Archive for April, 2015

My Libyan Friend Didn’t Have to Die

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

(originally published in The Daily Beast, 4/21/2015

The corruption and incompetence of Libya’s “leaders” and the world community has spawned a massive migrant flow into the deadly Mediterranean—and killed my young friend.

My friend Ahmed was killed Monday in Sabratha, Libya, at the age of 22. To most Libyans, this fact would hardly raise an eyebrow; they have become so used to youthful deaths. Three Libyans I got to know during the 2011 revolution have been killed in the last year, but Ahmed was the only one to pick up a gun. The others were assassinated by terrorists in Benghazi.

Ahmed died fighting for what I regard as a terrible cause, on the side of “Fajr Libya,” the Islamist militias who seized Tripoli in August 2014. Most politics in Libya is local, and the people of Sabratha threw in their lot with Fajr. From Ahmed’s standpoint, he was defending his hometown, a picturesque coastal city featuring some of Libya’s most spectacular Roman ruins. It is also one of the ports where migrants are crowded onto boats trying to get to Europe or die, as thousands of them have done. These are the wages of chaos.

Sabratha is a conservative place with a jihadi streak—lots of men from there fought with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and when I visited from time to time in 2011 and 2012, I saw more and more women in full-face veils on the well-groomed streets. But Ahmed wasn’t a political guy. Like other Libyans, and like Americans in our Civil War, he fought on the side of his relatives and neighbors.

This young man’s death is part of a uniquely Libyan tragedy. If the Libyan government hadn’t spent 2012-13 funding every militia in sight to the tune of an estimated $2.6 billion, Ahmed would most likely have chosen a different way of life. But Libyan politicians did fund the militias, fearing that otherwise they’d turn against the government. Even when they did turn against the government, they still paid the fighters.

And Ahmed was a naturally talented soldier. After dropping out of high school to work as a fisherman, he found himself in the revolution. He was an ingenious tinkerer and when I met him in a training camp for Sabratha revolutionaries in July 2011, he was a skinny, shy kid with a big smile who told me he wanted to be an inventor. But he also loved war and was both cunning and a born leader. Just after I met him, he captured seven of Muammar Kaddafi’s soldiers without firing a shot.

After Kaddafi was killed, I introduced Ahmed to a general in the Libyan Army who told him that if he went back to finish high school he would help him get into the military academy. But Ahmed didn’t like school and he was making good money for not much work as a thuwar, or revolutionary. Life isn’t difficult in Libya: housing is cheap, food is cheap, gas is cheap. He was also just 19, high-spirited and ready to enjoy freedom for the first time in his short experience. He loved working on cars, fishing, driving fast on Libya’s empty highways, not worrying about Kaddafi’s police everywhere.

In the fall of 2011 Ahmed took me to see his parents and sisters, who lived in a big house in a palm grove: quiet, respectable people. I think I met his older sister, married with kids. Then, in April 2012, Ahmed was in a terrible car accident in Tunisia. His older, married sister had been killed; Ahmed was in a coma for days. He had been at the wheel, taking her for to visit a doctor as many Libyans do in Tunisia.

The West stood by as Libya committed suicide by militia.

People have choices about how to react to tragedy. Ahmed could have decided to go back to school and devote his life to designing systems to improve car safety. Or persuading Libyans to use seat belts; his sister probably would have survived the accident if she’d been using one, but almost no Libyans do.

Ahmed’s reaction was to plunge into frivolity. When I saw him again in August 2012, he had bought a Jetski with a bonus payment he got for being a revolutionary. But he could barely walk, his legs had been so broken in the car accident. His older sister’s husband re-married just two months after her death, infuriating Ahmed’s younger sister.

Ahmed seemed sad that August. He was a kind and gracious host to me, a very Libyan characteristic, but I didn’t see how he would get over what had happened to his sister, and I also felt angry at him on her behalf.

That was my last trip to Libya. In 2013 I heard Ahmed was going to get medical treatment overseas for his legs. And then I lost touch. I tried calling him a couple of times but his phone didn’t work, which happens a lot in Libya. I hoped his bad legs would keep him out of the civil war.

It seems they didn’t. Ironically, I got in touch with both Ahmed and one of his brothers on Facebook just a day before Ahmed’s death. Ahmed sent me his new Libyan phone number. I was relieved he’d survived so far—and the war was drawing to a close.

