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Where Comedy Goes to Die: WIN-tervention!

In the interests of fairness, and to placate those who felt yesterday’s column was a bit unfair, today we’re going to discuss America’s favorite hobby:  dropping bombs on Middle Eastern countries.  While it’s sometimes proven slightly controversial — although not so controversial that pretty much every post-war president hasn’t done it — I think we can all agree that, in terms of achieving our foreign policy goals*, it’s been so successful that we shouldn’t call it intervention; we should call it WIN-tervention!

*:  Our foreign policy goals, of course, being the furtherance of democratic governance and the extension of human rights.  Anyone who suggests otherwise — that they are, say, the reinforcement of a global market-capitalist hegemony, or some form of economic imperialism — is a dirty red who ought not be listened to.

Our story begins in 1946, in the friendly little nation of Iran.  The Soviets, who had recently done a sporting job of keeping Iran’s valuable oil fields out of the hands of the Nazis, decided they liked the country so much, they would stay for a while.  President Truman, still giddy with being the only man alive who could order the use of an atomic bomb, commanded the Red Army to skedaddle posthaste from northern Iran; the more pragmatic British, concerned with what a nuclear explosion might do to the precious, innocent oil fields, told the Soviets that if they went home without a fuss, they could have some free petroleum.  The Soviets issued a statement saying that okay, they would go, but it was because they wanted to, not because of any dumb atomic bomb or oil concessions, and besides who even cares about ugly old Iran anyway.  This paved the way for democratic elections in Iran, which, when they did not go the “correct” way, were replaced by a CIA-backed coup that put the country under the benevolent leadership of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for the next quarter of a century.  The people lost a limited degree of control over the country, but more importantly, the nation’s oil reserves were returned to their rightful owners:  the British.

In 1948, the state of Israel — a super-democratic entity which miraculously came into being in an unpopulated stretch of the Middle East known as “the Holy Land” — was born, an event which in no way altered American foreign policy in the region.

Flash forward to 1956, when the nation of Egypt, having been duped by their nationalist weirdo of a president into thinking they had some claim over the Suez Canal just because it was located in their country, came into conflict with the U.K., France, and Israel, who made the counter-argument that they should control the Suez Canal because shut up.  The Soviets objected on the grounds that Western capitalist powers were making false claims to something they wanted to make false claims to, and began having more aggressive parades than usual.  This struck the U.S. as a perfect opportunity for a fancy new proxy war, the one in Korea having stalled out a few years previous, so the Americans and the Soviets began a new round of hostile blustering, with the exciting new development of bilateral nuclear posturing.  By this time, both sides had forgotten what the original conflict was about, and the whole thing was called off.  On the downside, the West did not achieve its goal of removing Gamel Nasser from power, and had to wait almost 20 years to get a friendly dictator of their own in Egypt.  But the Suez Crisis was a positive boon to those who stood to make a lot of money off of selling weapons to Israel.

In 1958, a conflict arose in Lebanon over the direction the country should take.  The Muslim population felt that they should ally themselves with Egypt and Syria in opposition to Israel and promote a program of pan-Arab nationalism; the ruling Christian groups felt that they should continue to be in charge, because that was working out pretty well for them.  U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower began to worry about the possibility of a revolution, fearing that Muslims did not have the inherent spiritual resistance to communism that Christians possess.  He thus sent 15,000 troops to the country with orders to stand around peacefully carrying huge amounts of weaponry.  This quashed the revolt, and a new leader — a Christian general — was “selected” to run the country, saving democracy once again.

That same year saw another triumph of democracy as the leaders of Syria and Iraq proposed a union of monarchs with Kuwait, to counter the trend towards democratic nationalism.  Britain argued that, as the owners of Kuwait, this plan did not work for them, and the U.S. had to admit that Britain had a good point and also that the U.S. had nuclear missiles.  This led to the dissolution of the plan, and ensured many more decades of benevolent rule by the rightfully high-born aristocrats of Kuwait.  Iraq is believed to have cabled the U.S., asking if maybe in thirty years or so, they might be allowed to invade Kuwait for realsies.  The American response, alas, is lost to history.

