Home / Robert Farley / “The Roots of the Crisis”

“The Roots of the Crisis”


This is just hopelessly lazy:

To understand the roots of the crisis in Libya, after all, would mean examining how, for years, the United States helped Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and other Arab leaders hold on to power and terrorize their opponents anywhere in the world, in the name of the “war on terror.” It would mean exposing successive administrations’ rendition and torture policies, and their collusion with despotic Arab regimes to carry them out. Though many Arabs targeted by the United States remained focused exclusively on challenging the regimes in their home countries—and refused to harm civilians to achieve their aims—some came to regard the United States, its assets and civilians as legitimate targets in some circumstances.

There are surely some time periods and some leaders for which the “hold on to power and terrorize their opponents” would be an appropriate description of US policy; in the case of Libya, the US became more willing to cut Qaddafi slack after 2003, in return for cooperation on the Libyan nuclear program and for the assistance of the Libyan intelligence. For approximately the 34 years prior to the nuclear deal of 2003, US policy (pursued with uneven enthusiasm) was to support the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. It’s entirely reasonable to complain about US willingness to cooperate with the Libyan security services after 2003, but it should bear mention that Qaddafi was rather adept at holding onto power and terrorizing his opponents anywhere in the world without any assistance from the United States. In face, active US opposition was incapable of preventing Qaddafi from undertaking these two projects. Moreover, I don’t recollect that the Nation was particularly enthusiastic about US policy towards Qaddafi prior to 2003.

It isn’t just Qaddafi; I feel like pulling my hair out every time I read that Mubarak was a US puppet/creation. There’s an element of truth to the claim, but only an element; Mubarak was the third in a line of dictators, the first two of whom had demonstrated every capacity for holding onto power even in context of active US opposition. Similarly, the United States has been more and less willing to deal with the Assads over the years (including utilizing Syrian security services), but it makes no sense whatsoever to claim that the resilience of the Assad regime is because of US assistance. Simply because the US is periodically willing to work with a particularly dictator does not indicate that the US is responsible for the survival of said dictator; it may be convenient for domestic opponents to make such an argument, but authoritarian regimes can survive with no assistance whatsoever from the United States.

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  • It’s a defining trait of a certain anti-war mindset that world politics is a morality play where the US is the only actor and everyone else is a faceless chorus or a prop.

    • Actually, delete “anti-war” there, as this is also how neocons see the world – only they think the US is the Green Lantern, not Macbeth.

  • cpinva

    funny thing, how dictators the world over have managed to both survive and thrive, without the least bit of assistance from the US. sometimes, they’ve done it in the face of active resistence from the US. dictators just seem to have a very healthy, built-in survival instinct. go figure.

    • NonyNony

      sometimes, they’ve done it in the face of active resistence from the US.

      And sometimes they do it right off the coast of Florida on an island that has a US Naval Base located on it.

    • JohnTh

      Indeed – I understand that there were a number of dictatorships in place around the world before the US even became a world power.

      • Cody

        You say this like there was a world before the US. That’s straight Obama talk right there.

        Next you’re going to tell me we’re not first at everything? Damn Liberals!

  • liberal

    …authoritarian regimes can survive with no assistance whatsoever from the United States…

    Yes, but that’s not the important question, which is rather, can non-authoritarian regimes survive in the face of hostility from the US?

    • DrDick

      See NonyNony just above.

      • I give up: what non-authoritarian Cuban regime faced opposition from the US?

    • Andrew

      Daniel Ortega has done pretty well.

  • jon

    It’s a ‘Yes, and…’ answer, which needs to account for a great deal of history, nuance and local context, in addition to US postures and action. Looking back at history, dictators may be wary to align themselves with the US, because our support can be fickle, fleeting, half hearted, and duplicitous. Khadafy might still be in power if he hadn’t given up his worthless nuclear program. And then there’s Diem…

    • Jon H

      “And then there’s Diem…”

      For some reason I imagined this being sung to the tune of the theme song from Maude.

      • Joey Maloney

        You mean that compromiser, enterpriser, had to eat lead tranquilizer, dead on Diem?

        • njorl

          God’ll getcha for that.

  • harminder

    Adam Curtis has a great “backgrounder” to this story with film clips: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2012/10/hes_behind_you.html

  • scott

    Tricky footwork there, dude, nicely done. Focus on the weak bit – that these regimes needed our assistance to survive as an existential matter – and avoid the larger criticism that we have been quite helpful to these regimes and bear some moral responsibilty for what they’ve done, especially given our willingness to play footsie with some quite unsavory jokers. (I particularly like the slippery reference to “utilizing” the Syrian security services, ie, rendering people we wanted tortured to them so they could do the wet work for us). Funny how you can hold responsible a hapless narcissist like Nader or anyone even willing to think about voting 3rd party responsible for all the world’s horrors, but you shy away from looking at our country’s involvement in the abuses of these regimes and the resulting blowback. Interesting values.

    • heckblazer

      There definitely are some nasty Arab authoritarians that have stayed in power in good part because of American support. Historically Qaddafi and the Assads are not among them, unless the US being a handy external enemy to rally against somehow counts.

    • Blum

      The United States has not outsourced assassination. It is one of the few areas its intelligence services are competent in.

      • Jon H

        Fidel Castro says “Wanna bet?”

