Monthly Archives: February 2011

Monday Morning Quarterbacking on the Oscars

Time for a brief break from reporting on the Middle Eastern uprisings to discuss the Academy Awards.  No, this is not a joke–by which I mean the break will be brief.  But for now, I’ll just post the basic results (minus a few categories such as shorts in which I happen to have less personal interest), plus a few thoughts below.

The Academy Awards 2011 (Abridged Results)

Best Picture

Black Swan

The Fighter

Inception

The Kids are All Fight

The King’s Speech

127 Hours

The Social Network

Toy Story 3

True Grit

Winter’s Bone

Best Director

Black Swan: Darren Aronofsky

The Fighter: David O. Russell

The King’s Speech: Tom Hooper

The Social Network: David Fincher

True Grit: Joel and Ethan Coen

Best Actor

Javier Bardem, Biutiful

Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

James Franco, 127 Hours

Best Actress

Annette Benning, The Kids are All Right

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale, The Fighter

John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone

Jeremy Renner, The Town

Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right

Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Fighter

Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech

Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Best Adapted Screenplay

127 Hours, Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufroy

The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin

Toy Story 3, Michael Arndt.  Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich

True Grit, Joel & Ethan Coen

Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

Best Original Screenplay

Another Year, Mike Leigh

The Fighter, Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson.  Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson

Inception, Christopher Nolan

The Kids are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg

The King’s Speech, David Seidler

Best Editing

Black Swan, Andrew Wiesblum

The Fighter, Pamela Martin

The King’s Speech, Tariq Anwar

127 Hours, Jon Harris

The Social Network, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter

Art Direction

Alice in Wonderland, Robert Stromberg (Production Design); Karen O’Hara (Set Decoration)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Stuart Craig (Production Design); Stephenie McMillan (Set Decoration)

Inception, Guy Hendrix Dyas (Production Design); Larry Dias and Doug Mowat (Set Decoration)

The King’s Speech, Eve Stewart (Production Design); Judy Farr (Set Decoration)

True Grit, Jess Gonchor (Production Design); Nancy Haigh (Set Decoration)

Cinematography

Black Swan (Matthew Libatique)

Inception (Wally Pfister)

The King’s Speech (Danny Cohen)

The Social Network (Jeff Cronenweth)

True Grit (Roger Deakins)

Costume Design

Alice in Wonderland (Colleen Atwood)

I Am Love (Antonella Cannarozzi)

The King’s Speech (Jenny Beavan)

The Tempest (Sandy Powell)

True Grit (Mary Zophres)

Best Original Score

How to Train Your Dragon, John Powell

Inception, Hans Zimmer

The King’s Speech, Alexandre Desplat

127 Hours, A.R. Rahman

The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Best Sound Editing

Inception, Richard King

Toy Story 3, Tom Myers and Michael Silvers

Tron: Legacy, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague

True Grit, Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey

Unstoppable, Mark P. Stoeckinger

Best Sound Mixing

Inception, Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick

The King’s Speech, Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley

Salt, Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin

The Social Network, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten

True Grit, Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland

Best Visual Effects

Alice in Wonderland, Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz and Nicolas Aithadi

Hereafter, Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojansky and Joe Farrell

Inception, Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb

Iron Man 2, Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright and Daniel Sudick

Best Animated Feature Film

How to Train Your Dragon, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois

The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet

Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich

Best Foreign Language Film

Biutiful (Mexico)

Dogtooth (Greece)

In a Better World (Denmark)

Incendies (Canada)

Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi) (Algeria)

Best Feature Documentary

Exit Through the Gift Shop, “Banksy” and Jaimie D’Cruz

Gasland, Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic

Inside Job, Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs

Restrepo, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

Waste Land, Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley

I agree with the Academy in giving the win for Best Original Score to The Social Network (though I’m surprised Tron: Legacy wasn’t nominated for its excellent score by Daft Punk, which led even the film’s fans to say it probably would have been just as good presented like the current cut of Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis, silent aside from its breezy industrial rock).  Inception has a marvelous, epic main theme by Hans Zimmer, but The Social Network has a great film score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that with visible ingenuity evokes a variety of dark moods.  The Liberal Ironist is a big fan of the distinct electronic tones, the rigorous execution, and the ironic pessimistic philosophy Trent Reznor put into Nine Inch Nails, and is glad to see that if popular music has clearly lost one of its brightest (if also darkest) stars, at least another part of our popular culture can clearly be said to have gained talent.  For similar reasons, I’d edge Best Director to Fincher over Nolan (with all due respect to Tom Hooper) even though I personally enjoyed Inception better.

If Inception’s writer-director was robbed this year (and point-of-fact, he surely was), it was for Best Original Screenplay.  As one of my friends put it during the cermony, it’s weird to think that Inception cleaned up with awards for execution (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects) while failing to win acclaim for the concept those effects brought to life.  On this same note of integration in execution, I think a lot of Zimmer’s theme’s power to inspire in Inception comes from its balance with action, especially when you consider that the last several scenes are widely-separated in time, space, the sorts of characters present and even the states of consciousness involved–and yet they are essentially accompanied by that resolute theme right up to the end–hence its wins for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

The King’s Speech, I think is more of a “Best Picture”-type film than either The Social Network or Inception, but this is the award I’d more-readily grant Inception because I think its power is more in the relationship of its concepts to the effects than in its direction. Then again, a lot of people felt that Nolan was cheated out of a win for The Dark Knight at the 2009 Academy Awards–and they were right.

