Update: Today, April 6, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declared an independent state in northern Mali, the first assertion of Tuareg control of Timbuktu, their old capital, since 1591.What do you think of when you see or hear the word “Tuareg”? Most Americans, I think, are left utterly blank by the sight and the sound of this noun. Those who do find some association with the word probably tend to think of a car, specifically a Volkswagen of recent vintage, but spelled “Touareg” for some no doubt very sensible Germanic reason. Most Americans do not read a newspaper or consult any other serious news source on a daily basis, so their heretofore blank Tuareg slates are unlikely to have been marked by the recent copy in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press dispatches in a host of other papers and electronic news sources. That copy, if read, arrests attention—or should.It’s about events in and around Mali, where not only has there been a rare display of regional pressure on the two-week-old coup leaders of that country, but where, much more significantly and not at all coincidentally, the entire northern part of that vast land has fallen under the control of Tuareg rebels. Rebel control extends as of this past weekend to Timbuktu, that fabled city on the southern edge of the Sahara immortalized by the anonymous English-language phrase “from here to Timbuktu.” Reports from the Malian capital, Bamako, say that the Malian state has essentially ceased to exist in the vast northern part of the country. (Americans familiar with “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” of course know where Bamako is.) What does seem to exist, so far in unclear relationships, are two rebel groups now in loose control: the long-established and mainly secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, and a smaller Islamist group that sports a black flag as its banner, Ansar ud-Din. A series of questions, all of which start with the word “why”, may come to mind. Why was there a coup against the democratically elected government of Mali about two weeks ago? What does the coup have to do with rebel success in the north? Who or what is a Tuareg anyway, when it, he or she is not being a Volkswagen, and why should Americans care one way or the other about any of this? These are all good questions, but before beginning to suggest an answer in brief to some of them, let me point out that the attempt to connect some of the many dots in this story reminds me of Hegel. Hegel once made a reference to “the phenomenology of fools.” What he meant by this phrase, if memory serves me correctly, is that it is a mostly worthless conceit of mediocre philosophers to insist that everything is related to everything else. In some way maybe it’s true, yes, but what Hegel was trying to point out is that this is a truth of a particularly useless sort. It gives one no purchase on any practical or philosophical problem, leaving one instead in a flattened plain of causal possibilities in which any supposition is as good as another. Hegel never said that connections don’t matter; he simply tried to point out that not all connections are created equal, or are equally obvious. Which of course leads us to Libya. What is going on in Mali is a direct consequence of what went on over the past year and a half in Libya. Back on October 27, in the third of a four-part series on the Libya escapade, I noted in passing as just one of the problems that might arise in the post-regime chaos: The Tuareg part of the country, toward the southwest, was aligned with the old regime and furnished part of Qaddafi’s shock troops. They may cause trouble or even in time try to secede if a new regime is not to their liking. Since I mentioned the Tuareg only in passing, I did not stop at the time to comment on the situation in Mali, Niger, Chad and other neighboring countries. But I will say this now: If the Tuareg manage to dig in and set up shop in northern Mali, they will eventually set their sights on parts of southwestern Libya. The Azawad, as they call themselves in their Berber-family language, have an image of a homeland that stretches over several countries. If state structures are too weak to stop them, the Tuareg will take what they can while the taking is good. They are in the midst of what looks to be what the anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace called in 1956 a “revitalization movement.” Chances are that they won’t stop until someone stops them, because important congealing social purposes are being served by their effort. (They parallel to some degree those of the Berber revival in North Africa, that of the Amazigh: See Bruce Maddy-Weitzman’s excellent essay for The American Interest.) Those congealing purposes also may explain something about Ansar ud-Din, for revitalization movements are most often bound up in religion and religious symbols. Not a great deal is known in the public domain about this group. The U.S. military has undertaken fairly quiet anti-terrorist training in Mali, Niger and elsewhere over the past eight or so years, and there has been some concern about al-Qaeda, or local al-Qaeda franchises, operating in this part of the world. So now we have evidence that at least one such franchise is up and running—indeed, prospering by the looks of things. My guess is that the French intelligence services know as much or more about this group than we do, but just one note from an American, please, about the name. Arabic is redolent in historical-religious connotations, the vast majority of which go right past even most Westerners engaged as part of their day job in such matters—military personnel, intelligence community officials, aid workers, and so on. The word “ansar” means “helpers”, but it refers specifically to the earliest allies of Muhammad, those without whom Islam could not have come into being. The ansar are deeply revered figures, faithful and pious, and any organization that takes for itself that word to use in its name is doing so in order to borrow from its symbolic sanctity. The word “din” is notoriously hard to translate into American-mentality English. It means law, but it also means faith in a generic sense and it also means religion, because in the Islamo-Muslim world there is not as much difference between law and faith and religion as there is in the West. Islam, like Judaism, is a law-based system. There is no Arabic word that means “religion” as Americans understand the concept. What about the “ud-“? It just means “the”, as in “helpers of the faith”, but in Arabic the consonant before the noun in this indication of a coming direct object accommodates the first consonantal sound of the noun. So since “din” begins with a “d” sound, you get “ud-” in transliteration. That’s also why it’s properly “Anwar as-Sadat” in transliteration, not “Anwar el-Sadat”, “Haroun ar-Rashid”, and so on. (More than you ever wanted to know about Arabic grammar, right?) Anyway, to return to the main storyline, the collapse of the Qadaffi regime in Libya is what energized the Tuareg. They lost their main protector in Libya, and, grabbing as many weapons as they could carry––which was evidently quite a few truckloads of we’re still not sure exactly what––they set about helping their brethren in Mali to carve out a new safe area for themselves. As the Tuareg bore down on Timbuktu, the military in Mali begged the government to let them have at the rebels. For whatever