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Another mark of increasing age, though I suppose I should be pleased at this one, was a request to deliver a memorial lecture. The topic given to me was ‘The March of Folly’, which led me to look up the origin of the phrase. I knew it was the title of a book by the popular American historian Barbara Tuchman, but I had thought this was the one she wrote about the beginnings of the First World War, chronicling the headlong rush into a war that could have been avoided, and which destroyed the world its perpetrators thought to perpetuate.

In fact ‘The March of Folly’ is a later book, based on the idea that folly is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Tuchman deals with four examples of this, beginning with the decision of the Trojans to take into their city the horse left on the beach by the Greeks who had pretended to abandon their attempt to conquer Troy. She goes on to discuss the policies of the Popes who precipitated the Reformation, and then the British blunders that led to the independence of the United States. Finally, and at length, she deals with the American disaster in Vietnam.

All very interesting subjects, and I should now read the book. But it gave me a focus for this new series, which will look at recent political history in the context of folly in the Tuchman sense. I will not confine myself to governments alone, since the whole picture demands looking also at what others in the political arena engage in. And the series will be different from the lecture, which will have to be tightly focused. But these articles will I hope provide some food for thought, and with luck some changes in approach – assuming, that is, that those who decide, and those who influence decision making, both read and think.

I will begin however in an area where obviously I cannot hope for influence, since I shall talk about the folly of the West in persecuting us for achieving what it pretends it desires, namely the eradication of terrorism. But from the Sri Lankan perspective it is essential to consider this too, for the mess the current government is in springs largely from its unthinking acceptance of Western mythology. Some in the government, and even perhaps the Prime Minister, have begun to realize how badly they blundered way back in 2015, but he has no idea how to reverse gear effectively, and he certainly cannot even begin to do this while Mangala Samaraweera continues to run foreign affairs and bleat helplessly in Geneva. Read the rest of this entry »

After those idyllic few days with my father at my cottage, I went to Algeria, determined to see more of the Roman remains of Africa, and if possible get to the deep desert. Years earlier I had bought guidebooks for Tunisia and Libya, which had better sites, and I had managed to get to Tunisia in 2013. But Libya had now been in essence destroyed by the West’s wickedness in getting rid of Gaddafi and unleashing extremist forces. The Tunisians had told me sadly how, pleased though they were with their own change of government, what had happened in Libya now threatened them too. And a couple of years back there was indeed an attack on the El Bardo Museum in Tunis, with its wonderful collection of Roman mosaics.

Algeria had less to offer in that respect, but I much enjoyed the site at Tipaza which we visited on the first full day there. It had two splendid amphitheatres and an impressive gate, but I also relished its setting, on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean.

img_9195That had been an unexpected joy with regard to Algiers itself. We had found a hotel overlooking the sea, which allowed for the most exquisite sunrises. And though there was nothing spectacular, the religious buildings in the city were well worth viewing, especially the Cathedral high on a hill overlooking the city.

Places were miles apart in Algeria, so we could not use buses, but flights were cheap. We went first to Tamanrasset in the south, where there were spectacular formations in the desert. But as I was arranging with the hotel to go out to one for an overnight stay, we hit an unexpected snag. I had been provided with an escort from the airport when I went to the hotel because I had a diplomatic passport, but then it turned out that this meant they were excessively careful about my safety. There had, I think some time back, and just once or twice, been an attack on foreigners venturing into the desert, and they would not give me a permit. Indeed they would not let me out of the hotel without a guard, so it was a good thing that on the evening we arrived we had had a long walk through the city. Read the rest of this entry »

IMG-20130405-04190With nothing much to do, I decided in 2012 that I would travel. The last purely personal target I would like to reach in my life is to have visited a hundred countries, and I realized that the intense work of the previous years had precluded any significant progress in this ambition. I had been to a few countries in the preceding years, including thankfully to Syria before the West set about destroying it, while at the Peace Secretariat and in Parliament. But in 2013 I thought it was time to travel more intensively.

