On Dealing with Motiveless Malignancy

It is the very error of the moon, you know. She comes more nearer earth than she was wont and makes men mad – it happens. At least that’s what Othello was saying in Act 5, Scene 2 – he’d just been manipulated into murdering his wife and he was looking for some sort of grand unified theory to explain what the hell had just happened. It must have been the moon.

But it wasn’t. It was just that nasty little man, Iago – noted for his motiveless malignancy, as Coleridge put it. There was really no reason for Othello’s lieutenant to mess with and then destroy his boss, and Iago really had nothing against Desdemona – there was not a thing to gain from any of it. But Iago came to realize that he really could ruin everything, and so he did, kind of like the Joker in the Christopher Nolan Batman movie. That’s the puzzle. There’s no good way to deal with someone who doesn’t want anything in particular, who just wants to see the world burn. And that has nothing to do with the moon.

So moon theories are useless, unless they’re ironic. And of course Saturday, March 19, 2011, was the night of the Super Moon – for first time since 1993 a full moon coincided with the Earth and the moon being at their closet point. And this full moon appeared about fourteen percent larger and thirty percent brighter than your normal full moon. Cool. And the new war with Libya started with the Super Moon – and maybe this really was madness – and maybe Muammar Gaddafi is Iago, a nasty little man who seems to specialize in motiveless malignancy. After all, what did Muammar Gaddafi gain from sponsoring that Lockerbie bombing? Sure, you can blow a 747 out of the sky over Scotland and kill hundreds and hundreds of people. But what was the point? The same with bombing that disco full of American soldiers in Germany. What was the game plan here? Libya gained nothing from this. And the West isolated and shut down most economic ties with Libya, as the place was run by a murderous fool who sponsored terrorism. The rest of the Arab world shrugged – he was an eccentric jerk and an embarrassment. He was never a player. So he gained nothing from being nasty.

Actually Gaddafi seemed to realize that – and a few years ago he declared he was ending all efforts to build nuclear weapons, and, by the way, he really hated al-Qaeda, honest. George Bush claimed this as a major diplomatic triumph for his with-us-or-against-us foreign policy, and Condoleezza Rice said nice things about Gaddafi, and everyone on Fox News said Paul Wolfowitz was a genius and the world was now a better place because we could all see that bullies could be neutralized by a bigger bully – us. But you know the song – time to Brush Up Your Shakespeare (at Harvard Law School Cole Porter did room with Dean Acheson, after all). We were being manipulated. Gaddafi really was Iago all along, all motiveless malignancy.

And as this is the Spring of Revolution in the Middle East, starting with tossing out the government in Tunisia and then tossing out Mubarak in Egypt, next door to Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was next. It seems his people don’t much like him. After forty years of Gaddafi pissing off the world, and not even impressing the rest of the Arab nations, and isolation and poverty and repression, they’d had enough. And we all know the story – he lost the east, Benghazi and so on, and other major cities, his UN delegation said they were with the rebels, pilots he asked to bomb the rebels bailed out and let their planes crash, or flew them to Malta and asked for asylum. He was in trouble – he had Tripoli and not much more.

But he had a load of oil cash to buy mercenaries, and a cadre of loyalists – and what was left of a considerable army and air force. He stuck back. He started wiping out those who wanted him gone and wanted something like a democracy. He promised a bloodbath, and seemed to put the West in a tight spot. Everyone talks about democracy, but how far did they want to go? Did they really want to take sides in a local civil war? Did they really want to take on a third regime change in the Middle East and all the difficulties with that, after Afghanistan and Iraq? Those hadn’t worked out as planned. After nine years in Iraq and Afghanistan the American people might not want to say sure, let’s do another. And does the West even have the resources to start to plan to do that sort of thing a third time? And Condoleezza Rice had said nice things about him, after all. He seemed to be holding all the cards. He could roll the tanks into any place in the east and have the guys jump out and mow down everyone in sight with heavy machine gun fire, every man, woman and child. What are you going to do about it? Anyone can make pretty talk about democracy and freedom. So what?

And then the UN passed a resolution, with Arab League support, authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya, and doing anything at all possible to protect the civilian population. The only thing forbidden was a foreign occupation – everything else was on the table. Of course Gaddafi smiled, and then he didn’t:

The UK, the US and France have attacked Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in the first action to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone. Pentagon officials say the US and the UK have fired more than 110 missiles, while French planes struck pro-Gaddafi forces attacking rebel-held Benghazi. Col Gaddafi has vowed retaliation and said he will open arms depots to the people to defend Libya.

Missiles struck air defense sites in the capital, Tripoli, and Misrata. A French plane fired the first shots against Libyan government targets at 1645 GMT, destroying a number of military vehicles, according to a military spokesman.

That was from the BBC – David Cameron confirmed that British planes are in action over Libya. And the odd thing is that Barack Obama, speaking during a visit to Brazil, said the United States was taking “limited military action” as part of a “broad coalition.” It was really the French and the Brits, with our help. “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy” – but no US ground troops would take part.

