March 18, 2010

Libya Still a Basket Case

Every now and then I read an article somewhere by someone who just returned from Libya and says the country is much more open and in much better shape than it was recently. I never believe these articles. They seem to be describing an alternate universe. When I visited Qaddafi's mad outdoor laboratory myself not long ago, the place stank so badly of oppression that I can only imagine improvement being measured over decades, not years, and that it can't begin in earnest until somebody else is in charge.

Maybe I'm wrong. I haven't been there for six years, and even Soviet-style countries aren't entirely static. Michael Moynihan's dispatch from Libya in Reason magazine, though, describes the exact same miserably ideological basket case state that I saw in 2004.

His piece is as entertaining as it is educational, and I recommend it to you whole heartedly. Here's a taste.

Tripoli, Libya—Perhaps I overestimated the bien-pensant British understanding of “modernity.” When the BBC reported that “at Tripoli’s ultra-modern airport…you could be almost anywhere in the world,” I expected at bare minimum a Starbucks, a fake Irish pub, and (this is the ultra bit) a bank of vending machines dispensing iPods and noise-canceling headphones.

Well, perhaps we came through Libya’s spillover airport, its Midway or Stansted, because this is “anywhere in the world” only in some mad, dystopian-novel sense. Available for purchase are Egyptian gum, cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution, and glossy magazines with Hugo Chavez on the cover. Sinister men in baggy uniforms, all puffing Marlboros, shout at each other and disappear with my passport. I later find out this bit of theater was required because I possess a passport stamp from Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. After some discussion, my personal government apparatchik informs the entire staff of Libyan customs that, on orders from high, this particular learned elder of Zion can be allowed through.

[…]

Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage. Among the few benefits of living in a dictatorship, I had presumed, were that the trains run on time, crime is low, and armies of revolutionary trash collectors ensure that tourists tell their friends the country might not have elections but is at least exceptionally clean.

Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product (aside from the ubiquitous face of Qaddafi staring down from countless billboards) is, inexplicably, corn oil. After decades of crippling trade sanctions under an aging and increasingly batty dictator, and with no tourism industry to speak of, Libya’s economy is a shambles. In their latest Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rank the country 171st out of 179, only slightly edging out the Union of the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides sucking the economic life out of Tripoli, Qaddafi determined that the capital city, once a playground for Italian and British colonizers, must also be denuded of fun. Alcohol, which for years helped people forget they lived in Libya, is prohibited. Nonalcoholic beer is available in our hotel (a five-star, though it appears to have been graded on a curve), but only to placate (or taunt) the few Western visitors who pass through. The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians, surrounding themselves with pointless facsimiles of the forbidden, from beef bacon to bottles of booze with all the booze removed.

No matter how hard governments try, though, it is increasingly difficult to close a country to all malignant Western cultural influences. The tighter the controls, the more pedestrian the content that sneaks through. Libyan teenagers have scrawled “50 Cent” and “Tupac” throughout Tripoli’s largest souk. On a crumbling yellow wall outside a bootleg DVD shop, someone was inspired—doubtless by a contraband hip-hop CD—to scribble “fuck yo” in defiance of nothing much at all. Inside the DVD shop, the Hollywood film Fat Albert is available for a few dollars—popular, presumably, because the title character, like most Libyans, lives in a junk yard.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 18, 2010 11:54 AM
Comments
What do you expect fromt he man who declares a jihad on Switzerland of all countries?
Posted by: Ali at March 18, 2010 3:20 pm
Wow! Guess he doesn't like Libya much lol.

I'd have more respect for his opinions if he wasn't British. The British whore themselves to Qadaffi something awful and it's not unusual under those circumstances for people to be angry and resentful.

As far as Libya not "resembling" a wealthy country, what is he comparing it to? I lived in Manhattan in the early 1980s and it looked like a junkyard back then. Especially the famous subways. If you didn't get mugged and maybe stabbed, you'd be at risk of passing out from the stench.

I looked into it a couple years ago and it seems the only way for an American to get a visa to go to Libya is via Cruise ship, so there's definitely tourism in Libya. Which is more than could be said for Iraq a decade ago, eh? :)
Posted by: Craig at March 18, 2010 6:38 pm
Craig,

Moynihan isn't British. He's American. But why should his nationality have any bearing on his opinions anyway? Even if he were British, it wouldn't be his fault that Britain's foreign policy toward Libya is ridiculous.

I don't know how hard it is for Americans to get a tourist visa for Libya today, but in 2004 it was possible if you were willing to put up with a HUGE amount of bullshit like I was.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 18, 2010 7:02 pm
Moynihan isn't British. He's American. But why should his nationality have any bearing on his opinions anyway? Even if he were British, it wouldn't be his fault that Britain's foreign policy toward Libya is ridiculous.

I'm racist against British! And that's OK because my ancestors were British... kinda like how it's OK for Jews to be anti-semitic, or something... right? Well, anyway, the British drive me crazy. But only when it comes to politics. I enjoyed London, and it may be my favorite city.

