walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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The Trouble In Timbuktu

Life in Timbuktu is changing quickly. Five weeks ago, this ancient city in northern Mali fell to Taureg rebels who sought an independent homeland. They were helped by at least one al Qaeda-linked Islamist group. Today, the Islamists rule the city alone.

“The ‘bearded men’ are the new masters of the Azawad region. The MNLA [Taureg rebel group] are in second place,” said a former tourism worker.

Fighters linked to Ansar Dine, an Islamist group that seeks to install Sharia law across Mali, destroyed the tomb of one of Timbuktu’s revered saints late last week. Some fundamentalist Muslims believe the reverence of saints and tombs is idolatrous: “What you are doing is haram! (forbidden). Ask God directly rather than the dead,” one of the fighters shouted at worshippers who were on their way to pray. “They attacked the grave, broke doors, windows and wooden gates that protect it. They brought it outside and burn it,” a local politician told Reuters. “This tomb is sacred, it is too difficult to bear.” Sixteen of Timbuktu’s 333 tombs are UNESCO World Heritage sites, as is the city itself.

Meanwhile, the junta that took power in southern Mali is hunting “mercenaries” and soldiers loyal to the ousted president, Amadou Toumani Toure. Three days of continuous fighting swept Bamako, the capital, last week. Twenty-seven people were reported killed.

The crisis in Mali was sparked when well-equipped soldiers who had fought for Qaddafi in Libya invaded northern Mali, routing government troops and establishing a foothold in the northern deserts. They began overrunning towns, then cities like Timbuktu. Disgruntled Malian soldiers overthrew the government in Bamako, one of Africa’s oldest democracies, saying the government was unable to fight the Taureg rebels. Now much of Mali — perhaps all of it — is lawless territory. Libya too: As Robert Worth, a NYT journalist, wrote recently in a fascinating piece on Libya’s militias,

Libya has no army. It has no government. These things exist on paper, but in practice, Libya has yet to recover from the long maelstrom of Qaddafi’s rule. The country’s oil is being pumped again, but there are still no lawmakers, no provincial governors, no unions and almost no police…

What Libya does have is militias, more than 60 of them, manned by rebels who had little or no military or police training when the revolution broke out less than 15 months ago. They prefer to be called katibas, or brigades, and their members are universally known as thuwar, or revolutionaries. Each brigade exercises unfettered authority over its turf, with “revolutionary legitimacy” as its only warrant.

NATO didn’t plan to destroy democracy in Mali while creating a wide swathe of lawless territory in North Africa, but sometimes your intentions don’t matter. As a result of NATO’s Libya intervention, dangerous and destructive forces have been unleashed; old fights have been reinvigorated. Civilians — and world heritage sites — are at risk. Islamist terrorists are finding new ungoverned spaces to call home. Libya’s weapons are missing, and it doesn’t look as if the people who have gotten them are particularly trustworthy or nice.

Via Meadia is glad the press doesn’t hate Obama as much as it hated Bush; otherwise the papers would be full every day with stories about the unintended, tragic consequences of the humanitarian intervention gone awry in Libya and about the policy failures and miscalculations that landed us in this mess. There would be eloquent lamentations and beautifully choreographed hand wringings by our professional moralists and the custodians of the collective conscience at our better universities and more prestigious magazines. There would be telling comparisons of the destruction of the tombs in Timbuktu with the looting of the Baghdad museums. There would be impassioned denunciations of the hubris that led the ideological zealots to promote the holy war, and scathing, mocking reminders of the promises they made about how nice things would be if we took their advice.

As it is, we are just doing our best to ignore the rubble and move on, while many of the same people who pushed the Libya intervention try to gin up a new war in Syria. At least if we make a mess in Syria there is a strong national interest case for the intervention, and a small war in Syria might well reduce the risk of much uglier and nastier war with Iran. Via Meadia is still scratching its head wondering what exactly we gained that was worth the humanitarian catastrophes and bloodbaths the Libyan war unleashed.