Of course this ends Obama’s chance for a second term – we had a chance to lead the world, and we let the French and the Brits do it. Why does Obama hate America? It’s shameful. The political ads practically write themselves.

Of course Gaddafi made a brief speech calling on his people to resist. But that was all show:

Earlier on Saturday, pro-Gaddafi forces attacked Benghazi despite declaring a ceasefire a day earlier. Reports from the city said that government tanks and artillery had bombarded the city and there was fighting around the university. Rebels in the city said thousands of people were fleeing the attack, heading east, and the UN refugee agency said it was preparing to receive 200,000 refugees from Libya.

Journalists later said the bombardment ended in the later afternoon and that rebel forces were in control of Benghazi. The Libyan government blamed the rebels for breaking the ceasefire and said its forces had fought back in self defense.

French planes were hitting government tanks and armored vehicles around Benghazi, and French planes flew reconnaissance missions over “all Libyan territory” – we were not in the fight. Canada was sending warplanes to the region and Italy has offered the use of its military bases, and a naval blockade against Libya was being put in place. Big stuff – but not our stuff.

Actually it breaks down like this:

UK: Providing Typhoon and Tornado jet fighters; surveillance planes; HMS Westminster and HMS Cumberland; submarines

France: Carried out mission with at least 12 warplanes including Mirage fighters and Rafale jets; deploying aircraft carrier, warships

US: Firing guided missiles from USS Barry and USS Stout; providing amphibious warships, and command-and-control ship USS Mount Whitney

Italy: NATO base at Naples understood to be central hub; other Mediterranean bases made available

Canada: Providing six F-18 fighter jets and 140 personnel

Gaddafi may be playing Iago. Obama won’t play Othello, although Paul Adams, BBC News, Washington, offers this:

Despite the fact that it was French war planes which launched the first attacks, it’s clear that this early phase of the operations is an overwhelmingly American affair – all but a very small number of cruise missiles have been fired from American ships and submarines. Only they have the capability to inflict the sort of damage to Libya’s air defenses that’s needed before a no-fly zone can be safely patrolled, a point alluded to by President Obama even as he repeated the limits of American involvement.

President Obama has launched these attacks with great reluctance and seems anxious that this not be interpreted as yet another American-led foray into the Arab world. But for all his desire to be seen to take a back seat, he and everyone else knows that this sort of thing doesn’t happen unless Washington is deeply involved.

American voters may not see it that way. Yes, another American-led foray into the Arab world would be stupid – everyone knows that – and America should lead – everyone knows that too. Iago gets the best of Othello again.

Andrew Sullivan tries to work this out:

If this is all over within days rather than weeks, as Obama apparently believes, and Qaddafi leaves the country, and the rebels take Tripoli, then it will be a major feather in Obama’s cap, a defeat of a murderous madman, and a new paradigm in coalition warfare, in which other countries take the lead, and a statement of America’s support for those seeking freedom in a crazed, tribal and totalitarian state.

But the downsides are far more worrying. The reason this is worth considering is because without solid domestic support, wars can unravel very quickly.

And he then points out that this war is actively opposed by large majorities of Americans already:

65 percent oppose the U.S. military getting involved in Libya. Opposition cuts across party lines. Seven in 10 Democrats (70 percent) and independents (70 percent) oppose it, as do 59 percent of Republicans.


Going to war with only 25 percent public support, with no Congressional buy-in, and opposition from the defense secretary is, to my mind, a form of madness. Even the war-hungry neocons will never give Obama any credit; they will insist, even if this succeeds, that Obama should have gone in earlier; and they will mock him for following the lead of the French. The more opportunistic Republicans will exploit every failure and misstep in the war, and ask questions similar to my own. …

Among the Democrats, there may be a faction that is thrilled with this kind of humanitarian intervention and believes in it. But one also suspects that a war launched so suddenly, without any consultation, and with no clear end-game will alienate many of those who voted for Obama precisely because he promised to end the pattern of what he once called “dumb wars,” and because he promised that he would start no new wars without Congressional approval.

Moreover, the fact that this is clearly the Clintons’ war – egged on by Bill, pushed through by Hillary – could exacerbate tensions between the two primary rivals. After all, why did Democrats vote for Obama over Clinton? In part because they specifically wanted less war, not more; and Clinton has never seen a war she didn’t support. Her consistency from Iraq to Libya places her closer to McCain than Obama. Things are at a very early stage as the bombing begins, and these are provisional worries. But unless something miraculous happens quickly, I see this as a lose-lose proposition for the president.

And of course the circumstances stink:

A president solemnly sends America’s troops into action and then spirits off to Brazil to talk about jobs. How often does a president announce a war at 2 pm so he can catch a flight out of the country? And as public doubts and fears multiply, the president will be in a foreign country thousands of miles away. This is recklessness on a Bush-Cheney level.