I don't know how hard it is for Americans to get a tourist visa for Libya today, but in 2004 it was possible if you were willing to put up with a HUGE amount of bullshit like I was.

Did you go to a Libyan embassy someplace? There isn't one in the US, and it's recommended that Americans apply in Canada. Or you can sign up with a travel group and get group visa, whatever that is but I think you have to stay with the group if you do that which would kinda suck.
Posted by: Craig at March 18, 2010 10:31 pm
I got my visa in Ottawa. I had to apply twice, and I had to show up in person. It took eight months. I wouldn't recommend the experience.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 19, 2010 1:43 am
Corn oil is a lubricant
Posted by: sol vason at March 19, 2010 11:37 am
Thanks, MJT. That was pretty much the conclusion I came to.
Posted by: Craig at March 19, 2010 12:18 pm
Under fascism the trains did indeed run on time except they never carried either passengers or freight. But they always matched the train scheduale which was usually considered a state secret.
Posted by: Pat Patterson at March 19, 2010 7:31 pm
Qaddafi seems too wacky to be dangerous. Even though he's a ruthless dictator and just an all-around maniac, he's no Saddam Hussein.
Posted by: Ali at March 20, 2010 2:00 am
Saddam Hussein had more than a few screws loose. I think that's the reason these dictators are so dangerous. If they can't be counted on to understand deterrence or self-preservation then once they are set of a destructive program all methods short of war become virtually ineffective.
Posted by: Virus at March 20, 2010 3:46 pm
MJT, almost everyone who knows Qaddafi in the world thinks of him foremost as a regular stand up comic; SNL/Homer Simpson/William Shatner style. Almost everyone in the world who knows Qaddafi enjoys laughing at his expense.

At the same time, Libya is seen as remote and inconsequential by almost everyone in the world who isn't Libyan. Therefore what Libya and Qaddafi does or does not do has almost no impact anywhere in the world outside of Libya.

The only partial exception to this is Chad; and even there the effect of Qaddafi is negligible.
Posted by: anan at March 20, 2010 9:37 pm
"At the same time, Libya is seen as remote and inconsequential by almost everyone in the world who isn't Libyan. Therefore what Libya and Qaddafi does or does not do has almost no impact anywhere in the world outside of Libya."

I wish it were true.
Qaddafi caused a lot of damage by supporting "revolutionary" forces all over Africa. A lot of dead people too.
He is still at it. (see Mauritania in 2009-2008)
Posted by: idit at March 21, 2010 2:12 am
Qaddafi caused a lot of damage by supporting "revolutionary" forces all over Africa. A lot of dead people too.

Prolly goes a long way towards explaining where all the oil money went :o
Posted by: Craig at March 21, 2010 4:10 pm
A translator at a government office I visited, who without irony identifies himself as Libya’s former secretary general of human rights, exclaims, “We have always been against terrorism.” How do you dialogue with people who are so evasive, so untethered to reality?

You don't, you pay attention to what they do, not what they say, instead. A great disadvantage if you're a reporter assigned to doing interviews; you know that anything you report will be propaganda.
Posted by: Solomon2 at March 23, 2010 12:30 pm
If there is an election, the ruling party will inevitably receive 100 percent of the ballots cast. When the LIFG prisoners were asked to renounce Al Qaeda, the result, one official insists to our group, was “100 percent having been convinced.”

Read Arab histories carefully and you will realize the irony of Arab historians. When they report that no one ever questioned a ruler's wisdom or disagreed with his decisions, you can be sure the man was a tyrant, and they simply wrote what they were compelled to.

Unfortunately, many Muslims seem to read the fulsome praise at face value, seek to emulate such rulers, only to wonder why they aren't received with universal acclamation and have to order their own toadies to write praises of them instead...
Posted by: Solomon2 at March 23, 2010 12:36 pm
Solomon2 is correct that importance lies with what they do, rather than what they say. But what they say, if considered carefully, may be helpful in understanding the situation.

"Dialogue" and "negotiations" in Arab societies need to be understood as occurring in a souk or bazaar: price haggling, demands for respect, and "win/lose" rather than "win-win". From their viewpoint, their statements, such as "We have always been against terrorism" are exploratory and not intended to be measured as truthful. The purpose of their statements is to see how their negotiation-opponent (you/us/Moynihan) reacts or what you are willing to accede to, even before serious discussion begins. A serious discussion would only even begin if they feel that the relationship between them and their negotiation-opponent is validated by some outside actions or necessity, combined with respect, given and received. That they are given respect does not however mean that it will be returned automatically. The response that they see to the exploratory forays will affect their level of respect for their opponent, but other factors such as status and religion will certainly constrain the system. Generosity earns disrespect unless there is already significant respect. They are not interested in "win-win" cliches, which are alien-western-new-agey.
Posted by: del at March 23, 2010 1:16 pm
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