Government should limit itself to providing an environment that lets people seek their own happiness on their own terms as long as their activities do not interfere with the rights of others to do the same. That used to be the American consensus even in stressful times.
How is it then that our federal government has over the years continued to expand its powers against the wishes of most of the folks who vote in elections? How do omnibus acts consisting of thousands of pages get passed when issues should be addressed on a more topical basis?
Why do we have a County Emergency Plan in Ellis County and probably many other counties that most of us did not know existed until very recently? A quick thanks to The Ellis County Observer for bringing this situation to light.
The short answer is that such acts are passed not in reaction to reasonable concern but in reaction to fear, mostly unjustified.
The Patriot Acts, which – though Republican-led – had important support in both major political parties, consisted of thousands of pages of new laws that were mostly unread by those who passed the acts. Irresponsible, you bet. But such acts that arguably expanded government power beyond the limits of our foundational documents were passed in response to fear, too much of it.
The more recent Democrat-led attempt to deal with shortcomings in our health care system – an act that former Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said we would have to pass it to see what was in it – is yet another example of 2000-plus-page act passed in the spirit of fear. "Trust me, I’m from the government," the Speaker seemed to say.
Although the 911 attacks certainly deserved a serious response, are we a better society after the knee-jerk (unlawful) suspension of large sections of the 1st and 4th Amendments through a document no one read? No matter what the courts say in the short run, what will history etch on the American Republic’s tombstone a century from now? I hope we recover our senses.
Will we be a better society after we have surrendered health care choices and treatment options to federal bureaucracy? How about the 21 companion tax increases that are in the mega-bill?
Did we go too far in both cases?
Our enemies are certainly not ten feet tall, nor have they proven themselves extremely competent. Even the disastrous attacks of 911 and the Fort Hood massacre appear to be tragedies that could have been avoided if those who are given the responsibly of security in our nation had exercised lawful diligence that was allowed pre-Patriot Act. Do we really need warrantless searches to deal with a dangerous but often incompetent bunch of adversaries? Underwear bombs that don’t blow-up but scorch the perpetrator’s privates and shoe bombers that get taken down by airline passengers are hardly super threats.
Federal legislation is bad enough, but a document has come into my possession that sets policy in our county in regard to disaster preparedness. The document was released to me after I made a public information request. I was charged $49 for the copies – fair enough, as the document was over 490 pages.
Much like in our Congress, I really doubt the members of the commissioners court read every page of the act. Interestingly enough, large sections of it were blacked out. Someone still thought much of it was too secret for public consumption. Yet the plan was passed publicly but quietly by our county commissioners and judge. Where was the press?
My understanding is that our county officials recently refused to release the document until our State Attorney General ordered them to. Is this open government?
Among many things the document deals with is denying citizens the right to transfer gun ownership in an emergency or even loan a firearm. It also gives the city or county the right to set certain prices and wages, commandeer private property and close or even force some businesses to stay open in the event of an emergency that is declared by your city officials or county judge and commissioners. In effect, a business could be ordered to stay open and run at a loss. Why were these provisions not brought to light?
Much of the released material is still blacked out (redacted) in the official copies that were released in response to my public information request. Is this Ellis County, Washington, D.C. or perhaps Lubyanka?
While we can appreciate an attempt to prevent price gouging in an emergency, we already have state law that deals with those issues.
The County Emergency management which was passed down to the county by the federal government as the National Incident Management System plan was signed in 2005 . Chad Adams, Dennis Robinson, Larry Jones, Ron Brown and Heath Sims signed the document.
Robinson, Brown and Sims are still serving on the court. The question is, why weren’t the most controversial parts of this plan brought to the public by those we have elected and given public trust?
Perhaps none of them or other members of the current court have read the 490-odd-page document, which seems to have been passed down to them by a state and or federal agency.
The fact is it could have been amended in part or even declined, otherwise local approval would not have been necessary.
One still has to ask, Why was this "Emergency Plan" never widely circulated? Why wasn’t it widely publicized? Were our judge and commissioners afraid to encourage discussion? Many of us might want to weigh in before our God-given constitutional rights are monkeyed with by those who make up our county court. I suspect these emergency orders have been promoted nationwide. Check with your county’s information contact. Courage, y’all, courage.
This article was originally published in the Waxahachie Daily Light in a slightly different form.
There has been considerable discussion as to whether the potential Greek default makes it this cycle’s Lehman Brothers, but that is surely wrong. Greece is much too small to destroy large areas of the world economy, as did the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. It is also being bailed out on exceptionally favorable, not to say squishy terms, as was Bear Stearns, where shareholders received an entirely unjustified $10 per share from J.P. Morgan Chase. To be Lehman Brothers, one must be a previously undoubted name, albeit with hidden weaknesses in management, whose bankruptcy is large enough to disrupt the entire global economic system and plunge it into depression for years thereafter. There is surely only one candidate for such an honor: it is not Greece, Portugal or Ireland (too small) or Spain (getting better management, and stronger than it looks – think Citigroup) but Italy.
In the past decade, Italy under Silvio Berlusconi has been considerably better managed than was Lehman Brothers. Berlusconi and in particular his finance minister Giulio Tremonti have an excellent grasp of Italy’s weaknesses, and have tried within the constraints of the Italian political system to bring the country’s bloated spending under control, improve its abysmal tax compliance and, as a corollary, reduce its excessive burden of taxes. In consequence, the Berlusconi governments have at least stabilized Italy’s grossly excessive public debt, which had risen disgracefully from 30% of GDP in 1970 to 120% in 1995, but has been flat since then in spite of Italy’s deteriorating demographic profile. They have also accomplished a considerable amount in pension reform, but have not adequately reformed Italy’s corrupt public sector, its over-burden of regulation or its opaque and sluggish corporations.