When Libyans die, even terribly young, the accepted reaction is to post fatalistic quotations from the Quran on their Facebook page. From God we come and to God we return, and so on. But in the case of most Libyan deaths I know, this fatalism is not in order. Something could have been done. All too many of these deaths are preventable.

Stupid, selfish politicians created the conditions which made fighting the best economic choice available to someone with Ahmed’s inclinations and talents. Ahmed was enough of an outlier not to fit in to Kaddafi’s Libya, and typical enough to fit into the militia culture that followed. And by and large, the West stood by as Libya committed suicide by militia in the last few years.

Things might have gone very differently for Ahmed had there been tech incubators in Sabratha rather than militias. Or a new U.S.-organized military academy with exciting engineering courses. Or if the West had pressured Fajr’s foreign funders, the Qataris and Turks, to stop buying weapons for the militias.

Ahmed was a big-hearted, immature young man in a big-hearted, immature democracy: a run of the mill Libyan tragedy. I miss him.

Obama’s Murky Libya Policy

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

(originally published on World Affairs website, 4/21/2015

“We’re going to have to encourage some of the countries inside of the Gulf who have, I think, influence over the various factions inside of Libya to be more cooperative themselves,” was President Obama’s insight Friday into the country’s eight-month-old civil war. Since Qatar has been supporting the Islamist militias who seized Tripoli while the United Arab Emirates has been supporting the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tobruk, it’s not clear why it has taken Obama until now to realize this.
submit to reddit

In the coming weeks, it’s possible that the blessedly half-hearted civil war in Libya will sputter to a close through UN-mediated talks that have been taking place in Algeria and Morocco. The aim has been the formation of a “unity government,” ending the war between Libya’s elected, internationally recognized government in Tobruk, under Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, and the coalition of Islamist militiamen called Fajr, or Dawn, who took control of Tripoli in August 2014. While the legitimate government has recently made battlefield gains, the country of 6 million remains divided about evenly between the two sides, and even staunch supporters think Fajr could last several more months. About half the country supports Fajr due to complex city-state alliances, including many who don’t consider themselves Islamists. But the core leadership of Fajr is Islamist, with a substantial number of extremists.

Meanwhile, Libya is in dire shape: The black flags of the Islamists still fly in the outskirts of Benghazi, and in the town centers of Derna and Sirte. Islamic State training camps ring Sabratha, home to some of Libya’s storied Roman ruins. It’s estimated that 25–30 percent of the population has left the country, mainly for Tunisia and Egypt. If the Libyans form a workable coalition, and if—a big if—the Fajr Islamist militias actually leave Tripoli and allow a unity government to take control, the country may be able to beat back the Islamic State from the shores of the Mediterranean.

As Obama’s statement Friday suggests, our Libya policy since the death of Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011 has been, at best, one of attempted benign neglect. But at worst, we have been foisting Islamists upon an electorate who rejected them twice. Even our superficially innocuous support for international efforts to name a “unity government” have involved a betrayal of Libya’s democratic aspirations. The talks have drawn a false moral equivalence between the elected Libyan government and the Islamist militias that drove it out of Tripoli in August 2014 by violence.

Americans may not know it, but Libyans like voting. Since Libyans won their freedom in the fall of 2011, they have peacefully participated in four free and fair elections: municipal council elections in fall 2011 and June 2014, and parliamentary elections in July 2012 and June 2014. The problem is, when the Islamists made a dismal showing for the second time in June 2014, they turned to violence.

A combination of Islamists and city militias from Misrata, Tripoli, and other western cities captured Tripoli in August, driving the elected parliament to seek refuge in Tobruk, on the far eastern shore. The United Nations, the US, the UK, and nearly all countries recognize only the Tobruk parliament, known as the House of Representatives, and the prime minister and cabinet they chose.

Most Americans are unaware that since August, Tripoli and western Libya have been ruled by Islamic extremists very similar to people we are fighting in Iraq and Yemen. We don’t currently negotiate with the terrorists in those countries, but we advise the Libyans to do so in theirs. Many of the top Fajr commanders are veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an al-Qaeda affiliate; many were captured on the battlefield by US troops in Afghanistan or Pakistan, rendered to Libya, and imprisoned until Qaddafi’s overthrow. Abdelhakim Belhadj, a participant in the UN negotiations, is among the LIFG gang—even though his Watan Party failed to win a single seat in the House of Representatives.

