Despite Airport Incident, Henry Kissinger is Wrong about Libya

I spent May 27 through June 3 in Libya, and flew out of Tripoli airport to Cairo a day before a small Tarhouna militia came there to demonstrate against the disappearance of its leader. Despite that close call, I came back optimistic about Libya over-all. The Tarhouna demonstration was dealt with efficiently by the new Libyan army, which took control of the airport weeks ago, and there is every reason to believe that it will reopen shortly. When I flew in and out of the Tripoli airport, there were no militiamen there, just regular army and police (who have distinctive red-marked vehicles). There are also now regular flights from Cairo, e.g., to provincial cities like Misrata.

There is a kind of black legend about Libya, that it has become a failed state and is a mess, that there are armed militiamen everywhere, that everybody is a secessionist, that the transitional government is not doing anything, that people of subsaharan African heritage are bothered in the streets, etc., etc. The black legend is promoted in part by remnants of the Qaddafi regime and his admirers in the West, in part by overly anxious middle class Libyans navigating an admittedly difficult transition, in part by media editors looking for a dramatic story.

Henry Kissinger, in his recent op-ed against intervention in Syria, listed the erasure of the Libyan state as an argument against such interventions. I read the allegation with disbelief. Libya is not like Somalia! It isn’t even like Yemen. (The Libyans I talked to about Yemen sympathized with the country’s problems but were astonished to hear that some Western observers looked a their situations as similar!)

So imagine my surprise on visits to Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli, to find that there were no militiamen to be seen, that most things were functioning normally, that there were police at traffic intersections, that there were children’s carnivals open till late, families out, that jewelry shops were open till 8 pm, that Arabs and Africans were working side by side, and that people were proud in Benghazi of having demonstrated against calls for decentralizing the country.

As someone who has lived in conflict situations, I take as a very serious gauge of security whether shops are open and how late they stay open. Jewelry shops in particular are easily looted, and the loot is light and easy to fence. But in Tripoli there was loads of gold in rows of jewelry shops, along with clothing stores newly stocked with Italian fashions. Shopkeepers I interviewed were fully stocked, confident and glad to finally be rid of Qaddafi’s erratic governance, under which they were never sure if they would make a profit because policies changed frequently.

I caught a little celebration by recently graduated Libyan police at Martyr’s Square in Tripoli last week:

And here is a little set of carnival rides near Martyr’s Square in the capital:

Children's Rides in Tripoli, Libya, June 2012

And, shopping:

Shopping in Tripoli

Life is pretty normal. I talked to a Libyan of African heritage who had worked in Germany 14 years and recently had returned. He said he is *much* happier in Libya, even though he is working two jobs (one of them teaching Arabic). A friend of mine is organizing a music festival in the capital. People are gearing up for the election of the National Congress, which will draft a new constitution and gradually create a new government.

Cities unhappy with the foot-dragging of the transitional national government have simply staged their own municipal elections. Benghazi just held its successfully, and Misrata did this months ago. I met the husband of a newly-minted female city council member in Benghazi; she was the number one vote-getter among the candidates that ran, and may chair the council. The municipal governments have the legitimacy of the ballot box and are beginning to address local problems.

Campaigning in Benghazi, May 2012

So if you aren’t in danger of being mugged at night in Tripoli or Benghazi, are there other problems? Sure, loads of them. While I was there the dock workers went on strike at Tripoli to complain about the poor management of the port. Then, in an oil state, money flows to municipalities rather than cities raising money through taxes, and the transitional government still isn’t very good about remitting the money. There is a human rights situation that needs to be addressed in the small town of Tawergha, the militias of which committed war crimes on behalf of Gaddafi; Tawergha has been cleared of its inhabitants, and they need to be allowed to return to their homes. And while security on the whole is fine for individuals in the big northern cities, it probably is still not entirely satisfactory for new investors bringing in expensive equipment to places like Benghazi (though BP has decided to get back into Libya). You have occasional moments of militia protest like the one yesterday at the airport in Tripoli.

But I was struck at the air of normality everywhere I went, and by the obvious comfort people had in circulating, selling and going about their lives. There are no bombings, there is no civil war, there is no serious secessionism. One man told me that the biggest change is that people are no longer afraid. They had been captive of the revolutionary committees and the secret police. And that end of political fear, the Libyans I talked to insisted, made the uncertainties of this transitional period all worthwhile.