I went to ten new countries in 2013, beginning with Bhutan over our New Year holiday period in April. I had a SAARC Travel Permit in my passport, which meant I did not need a visa. I had been told travel in Bhutan could otherwise be expensive, since tourists were expected to spend quite a high amount every day, but in fact I found the prices quite reasonable in the very comfortable inns at which I stayed.

IMG-20130406-04302I went with an Indian friend, and had a programme arranged through a contact of a cousin who did some work with Druk Air. We had an excellent driver, who was quite game to travel all over the country, though he noted that most tourists saw only about half of what we covered in the week we were there.

The Dzongs, monasteries that were also fortresses, were spaced at convenient intervals through the country. We saw half on the way east from Thimpu, to Tashiyangtze, and the other half on the way back. The monks who lived in the Dzongs were delightful and friendly, many of them students who were quite uninhibited in their playtime. Football was a favourite pastime, and I have some lovely photographs too of IMG-20130421-06391youngsters pushing each other in a wheelbarrow. But their serious side was also impressive, wonderful chanting in richly decorated shrine rooms, and occasionally drumbeats that reverberated in the courtyards.

The scenery too was fantastic, snow covered peaks and waterfalls, and yaks in abundance. We would have lunch at small wayside cafes, rather as I used to do with Ena in our meanderings at home. I rather enjoyed the cheese with chili that we had at every meal, but I’m afraid my Indian friend was not so adventurous and preferred chips whenever we could find them. In the evenings we would huddle with our drinks near the fires all the inns provided, though often of a morning I would brave the balconies with my coffee to watch the sun rising over the hills. Read the rest of this entry »

Reflections on Hilary Clinton’s Libyan triumph, Chris Stevens, and the price of regime change

Chris Stevens following the attack which resulted in his death.

When I read of the sad death of the American ambassador in Libya, I wondered whether Hilary Clinton, who had reacted with such depressing vulgarity and Caesarian pretension to the death of Colonel Gaddafi, registered the link between this killing and what the Americans had done in Libya. At the very least, she much have realized that, had Gaddafi still been in power in Libya, the American ambassador would not have died.

I presume the lady would assume that the death of her representative was a small price to pay for having got rid of Gaddafi. The fact that American interventions have resembled another less famous line from Julius Caesar – Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war- is probably of little consequence to her in comparison with what seems the enthronement of American capital and the enhancement of American power. Which is more important in her eyes, God alone can tell, if indeed he can cope with the schizophrenia that seems to govern American relations with what they see as lesser breeds without the law. Cunningly, though, now the responsibility for continuing deaths can be seen as lying with other agents, unlike in the days when the chosen instruments of American domination, from Papa Doc to Pinochet, got away with mass murder on the grounds that they were saving their people from godless radicals.

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The Island 25 May 2011 http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=26212

In the decades when the Cold War raged, or simmered, or whatever, several major countries in the Middle East turned to socialism. Except in the case of Aden this was not extreme Marxism, but as time passed the variations became more extreme and with little concern for democratic practice.

It has been argued that this is a necessary characteristic of socialism, but the practice in South Asia belies this. Mrs Bandaranaike and even more so Mrs Gandhi may have been imperious in their approach to government, but they were firmly convinced that their programmes were what the people wanted. Accordingly they held unarguably democratic elections, and were soundly defeated.

Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's ousted prime minister, during his trial in the wake of the CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup that overthrew his elected government in 1953. Photograph: AFP

The Middle East had no such luck. Unfortunately the first experiment in socialism through the ballot box was traduced, when the West got rid of Mossadegh in Iran, and established the autocracy of the Shah. What had been presented as a battle between free and restricted politics turned into a battle between free and restricted economies, and the West made no bones about its preference for political restrictions provided economies were capitalist. These were not necessarily free, but it took Cold Warriors a long time to realize that free economies could not really develop under authoritarian rule.

So, at the height of the Cold War, we had dictatorships all over South America, encouragement of authoritarian rulers such as Ayub Khan and Marcos and Suharto in South Asia (to say nothing of Generals Park and Chiang Kai Shek in East Asia), and the overthrow of African leaders who had achieved independence by right wing military regimes in Africa, most notably those of Mobutu and Idi Amin and the chap who got rid of Nkrumah in Ghana. Fortunately some of these characters were so preposterous that the West tired of them, but many lasted for unconscionably long period.