The Iraqi people, well-meaning little buggers that they are, kept on keepin’ on until the worst happened:  their beloved monarchy was overthrown by a group of progressive nationalists, who forced them to live under the cruel tyranny of a “republic”.  Their backs nearly broken by the cruel responsibility of running their own country, the people of Iraq may well have reached out to the U.S.  We responded in 1963 by sending in the CIA to assassinate the country’s so-called “elected leader” and installing a benevolent new regime known as the Ba’ath Party, which, with the aid of a scrappy young go-getter named Saddam Hussein, would ably demonstrate its commitment to democracy over the next 40 years.

In 1970, Oman’s price Q’aboos bin-Said al-Said overthrew his father, cast him into exile, and became the new sultan.  In a gesture of solidarity towards his people, al-Said announced the lifting of a number of oppressive restrictions imposed by his father; the socialist Dhofar Liberation Front suggested that, while he was at it, why not abolish the monarchy altogether and the people run the country?  Chuckling nervously, al-Said asked that everybody not go crazy with this whole reform thing while making frantic gestures behind his back to anyone who was watching.  Luckily, Iran was watching, and their Shah had recently begun to develop very definite ideas about whether or not monarchies should be overthrown in favor of populist movements.  (He was against it.)  With the aid of Iran, the U.S., and the U.K., the Dhofars were cornered, defeated, and massacred, er, returned to society, and the people of Oman enjoy the benevolent rule of Sultan al-Said to this day.

During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the U.S. largely stayed out of the Arab-Israeli conflict, instructing its diplomats to merely mention our nuclear arsenal occasionally, in casual conversation.

By the late 1970s, things had taken a disastrous turn in that friendly little nation of Iran.  Inexplicably rejecting the U.S.-friendly brutal dictatorship of the Shah, a popular revolution placed into power the U.S.-hostile brutal dictatorship of the Ayatollah.  When this ideologically unacceptable new regime held American citizens hostage, the incompetent U.S. President Jimmy Carter, having somehow come to believe that the use of force was the proper way to deal with the Middle East, sent a rescue force, only to have it end in disaster.  His successor, Ronald Reagan, successfully negotiated the release of the terrorists because he knew that if there’s one thing that works better than indiscriminate violence, it’s bribing corrupt dictators, an approach that literally cannot backfire.  However, that didn’t mean we would entirely abstain from blowing shit up in Iran, a reliable workout for our Air Force and Navy that we would return to in 1984, 1987 and 1988.  This did not immediately result in democracy, so we bade our time until 2002, when, just as a genuine democratic movement was gaining national traction, we helpfully declared the entire country a leading member of the Axis of Evil, at which point they became a process of reform that continues to this day.

Our first taste of blowing things up in Libya came in 1981, when we shot down two of their fighter planes during a ‘routine exercise’.  It turned out to be so much fun that we would return to it again and again.  Further attacks on Libya in 1986, 1989 and 2011 brought it ever closer to popular democracy, and reduced its threat level to the safety of the U.S. and its citizens.  So dedicated were we to the notion of pacifying Libya through bombing raids that we began a new set of them only three years after we declared victory and demoted them from the status of ‘rogue state’ after they voluntarily gave up their WMD program.

Starting in 1982, America discovered that the best way to prevent terrorist attacks in the Middle East is to advantageously select a single political faction during a period of civil unrest, and then sit in battleships a dozen miles offshore and blast the shit out of vast swaths of urban terrain.  This proved so effective in Lebanon in particular that the PLO was utterly defeated, and nothing was ever heard from them again.  Another triumph of gunboat diplomacy!

