We Americans are optimists. We like to believe the best about people and find the bright side in any situation. It's a positive trait; one I hope we never lose. Unfortunately, abroad, it means we often see only what we want to see and project our own characteristics and attitudes onto others.
In the run-up to the last Iraq war, I was in the mountains of Kurdistan, running CIA operations against Saddam's forces and organizing opposition to the Iraqi regime. In the murky world of anti-Saddam forces there were any number of questionable characters, but none more untrustworthy than Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi had by 2002 long since been discredited by the CIA, but he continued to work a wide range of contacts inside the Pentagon and to attempt, with some significant success, to portray himself as the natural person to replace Saddam as ruler of Iraq.
That Chalabi had virtually no support inside Iraq and had not stepped foot in the country in many years did not seem to matter. He dressed in well-tailored Western style suits. He spoke flawless English. He used all the right buzz words about democracy and human rights. That this was a carefully orchestrated show for our benefit did not seem to matter. The Pentagon saw what it wanted to see, a secular, democratic Iraqi with Western mannerisms to promote and support.
Perhaps the culmination of this deception came with Chalabi's provision of "troops" for the invasion of Iraq. Shortly before the actual invasion of Iraq began, Chalabi offered to the Pentagon a battalion, roughly seven hundred men, from what he described as his secret army. The Pentagon, desperate to have non-American soldiers participate in the invasion to add legitimacy to claims of a coalition effort, accepted and began to make preparations to move these soldiers out of Northern Iraq and into Southern Iraq where they could begin to fight alongside American soldiers.
We, the CIA officers present in Northern Iraq, responded immediately with strong, clear warnings. Chalabi did not have an army, secret or otherwise. He had a nice home in the mountains on a beautiful lake. He had a certain number of armed bodyguards, but he could not begin to produce seven hundred armed men. Worse yet, all of our intelligence indicated that the men Chalabi was going to produce were members of the Badr Corps, an Iraqi opposition force controlled by the Iranians. In short, the Pentagon was preparing to transport an Iranian proxy force into Iraq on US aircraft.
Our warnings went unheeded. The Badr Corps unit was flown into Iraq at US taxpayers' expense and on US aircraft. Once in country they began immediately to work against our interests and to follow the guidance of their masters in Tehran.
Incredible. Na?ve. Almost impossible to believe.
And, yet, the product of a mindset eerily similar to that on display right now in regard to Libya.
For months now the press and the Administration have been awash in praise for the "Arab Spring", a string of spontaneous uprisings portrayed as representing the victory of secular, democratic forces over a range of authoritarian dictators. Nowhere has this portrayal been more marked than in Libya, where we provided direct, military support to opposition forces and brought about the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi.
That Qaddafi was a monster is self-evident. That he suffered a brutal, degrading end entirely appropriate for a thug and a mass murderer, no less so. This does not, however, compel the conclusion that those who brought him down share our values or our vision of a future Iraq. We may choose to paint them all as bright, young, secular activists eager to begin the transformation of Libya into a modern, democratic nation. That does not make it so.
The truth is that there are individuals from many walks of life in the opposition. Some of them, no doubt, wish for a Libya with a Western style democratic government. Others are motivated primarily by tribal and regional loyalties. A significant number, however, are driven by forces much darker and much more threatening to our interests.
Hardly had NATO announced the formal end of its campaign in Libya, than those darker interests began to come out into the open. Within a day the black banner of Al Qaida was flying over the unofficial headquarters of the new transitional government, the courthouse in Benghazi. Shortly afterward the flag began to appear at numerous locations around the country and threats began to be made against journalists seen filming the flags or interviewing people about them.
The most powerful figure in Libya right now is Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the commander of Tripoli's Military Council and the man who spearheaded the attack on Muammar al-Qaddafi's compound at Bab al-Aziziya. Forces under his direct command control the capital and the international airport. He is the former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a jihadi organization, which formally merged with Al Qaida in 2007.
The LIFG conducted a low-level insurgency based in eastern Libya and tried three times to assassinate Qaddafi in 1995 and 1996. By 1998, the LIFG was crushed in Libya. Most of its leaders and members fled and joined forces with the Taliban in Afghanistan. After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, Belhaj and most of the LIFG leaders fled that country as well.
While Belhaj has attempted to portray himself as somehow reformed, it is important to keep in mind that the LIFG was not a political or spiritual entity. It was a terrorist organization and one of the most violent ever known. Per capita, more Libyans staged suicide attacks on US forces in Iraq than any other nationality. Most of those Libyans were recruited and sent into Iraq by the LIFG.
It is also important to remember that Belhaj did not turn himself in or renounce jihad while at large. He was captured while still active as a terrorist on the world stage, and all of his claims to have "changed" since his capture are likely motivated more by self-interest than by any true change of heart.
Since Qaddafi's death, Belhaj, has issued a number of warnings that any efforts to exclude Islamists from a new government will likely lead to a serious reaction on the part of those excluded. Reporters in Libya who have written critically of Belhaj, his associates and Islamist efforts to dictate changes in Libyan society, by closing beauty salons and forcing women to wear the hijab, have been threatened with death.
Belhaj is close to Ali Sallabi, an influential cleric, who lived in exile in Qatar before returning after the start of the revolution in Benghazi. Sallabi, who has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, has openly called for the creation of a Libyan government based on Sharia law. He does not yet hold any official position in the new government, but he has rapidly emerged as the nation's most influential politician.
Recently the U.S.-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, marked the official victory over Qaddafi with a "liberation" speech. In that speech he declared, "We are an Islamic state," and then outlined his vision for the post-Muammar Gaddafi future. Jalil noted that any provisions of Libyan law, which conflicted with Sharia, were now null and void.
The Muslim Brotherhood members of the new government, who dominate the Governing Council, have declared their intention to impose fatwas, ban theater, prevent women from driving, and eliminate art that takes a human form. Article one of Libya's draft Constitution provides,"that Islam is the Religion of the State, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence."
What exactly will happen in Libya over the coming months remains unclear. A moderate Islamic government, which imposes minimal social restrictions, may yet emerge. Something infinitely darker and more dangerous, an Iranian style theocracy, may appear as well. What is obvious, however, is that the fantasy visions of Libyans rushing to put in place a friendly, secular democratic government along American or European lines were grounded in self-delusion not fact. The grim reality is that not everyone thinks the way we do. Not everyone likes us. Not everyone wants to be just like us.
We are long past the point in our history, if there ever was one, when we could insulate ourselves from world events and sit on the sidelines as observers. We will remain the greatest power on earth for the foreseeable future, and we will, of necessity, continue to play a major role on the world stage In making decisions about how and when to intervene in the affairs of other nations, however, we need to ensure that we are guided by a hard, objective, clear-eyed appraisal of the forces at work and the likely outcome of intervention. We need to ensure that we see the world as it is and not simply as we wish it to be.