The prime minister chosen by this motley crew, Omar al-Hassi, was prone to praising Ansar al-Sharia, the terror group that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens on September 12, 2012. Even as Hassi was dismissed two weeks ago, Ansar’s Libyan head declared allegiance to the Islamic State “caliph” in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. One former Libyan cabinet minister, Ali Mohamed Mihirig, told me that the Misrata militias in Fajr are still arming Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi. Meanwhile, the last of Tripoli’s public statues representing people or animals disappeared from view a week or two back.

It’s true that the elected government in eastern Libya is far from ideal. The same devils of lack of capacity and corruption that have crippled every post-Qaddafi government afflict this one. But there’s a huge difference in moral tone between the LIFG gang and the Thani government, which, for example, nominated a highly qualified woman as minister of foreign affairs for the first time in Libya’s history (she wasn’t confirmed by the House of Representatives and is now Libya’s representative to the EU).

Yet it’s unclear if the US State Department sees the differences clearly enough. According to the journalists Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, Ambassador Deborah Jones wrote a cable in early March pushing outreach to the “supposedly more moderate elements of the militia-aligned opposition forces”—allies of the very same people who killed her predecessor. No one understands why, and “and as of now US policy remains to deal exclusively with the Tobruk leadership.”

Libyans have noticed that the UN-sponsored talks involve, in the local English-language paper’s words, “an even split between representatives of secular and Islamist parties,” even though the Islamists won only a small share of seats in the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. The talks are penalizing the legitimate government for losing control of the capital to violent thugs—and that control is the only “legitimacy” the thugs have. The moral seems to be that one gets a better position at the negotiating table by picking up guns than by political campaigning. Libyans supporting the elected government often lament on Twitter and Facebook that the international community is foisting violent Islamists upon an electorate that has done everything possible to reject them.

Meanwhile, the US has opposed lifting a United Nations ban on arming the Tobruk government to take control of its own territory back from the Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, and Fajr. Libyans don’t understand why the elected Yemeni government gets help, and the elected Iraqi government gets help, but the elected Libyan government is supposed to negotiate evenly with those who rose up against it. Qatar and Turkey continue to support the Fajr militias, including with covert arms shipments, while US allies like Egypt’s General Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, and the UAE support the Tobruk government as the best defense against a takeover of the country by the Islamic State. (In an alarming but understandable reaction, the Tobruk government recently announced that it will seek arms from Russia if the UN ban is lifted.)

The level playing field of the current peace talks has lead the Libyans—politically immature, impressionable, and prone to conspiracy theories—to believe that the international community, and the US in particular, views unelected Islamic extremists as appropriate negotiating partners and legitimate political voices. There are plenty of Libyans who mutter darkly that the US is “really” supporting the terrorists—and it’s hard to explain that it only looks that way.

This US policy is likely to come back to haunt Libya, the West, and Washington.

No Libyan I’ve spoken with, including members of the Tobruk House of Representatives, three ambassadors, and one former cabinet minister, understands why the United States did not do more to help stabilize Libya in 2011–12. There were plans to train young militiamen who committed to joining the national army or police, but they moved so slowly that the country fell apart before any Libyans came here for instruction.

In all fairness to the Obama administration, the Libyans didn’t make it easy for us to help them set their state in order: The Libyan state has spent an estimated 4 billion dinars, or $2.96 billion, financing the undisciplined militiamen (of all stripes) who have torn the country apart. That would have paid for a lot of job training programs. And the internationally recognized post-Qaddafi administrations have been extraordinarily incompetent. Libya’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told me, “We don’t have the institutions to absorb the foreign assistance.” When I asked what help he wanted from the US for Libya, he only suggested easing the UN arms embargo.

But unlike Afghanistan, Libya is economically viable, and can pay for expertise; it can also be a market for American products, though it’s not populous enough to be very exciting. No Libyan government has ever asked for US troops on the ground, and that’s a good thing. If anything, the Libyans have been too reluctant to ask for our expertise. But what they have asked for, and can really use, is the moral weight of our support for elections and our refusal to negotiate with terrorists. Tragically, the Obama administration’s policy, and the president’s State Department, have failed them so far.

Should Iraq’s Archeological Treasures Stay in the West?

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

Originally published April 11, 2015 in The Daily Beast (
Are the treasures of the East best kept in the West? Or could huge fines to states that don’t save cultural patrimony help?

