Friday, September 2, 2011

Sleeping with the killers

On Wednesday, Al-Jazeera English broadcast an interesting report based on documents discovered at the headquarters of Libya’s intelligence services. The documents allegedly show that a former US State Department official, David Welch, and a US congressman, Dennis Kucinich, tried to help the Libyan regime at the height of the NATO military campaign in which Washington played a major role.

Welch is said to have proffered advice to Libyan interlocutors in Cairo on how the Qaddafi regime might win the propaganda war against NATO—in part by providing information to the United States on Al-Qaeda. He also purportedly proposed that Moammar al-Qaddafi step aside without relinquishing all power. Kucinich supposedly asked for information allowing him to lobby fellow members of Congress to suspend their support for the Libyan National Transitional Council and end NATO air strikes. More egregiously, Kucinich also sought information that would both help in the defense of Seif al-Islam Qaddafi if he were brought before the International Criminal Court and permit a lawsuit against NATO and the United States.

The veracity of the documents remains to be proven. Kucinich issued a statement to The Atlantic magazine’s website that passed for a denial. However, read it more carefully and you’ll see that its wording and elisions appear to lend some credence to the accusation. At the time of this writing, Welch, now employed by the Bechtel Corporation, had not responded to Al-Jazeera requests for clarification.

If the documents are truthful, then what is surprising is that we should be surprised. The two Americans may have taken a position in contradiction with the policies of the Obama administration. However, Welch is a private citizen (even if what he may have said could raise legal issues in the United States) and Kucinich opposed Washington’s line on Libya from the start. The stronger argument against their actions is the moral one. Why were the men explicitly or implicitly cozying up to an absolute ruler who had promised to hunt down his opponents like rats and murder them? Unfortunately, Welch and Kucinich may have too ready an answer.

Their answer would probably be that everybody in the West at one time or another was hungry for a piece of Libyan largesse, political and financial, including senior officials in the United States and Europe. That Welch and Kucinich, relatively small fry in the decades-long minuet with Libya, may have done so after the start of the revolt in Libya is virtually matched in its odiousness by Western companies such as Narus, Amesys or VASTech. These companies provided the Qaddafi regime with equipment and training to eavesdrop on the Internet and mobile telephone conversations of ordinary Libyans.

Not so long ago, Qaddafi was loudly feted in Western capitals. American government officials pursued him with almost as much assiduity as their European counterparts. Libyan money and oil contracts were heady incentives, but also the perception that the Qaddafi regime was a valuable ally in the battle against Al-Qaeda. The sense of urgency in the United Kingdom a few years ago to resolve the case of Abdel-Baset al-Megrahi, the accused Lockerbie bomber, was one example of a sympathetic disposition. Qaddafi and his mad brood were just as generously pampered and humored in Paris and Rome.

Strangely, less affluent Arab autocrats also had oversized leverage in Western capitals. Do we really need to mention the warm receptions reserved for Bashar al-Assad on his visits to France or Spain, for instance, even though the Syrian president’s security services continued to engage in massive repression at home, and Damascus was then inciting violence in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. Syria’s export of instability seemed to work especially well when Barack Obama advocated a dialogue with Assad upon taking office, hoping this would ease the way toward a negotiated settlement with Israel.

Arab despots, from the Gulf States to North Africa, have grown adept at playing foreign politicians or companies against one another. If a company refuses to deal with a foul regime on the grounds that it abuses human rights, others will pick up the slack. The same applies in politics. There is always a leader willing to fill the vacuum of relations with a dictatorship when this can bring strategic advantage.

Certain benchmarks will help us determine the success of the Arab intifadas, and shame is one of them. If foreign officials and companies, particularly from Western countries where democracy and human rights carry weight, can be shamed into taking a stand against autocrats, this will mean that something has been gained. Such conduct will be imperfectly applied and provoke rancor among those who refuse to let pass political and economic opportunities. But politicians and firms who get into bed with autocrats should at least be forced to do so out in the open, in the glare of ignominy.

Shame still packs a punch. Remember that fawning Vogue photo shoot of Asma al-Assad, wife to the Syrian president? It was greased by the international public relations firm Brown Lloyd James. But when Mr. Assad began slaughtering his own people, the magazine was self-conscious enough to take the piece down. Click here to enjoy the outcome of embarrassment in pursuing tainted riches.

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