David and Goliath

25 September 2011


In a couple of recent posts about Libya and Gaddafi — The Gaddafi Diaspora and Libya’s Seat at the UN — I suggested that one of the few ways to make sense of Gaddafi’s remaining dead-enders was an appeal to the distinction between liberalism and autocracy that Robert Kagan makes in his book The Return of History and the End of Dreams.

I earlier wrote:

“While I have been critical of Kagan’s distinction because authoritarianism isn’t really an ideology, it certainly does form an interest group, and here in the UN we have see the remnant interest groups of authoritarianism use what few votes they have remaining to register a protest against the fall of one of their own.”


“It is difficult to believe that either al-Assad or Bouteflika could be so stupid as to allow themselves to get drawn into a losing fight, and at a time when revolutions are sweeping autocrats from power. Thus one instinctively seeks for some other motive at work. I can’t guess what that might be. Grasping at straws, I can only suggest what I suggested in Libya’s Seat at the UN: that they are standing up for the ‘principle’ of autocracy.”

When I discussed this earlier (in Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy and Anniversary of a Massacre) I suggested that autocracy is not a political ideology, but rather an excuse for a small elite in power to stay in power for their own self-aggrandizement and enrichment. Honestly, I find Kagan’s treatment of autocracy as an ideology and my criticism taking the form of denying an ideological component to autocracy are both of them dissatisfying. There is much to be said on this head, and I have not yet arrived at a definitely formulation, but I will try to give an account of my recent thought on the matter.

In the attempt to inform myself of the point of view of Gaddafi’s remaining loyalists, I spent some time last night reading websites and blogs purporting to represent Gaddafi and his vision for Libya. There was a surprising amount of information available online in English. There is a blog called Libya 360 which was a great interest, and a website called Mathaba with a lot of content.

The author or authors of Libya 360 gave a complete translation of the text of Aisha Gaddafi’s audio message broadcast on the Syrian television channel Al-Rai (not be to confused with the Kuwaiti Al-Rai). I will reproduce this speech here in its entirety

The translation is prefaced by these brief remarks:

Aisha Gaddafi’s Message Delivered on Al-Rai TV, Kindly translated for Libya 360° by I.A. Libya. “Here is my own translation of the very touching and emotional speech which sister Aisha Gaddafi gave 4 hours ago on El-Rai Televsion. I would say the translation is about 90-95% accurate.” – I.A. Libya

Aisha Gaddafi’s Message Delivered on Al-Rai TV

To the great people of Libya,

I salute you.

I will not tell you that victory is approaching, but that we live victorious every day for the last 8 months and we are lining up a victory which has never been witnessed in history.

40 countries, with their attacks using planes, missiles and technologies by air and sea and utilizing their agents on the ground. And the Libyan people are still resilient and fighting. I commend these heroes and I congratulate all of the Libyan people, along with your Great Leader, whom I bring relief to you and inform you is currently well. He is well Thank God, and is also faithful to God and remains in high spirits. He bears a weapon and is fighting on the battlefield with his sons, side by side with the Libyan fighters. This is Muammar Gaddafi, putting himself forward to become a fighter and a martyr with his sons.

Compare this sight with that of Qatar with the Prince who presents and puts forward a crown prince who cried like a girl because they were granted the World Cup 12 years from now (referring to this in 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiVlW19NaSs) This gives you (the Libyans) the right to be proud of your leader!

Shame and disgrace to the Arab leaders who were swayed and participated in the slaughter of The Libyan People. And it is unfortunate that Arab nations witnessed this slaughter for 8 months and have not flinched nor stood up and risen against it.

But I call on the lions of Tripoli, the lions of Tarhouna, the eagles of Wershifanna, and the lions of Assabia and Mashaseeya and Arshaydat and Ajaylat and Awayell to the Lions of the Ancient city of Sabha to the lions of Sirte, Abusleem and El-Hadhba (All tribes within Libya) and all of the heroes of Tripoli, the resilient. And to all Libyan fighters from the West to the South.

I call on you and I call on you, I call on you, I call on you! (Quoted in a way that a female Muslim heroine once was depicted saying it in ancient Islamic battles) Link up! Persevere! Be Patient! Protest! God the holy the merciful said, “If there are 100 perseverient/patient, they will defeat 200 and if there are 1000, they will defeat 2000 and God is with the perseverient/patient.” – Quote from the Quran.