The main criticism of the Berlusconi governments, which should really be directed at the leftist governments that intermingled with them, is that they have not prevented a substantial deterioration in Italy’s relative productivity against its Eurozone neighbors, which has gradually made Italian exports uncompetitive and widened its balance of payments deficit to 3.7% of GDP.
Italy’s problem is now a political one. Under Berlusconi it was mostly competently run and could hold its own internationally if only through the force of Berlusconi’s personality. As the market figured out in its negative second-day movement after Berlusconi’s departure, it is most unlikely that any Berlusconi successor will be anything like as good. Even if some figure from Berlusconi’s own party, such as Angelino Alfano, were to succeed him, he would have far less authority over the fractious center-right coalition and far less ability to keep the necessary budget-cutting reforms moving forward. A “technocrat” successor such as the much loved (by the EU bureaucracy) Mario Monti would be much worse; he would secure a large handout from his friends at the EU or the IMF, and would then waste the proceeds in government aggrandizement, making an eventual Italian bankruptcy 12-18 months down the road all the more painful. Since the market would quickly spot the road down which a Monti government was heading, it would withdraw support for Italian bonds within weeks, well before that inevitable destination had been reached.
Of course, if Italy had kept Berlusconi there would have been a clear solution to its problems; departure from the euro. Unlike Greece, whose currency parity needs to drop to a third or less of its current euro parity to be viable, Italy becomes competitive with a devaluation of no more than 20% or so. With a Berlusconi to keep public spending under control, an Italy devalued 20% could even service its public debt, since its average maturity is relatively long and any cost increase resulting from re-lirazation could be easily absorbed over time. The current panic at bond yields over 7% merely reflects the youth and inexperience of the trading community, which fails to remember the double-digit yields of a generation ago.
Such a devaluation would break up the euro as it currently exists, since Italy unlike Greece or Portugal is a major component of the currency. Indeed it would almost certainly also lead to a departure from the euro of Spain, France and probably Belgium, since they would find themselves more uncompetitive through the Italian devaluation. However it would not remove the currency bloc altogether, which could happily continue with Germany, the Netherlands, parts of Scandinavia and its highly competitive and flexible East European members Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia. There would be no world recession, and no major bond defaults beyond Greece and possibly Portugal.
As they have done and are continuing to do in Greece, the EU panjandrums by taking over the management of Italy by putting in their man Monti and providing limited bailout help will make matters much worse. For one thing, their solution and the austerity they will call for will have very little legitimacy. As we saw only last week with Ohio voters’ rejection of the Republicans’ perfectly sensible reforms of that state’s public sector workforce and its pension and healthcare rights, claims of actuarial catastrophe have very little salience with the electorate. Voters don’t understand the actuarial calculations involved, which are of necessity opaque and they rightly suspect that the political class is capable of producing spurious scientific-seeming justifications when it wants to do something.
The same distrust will attach itself to Monti’s calls for austerity, and whereas Berlusconi’s policies could be opposed within the system by aligning with the parliamentary left, opposition to Monti’s apparently high-minded reforms, which will not tackle the corruption endemic in Italian politics, will spill into the streets. With the budget more out of balance than under Berlusconi because the politically connected lobbies that Monti has brought with him will seize the opportunities to seize available resources, the markets will wrongly perceive Italy as being as much of a basket case as Greece, and close access to Italian government re-financing.
Within a very short period, that may not drive Italy out of the euro, but it will produce a default on Italian debt that could have been avoided with better management. Since Italy’s debt is so huge, the resources for a full bailout do not exist (even Germany’s taxpayers suffer under a high tax regime that is within a few percentage points of becoming counterproductive) and so the southern European government securities market will collapse.
Just as with Lehman Brothers, regulatory actions, and not just the misdirected short-term maneuvers of politicians and banks, will bear a considerable share of blame for the debacle. In this case, the Basel rules assessing OECD government debt as having zero risk and thus requiring zero capital allocation will be most to blame. Those rules allowed banks, without constraint from their capital inadequacy, to load up on debt that had less economic reality behind it than the debt of any solid well-established corporation.
Britain came close to default in 1797, not because of any failure of its burgeoning economy, but because its government approached the limits of its tax capacity at around 20% of GDP (and France suffered the revolution eight years earlier through a similar problem). In modern societies, with income taxes and the great majority of populations well above the subsistence level, national tax capacities are well above 20% of GDP, more like 50%. However they are not 100% or even 70% of GDP, nor can they ever be anywhere close to those levels. Taxation at that level produces economic decay even in the short term, as Sweden discovered in the 1980s.
With twentieth century welfare systems strained by the aging European population, it was always absurd to assume that any modern government’s debt was “risk-free” except for that of a few countries like Singapore and South Korea whose tax systems were operating far below their maximum capacity. Countries can increase their own economies’ viability and their governments’ tax capacity, as a percentage of GDP, for a few years by a one-off devaluation, but as various South American states have shown (albeit at a lower level of income) that too is only a short-term solution. Whereas Italy could probably service its debt through austerity and devaluation (as Britain did after its 1967 devaluation) Greece is quite unable to reach any such equilibrium. In Greece’s case, devaluation is necessary to get the economy working at all, but after devaluation output will still not be great enough to service the country’s gigantic debt.
