if a putative Trump campaign gathers votes and momentum, compelling other contenders to veer to the extreme right to remain competitive, the toxic national fall-out would likely prove fatal to GOP chances in the general election.

Republican credibility — and viability — would not recover from the self-inflicted wounds of a primary season dominated by candidates abandoning the political mainstream and attempting to out-crazy one another on fringe non-issues.

“We’ve got to be very careful about allowing these people – who are the birthers and the 9/11-deniers – to get too high a profile,” Karl Rove said recently.

Glenn Beck, amazingly, agrees. By distracting from legitimate issues, by painting his opponents in the very craziest of hues, the birther cause is “a dream come true” for Democrats, he says. And Beck’s right in a broken-clock-tells-the-right-time-once-a-day sort of way.

Republicans should even now be pondering how best to insert a sanity clause into their Campaign ’12 rulebook.

Is Iran Helping Assad Crush the Syrian Revolt?

March 28th, 2011 at 12:04 pm 5 Comments

According to Israeli sources, Syrian dissidents have reported some of the gun- and baton-wielding security personnel unleashed on anti-regime activists in recent days have been speaking in Farsi.

This is not in and of itself conclusive evidence of Iranian involvement. Syria has a large population of native Farsi speakers. So, for that matter, does Israel.

Still: “Syria is an Iranian acquisition, and it is clear that Iran is afraid that its investments will go down the drain.  So it has allowed for greater involvement than in other Arab countries,” Israeli Army Radio reported Foreign Ministry officials as saying.

The alliance with Iran has allowed Damascus to fight above its weight as a regional power player.

Assad, like his father and predecessor, has played a double-game with both his neighbors and the U.S., suggesting at times Syria could be “flipped” given the right inducements.

As Middle East expert Michael Doran has noted, “Syria has played this game of being both the arsonist and the fire department.”

All the while Syria has been extending — and capriciously yanking away — the olive branch, it has been calibrating the use of its client terrorist political organizations Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories according to immediate exigencies and longer range goals.

All the while it has been attempting to destabilize U.S. allies including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia by way of lower-key intriguing and subversion,

All the while it has been hosting and training al-Qaeda recruits from throughout the Arab world and allowing the country to be used as a land-bridge for infiltrating them into Iraq.

And all the while Iran has looked on and nodded approvingly.

Syria has acted as Tehran’s reliable sword-edge in pursuing greater Shi’ite/Persian aspirations in a largely Sunni, largely hostile Arab world.

The loss of its only Arab ally would be more than just a temporary setback to the mullahs’ plans for redrawing the regional boundaries of power. A destabilized Syria or one where the regime is changed by the will of a people could administer a death-blow to Iran’s current strategic gamesmanship in the Middle East.

Which is why Israel’s warnings about possible Iranian participation in efforts to quell the Syrian uprising carry the ring of conviction.

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New Media Holds Back Assad’s Crackdown

March 26th, 2011 at 12:55 pm 3 Comments

The traditional rules of engagement between the Syrian regime and its opponents have been suspended.

The Carthaginian devastation visited upon Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, by the Baathist government of Hafiz al-Assad following an abortive 1982 Islamist uprising had long been emblematic of the regime’s mail-fisted approach to dissent.

The leveling of that city by Syrian artillery was a pour encourager les autres-type exercise in quite literal overkill. Hama became synonymous with the institutionalized ruthlessness of a regime dependent on the army, the police and as many as 15 different security services to maintain its monopoly on power.

Now confronted with the first major challenge to Baathist rule in decades, Hafiz al-Assad’s son and successor Bashar has not declared unconditional warfare on his own people. Doubtless he has been urged to unleash the full might of his military and fearsome security services on protesters by some of the apparatchiks who administer his police state. It will be their reflex instinct.

However, Assad has opted for an entirely more proportionate response. The severity of his counter-measures remains restrained –by Syrian standards — in the face of a growing insurgency demanding political reforms and the reinstatement of civil rights and liberties.

The deployment of an armored division to Daraa at the weekend was a show of force intended to demonstrate the city could go the way of Hama. But the regime’s big guns continue to remain silent even though small-arms fire is increasingly being heard there as well as in other centers of rioting.

A regime which slaughtered an estimated 25,000 Syrians at Hama and executed 10,000 dissenters in the decade following  now has no choice but to take an uncharacteristically measured approach to country-wide anti-regime demonstrations. Lethal force is certainly being used — dozens of protesters have been killed since rallies against ‘injustice and repression’ began in January. But the death toll is not on the operatic scale which might once have been expected.