The Best Actor win for Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and the Best Actress win for Natalie Portman in Black Swan were widely-anticipated; they were also spot-on.  Interestingly, both leading wins went to portrayals of characters who lived a straightjacketed existence, trying to perfect a rarefied form of performance art they have been carefully-groomed for, but at the cost of their capacity to express themselves freely.  The King’s Speech is the more-understated (and its protagonist certainly the more-mature) of the 2, but many of this year’s good wide-release movies features protagonists contending with one or another kind of splendid desolation.  In Firth’s Prince Albert we see a man worthy to be king but blocked by deep-seated inhibitions because of cruelties confronted in childhood; Natalie Portman’s Nina is unable to be childlike without also being childish, maintaining a devotion to ballet that is so innocent that she cannot even see how harsh and unsustainable her artistic ambition is because it is so simple and pure.

There is something oddly-fitting about the much-deserving Hailee Steinfeld being passed over for Best Supporting Actress for her (lead?) role as Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit.  The young nominee greatly exceeded the much-older winner in elegance, sense of fair play, and for those who caught the Oscars ceremony last night, circumspection.

Regarding the Best Documentary win, I only saw 2 of these documentaries, Gasland and Restrepo.  Gasland is a disturbing account of the horrifying deterioration of groundwater quality in the wake of natural gas drilling in the American interior (notably in rural Pennsylvania).  It is a troubling account of the often almost-invisible rural poor and the ravages of an energy industry that comes dangerously close to writing its own regulations.  Speaking of writing one’s own regulations, Charles Ferguson apparently sought in Inside Job to expose what he interprets willfully-criminal behavior of the banking and hedge fund executives.  To my mind, however, the 2008 Financial Crash isn’t really the result of a crime, but rather good old-fashioned hubris–as I discussed months ago in my review of Scott Patterson’s book The Quants.

The only other of the 5 documentary nominees I’ve seen yet (and the one I would have preferred to win) was Restrepo, a strangely-funny, occasionally jarring, always riveting account of about a year’s tour of duty at a hastily-constructed combat outpost in one of the most-dangerous postings of our military’s mission in Afghanistan.  The documentary is less than 90 minutes but somehow feels much longer in a good way, giving an account of every sort of experience to be had in the Taliban-contested valley, from the pervasive locker room-type antics inside the fortified combat outpost, to calls from Afghan villagers whose loyalties are simply opaque, to mission briefings, to phone calls home, to a battle with casualties, seen from headcam perspective.  It’s unpretentious yet outstanding.

Inception, The King’s Speech, and The Social Network happen to be my favorite of 14 wide-release films that I saw in 2010 that I thought were very good or great.  You might have noticed that they are all about people trying to shape humanity through the mastery of a powerful new medium: This year, film rose to the occasion of portraying the inner lives of those shaping forces greater than it.  It was a great year for movies.

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The Sin of Omission: Leaving Libya to Its Fate

I’ve been converted to the theory that one of our most basic forms of bias is that against doing harm.  Allowing terrible things to happen right in front of us–even when we have the means to do something to stop it–provokes no comparable concern.

I imagine this predisposition explains why first Secretary of State Clinton, then President Obama insisted that the rolling massacres to which Libya has descended are “unacceptable.”  The moment I heard the Secretary of State say so, a thought occurred to me that has driven me almost to distraction: If we countenance this slaughter and have the means to mitigate, contain, or even decide it through intervention and don’t do so, then it must be “acceptable” by definition.

I wasn’t the only person who had some version of this thought.  Tom Scocca, blogging in Slate, thinks a President’s use of the term “unacceptable” an outright absurdity if not an outright inversion of what the word normally means:

“Unacceptable to whom? What does ‘acceptance’ mean, here? Did Qaddafi submit the bloodshed to the Oval Office for approval, but Obama refused to sign for it? Did someone give the Libyan protesters an opt-out box to click if they declined to be shot, or if they preferred to be shot later?

“Come statement-making time, the American presidency sounds like Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer in reverse: the things the president can’t change get deemed ‘unacceptable.'”

For Scocca the point of interest was precisely this uncanny consistency with which Presidents use this word for those outrageous states of affairs that…won’t be changed.  I’m interested in the current use of the word, because when an unhinged dictator like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi loudly announces that he will “cleanse Libya house by house” and draws upon foreign fighters–and according to one disturbing account taken by al-Jazeera even deluded migrant workers–to bring his threat to any plausible source of opposition, a state has perpetrated such a loss of legitimacy that even absolute monarchist Thomas Hobbes would have to embrace revolution.

Of course, President Obama and his Secretary of State are hardly alone in taking strong language but no action.  Last Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Colonel Gaddafi and told him the violence he was deliberately sowing “must stop immediately.”  Then there is this first paragraph of a report from today by the CNN wire staff:

“As clashes in the Libyan capital continued Friday between government security forces and anti-regime protesters, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters unequivocally: ‘The violence must stop.'”

