More mess in the Middle East

Dan Simpson – Pittsburgh Post Gazette Sept 19, 2012

Last week’s death in Benghazi, Libya, of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues was painful for me. I lived in Benghazi for almost two years in 1964 and 1965 and later served as a U.S. ambassador three times, although not in Libya.

In the aftermath of the tragedy it is hard to explain to people what is – or was – charming about Benghazi. It is a seaside city, on the Mediterranean, with lots of sunshine and blue sky. I was there when I was young, driving a white MG and teaching English at the Royal Libyan Army Military College.

Benghazi was a university town. I lived on a square which at that time included the residence of the American ambassador, although it is no longer the residence nor the place where Mr. Stevens died. I once strolled through a crowd of demonstrators in the square with a young Libyan Army officer. He laughed and said there was nothing to be worried about: He knew half of them and they were demonstrating about student issues. “Just keep walking and smile,” he said.

So what has happened?

I was there two regimes ago. King Idris was in power, soon to be overthrown by Army officers in 1969. One of the officer cadets from my time there, Moammar Gadhafi, who led the 1969 revolution, then ruled until he was killed in last year’s rebellion.

Although Gadhafi started well, in my opinion, he became the epitome of absolute rule corrupting absolutely. His crimes included the killing of some of my friends and colleagues from the American embassy in Lebanon when he ordered the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 in revenge for a U.S. attack on Libya.

Partly in light of what happened last week, the question of how wise it was for the United States to help bring down Gadhafi and see him replaced by today’s transitional semi-government in Libya comes up again.

Libya now is governed by a mish-mash of players. Extreme Islamists are one element and may have been responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate and the death of the American diplomats. The main problem is that Libya is now crawling with heavily armed militias. Some are tribally based, others are regional, others are personal and others are religious. Another problem is that the end of Gadhafi sent some of the African mercenaries who worked for him south into Mali, where they caused the northern two-thirds of that country to secede and have established extreme Islamist rule in Timbuktu and elsewhere.

Some State Department types have a hard time deciding whether they prefer the order that dictators bring or the disarray that sometimes comes with raw democracy. Libya in 2012 re-raises that issue as an historical question.

A lot of the popular base in Libya hasn’t changed a lot, and that, of course, lay behind what happened last week, in particular the displays of anti-Americanism. Many Libyans are grateful to the United States for helping them get rid of Gadhafi, but some of them also hate us quite a bit.

Libyans, a mix of Arabs and Berbers, squarely favor the Palestinians having their own state and are angered by U.S. support of Israel in frustrating that goal by not working for a settlement between the parties contesting Palestine. This was one of the beefs of the young officers who overthrew King Idris in 1969 – they objected to his acquiescence in U.S. and British support of Israel against the Palestinians and other Arabs. Lately, of course, a lot more fuel has been added to the flames of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, including our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this season of U.S. presidential politics, the situation is worsening. Last week were the deaths in Libya. This week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waded into our elections on the side of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Most U.S. observers have not yet grasped that Mr. Netanyahu did this to save his own skin in Israeli domestic politics. His coalition with the centrist Kadima Party broke down in July and his Likud Party has been left as a minority in parliament, dependent on the support of right-wing religious parties to stay in power.

Israeli prime ministers depend in no small part for their influence in Israeli politics on their ability to manipulate the Americans. Mr. Netanyahu, rolling the dice, has decided to try to capitalize on what he sees as a better deal for him if Mr. Romney beats President Barack Obama in November. He has been very public about it, even making his case on the U.S. Sunday talk shows.

Mr. Netanyahu wants our president to accept a red line for a military attack on Iran that he, Mr. Netanyahu, would set. This, in effect, would put a foreign, Israeli finger on the U.S. war trigger – as opposed to that of our president, Congress and people. It is an astonishingly brazen move on the part of the Israeli prime minister to intervene in U.S. elections to that degree while trying to get the United States to let him decide when America would go to war. It is particularly nervy given that there is substantial opposition in Israel, including from senior military and security officials, to attacking Iran at this time. U.S. polls also show substantial opposition to having Americans get dragged into another war in the Middle East, including one to rescue Israel if it gets itself into trouble – as it would by launching a war on Iran.

So, bottom line message to Mr. Netanyahu: “Mess out,” including on U.S. TV. We have plenty of useless paid propaganda on our airwaves already without foreigners joining our campaigns.

Dan Simpson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and a former U.S. ambassador.

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