The last three years of ultra-low interest rates and government profligacy and meddling thus seem all too likely to produce a second financial crisis, an unprecedentedly short time after the first. Presumably the Reinhart-Rogoff argument in their book “This time is different” that financial crises are especially difficult to emerge from will apply with redoubled force to the emergence from two crises rather than one. Sadly, even this second disaster seems unlikely to be sufficient to discredit the policy foolishnesses that have caused both crises or to prevent a spiral of money creation, meddling and debt that will lead to a third crisis and long-term economic decline.
We are supposed to be an intelligent species, which can learn from our disasters. With such learning very unlikely, the global economy may be destined to decades of decline, from which emergence may be impossible.
In early May my friend Blakely said that he had been contacted by a third party representing Moammar Gaddafi’s most influential son, Saif al-Islam.
Saif al-Islam wanted to convey a message to Washington through unofficial channels, and the third party knew Blakely was acquainted with Vice President Biden.
“I said I was interested, but these things go better when you have a partner. Want to get involved?”
Blakely clearly thought the project was a little cockamamie, but his motto is, “This could lead to things.” Sometimes that’s true. So I said I’d go, though not to Libya itself. Blakely agreed.
The third party consisted of Turks but not official Turks. For the next few weeks, messages went back and forth between us in Washington, the Turks in Istanbul, and the Gaddafi circle in Tripoli. But were the Turks really in touch with Saif-al Islam? We were told a preparatory meeting would take place in Istanbul; then it was postponed; then it seemed to have occurred in Tripoli.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi clearly was losing the war, and I thought the son was looking for a way to sell his father out. Saif al-Islam had a degree from the London School of Economics. He controlled the family’s fortune. Beyond that, sons have toppled fathers for several thousand years in the Middle East—and not just in the Middle East.
Of course I didn’t see myself helping Saif al-Islam. My reasoning was more fundamental. In Iraq I saw the horrific casualties, the unimaginable military expenditures, the wasted aid dollars, the misery, physical destruction and social disruption, all based on an inaccurate premise. That reaffirmed my judgment since Vietnam that little beyond deterrence and direct self-defense makes sense. Too few Americans have more than a media notion about war. Ever since we stopped the draft, our military has become detached from our society. Obama wisely kept his distance from Libya. Letting France and the U.K. take the lead in NATO operations conformed to what the U.S. had been calling for over decades—burden sharing—but NATO is lame and blind without the U.S. Inevitably the U.S. had to be somewhat involved and could always tip the scales. Political scientist John Mearsheimer calls this “offshore balancing,” meaning few, if any, boots on the ground.
On May 28 Blakely and I flew through Frankfurt to Tunis. We were met by the Turks, who had business interests being foiled by the civil war. They had worked hard to make this meeting occur. Good guys motivated by self-interest. Fine with me.
Before leaving Washington, Blakely and I agreed it would be a bad idea to tell the government what we were doing. We had been in government for decades and could imagine every condition that would be imposed on us. Instead, we settled on Blakely calling the Vice President’s office and leaving word that we might soon have something to discuss regarding Libya. Blakely didn’t receive a call back before we departed.
The surprise was that both Saif al-Islam and Colonel Gaddafi would be represented, meaning my hypothesis was probably wrong. Saif al-Islam wasn’t throwing his father under the bus.
Tunis, which I had last visited in 1996, looked much the same despite the recent revolution, igniting the Arab Spring. The principal changes were barbed wire around a few government buildings and some tanks and personnel carriers here and there. Tunis is an agreeable, sea-bleached coastal metropolis that has spread for many miles around its historic core. Not wealthy or flashy but not poor—a middle-class third world country. I sensed no tension. Ben Ali, the former dictator, and his cronies were out. The somewhat tatty Sheraton was functioning quite normally, except for a scarcity of guests. Revolutions aren’t good for tourism.
A Libyan in his sixties met us. Adib spoke English fluently with a slight Irish brogue. He had two big young fellows with him. They didn’t speak English at all but they smiled happily at us. Adib said that the Sheraton wasn’t acceptable to the other Libyan we would meet, a man named Mohammed. There were people at the Sheraton who would recognize Mohammed. We’d have to take a taxi elsewhere.
Blakely and I didn’t like this because we didn’t know where “elsewhere” might be, but Adib was cheerful and our Turkish friends were relaxed, so we drove across Tunis past Carthage, which I had read about as a boy in Livy’s account of the Punic Wars, to a beautiful, empty resort called The Residence, notable for its understated Moorish elegance and long vistas down endless corridors and out into the extraordinary garden and swimming pool.
Instead of going into the garden, which attracted us to the point that Blakely suggested we change our reservations and stay at the Residence, we were led down those long corridors, deep into the hotel, until we came to a windowless executive meeting room with a sarcophagus-sized burled walnut table and extravagantly padded leather chairs.
Along the way the Turks dropped out. They didn’t want to impede what might be said; in addition, they had tens of millions locked up in frozen projects and were smart enough to leave it to someone else to unravel a knot that had little to do with business.
Adib said Mohammed would be with us momentarily. I asked him about his fluent English. He said he acquired it in Dublin where he had studied Irish literature. We began talking about Joyce. Then we talked about Yeats. I mentioned “Easter, 1916,” the poem about Ireland’s failed upraising against the British. Adib got the joke. He quoted a few lines:
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
Mordant but witty—more like Joyce, in fact, than Yeats.
Mohammed arrived, wearing a white shirt open at the collar, a well-tailored sport coat, and blue jeans. He spoke idiomatic American English, appeared about forty, and looked more fatigued than the older Adib. Harried, actually, but handsome. Think Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago. He clearly was the more influential interlocutor.