Despite their help in waging a million-casualty war against the unapproved dictatorship in Iran, the leadership of Iraq proved problematic when we suddenly discovered, only a quarter-century into his rule, that Saddam Hussein was, in fact, an oppressive dictator.  When he misinterpreted a diplomatic communique from the U.S. ambassador as a green light to invade Kuwait, we were forced to preserve the rightfully elected monarchy of that country by waging war against the country of Iraq.  We also encouraged the Kurds of northern Iraq to rise up against the Ba’athist regime and overthrow them, a friendly bit of advice that they inexplicably believed meant that we would help them in any way.  For the next decade, we did our best to promote democracy by enforcing sanctions that starved so many children to death, it seemed natural to assume that their parents would have enough time to start a nice healthy rebellion.  But once again, the Iraqis let us down, and we had no choice but to invade and overturn Saddam Hussein ourselves.  By doing so, we so completely neutralized his deadly WMD program that no trace was ever found of it, and within seven years, Iraq had a form of government not entirely unlike democracy.

Somalia and Sudan soon learned that America would do whatever it took to introduce democracy to the African edge of the Middle East.  Somalia’s warlord system was quickly overthrown, and the country is now known as a libertarian paradise; Sudan followed suit soon after, and toed the line after we crippled their aspirin production capabilities.  Its leadership has since engaged in a lengthy campaign, centered around Darfur, to streamline the democratic process.

Following the terrorist attacks of 2001, American troops entered Afghanistan and overthrew the evil Taliban regime, restoring the glorious democratic glory days of tribal warlords and restoring peace and prosperity to at least 1/15th of the country.  After only a decade of relentless warfare, we have managed to turn the beleaguered nation into a beacon of peace and prosperity, add excitement and spice to local wedding parties, and restore the opium trade to a level of prosperity not seen since the 19th century.

Recent developments in the field of death robots have allowed us to blow things up in Yemen (2002, 2009 and 2011), Pakistan (2005-2011), Syria (2008), and Somalia (2006) with minimal risk to our expensive human resources.  The result, of course, has been triumphant democracy in all those countries except Pakistan, which was a democracy already, and is now the hiding place of the nearly forgotten historical figure Osama bin-Laden.  So, as you can see, Libya is just the latest nation that will be shown the glorious road to democracy through the use of external force.  Hop on board for the big win, and I’ll see you next year at an air-conditioned shopping mall in Tripoli!



Mar. 21st, 2011 11:10 pm (UTC)
This is funny, but it's obviously pretty skewed, selective, and in some places bears only a tangential relationship to reality.

Curious, does this mean you think that a no-fly zone in Libya is a bad idea? I mean, it's pretty clear that without it Quaddafi will win, and he's pretty completely and horrifically evil. Do you think the reform movement is worse than Quaddafi?
Mar. 21st, 2011 11:55 pm (UTC)
If it is skewed, selective, and in some places bears only a tangential relationship to reality, then it aspires to the same status as our foreign policy.

I don't know if a no-fly zone in Libya is a bad idea. The Arab League advocated for one, but the US and France almost immediately went beyond what they'd asked for. I know a no-fly zone was pretty much useless against Saddam Hussein; it only made things worse for the Iraqi people, and and I think it may have the same effect on Libya. It likely will mean only that the Libyan government will rely on ground forces to defeat the rebellion, meaning that it will be a longer and bloodier process and the rebels will have to deal not only with the threat of their government, but occasional bombing raids from the outside and the kind of isolation that no-fly zones always impose. It didn't work in Iran, it didn't work in Iraq, and I see no reason to think it'll work here.

Will Q'addafi win without it? Probably. Is he an evil, brutal dictator? Definitely. But:

1. He's been an evil, brutal dictator for four decades, and we've never done much about it before. (And we aren't really doing much about it now.)

2. There is no shortage of other evil, brutal dictators in the area that we are either choosing to ignore or actively supporting. Look at what Saleh did in Yemen recently -- where's his no-fly zone?

3. Most importantly, and I can't make myself any clearer than this: unless you show total political, social and economic commitment the way we did after WWII -- which we are absolutely NOT going to do -- there is no way to impose democracy through force. We have tried it dozens of times, and sporadic bombing, military intervention, and proxy war does nothing to make a country democratic. In addition to all the examples I listed above, there are dozens of others, from Panama to Vietnam and on every continent for the last 60 years. It hasn't worked, it doesn't work, and it isn't going to work.

