America and Libya

Edward Said

In the extracts from David Stockman’s memoirs published on Monday 14 April by Newsweek, Reagan’s former Budget Director spoke of the mediocrities, charlatans and power-hungry politicos who cluster around the disturbingly vague and incompetent Great Communicator. For them, Stockman said, ‘reality-time’ was the seven o’clock evening news on television. How did we look and sound? they ask themselves, as if public policy were some sort of show designed to entertain and please ‘the American people’ once a day, five nights a week. On 14 April reality-time began on each of the three networks with the same first indications of an American strike against Libya.

In New York, I watch Peter Jennings on ABC largely as a matter of habit, although the other anchormen seem to produce roughly the same results. Jennings opened by announcing that something was happening in Tripoli; then he passed things over to two correspondents there who, from their hotel window, reported artillery and bomb blasts that shook the building. Jennings came back on to announce a briefing by Larry Speakes, the White House press spokesman; back to Tripoli for the end of the raid (it was now 7:10 or so), a couple of commercials, and then down to Speakes in Washington. He read a prepared statement with his customary virtuosity, stumbling over nearly every syllable and yet inflecting his sentences with what in this B-grade-Hollywood Administration passes for righteous seriousness.

Except for two details, it is difficult to imagine how this well-packaged 30 minutes of national television differs from the way a state broadcasting system would handle an attack on a weak country somewhere ‘out there’. One point is that the programme was done three times simultaneously instead of once: the unanimity of the networks was perfect. Another is that the show-business co-ordination of getting the raid onto the evening news, with appropriate preparation, commentary and summary, keeping it there for 30 minutes including commercials, was an example of how private enterprise and government can work together with remarkable, apparently unrehearsed agility. It was spontaneous, it was well-synchronised, it was, as they say, 100 per cent effective, and for days afterwards the networks ran advertisements in the papers claiming eminence and victory for their ‘version’ of the same theatrical event. At 7:01 on 14 April NBC was first, said one ad.

I have never seen anything like it, this display of capsule theatricality, manipulation, violence and unadulterated patriotism, and it still goes on. Whole supplements have appeared in each of the major dailies, printing millions of words, all of them repeating more or less the same details, the same jargon about surgical strikes, collateral damage, terrorist planning and command centres. Every national and local news-and-discussion show has scheduled literally hundreds of hours of analysis: the President, Secretaries Shultz and Weinberger, General Vernon Walters, various ‘experts’ – on terrorism, counter-terrorism, the Middle East, Europe, the universe – have appeared along with a tiny handful representing ‘the other side’, interspersed with the same Libyan scenes, the same European demonstrations, the same stirring file pictures of American bombers and battleships, the same senators, Pentagon and State Department spokesmen, the same man-in-the-street interviews extolling ‘our’ side with the same, exactly the same, enthusiasm. We had to do it, ran the standard printable message, or, said the New York Times, we were ‘seeing justice done’. Kicking Libyan (i.e. nigger) ass, and feeling good about it, was the unspoken message.

Riding over the attack on Libya was the word ‘terrorism’, a word which has totally simplified and streamlined official as well as private American attitudes to the world. It is no exaggeration to say that terrorism, more even than Communism, has come to dominate and embody everything ‘we’ do not like, from the poisoning of one Tylenol container to the October 1983 destruction of the Marine barracks in Beirut, to the Sandinistas, the Soviets, the PLO, and of course Libya, which stands at the apex of world terrorism. Terrorism overrides history, politics, economics and above all common sense. It has no immediately graspable definition, it does not admit of negotiation or argument, its moral force cannot really be challenged except by terrorists, it is applicable virtually everywhere and to nearly everything at any time. Terrorists are, or have become, a Platonic essence: they never change, they have no history or characters, they simply terrorise. When, on Tuesday and Wednesday, one heard George Shultz and his President referring to terrorism as the number one scourge of the world (although many more Americans drown in their bathtubs than are killed by terrorism), when one read polls identifying terrorism as the greatest issue facing America today, heard repeated references to terrorist infrastructures, bases, support and training centres, and just plain terrorists, and when by Thursday one was confronted with TV news clips showing how the California-Mexico border, across which Mexicans flee illegally, is likely also to be the place where Libyans can be infiltrated, we knew we were in the grip of a gigantic propaganda coup that had captured the country.

