Benghazi, Beijing show limits of
power By Peter Lee
has been a rough couple of weeks for the
international neo-liberal adventure.
most obvious bump in the road occurred in the
Middle East. The North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) facilitated deposition of
Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was supposed to be the
"shake the Etch-a-Sketch" moment (Mitt Romney
campaign-speak for wiping away accumulated
negative memories and replacing them with new,
favorable impressions) that established
the United States as the
principled champion of democracy and popular
aspirations in the Arab world.
out that plenty of people (and, apparently, at
least one government) still remembered the whole
invasion of Iraq/support of Israel against the
Palestinians/backstopping Gulf autocrats/we were
for Hosni Mubarak before we were against
On the anniversary of 9/11
and on the pretext of outrage at the crudely
provocative video Innocence of Mohammed,
angry mobs appeared before US embassies and
consulates throughout the region and trashed
numerous US-related businesses.
matters worse, in Benghazi, the epicenter for love
of all things American in the Arab Middle East,
the demonstrations coincided with a ferocious
assault on the US consulate that overwhelmed both
the consulate's security and whatever resources
the local authorities could bring to bear. The US
ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and
three other Americans perished in the attack.
The Libyan national government put aside,
at least publicly, whatever differences it has
with the fractious lords of Benghazi, apologized
profusely in the name of the Libyan people, and
obligingly arrested 50 suspects.
Egyptian government, less eager to present itself
as the protector of American interests, physical
and otherwise, was more laggard in its
condemnation of the outrages committed against the
US embassy in Cairo, thereby earning it a pointed
rebuke from President Barack Obama.
less obvious but far more significant setback
occurred in China.
On the anniversary of
the Mukden Incident (also known as the Manchurian
Incident), which served as a pretext for the 1931
invasion of China by Japan, and on the pretext of
outrage at a crudely provocative purchase of the
Senkaku/Daioyu Islands by the Japanese government,
angry mobs appeared before Japanese embassies and
consulates throughout the country and trashed
numerous Japan-affiliated businesses.
Fortunately, Chinese security kept the
demonstrators on a tight leash for the most part,
and no outrage comparable to the Benghazi murders
Both the Middle East and Chinese
events send important signals to Western
policymakers. Hopefully, these signals are getting
through. But if they are, that is no thanks to the
media and the public affairs commentariat, whose
first priority appears to be to denigrate,
delegitimize, and - dangerously - downplay the
significance of these demonstrations.
to the Benghazi incident, the University of
Michigan's Juan Cole has established himself as
something of a pro bono goodwill ambassador
for the new Libyan government. He appears eager to
promote the success of the new Libyan order to
vindicate his support for the NATO-led
intervention and promote it as a precedent for
intervention in other places, like Syria.
To that end, he journeyed to Libya this
summer to counter arguments that the deposition of
Gaddafi had created a power vacuum that had been
filled with all sorts of unsavory, heavily armed
When the Benghazi outrage
occurred, Professor Cole once again urged Western
opinion to put it in the proper perspective:
What happened in Benghazi was the
action of a tiny fringe, sort of like Ku Klux
Klan violence in the US. It isn't typical of the
new Libya, and Benghazi is not a lawless or
militia-ridden city. 
Figaro and France24 looked into matters a little
more deeply and painted a picture that looked
something like chaos in a lawless, militia-ridden
city. It appears that the first responders to the
attack were Benghazi's apparently ubiquitous
militias, and even they were taken aback by the
violence of the situation:
[A] fighter with the Shuhada Libya
al-Hurra brigade, who declined to be named, said
he witnessed the assault on the US consulate and
he was sure it was a planned attack.
"They knew the embassy [consulate] very
well. They came with heavy weapons and they
overtook the place very fast, it was very quick.
You can't do something like that without
planning," he said.
... he was unable to
get near the consulate premises due to the heavy
fighting Tuesday night. Instead his group of
fighters were stuck a few blocks away from the
by-now burning building, vainly awaiting orders
from their commanders. 
Stevens suffered a fatal case of smoke inhalation
at the embassy. He was transported to the hospital
in extremis by some civilians who discovered him
while rummaging through the debris.
embassy and security personnel withdrew to another
location about a mile away - the "safe house". To
evacuate them, the United States and the new Libya
turned to US Marines and more Libyan militiamen,
this time from the Dernaa Brigade, flying them
into Benghazi from Tripoli. Nevertheless, three
more Americans died.
Contrary to Cole's
assertion, the correct analogy for the Salafists
does not appear to be the Ku Klux Klan. For one
thing, to my recollection the Ku Klux Klan has
never mounted a successful four-and-a-half-hour
heavy weapons assault against a well-defended
target in the heart of a major city.
Another issue is the demographics.