As I mentioned yesterday, the people fighting in the American Revolution all believed that King George was a tyrannical despot, but none of them would have been happy if the French had invaded our shores, wiped out the British, and placed themselves in charge. Democracy does not mesh well with foreign intervention. Democracy depends on leaving it up to the people who live in the country. Almost every post-war example of real democratization has come from internal movements, not invasions or military actions. It may be a long, bloody, ugly process, but it beats bombing the shit of of people and hoping for the best. If we want to truly oppose dictatorships and truly promote self-rule, there are two things we have to do: stop supporting dictators in the first place, and support democratic movements even when they oppose our interests. (You're going to find, if they do win, that the "reform movement" in Libya is filled with some pretty unsavory characters. Which is no reason to abandon them, I'd argue.)

We're very, very bad at both of those things; political and economic engagement is hard, and bombing is easy. But I think it's the only way to go, because military intervention has been an almost unmitigated disaster, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 12:31 am (UTC)
If it is skewed, selective, and in some places bears only a tangential relationship to reality, then it aspires to the same status as our foreign policy.

sure, but I thought your purpose was to disparage our foreign policy. if you're doing the same thing I'm not sure why anyone should respect your analysis either.

The Arab League advocated for one, but the US and France almost immediately went beyond what they'd asked for.

Why should the Arab League's opinion matter anyway? They have all kinds of personal interests involved that may not be the same as those of the Libyan people. Arab countries have notoriously never helped each other out much.

I'm more interested in the fact that the Libyan reform movement has asked for the no-fly zone. It should be the Libyan people who say what they want. I suspect what they want is not to be bombed by their own air force, I have to admit.

He's been an evil, brutal dictator for four decades, and we've never done much about it before.

Sure. would you say we should have? It doesn't look, from your post, like you think we have any business getting involved.

If we should have, but didn't before, does that mean we shouldn't now - like, if we keep on doing the wrong thing, that makes it right, somehow?

It likely will mean only that the Libyan government will rely on ground forces to defeat the rebellion, meaning that it will be a longer and bloodier process

I admit I know little about the military issues here, but it looks like the rebels were doing pretty well and that the no-fly zone was a blow to Quaddafi. Maybe in the end the rebels won't win but I think if this gives them a better chance it could be worth it.

There is no shortage of other evil, brutal dictators in the area that we are either choosing to ignore or actively supporting.

Again, if that's wrong, are you saying we SHOULD get involved in those other lands as well? Or that we shouldn't, because doing no good at all is better than doing SOME good?

unless you show total political, social and economic commitment the way we did after WWII -- which we are absolutely NOT going to do -- there is no way to impose democracy through force.

I think the point is here that we are NOT imposing democracy by force. We're trying to give some limited help to a democratic grassroots populist movement.

Actually, this seems similar to me to what the French DID do for the revolutionaries in the American Revolutionary War. France didn't commit to all-out war - instead, it gave limited support (financial, weaponry, sea escorts (sort of like a "no fly zone")) to a grassroots movement. France DIDN'T commit their forces 100%, they DIDN'T go to war. It also wasn't france trying to "create democracy by force" - obviously the Americans were creating democracy on their own. That's what the Libyans are apparently trying to do too.

I think this gets to the core of what's bothering me about your interpretations here. You seem to write the Arab countries and people right out of the equation and the history, like the only actors involved are the US and Russia, sometimes France or Britian. Actions where the Arabs clearly took their own initiative - e.g. the Yom Kippur war - you gloss over, ignoring any Arab initiative, focusing only on the American intervention (which in that situation was laughably small - obviously the Arabs weren't deterred in the least by any nuclear threats). Other things you just leave out, like the War of Independence, because they don't really fit with your idea of US hegemony in the region.