“When I was a boy,” the Iraqi diplomat said, “My parents took me to the Louvre and I saw Hammurabi’s Code. I wondered why it wasn’t in Baghdad. Why did we Iraqis have to go to Paris to see it? Why couldn’t the rest of the world come to us? It made me angry.” He paused. “But after ISIS attacked Nimrud, I was glad that these things were not in Iraq.”

Luckily, some monumental Assyrian sculpture from the extraordinary archeological trove at Nimrud was removed in the 19th century and placed in the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hatra wasn’t so lucky. Probably founded about 2,400 years ago under the Seleucids, it became the site of one of the first Arab kingdoms known to history, starting in 156 A.D. Although ruled by Muslims for centuries, it held examples of sculpture from an amazing array of artistic traditions, pre-Islamic Arabic as well as Greek, Caananite and Mesopotamian. Hatra was considered by archeologists to be “the best preserved and most informative example of a Parthian city.” No more. What the Prophet Muhammad’s contemporaries saw fit to preserve, ISIS has destroyed.

Last Friday, ISIS released a video showing its fighters chipping off figurative sculpture from Hatra’s ancient walls. Citing Abraham and Muhammad’s destruction of idols, an ISIS spokesman promised more of the same.

“Some of the infidel organizations say the destruction of these alleged artifacts is a war crime,” he added. “We will destroy your artifacts and idols anywhere, and Islamic State will rule your lands.” Of course, Abraham and Muhammad destroyed idols currently being worshipped by their people, not those worshipped thousands of years ago. The video’s musical accompaniment is also bizarre in that most Islamic purists reject any music other than Quranic chanting. But intellectual consistency has never been ISIS’s strong point.

Now that Islamist madmen are on the loose across great swathes of the Middle East and North Africa, we have reason to value the cultural imperialism of years past. It was rationalized, then, as saving treasures from barbarians. Whatever the truth of the matter in those days, there is no doubt now that the barbarians are back with a vengeance.

Since 2011, Islamist fanatics have demolished Sufi tombs and shrines in Egypt and Libya and destroyed shrines and ancient manuscripts in Mali. Last month’s attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis murdered 19 people—but the next one might be aimed at the artwork within. Tunisia wants to defend its heritage, but is it strong enough? The police response to the attack has raised questions.

Are such treasures of the human race better preserved for all of us—including Iraqis—in stable countries rather than in situ? If we believe that cultural patrimony belongs to all humankind, should the world try to re-locate threatened masterpieces out of harm’s way? Should countries that have a history of neglecting or destroying their past have it taken away from them, like parents deemed unfit by the courts? What happens when a country asks for help—as Iraq’s antiquities officials have done, asking for U.S. airstrikes to prevent further destruction—and it is refused?

These questions have bubbled up from time to time—but mainly when artifacts were threatened with destruction by the ignorant poor. In the 18th century, British travelers to Italy justified their importation of vast quantities of classical statues by the obvious neglect they faced in Italy. Meanwhile, in Athens, marble statuary of the Parthenon was being burned to extract lime. In 1801 Lord Elgin, then the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, began to remove what became known as the “Elgin Marbles,” with the permission of the Ottoman authorities then occupying Greece, intending them for the British Museum, where they have been on exhibit since 1817. The removal was controversial even at the time, and Greece has never stopped trying to get the reliefs returned. While the Greeks have alleged that the Ottomans had no right to give away the heritage of a country they occupied by force, the British have taken the view that the marbles are artifacts of ancient Athens, not contemporary Greek civilization.

What the Prophet Muhammad’s contemporaries saw fit to preserve, ISIS has destroyed.

There is an unlikely precedent for ISIS’s vandalism: Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where “old culture” was one of the Four Olds to be eradicated. Some classical Chinese architecture was destroyed, and great amounts of artifacts and manuscripts. But the aim of Mao’s dreadful actions was not shocking the Western world; it was “reforming” China. The same is true of the Khmer Rouge, which destroyed over 2,000 temples in Cambodia, though luckily not those of Angkor Wat..

ISIS’s attacks on art and archeology appear to be aimed more at shocking the West than at a local audience. Perhaps they are also aimed at potential recruits. Some of the lure of joining a mindless death cult is presumably that it tramples on as many taboos as possible, including that against destroying artistic masterworks. Although many conservative Muslims disapprove of representational art, they don’t usually sledgehammer it. This activity isn’t sanctioned by mainstream Sunni Islam; the grand imam of al Azhar Institute immediately issued a fatwa condemning ISIS’s vandalism in Mosul.

