By Hugh Roberts. 17 November 2011. Source: www.lrb.co.uk
So Gaddafi is dead and Nato has fought a war in North Africa for the first time since the FLN defeated France in 1962. The Arab world’s one and only State of the Masses, the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya, has ended badly. In contrast to the bloodless coup of 1 September 1969 that overthrew King Idris and brought Gaddafi and his colleagues to power, the combined rebellion/civil war/ Nato bombing campaign to protect civilians has occasioned several thousand (5000? 10,000? 25,000?) deaths, many thousands of injured and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, as well as massive damage to infrastructure. What if anything has Libya got in exchange for all the death and destruction that have been visited on it over the past seven and a half months?
The overthrow of Gaddafi & Co was far from being a straightforward revolution against tyranny, but the West’s latest military intervention can’t be debunked as being simply about oil. Presented by the National Transitional Council (NTC) and cheered on by the Western media as an integral part of the Arab Spring, and thus supposedly of a kind with the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan drama is rather an addition to the list of Western or Western-backed wars against hostile, ‘defiant’, insufficiently ‘compliant’, or ‘rogue’ regimes: Afghanistan I (v. the Communist regime, 1979-92), Iraq I (1990-91), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (over Kosovo, 1999), Afghanistan II (v. the Taliban regime, 2001) and Iraq II (2003), to which we might, with qualifications, add the military interventions in Panama (1989-90), Sierra Leone (2000) and the Ivory Coast (2011). An older series of events we might bear in mind includes the Bay of Pigs (1961), the intervention by Western mercenaries in the Congo (1964), the British-assisted palace coup in Oman in 1970 and – last but not least – three abortive plots, farmed out to David Stirling and sundry other mercenaries under the initially benevolent eye of Western intelligence services, to overthrow the Gaddafi regime between 1971 and 1973 in an episode known as the Hilton Assignment.
The African Union’s opposition to Nato’s intervention
Gaddafi’s African policy gave Libya a firm geopolitical position and consolidated its strategic hinterland while also benefiting Africa. That many African countries appreciated Libya’s contribution to the continent’s affairs was made clear by the AU’s opposition to Nato’s intervention and its sustained efforts to broker a ceasefire and negotiations between the two sides of the civil war. These efforts were dismissed with scorn by Western governments and press, with African opposition to the military intervention cynically derided as Libya’s clients doing their duty to their patron, a self-serving judgment that was unfair to South Africa in particular. That the Arab League, whose support for a no-fly zone was invoked by London, Paris and Washington to claim Arab legitimation of Nato’s intervention, had a membership almost entirely confined to Western powers’ client states was never mentioned.
The Lockerbie bombing; how the Libyan government ‘bought peace’
Since February, it has been relentlessly asserted that the Libyan government was responsible both for the bombing of a Berlin disco on 5 April 1986 and the Lockerbie bombing on 21 December 1988. News of Gaddafi’s violent end was greeted with satisfaction by the families of the American victims of Lockerbie, understandably full of bitterness towards the man they have been assured by the US government and the press ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103. But many informed observers have long wondered about these two stories, especially Lockerbie. Jim Swire, the spokesman of UK Families Flight 103, whose daughter was killed in the bombing, has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the official version. Hans Köchler, an Austrian jurist appointed by the UN as an independent observer at the trial, expressed concern about the way it was conducted (notably about the role of two US Justice Department officials who sat next to the Scottish prosecuting counsel throughout and appeared to be giving them instructions). Köchler described al-Megrahi’s conviction as ‘a spectacular miscarriage of justice’. Swire, who also sat through the trial, subsequently launched the Justice for Megrahi campaign. In a resumé of Gaddafi’s career shown on BBC World Service Television on the night of 20 October, John Simpson stopped well short of endorsing either charge, noting of the Berlin bombing that ‘it may or may not have been Colonel Gaddafi’s work,’ an honest formula that acknowledged the room for doubt. Of Lockerbie he remarked cautiously that Libya subsequently ‘got the full blame’, a statement that is quite true.