    • avoid the larger criticism that we have been quite helpful to these regimes and bear some moral responsibilty for what they’ve done

      We did nothing – zero, zilch, nada, nothing – to be helpful to Khadaffy, and bear zero, zilch, nada responsibility for anything he did.

      Stop taking your very favoritist story in the world and insisting that it explains every situation in every country ever.

      As it turns out, Libyan is not Iran. No, really!

  • bobbyp

    Yup. The guy seized power in ’69 and nationalized the oil companies shortly thereafter. Hence the unwavering U.S. support for his regime. Makes sense to me.

    But the real politik since from 2003 until we figured we could safely cut him loose? Kissingerian realism or callowness? Only the hairsuit can know for sure. :)

  • Eamonn

    The comparison of Mubarak with Sadat and especially with Nasser really doesn’t hold up. Nasser wasn’t democratically elected but he definitely had mass popular support. Support for the military regime declined after 1967 but was still enough to keep Sadat afloat for a time. In any case, the key difference is that Mubarak represented the worst of regime without any of its earlier modernizing, developmental or egalitarian impulses. US aid to Mubarak was crucial to him paying off key constituencies while creating a system of graft and corruption that served only to perpetuate power, not to combat imperialism and achieve self-determination as was the goal under Nasser. As popular support waned, the US filled the void and kept Mubarak more accountable to his foreign patrons that to the people of Egypt.

    • Yes, Nasser was considerably different from Mubarak. The fact that they were both Egyptian dictators does not mean they were the exact same type of dictator. Nasser did have popular support for a lot of his policies including his opposition to Zionism. Mubarak did not have a any popular support by the end and his support from the US was almost entirely a function of his continuation of Sadat’s abandonment of Nasser’s opposition to Zionism.

      • rea

        his support from the US was almost entirely a function of his continuation of Sadat’s abandonment of Nasser’s opposition to Zionism.

        It was also a legacy of Sadat having switched sides in the Cold War.

        • Except Egypt did not really switch sides in the Cold War. They were never part of the Soviet bloc, but rather one of the many non-aligned nations with good state to state relations with the USSR. India was one also. The Egyptians expelled Soviet military and other advisers under Sadat and after 1973 Egypt grew a lot closer to the US and more distant from the USSR. But, it was not a Soviet ally becoming a US ally. It was a non-aligned state with good relations with the USSR under Nasser that became a US client state under Mubarak.

          • Eamonn

            Exactly – before Sadat’s move towards the US, Nasser had been very skilled at playing the superpowers off of each other (except for that hiccup with Suez in 56 and all, oops) so that he could gain the most in military and development aid. Once Egypt became a client state it was all about keeping the US happy so that Mubarak could keep getting aid so as to solidify his grip on power. Without US support, the regime would have been hit by an ecnomic crisis and greater pressure to reform from within in the 1980s.

  • Dave

    Power: what’s that all about, then?

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  • Quercus

    I don’t know; it doesn’t seem to me that the article was aimed at graduate students in Modern Arab/North African History, but rather at people who see the world as divided into US, Loyal US Allies, and US Enemies (which are Dictators). And it’s making the point that things are a little more complicated than that.

    So criticizing the article for not being complicated enough, seems maybe counterproductive. I mean, unless you also get angry that fifth grade science teachers simplify things by not going into relatavistic velocity addition.

    • Reminds me of an old cartoon from the Reagan years in which Jeane Kirkpatrick is explaining: “In totalitarian countries, the government murders, tortures and oppresses the people. In authoritarian countries, these functions are left to the private sector.”

    • Robert Farley

      Are you familiar with the publication “The Nation”?

    • Describing Libya as a US client, propped up by an America hostile to the Libyan public’s desires, is not a simplification.

      It is an inversion of reality, or to be blunt, a lie. A lie told to advance a predetermined narrative.

      The analogy is not “Teach fifth graders that v = d/t.” An accurate analogy would be “Teach fifth graders that v != d/t.”

  • These people are the mirror image of the neocons.

    They have their ideology-based narrative about how the world, and American power, works, and they just assume that the facts of the matter are what that narrative predicts they would be.

    All they need to do is check their guts, and every question has exactly the same answer.

    Moammar Khadaffy, American Creation. Right.

  • Lazy isn’t the problem, Robert.

    It takes an awful lot of work to ignore that much evidence and convince oneself of such a bullshit story.

    Dedicated, deliberate, determined work.

  • david mizner

    What a silly post.

    I can go to the store all by myself but someone who gives me a ride is nonetheless helping me.

    • Ethan

      What about someone who drives beside you two-thirds of the way, throwing empty cans and pennies at you periodically. Then, he stops throwing stuff and drives beside you slowly, occasionally saying friendly things. Then someone else runs up behind you and he gets out of the car and they tackle you together. The Nation then drives by and says “he wouldn’t have nearly gotten to the store without the driveer’s support.”

  • SN

    Farley is correct about Quadaffi and Assad and completely wrong about Mubarak. First, conceptually conflating Nasr, Sadat and Mubarak is just silly.

    Second, Post Camp David the Egyptian state became a major benefactor of aid from the US. Egypt never fell out of the top 5 recipients of US aid under Mubarak. US military assistance has been covering about 1/3rd of the Egyptian military budget for decades. Economic aid was clocking in at $800 million per year and fell to around $400 million per year just before the Arab spring. Combined military and economic aid to Egypt under Mubarak was clocking in at around 1-1.5 billion per year for 30 years. This kind of aid buys a lot military and security forces for domestic repression.

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