“Well, what do you have to say to us?” he asked.
Blakely pleasantly said we had nothing to say to them. He never stares anyone down or tightens up or rushes things. He explained he was the man with the contacts of interest to the Libyan side and I was a former diplomat, with contacts, too, so we had come to this meeting to receive a message that could be conveyed to the highest levels. “We’re here to listen.”
Mohammed unfolded a piece of paper that he kept on the table before him, but he seldom consulted his notes as he spoke.
He began by calling the conflict in Libya stupid and unnecessary. He said he was in touch with the rebel leaders and that the “Leader” (as he referred to Gaddafi) had offered the rebel leader, Mustafa Jalil, the prime minister’s post on February 2, along with six or seven other ministerial posts.
“We were promising freedom of the press, a new penal code…but then two weeks later the fighting broke out.”
For the next ten minutes he outlined the Leader’s desire to put an end to this fighting. He said Gaddafi was prepared to step aside, appoint a mixed technocratic/rebel government, call for a ceasefire to be monitored by the UN and the African Union, arrange for a national dialogue and constitutional convention in which neither Gaddafi nor any of his relatives or associates would play a role, and then retire from politics as the next leader of the people was elected. The ceasefire would be difficult to enforce because the rebels were factionalized, but the Leader could make it happen on his side.
Mohammed had only one red line: The Leader would not leave Libya.
At the time, we were a few weeks away from the French and British suggesting Gaddafi could remain in Libya, and I knew Washington wouldn’t like this idea. There was no point in debating, however. We were there to receive a message. This was the message. Diplomatic exchanges never end where they begin.
“What about his family’s future—his sons’?” we asked, wanting to elicit something about Saif al-Islam in particular.
Mohammed said they would sit out the political process and then, if the people summoned them, they would serve like any other Libyan, no more, no less. “It will all be up to the people.”
Blakely asked, “Wouldn’t an election to choose constitutional convention delegates make sense?”
“There aren’t any political parties to pull that off. We have the council of tribes. Then there are the rebels, and our assembly, and so forth. That’s how we would organize the constitutional convention.” Mohammed added that international experts would be included. He mentioned two noted foreign affairs and constitutional scholars, Joseph Nye and Benjamin Barber, with whom he had had contact.
This was quite a proposal—Gaddafi announcing his departure from power and turning things over to a process the international community could stabilize non-violently. I thought it could lead to an endgame for the conflict in Libya, but I had some questions and observations. Here we were in a posh resort talking to two extremely well-spoken, sophisticated men and the Turks had never told us who they were—just “people from Gaddafi and Saif’s inner circle.”
“Don’t take offense to anything I say, but first, who exactly are you?”
“You don’t know?” Mohammed asked. “Don’t you have a dossier on me?”
“Please, just put it in your own words.”
Adib said, “I have assisted the Leader for thirty-five years in various ways. I receive nothing for my government activities and make a living elsewhere.”
“So you’re close to him?”
Adib said that was a fair description.
Mohammed said he had worked as Saif al-Islam’s principal assistant since 1997 and spoke for him. When we asked, he said that he learned to speak such idiomatic English at the AmericanSchool in Kabul in the 1970s.
I then asked them again not to be offended but, “Why should the United States believe the Leader will do what you say he will do?”
Adib took the lead, brisk but not hostile. “1) We put an end to the Lockerbie issue. 2) We ended our nuclear program. 3) For several years now we have been one of the best allies the United States intelligence agencies have had in the war on terror.”
Good answers. The Libya of the 2000s was not the Libya of the 1980s. There was an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Libya called the Libyan Fighting Force, and Libya had been a point of origin for many of the suicide bombers in Iraq. Gaddafi wanted to extirpate this group. He’d been an ally of necessity and convenience in the Bush War on Terror. That carried over to Obama.
Mohammed added, “Look, we can work with these rebels. They can participate in an interim administration with the technocrats and help put the country back on its feet—hospitals, roads, oil.”
“And we’ll point out to you which elements of Islamic radicals are active in the rebel camp so you can monitor them,” Adib added. He mentioned the 17th of February Brigade and a place called the 7th of April Camp. “They’re bringing in weapons, not us. We’re being bombed by NATO.” He cited rebel contacts with Hamas and Hezbollah, a ship full of weapons captained by a Canadian that NATO let reach the rebels, and another ship with forty-five al Qaeda militants on board that also reached the rebels. “We’ve given the CIA a CD with all this information. Unfortunately all this is contrary to what your ambassador reported to Washington. We worked hard to educate him; we introduced him to people; we spoke with him and explained things; but we read in Wikileaks that he didn’t understand a thing.”
“We don’t want him to be a part of this discussion we’re having,” Mohammed said. “Look, we will grant amnesty to everyone who has taken up arms. The time has come to stop the fighting.”
I said, “Would the Leader repeat everything you’ve told us before television cameras and commit to it before the world?”
Mohammed said, “Our prime minister has already said all this. Who’s listening?”
Blakely said, “It would be different if the Leader spoke.”
“It has been said,” Mohammed insisted.
“Of course, the Leader wouldn’t say these things without some indication Washington would welcome them,” I said. “I suppose you hope your private message would trigger that.”
“Correct,” Mohammed said. “But frankly, I don’t see the need for him to make these statements. He’s tired of politics. He wants to step aside.”
Blakely said, “He might be able to do that better if he followed George Washington’s example and made himself explicit. His farewell address is a big reason Washington is such a pillar of our democracy.”
Mohammed could see we weren’t going to let this go. We had not pre-agreed this strategy, but we both knew there had to be a public speech nailing Gaddafi to his mast.