The displays of dissociation with this macho spectacle were remarkable for howrare they were. Whereas the entire mainstream Democratic so-called opposition led by Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy in the Congress went along with Reagan, Senators Mark Hatfield and Lowell Weiker said no, as did most of the Black Caucus: the sight of Libyan civilian dead affected these men and women. Secretary Weinberger is still repeating his view that he is not convinced that the bombing of Libyan schools and hospitals, of foreign embassies in Tripoli, was ‘our’ responsibility. Resentment at France, which, according to Reagan, had wanted an even more extensive strike, was intense, nowhere (symptomatically) more than in a column by the egregious William Safire, who complained that flying round France added to ‘the strain’ on our pilots. Yet strangely, no one pointed out that barely thirty years ago France and Britain joined Israel in an attack on another recalcitrant Arab – Colonel (as he was always called) Nasser. When Peter Kilburn, the American University librarian held hostage for well over a year, was so cruelly and senselessly killed by his captors in Beirut, a few of his family members appeared on TV to denounce the raid: that, however, was a low-key human-interest story.

There seemed no limit to the mobilisation against terrorism past, present and future. By the end of the week a Bill had been introduced in the Senate waiving both the War Powers Act and the Congressional restraints on the official sanctioning of assassination: the President was to be enabled to do anything he pleased. Poverty, hunger, unemployment, disease, the likelihood of nuclear war were concerns eliminated by terrorism. Very few people noted that ‘terrorism’ as a totalising policy term had been pioneered by the Israelis. By the summer of 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee went forward as an Israeli attack on the ‘terrorist infrastructure’, a phrase that herded under it a fairly massive war effort whose aim was to settle the political future of the West Bank by wiping out the PLO. ‘Terrorists’ were not given prisoner-of-war status; ‘terrorist’ bases were found everywhere in Lebanon; nothing Israel did was questioned, since it was all part of the war against ‘terrorism’.

Slowly the effort to combat terrorism expanded: I speak here of a rhetorical expansion, and also of the word’s capitalisation. The bland faces of chubby ‘terrorism experts’ mouthing a combination of mumbo-jumbo expertise and banality jabber regularly from the TV screen. Terrorism has become a free-floating idea and is associated, not, for example, with Israel’s policy in South Lebanon, nor with the bombing of Lebanon by the USS New Jersey, nor with the atrocious record of the Nicaraguan Contras, nor with the South Korean, Philippine, Haitian regimes, nor with the Salvadoran right, nor with Jonas Savimbi, but with official US enemies whose fons et origo, it seems, is Moamar Gaddafi. Assad and Khomeini have lurked in the background, ready for use in later eventualities.

Now it is essential to say that from many points of view, including mine, Gaddafi and his peculiar regime are basically indefensible. An erratic, immature, often violent and perplexing man, he has done a great deal of harm in Libya and throughout the region. The Palestinian people, ironically enough, has little reason to care for Gaddafi, for all his declamation of Palestinian rights. But it is ludicrous to see ‘Libyans’ virtually everywhere where there is trouble in the world, including Costa Rica and Thailand, and nothing short of paranoid to turn Gaddafi into the embodiment of a national security threat to the US. But he has become exactly that. As early as 1981 he was necessary to US policy, which had begun to drift into one irrational posture after another. By 1985 he had become the one constant.