I went to Libya expecting to find people nervous about going out, expecting to find a lot of shops shuttered, and expecting to be stopped at militia checkpoints (which was common in Beirut in the late 1970s when I lived there in the first years of the Civil War). Maybe such things exist in smaller provincial cities that I didn’t visit, like Gadames in the South. I don’t know. In the urban north, I found a society actively reconstructing itself where people clearly were going about their ordinary lives, where stores were open and people were sitting in sidewalk cafes, where there were no militiamen on the streets, no checkpoints, and where there were actually traffic cops directing traffic.

So while I wouldn’t want to minimize what difficulties remain, and while I am aware that a week on the ground won’t reveal all the society’s problems, I can say with certainty that the image found in the Western press of the place is far more negative than what I saw with my own eyes and what I heard from locals in Arabic-language conversations.

And I can say categorically that Henry Kissinger is wrong about Libya.

23 Responses

    • Peter and Richard compare Libya positively to what Iraq was like 6 months after the fall of Sadam Hussein. They left Libya feeling fairly hopeful about its future. Their piece ends on a positive note.

  1. I agree with you some internal and external pro-Gadfafi who want the revolution to fail and try make hindrance for the comming election

    • Did not visit Sirte. I asked about it and people said it is quiet now. A lot of very nice homes and a lot of civic infrastructure. Obviously it will take some time for revolutionaries and former regime supporters to reconcile, but the National Congress elections, for which 1 million voters have registered, may begin that process.

      Bani Walid is on the other hand from what I was told a virtual city-state. Again, just hearsay.

  2. Here is waht Fawaz Gerges has to say about Kissinger, who actively worked to undermine the Rogers Plan for an israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, promoted by Secretary of State, William Rogers, during the Nixon administration:

    “According to Kissinger, the idea of an even handed approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict was preposterous and misguided because the overriding goal of American strategy must be to defend its own clients and wean away those of the Soviets. Kissinger complained frequently and scornfully of the naïve optimism of these State Department officials who, in his opinion, deluded themselves into believing that conditions in the Middle East after 1967 were damaging to America and that the United States should actively mediate between Egypt and Israel and press the latter to withdraw from occupied Arab territories. In contrast, Kissinger, the Cold Warrior said he favored doing as little as possible and soring up America’s own clients, particularly Israel, and leaving Nasser and his allies to stew in their own juice. In fact, Kissinger boast that he undercut a major diplomatic initiative called the rogers’ Plan, outlined by Secretary of State William P rogers in 1969, to nudge the warring factions to accept a peace settlement:
    “My aid was to produce a stalemate until Moscow urged compromise or until, even better, some moderate Arab regime decided that the route to progress was through Washington.
    “By the end of 1971, the divisions within our government, the State Department’s single-minded pursuit of unattainable goals – and the Soviet Union’s lack of imagination – had produced the stalemate for which I had striven by design.
    “My strategy has not changed. Until some Arab state showed a willingness to separate from the Soviets, or the Soviets were prepared to dissociate from the maximum Arab program, we had no reason to modify our policy.”

    • Thanks for one of the clearest presentations of how evil was Henry Kissinger. I lived in Washington, D.C., through much of his rule, and it was obvious that he was a major contributor to America operating in a lawless and draconian manner. How he has managed to maintain the reputation as a statesman and knowledgable about workable foreign policy never ceases to amaze me.

  3. I hope Juan’s assessment gets wider play in the media, but sadly, the GOP will continue to tell lies about Libya through the current prez campaign. Is the MSM responsible enough to tell the people the difference?

  4. Often what the Western press presents is politically adjusted or biased by the US government.

    I had an experience similar to Cole’s experience when back in 1978 I flew into an airport in or near Lagos, Nigeria to perform a geotechnical field investigation in Lagos.

    On arriving, I found the air terminal being closed down by the Nigerian Army. I was stopped from making any calls, but found an English speaking World Health Organization official, got a taxi with him and share a hotel room. In the morning made calls, got picked up and went to work.

    What was presented in the Western press was exaggerated and manipulated from what I experienced for the next 3 months in Nigeria.

    US government often manipulates and controls the press.

    Digression with some humor, but a significant conclusion at the end.

    The drilling equipment was carried in on poles on the shoulders of Nigerian laborers. I was in front, enjoying cutting the bush with a big machete and leading the group, the great white warrior in the swamp. But got stung by hornets. Turned around and the natives had already moved far away. Gave the machete to a native and went to the rear as a humbled, stung engineer.