In the area in the Middle East carved up by the West after the First World War however, though three major countries had left leaning military regimes – which were indeed linked together briefly through the Ba’ath Socialist Party – the hereditary rulers of the other states that had been established continued to exercise authority. The most important of these was the largest, Saudi Arabia, named thus after King Saud got rid of the former Sharif of Mecca whom the British had initially installed as King.

That had been a brilliant stroke, to use someone with religious authority as the figurehead of the revolt against the Turks, but the Sharif’s family was in fact comparatively secular in its approach to politics. Not so the Saud family, which embraced the more fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam, and made Saudi Arabia a solidly Islamic state. They also used their resources to proselytize for their particular version of Islam, but doubtless this seemed to the West a good thing in those days, since it was a forceful alternative to godless Marxism.

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I could scarcely believe it when I was told that Hillary Clinton’s reaction to the death of Colonel Gaddafi was, ‘ We came, we saw, he died.’ The statement seemed so vulgar, and at the same time so asinine in its meaningless parodying of Julius Caesar, that I could not imagine that it had actually been made by the Foreign Minister of the most powerful country in the world.

I checked then, and was told by someone I can rely on that she had indeed said. ‘We came, we saw, he died….heh, heh.’ He had seen this on CNN.

I was immensely saddened by this. Some months earlier I had written about what I thought was a civilized element in the lady, the awe that seemed apparent in her eyes while she was watching the killing of Osama bin Laden. That had seemed to contrast with the steely determination of the others in the room, and I had fancied that the maker of policy was at least aware of the wider moral dimensions of that particular execution.

But now it seemed morality was trumped totally by what seemed to be unashamed gloating. Of course there was a difference, in that the Americans were clearly responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden. The lady knew this was a defining moment for American decision makers, for clearly they were behind what could be seen as cold blooded murder. But I assume the powers that be felt this was a risk that could be run, that the argument could be made that Osama was a threat to national security even if disarmed and in custody, and therefore it could be argued that the decision had been made as a form of self defence.

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Island 6 April 2011– http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=22449

March 2011 - Source: AP, Reuters, Global Security | Tim Goheen / MCT

The recent events in Libya have given rise to much discussion about the morality of decisions with regard to international relations. There have been allegations of inconsistency and double standards, of greed masquerading as compassion, of power purporting to be righteousness.

All this analysis ignores the one obvious fact about international relations, namely that they must be conducted by any country so as to benefit that country. Equally obvious is the fact that countries cannot afford to claim simple self interest as their motive when dealing with others, particularly when those others – or victims of collateral damage – are being harmed. Countries must necessarily therefore construct pretexts that dignify their actions.

To expect consistency as to pretexts that are advanced is not sensible. If one country is an enemy and behaves in a way that can be construed as bad, one will take advantage of the situation. It would be utter folly however to expect one to be equally critical of similar actions by a country that is a friend.

Thucydides made clear long ago the absurdity of expecting morality in the conduct of foreign relations. But, at the same time, in the debate on the Athenian attack on Mytilene I think it was, he also indicated why so much attention is paid to moral questions. In essence one needs to win the support of others who do not have self-interest at heart, both other countries and also inhabitants of one’s own country who might have different views. Read the rest of this entry »

What these dictators had in common was that the West disliked them ...

A recent article in the British media asserted ‘their crimes against humanity live forever – but death always catches up with dictators, one way or another’. That startlingly meaningless statement was given teeth with the claim that ‘the way dictators meet their end often lingers as the defining image of their cruel lives’, a notion illustrated with pictures of the gruesome deaths of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Mussolini and Nicolae Ceauşescu. There was also a picture of the Japanese war leader Tojo after he tried to commit suicide, along with pictures of the dead Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao Ze Dong.

Western hypocrisy however is something we have to live with ...