It is often claimed by British and American government personnel and the Western press that Libya admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2003-4. This is untrue. As part of the deal with Washington and London, which included Libya paying $2.7 billion to the 270 victims’ families, the Libyan government in a letter to the president of the UN Security Council stated that Libya ‘has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials’. That this formula was agreed in negotiations between the Libyan and British (if not also American) governments was made clear when it was echoed word for word by Jack Straw in the House of Commons. The formula allowed the government to give the public the impression that Libya was indeed guilty, while also allowing Tripoli to say that it had admitted nothing of the kind. The statement does not even mention al-Megrahi by name, much less acknowledge his guilt or that of the Libyan government, and any self-respecting government would sign up to the general principle that it is responsible for the actions of its officials. Tripoli’s position was spelled out by the prime minister, Shukri Ghanem, on 24 February 2004 on the Today programme: he made it clear that the payment of compensation did not imply an admission of guilt and explained that the Libyan government had ‘bought peace’.
The UN Security Council chooses war when no other policy has even been tried
The claim that the ‘international community’ had no choice but to intervene militarily and that the alternative was to do nothing is false. An active, practical, non-violent alternative was proposed, and deliberately rejected. The argument for a no-fly zone and then for a military intervention employing ‘all necessary measures’ was that only this could stop the regime’s repression and protect civilians. Yet many argued that the way to protect civilians was not to intensify the conflict by intervening on one side or the other, but to end it by securing a ceasefire followed by political negotiations. A number of proposals were put forward. The International Crisis Group, for instance, where I worked at the time, published a statement on 10 March arguing for a two-point initiative: (i) the formation of a contact group or committee drawn from Libya’s North African neighbours and other African states with a mandate to broker an immediate ceasefire; (ii) negotiations between the protagonists to be initiated by the contact group and aimed at replacing the current regime with a more accountable, representative and law-abiding government. This proposal was echoed by the African Union and was consistent with the views of many major non-African states – Russia, China, Brazil and India, not to mention Germany and Turkey. It was restated by the ICG in more detail (adding provision for the deployment under a UN mandate of an international peacekeeping force to secure the ceasefire) in an open letter to the UN Security Council on 16 March, the eve of the debate which concluded with the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973. In short, before the Security Council voted to approve the military intervention, a worked-out proposal had been put forward which addressed the need to protect civilians by seeking a rapid end to the fighting, and set out the main elements of an orderly transition to a more legitimate form of government, one that would avoid the danger of an abrupt collapse into anarchy, with all it might mean for Tunisia’s revolution, the security of Libya’s other neighbours and the wider region. The imposition of a no-fly zone would be an act of war: as the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, told Congress on 2 March, it required the disabling of Libya’s air defences as an indispensable preliminary. In authorising this and ‘all necessary measures’, the Security Council was choosing war when no other policy had even been tried. Why?
Many critics of Nato’s intervention have complained that it departed from the terms of Resolution 1973 and was for that reason illegal; that the resolution authorised neither regime change nor the introduction of troops on the ground. This is a misreading. Article 4 ruled out the introduction of an occupying force. But Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations states that ‘territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army,’ a definition conserved by the 1949 Geneva Conventions. What Resolution 1973 ruled out was the introduction of a force intended to take full political and legal responsibility for the place, but that was never the intention; ground forces were indeed eventually introduced, but they have at no point accepted political or legal responsibility for anything and so fall short of the conventional definition of an occupying force. It may be that this misreading of the resolution was connived at by the governments that drafted it in order to secure the best (or least bad) tally of votes in favour on 17 March; this would of course be only one instance of the sophistry to which the metteurs en scène of intervention have resorted. And regime change was tacitly covered by the phrase ‘all necessary measures’. That this was the right way to read the resolution had already been made clear by the stentorian rhetoric of Cameron and Hague, Sarkozy and Juppé, and Obama and Clinton in advance of the Security Council vote. Since the issue was defined from the outset as protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s murderous onslaught ‘on his own people’, it followed that effective protection required the elimination of the threat, which was Gaddafi himself for as long as he was in power (subsequently revised to ‘for as long as he is in Libya’ before finally becoming ‘for as long as he is alive’). From the attitudes struck by the Western powers in the run-up to the Security Council debate, it was evident that the cleverly drafted resolution tacitly authorised a war to effect regime change. Those who subsequently said that they did not know that regime change had been authorised either did not understand the logic of events or were pretending to misunderstand in order to excuse their failure to oppose it. By inserting ‘all necessary measures’ into the resolution, London, Paris and Washington licensed themselves, with Nato as their proxy, to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted in the full knowledge that they would never be held to account, since as permanent veto-holding members of the Security Council they are above all laws.
