All I know about Arabs and Northern Africa I learned from David Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, and from Patton and Casablanca and Tobruck. How different am I from millions of other babyboomers whose images of history and world affairs are a mixture of schoolbook learning and Technicolor images?
How many of us studied anything about North Africa, in school, beyond the campaign to drive Rommel’s panzers out? As “African Studies” bloomed in response to progress in the civil rights movement, North Africa was too often dismissed as not African enough. It was, to common ‘knowledge,’ mostly Arab instead of African and was mostly a collection of oil despotism with no significance for the ‘real’ Africa. Sort of like dismissing New England as a group of quaint but out-of-date states, no longer relevant in discussions of U.S. public policy.
And what were Arabs, after all? As David Lean taught us, T.E. Lawrence had to teach them modern warfare and modern politics. Lawrence’s first major military victory was the assault on the port city of Aqaba. But to Lean, the most important part of the Aqaba effort was Lawrence’s resolve and leadership that taught Bedouins not to fear the desert! From the tribal blood feud the night before the heroic assault on Aqaba to the complete ineptitude and tribal bickering that destroyed any hope of Arab rule after Lawrence led the Arab army into Damascus, we have been taught that the Arabs are barbarous, primitive, greedy, cruel, and incapable of thought beyond the next raid or bribe. They must be led by more advanced, blond Europeans.
There was not an oil derrick anywhere to be seen in Lean’s magnificent, desolate Arabia. But even without oil wealth, the Arab Sheiks lived in glittering finery, preening and strutting. As if their current conspicuous and excessive consumption were a racial fault, and nothing to blame on their oil wealth or dictatorial corruption, propped up by U.S. military forces.
While Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was a core history lesson for baby boomer American kids, Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algeria, released in 1966, just four years after Lawrence, provided a much different picture of Arabs and North Africa, for those few who saw it on this side of the Atlantic. The film shows us Arabs as impoverished in the 1950s as they were in Lawrence’s 19-teens. But these Arabs are organized, efficient, brave, self-sacrificing and ultimately successful against the better armed, better fed, better trained French forces. The 1966 French film was seen mostly in major city art houses and on a few college campuses and its version of Arabs remains largely foreign to the American mind.
Lawrence of Arabia and The Battle of Algeria help frame the news stories we get today about revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and revolt in Libya. Most of our news about the Arab world repeats Lean’s lessons. Arabs are barely civilized. They are cruel, barbarous and barely literate. Their societies survive only by the good graces and models of their more civilized European teachers.
Israel hacked a foothold of civilization out of the center of the Arab wasteland. The Palestinians slaughtered in Israel’s hacking out process are barely worthy of mention because they are not really civilized, even to the lowest level of being human. When they are mentioned, they are ‘revealed’ as rag-headed, brutal murderers of women and children. Not unlike the Arabs who wantonly slaughtered Turks, despite Lawrence’s efforts to bring a more civilized manner of warfare to them.
This winter’s rebellion in Libya fits this script well. The brutal, but cowardly, dictator engages in open slaughter of his own people. His speeches target women and children. He is as cavalier with the lives of his own citizens as he was with the lives of innocent civilians on the 747 he personally blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. He is today’s model of a modern Arab despot. How many news stories portray him as delusional, unaware of the reality around him?
How many news stories offer any historical perspective on his despotic rule? Gaddafi came to power in September 1969, in a bloodless coup, overthrowing a western supported “king.” His first years were spent building enmity in the western governments. How? This was years before Lockerbie or other associations with terrorism.
In his early years, Gaddafi steered the oil money flowing into Libya to schools and infrastructure and public health and other public services. While the Saudi princes who still enjoy our favor worked to keep their populations impoverished and uneducated, Gaddafi built schools and health facilities. He provided nutrition to the people.
No doubt, he started early on banking his own ‘cut’ of money coming in from oil sales and from any other opportunity that presented itself. No doubt he was a standard model Middle Eastern despot, who enriched himself at public expense. What makes him so much worse, then, than the Saudi princes we love, or the Bahrainian or Yemeni or Egyptian despots we’ve long supported?
By the 1990s, Gaddafi had earned the enmity of the Clinton administration for his activities in supporting terrorism. But George Bush embraced Gaddafi. Funding terrorists was (and is) standard policy for our Saudi ‘friends,’ so why should mere support for terrorism alienate us from Gaddafi? What had changed? Gaddafi had become more repressive of his own population. He was granting a freer hand to oil companies to act as they wanted in Libya. He was spending less money on schools and routing more to his family and the rest of the Libyan elite. He was being corporatized. In short, he was turning Republican.
Like Egypt and Yemen and the Saudi princes, he was also buying up American arms suitable for use on his own people. There’s nothing like lucrative arms contracts to make a despot look more palatable to the U.S. government.
So why does he earn such opprobrium in the press now that his people have rebelled? He is expendable. Most of his oil goes to Europe and Asia, not North America. And maybe there’s some fault for the liberal media. After all, Fox News hasn’t been so quick to condemn Gaddafi, and it is loudly editorializing that the U.S. and Europe should not intervene as Gaddafi turns his brutal tribal militias loose to butcher the women and children in “his” cities.
Gaddafi has the scent of Saddam Hussein about him. He’s been a loyal but erratic servant of the oil bosses who dictate our middle-east policy. Like Saddam, he has too often acted on his own policy initiatives or too much for the benefit of his own nation. Like Saddam, our oil oligarchs may feel that they will be able to control his successor better than they can control Gaddafi.
This similarity with Saddam should give Libyan rebels pause. During the first Gulf War, Bush-I encouraged Iraqis to rebel against Saddam, but then didn’t lift a finger when Saddam crushed the rebels as brutally as Gaddafi is trying to crush his citizens now. Would we be any more steadfast if we threw in with the Libyan rebels?
Republicans want us to stay out of it, or to stand by an oil despot who buys his anti-civilian guns from us. But Gaddafi would do well to be skeptical of them as well. Bush-I sanctioned Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait before going to war over it. Republican administrations sold Saddam the chemical weapons that they later executed him for using.
Both Democrats and Republicans seem to model their policies about the changes in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya on David Lean style images of what the Arab world needs. Might it be better, for once, to try to understand what the Arabs want and need, rather than what we want to believe about them?