Tribal Warriors

Why is it so hard for strongmen to say goodbye?

By any rational standard, it would seem that the fighting and power struggles in the Ivory Coast, Libya, and Yemen should have been over weeks ago. Maybe soon they all will be: One conflict ended April 11 in the Ivory Coast. But the fact that they have already gone on as long as they have is an indication that there is a basic truth that those in the West fail to grasp about the individuals involved. After all, we ask ourselves: Why don't Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh take the offers of comfortable exile apparently extended to them and leave? It would probably be better for their physical safety, and for their bank accounts. Following weeks of fighting and bargaining and demonstrations, what more do they have to prove?

That sort of reasoning assumes that what divides these strongmen from their adversaries are issues as benign and susceptible to compromise as, say, Medicare and tax rates. But these men are not horse-trading politicians as such; they have been fighting for something far more age-old, basic, and less susceptible to compromise: territory and honor, at least as they define it. Their world is not one of institutions and bureaucracies through which they rule; it is a world of dominating scraps of ground through dependence on relatives and tribal and regional alliances.

In such a world, figures like the deposed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, are without virtue. They ruled in the Western style through institutions and bureaucracies, and when those institutions -- the military and the internal security services -- refused to shoot people in the streets, those leaders had no choice but to meekly resign and quickly go into internal or external exile, perhaps without having made the deals necessary for their protection afterward.

Of course, in moral terms, a figure like Gbagbo is especially despicable. To satisfy his ego, he has brought the Ivory Coast to the brink of anarchy. I am not excusing him, but merely trying to partly explain him. In his mind, he fought an election and garnered close to half the votes. And those votes were not because of his position on this or that social or economic issue, but because of what he represented tribally and regionally: He is a southerner from the non-Muslim south of the country. To give in too soon would have been to betray his regional and religious solidarity groups. In places without sufficient economic development, like the Ivory Coast, elections often end up reifying differences based on blood and belief. To fight it out until he was cornered in the basement of his palace, and even then, for his opponents to have to call on the French to help dislodge him, is not a sign of moral weakness from his point of view, but of manly virtue. (The same, of course, might be said of the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, who were killed in a gunfight with U.S. troops near Mosul in 2003 -- except that they, the spoiled-brat, gangsterish sons of the Stalinesque ruler, were by no means self-made men. Thus, they belong in a lower category of specimen than Gbagbo, Saleh, and Qaddafi.)

Remember, we are not talking about politicians so much as about warriors. Take Saleh. The Western media labels the Yemeni president a recalcitrant tyrant whose stubbornness in clinging to power has, like Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast, threatened to unravel his country. This characterization is certainly true, but it reveals little. Saleh has ruled Yemen for a third of a century, whereas his two immediate predecessors were both assassinated after ruling for eight months in one case and for three years in the other. And the Yemeni strongman before them was removed in a military coup. Saleh is clearly a man of steely nerves and subtle skill who, for decades, has dealt with levels of stress that would psychologically immobilize the most hardened Washington politico. The game he is playing now -- negotiating the terms of his departure -- is not just about him, but about the fate of his near and somewhat-distant relatives. So, in a sense, who can begrudge him if he hangs on still longer, grasping for better and better terms? For Saleh, "the government" is not some impersonal and legalistic object, but the family business. It must be dissolved on the best terms one can manage, and violence is a tool in that struggle. A few years from now, we may even look back on his rule as one of relative stability and cooperation with the West. Just because he deserves our condemnation now does not mean from an analytical perspective that he should be sold short.

Then, of course, there is Qaddafi, who took power in a coup while still in his 20s and has held a country together for 42 years -- a country that for most of history was a geographical expression with no state feeling whatsoever. Because he ruled through a combination of tribal politics and the leaden grip of internal security services, Qaddafi built no state ethos and will, therefore, leave an utter void in his wake. The fact that he has not gone quietly is a sign that he, too, is not fighting about any particular issues, per se, but about a vision of honor that strikes us as primitive, connected as it is to region, tribe, and territory.