What these dictators had in common was that the West disliked them, at any rate at the time they died. Missing are characters such as Mobutu and Bokassa and Idi Amin, and Pinochet and Stroessner and Duvalier, and Marcos and
Suharto and Chiang Kai Shek, who came to power through violence, or stayed on and on with no concern for democracy.

Western hypocrisy however is something we have to live with, and we need to realize that hypocrisy is not particularly a Western trait. It is only that, when hypocrisy is combined with great power, it seems particularly nasty to those who cannot express their own self-interest quite so forcefully. The West should realize this, before it provokes a backlash.

It should also realize that there are limits to its power, though this may not seem obvious in the present context. The mess they caused when they invaded Iraq is a case in point. After the enormous support they had for the invasion of Afghanistan, support fuelled not only by the attacks of September 11th 2001 but also the excesses of the Taleban regime, they threw away that goodwill by attacking Saddam Hussein on trumped up causes.

Saddam Hussein was not someone who deserves our sympathy, but that had been the case even when he was the darling of the West, supported because of the animosity of the West, or rather the United States, to Iran. The volte face that took place subsequently was much more surprising than in the case of the Taleban, which had also been adored when they opposed the Soviet Union, but in this case the attack on the Twin Towers provided good reason. With regard to Saddam, the fact that the excuses were trumped up was obvious, and contributed much to the feeling in the Islamic world that the West, or rather the Anglo-Saxons, were opposed to Muslims in general.

Efforts to overcome this have been successful recently, with the Arab states throwing their weight too against Gaddafi this year. It was obvious too that ruthless self-interest was not the only reason, for the West had been prepared to support also the protests against the long-standing leaders of Tunisia and Egypt who had by and large served Western interests well. Extending the impact of the Arab Spring to Libya too then, even though it was more obviously a wonderful prize for the West, in economic as well as political terms, was not obviously based on pure self-interest, but suggested concern too about what the people of the area concerned wanted. Read the rest of this entry »

I was deeply shocked by various pronouncements in the recent debate in the House of Commons on what was termed the issue of Human Rights on the Indian Subcontinent. Much of the debate was about Kashmir, and several MPs weighed in against India in what seemed a very unfair and biased fashion. But India is large enough to look after itself, and even to cope with the indignation the Britishers expressed when it was reported that India had reacted strongly to the British parliamentary debate on Kashmir. After all, as a lady called Joan Walley put it so expressively, ‘There are many people in Stoke-on-Trent from Kashmir who feel strongly…’

What shocked me, sympathetic as I am to the feelings of anyone from Stoke-on-Trent, was that these British MPs simply had no regard for truth. They made things up as and how they liked. I had previously been used to Siobhain McDonagh, but what was astonishing was that two Conservatives had jumped on the bandwagon as far as Sri Lanka was concerned.

I will confine myself here only to matters where blunders were egregious. There were several matters about which looking at evidence would suggest these sanctimonious creatures were wrong. But to be totally wrong, with no concern for evidence, struck me as very sad indeed.

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The following is the text of an interview given to Lakbima News with regard to the impact on Sri Lanka of recent changes in Libya.

  1. Libyan Leader Mohommad Gadaffi’s regime was ousted a few days ago and although it was the ‘rebels’ who did that, we cannot deny that it was western powers who made it happen. Doesn’t this mean that it is still western powers that still have the ability to make regime changes despite all the talk of emergence of Russia and China?

I don’t think it has ever been doubted that it is the West that thinks of regime change and suchlike and has the power to do it. The old Soviet Union also thought in such terms but, after the Cold War ended, it has not been able to replicate this. China is still very much an emerging power in this regard, and has been content to exercise influence in different ways.

  1. Although Gadaffi isn’t even captured and his loyalists taking rearguard action in Tripoli both Russia and China have accepted rebels as the new rulers of Libya and are trying to make new business deals regarding Libyan resources. What does this tell about Russian and Chinese allies and depending on them against the West?

You must remember that neither Russia nor China vetoed the original UN Security Council resolution, which suggests they were even then in two minds about Libya. While I suspect they did not anticipate the intensity with which the West conducted its military campaign, the support the rebels seemed to have amongst other Arab nations may have influenced that decision.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2017
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