Assad’s hand is being stayed not because he is any more merciful than his father (he isn’t) but because he’s improvising a survival strategy which is hyper-sensitive to Arab and international opinion. The ruthless old orthodoxies of his father’s day no longer apply in the new media age. Hama was destroyed off-camera.  State efforts at censorship notwithstanding, modern revolutions can and will be televised, webcast and Tweeted given the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of social networks sites, smartphones and tablet computers.

And webcammed bloodbaths, as Assad has learned, do not play either on the Arab street or before global audiences.

When Muammar Qaddafi used mass slaughter as both a tactic and his entire strategy for combating Libya’s insurrection, he invited a punitive international response because the world was watching events unfold live and in living color on TVs, computer monitors and BlackBerries.

His preferred take-no-prisoners counter-insurgency measures are now off-limits to Assad and will likely remain so even if the scattered unrest he faces shows signs of coalescing into an organized and cohesive movement. And this is almost certainly already happening. All of the supposedly spontaneous Middle Eastern popular uprisings of recent months were organized and strategized to some degree by way of social networking. It’s unthinkable Syrians, who enjoy one of the highest Internet-penetration rates in the region, aren’t availing themselves of this weapon as their chapter in the new Arab Revolt unfolds.

Assad will know this. He’s perhaps the world’s only webhead of state. As president of the Syrian Computer Society –the one public position he held before being abruptly promoted from spare to heir-apparent following brother Basil’s death –Assad helped to introduce the Internet to his benighted country.

Since succeeding his father as president in 2000, he has presided over a series of increasingly harsh restrictions on its use. However, Assad is aware Syrians routinely evade state firewalls blocking YouTube, Wikipedia and other forbidden sites by using international proxy servers. The protests he faces were inspired by the largely bloodless Arab Spring awakenings in Tunisia and Egypt, uprisings his people followed on the ‘Net not in Syria’s state-controlled media. Last month one of his first concessions to those demanding liberalization of the arbitrary “emergency laws” Syria has been ruled by since 1963 was to lift a five-year official ban on Facebook (fear of “Israeli infiltration” was one of the official rationalizations for denying access).

While still attempting to enforce a media blackout and keep the world blind to his country’s upheavals, Assad knows any scenes of unchecked aggression against demonstrators would bleed out onto the Internet and television screens. Demands for his ouster would go viral as quickly as YouTube videos of wholesale carnage in Syria.

The Damascus-Tehran axis has been a centerpiece of Syrian foreign policy since he assumed power, an alliance intent on establishing a joint hegemony extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Adventurism and terrorism predicated on destabilizing other Arab regimes and subverting the regional balance of power has made Assad quite as despised by his neighbors as Qaddafi.  Any reversion to true   form now in terms of an unchecked counter-insurgency campaign would almost certainly draw Qaddafi -type pan-Arab condemnation.  Outside intervention, while unlikely, is not entirely unthinkable.

Assad is attempting to quell the unrest by launching what amounts to a fits-and-starts reform program in conjunction with his low-intensity crackdown. Whether this strategy will be sufficient to keep him in office and maintain the iron Baathist grip on power remains to be seen. But at the very least it’s time for Assad to post a status update. One to the effect the old rules are no longer in play.

Obama Takes Page from Wolfowitz’s Playbook

March 23rd, 2011 at 10:56 am 20 Comments

In late February, as the Libyan crisis unfolded, former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made an impassioned plea for the United States to intervene. Wolfowitz argued that “when there are so many things that could be done to help the unbelievably brave Libyan people — without any risk to American lives — it is shameful to be sitting on our hands.”

The same Barack Obama who once breezily dismissed Wolfowitz as an “arm-chair weekend warrior” has now embraced an only slightly modified version of his doctrine of preemptive intervention to frame his case for U.S. involvement in Libya.  And the same Paul Wolfowitz who fretted Obama would walk away from George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East was tenaciously defending the emerging White House Libya policy from sniping by the likes of George Will on Sunday’s talk shows.

Stranger bedfellows are almost impossible to imagine. We would appear to be in Lion-Lies-Down-With-Lamb territory. But this entente très cordiale is simply the latest confirmation of Lord Palmerston’s dictum about the primacy of permanent national interests in foreign relations.

The conventional thinking had been that President Obama’s centrist leanings combined with fears of political blowback from a U.S. electorate fatigued by global nation-building duties (along with the predictable condemnations from implacable foes and fair-weather friends) were staying him from unsheathing the sword in Libya.

Now some unconventional thinking is challenging those assumptions.

In an intriguing and well-sourced piece on Time magazine’s Swampland political blog, it seems Wolfowitz’s thinking didn’t so much anticipate the eventual White House Libyan strategy as provide the actual blueprint.

