Nonfiction: Why Libya Continues to Burn

“The Burning Shores” begins with the dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, surely one of the most flamboyantly eccentric rulers ever to commandeer a country. The son of a nomad, Qaddafi was born in a tent and often lived in one, liked to don dramatic military uniforms or traditional robes, and gave every sign of being mentally unhinged. But he was not stupid. Qaddafi seized power in 1969 as a young colonel, then held it by stifling dissent, playing Libya’s tribes against one another and ruining whatever independent institutions once existed. Taking a page from Mao, Qaddafi gathered his own (mostly unremarkable) aphorisms into a volume dubbed “The Green Book.” He even sponsored terrorism. Qaddafi’s agents planned and executed the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people. In 1986, after Qaddafi triggered an attack on a disco in Berlin, American jets bombed a tent where he was believed to be staying and killed, among others, a baby girl, purportedly his daughter.

Qaddafi’s 42-year reign was enabled by oil revenue and by the Western companies that acquiesced to him when the country was not under U.N. sanctions; with a population of just six million, Libya holds the world’s ninth largest reserves of oil. The uprising finally came in 2011, beginning in the city of Benghazi, when ordinary Libyans took to the streets to protest the arrest of a local human rights lawyer, Fethi Tarbel. As the anger spread, “the colonel,” as he liked to call himself, vowed to crush the protesters with overwhelming force. At the crucial moment, the United States, led by France and the United Kingdom, intervened, vowing to stop what appeared to be an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. The West, deploying mostly air power, forestalled a massacre and, crucially, decided to keep going until they drove Qaddafi from power. (The colonel was captured outside the capital hiding in a drain pipe; his captors sodomized him with a stick and executed him.)

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With Qaddafi gone, the West stood back as anarchy engulfed the country. Initially, Wehrey notes, Western analysts did not believe Libya — almost entirely Sunni Muslim — to be as fractious as the multiethnic communities of Syria or Iraq. But the country splintered nonetheless: east from west, Islamists from secular, Islamist from Islamist. Add to that foreign intervention — the Qataris arming the Islamists; the Emiratis, Egyptians and Russians arming the more secular-minded groups — and the country flew apart. Though there was never any desire in any Western capital to intervene on the ground in Libya, Wehrey notes, the Libyans didn’t want that anyway: In more ways than one, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can go completely awry.

If there was one crucial mistake that fed the chaos, it was the decision by the transitional government, just after Qaddafi’s overthrow, to pay the various militias who had helped make the revolution. In this way, the rationale went, the gunmen could be controlled — but the result was that the militias multiplied and started fighting one another, and no one could control them at all. “Like the young magician in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’” Wehrey writes, “the Libyan government was now beholden to an apparition of its own conjuring.”

Reporting in Libya is hard work. Wehrey crisscrossed the country, flew back and forth along the coast, and sat with warlords and Islamists of uncertain intentions. Most of his encounters don’t appear to have lasted long enough to forge a deeper connection. Perhaps this came with the chaotic turf. But the only characters who make a lasting impression in the book are a liberal-minded human rights lawyer named Salwa Bugaighis, who had high hopes for the country but was killed by Islamist militiamen shortly after the revolution, and Chris Stevens, the American ambassador who died in an attack on the embassy in Benghazi in 2012.

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