To the silent, I will say to them. What do you have to say about the humiliation that is the new regime, what sort of regime is this? These are familiar faces, which you know very well: Starting with ABUSHENNA (Mustafa Abdul Jalil) that gave his loyalty and obedience to my Father and betrayed him. Mahmoud Jibril who gave his loyalty and obedience to my brother Saif El-Islam and betrayed him. Shalgam was loyal for 40 years and Betrayed. Trekki the idiot was loyal and obedient for 40 years and betrayed. Ghogha was the captain of the lawyers and loyal and betrayed. Bilhadj who gave an oath and a guarantee and broke it. Others, among others exist. All of these people betrayed and broke their oaths which they gave before, who says they will not break oaths and promises to you ?

And to the NATO rebels, if you have any common sense or logic to use …. NATO, who when they wanted to invade Afghanistan and in Iraq, they landed boots on the ground, because they could not find any traitors who were willing to take up arms against their fellow countrymen. Sadly, they found such people within Libya who would take up arms against the chests of their fellow Libyan brothers. This is why I will say there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God. Believe in God (Allah), Believe in God (Allah). God (Allah) is all I need. He is the best guardian.

Finally, I would like to quote my brother, who when I asked him to be careful and look after himself on the frontline with his brothers — I will never forget his words:


To the heroes of Libya, do not disappoint our martyrs. Avenge them, avenge them, avenge them!

“Victory cometh, only an hour’s patience.”

OFFICIAL LIBYAN GOVERNMENT STATEMENTS, THE LIBYAN PEOPLE’S RESISTANCE, © Copyright 2011 by Libya 360°, This page may be republished for non-commercial purposes as long as reprints include a verbatim copy of the article/page in its entirety, respecting its integrity and cite the author and Libya 360° as the source including a live link to the article/page.

The least that can be said of this address is that Aisha Gaddafi is cut from the same cloth as her father: all the bombastic rhetoric and all the romantic appeals to heroism and all the populist appeals to “the people” are to be found here. But the real question here is whether she is sufficiently delusional to believe any or all of this, or whether the words are intended for effect. I will come back to this.

Since I wrote above that I have a difficult time believing that al-Assad or Bouteflicka could be stupid enough to associate themselves with a losing fight at the moment of its defeat, I wanted to find out something about the television station in Syria that was willing to broadcast this message from Aisha Gaddafi. The internet obliged be again. I found a very interesting website that gives some of the background of Al-Rai (again, the Syrian Al-Rai). Here is the full text of New on MEMRI: Al-Rai TV — A Syrian Platform for Iraqi Terror Broadcasts:

Al-Rai TV, which began broadcasting several months ago from Syria, provides coverage of events in the Middle East, focusing on terrorist attacks carried out by Sunni insurgents against U.S. forces and Iraqi security forces.

According to Arab media reports, Al-Rai TV is owned by former Iraqi MP Mish’an Al-Jabouri, former owner of Al-Zawraa TV — a channel that for several months in 2006 aired around-the-clock footage of terrorist attacks in Iraq. Following U.S. pressure, the Arab satellite companies Arabsat and Nilesat removed Al-Zawraa TV from their satellites, and the channel ceased to exist. Al-Jabouri fled to Syria after being implicated in several corruption scandals, for which he was sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison.

In an interview reported on the Internet, Al-Jabouri denied that he owned Al-Rai TV, stating that the channel was registered to a Syrian national by the name of Raw’a Al-Awsati. It transpires, however, that Al-Awsati is Al-Jabouri’s Syrian wife, who used to work as a secretary for Al-Zawraa TV.

Al-Rai TV is, in fact, a polished and upgraded version of Al-Zawraa TV. Its flagship weekly program “The Harvest of the Resistance,” is presented by Hussein Hussein, who used to introduce footage of terror attacks on Al-Zawraa TV. On Al-Zawraa TV, Hussein Hussein appeared in guerrilla fatigues; on Al-Rai TV, he wears a suit and tie.

