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Why the Libyans were able to Overthrow Gaddafi and what We can learn from It: A Lesson from the work of T E Lawrence

T E Lawrence

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.” T. E. Lawrence

Lawrence with Arab fighters at Aqaba and Emir Faisal Hussein (below)

The Libyan revolution succeeded in overthrowing Moammar Gaddafi and his 42 year tyranny because the West did not turn it into an American or NATO war. By limiting involvement to airpower, coastal interdiction and tiny numbers of advisers the United States and NATO avoided the costly trap of putting large numbers of troops on the ground.  Such action would have been counterproductive in Libya and in the Arab world. While the action certainly would have ridded the world of Gaddafi and his regime much more quickly it would have emasculated the Libyans who had taken up arms against Gaddafi by turning it into our war, a war which would have been seen by many Libyans and Arabs as just more Western Imperialism.  Critics can always find fault in any military operation but for once in the Post Cold War era the United States and NATO knew their limitations and that the revolution had to be the work of the Libyans themselves.

Lawrence and Hussein’s troops pass Ottoman prisoners at Damascus in 1918

T E Lawrence understood the Arab mind more than most westerners ever will.  Living with and helping lead the Arab tribes that revolted against the Ottoman Empireduring the First World War he learned the culture as well as came to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Arab tribes.  One thing that can be said is that most Americans like many of Lawrence’s counterparts in the British political leadership, military and diplomatic services is that far too few have taken the time to either understand or respect the Arabs. When I was in Iraq the senior Iraqi Officers that I met were amazed and impressed that I knew their history and culture because so few people did. When I mentioned their victory at Al Kut Amara, or their capture of the Al Faw peninsula at the end of the Iran-Iraq war they beamed with pride.

Ottoman troops in Mesopotamia 

One of the things that Lawrence understood was the profound sense of personal pride and honor which imbued the Bedouin.  He understood that the various Bedouin tribes had no love for the Ottoman Turks who treated them with distain.  He also understood that they needed to be the ones that defeated the Turks.

The campaign waged by Lawrence and the Bedouin confounded the Turks. Working with Emir Faisal the son of Sherif  Hussein of Mecca he convinced his force of Arab irregulars not to make a direct assault on the city of Medina which was heavily garrisoned by the Turks.  Instead he expanded the battlefield by exploiting the natural weakness of the Turks, the need for constant supply via the Hejaz Railway.  In doing so he tied up large numbers of Ottoman troops that could have been used against the forces of General Allenby that were waging a conventional campaign and which was very successful in defeating the Ottomans.

While Lawrence was a part of a much larger effort his work in helping the Arab revolt was of great importance to the success of the British efforts against the Ottomans.  Unfortunately the good will that Lawrence and others like him built did not last. The British and French governments did not respect treaties that supported Arab independence and instead dividing the region between them under the terms of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. They left an isolated and abandoned Hashamite kingdom in the Hejaz which was conquered by the Saudis to whom the British had shifted their support.

British prisoners at Kut al Amara

A few hundred miles away the British did not take advantage of indigenous Arab resentment of the Ottomans in Mesopotamia.  The British invaded Mesopotamiain 1914 expecting to defeat the Turks easily.  However the British did precious little to enlist the support or help the Iraqi Arabs.  The campaign was long and included the worst defeat of a British Army during the war at the Siege of Kut Al Amara in 1916 at the hands of a largely Iraqi Ottoman 6th Army.  Some 30,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed or died of disease and 13,000 captured many who did not survive captivity.  After the war Lawrence remarked “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information.”

Faisal would go on to be elected as the new Kingdom of Syria by the Syrian National Congress in March of 1920 but kicked out by the French who enforced the Mandate of Syria in July.  In 1922 after the British brutally suppressed an Iraqi independence movement they appointed Faisal as the King of Iraq. When the British “gave” the Iraqis their independence in 1932 Faisal was the head of state.  He died in 1933 and the British maintained a tight grip on the country and put down another Iraqi nationalist revolt led by the Army in 1941.  The British would remain in Iraq until 1958 when a military coup which is known as the “14 July Revolution” overthrew the government and killed king Faisal II.

Libya Rebels

In Libya there was great temptation and political pressure for the United States to begin an early air campaign without significant support in the international community.  Some say that this caused more casualties and suffering for the Libyans, but it helped in the long run because Libyans saw it as their war to win even when NATO began its air campaign against Gaddafi.  The air campaign was a great help to the newly proclaimed National Transitional Council in Benghazi and probably saved them from being defeated but it was the courage of Libyans on the ground who sacrificed themselves against a better armed and trained force to retake the country.

The revolt restored the pride of an oppressed people, something that could not have taken place had the campaign been led by the United States and NATO with boots on the ground.  People forget that in 2003 the majority of Iraqis welcomed US forces as liberators.  This lasted until Paul Bremer unilaterally dissolved Iraqi military, police and civil servants that were actively helping us, turning them into enemies overnight.  The liberated Iraqis felt betrayed and dishonored by the United States just as they had been by the British following the First World War.  Bremer did this without ensuring that the Iraqi Army weapons depots were secure thereby providing Sunni and Shia insurgents with vast amounts of weapons.  These weapons were turned against American and coalition soldiers and even the UN and NGOs which were just beginning to helpIraqrebuild.  The result of Bremer’s was a protracted insurgency and civil which cost us nearly 4500 soldiers killed and over 32000 wounded and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded or displaced.  If one wants an answer as to why the Iraqis rose up against the United States occupation in late 2003 they need to look no farther than this. The Iraqis only want to be independent and saw the Bremer’s actions in the lens of their history with the British.