In the Libyan context, you're ignoring the fact of the Libyan people and their own movement, their own efforts. This seems really wrong and unfair to me. They are fighting and dying for their cause, doing a damn fine job of working for what they want, and the world - not just the US - would like to help them out a little.

Mar. 22nd, 2011 01:06 am (UTC)
Boy, I hope nobody is respecting my analysis. I am just a humble ironist.

The Arab League's opinion should matter as much as the United Nation's opinion should matter. They are, if nothing else, a body dedicated to the maintenance of international law. And they are certainly more aligned with the desire of the Libyan people than Q'addafi is. I'm not sure where the idea comes from that Arab countries do not help each other; they are historically no more contentious, and often a good deal less (see the Palestinian refugee situation) than other international communities.

It's fine for us to support the rebels when they ask us for this level of intervention, but I am much more skeptical about how much we will help them if they win, and ask us for help that might really cost us, such as economic and diplomatic support for a government that may not align with our desires. We either support them, or we don't. I don't think much of a foreign policy that consists only of support that doesn't really cost us anything.

Essentially, my position is this: almost always, military intervention has proven more harmful than beneficial. We need to decide whether we support democracy movements -- and, if we do, commit to support them not only militarily, but financially, socially, diplomatically and materially, after the hard part of overthrowing tyranny is over -- or whether we don't. If we do, we need to have a consistent foreign policy that supports that position -- and that means not supporting a 'friendly' dictator in one country while opposing an 'unfriendly' dictator in the country next door -- or we need to just back off completely. At the very least, we need to approach the situation with the belief that it is the people of a country who deserve to run it, and support that belief even if those people do things we don't want them to do. Doing no good at all is better than doing harm under the pretense of doing good.

I absolutely do not want to write the Arab people out of the equation. I want to do just the opposite. I want us to quit fucking around with them, manipulating them into acting in our interests under the guise of promoting democracy, and then abandoning them when there's nothing in it for us. In the history of post-war Middle Eastern politics, we've almost always been on the wrong side of popular movements: in Iran and Iraq we helped overthrow democratic movements; in Iraq we encouraged a rebellion and then gave it no help when it started; in Palestine we encouraged democracy and then abandoned it when it didn't elect the leaders we wanted; in Algeria and Tunisia and Oman we ignored oppressive governments because they were backed by our allies; in Yemen and Syria we backed oppressive governments because they were our allies. Conversely, a number of pro-democracy movements have succeeded or at least progressed without our help, or at the very least with only diplomatic effort on our part rather than military intervention (Turkey, Q'atar, Egypt).

And while I focused on U.S. intervention, I have the same position about any other global power. I didn't discuss the War of Independence (I assume you mean in Algeria) because it was France doing the dirty work; we just stayed out of it, largely at their request, and paid them back with that exciting little adventure in Vietnam. I didn't mention incidents of Arab initiative because that wasn't part of my point, which is that foreign intervention has almost always been a disaster. That's the key issue I'm trying to make -- almost every western power ignores the political and social sovereignty of the Middle East, and just does whatever they want to get some advantage or another. That's what I want to see ended, and its most blatant manifestation has always been military intervention.

Maybe this situation in Libya marks a new era of American diplomacy, where we help the right people at the right time and then don't abandon them as soon as it's convenient. Time will tell, but the historical record is not edifying.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 01:30 am (UTC)
often a good deal less (see the Palestinian refugee situation) than other international communities

You are citing the Palestinian refugee situation as evidence that they HELP one another?? Palestinian refugees are kept in miserable camps in Arab countries. They are not permitted to become citizens of the countries they are in or to have the same rights. This includes, e.g., Syria and Lebanon.

When the gulf war ended, the Kuwaitis expelled all the palestinians (app. 450,000 people) because the PLO allied itself with Saddam Hussein. (A Kuwaiti I was seeing once told me it was because during the occupation by Iraq, the Palestinians from the refugee camps came out and looted/pillaged/raped the Kuwaitis - he'd lived through this - but I don't know if that was what official Kuwaiti policy was based on.)