Cole points out that only 28% of
Bengahazis have a favorable opinion of the
Salafis, versus 60% for the United States. He is
apparently citing an IRI poll from last autumn
(which also pointed out that Benghazis' affection
for the United States pales before their love of
democracy powerhouse Qatar, which booked a 94%
Unfortunately, a 28%
favorability rating for a relatively extreme
religious and social philosophy translates into
about 100,000 adults in a city of 700,000 and is
not the recipe for political irrelevance.
For purposes of comparison, there are
fewer than 10,000 acknowledged members of the Ku
Klux Klan in the United States. Roll in the
membership of all the myriad splintered hardcore
white supremacist groups, add their on-line
sympathizers and fellow travelers: maybe 150,000
to 200,000 in a nation of 314 million people. It
would be safe to say that white supremacists today
enjoy a favorability rate of perhaps 0.1%.
The Salafis' 28% favorability in Benghazi,
interestingly, is in the same ballpark for the
current favorability of America's politically
powerful Tea Party movement. (Favorability for the
Muslim Brotherhood clocked in at a similar level,
31%, in the IRI poll.)
A more recent
Oxford Research poll of the whole country found
only 29% of respondents in that suspicious and
fractured land wanted to live in a democracy
(presumably because national elections could
deliver national dominance to partisans of the
wrong city/region/clan) and 35% expressed
preference for rule by a strongman.
the political mix the finding that 16% of Libyans
stated they were willing to take up arms to
advance their political beliefs. The pollsters
This would mean that around 630,000
people were potential fighters, in addition to
the 280,000 who previously took up arms.
Regionalism, alienation, distrust,
militancy, access to weapons ... The correct
framing for Libya is not burgeoning democracy with
a KKK problem. It is "powderkeg with a hundred
fuses waiting to be lit".
Boxing in the
Salafists is a messy, dangerous, and polarizing
exercise. That it has gone as well as it has is a
tribute to rare US persistence and skillful
execution of a nation building objective.
To argue that the Salafists represent
merely a marginalized fringe is perhaps a useful
exercise in spin to sell Libya to the US public as
a suitable destination for American blood,
treasure, and attention, but is not as useful to
policymakers - or politicians or the public trying
to make sense of things if and when the Libyan
situation blows up again.
dynamic is unfolding in East Asia, this time
involving two nuclear weapons powers (one
declared, the People's Republic of China, another
on the threshold of weaponization, Japan) 1.5
billion people and the economic future of the
In the Western media a
considerable, perhaps excessive, amount of time
and energy has been spent denigrating the
anti-Japanese demonstrations for their allegedly
unspontaneous character. Chinageeks' Charles
Custer perhaps went the furthest, titling his post
on the subject, "China's Anti-Japan Riots Are
State-Sponsored. Period." 
his assertion with the declaration that no Chinese
security forces were present at the
demonstrations, indicating that the demonstrators
were docile stooges marching against Japanese
facilities on regime orders.
demonstrably incorrect, as photos showing
protesters mixing it up with security forces in
Shenzhen and Chengdu indicate, and the comments
section contains some unedifying wrangling between
Custer and some of his commentators. 
That the anti-Japanese demonstrations are
condoned and facilitated by the Chinese regime is
incontrovertible. Applications to demonstrate were
expeditiously approved, making it safe, easy and
convenient for people who were encouraged to leave
their places of employment to join the crowds.
Caixin reported this amusing exchange
between one of their reporters and police at a
A nearby street was filled with
police, most of them relaxed. When I
photographed the protest, he smiled and said:
"You can join the protest." "Can I? Won't I
be pulled out?" I asked. "Since it is me who
let you in, who dares pull you out!" he said.
"But I haven't applied for permission," I
said. "It is OK. The organizer has applied,"
he said. A middle-aged policeman also
encouraged me to join the parade. "Can I
shout 'Punish corruptions'?" I inquired.
"No, you can't!" the middle-aged officer
said, suddenly seriously. "Only slogans
concerned with Diaoyu Islands are allowed," a
young policeman chimed in. 
However, trying to parse the issue of
the degree of sincerity of the demonstrations
would appear to be futile. It is quite plausible
that the offer of a day off, a ride downtown, and
a free lunch-box could induce quite a few Chinese
to join an anti-Japanese demonstration.
But that's only because anti-Japan
sentiment is already rife within China and
confrontation with Japan arouses genuine passion
for many Chinese. In several cities, the police
and paramilitaries had their hands full trying to
keep the demonstrations against Japanese
businesses in bounds.
China Daily and a
Japanese think-tank, Genron NPO, have conducted an
annual survey of Chinese and Japanese attitudes
for the past eight years. This year, 31% of
Chinese respondents held a favorable opinion of
Japan, with the unfavorable north of 60% (the
Japanese breakout toward China is even worse, with
favorable of only 15.6% and the unfavorable
probably over 80%). 
