Sunday, August 28, 2011

Libya: Looking For Despots in All the Wrong Places

As I just noted, the Libyan revolt has been a political and psychological roller coaster (couldn't avoid the stereotypical image, but did manage to shun the adjective, "emotional").

At first, it seemed that the struggle would drag on inconclusively. Then, just last weekend, the pace quickened, the rebels advanced, and the regime forces collapsed. But then it was back to uncertainty (and I don't mean all the incredible reports about Ghadafi's death). First, the rebels claimed they had Gadhafi's hated son in custody. Soon after, however, he reappeared in public, free, and taunting them. Within a short time, they seemed to have asserted their control over the capital—and yet, the dictator was nowhere to be found: neither cornered nor killed. Vanished.

We have a rather poor (or at least lackadaisical) record of hunting despots. For example, "Operation Just Cause" toppled the Noriega regime in Panama with relative ease, but the pineapple-faced general then eluded the US troops until he was cornered in the Vatican embassy. Blasting him (and the rest of the compound, to the irritation of the helpless Catholic clergy) with cheesy American rock was said to have broken him like a cheap champagne glass (1, 2). Saddam Hussein was an even tougher customer. It took some eight months before he was hauled out of his spider hole.

I was drafting this yesterday, when, as chance would have it, Benjamin Runkle, author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden, took up this very theme in Foreign Affairs. He tells us:
I found four surprising conclusions. First, although U.S. forces almost always enjoy an edge in technology over their quarry, this advantage is never decisive. Second, troop strength is less important than the presence of reliable indigenous forces. Third, although terrain can influence individual campaigns, there is no single terrain type that predicts success or failure. Finally, more important than physical terrain is human terrain, or the ability to obtain intelligence tips from local populations or support from neighboring states to assist in the strategic manhunt. 
As for how this applies specifically to Libya, you'll just have to read the rest of the piece.

One thing's for sure, though: You wouldn't want to rely on CNN in your quest for the quarry.

My inspiration was this horrifyingly inaccurate graphic:

Hint: He isn't in Lebanon, so if you're looking there, it's a sure thing you won't find him (and Hizbullah, despite its affection for other despots, has no love to spare for this one).

Now, I know I saw Sara Sidner reporting from Libya in body armor and oversized helmet (some Tweeps worried that she seemed more nervous under fire than were other, more hardened reporters). Anyway, she was there. I saw her. It's not her fault, and she sure as hell knows where she is.

But a screw-up of these colossal proportions really does make you wonder about both the higher-ups and the drones who churn out the stuff for the shows 'round the clock.

My guess is that some underling looked up "Tripoli" in a reference work and, because Lebanon comes before Libya in the alphabet, either chose that one or just looked no further (my attempt at a historian's source criticism).

But are they all culturally illiterate? And does no one check what the drones are doing?

To be sure, there are two Tripolis, one in Lebanon and one in Libya. Both date to antiquity and derive their (western) names from the Greek tripolis, or three cities. Beyond that, the similariites to our enterprise end. Bottom line: astoundingly stupid, embarrassing; inexcusable.

Bonus question: The "Marines' Hymn" (US Marine Corps Hymn) begins with the famous lines, "From the Halls of Montezuma/to the Shores of Tripoli..."

In the course of their history, the Marines have landed in both (present-day) Libya and Lebanon.

To which one does the song refer?


BBJ said...

The Marine's Hymn reference is to North Africa, I believe.

Do I get a cookie?

Citizen Wald said...

Yes, you are indeed correct.

I'm afraid that the only cookie you will get is a browser "cookie," but with it the sincere thanks of The Citizen for reading and posting a comment.