It's not surprising to me that you don't know about this. It does not get much play in the media. But no one with significant knowledge of the middle east situation claims that the Palestinians are treated WELL by their fellow Arabs.

If we do, we need to have a consistent foreign policy that supports that position

I'm not really sure why. To me that's like saying that I'm morally obligated to give to ALL charities or NO charities.

I think it's more realistic to pick and choose one's battles. Realistically we can't overthrow every dictator and impose democracy. But it's not realistic either to just ignore every country with a dictator. Sometimes we have to work with dictatorships or fake democracies or facist states. I don't think that means that when a serious movement rises in those countries to try to overthrow the dictator, we shouldn't lend support.

In the history of post-war Middle Eastern politics, we've almost always been on the wrong side of popular movements:

I agree, and that's terrible. I don't think it changes the fact that we might want to do something GOOD for a change.

I want us to quit fucking around with them, manipulating them into acting in our interests under the guise of promoting democracy,

Sure, but how is the no-fly zone "manipulating" the Libyans into acting in our interests?

I didn't discuss the War of Independence (I assume you mean in Algeria) because it was France doing the dirty work;

Actually I meant Israel ;) I should have been more clear.

Anyway, I agree w/you that we need to be careful - obviously I disagreed with the whole-scale nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course we can't force governments on people. But I think the Libyan measure is limited and careful. no ground forces, etc.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 12:31 am (UTC)
I personally think that the no-fly zone is probably a good idea, because:

-the Libyan rebels want it
-the Arab countries are supportive
-the UN has voted for it, and not just the US w/unilateral action (or with action forced through the UN)
-it's a limited intervention we can easily withdraw
-it still leaves the ultimate resolution in the hands of the Libyan people

From an oil perspective, it's probably better to just let Quaddafi win so stability comes back ASAP. But I don't think that's the right thing to do.

To me, there's two questions:

->are we backing the morally right horse
->will this be effective (this includes considerations of "will we be mired here forever")
Mar. 22nd, 2011 01:09 am (UTC)
Those are both unanswerable questions, unfortunately. Personally, I think that beyond a country being (mostly) democratic or (mostly) dictatorial, there is no such thing as a "morally right horse", or, at least, that's not an issue I really care much about. Whether or not it's effective is a more easily quantifiable issue, though, and my main point in this article is that historically, it has almost never been effective, hence my doubts about whether it will be this time.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 07:37 pm (UTC)
You are in the Twilight Zone
Rod Serling, the writer, director and producer of the popular weekly show called “The Twilight Zone” would appear on camera as the narrator and would say that we all live in a world of imagination and can easily take a wrong turn and step off into the “Twilight Zone.” Little did we know then that Mr. Serling was describing the future post 9/11 world of political correctness. Thus, if he were alive today his narrative would read something like this:
Your are in the Twilight Zone. This is the world of fantasy where terrorists are called “militants” and the war against terror is not a war against the fundamentals of Islam, but a war against a small minority of one hundred million fanatics who “hijacked a peaceful religion”. This is the world of bizarre twists and convoluted turns where murderers and thieves are rewarded with the property of their intended victims and the “road map to peace” requires total surrender to homicidal lunatics.
This is the world beyond reality where atheists pray to themselves in the “Church of Non Belief”. This is the world of imagination in which the officiators of marriages declare, “I now pronounce you husband and husband.” This is the world of denial where threats of genocide are met with open borders and entitlements for all who chose to enter that “unseen” place in the realm of human reflection where right is wrong and left is right. More at http://moshesharon.wordpress.com
Mar. 22nd, 2011 08:16 pm (UTC)
Re: You are in the Twilight Zone
Well, that was a whole bunch of words there, attacking a whole bunch of points I never made.
Mar. 24th, 2011 09:02 pm (UTC)
Re: You are in the Twilight Zone
You just go around copy-pasting this into any liberal political post you can find, don't you? Awesome.

(You're not nearly as interesting as you think you are, btw.)
Mar. 23rd, 2011 01:09 am (UTC)
hilariously astute


flavored with age
Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator
Ludic Log


Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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