Iago wins. And Sullivan gets more specific:

The National Security Council advisers who supported the full spectrum of Libya operations earlier this week – Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Gayle Smith- – have been adamant and public supporters of the implementation of the third pillar of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, which includes the use of military force, if necessary. All three maintained close relationships with then-Senator Obama, particularly as a result of his active engagement in the Darfur advocacy movement.

The actions of the Obama administration’s foreign policy agencies – particularly the prioritization of mass atrocities prevention in the recent Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review and the creation of Rosa Brooks’ Office for Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Policy at DoD – have indicated the Obama administration’s interest in altering his administration’s use of American power in the international sphere.

This new notion of American power’s role in the world necessitates the multilateral application of military force, though, importantly, as a last resort. For observers of President Obama’s actions, from his selection of foreign policy advisers to the institutional shifts that have occurred in the past 26 months, the prospective (and now real) use of military force to halt Qaddafi’s mass targeting of Libya’s civilian population should hardly as a surprise. If it does, those observers should pay more attention.

That may be too much detail. But things have changed.

But of course Sullivan has a reader in France:

Just a quick note on context, and why France would take such an active role in this operation:

Sarko has a lot to make up for, especially after his government’s unseemly support for Ben Ali up until the very end (France’s then foreign minister spent her winter break with members of Ben Ali’s clan, who generously provided luxury accommodations, private jet etc… she was dismissed in shame a couple of weeks ago). Sarko is in a very tough spot, electorally speaking: he trails both the infamous Marine Le Pen and Dominique Strauss-Kahn (the socialist who heads of the IMF) in the most recent presidential polls. So I think he’s taking a calculating risk here, hoping to regain some popularity. I’m not saying he’s using the Libyan tragedy as a way to bolster his flagging presidential hopes, but that has to be part of the calculation. Contrary to a lot of my countrymen I don’t doubt his intentions – his heart is probably in the right place, which is not necessarily a recipe for success – I just think he’s very flighty and unfocused. In two weeks, Libya might not hold his interest any more.

Oh great – no one is in charge. And this analysis:

Talleyrand, like many other people, is very perplexed by this most recent action. Several European nations, the United States and a few token others have decided to intervene militarily in a civil war on the losing side, and just at the moment when these forces were on the verge of defeat.

Well, any blogger who calls himself Talleyrand has balls, but there is something to that.

And see the Highchair Analyst:

I too was initially caught up in an emotional moment, but it became evident over the past several weeks that a No-Fly Zone would have a limited effect, especially since the largest threat to civilians has been what is on the ground and not in the air. During that time the mood shifted, particularly in Washington, from sanctions to cruise missiles.

Part of that shift may have been a concern that failing to act in Libya would be seen as a failure to support Arab democracies and would scuttle continued regional movements in that direction. However, the likely outcome from this is that events in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and other states will be sidelined until Libya is resolved, however long that may be.

And Sullivan’s comment:

In the grand scheme of things, this new war could even risk derailing democratic movements elsewhere, by turning the Arab 1848 into a Western intervention question.

By changing the narrative, by not letting the Arab world find its own equilibrium, the administration may have unwittingly done damage to the revolutionary momentum. How many times can one insist: this is not about us? But Clinton, reared in the 1990s, cannot resist interjecting the US where it does not belong. And Obama’s alleged remark – “days, not weeks” – is a hostage to fortune. Let me just say I will hold the president to his word. After a week, if the US has not withdrawn its forces from the Mediterranean, we should ask Obama: why not?

The cynical part of me wonders if Clinton’s war is also a means of distracting the American public as the administration continues to back regimes in the region that are brutally repressing their populations – in Yemen and Bahrain – because in those other cases, the administration prefers to advance its war against al Qaeda and its isolation of Iran, rather than promote democracy.

I know they’re in a tough spot. But it is because I support the Obama administration’s profound shift in US foreign policy that I worry so much about this massive, misguided, and increasingly chaotic step backward.

We have a mess here, and there are ironies. Al Jazeera offers this:

Now not to suggest any sort of conspiracy theory, but here’s quite a coincidence: on March 19, 2003 (i.e. exactly eight years ago), US forces began military operations in the second Iraq War.

And Mark Thompson offers this:

The operation is taking place under UN Resolution No. 1973, which is interesting: 1973 was the year Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, demanding that a President consult with Congress before deploying forces for any extended military operation. In this case, the Obama Administration consulted far more extensively with its allies in foreign capitals than it did with Congress. That’s one key reason why the U.S. will hang back, militarily: Obama could end up in real trouble, politically – perhaps mortally – if any U.S. military personnel gets killed or captured in the Libyan operation.

Well, they’ve decided to call this thing Operation Odyssey Dawn. They could have called it Operation Super Moon. She comes more nearer earth than she was wont and makes men mad. It happens.

But maybe there was no other choice. Iago set it up that way.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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