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  • Anthony

    “…otherwise the papers would be full every day with stories about unintended, tragic consequences of the humanitarian intervention gone awry in Libya and about the policy failures and miscalculations that landed us in this mess.” WRM, no good deed goes unpunished – let’s thank President Obama and Secretary Clinton for the Mali result and the ongoing disruption in other affected areas of the Libyan intervention.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Righteous rant.

    What we gained was access to oil for the French and Italians. Bombs for oil. Just before our pivot to the Pacific. How can they get it so right on one side of the hemisphere and so wrong on the other? Or is it a stopped clock?

    And Syria? Ain’t got no oil.

  • John Burke

    Here’s my question. Where are the French?

  • QET

    Well said. I had not really considered it until reading this piece, but Libya certainly is and has been off the front page, the back page and all pages in between for a long time now.

  • Deoxy

    At least if we make a mess in Syria there is a strong national interest case for the intervention, and a small war in Syria might well reduce the risk of much uglier and nastier war with Iran. Via Meadia is still scratching its head wondering what exactly we gained that was worth the humanitarian catastrophes and bloodbaths the Libyan war unleashed.

    That the US gained nothing is what makes the intervention in Libya OK. If it has actively hurt us, that makes it a good thing.

    I don’t know what their actual reasoning is, of course, but that’s the only logic I can find that returns the same answers the Left always gives.

  • Curtis

    Can they not just stone the women to death quietly?

  • crypticguise

    Timbuktu…Mali…Desert…ship all Muslims to this area… they can establish the new Caliphate there.

    Looks like the Tauregs got screwed by their fellow Muslims. heh..

  • Curtis

    I’m pretty sure they’re not allowed to scream or make any noise since they get all tied up and their mouths are stuffed. I’ve never been to a woman stoning though since I live in a civilized western country where we don’t do that. So, I could be wrong. Maybe they scream as they are hurt by each stone. We should probably send some woman journalists to islamic countries in order to find out if it hurts being stoned to death by the brotherhood. You know, for being raped and payback for a brother’s infidelity and stuff.

  • Allan Blackwell

    This may prove a grave threat to the very interesting Dogon, Bozo, and Bambara peoples further south.

  • The Olde Kat

    For actions taken (or not taken), there are always consequences. Some good, some bad and some unintended. Truthfully, with all of the bad and unintended consequences already occurring with respect to U.S. foreign policy and more on the way if there are combat actions taken involving Syria and Iran, the old and long suppressed Midwestern isolationism is looking better all the time. I wonder: Will there be any national political leader who will broach the taboo subject of ‘Fortress America’ in the next five years?

  • Milwaukee

    Are we still engaged, militarily, in Libya? What about the French and Italian press? France has many people with family ties to Northern Africa, what news is coming from them? The “mess” in Iraq is nothing compared to this Libyan mess. Has anyone questioned the women who egged us on into this mess? HRC, for example.

  • Rich K

    But with all that real news to ignore at least we know Joe Biden likes gay folks and his boss is now out of the closet on the idea too.

  • Corlyss

    “Some fundamentalist Muslims believe the reverence of saints and tombs is idolatrous: ”What you are doing is haram! (forbidden). Ask God directly rather than the dead,” one of the fighters shouted at worshippers who were on their way to pray.”

    Mmmmm. Can’t wait for them to assault the Kaaba and other holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

  • Corlyss

    @ John

    The French are where they have been since the Napoleonic era – in the rear waiting for someone else to lean forward in the foxhole.

    @ Mrs. Davis

    Is this hostility to oil sincere, or just a trendy pose? There’s no better reason to fight for cheap energy than it is the basis of our prosperity. Without it we really are in decline, unable to defend our interests anywhere, including within our own shores.

  • Jim.

    @3:

    Where are the Russians?

    Wasn’t Gadfly a Soviet puppet for a while, causing trouble on their behalf? If so, they may have some strings that can be pulled there… if they’re not pulling the strings already.