reason, the government’s response disappointed the military, which decided to take matters into its own hands before it was too late. Alas, the chaos caused by the coup seems to have accelerated the determination of the Tuareg to seize control before authorities in Bamako could figure out which way was up. Their control now looks to be something of a fait accompli. One wonders what French officials these days are privately thinking about that. Mali used to be part of Afrique Occidental Francaise. When the French left sub-Saharan Africa, unlike the British, they didn’t really leave––at least not to nearly the same extent. Historically, too, the French had some very nasty run-ins with the Tuareg, not least in the southern parts of Algeria back toward the end of the 19th century. Every French student of history knows tales like the one where the Tuareg scouts amiably volunteer to lead the French expeditionary force south into the countryside, pointing out safe pathways between water wells, only to cut them off once deep into desert tribal areas and slaughter them by the hundreds. Oh to be a fly on the wall, so to speak, in a certain room on the Champs Elysées about now. My guess is that French officialdom will not look kindly on the destruction of one of their successor Francophone African states. But it was their insistence on “doing” Libya that caused it, and it’s not clear by any means what they can do about it now. And if you want to read about the complete mess that Libya is these days, as its fragmented politics become increasingly militarized in advance of an election season, you can consult the New York Times, “Libyan Militias Turn to Politics, a Volatile Mix.” (The late Anthony Shadid wrote the prequel to this article on February 8, giving rise to my comments in “Remember Libya?”) No, everything is not connected to everything else; Tuareg in Mali have been raiding and rebelling for years. But Mali is most certainly connected to Libya now. It took the other day’s New York Times article until the very last paragraph to mention this, but I suppose better last then not at all. I, however, feel duty-bound to mention this loudly in the spirit of unvarnished schadenfreude, because, as my readers know, I opposed the Libyan operation from the very beginning and have warned of dire outcomes now for more than a year. Some people, however, still don’t want to listen. A friend of mine, an officer in the United States Air Force who will remain unnamed here, still thinks that Libya was a nifty little war. No Americans got killed. The bad guy did get killed. We won, you see. More important, as he explained to me, from the U.S. military’s point of view––and to some extent from the White House’s point of view––the real justification for U.S. participation in this escapade was to respond to pleas from our European allies to help them out in a pinch. The basic idea is, look, we unwittingly suckered them into Afghanistan, which has proved neither militarily nor politically a very happy place to hang out, so now we have to help them out in their hour of need. (This same narrative, by the way, appears in James Mann’s forthcoming book The Obamians.) One hand washes the other; alliance comity prevails, everyone feels chummy, and anyway all’s well that ends well. Except it hasn’t ended and things are not really so wonderfully well: read, most recently, black flags flying over Timbuktu. I understand the argument, and I don’t want to diminish the extent to which this motive actually functioned in U.S. decision-making. I was at least dimly aware of it at the time when the decisions were made. But I never elevated it to a first-priority motive because it never made any sense to me to repay one foolish set of decisions by reciprocally supporting another foolish set of decisions. If that is what NATO solidarity has come down to, God help us all. (I think I saw the movie: It was called Dumb and Dumber.) And finally for today let us come to Syria. As many have noted, Syria ought to be connected to Libya, but it isn’t. The Administration told us that it went to war in the Libyan case not for the sake of NATO comity but to prevent genocide in Benghazi. (Were they kidding us?) No one has ever been able to seriously argue that there was a vital national interest anywhere to be seen in Libya. In Syria the humanitarian crisis is, if anything, greater. It certainly is larger; far more innocent civilians have been murdered by the regime than ever was the case in Libya, and the numbers we have now are most certainly underestimates. The strategic stake is obviously great, too, for what is going on in Syria, if you like an historical metaphor or analog, is the Spanish Civil War-phase of a larger struggle looming on the horizon between the United States and its Middle Eastern alliance system on the one side and that of Iran on the other. Syria’s future is a key tipping point in this struggle. If after our declaring (foolishly perhaps) that Assad must go he ends up hanging on, then Iran wins and the United States loses this prelim. This is why it is so puzzling at first glance that the United States would contract out its Syria policy to, of all parties, Russia, a country that has armed Syria and whose basic policy goals are directly in opposition to our own. The Russians only support Kofi Annan’s mission because they know it is completely hopeless—just in practice a means for Assad and his thugs to buy time to “mop up” the rebels. So much for diplomacy when there is obviously no will to mutual compromise, and the good intentions of the clueless, very predictably because hardly for the first time, morph into valuable assets for murderers. But it is puzzling only at first glance. It might seem strange that United States would go to war in a Middle Eastern case where no strategic vital interests are at stake, but refuse to do so in a case where there are such interests (despite, admittedly, many other differences between the two cases). If that were all this is about, then Henry Kissinger’s plaint in last Sunday’s Washington Post––that we seem to have substituted pseudo-humanitarian goals determined by internet fads for an analysis of national interest––would suffice. But Henry, I think, knows better than that. The reason that the Obama Administration has stiff-armed the Turks and refused to arm the Syrian opposition, doing everything it could below the line of sight at the April 1 “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul to harm that opposition, is that the White House has made it clear: no military excitement in or near the region before the first week in November, lest oil prices spike and the President fail to get reelected. That’s the relevant connection here; this is about politics in its rawest form. Every President, indeed every national democratic leader, can plausibly make the argument to himself and his supporters that his failure to get reelected would be a national security catastrophe, and national leaders in democratic countries often sincerely believe this. Barack Obama is no innovator here, nor have Republican incumbents been immune to this particular temptation. But any rationale that puts partisan political interests ahead of the national interest is still ultimately an argument of scoundrels. I wonder what Hegel, the discerner of History itself, would say about that.
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Published on: April 4, 2012A Hegelian Moment in the Middle East