Well, Ban is on the right side of the Libyan Civil War, and he’s saying the right things…and I can’t fault him for consistency either.  We can’t fairly fault the Secretary General when the constituent states of the UN fail to act.  It’s ironic, but leading the UN sounds like a lonely job.  The article further related that Ban estimated the death toll in the Libyan uprising since February 17th at over 1,000 and called on other governments “to do everything possible” to prevent violence against civilians.

300, 1,000, 2,000…In truth we have no idea how many people Gaddafi has sacrificed this week to his delusional bid to remain in power because we have little capacity to observe what he is doing.  Libya seethes under multiple apparitions of chaos.  There is chaos as some army units and pilots slaughter protesters and some defect to their cause.  There is chaos as mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Sudan fly into Libya with a broad mandate to stop the rebellion in the streets–some apparently shooting any civilian who goes outside.  There is protesters as mercenaries drag the bodies of the dead away in an attempt to hide the full death toll.  There is chaos as protesters become a fighting force, overrunning arsenals both with and without the assistance of army mutineers.  As a consequence of the preceding, there is chaos in the cities of Libya’s Mediterranean coast over which the protesters gain, then sometimes lose, then gain control again.

The apparent chaos actually follows multiple logics–the city of Benghazi’s longstanding grievances towards Tripoli, tribal loyalties, individual incentives to avoid eventual punishment by the protesters or to pursue the newly-available but rapidly-dwindling resources made available by the Gaddafi regime, the material prize of a greater share of Libya’s oil wealth, and varying levels of fear among all parties.  What is remarkable is how quickly Libya has passed through the stages of a civil war–at least so far and to appearances.

It isn’t coming fast-enough, however.  This brings us back to my point about our deep-seated bias against doing harm.  Some have argued that any sort of UN or NATO military intervention in Libya, from imposition of a no-fly zone to the establishment of beachhead safe zones or incursions into certain Libyan coastal towns (even just to deliver needed supplies like food to civilians) would expose the protesters to charges of foreign-backed subversion.  I think this political concern was plausible until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was deposed.  Even if the revolution in Egypt hadn’t breathed such life into Middle Eastern pro-democracy protests generally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s objection to Gaddafi’s brutality frames the argument for an intervention on humanitarian grounds.

It’s true that we cannot know whether other Middle Eastern anti-regime protests will suddenly escalate from violent to very violent in contexts where military intervention wouldn’t be feasible.  Some skeptics of intervention would say we would take blame for any ensuing politicide, thus incurring hostility from that country’s masses.  I say such warnings are a little strained, and miss the point: Libya is bleeding profusely right now.  If we just take some kind of military action whether to strike at loyalist positions, protect the protesters or to feed Libyans, we can save lives, issue a warning to other dictators in the region considering escalating their repression, and show participants in these movements in our deeds what the President implied with his January 28th speech on Egypt–that the US is with them on this one.

Time for the President to Get Ahead of This Curve

You Can Turn Your Back on a Person, But Don’t You Ever Turn Your Back on Tens of Millions of Politically-Disenfranchised People with a National Identity

The Wall Street Journal has been considerate-enough to provide us with a helpful map and chart siting the recent democracy protest-incidents spreading throughout the Arab world and Iran.  I have ranked 13 Middle Eastern anti-government campaigns below as I understand them by relative intensity:

Government overturned: Tunisia (protests began December 17th, succeeded January 14th), Egypt (protests began January 25th, succeeded February 11th)

Civil War: Libya (protests started Feb. 16th; Benghazi mutiny Feb. 20th)

Large-scale, continuous unrest: Bahrain (protests started Feb. 14th), Yemen (protests started Jan. 22nd, re-started Feb. 11th)

Chronic but subliminal protests: Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan

Government apparently waited-out protests: Morocco

Protests repressed or discouraged (for now): Sudan, Djibouti

“No-shows”: Syria

Incidentally, the Journal map and chart currently overlooks Syria (where protests were planned, but in a country cowed by past violence almost no one turned out), Sudan (where the first day of demonstrations met with brute-force repression and Omar Hassan al-Bashir claimed he would step down at the end of his term), Djibouti (a small Somali state where unrest resulted in repression last Friday), Kuwait (where descendants of the country’s nomadic peoples demand citizenship), Iraq (where the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya and the mostly-Shi’a Arab city of Basra have seen anti-corruption protests) and Morocco (where a recent Post article on Libya acknowledges that the first protests throughout the country only number in the thousands and where the basis of popular grievance so far is less-obvious).  Each of the countries the Journal has left off its map, however, have been much quieter than the ones on the map (and in the news).

Besides Tunisia and Egypt, there are 3 countries where the protesters seem to be winning (at present).  King Hamad of Bahrain may be compelled to grant protesters (largely Shi’a in this majority-Shi’a country with a Sunni monarchy) the parliamentary monarchy they have called for.  (King Hamad might find this an agreeable outcome compared to the sudden and total deposition of Ben Ali from Tunisia or Mubarak from Egypt.)  In Yemen, president-for-life Ali Abdullah Saleh has gradually expanded his talk of concessions and seems to have a genuinely-ambivalent attitude about the protesters, though some have already been killed in clashes with police.  In violence-wracked Libya, Colonel Gaddafi may not survive the weekend if he doesn’t flee.