And while we are on the subject of tribe and territory, it is important to recognize that the particular kind of tribalism that is one background factor in the rules of Qaddafi, Saleh, and Gbagbo is actually not a primitive, before-the-modern-state tribalism at all, but, as the late European anthropologist Ernest Gellner defined it, a tribalism that constitutes a conscious rejection of a particular government in favor of a wider culture and ethic. In other words, the rejection of a strong Yemeni state by certain tribes may be not a desire for anarchy so much as a reaching out to a wider Islamic culture and a non-oppressive state. The same goes for Qaddafi's calls over the years for Arab political unity and Gbagbo's attempts at undoing the borders of French colonialism by appealing to only part of the country's population.

Life under these men was hell, no doubt, but there was an identifiable logic to their madness, however much I have simplified it. Indeed, nobody captures the attraction of life outside the state as brilliantly as Yale University anthropologist James C. Scott in his book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Tribes today, Scott suggests, do not live outside history, but have "as much history as they require" in order to deliberately practice "state avoidance." That is to say, tribes are rich in traditions and consequently do not seek the intrusion of government officialdom.

Qaddafi, Saleh, and Gbagbo have lived within this complex and ambiguous reality their whole lives and have thus not been state builders, yet another reason, in addition to the moral ones, that they have not found sympathy in the West. But that is no argument against trying to understand them.

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How Not to Declare a War

The Obama administration's legal rationale for bombing Libya suggests that while George W. Bush may be gone, the imperial presidency isn't.

In 2007, the Boston Globe's Charlie Savage asked then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama whether the president could authorize the bombing of Iran without first seeking congressional authorization in circumstances in which there was no imminent threat to the United States. Obama's answer was clear and succinct: "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." So it was something of a surprise when, on March 19, Obama's administration inaugurated its first uninherited foreign military operation by launching a barrage of Tomahawk missiles against Libya -- whose ruler, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, had made plenty of credible threats against his own people, but not against the United States -- without seeking congressional authority to do so. Did Obama rethink the question of war-making without congressional authority?

In a word, yes. Apparently Obama's lawyers told him he could do it, and he liked their advice: "Prior congressional approval was not constitutionally required to use military force in the limited operations under consideration." We know this from the opinion drafted by U.S. Justice Department lawyers on April 1, which was publicly released on April 7, on the legality of military operations in Libya following the U.N. Security Council's go-ahead. The document presents few surprises and looks remarkably like a pair of memoranda -- cited in the new opinion -- that former Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger, then head of President Bill Clinton's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), wrote to authorize the use of military force in Haiti and Bosnia. As such it is typical of the Obama Justice Department: It avoids referring back to the opinions written during the executive-power-expanding heyday of President George W. Bush's first term, while arriving at markedly similar conclusions.

The opinion argues that "the President's legal authority to direct military force in Libya turns on two questions: first, whether United States operations in Libya would serve sufficiently important national interests to permit the President's action as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive and pursuant to his authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations; and second, whether the military operations that the President anticipated ordering would be sufficiently extensive in 'nature, scope, and duration' to constitute a 'war' requiring prior specific congressional approval under the Declaration of War Clause."

The Justice Department concludes that "preserving regional stability" and "maintaining the credibility of United Nations Security Council mandates" are important U.S. national interests that justify the use of military force in Libya. It also finds that the military operations the administration is contemplating in Libya do not constitute "war" in the sense the term is used in the Constitution. Obama's statement that U.S. involvement is simply intended to "set the stage" for operations that would then be borne substantially by American allies is repeated, the limited parameters of the Security Council's resolution are recapped, and the vague expectation that the operations will be short-lived is put forward.

The memorandum's brevity -- a scant 14 pages -- and the stark limits of its analysis are remarkable considering the constitutional issues raised by the question it asks: Was the president entitled to strike Libya without congressional authorization? The OLC opinion says so, but dodges this constitutional question by breezily redefining national interests and presuming a hasty end to the conflict. But the Justice Department lawyers' facile treatment won't be the last word on the subject. Under the War Powers Resolution, which Congress passed in 1973, the president has 60 days to seek formal congressional authorization for any use of armed force abroad. For now, the OLC opinion skirts around the issue -- it treats the law, disingenuously, as an implicit recognition of the president's right to act without prior congressional approval. But when those 60 days are up, the Obama administration will have to decide just what kind of presidency it is.