“Let’s say we don’t rule it out,” Mohammed said.
I said, “Okay, then. Let me ask you another question: What do you want from the United States? It hasn’t been in the lead. Obama has tried to avoid that.”
Mohammed said, “Washington is the only one who can call the French and British off. And Washington is the only one that can make a difference in the UN Security Council.”
Blakely and I were thinking the same thing. We couldn’t go back and tell the Vice President that such-and-such had been said and expect wheels to start turning. It could still be a maneuver to give Gaddafi to time to regroup and resume his counterattack. We had to pin this offer down. Even if it were sincere, Washington would have a lot of work to do with NATO, the French and the British. Washington would be told it was foolish to deal with Gaddafi and ought to keep fighting until he was dead and gone. My view, again, is that anything that stops a day of conflict is a good day: fewer deaths, less suffering, a chance to take on very difficult tasks of reconciliation and reconstruction.
I repeated the terms that had been presented—emphasizing that Gaddafi and his sons and associates would step aside completely—and then asked if the Libyan side would agree to provide a non-paper blessed in Tripoli that we could take to Washington. I began to dictate what the non-paper would sound like, using the first person as if I were Gaddafi himself: Gaddafi could say he had done his best as leader and was now ready to step aside. He could call for a ceasefire, amnesty, a constitutional process and election under international supervision without his interference. His statement would be his final act as Libya’s leader.
As I spoke, Mohammed and Adib exchanged glances that suggested they liked what they heard; it was exactly what they had in mind.
“But the red line?” Mohammed asked.
“We’re not in a position to comment on that,” Blakely said.
“What about the indictment that’s been issued at the International Criminal Court?”
I said, “The United States has influence in NATO and the Security Council, but the International Criminal Court is a different matter. We have our problems with it.”
“Look, I have to fly to Norway tonight,” Mohammed said, “but I will consult with Tripoli and come back here and meet with you tomorrow.”
“In the meantime, I’ll take you out to dinner,” Adib said.
We said sure, just give us a few hours to sleep.
We drove back to the Sheraton and briefed the Turks on what had happened. They had been working in Libya for years and were encouraged. I thought two things: a) I had better write a memorandum on what had been said, and b) I should write the non-paper for the Libyans to show Tripoli and then send us so that we could take it to the Vice President. Why? Both to get the terms stated exactly as we understood them and also to ensure something was written. There are two constants in diplomacy: no one remembers what was said the same way and no one likes to write. So be the drafter who records what was said and save yourself a lot of trouble down the road.
“You do that,” Blakely said. “I’m crashing.”
Later that evening Adib took us to dinner at a restaurant on the corniche with a spectacular view of the Bay of Tunis and endless quantities of good wine and seafood. We talked about the fact that many Libyans were Berbers, not Arabs. We talked about Yeats and Joyce and Seamus Heaney. We talked about the large crowd of sophisticated Tunisians at the restaurant with us—peaceful, stylish, quite pleased with themselves and deservedly so. So far I had not encountered a hint of the hatred I’d seen in many Iraqi eyes, nor had I seen any women concealed by veils. Tunisia had been relatively secularized under Ben Ali. With my memorandum of our conversation written, I relaxed and enjoyed myself. If I were told I’d have to spend the rest of my life in Tunis, that would be fine with me. With all its oil, Libya might become just as agreeable. It had beautiful views of Mediterranean waters, too. Who knew? As a pragmatist, I think there are many paths to many solutions.
The idea that Mohammed would fly from Tunis to Norway and back overnight was confirmation that he had high status, conforming to his self-confident manner. Taking liberties with Gaddafi’s power and prerogatives in the past had led to death, so Mohammed and Adib had to have at least Saif al-Islam’s backing. Think of what they were saying: Gaddafi would step down once and for all. The rebels would be granted amnesty and power. International intrusion into Libya’s affairs would be extensive. I knew this would be a messy and protracted and sometimes violent transition, and I could see an insurgency develop and two Libyas emerge, one east and one west. Establishing peace, order, and the rule of law in the Balkans was difficult and ongoing, the same in Iraq. Tunisia seemed to be doing okay, but Gaddafi had forestalled politics in Libya. He was a socialist anarchist, artful in the ways of tribes. Libya was not a nation state; it was a shape-shifting entity as peculiar as Gaddafi’s odd manner of dressing one way to affiliate himself with a certain group one day and another way the next day—or two ways at once…or three. His body was Libya. War and killing him wouldn’t be the hard part in putting Libya right; peace would be the hard part.
Mohammed kept not returning from Norway. In the morning he didn’t return, in the afternoon he did not return, and in the evening he did not return. I used the morning to write the non-paper—Gaddafi’s farewell to Libya and the world—and included a phrase, “as my final act…” that caused trouble down the road.
In the afternoon, Blakely, the Turks and I went to the souk, which was semi-shuttered, and then strolled down a wide boulevard past some tanks to a café with a beautiful, weather-beaten orange awning. More attractive young Tunisians along with families and children, too. The weather was splendid, but a strong wind rippled the awning like a ship’s sail. From time to time we stopped eating and looked up, wondering if we should go inside, but the awning held.
Back at the hotel, we rested. The Turks were in charge of communicating with the Libyans. Dinner time came. No Mohammed. The Turks took us to another splendid restaurant along the water, but this one far out of town. They ordered so much food that we had a table where we could eat and a separate table, of equal size, to hold the food. Lobster, squid, fish, olives, fresh bread and splendid pastes, salads, wine, pastries, cognac.