Again, Prudence Becomes Imprudent as Circumstances Change

These remarkable developments seem to beg a question: Where is President Obama?  It might seem that the President should tread softly, but this argument is slowly losing plausibility.  The Liberal Ironist first thought the President should have spoken more-loudly because the demonstrations gathered so much strength so quickly.  It may be that the President’s tack during the Egyptian protests (essentially calling for non-violence and expressing sympathy for all peoples’ desire for self-determination) was strategically smart because of the large investment and ensuing foreign policy and national security benefits of that relationship–though in the past this had involved our government in charges of visible hypocrisy and abettance of Mubarak’s human rights abuses.  Far from being weak or clueless President Obama’s equable stance, while not politically-compromising for the United States, indicated to the Mubarak regime, the protesters and the decisive Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council that Mubarak had sacrificed his credibility when he started organizing teams of thugs to beat and massacre protesters.  Maybe this indirect, principles-focused approach was the wisest.  While it was passively-moralistic, it was also coherent and not fraught with political risk.  It slowly removed the maneuvering room for Mubarak while not constituting a betrayal of a US ally.  It also meant the pro-democracy protesters in Egypt did all the work themselves, meaningfully transforming Arab publics’ self-perception and (though perhaps not quickly-enough) their governments’ perceptions of them.

But the fall of the Mubarak regime on February 11th opened an opportunity for President Obama to take a stand on these protests in 2 ways.  1st, the much-hyped concern for a democratic Egyptian government that would renounce its landmark peace treaty with Israel, break off cooperation with the United States in counter-terrorist operations, and end its policing of its border with the Hamas-occupied Gaza Strip.  (In the light of the expressions of sympathy for blockaded Gaza by the democratically-elected moderate-Islamist government of Turkey, this last concern is the most-plausible.)  2nd, Egypt, with a population of about 80 million, is by far the most-populous Arab country, and has the greatest capacity to set an exemplary trend for other democracy movements.  Of course, protests had started in several countries before the January 25th anti-police demonstrations began in Egypt, but Egypt has traditionally been the cultural and commercial hub of the Arab world (though this role has long been diminished by Persian Gulf oil money and Hosni Mubarak’s fossilization of Egyptian politics).  Preceding imitators aside, I think the Egyptian revolution that made regime change from below the central topic of debate and an exemplary cause for the countries of the region.  This also likely means that some of the biggest potential pratfalls from the spreading Middle Eastern revolutions have passed: Witness the instant dismissal of the Gaddafi regime’s claims–which reached the point of absurdity twice this week–that foreigners were behind the uprising in Libya.

…But Don’t Speak Too Loudly

I’m not saying President Obama should engage in his predecessor’s broad-brush good-vs.-evil talk, which can alienate non-democratic allies without securing democratic revolutions in the long run.  The fall 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the fall 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine–cheered on by President George W. Bush–and spring 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan–facilitated in part by State Department grants to promote independent newspapers–resulted in a revisionist foreign policy by Russian President Vladimir Putin which continued for the rest of the Bush presidency.  The revisionism resulted in non-democratic retrenchment in Kyrgyzstan and even Ukraine, and catalyzed Russia’s victorious war against Georgia in August 2008.  But President Obama has already achieved a “reset” in relations with Russia, and what we are seeing in the Middle East is a series of protests by example and affinity.

The President can credibly argue that the only way out for the Middle East’s surviving autocracies is through–that in order to survive at all, these governments should democratize.  Certainly there would be an element of mythology to taking such an aggregate and deterministic approach to the dozen Middle Eastern countries that have seen these bare-dawn revolutions; some will not succeed, and some collapsing autocracies may yet leave in their wake (though I hate resort to historical analogy) another Jacobin Terror or another Somalia.  But many Arab states today enjoy a high-enough standard of living for people to notice corruption and to object to it, many currently face economic reversal which has angered a politically-voiceless middle class and its many children, and yes, not just Facebook and Twitter but al-Jazeera TV news have produced new tactical tools available to sometimes-atomized but ever-stalwart dissidents.  Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years, Mubarak ruled Egypt for about 30 years, and Gaddafi will have ruled Libya for almost 42 years by the likely-immanent violent end of his tyranny.  None of these governments appeared vulnerable last Christmas; now they look like they are a part of a regional process–but one where, as Mark Zuckerberg says about Facebook in The Social Network, “We don’t even know what it is yet!”

Even if in hindsight he gets some important details about this moment of revolutionary freedom wrong, the Liberal Ironist thinks President Obama should say something about what “all this” is.  He should do this to offer encouragement and appreciation to Arab dissidents taking great risks to make a government for themselves, to put the rest of the Arab autocrats on notice the only way an ally can, and to dispel the bad information, often-bigoted fears, and general lack of perspective we may have at home about the suddenness and scope of this movement of the long-voiceless.

He could also use this speech as occasion to explain why the United States is intervening in Libya to end Gaddafi’s bloodshed, but now I guess I’m asking for too much tough talk.

