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David Bromwich

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The CIA, the Libyan Rebellion, and the President

Posted: 03/31/2011 1:57 pm

One of Barack Obama's first acts as president was to say that Guantanamo must go. It did not go. Soon after, he said that the Israeli settlements must go. They expanded. Obama made his peace in the end with Guantanamo and the Israeli settlements. He restarted the military tribunals at Guantanamo -- a feature of the Bush-Cheney constitution which he once had explicitly deplored -- and recently went out of his way to defend the Guantanamo-like abuse (compulsory nakedness and sleep deprivation) inflicted on an American prisoner, Bradley Manning, in the Marine Corps brig at Quantico. One had come to think of "X must go" assertions by Obama as speculative prefaces to a non-existent work. His words, in his mind, are actions. When he speaks them once or twice, he has done what he was put here to do. If the existing powers defy his wishes, he embraces the powers and continues on his way.

The Egyptian protest of January and February saw a new siege of wishful commandments and reversals by the president. He told Mubarak to go. Then he told him to stay a while. Mubarak said he would stay, but after a time, he went; and in the mind of Obama, it appears, there was a relation of cause and effect between his initial request and the final result. He was consequently emboldened.

He said that Muammar Gaddafi must go. Gaddafi stayed. When the protest that gathered against Gaddafi would not disperse, the dictator shot at the protesters; and when some of them turned to armed rebellion, he went to war against the rebels. Obama for his part seemed ready to retire from an unpromising scene. His dryly prudent secretary of defense encouraged him to do so.

Then other forces intervened. We were told the forces were "the women around the president" -- Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Hillary Clinton. These officials admired what they thought the U.S. had done in Kosovo, and they felt remorse about what the U.S. failed to do in Rwanda. President Obama was brought to think that three members of his "team of rivals," including a member of his cabinet, ought to prevail against another member of his cabinet whose cautious advice he was tempted to follow. So, it is said, the president followed the women and obeyed a principle higher than prudence, a principle that he named, in his belated speech of explanation on March 28, "the conscience of the world."

He approved the enforcement of a no-fly zone, which has turned out to mean, as Robert Gates said it would, an air war backing the rebels against the government of Libya.

This, to repeat, was a fable that people were telling and were getting ready to retell. This morning it was turned upside down by a New York Times story by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt.

We had thought that, at best, President Obama knew more than we knew; he had measured the likely costs and decided that, though many innocent people would be killed along with the servants of tyranny, he was acting for the sake of the goals he avowed. At worst, we may have thought that he wanted, for partly selfish reasons, to attach his fame to a coming triumph of freedom, and that he was willing to pay a price in bloodshed so long as he could also believe he was saving lives.

The truth is far different. Not only is it the case that many in the rebel party fought to kill Americans in Iraq; that Al Qaeda has backed the rebellion; and that even the supreme commander of NATO forces, Admiral Stavridis, has lately been disturbed by "flickers" of an Al Qaeda force within the rebellion -- though those reports alone were sufficiently alarming. The reports however were confirmed by an omission in Monday's speech; for the president declined to say one word about the identity of the rebel army to which he was giving his support. Even then, one might have thought, as well-behaved people are taught to think: what does any of us really know? But the Mazzetti-Schmitt story shows beyond doubt that the Libya adventure from the start was a toxic brew; a commitment to be understood not in the light of the Egyptian protests but of previous American activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.

According to Mazzetti and Schmitt, the CIA and its British equivalent MI6 scoured Libya as far back as 2003, initially in the effort to persuade Muammar Gaddafi to give up his nuclear weapons program. When that effort succeeded, the intelligence operatives went away, or so Mazzetti and Schmitt suggest. When the February protests began and a crackdown followed, the CIA and MI6 went back into Libya and picked up the old connections. What are they doing now on the ground? Arranging targets for air strikes with the help of U-2 spy planes and a Global Hawk drone. Also learning of and creating links between the rebel groups to facilitate enhanced advisory work at a later date. In short, doing everything but fight, it would seem; but Mazzetti and Schmitt add that "dozens" of British special forces accompany the operatives from the CIA and MI6. What do special forces do?

The meaning of the Times report can be fully grasped only if one augments its findings with a March 26 McClatchy story by Chris Adams.

Adams sketches the career of the former chief military officer of Colonel Gaddafi's army, Khalifa Hifter, who was recently appointed to lead the rebel army. (The article does not say who appointed him.) The ascent of Hifter is a study in itself. After leading Gaddafi's disastrous war against Chad in the late 1980s, Adams reports, General Hifter (also known as Haftar, Hefter, and Huftur) retired to "suburban Virginia," where he has lived for much of the last two decades. It has been reported elsewhere that the suburb in question is Vienna, Virginia: five minutes from CIA headquarters at Langley.

However the facts are to be explained, this close associate of an African dictator whom American officials have long regarded as a dangerous madman somehow obtained easy entrance to the U.S. And his safe return to Libya was facilitated at a remarkably opportune moment.

It seems then that a long train of earlier commitments in Libya was set in motion as soon as the Egyptian uprising began. "Kinetic military action" is the term of art for a policy whose content perhaps no single person is in full possession of.

Yet one thing is clear, thanks to Mazzetti and Schmitt. "Several weeks ago, President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to provide arms and other support to Libyan rebels." It is said that the arms have not yet been sent; but the timing is interesting. The order was signed just about the moment that President Obama was lauding the triumph of non-violence in Egypt. The Times reporters wisely let the serial flat reiterations of "no comment" from leading officials speak for themselves.

The upshot is this. An event that we Americans were led to believe was an autonomous rising on the model of Egypt turns out to have been deeply compromised from the start, and compromised by American meddling. And the president himself, far from having been balked in mid-decision because he is a man of skeptical and hesitant mind, took a long time to decide because he was face to face with a moment such as John Kennedy recognized at the brink of the Bay of Pigs invasion, whose 50th anniversary the U.S. will mark on April 17. After three days of ill-fated support for the anti-Castro rebels, President Kennedy drew back from that disaster. Eventually, he made a public apology to the country.

All the external parties are in Libya for different reasons. Things could not have gotten this far without the CIA. But the president was also heeding pressure from Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron; and what those European leaders wanted was the assurance of oil contracts for Europe. Italy, meanwhile, is fearful of an influx of refugees. All these things President Obama knew, but he was careful to mention none when he spoke to the nation on Monday. He opened and closed with a salute to American troops. He uttered -- in a truculent manner that was new to him -- a stream of wishful words about American support for freedom everywhere.