It’s been alleged that the destruction is mainly for propaganda effect and that ISIS intends to sell most of the works to finance itself. Follow up reports indicate that most, though not all of the Mosul Museum Assyrian sculptures shown being sledge-hammered by ISIS on a video released in late February were replicas; the originals are safe in Baghdad.

If it could be accomplished practically, would it be a good idea to remove vulnerable artworks from areas threatened by ISIS?

It’s not an easy call. Ancient artifacts haven’t always been better off in the West. We have wars, too. Babylon’s Ishtar Gate (reconstructed from the original bricks) had a close call under Allied bombing in 1945. Then, the Soviets expropriated the Pergamon’s collection to “protect” it, and it wasn’t returned until 1958, when it went to East Germany. Some items are still in Russian museums, though Germany has requested their return.

Syria has experienced devastating losses of heritage in the recent civil war. Yet forty 3,000-year old statues from Tell Halaf in Syria, housed in a private museum in Berlin, were pulverized by Allied bombing in 1943. The fragments were hidden in the Pergamon Museum until the 1990s. Only in 2011 were they reconstructed and exhibited.

Although it’s hard to imagine the logistics of a terror raid destroying, say, the remaining Assyrian artifacts in the West, it’s not impossible that ISIS might mount attacks on Western museums.

Secondly, this sort of cultural imperialism has been banned since UNESCO’s 1970 “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”. The Convention has been adopted by 128 countries. Article 11 states, “The export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power shall be regarded as illicit.”

Following adoption of the convention, many works acquired by occupying armies have been returned to their countries of origin. For instance, the Venus of Leptis Magna— stolen from Libya by the Italians when they invaded with no justification whatsoever in 1911, and given to that noted humanitarian Hermann Goering— was returned to Italy in 1999 and thence to Libya. So far as we know, it’s safe today—but for how long?

Unfortunately, Iraq never ratified the 1970 Convention or the 1972 Convention on World Heritage. Iraq has also never acceded to the Rome Statute, allowing it to petition the ICC to take action against ISIS; Libya hasn’t either.

Can the international community intervene to save art works at risk? According to the convention, only if the affected country asks for help. Article 11 also means that a foreign army can’t seize antiquities unilaterally, even if its motivation is to save them. This doesn’t bode well if a country is taken over by a group of fanatics, as ISIS threatens to do in Syria and as the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.

The legal framework for world cultural heritage hasn’t caught up to the latest outbreak of evil, but sooner or later it will; we live in a globalized, multi-lateral, interventionist world now. There also huge practical issues when the cultural goods to be protected are whole ruined cities, like Nimrud in Iraq, or the large archeological sites in Libya which many experts worry could be next.

There are measures that the international community could take for the moment. In cases where there is still a national government in the area, the government could offer financial rewards to local people who protect heritage and resist destroyers. The government could also announce that it will hold individuals who destroy heritage—and their heirs—legally liable both criminally and civilly. An Englishman who travels to Iraq to join ISIS and is videotaped destroying Iraqi heritage could be sued, even if it is years later, for the $10 million stone lion he destroyed. If he’s killed, his estate would shoulder the liability.

More compellingly, perhaps, the UNESCO conventions could be amended so as to fine states for failing to prevent destruction. I’d suggest fines in the billions, to make the seriousness of the issue clear (and encourage local protectors and whistleblowers). Iraqi soldiers are free to run away from ISIS—but the Iraqi government will then be liable to UNESCO for the damage ISIS caused to world patrimony. Yemeni Houthis are free to overrun their elected government—but if they destroy the mud brick architecture of Sanaa, not only they but the impotent government will pay. (In fact, the Houthis are unlikely to destroy heritage because they don’t have an iconoclast tradition.)

It may sound unfair to hit a weak state when it’s down, but it’s the flipside of all the good intentions of the UNESCO conventions. If a state deserves custody of its treasures, it also has a responsibility for them. In some cases, a weak state’s main assets are its heritage— Yemen isn’t a bad example. It doesn’t produce much of value, but it does have Sanaa.

Implementing punishments like this—and seizing the assets of states that don’t protect their patrimony—would show the people who have stood by as ISIS destroyed their treasures that even if they don’t value them, the world does. It might even convince them to value them, in the same way that they learned to value Western designer brands because the market put a high price on them. And slowly, perhaps, a real appreciation of their heritage would come, and a culture that would once again make treasures which the world holds in awe.