Libya’s Mad Dog Dictator Bears His Fangs: Now is the Time for the United States to Get Involved

Say what you will about Libya’s Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi (and don’t be surprised if you can’t find anything nice to say), but he doesn’t resort to petty euphemism or dissemble about his intentions.  No, he speaks with astonishing candor about the brutality to come.  In Tunisia, Zine el-Abindine Ben Ali tried to save himself by declaring that he would institute economic reforms, investigate police brutality against demonstrators, and step down at the end of his current term.  In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak made an ill-received attempt to defend his rule by embracing the protesters as warmly in rhetoric as he had struck them callously in action, assuring his people that he had appointed a vice president and, yes, that he would step down at the end of his term.  In Libya yesterday, Ghaddafi delivered a 73-minute speech in which he declared that those rebelling against his regime were under the influence of foreigners (and drugs), and that he would “cleanse Libya house by house” if the protests don’t end now.

One might be inclined to sermonize that a dictator is a dictator, that 1 strongman who would sacrifice an open-ended number of lives to maintain absolute power over his country is as much of a monster as any.  But one would be wrong.  There are dictators, and there are mad dog dictators.  President Reagan once called Ghaddafi “the mad dog of the Middle East,” and if his extensive past support of terrorism weren’t enough of an indication, his utter callousness towards the fate of his own people at the apparent end of his reign dispels all of his past moral pretenses.

Don’t let the fact that he hasn’t had occasion to murder his countrymen on the scale of Saddam Hussein’s 300,000-400,000 fool you; Colonel Ghaddafi has more in common with the late despot of Iraq, that man who modeled himself on Josef Stalin, than with the corrupt party-monopolists Ben Ali or Mubarak.  Whether he just feels comfortable in the well-worn political-ideational space he has eked out for himself or he is simply insane, the Liberal Ironist believes Muammar Ghaddafi has revealed his character through his actions in his desperate hours–and he is an impossible monster.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi some time after seizing power in 1969 as a 27-year-old army captain. Associated Press photo.

Captain Muammar Ghaddafi took power in Libya in a bloodless military coup against the king in 1969.  He was 27 years old.  Modeling himself on Egypt’s Arabist dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser and Latin American Communist revolutionary Che Guevara, Ghaddafi promoted himself to Colonel (still his rank in the Libyan Army), expelled all Italians living in Libya in 1970, published his “Green Book” between 1975 and 1979 in imitation of China’s Mao Zedong, sponsored terrorism in various countries (including not only the PLO and the IRA but direct involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103), tried to develop nuclear weapons (which he abandoned in 2004 between Western negotiations and mounting political pressure), and habitually traveled with an all-female bodyguard team and slept in a tent when abroad.  In a typical act of callous and counterproductive revolutionary commitment, Ghaddafi expelled 30,000 Palestinian refugees living in Libya to protest the PLO’s signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel.

Now, after just 1 week of anti-regime protests, most estimates put the number of dead civilians in Libya as more than those killed in all other current Arab democracy movements put together.  The Libyan Air Force has carried out air strikes on protesters in the capital, Tripoli.

Colonel Gaddafi during his 73-minute televised tirade yesterday, during which he claimed anti-regime protesters were being controlled by foreign agents with hallucinogens. He also warned that if the protests did not stop, he would "cleanse Libya house by house." Photo courtesy Agence France Presse/Libyan TV.

This brings us to the matter of Secretary of State Clinton’s statement on the violence and chaos in Libya.  Here I’ve included most of the first paragraph:

“…The United States continues to watch the situation in Libya with alarm. Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives have been lost and their loved ones, and we join the international community in strongly condemning the violence, as we’ve received reports of hundreds killed and many more injured. This bloodshed is completely unacceptable. It is the responsibility of the Government of Libya to respect the universal rights of their own people, including their right to free expression and assembly…”

At current I must express skepticism towards the Secretary of State’s use of the word “unacceptable.”  If our government doesn’t intend to do anything about the rolling massacres perpetrated by the remaining armed forces and mercenaries of the “Mad Dog of the Middle East,” then this bloodshed is acceptable by definition.  This is a good time, and these are good grounds, for the United States to take action.

No, I am not talking about boots on the ground in Libya.  The only question about such a prospect is whether our people or Libya’s would find such a prospect more-unappetizing.  But an Army deployment isn’t the only thing our government could do to save lives in Libya.  The US Air Force could enforce a no-fly zone in Libya–and it would be well worth the cost.

There are reasons why we haven’t yet taken this action unilaterally–or for that matter why the UN Security Council has issued a statement of condemnation regarding Libya but no resolution.  The New York Times article on the disapproving yet curiously non-committal stance of our government identified the concern staying its hand–and it is a good one: There are still US diplomatic staff and citizens inside Libya.  It isn’t currently in Ghaddafi’s interest to initiate violence against Americans in Libya, because that would likely catalyze US reprisals; by the same token, US aggressive action against Ghaddafi’s redoubt in the northwest of his country would probably incite revenge violence against Americans there.  Secretary of State Clinton insisted that “the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority.”

A government has to see to the safety of its own citizens first; that is the principled reason for its existence.  The Liberal Ironist recognizes and respects this primary obligation of the state.  But today a corrolary arises: The Ghaddafi regime has now explicitly betrayed this responsibility, declaring large numbers of Libyan civilians to be enemies for assembling and speaking out–and subsequently defending themselves.  The New York Times reports that many governments are currently scrambling to withdraw their nationals from the mounting violence in Libya.  Once the United States and other Western governments manage to withdraw their citizens from Libya, it’s time to get cracking to rectify this situation.  Muammar Ghaddafi has relinquished his rights to his country’s airspace.  It’s high time we stop Ghaddafi’s airstrikes on demonstrators.

