Unacceptable Choices in Libya

In Libya we are being asked to make a choicebetween two unacceptable choices, continuation of the government in Tripoli or its overthrow by the West

On the basis of precedent, there is no reason whatsoever to support western intervention in Libya. From the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 onwards, every single western attack on an Arab country has ended badly and often appallingly for the local people.

The trumpet majors blowing the horns of war in Libya are David Cameron and William Hague, the voices of the British establishment. Hague insists that Muammar Qadhafi must forever leave the country where he was born. Who is William Hague to make such a demand? In Libya we are being asked to make a choice between two unacceptable choices, continuation of the government in Tripoli or its overthrow by the West. For, let us be clear about this, the rebels in Benghazi have no hope of overthrowing this government on its own, despite a month of air attacks by French, British and US aircraft, the firing of hundreds of Tomahawk missiles into Libya from US warships and the appearance in the rebel ranks of sophisticated new weapons. This breaches the provisions of UN Security Council resolution 1973, forbidding the provision of arms to anyone in Libya, not just the government in Tripoli. Now the British, the French and the US are planning armed intervention on the ground, in the name of humanitarian relief, but with the forces to be sent to Libya empowered to ‘defend themselves’ if attacked.

This operation is being planned in the offices of Catherine Ashton, the EU’s ‘high representative’ for foreign affairs and security. Ashton has a tremendous capacity for standing in front of the cameras saying nothing of any importance to anyone. She is the worst regarded of all EU commissioners. She was appointed to the position with no experience in foreign policy and no qualification other than being Tony Blair’s friend (he had her made a baroness). She now speaks for the EU in the Middle East quartet designed to ‘mediate’ with the ‘peace process’. There is no ‘peace process’, of course. The quartet simply fusses
around, and behind the appearance of doing something, actually does nothing but blur still further the reasons why there is no peace. Blair, the man who helped deliver death and destruction to the Iraqi people on a massive scale, not once but twice (between 1991-2002 and from 2003 to the present) is the quartet’s special representative. For such a sibilantly pernicious body, both appointments are entirely appropriate. The quartet effectively blamed the Hamas government for the Israeli onslaught of 2008 and Ashton deals only with Ramallah. She is talking of a Palestinian state by September, which, reduced to its essentials,
means she thinks Mahmud Abbas can be persuaded to sign a scrap of paper selling out what he has not sold already by September. That is the extent of her commitment to ‘peace’ in Palestine.

Britain, France and the US are no friends of the Arab revolution. Caught off guard, they are scrambling to regain control. The US supported Mubarak to the bitter end. Only then did Hillary, with incredible but no more than usual gall, arrive in Cairo to proclaim that her government stood on the side of the people. Across the Middle East, behind the scenes, the US will be working hard to make sure that the more things change, apparently, the more they stay the same. In Egypt they will be working on and through General Tantawi, Mubarak’s old ally and the head of the military transitional government. He is completely distrusted by the people who launched the revolution from Tahrir Square. The Americans are likely also to be negotiating with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose support for cosmetic constitutional changes rather than real ones ensured their endorsement through a national referendum. In the gulf the Saudis and the Khalifas of Bahrain are to be supported whatever their violations of human rights.

In the name of the same violations of human rights, Syria has to be confined, squeezed and subverted. Syrians are demanding the same democratic reforms as everyone else, and they have every right to do so, but it would be naïve in the extreme to think that Israel, the US and most probably the Saudis, operating through salafi groups, crossing the border from Jordan, are not trying to turn the Arab revolution into a missile aimed straight at the government of Bashar al Assad. Their intelligence services wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t involved. The downfall of the Ba’athist regime would a tremendous victory, for Israel in particular, splitting the strategic alliance between Iran and Hizbullah. The regime’s enemies have wanted it for years, and now the Arab revolution is giving them the opportunity.

Libya is a particular case. Tony Blair brought Muammar Qadhafi out of the cold, so we are told. Actually, it was Qadhafi who came to Blair’s rescue, by providing him evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction in the Arab world, or plans for making them, after all, and he, Tony Blair, had persuaded at least one Arab leader to give them up. In fact, while he had contemplated the possibility, and may have had plans, there was never any evidence that Qadhafi was developing nuclear weapons. Like Saddam, Qadhafi was someone the Europeans and Americans would deal with only for as long as he suited their purposes. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan tried to kill him and now the Arab revolution has given the west the opportunity to get rid of this irritant once and for all. Documents just released show that the Blair government, ahead of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was in discussion with the oil companies about how the profits would be shared in the post-Saddam era. Blair’s denial that oil had any effect on his decision to support the invasion was just another of his lies. Are his successors in government likely to be thinking any differently about Libya? Not likely. Recognising their avarice, the ‘rebels’ in Benghazi have quickly set up their own oil company, establishing the facade behind which the governments supporting them can get their hands on Libya’s oil on terms to suit themselves – just like Iraq.

UNSC resolution 1973 was the thin end of the wedge. It has been widened progressively since it was passed. Initially setting up just a ‘no fly’ zone, its terms have been manipulated (in the name of protecting civilians) to include aerial attacks on government ground forces and installations and the provision of weaponry to the ‘rebels’. Many civilians have been killed in the process. It is not all one way, as one might think from watching Al Jazeera or reading the London Guardian. Without NATO bombardment and the supply of weaponry from outside to the rebels (in clear breach of UNSC resolution 1973) this conflict would have long since ended. NATO involvement and the promise of a widening attack has ensured the continuation of fighting and has emboldened the rebels to strike positions which would otherwise be untenable. They have rejected offers of a ceasefire and negotiations coming from Tripoli and the African Union. They are demanding that Qadhafi leave the country, which, surely, should be the end point and not the starting point of negotiations. Unable to win this conflict on their own, the ‘rebels’ want NATO to win it for them, even if that means the entry of foreign troops into their country.

So, make your choice. A continuation of Libya as it was, with all its faults or something new and unknown imposed by governments which have dealt death and destruction to the Middle East for two centuries and have never intervened in the region except out of commercial and strategic self-interest. The rebels are brave, no doubt, but to get what they want they, their leaders in the
‘transitional government’ are prepared to sell their souls to the devil. Even now we don’t know who all these figures are, but they include figures with Al Qaida and CIA connections. Try to think of how this situation might look in a year’s time, if, against all odds, Qadhafi succeeds in holding on. Libya will effectively be divided. The oil terminals will be ‘protected’ by NATO bombardment, pumping oil to the west in the name of the government established in Benghazi. While the fighting is going on the governments of the UK, France, Italy and the US, and no doubt others, will be making arrangements with Benghazi for the ‘reconstruction’ and ‘redevelopment’ of Libya’s oil resources. (No doubt they are doing it already.) Because troops guarding sacks of floor will have been killed in shelling by ‘Qadhafi’s forces’, it will have been found necessary to send in more troops, along with foreign contractors assigned to guarding ‘key’ installations. Properly packaged, as it will be, the public will buy into this. Thousands of civilians will have been killed. Al Qaida of the Maghrib will be taking advantage of the chaos to create chaos of its own. Like Iraq, Libya will have been destroyed as a unitary Arab state. Whatever was decided in UNSC resolution 1973 will have long since been forgotten. It will have served and outlived its purposes. Dependent on the west, the government in Benghazi will be beholden to it. Libyans want democratic government, of course, and they want to get rid of Qadhafi, but is this the way to do it?


Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne.

Check Also

A note on Muslim Women on International Women’s Day

I want to take a brief moment today to tell you about just 5 Muslim …