The National Security Council’s Ben Rhodes is quoted as saying the long-term benefits of saving lives in Libya, protecting democratic change elsewhere in the region and — most tellingly — ensuring “the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this” eventually outweighed short-term  domestic and international concerns. The despised policy of preventive intervention was essentially taken out of mothballs and re-commissioned.

President Obama, who once said he would abandon the Bush Administration’s “idealistic” approach to Middle Eastern affairs in favor of what he called a “realist” policy, at some point discovered realism was an animating principle of his predecessor’s policy all along.

Wolfowitz was never the promiscuous, shoot-first-think-later interventionist he has been caricatured as: it was he himself who famously said the U.S. could never be expected to play the role of global policeman in an unpredictable and increasingly fractious post-Cold War world. What he argued for was selective preemptive intervention — preferably internationally sanctioned — when humanitarian considerations and U.S. national interests converged. Libya presented a case study in the need for precisely such action. A Libya embroiled in an ongoing, high- or low-intensity civil war — a chaotic situation certain to be exploited by jihadists — would clearly trigger seismic shockwaves throughout the country and the region, imperiling U.S. interests. So would a Libya controlled by a renascent Qaddafi bent on terrorizing his people and likely to once again make terrorism the country’s primary export. Intervention would also send a clear message to other Arab leaders challenged by popular discontent who might be flirting with Qaddafi’s notion that political power re-grows and is reasserted from the barrel of a gun.

The original Wolfowitz Doctrine stressed that vital security, economic and geopolitical factors made it imperative for the U.S. to foster Middle Eastern stability. It also recognized permanent stabilization could only come about by engaging the so-called Arab street rather than just the kleptocratic, sometimes theocratic leaderships and by vigorously promoting the items on what came to be known as the “Freedom Agenda”. This call for the spread of democratic values and institutions in a region where even mild dissent is often punishable by medieval cruelties was seen as the only antidote to ongoing repression: repression which provides radical jihadists with an endless supply of eager volunteers.

Wolfowitz’s initial qualms notwithstanding, President Obama’s realist school of diplomacy has always owed an unacknowledged debt to the supposedly misty-eyed idealism of the “Freedom Agenda”. The President’s unyielding emphasis on the need for comprehensive reform and restructuring in the Middle East is largely a by-any-other-name extension of policies initiated under the Bush Administration.

But what amounted to discredited U.S. unilateralism in Iraq (never mind the participation of more than 40 other countries in military and support roles) made the President pessimistic about the chances of America being able to coordinate multilateral action in response to the worsening Libyan situation. And a genuine exercise in American go-it-alone-ism in a Muslim country was, frankly, unthinkable at this juncture.

His sometimes fuzzy rhetoric notwithstanding, the President is on record as saying persuasive cases can and indeed should be made for humanitarian intervention on both moral and national security grounds. “More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.”

The President was finally prompted to act last week when a resurgent Qaddafi appeared poised to commit grand-scale atrocities in eastern Libya. In the face of open military skepticism about the prudence of pursuing a Libyan mission, the President — backed by Secretary of State Clinton and key National Security Council personnel — charged his United Nations ambassador Susan Rice with seeking support for a buffed-up version of a Lebanese resolution calling for a no-fly zone.

She succeeded.  Last Thursday the U.N. gave broad support to “all measures necessary” to protect Libyan civilians, a move sanctioned by an Arab League traditionally as united by its members’ loathing of Qaddafi as the “Zionist Entity”.

Frankly, Security Council Resolution 1973 reads like a slightly wordier version of Wolfowitz’s robust February 22 critique, one in which he outlined a series of urgent actions the U.S. and the international community should be taking to contain the Libyan crisis.

In the Libyan scenario, by yoking U.S. diplomatic objectives — namely, the removal of Qaddafi and  his criminally insane form of despotism — to U.N.-mandated military objectives intended to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter, the President has inaugurated what he must hope will be viewed as a kinder, gentler version of the Wolfowitz Doctrine.

The emerging Obama Doctrine takes much the same Big Picture view of U.S. interests as the Wolfowitz version. And the same U.S. Big Stick will be wielded when necessary — if only in conjunction with international coalitions at this stage. But it’s far more soft-spoken and far less clearly articulated than its predecessor. Detail, clarity and a much-needed sense of urgency still need to be added to make the political case for Libyan intervention to the American people.

But certainly the cerebral President has proved the theoretical case for intervention to his own satisfaction based on both ethical considerations and the overriding national interest. Equally certain is his belief that intervention now will preclude the need for an even costlier Libyan intervention in the not too distant future.

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