Historians have used different dualities to describe history and its periods: BC/AD, Dark Ages and Enlightenments, Kings and Battles, the Clash of Civilizations, and various revolutions. But current events incline me to see much of modern history, if not all of it, in terms of “Thugs and Bullies.” These groupings are really two sides of the same coin, an often reciprocal relationship that results in a political-moral gridlock of the sort that occupies much of the news of North Africa and the Middle East today.
By “thugocracies” I am referring to the ubiquitous condition in which, in too many countries, the few (thugs) are allowed dominate, exploit and abuse the many. There probably have always been thugocracies, but today their doings are given greater exposure by everything from news agencies to people with video equipped cell phones. Amazingly, the rest of the world can sit in living rooms and watch thugs oppress, torture, and massacre their people in order that they, and their minions (special police, armies and gangsters) can profit from complete control of their country’s resources and foreign aid and trade. Elections, even if they are held, are usually a complete joke, political competitors are assassinated, and the press and media are state controlled. We see these elements often in full light in Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, [formerly] Tunisia, [formerly] Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Burma, Kazakhstan, and a lot of other places. And let’s not give Mr. Gaddafi a pass.
Most of the time the so-called “civilized,” or “democratic” world looks on, or clucks through their state departments about human rights abuses while their “defense departments are selling arms, providing training, and development agencies are providing aid, much of which is headed for the Geneva bank accounts of the thugs. Mr. Thug is often a de facto business partner of corporations who enjoy access to those natural resources and, if a few complainers have their finger nails removed or genitals crushed along the way, well, “tsk, tsk.” As Ned Beatty preached in Network, it’s capitalism, not democracy that runs the world, corporations, nit nation states.
Sometimes, but not often enough, the whole sordid business gets some exposure. The current “Arab Uprising” is such an occasion. Sparked by Tunisia’s overthrow of their thug, the Egyptians went after “Hose-job” Mubarak, and suddenly thugs all over the Middle East were wearing their crowns uneasily. Thuggish regimes that had been in power for decades were now having to crack heads right in the streets and squares, right in front of al Jazeera and the foreign press. Suddenly millions of viewers who were screwed by their own financial institutions were learning that thugs like Mubarak and Gaddafi had salted away billions in profits, bribes, extortion and foreign aid.
The problem comes when, in spite of the obvious humanistic requirement of “civilized peoples” to intervene when we can clearly see the thuggish behavior of these autocratic regimes, we have responses such as there has been in the case of Libya. Gaddafi, like many thugs, is partly a product of the bully nations, the so-called civilized democracies of the West who fashioned Middle Eastern boundaries after lengthy periods of colonialism, post war agreements, and investments in infrastructure that would pay off in oil and other resources.
It is when they begin to unravel—not nearly often enough, forty years or longer—that what has made thugocracies both possible and durable, is exposed. They come into being because a strongman, bully, self-anointed royalty, military leader grabs power and at the same time ownership of the country’s resources. The latter is important, because the trade of those resources—oil, natural gas, diamonds, or other natural assets—forms reciprocal bonds with external corporate associates. So, for example, when than paragon of capitalist morality, BP, put pressure on authorities in the UK to approve the release of the putatively ill bomber of PanAm 103, who was given a hero’s welcome in Tripoli, it was evident that corporate access to oil trumps even justice for terrorists. The point is this: the thugs prevail not just because they are able to have secret police forces, paid informants, and prisons with torture chambers, but also because the deals they make with foreign corporations bring them into the favor of politicians from so-called democracies and the autocrats of fellow thugocracies. They are able to keep their peoples terrified, uninformed and destitute (despite often huge national wealth), and their infrastructure composed mostly of military might, because the foreign aid democracies give them usually goes directly to their Swiss bank accounts.
So it is with the assistance of the big country bullies that the lesser country thugs are enabled. The erstwhile behavior of the imperialist bullies has shown the current thugs how apply effective exploitation and oppression. The hypocrisy of it is that the bullies are only slightly removed from the thugs they have enabled.
Little to wonder, then, that the bully nations react so belatedly, tentatively, and awkwardly when their human rights pronouncements are trashed on our television screens. The American president, for example, speaks out of more than one orifice by insisting that Gaddafi “must step down” and that Libyan “regime change” is not the intent America’s role in the coalition of bombing nations. Are we that stupid? I guess that’s reserved only for Iraq and Afghanistan. Gaddafi must step down says Hillary, Mubarak must leave, says Obama, Baghbo must leave office says France, or Mugabe must resign says the UK, but no one is suggesting that these thugs responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands be forced to leave. The UN meekly protests, but some of the big boys in the Security Council that find occasion to have to smack their own people around to maintain the status quo vote against an direct action. Where were all the complaints about human rights and self-determination when it suited all the major powers to divide the world up like a monopoly board and beat the bejeesus out of anybody who got in the way of their national interest/corporate profits? Viewed historically, about the only thing that separates the thugs from the bullies is scale.
So small wonder, then, that the big powers find it awkward to squash their thuggish creations, mealy-mouthing, playing their “human rights” cards and parsing it out with “surgical” airstrikes on purely military targets (proving once again that air power alone is not only insufficient to affect regime change, but that it is not—despite GPS and smart bombs—precise enough to protect innocent citizens). All of this is, of course, simply to avoid targeting the thug responsible for it all.
Do the leaders of bully nations consider it a violation of principle, national interest, or evenpersonal safety, not to target the thug himself rather than respond with diplomatic and marginally effective military tactics, while more innocent people die waiting for the thug to find a way to step down to a safe retirement? An alternative scenario is that If the rebels are unsuccessful they will likely be massacred, or at least a good many of them. Another is that if the bully nations don’t help clean u0 the thuggish mess they have enabled successful rebels just might turn their ire to the source of their woes.
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.13.2011)