  • Kris

    Since the Via Meadia readership is undoubtedly eagerly awaiting my pronouncements on this matter:

    (i) The US had every right to act against Qaddafi, or any other such dictator.
    (ii) [Expletive] the “Pottery Barn rule”. The fact that the US frees a nation from a dictatorship does not impose on it an obligation to “nation-build.”
    (iii) The first two points are in no way an endorsement of indiscriminate interventionism. Any foreign intervention must be subject to careful consideration, and I wish I could be more confident of the soundness of the Administration’s judgement.

  • http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/ Patrick Armstrong

    And meanwhile, QET, another place that NATO had a “humanitarian intervention” in, also “off the front page, the back page and all pages in between for a long time now” — in short, Kosovo, continues to develop.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/24/hashim-thaci-kosovo-organised-crime

    Perhaps, Mr Meade, you should write a piece on how Russia and China are saving us from creating another “wide swathe of lawless territory” in what used to be Syria.

    These “humanitarian interventions” not only take a lot longer than they are supposed to, but aren’t often very “humanitarian” at the end of the story.

    PS “a small war in Syria” — doubt it would be very “small” — look how long Kosovo and Libya took.

  • Mick

    “Where are the French?” Probably battling Islamist’s in the Paris suburbs.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “Via Meadia is glad the press doesn’t hate Obama as much as it hated Bush; otherwise the papers would be full every day with stories about the unintended, tragic consequences of the humanitarian intervention gone awry in Libya and about the policy failures and miscalculations that landed us in this mess.”

    I happen to think that criticism from the press makes American Foreign Policy better, and it’s a form of feedback that the Obama Administration needs more than any other Administration in my lifetime, and it’s not getting it. I truly despise the leftist Main Stream Media; they damage our culture in so many ways, from their bias in what they chose to report and how they report it, to their failure to report on things that conflict with the leftist narrative.

  • Kris

    Corlyss@13: See.

    What he found in Mecca is at once tragic and awesome. The Saudis, it seems, are eager “to erase all vestiges of the past.” The Saudis Wahhabi faith decrees that “revering structures with ties to the Prophet can lead to idolatrous practices.” So, only days after soldiers of King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud conquered Mecca in 1924, the destruction of buildings associated with the Prophet began, including his presumed birthplace and the house of his wife Khadijah.

  • Rich Rostrom

    1) The Saharan nomads are the Tuareg, not Taureg.

    2) Corlyss: the Moslems who denounce reverence for the tombs of saints are Wahhabi or Salafist. They have controlled Arabia for almost a century now, since ibn Saud took Hejaz from the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca (the ancestor of the kings of Jordan). They have destroyed many shrines and tombs in the area, including supposed tombs of Mohammed’s companions.

    Wahhabis are very much like Puritan Protestant Christians of the 17th century in this respect: they regard any sort of religious augmentation as heretical or improper: relics, art, sacred “furniture”. It is said that most of the medieval stained-glass windows in English churches were smashed by Cromwell’s troops; they also burned vestments, icons, saints’ relics, and other “idolatrous” material.

    But of course the Wahhabis revere the Kaaba, as explicitly directed in the Koran.

  • john lynch

    If Mali can fall to a small number of mercenaries from Libya then there’s something wrong with Mali.

    The real story of the Arab revolutions is the decay and weakness that allowed rebellion to succeed. Previously, all the fallen governments had been able to suppress dissent. Then they could not.

    The Arab governments that survived show that the revolution isn’t inevitable. Saudi Arabia crushed rebellion on the island of Bahrain. Jordon and Morocco were able to negotiate from a position of relative strength. The difference is that these governments are still able to rule. In Egypt and Tunisia the rot was too far gone.

    What we’re seeing is the final decay and failure of the post-colonial system in North Africa and the Middle East. The countries that preserved their monarchies and traditional institutions seem to have survived. Those that aped Western dictatorships did not.

    In a way, the post-colonial nationalist republics were like the kingdoms set up after the fall of Rome, living in the ruins while living off of the remaining capital left by the empire. When that ran out, darkness descended.

    We should hope for a good outcome, but any explanation for the Arab Spring that leaves out the decay and weakness of Arab states is not only missing the real cause of the event but is also obscuring the likely result- continuing dissolution.

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