The Italian government has just stated that it considers current rough estimates that 1,000 people have been killed in regime repression credible.  For ours and foreign governments to withdraw their citizens and diplomatic staff should be the end of the hold-up, because this situation is truly getting out of control.  We may already be 1,000 dead towards another Hama Massacre.  We know Ghaddafi is willing to do that; both his bark and his bite are dreadful.

UPDATE March 21, 2011: For anyone interested in some thoughts on what Egypt’s passage of its constitutional reform referendum means for that country’s revolution, click here.

UPDATE March 25, 2011: For a recent entry on President Obama’s push last week for a no-fly zone over Libya and a case that his failure to justify the operation to the public has drawn more criticism than a headline-grabbing defense would have, click here.

UPDATE April 5, 2011: For a discussion of Bashar al-Assad’s political situation in Syria and the Assad regime’s little-known history of brutality, click here.

UPDATE May 2, 2011: For thoughts on the significance of the killing of Osama bin Laden, click here.

UPDATE May 8, 2011: For thoughts on how Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu’s lack of regard for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process brought the Fatah and Hamas factions together, click here.

UPDATE May 21, 2011: For a discussion of the reason for our strategy of maintaining a good working relationship with Pakistan in spite of ISI support for terrorist groups, click here.

For a take on the novelty of President Obama’s support for a Palestinian state along Israel’s 1967 borders, click here.

UPDATE May 23, 2011: For a shorter discussion of the timeliness of President Obama’s AIPAC address on Sunday, May 22, click here.

UPDATE July 22, 2011: For a discussion of the apparent stalemate of the Libyan Civil War–and a call to maintain the no-fly zone and grant the Rebels state-building support–click here.

UPDATE September 6, 2011: For a discussion of the detention of hundreds of alleged black African mercenaries in Tripoli and elsewhere by victorious but still largely-disorganized Rebels, click here.

Colonel Gaddafi during his first address before the UN General Assembly after Libya emerged from decades of rogue state status, back in September 2009. During his unwelcome 100-minute rant, the sponsor of the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people accused the United Nations of being a terroristic body. Photograph: Ray Stubblebine/Reuters.

 

So Much for the 3rd Longest-Serving Head-of-State in the World

42 Years of Absolute Rule, 6 Days of Mounting Revolution

There’s something happening in Libya.  Pro-democracy demonstrators in Benghazi, a city of about 500,000 in the east of the country, suffered regime-led violence that took the lives of at least 233 (Human Rights Watch) or as many as over 300 (eye-witness reports, not cross-checked) demonstrators over the weekend.  Following a massacre of attendants of a funeral procession for 84 dissidents killed in the previous day’s clashes, a military unit sent to Benghazi to quell the uprisings in the east defected and joined the demonstrators on Sunday.  This probably came as a great relief to a city under siege; it was correspondingly really, really bad news for Libya’s iron-fisted ruler, Colonel Muammar Ghadafi.

It was also bad news for Ghadafi when a chief of the Warfalla tribe (a powerful personage in Libya, a non-consolidated state marked by tribal divisions which Ghadafi has episodically exploited) declared that he had defected to the demonstrators, and urging his counterpart tribal chieftans to band together to do the same.  Worse was the announcement of the al-Zuwayya tribal chieftan that he intended to cut off the Ghadafi regime’s access to Libya’s oil fields, demanding Ghadafi’s resignation.  Less strategically-crucial, perhaps, but also indicative of crumbling confidence at the top of the political structure, has been the resignation of 9 Libyan diplomats, including its representative to the Arab League, its ambassador to India, and Libya’s deputy representative to the United Nations.

Ghadafi Has Deployed His Military–and May Have Overplayed His Hand

Military units have in fact fired on protesters in several parts of the country.  According to the New York Times, helicopter strikes on protesters have occurred in the capital Tripoli and along the road from rebel-held Misruata to Tripoli.  But this isn’t the worst-case development that could occur in Libya.

The worst thing that could happen in Libya would be air strikes and a tank invasion of Benghazi, the 2nd-largest city in the country, on the coast of the eastern Cyrenaica region.  This city of about 500,000 was liberated by protesters after the defection of the army unit deployed to crush those protests.  It isn’t clear the Ghadafi regime still has the means to suppress the rebellion in Benghazi, but with enough control over the air force, he could try to make an example of this restive city like the 1982 atrocity by Syria’s Assad regime in Hama.

In other news, as of this writing we can apparently dismiss early speculation, by United Kingdom Foreign Minister William Hague among others, that Colonel Ghadafi had already fled to Venezuela.  Colonel Ghadafi has just appeared on Libyan state television, helpfully clarifying that he has in fact not fled to Venezuela.  He also called independent media reporting on the demonstrations “stray dogs,” a gesture of maximum disrespect.  The statements of defiance issued by Ghadafi and his son, Saif al-Islam, were intended to suggest that he won’t resign as did Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, come what may.  “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet,” Saif al-Islam said on Libyan state television last night.

