I have been reading an excellent book detailing the fratricide going on for years in Libya , The Burning Shores, lauded by many movers and shakers in the Washington Middle East policy and scholarly establishment. I certainly appreciate the courage of Wehrey in moving around in a society and country where it is difficult- if not impossible -to sort out friend from foe, and even if you do, tomorrow may find the friend has become an enemy. It reminded me of my glory days in Jordan dodging Palestinian terrorists/freedom fighters and trying to figure out the good ones, the PLO from the bad ones, the PFLP. The PLO thugs just gave one a hard time while the PFTP or PDFLP would happily kill you.. So Wehrey deserves the accolades. The author, Frederic Wehrey, like me, a former Army Middle East Foreign Area Officer,( in my day called Foreign Area Specialist) seemed think that, unlike many Arab countries, rent apart by sectarianism and religion, that there was no reason why Libya, with a mostly Arab and Sunni Muslim population- at least in terms of their society and history– could not unify under the banner of a nationalist Libya. Well many would dispute that. Certainly I do.
I never got to Libya– one of the few Middle Eastern counties I did not get to. I was on my way there in 68 flying from Italy and on a stopover in Malta the US defense attache there told me that he received a message from the American ambassador in Libya that as an American military officer I was not welcome. One of the reasons that I have always had misgivings about the attitude of the argyle socks people who inhabit the state department. It was wearing not like I was wearing my jungle fatigues with bandoleers of ammo. Something similar occurs in Wehrey’s book. So not everything has changed. One of the reasons we had people killed in Libya was the reluctance of the State Department gurus to get more protection for the American officials in Libya.I know about this issue very well in that my predecessor in Jordan, the military attache, Bob Perry, was murdered in his home by Palestinian thugs.
In Dirk Vanderwalle’s book, A History of Modern Libya,he makes it clear that the three old Ottoman provides of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fazzan were distinct social entities. And for very good reasons.From my friends, and especially the Italians that I taught at the Special Warfare Center, who had experience in Libya, the cultural and even linguistic differences are still there. The people of Cyrenaica, especially the urbanites, speak a more Egyptianized Arabic while those of Tripolitania speak a more North African dialect of Arabic. The Senussi Islam, of Cyrenaica, despite the eradication efforts of Qaddafi still has important vestiges in the Western part of Libya In fact the ruler of Libya, installed by the Western powers, after WWII, King Idriss, never wanted to rule this thing called Libya. He made it clear he was the ruler of the tribes in Cyrenaica and wanted no part of Tripolitania.
The Italians still have some lingering attachments to Libya. At one time there were over 100,000 Italian Settlers in Libya. They were small farmers, poor people, hoping to turn the desert into farmlands. Although their efforts are mostly denigrated within the “imperialism” virtue signaling of most middle Eastern writers today, flying over the coast of Libya, one can still see the outlines of the small farms along the Libyan shore, now being swallowed by encroaching desertification. They worked hard to make the desert into farmland. It reverted to desert with their departure.
No doubt about it the Italian conquest of Libya was a brutal affair, even by the less politically correct standards of that era. There are many books about that unhappy era. However as a soldier one should take notice that the Italian counterinsurgency efforts were totally successful. They crushed the Arab rebellions, something the British, and French were never quite able to do in their colonial conquests. As Federica Saini Fasanotti, ( Vincere) wrote, the Italians made much better counterinsurgents than conventional soldiers. One other thing I noticed in my travels around the Middle East, was that in people -to -people situations, the Italians blended in with indigenous people much better than the British or French. In war, however, They used total war methods. Not only were the insurgents targeted, but their families, tribes, livestock, villages, their very way of life. Of course, the Italians were repaid in kind. The usual victims being the innocent ones, the over 1000,000 small farmer settlers. Most were ousted as the Western Allies kicked the Italians out of Libya, during the rest of WWII, but many stayed on through the fifties. With the advent of the Qaddafi regime, in 1969, he demanded that even the thousands of Italian dead, mostly soldiers, be dug up and the bodies shipped back to Italy. I do not know if it was carried out.