Little is known about Libya or about Gaddafi: this is all to the good since the less that is actually known about him, the more can be attributed to him. The press, almost to a man or woman, has accepted the Reagan Administration thesis about his involvement in the Berlin disco bombing. Yet not a shred of real evidence has been presented. Almost every allegation about Libya is presented as irrefutable. Gaddafi is Muslim, he is unconventional, he is anti-American. He therefore serves the Israeli-American anti-Communist and virulently racist cause of representing a test of strength for ‘the West’. War fever has broken out. Phrases like ‘we should have killed the bastard’ or ‘we’re tired of being pushed around’ or the admirably terse ‘nuke’em’ are like a deafening chorus of pleasure all around one.

Decades of colonial exploitation in countries like Libya produced the oddest, the most severe distortions in the historical consciousness and communal foundations of the peoples and societies left after the white man’s exit; and the new order brought to the fore not only young officers like Gaddafi but new politically opportunistic trans-national companies, eager for undreamt-of profits and expanding markets. This is an unwholesome mix, especially as it left unattended-to large ideological areas: for the natives an unappeased and frustrated sense of retrospective injustice, for the whites a resentful anger and readily nourished contempt. The periodic revivals of nationalism in the post-colonial Third World have taken religious and secular forms, but whatever else these revivals afford – and they contain a great deal of undirected nativism and atavistic religious sentiment, as well as daring, often brilliant ideas – they are almost always full of the sense that the white man hasn’t sufficiently atoned for his past interventions. Such a sense cares little for the empty shelves, the rusty factories, the barely functioning armed forces. Much more emphasis is placed on the symbolic dimension whereby the Arabs, for example, are now so humiliated as to reproduce their earlier colonial subjugation.

Gaddafi’s futile stand against the West is nonetheless a reminder to the Arabs of how four capitals – Baghdad, Tunis, Beirut, Tripoli – have been attacked by Israel and the US with scarcely an Arab response, except for the defence of Beirut by Palestinian irregulars. Despite an immense outlay of money for arms, despite the huge number of shabby deals struck with, but also violated by, the West, despite the abrogation of democracy that has been made in the name of national security, the Arab regimes are unable or unwilling to do anything in reply. Everyone seems to be waiting for someone to die, for a new American Administration, for the odd crumb proffered by Europe. Victory is rarely more than a UN Resolution. Meanwhile the level of threats and verbal counter-strikes rises and rises and rises. And still Israel sits on the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, South Lebanon, and Jerusalem; and still George Shultz, although a former Bechtel Corporation executive who made most of his staggering profits out of the Arab oil states, keeps blathering on about Arab terrorism; and still the US media have no time for Arabs except as terrorists; and still Lebanon chops itself to death.

The gigantism and inflation of the current impasse is not only due to the media’s gross distortions. It derives from a sort of ideological surplus, an unhealthy swelling which, on the one hand, is the effect of history avoided and transgressed and, on the other, of the failure of rational secular politics. In short, Reagan and Gaddafi. The problem with these two is that they were a long time in the making and are hardly prepared to depart very soon. Moreover, there seems to be no mechanism for defusing the renewed build-up of animosity and retaliation, except perhaps a loss of media interest, or the pull of a spectacular disaster elsewhere. But I think there is some small value in being able to see, as we can now see, the imperialist legacy in its interdependent aspects on both sides of the great cultural divide between the West and the Third World. Domination of non-whites by whites simply didn’t end and it won’t go away with decolonisation or independence. It persists with extraordinary tenacity, and with much generosity it animates all those institutions designed for violence and forgetfulness. Somewhere, however, in the arid but well-lit expanse of this impoverishing Libyan-American confrontation, an intellectual mission is waiting to be formed – a mission dedicated to the proposition that the world is not a stage on which to dash about and moralise by yourself, but a place to be lived in and shared with others. I very much doubt whether Reagan’s America, which is actually a lot less than the whole country, can ever grasp that notion, or that the present mix of Arab leaders can help themselves. But there are other forces in the world, even though, at the present time, they seem well hidden.