The restaurant would hold at least 400 people. From its veranda you could stare at the beautifully lit city across the water. We were the only guests.
Blakely said, “Well, we’re leaving tomorrow at midday, so what do you think, guys, is Mohammed coming back?”
The principal Turk was in constant touch with Adib by cellphone and promised that Mohammed was coming back. “But it might be tomorrow morning. We might have to meet in the Sheraton to save time.”
Here is the thing: Two of the Turks had degrees from U.S. universities. The third never spoke, so I have no idea who he was other than a factotum for the principal Turk, who was a very nice guy in his thirties anxious to get back to work in a Libya where his employees wouldn’t be shot and his supplies wouldn’t be pilfered and his bank accounts wouldn’t be frozen. The second Turk was the son of a Turk back in Istanbul. He was a soft-spoken fellow who had to keep telling us that we should be paid money for what we were doing because that’s what his father wanted. He didn’t like telling us this because he could see what we all could see: the issue wasn’t money, the issue was death, bombing, houses in rubble, a mad dictator on his last legs who, the Turks understood, was a drug abuser if not a drug addict.
“We’re not even going to talk about money, okay?” Blakely said.
I said, “I don’t want to be associated with it.”
“If some business develops later…”
“Right,” I said. “Later.”
Blakely is one of the world’s natural networkers. One night in Amman he had dinner with Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and two staffers. He and Biden swapped stories for two hours. Capitol Hill stories. Campaign and political history stories. On and on. Lots of laughter. The relieved staffers, who had been worried they’d find no one for the garrulous Biden to gab with, stopped Blakely at the elevator afterward and said, “After that, you can be confirmed for any position you want.” That’s why we thought we could get Biden’s attention and protect the Libyan offer from bureaucratic death in “inter-agency Washington.”
We went back to the Sheraton and met with Adib. He said we were being watched, so we’d better go out onto the patio. We went out onto the patio and were still being watched but that wind kept blowing, so the obtrusive spy, though he kept standing ten feet from us, couldn’t hear us say that if Mohammed didn’t return in the morning, the deal was off, but if he did return, we’d give him a non-paper he could use with Tripoli.
As I walked back to the elevator bank, I noticed a blonde prostitute eyeing me. The Sheraton isn’t really the right place for that to happen. It’s a good, if older, hotel. So here was another plant. The next morning Blakely said she’d given him the same look.
“Kinda pudgy, though,” he said.
“That’s what I thought.”
We breakfasted with Adib and one of his smiling sidekicks. Adib said Mohammed would arrive momentarily, back from Norway. How did he move around so quickly with Libyan air space shut down? Simple. There was an island off the coast of Tunis one could drive to from Tripoli and it had an airstrip. Up, up and away. That’s how Adib flew to Tunis himself.
Mohammed arrived and we went into a less fancy windowless meeting room. He looked worse for wear.
“This is a non-paper you could try in Tripoli,” I said. “Amend it or do whatever you want, but then fax us something and we’ll get it to the Vice President.”
I pushed a piece of paper across the table. Mohammed and Adib read it at the same time.
“Did I get everything you said the way you said it?” I asked.
They looked at one another and then looked at me. Mohammed said, “Yes, this is very useful. Thank you.”
“You can always reach us through our Turkish friends,” Blakely said.
“We appreciate their interest, and yours, too,” Mohammed said.
There was little more to say and we had a plane to catch. Handshakes and so forth. Blakely and I flew back to Washington.
A few days passed. No non-paper from Tripoli. Istanbul told us the draft was on the Leader’s desk. More days. Istanbul told us that a question had been raised about “as my final act.” Blakely sent word back that it was their paper, not ours. Strike the phrase. Just send us something that conformed to what we had been told. I added that it should not be in Arabic that could be read to mean anything—Arabic is a very good language for ambiguity, one of the best.
As June passed, the fighting in Libya continued, and it didn’t favor Gaddafi, but the news only tells you what reporters are able to cover. A great deal happens in a war that they cannot report. Names of towns—Misurata, Sirte—that were unknown to Americans before became known. Then there were comical stories showing rebels charging up roads along the coast and charging right back and rebels taking sandy hills in the west and abandoning them just as fast.
The “fog of war” may not be the best term; the “uncertainty of war” might be better. There is little you can do about fog; but uncertainty is an element you can address, though it’s hard when people are trying to kill you and often succeeding.
No fax. Word from Istanbul…it’s coming, it’s coming.
After two weeks, I began to think that Gaddafi had looked at what had been recorded in my non-paper and said to Saif al-Islam, who had become a madman himself on TV, “No, I’m not doing this.” Or, “Let me think about it.” Or, he’d said nothing because he couldn’t think because he couldn’t sleep and he was pumped up with drugs to slow him down and speed him up and ease his pains and make him resigned to the fact that what would happen would happen, que será, será.
Every morning I wake up around six and check my computer. On June 28 Blakely had sent me an e-mail at 4:09 a.m. saying two things: 1) he was going to the hospital for an immediate bypass operation and 2) the fax was in Istanbul and would reach me in an hour or two.
The fax arrived and it contained the non-paper, but it wasn’t my non-paper. It was terrible, a harangue about the NATO bombing, which should stop, and arms shipments to the rebels, which should stop, and international support for the Libyan government’s efforts to restore peace and order to Libya.
I read it several times, imagining the decisive moment when Gaddafi said no. I pictured two or three people in the room with him—Saif al-Islam, Adib, and possibly Mohammed. That’s how these things happen. Whether it was medication or madness or both, Gaddafi chose to fight on and eventually, inevitably, die a wretched death. I had sent word to Istanbul several times in recent days that Saif al-Islam had to push his father hard. Istanbul said no one could do that. The old man wouldn’t listen. Istanbul apparently was right.