Inaction on Libya May Be a Costly Strategy

A www.BBC.co.uk article assessing the importance of tribal loyalties in Libya was perceptive in not overestimating the uniqueness of the Libyan revolution–and prudent in issuing a warning that the simple stagnation of the regime’s current near-hopeless state could ultimately be a worse outcome even than a yet-larger massacre in Benghazi:

 

“So, what significance ought to be attached to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s warning of war between Libya’s tribes in the event of the regime falling, or to the heads of Libyan tribes reportedly declaring support for the anti-regime protesters, as the head of the Warfalla tribe appears to have done?

“And how seriously should we take the eastern Al-Zuwayya tribe’s threat to cut off oil exports, as has been reported?

“The short answer is that the prospect of civil war will become real only if the regime chooses to fight to the end and continues to remain indifferent to civilian casualties, as it has been doing over the past few days.”

 

For now, prospects for a civil war in Libya still seem distant–though as of this writing the country’s territory is in fact split between territory still under government control and territory liberated by demonstrators and military forces or tribes which have defected to them.  The Liberal Ironist thinks his would be a good time for President Obama to say something beyond his consistently-cautious line since Mubarak employed vigilantes against his ultimately-successful opposition.  Morally-commendable but in effect so indirect as to be off-point, the President’s position to-date has simply been that violence is bad.  With successful expulsions of decades-ruling, foreign-supported autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt in a matter of weeks, protests not only in Libya but Bahrain, Yemen, Djibouti and Algeria have become serious.  Not all of these revolts are necessarily fated to succeed, and the moment for pro-democracy protests in Sudan, Syria and Iran already seems to have come and gone.  But prudence is not synonymous with passivity, and awareness of the costs and risks of taking any stand may not constitute profound thinking when the means the President has to change the political and strategic balance of protests such as Libya’s are considered.  This will be the subject of my next post.

Tunisia and Egypt: What We *Thought* We Knew *Did* Hurt Us

1 month ago, Eric Goldstein wrote a fine retrospective on Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution on ForeignPolicy.com.  It hadn’t been 1 week since kleptocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after just under 1 month of mounting riots in what had probably been the quietest Arab state since 1960.  Ben Ali’s regime had been a poster-child for “durable autocracy,” the broad theory that an autocratic government could employ certain combinations of mobilizing ideology, redistribution of benefits and spectacles of repression to stave-off popular sovereignty essentially forever.  Ben Ali’s regime wasn’t ideological, but it had been keen to advertise Tunisia’s supposedly exemplary economic development.  Indeed, of all Arab states Tunisia is probably the most-middle class.  (While several oil-drilling “petrostates” on the Persian Gulf have higher overall levels of wealth, several political scientists and economists such as Paul Collier and Michael Ross have convincingly argued that oil-dependence profoundly stunts economic and social–and thus political–development.)  And Ben Ali’s police force had mastered repressive spectacle, sometimes making arbitrary gestures of their impunity just to warn people not to stand out too much.

Then, apparently without giving any indication of discontent beforehand, Tunisia’s government collapsed completely over the course of 1 month.  This revolution was largely the work of 20-somethings who’d had no prior opportunity to develop political experience.  Crucially, when Ben Ali asked the Tunisian Army to fire on protesters in the capital, they abandoned him in disgust.  That was probably not a response most outside observers, inclined by historical anecdote to conceive of the armed forces as an aggregate, pro-incumbency actor, would ever have expected.  Tunisia’s reigning kleptocrat had to flee the country that day.

What I particularly like about Goldstein’s article, aside from some insightful (though admittedly retrospective) observations about Tunisia’s tinderbox status, is his foregrounding of the fact that we were all blindsided by the speed and thoroughness with which the Ben Ali regime fell apart–including the continuation of protests until most of his old cabinet appointees resigned from the interim government.  Following the end of Ben Ali’s 23 years of rule in Tunisia in about 28 days of protests and the much more-dramatic demise Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year “presidency” in  Egypt after just 18 days of peaceful (but violently-attacked) protest, demonstrations have emerged in Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, and even comparatively-democratic Iraq in response to poor service provision and apparently serious corruption by the Governor of Basra.  The violent repression of demonstrators in Bahrain and Libya follows the same old playbook of post-colonial dictators–but so far those demonstrations just keep spreading…and growing.

Whatever happens as these other bids for revolution metastasize, what has already happened in the Middle East should give us pause.  Twice in the past 2 months, selfish and callous despots who created an outward impression of a normalized society for over a generation were overthrown with little to no anticipation in a series of demonstrations that took less than a month apiece.  It has turned out, as dramatically at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union and the democratization of Eastern Europe, that we didn’t know what we thought we knew at all.  Not only for those of us in academic fields such as political science, political theory or sociology, but for laypersons interested in this busy World as well, the events unfolding in the Middle East should fill us not just with humility but with gratitude.  What we have seen is not all that is, and while the disappointments of the past will never cease to influence the present, they don’t determine what’s possible in the future.  We owe this powerful reminder of both our capacity for agency and the brilliant appeal of Liberalism to the various Arab peoples–a series of nations about whom we have generally thought very uncharitable thoughts over the past decade when we have thought of them at all.  Now we can smirk at our naiveté, and wish that the Arab democrats find the wind at their backs.