The author with Iraqi General Sabah Ramadi 2007

The decision of President Obama, French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Cameron to work through the UN and NATO was the correct one. It enabled the Libyans to overthrow Gaddafi and it kept our military involvement to a minimum.  While it cannot be a template for all future military operations in the Arab world as every Arab country is different it does have lessons for us. Libya was a perfect place to use this method. It had a population that wanted Gaddafi gone and were willing to die trying to overthrow him.  It had no huge urban population centers teaming with uneducated and poverty stricken people with little hope.  It has substantial oil wealth and an oil infrastructure which unlike Iraq was not destroyed during the war or in bad repair due to years of sanctions. It also enjoyed a key geographic location which made NATO air intervention much easier than almost anywhere in the Middle East because we did not need bases in Libya or its neighbors to run the operation. It was conducted from Europe and platforms at sea.   This is not possible in most other Arab countries. The task would be much more difficult if the target was Syria.

Now is the time to help the Libyans in rebuilding their country and letting them continue to regain their pride by letting them do as much as possible.  They won’t do it the way we would but that is okay. They will make mistakes but given time the people that shed their blood together to rid themselves of Gaddafi can work together to build a free country.  Those that go to Libya to assist the Libyans need to keep this in mind if they really want to see a strong, robust and successful Libyan democracy take hold.  Let’s also make sure that the good feelings that the Libyans have for us now remain by simply treating them as we would like to be treated.  Simply put we have to stop treating them as vassal states that we only value for their natural resources while we disrespect their people, history and culture.

As for the future it would be a wise investment to ensure that diplomatic, military and NGO personnel be trained and educated to understand and appreciate the Arabs and other cultures that are different than ours in the West.  The West has much to overcome in its relationship with the Arabs most of which is self inflicted. But we can try to start again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Gaddafi Taunts the West and Kills his People: Our inaction speaks so loud he can’t hear a Word that we are Saying

Back when I was a sophomore in high school I played my one and one season of organized tackle football. I wasn’t very good and after seven weeks of not getting to play in a game, the last of which was a blowout where everyone got into the game but me I went to the coaches’ office in a rage. I confronted Coach Duke Pasquini demanding to know why I didn’t get in the game and he simply said “I can’t hear you.” So I complained louder and he repeated what he had said. That angered me so I was screaming and he finally said “your actions speak so loud I can’t hear a word you are saying.” I was dumbfounded as he told me that the reason that I wasn’t playing was that I my words didn’t match my play during practice.  It wasn’t until I took my anger out on the practice field and pushed harder than I ever thought possible that I got to play. Coach Pasquini taught me a valuable lesson with a lot of application for Western Leaders including President Obama.

That lesson is not to make pronouncements that you are not willing to back up with force. Unfortunately over the past two weeks statements by Western leaders as well as their actions of freezing assets and investigating the Gaddafi’s for war crime charges has emboldened the rebels and hardened the resolve of Gaddafi and his family.  In a nearly euphoric advance the rebels advanced to areas that they could not control if Gaddafi offered real resistance. Likewise when Gaddafi realized that the West was divided and unlikely to take action be it a no-fly zone or any assistance to the rebels he began an offensive that has devastated cities that the rebels had controlled and caused grievous casualties to civilians.  Gaddafi’s son Saif al Islam Gaddafi promised that the regime was coming after the rebels even the eastern part of the country using ground forces and air power.  He knows that he has a free hand until NATO and the Arab League or African Union decide to act even without a UN mandate as NATO did in Bosnia and Kosovo or the United States did in Iraq. He is openly taunting the United States, NATO and the international community and reveling in it. He has called our bluff.

The tide has turned against the rebels and in a war of attrition they cannot win unless the Libyan military switches sides, which does not seem likely in the light of international dithering.  The Libyan military after a period of wavering and defections appear to have fallen in line with Gaddafi even if they despise him.  Since that is the case Gaddafi now has the upper hand and unless Western Leaders, including President Obama back up their words the rebellion will be crushed a humanitarian catastrophe unleashed and a brutal dictator validated.

Now it is true that the United States above all nations must act with prudence because of our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures which have made the Administration shy away from any more military actions in the Muslim World. In fact we are overcommitted everywhere and there is a good reason militarily and politically not to go in.  That reason is simply that many radicals in the Islamic World will use it against us in a propaganda campaign and that is exactly how Gaddafi is already portraying the situation. Of course an air campaign which would begin with a no-fly zone should one be authorized would likely end up in bombing Libyan air defense installations and bring about what Gaddafi rightly calls a war. As a result the administration has for now decided not to act and to wait for the Europeans and the United Nations to take the lead. That inaction has emboldened Gaddafi and that inaction will turn Libya into a more important conflict than we ever wanted it to be.