One should be skeptical, of course, but this sounds plausible to me. There is no mock-heroic rhetoric here, and anyone with a will and bank account could track down these claims and determine how true they are. I will assume that this is accurate. If it is accurate, Al-Rai, now the mouthpiece of the Gaddafi Diaspora, has a history, and that history is showcasing the Iraqi insurgency. What is the ideological content of showcasing the Iraqi insurgency? Jihadism, for one, anti-Americanism for another, militancy for its own sake (some people simply enjoy killing other people and blowing things up), possibly (though not likely) Pan-Arabism, and there is always the human desire to assert oneself, even when this self-assertion comes in purely destructive terms. This list makes no pretense to completeness, but is only what I take off the top of my head.

It is impossible not to notice that Gaddafi loyalists (given the sources I read last night) continue to characterize the NTC forces as both NATO lackeys and as being affiliated with Al-Qaeda, even while their official mouthpiece (Al-Rai TV) is an organ of militant insurgency, and therefore presumably sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. But not necessarily. This is subtle, but it becomes important. It is entirely possible that sympathizers with autocracies perceived as being under threat from the US and Western powers generally (and not incidentally playing the role of a heroic David in the face of the international Goliath) might applaud any dramatic attack against these Western powers, no matter the source of it, even while keeping their distance from the ideological motivations of those who carried out the attack.

Such sympathies and sentiments are not confined to dead-enders in the Maghreb and the Fertile Crescent. Not long after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, there was long and fairly detailed piece on the BBC that consisted of accounts from US expatriates living in Europe. I have since, several times, attempted to find this story, but it eludes me, I am sorry to say. In any case, the article featured accounts of informal conversations that these expatriates had with Europeans not long after 11 September. All of the writers (I think there were six of them, if memory serves) explained how their European friends and colleagues, though they approached the matter with great delicacy, admitted that there was a sense in which it was widely seen that the US had received its comeuppance, and that US hubris had been dealt a lesson. In some cases it was implied that the US would begin to learn from the European model, which has long treated terrorism as a police matter, and Europe has “tolerated” a background of low-level terrorism for many decades pursuing this model.

There is, throughout the world, and perhaps intrinsic to human nature, a dialectical tendency that swings back and forth between the worship of power and admiration for success on the one hand, and on the other hand a sneaking admiration for the “little man” fighting against insuperable odds. In the American cultural context, this takes the form of “rooting for the underdog.” In classical Biblical stories we can cite the obvious example of David, the young boy with only a slingshot, who slew the giant Goliath. In a contemporary political context, we find this in pervasive tendency to admire those who fight against the overwhelming might of the US, or of NATO, or of the international community, or any other disproportionately powerful political entity.

This admiration for resistance and rebellion, even when, or especially when, it is a lost cause, is joined with (as I wrote above) the human tendency to want to be on the winning side, which sometimes takes the form of a sycophantic and even self-abnegating admiration for power — an admiration which sometimes only increases with the ruthlessness with which that power is exercised. I could cite many examples here, but for the moment I will cite only one of Pascal’s Pensées (no. 401 in one traditional edition):

Glory.–The brutes do not admire each other. A horse does not admire his companion. Not that there is no rivalry between them in a race, but that is of no consequence; for, when in the stable, the heaviest and most ill-formed does not give up his oats to another as men would have others do to them. Their virtue is satisfied with itself.

It is speaking charitably to characterize the admiration for revolt, resistance, and rebellion as sympathy for David against Goliath, or as a case of cheering the underdog; a less charitable analysis would formulate the same sympathies in terms of Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment. While less charitable, I think that this would be the more subtle and the more accurate version. However, I am not going to go into an exposition of ressentiment today because I already have my plate overfilled by the other issues I am trying to bring in, in order that a comprehensive synthesis will provide a more concrete understanding of what is usually passed over in more abstract terms. The abstract account is not wrong, it is incomplete, and therefore misleading for those who do not constantly remind themselves that it is incomplete.

This dialectic of admiring power while also admiring those who rebel against power could be seen as a zero-sum game in which sometimes public sympathy goes to the great powers and sometimes public sympathy tips in the direction of rebels, so that in the long run this balances out. But that isn’t exactly the case. Petty dictators are able to tap into both aspects of this dialectic, and this may account for their success and survival despite a consistent record of impoverishing and immiserating their peoples.