If you have a few minutes, a wise friend of mine who specializes in Arab politics was actually in Cairo during some of the grim early days of the revolution, and has blogged much more-eloquently about this, contrasting the banality of official corruption to the unexpected courage and enthusiasm of Egypt’s protesters.  He wrote this entry on February 9th, 2 days before Mubarak’s departure and 2 days before he could let himself believe that all this enthusiasm could prevail.  If you can spare a few minutes, his reflections on the eve of the Egyptian revolution’s success are the fitting last word; he has seen first-hand what the Arab lay revolutionaries are up against.

The Prospect of a Government Shutdown is Now Very Real

It’s coming.  What the Tea Partiers in the Republican Caucus in the House had made likely, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) has now made…well, really hard to avoid.  I previously reported on the Tea Partiers’ revolt over the attempt by House Republican leaders to moderate their calls for spending cuts to work-out a budget deal with the President; while the House Republican leadership had called for about $40 billion in cuts to non-Defense discretionary spending on Wednesday of last week, they are now proposing at least $61 billion in cuts to such spending.

The New York Times reported that such deep spending cuts haven’t merely raised real concerns about the stability of our economic recovery (undermining Federal stimulus, requiring layoffs from Federal jobs, and canceling or curtailing Federal contracts to private companies), but some Republican Representatives have even admitted such cuts may be politically self-defeating.  Ultimately, though, it isn’t the House leadership’s seats that will be on the line, but the Republican freshmen–a great many of whom are the Tea Party activists insisting on the budget cuts.  So, in order to retain their positions in a restive and skeptical Republican Caucus, House leaders have to consent to letting freshmen members endanger their own seats by pushing for cuts to programs from which their constituents in sometimes-marginal districts benefit.  The debate in the House over these spending cuts opened last Tuesday, as House Speaker John Boehner took the step–not seen from either party’s leadership since Newt Gingrich’s “Class of 1994” Republicans took over 16 years ago–of allowing Representatives from both parties to commend budget cuts–or increases.  Of course, with 242 members and a dominant Conservative wing, the Republicans have carried most of the budget amendments (as you can see from this nifty New York Times chart), though in some instances Federal programs have been restored by a majority vote.  One interesting bit of news is the cancellation, by a vote of 233-198, of the expensive 2nd engine for the F-35 Joint-Strike Fighter jet, a pork spending item that both Presidents W. Bush and Obama had tried to defund.  Maintaining this funding had been an interest for Speaker Boehner, whose west Ohio Congressional District receives many jobs from the construction of this engine.  The elimination of this second engine alone is projected to save $3 billion (!) over coming years.

Senate Appropriations Chair Inouye has done his corresponding part to close the bargaining space for a budget agreement, scheduling the Senate vote on its version of the budget for the first week of March.  The continuing resolution temporarily funding the Federal Government while its budget is passed runs out on March 4th.  Speaker Boehner, still acting in response to prodding by the upstart Conservatives in his freshman class, has said it’s make-or-break time–House Republicans won’t support another continuing resolution to take more time to resolve his party’s budget differences with the Democrats unless that temporary suspension contains substantial spending cuts.

While the intervening 2+ weeks could otherwise be spent negotiating a reconciled budget, the back-loading of the Senate’s budget vote makes a shutdown of an unfunded Federal Government very difficult to avoid.  True, the depth of the program cuts proposed by House Republicans right now is intolerable for Congressional Democrats and President Obama, but if Senator Inouye had allowed an earlier vote this would still have given Senate Democrats (and the President) time to pressure the House–and House leadership political cover to show their Conservative rank-and-file that they don’t really have the means to prevail if President Obama takes his message about the value of targeted programs to the public.  If such a strategy seems implausible after the last election, bear in mind that President Clinton won such a confrontation just over 15 years ago, when the Federal Government shut down after he and Congressional Republicans failed to pass a budget–just over 1 year after his party lost control of Congress in a wave election.

For now, the House soldiers on with its open invite to propose budget cuts; a vote is expected either in the very wee hours of this morning or some time Friday–though it would not be unheard-of for such a contested and sensitive vote for it to drag on into the weekend.  In the meantime, House Republicans debate the priorities of their base: The Washington Post reports that the House is either debating or has likely passed 1 or 2 amendments banning funds from implementing the President’s 2010 Health Care Reform, and the New York Times reports that House Republicans are currently debating eliminating all Title X funding for Planned Parenthood, claiming that family planning assistance for the poor makes abortions more-affordable.  The anti-Health Care Reform amendments, of course, are a tactical measure aimed at a central 2010 Republican campaign commitment; the proposal to eliminate $317 million in family planning assistance, the Liberal Ironist suspects, is part of a strained Republican effort to appease both the Christian Right and Libertarian factions of the Republican Party, which likely share only 1 sentiment about abortion–that the Federal Government shouldn’t spend money to fund or even facilitate it in any way.

To President Obama and Congressional Democrats, however, those amendments epitomize a budget-cutting process aimed at society’s most-vulnerable.  Were it not for all the rest, those amendments alone would have to be removed for the Senate–let-alone the President–to pass the budget.  Of course, at this rate the Senate won’t have time to discuss removing the amendments anyway…