Now… what to do with this rotten message? I couldn’t send it to the Vice President; it wasn’t worth his attention. So I used some contacts in the State Department and received, predictably, the comment that this was nothing new and would not receive a reply.
I explained this to Istanbul and Istanbul apologized for putting me in the position of receiving such a dismal rant. Istanbul then told Tripoli whatever it told Tripoli, but it can’t have surprised Tripoli—Gaddafi, maybe, but not the others. The others knew the Gaddafi regime was over in May. That’s why we met in Tunis. They were trying to surrender. But not Gaddafi.
I have been in situations before where I conveyed bad news to national leaders and was brushed aside. Bad news doesn’t travel fast at the top; it travels at a snail’s pace. Leaders stop it by staring at it, keeping it at a distance, warning it and its bearers to go away. George W. Bush did this repeatedly in Iraq. Lyndon Johnson did the same in Vietnam.
Blakely came through a quadruple by-pass just fine. On a sweltering hot day in August, he and I met with our principal Turk in Washington. The Turk told us he’d heard Gaddafi was worse than ever…more drugs and disorientation. Blakely happened to have on his computer a photograph that has not, to my knowledge, made the media. It shows the instant Saddam Hussein poked his head up out of his hole in the ground. Recently we saw photos of Gaddafi’s final moments. The expressions on the two dictators face’s were not dissimilar. They were beaten, haggard old men who had played their last card. The game was over. Now they would say they were still president of Iraq or father of all Libya, but no one would believe them, and they would die. The only tragedy in either case was that so many had to die before they did.
I understand that Adib may be okay. I hope so. I don’t know about Mohammed, but I would suspect that he is okay, too. Perhaps he is living in London or Milan or Berlin. They took substantial risks trying to give Gaddafi a chance to survive, but he said no, and now Libya will require decades to recover, if it ever recovers, from what Gaddafi did to it.
It is time to give God thanks, and Thanksgiving is what He wants from us in America . “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (New King James Version Bible, 1 Thes. 5:18). Indeed, it is a small sacrifice to express our thanks, but one He very highly regards. “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15).
Sincere thanks flows from the heart. It emanates, as it were, from our inward being. God knows us there in the inward part already, but He likes to hear it just the same! One of many mysteries, is gratitude—how expressed in words, spoken or in thought, improves the soul. For when all is well with one’s soul, one is necessarily thankful and full of thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving resonates with Spirit and enters us into a kind of mutual recognition twixt Creator and creation. God looks for this connection, a connection joined by just such a small thing as giving Him thanks. Jesus said, “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23).
Surely, the Lord deserves our utmost gratitude. Consider that we ought to give Him thanks, because we live in a free society where ballots, not bullets, determine who governs. We ought to give thanks too for all the armed forces; and for those, who have taken on a generational post 9-11 burden. Give thanks for their strength and courage. Pray for the young men and women, who are answering the nation’s call in the War on Terrorism.
Give thanks for having enough to eat, for the shoes upon your feet; thanks for clothing upon your back, and for the existence of shelter to keep you safe and warm. Thanks for pleasant hours of sleep, uninterrupted by fits or jolts of fear. Thanks to God moreover, for freedom to worship in church and in the public square—our square still, in the Year of Our Lord 2011.
Thanks for the light that has not gone out, however far we’ve strayed as individuals and as a country. Give thanks my fellow American, if you’ve got a job and reasonable opportunity to excel. Give thanks for health; if you’re doing better in recovery. If married for a little (or long) while, let God hear about the love that fills your heart for your other, better half; about the pride and joy you have in your children. And may God bless the children always—praise Him if you’ve been gifted in this way even to havechildren, for many have not been so blessed.
Many will go to bed hungry tonight too, without a proper home or shelter. Many know the sting of unemployment—a dimming sense of self-worth, the loss of dignity, the onset of feeling hopeless. Many others are ill today, injured or in pain; or they have loved ones hurting, sick or dying. Half of America ’s homes and hearts are breaking now at this moment, through divorce or separations. Adults suffer the awful sadness and depression, and innocent children may bear emotional wounds even longer. Odds are you have found here one or two reasons to give thanks—if only because you’ve been spared.
Give thanks the more, I say, if you have learned a hard lesson and grown better for it. If you have felt the slamming of one door, propelling you through another by God’s grace. If you have cried and cried, but found your smile one near, or distant, “Morning after.” It is time to give thanks, because we are alive and free and able to pursue dreams. For life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the natural rights given us by God and protected by our magnificent, divinely inspired Constitution.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford . Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he serves asState Director of the Republican Freedom Coalition (RFC). His newly released book, Horse Sense for the New Millennium is available on-line atwww.WesRiddle.net and from fine bookstores everywhere.Email: .
Lawyers frequently compare notes about judges, particularly those with a reputation for being tough or demanding.Federal judges especially tend to be the focus of such speculation, perhaps because they are appointed for life or because of what some lawyers perceive to be a superiority complex.An example from the sub-genre of lawyer jokes—the federal judge joke—is telling.How many federal judges does it take to screw in a lightbulb?Only one, the joke goes; he holds up the lightbulb and the universe revolves around him.Colleagues of mine in states like New York and California swear that they practice in front of the toughest federal judges.But for my money, I’ve found few judges that match ours in Texas for their skill in delivering what I like to call “the benchslap”—slamming a lawyer in an opinion or order for his or her conduct, professional competency (or lack thereof), or for the questionable positions taken.