Contemporary dictators like Gaddafi and Kim Jong-il and Robert Mugabe (and even semi-retired dictators like Fidel Castro) can present themselves both as powerful individuals celebrating their power in a ruthless manner that is admired by those who become starry-eyed in the presence of power, and as rebels against an overwhelming international community consensus (Goliath) that is presented as victimizing the unfairly thwarted and downtrodden nation-state (David). Thus being able to draw upon both perennial sympathies present in human nature (sympathy for power and sympathy for rebellion), the petty dictator dresses himself in gold braid and presides over military parades on the one hand, while on the other hand haranguing those nefarious powers that would attempt to force the dictator and his people to submit to outside and foreign influences. In this way, the petty dictator not only plays upon both of these sympathies in human nature, but also is able to play the “foreign influence” card, presenting himself as one of his people and sharing in their fate — though elites never allow themselves to suffer the immiserization that they impose upon their peoples.

Because of these ability of the petty dictator to manipulate both sides of a divided human nature, to a certain extent their appeal transcends ideology and is an appeal directly to human nature. Another way to formulate this would be to say that we cannot clearly draw lines between ideological forms of social organization and non-ideological forms of social organization, because both are rooted in a human nature. Anyone who can descend below a level of social organization and penetrate into the human nature upon which this organization supervenes, taps into a primal vein that transcends ideology and interest. When people respond en masse to this sort of thing, they mostly aren’t even aware of what they’re doing; it is more of an instinct than a choice.

But dictatorships are not all of one species, or of a single stage of development. Young and vigorous dictatorships can impose themselves upon a people in an especially brutal form (think of the early years of the Soviet Union) and still retain the loyalty of the people they immiserate. Some dictators together with their regime cronies, however, become old and tired, and they fall into predictable social forms. As I mentioned in an earlier post on Gaddafi, the depredations of dictators upon their peoples sometimes is a thoughtless brutality carried on automatically by figures in authority who know no different and who are so lacking in imagination that they cannot conceive of doing things differently. Thus the kind of absurd rhetoric we find in Aisha Gaddafi’s statement quoted above may have, at one time, rallied enough of the Libyan people that the Gaddafi family could retain their iron grip on the country. But that is not longer true. The phrases ring hollow, and the people have shown themselves to be possessed of far greater political imagination than their “leaders” — they have been able to conceive freedom for themselves, whereas their leaders offered them only the “same old, same old,” which had become rather threadbare.

In the long term history of human political organization — a history that begins with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the attendant social change emergent from settled societies — this organization is proving to be far more counter-intuitive than I think anyone ever expected. On the surface, the political organization of human society would seem to be a more-or-less transparent interest in meeting human needs in as straight-forward a manner as possible. Yet time and again we find the persistence of counter-productive institutions and self-sabotaging behavior which, from an evolutionary standpoint, ought to rapidly condemn that behavior to an early end, only that human cleverness has so often managed to circumvent disaster and to maintain non-functioning societies for extended periods of time. In short, human beings seem to have an astonishing talent at perpetuating their misery.

The unfortunate fact that seems to emerge from a dispassionate review of human history is that the solutions to these miseries are not any straight-forward solution of removing some specific harm or ending some particular abuse. Harms and abuses always re-emerge in altered forms. The “solutions” — if there are any — often end up being counter-intuitive, therefore contravening human nature, therefore difficult in the extreme to realize as a political project.

Much of advanced science, and its technological products that have enriched the modern world, is highly counter-intuitive. The “two cultures” persist because the primal instincts persist and the success of science persists, so both persist in parallel and in mutual tension with each other. But science, when practiced strictly as science, does not need to rally large numbers of people in order to realize its aims (especially when conducted according to the heroic conception of science). The political organization of human society, on the other hand, does need to rally large numbers of people in order to realize its aims, and so it happens that the attempt at any systematic and rigorously scientific solution in the realm of human problems is systematically and rigorously thwarted by intuitions that run counter to what we can learn from science if we take the time to master what has been done.

While this post has become rather long, it is still incomplete and inadequate. I included maybe half of the points I wanted to touch on, so I will come back to this again, fate willing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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