A quick scamper
through some dissident blogs on Weibo did not turn
up any posts along the lines of "Stop picking on
Japan and go back home, you stupid demonstrators".
One may speculate that few dissidents, in addition
to his or her other worries, are interested in
enduring an orchestrated web-wide accusation of
treason to the Han race.
seems to be a veiled hope that, since the Chinese
government has allowed people to get on the street
en masse to abuse Japan, perhaps the demonstrators
will start shouting anti-government slogans as
well, and the mass anti-regime movement that the
dissidents have never been able to kickstart
themselves will grow out of the anti-Japanese
That doesn't seem to have
The demonstrators appear to have
the mindset of a violence-prone crowd of soccer
fans presented with irresistible and vulnerable
targets. They displayed little interest in going
beyond the easy exercise of anti-Japanese
prejudice for the life-changing perils of turning
their ire on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The preoccupation with attempts to prove
the insincerity of the anti-Japanese
demonstrations by demonstrating their government
links is, I believe, a dangerous distraction.
Because it seems to imply that, if the
they can be dismissed and, if the demonstrations
are removed from the equation, the PRC's strategy
on the Senkakus/Diaoyu can be dismissed as a
futile exercise in Astroturfing (simulation of a
This, I think,
draws from the preconception that impassioned
popular against authoritarian regimes in the
Middle East, in Russia, and in China are the only
ones that matter, and if they advance the agenda
of authoritarian actors, they can be ignored.
However, the regime's intention is not to
try to manufacture a false Chinese simulacrum of
I believe the CCP is
sending a series of messages to Japan and the
United States via these demonstrations, and to
send the message it is important that everybody is
aware that they actually were state-managed.
First, the CCP is determined not to back
down in the Senkaku/Diaoyu conflict. Although
Japanese Prime Minister Noda stepped in to
purchase the islands as a conciliatory measure in
order to short circuit a carnival of provocation
planned by Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of
Tokyo, the CCP whipped up anti-Japanese sentiment
and demonstrations on the announcement of the
purchase regardless, in order to demonstrate its
deterrent capabilities in economic and diplomatic
warfare or, in old-fashioned terms, fire a shot
across Japan's bow.
Second, China does not
intend to provoke a military confrontation at the
islands that would viscerally alarm Japan's
populace and elite, and allow Japan to deploy its
unanswerable geostrategic advantage: the military
alliance with the United States. China's
provocative movements in the waters around the
islands are carried out by maritime surveillance
vessels and fishing boats, not the navy.
Instead, Japan will be confronted at its
most vulnerable point: the economic interests of
its corporations and the well-being of its
citizens inside China.
Third, the CCP is
conveying that it can manage the unrest that goes
hand-in-hand with a mass campaign, and will be
prepared to escalate the damage it inflicts on
Japanese businesses in China as needed despite the
losses suffered by the Chinese economy and Chinese
Finally, the ultimate purpose
of the furor over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is to
demonstrate that Japan must rely on accommodation
with China, as well as its alliance with the
United States, to achieve peace and prosperity.
With this background, US Secretary of
Defense Leon Panetta's recent remarks in Japan can
be taken as an acknowledgement - at least for now
- of the limits of American power and the
challenges facing the pivot into Asia:
The United States, in all cases of
disputed territory involving Pacific waters,
urges "calm and restraint on all sides," the
"United States policy
with regards to these islands is well known, and
obviously, we stand by our treaty obligations,"
Panetta said. "But the United States, as a
matter of policy, does not take a position with
regards to competing sovereignty claims."
In other words, the threshold for
active and open US involvement in the controversy
is a military clash over the islands between Japan
and China. Short of that ...
remarks are not a matter of throwing Japan under
the bus, but they do reflect the reality that
there are limits to what the United States can,
will, and wishes to do about the Diaoyu/Senkaku
islands. And they reinforce the signals sent by
the Chinese demonstrations.
It looks like
the Japanese government - at least the current,
relatively cautious and non-confrontational
government, which may not be in power very much
longer - got the message:
"We do not want anything that would
affect the general bilateral relations between
Japan and China," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu
Fujimura said at a press conference Tuesday. He
emphasized that the government has paid special
consideration to China, in putting three of the
five islets under state control.
government will not construct any port
facilities as shelters for fishing boats or
improve the lighthouse, but keep the three
islets as they are, at least for the time being.
It would appear that, at least for
the time being, China has come up with a
diplomatically and economically costly but
effective pushback to the cycle of provocation
that was driving the Senkaku/Diaoyu confrontation.
If and when the Noda government falls and is
replaced by a new hardline Japanese government
with a mandate for confrontation with China, the
US will be trying to hold it back, not egg it on.
The anti-Japanese formula may also be
applied to dealings with Vietnam and the
Philippines over the South China Sea disputes.
In other words, China's anti-Japanese
demonstrations are not a pathetic charade. They
are dead serious - and successful.