Sometimes it is what the lawyer has written or how he’s written it that draws the judge’s ire.When U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Leif Clark of the Western District of Texas’ San Antonio Division finally lost patience with one such lawyer, he used cinematic source material to express his displeasure.In a February 2006 “Order Denying Motion for Incomprehensibility,” Judge Clark stated “The court cannot determine the substance, if any, of the Defendant’s legal argument, nor can the court even ascertain the relief that the Defendant is requesting.”To illustrate his point, Judge Clark added a footnote in which he quoted the competition judge from the Adam Sandler movie “Billy Madison.”In response to a rambling nonsensical answer from Sandler’s character, the judge replies “Mr. Madison, what you’ve said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I’ve ever heard.At no point in your rambling, incoherent response was there anything that could even be considered a rational thought.Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it.I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”Ouch!
Sure, federal judges in other states can be tough, too.In September 2011, the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit issued an opinion saying Illinois lawyer Walter Maksym’s writing was so bad, it ordered him to show cause why he shouldn’t be disbarred from practicing before the court.The court called Maksym’s complaint “generally incomprehensible and riddled with errors,” and “woefully deficient.”It went on to say that “Much of the writing is little more than gibberish,” citing a 345-word sentence as well as “rampant grammatical, syntactical, and typographical errors”—all of which “contributed to an overall sense of unintelligibility.”
But Texas federal judges won’t be out-done.The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, considering an appeal of a case from Dallas’ Northern District federal court, took the time to criticize both the plaintiff’s case her lawyers’ lack of writing skills.InSanches v. Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, the 5th Circuit began by slamming the controversy itself.Judge Jerry Smith’s benchslap read “Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad.It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter that has no place in federal court or any other court.”Then Judge Smith unloaded on the plaintiff’s attorneys.He said, “Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them.”Snap—the court went on, giving specific examples of those blunders.At one point, referring to the Plaintiff’s use of the word “incompetence,” the court noted “It is ironic that the term ‘incompetence’ is used here, because the only thing that is incompetent is the passage itself.”
Of course, it’s not always poor writing or lack of grammar that provokes a benchslap.Lawyer behavior, particularly petty squabbling over discovery disputes, has drawn the ire of many a judge and has led some jurists to get creative—or just plain sarcastic—in their punishment.On September 1, 2011, Delaware Superior Court Judge Peggy Ableman sent a letter to all counsel in a case directing them to appear at the courthouse on September 4, 2011—the Sunday of Labor Day weekend—for a “refresher course in first year ethics and civility.”Motivated by “counsels’ inability to be civil and reasonable with one another,” Judge Ableman set an agenda for this “course” that included such topics as “[W]hy it is not professional to whine or complain” and “the importance of civility and professionalism.”Just in case she hadn’t made her point about the lawyers’ childish bickering, Judge Ableman advised attendees that they “are encouraged to bring sleeping bags, toothbrushes, teddy bears, and jammies.”Not surprisingly, the sarcasm hit home, although the “refresher course” was cancelled when Ableman’s boss, Judge James T. Vaughn, Jr. reassigned the case to himself.
Judge Ableman has nothing on U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of the Western District of Texas (Austin Division), however.In an August 26, 2011 order that went viral on the Internet, Judge Sparks vented his frustration with yet another set of lawyers who apparently couldn’t get along with each other or agree on routine matters.He “invited” the attorneys of record to a “kindergarten party” that would take place at Austin’s federal courthouse on September 1, 2011.The “party” would feature “many exciting and informative lessons,” such as “how to telephone and communicate with a lawyer,” “how to enter into reasonable agreements,” as well as “an advanced seminar on not wasting the time of a busy federal judge and his staff because you are unable to practice law at the level of a first year law student.”Judge Sparks further advised the lawyers “remember to bring a sack lunch,” and “to bring a toothbrush in case the party runs late.”
The lawyers presumably learned to get along and play nice, because the “kindergarten party” was cancelled.But it is not the first time Judge Sparks has used his imagination to deal with problem behavior by lawyers.In a 2007 case in which the attorneys were apparently disagreeing about the taking of a deposition (resulting in one side filing a Motion for Protection), Judge Sparks resorted to verse to get his point across.Here’s a sampling from his caustic poem:
“Stallions can drink water from a creek without a ripple;
The lawyers in this case must have a bottle with a nipple;
Babies learn to walk by scooting and falling;
These lawyers practice law by simply mauling
Each other and the judge, but this must end soon
(Maybe facing off with six shooters at noon?)
Surely lawyers who practice in federal court can take
A deposition without a judge’s order, for goodness sake.
First, the arguments about taking the deposition at all,
And now this – establishing their experience to be small.
So, let me tell you both and be abundantly clear:
If you can’t work this without me, I will be near.
There will be a hearing with pablum to eat
And a very cool cell where you can meet.”
Not everyone finds Judge Sparks’ orders chastising lawyers funny.Chief Judge Edith Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reportedly sent Sparks an email recently that read, in part, “Frankly, this kind of rhetoric is not funny.In fact, it is so caustic, demeaning and gratuitous that it casts more disrespect on the judiciary than on the now-besmirched reputation of the counsel.”Judge Sparks, though, remains unapologetic and has no plans to change his writing style, pointing out that he received “hundreds” of letters from state and federal judges nationwide supportive of his “kindergarten party” order.As he says, “I was just admonishing lawyers who couldn’t agree to anything.It was kind of a wake-up call to the lawyers to use a little common sense.”