In Vandewalle’s book, the author, who is the reputed Western expert on the regime of Qaddafi, devotes most of his book to the saga of the the Qaddafi leadership, his foibles, achievements, at times sincerity, and involvement in the worst aspects of terrorism. Qaddafi was a blood thirsty tyrant, with initially good intentions, a devout pan -Arabist who found out to his chagrin that his fellow Arab despots, despite their rhetoric, were never interested in pan-Arabism. He kept his revolution going by revolutionizing his revolution-in the manner of Mao-Tse Tung, turning out old revolutionaries and always ushering in new forms of governance, usually creating more chaos, while defining his thoughts in the infamous Green Book. The Green book was Qaddafi’s efforts to substitute his philosophy for the Qur’an, and most of the Western history of political ideas.
Most was gobbledygook, with occasional flashes of incisive thinking. For instance he criticized democracy for the fact that that in a democratic election the 51% electorate can run roughshod over the 49%. As a member of the 49% I can identify with this, as the Democrat party essentially changes the moral , spiritual and political direction 0f the USA (adversely) despite the the beliefs and sentiments of the 49%. Sometimes his statements to the press were quite wise and counter-culture , as for his belief that there was no need for a “Palestine” as the Arab world already had 21 squabbling countries
Unfortunately Qaddafi’s thoughts contained no solutions to his problems with marxism nor democracy or much of anything else. At one point he abolished the apparatus of the state, including the security system, substituting some weird form of rule by consultation and committees. More chaos resulted naturally.
Of course through it all, Qaddafi kept an increasingly tight hold on power, sending assassins abroad to murder rivals, conspire with murderous regimes such as Iran, notably to bring down PAN-AM 103. Following President Reagan’s muscular actions to chasten the Libyan regime, Qaddafi had a change of heart…suddenly eschewing terrorism, and making nice with the US, fighting Al Qaeda and other terror regimes, and foregoing producing nuclear weapons.In the usual way international alliances work, Qaddafi became an ally in the “War on Terrorism.” His death, ( 2011), well recorded on videos, can be likened to that of another dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. They both died like stray dogs: Qaddafi murdered by thugs, people like himself.
He s also realized he was losing his grip on the country and in a foolhardy attempt to regain popularity, the began some liberalizing of the draconian security measures of his regime. Alas and alack, he forgot a major tenant of dictatorial rule in the Middle East. The populace does not appreciate the unrecognized liberal measures…they simply smell weakness of the regime–much as the Iranian people today sense the tottering Iranian theocracy edifice..
But Qaddafi was a media sensation. And he reveled in the Western media breathlessly headlining his outrageous threats, weird sayings, the female bodyguards, the tent cities he sat up at confabs in Europe, etc. I remember going to the airport in Beirut circa 1969 and the airport was inaccessible.I was told Qaddafi was at the airport and the throngs 0f people had closed the airport: Mostly women ululating their joy at his handsome presence, complete with locks of curly black hair, Tom Cruise sunglasses, and trim military uniform. Yes he was a “trip”…as they say in the south.
Moving on to the Wehrey book, despite the excellent writing and content I found it wearying and a bit boring to read mid way through. It was not the book. It was the massive deja vu of the events, people described. The same old Arab story, shifting alliances, tribal and family and aspirations for power, outweighing all other considerations, preening murderous thugs, some presenting themselves as the new democrats, Western diplomats trying to find nuggets of gold beneath all the Khara, the US and European leaders ignorance of the environment,( as well as many “experts”.) trying to put their avarice in terms of democracy and stability. Much of the same environment I experienced in the Lebanese civil war, the Jordanian civil war, and Iraq…..And still ongoing in Syria and elsewhere. In Libya, Egypt, the UAE and Russia , Turkey supports one side…called the “rebels,” and the West supposedly supporting a faction loosely termed the “government.” A bloody joke on the hapless Libyan people who have gone from chaos to greater chaos, which will never end until some greater power absorbs the whole mess and calls it…maybe The “Carthage Republic.?
Maybe there is a case here for enlightened imperialism. Who these days has the testicles to write that book.?