    On President’s Island I was touring on the beach going to a historical ship wreck site and was robbed by two natives carry machetes, one short machete and the other long. I thought about throwing sand in their faces but decided it is wasn’t worth the danger. Threw my wallet to the guy in front since I was prepared for a possible robbery with nothing of much value in my wallet. But the robber behind me with the small machete grabbed my gold framed glasses. Got angry. Luckily I always traveled with spare glasses. Didn’t throw the sand, not that angry or stupid. A big Nigerian helped me chase the robbers, but they disappeared into the bush. Great experience. My first robbery attack which I spontaneously handled with care, no fear, just the correct response.

    Gave up engineering after 18 years and became one of the best, if not the best CNA in the San Francisco Bay Area. Found my real innate ability is working with my heart as a CNA, Certified Nurse Assistant, in caring for babies and young kids in hospitals and as a volunteer at Children’s Hospital. Did things that others didn’t do and had not received real education, experience nor knowledge for: mental telepathy, intuition, spiritual help, spontaneous support for those making the transition. Dying, such an ignorant negative word, there’s no heaven nor hell. Catholic Church does beautiful things, but is run by greed for power, control and wealth like most, if not all governments – and with lots of propaganda: sin, hell, heaven, etc.

    Trust and listen to your heart. Perhaps, changing your job is what is best for you and others. Hint, hint.

  5. I’m not surprised that Henry Kissinger is wrong about Libya. He’s been wrong about virtually everything since he joined the Nixon administration.

  6. My source of news about libya is family and friends, I found this the real objective and unbiased source. Dramatization and exaggeration are well known in press and politics. Overall I am optimistic and realistic, there are only few setbacks but definitely no failure and we all wait the final success.

  7. Few will recall that in the first year or two after the fall of Afghanistan, it was a relatively safe place begining to function. General’s I know speak of jumping into an open Humvee to drive deep into the countryside carrying only an AK-47 (yes, he prefers the more reliable AK to the finicky M-16) without concern.

    It is too early to assess Libya. Afghanistan went bad because pressure by the US and other for force early elections effectively handed the institutions of government over to a corrupt clan with a pre-existing power base and the ability to effectively buy the election (seem familiar?).

    Libya can a will go the same way if we insist on elections prior to creating the institutions of government and civil society. By way of contrast compare how Singapore emerged to Iraq or Afghanistan. They concentrated on the people and the institutions prior to democracy.

    The is much to say positive about Libya, but the leadership opportunists and strongmen are out there plotting their own endgames while we concentrate on democracy.

    • Afghanistan went bad because pressure by the US and other for force early elections effectively handed the institutions of government over to a corrupt clan with a pre-existing power base and the ability to effectively buy the election (seem familiar?).

      Let’s not forget another very important factor – the presence of a foreign military, allied with the government, fostering an anti-government/anti-occupation insurgency.

      Let’s also not forget what the end – the announced end, the process of ending, and the actual end – of the foreign occupation of Iraq meant for that country’s internal security and politics.

      There is no foreign occupation in Libya, thank God. Even if that means a lower level of security in the short term, it is still an important factor in allowing post-war reconciliation and a “return to normalcy.”

  8. I thank Juan Cole for this excellent report. It is truly fascinating how the MSM loves conflict, and has no need to followup. This sure puts to rest all the impassioned left naysayers who repeated told us how the Libyan uprising was a CIA plot, and solely an imperialistic invasion. Looks as if the Libyan’s are doing a decent job constructing a democracy out of centuries of dictatorial governments.

  9. If (when?) they restore the old part of Tarabalus to it’s pre-Qadafy beauty with the wonderful corniche, and assuming (as was true until at least 1979 to my knowledge) the Libyans still love their gardens and flowering trees, they would have a tourist attraction to rival Cannes–without the casinos, of course–but with baklawa to die for. They’d have to move the port back to where it was, pre-Qadafy, away from the corniche, though.

    • My guess is that in 10 years we won’t recognize it, and a lot of nice things will be built to replace Qaddafi’s dirty broken down buildings.

      Tourism will be limited as long as they country is dry, though.

  10. I believe there is little doubt that the Libyan people – and the world community – are better off without the Qaddafi regime.

    Billions of dollars in petroleum revenues were skimmed by Qaddafi and his henchman and diverted out of the country that could have been used for infrastructure to aid the Libyan populace. Much like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

    All the naysayers that Al-Qaeda would control or significantly influence a new Libyan government appear to be off-base. The oft-quoted “political center” of the Libyan revolution supporters appears to gravitate toward a Western-style democracy.

Comments are closed.