To take the OLC claims one at a time: Did the Libya crisis affect the national interests of the United States in a way that justified the use of military force? This test is a vague one: The "national interest" is the subject of a constant political tug of war in the United States, defined differently from election to election. Here, the OLC tells us that the United States has an interest in "regional stability" -- in the case of Libya and the rest of North Africa and the Middle East, the avoidance of excessive violence targeting civilians that could drive "thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders." But while this may be a legitimate threat for nearby U.S. allies such as Italy and Egypt, it is difficult to see how it poses one to the United States. And this definition of national interest -- as an immigration problem -- is a far as the OLC is willing to go. The argument that it fashions is a sort of second tier national interest, derivative of the concerns of long-time allies. That's an extremely low threshold.

But even so, some inconvenient facts get airbrushed away here. The opinion fails to note that Obama's national security advisor, Thomas E. Donilon, had told reporters more than two weeks earlier that the developments in Libya did not affect a vital strategic interest of the United States. The Obama administration changed its tune, of course, in the days that followed, embracing a plan of limited intervention in Libya. But none of the apparent causes of that about-face -- the voiced willingness of NATO allies to lead the military action, the likelihood of a Security Council resolution, and the fear that absent immediate action a bloodbath was likely to occur when Qaddafi-loyal forces assaulted and overran the city of Benghazi -- amount to a reconsideration of Donilon's assessment, however compelling they may be on their own terms. The OLC's "national interest" test, then, would seem to mean little more than that the president wants to use military force.

The second question is whether the Libya engagement is a "war" in the constitutional sense. It's clear that the use of force to repel an attack or an individual riposte does not necessarily constitute a "war." But as is the case with the "national interest" test, the most powerful evidence against the OLC's conclusion comes from within the administration. Speaking before a congressional committee on March 2, Defense Secretary Robert Gates decried the "loose talk" then circulating in Washington about the establishment of a "no-fly zone" over Libya. "Let's just call a spade a spade," he said. "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone." Speaking a day earlier before a Senate committee, Centcom commander Gen. James Mattis delivered the same message in response to queries about a no-fly zone: "My military opinion is, sir, it would be challenging," he said. "You would have to remove the air defense capability in order to establish the no-fly zone so it -- no illusions here, it would be a military operation. It wouldn't simply be telling people not to fly airplanes."

It's clear that both Gates and Mattis were concerned about stretching U.S. military assets to address a third war, in addition to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in fact, the military activities authorized by the Security Council -- and later put into effect -- were far more aggressive than those on which Gates and Mattis originally commented. Still, the OLC opinion grounded its determination that the operations were "not war" on prior approval of much more limited no-fly zone operations, while ignoring Gates's and Mattis's statements.

"[T]he line between war and lesser uses of force is often elusive, sometimes illusory, and the use of force for foreign policy purposes can almost imperceptibly become a national commitment to war," as the late Louis Henkin put it. Viewed retrospectively, the U.S. military missions in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia all seem like tough cases in which the authority of U.S. action could have benefited from proper debate and clear congressional action. No one ever intends to get into an interminable quagmire, after all. There is a normal tendency at the start of any military engagement to expect it to be resolved quickly, favorably, and cheaply. The process of public debate and congressional consultation is intended to impose at least something of a check on this kind of wishful thinking: to ensure that there is a public acceptance of potential costs and risks in the event of war. It is impossible to judge with any certainty how the Libya operation will progress, but at least at this stage the Obama administration's assessments seem optimistic.

Although bombs may have already fallen on Libya, it's not too late for the Obama administration and Congress to discharge their constitutional obligations, however belatedly. The question will only become more acute the longer the clock ticks. In mid-May, the 60-days latitude granted by the War Powers Resolution will expire. The president then must either secure Congress's blessing or disengage from the operations within the following month. The OLC opinion doesn't tip the president's hand on this question -- he could turn to Congress or he could push ahead in Libya with an unambiguously "imperial" view of presidential war powers. Either way, the role of Congress in authorizing the Libya operations, and the wisdom of continuing those operations, will then be front and center.

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