If we do nothing after making a big show of calling Gaddafi a war criminal, freezing his assets and boldly stating that he has to go and the revolt fails then we will be seen by the same people that would condemn military action as weak.  This result would embolden tyrants and give our real enemies, Al Qaeda and Iran new life. Al Qaeda had been frozen out of the revolutions to this point but when those dying for freedom realize that we are all talk they will turn to the radical side to overthrow despotic regimes and when those regimes fall those that take power will not be our friends.

While doing something is fraught with peril the cost of inaction is worse and we could lose every Arab Ally that we have had for decades in a very short time. It will mean astronomical oil prices and collapse economies already weakened by the world wide banking and real estate crises. Israel will then be in the middle of a potential regional war because anti-western zealots will certainly carry their crusade against the Jewish state. There will be no more cold peace between the Arabs and Israel.

At least in the absence of US or NATO action French President Nicholas Sarkozy has recognized the provisional rebel government and is setting up an embassy in Benghazi and suggesting air strikes. British Prime Minister David Cameron is also pushing for action. The possibility is that some parts of the international community will take action but that is not certain. There are reports that the Libyan Provisional council is in clandestine talks with the United States.  If so that would be a start.

The reality is that this situation will not end well no matter what course of action is taken. The fact is that no matter which course the situation in Libya takes is that it is likely to spiral into a regional war with terrible consequences for everyone.  Americans will feel the pain of this in a big way when the oil prices go through the roof and the economy tanks.

Yes, our actions speak so loud that Gaddafi and the world can’t hear a word that we are saying.

God help us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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The Guns of March

“War is the unfolding of miscalculations” Barbara Tuchman

Libya Revolt (Al Jazeera)

In 1914 an assassination in Bosnia-Herzegovina led to the First World War. In 2011 a civil war in Libya may lead to the destabilization of an entire region and to a regional conflict. A few weeks ago many thought that Libya would take the same course as Egypt and Tunisia. That was before Muammar Gaddafi began to launch an organized campaign of slaughter against his own people using members of his clan as well as African, Arab and Eastern European mercenaries.  Now we wonder what will happen as many actors try to discern courses of action praying that their calculations are correct.

Defecting Libyan Soldiers with protesters (AFP Photo)

If we look at the players we see the Gaddafi clan and its allies who include mercenaries from Africa, other Middle Eastern nations and Eastern Europe battling in a life or death struggle with a disparate and not yet very organized revolutionary movement which has taken many key cities in Libya. Gaddafi’s forces have become quite brutal in their response even as Gaddafi denies attacking his own people and appear in some places to be gaining the upper hand. The rebels have a limited amount of arms and ammunition and few heavy weapons but have given a good account of themselves against Gaddafi’s forces.

The USS Enterprise CVN-65

The United States is really too heavily committed to do much and even if NATO and or the UN agree to establish a no-fly zone over Libya it is doubtful if it will do much to much good on the ground against Gaddafi’s mercenary army and party thugs.  President Obama has asked Saudi Arabia to help arm the rebels and the Saudis and the Gulf Cooperation Council states have asked the United States and NATO to establish a no fly zone to at least protect the rebels from Gaddafi’s helicopter gunships and attack aircraft. Gaddafi has stated that such a no-fly zone would be an act of war.

The words of Western leaders to include President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy announcing that Gaddafi has to step down has hardened Gaddafi’s resolve and have whether we want it or not signaled that we are about to engage in another war. Military forces from NATO including the USS Enterprise Carrier Battle Group are being moved to positions that they can either enforce a no-fly zone or assist in humanitarian operations.

While the West debates what to do the fighting continues and Gaddafi’s military unhindered by anyone continues its attacks others in the region seek to gain from the Chaos. Syria has been supporting the Gaddafi regime and it is likely that Iran is seeking to gain more influence in Arab countries that have been hostile to it.  The presence of the two Iranian warships in the Eastern Mediterranean added to the tensions but those ships have now returned to the Red Sea after passing through the Suez Canal after exercises with the Syrians.

Refugee Crisis (AP Photo)

The fact is that this is a chaotic and ever changing situation. NATO will meet on Thursday to discuss possible courses of action.  Adding to the crisis is the specter of NATO’s abysmally slow response to the Bosnia crisis as well as the United Nation’s, American and European response to the Rwandan genocide. Since the ongoing battle in Libya to include Gaddafi’s slaughter of his own people and the massive refugee crisis on Libya’s borders is televised like the previous crises is in Bosnia and Rwanda Western Leaders are caught in a bind. They can turn a blind eye and chose to let the rebels die on the vine attempting to overthrow Gaddafi and be accused of ignoring crimes against humanity as were their predecessors during the Bosnian and Rwandan events.

There are many possibilities for the situation in Libya to get worse and potentially engulf the region in a war that no one wants or really is prepared for.

We can only see what develops but there are no good options only options of bad or worse. Will the region like Europe in 1914 be engulfed in war where there are no winners or will somehow the situation be resolved before it can get that far? Those are very real questions.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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