In two respects the conduct of the Western powers and Nato did indeed appear explicitly to violate the terms of Security Council resolutions. The first instance was the repeated supply of arms to the rebellion by France, Qatar, Egypt (according to the Wall Street Journal) and no doubt various other members of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in what seemed a clear breach of the arms embargo imposed by the Security Council in Articles 9, 10 and 11 of Resolution 1970 passed on 26 February and reiterated in Articles 13, 14 and 15 of Resolution 1973. It was later explained that Resolution 1973 superseded 1970 in this respect and that the magic phrase ‘all necessary measures’ licensed the violation of the arms embargo; thus Article 4 of Resolution 1973 trumped Articles 13 to 15 of the same resolution. In this way it was arranged that any state might supply arms to the rebels while none might do so to the Libyan government, which by that time had been decreed illegitimate by London, Paris and Washington. Scarcely anyone has drawn attention to the second violation.
The efforts of the ICG and others seeking an alternative to war did not go entirely unnoticed. Apparently their proposals made some impression on the less gung-ho members of the Security Council, and so a left-handed homage was paid them by the drafters of Resolution 1973. In the final version – unlike any earlier ones – the idea of a peaceful solution was incorporated in the first two articles, which read:
[The Security Council …]
(1) Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians; (2) Stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the secretary-general to send his special envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.
In this way Resolution 1973 seemed to be actively envisaging a peaceful alternative as its first preference, while authorising military intervention as a fallback if a ceasefire was refused. In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth.
The West rejected Gaddafi’s ceasefire because it was the last thing they wanted
Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west – in other words, he had to accept strategic defeat in advance. These conditions, which were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1.
Cameron and Obama had made clear that the last thing they wanted was a ceasefire, that the NTC could violate Article 1 of the resolution with impunity and that in doing so it would be acting with the agreement of its Security Council sponsors. Gaddafi’s first ceasefire offer came to nothing, as did his second offer of 20 March. A week later, Turkey, which had been working within the Nato framework to help organise the provision of humanitarian aid to Benghazi, announced that it had been talking to both sides and offered to broker a ceasefire. The offer was given what Ernest Bevin would have called ‘a complete ignoral’ and nothing came of it either, as nothing came of a later initiative, seeking a ceasefire and negotiations (to which Gaddafi explicitly agreed), undertaken by the African Union in April. It too was rejected out of hand by the NTC, which demanded Gaddafi’s resignation as a condition of any ceasefire. This demand went beyond even Obama’s earlier list of conditions, none of which had figured in Resolution 1973. More to the point, it was a demand that made a ceasefire impossible, since securing a ceasefire requires commanders with decisive authority over their armies, and removing Gaddafi would have meant that no one any longer had overall authority over the regime’s forces.
By incorporating the alternative non-violent policy proposals in its text, the Western war party had been pulling a confidence trick, stringing along a few undecided states to get them to vote for the resolution on 17 March: a war to the finish, violent regime change and the end of Gaddafi had been the policy from the outset. All subsequent offers of a ceasefire by Gaddafi – on 30 April, 26 May and 9 June – were treated with the same contempt.
Those who believe in ‘international law’ and are happy with wars they consider ‘legal’ may wish to make something of this. But the crucial point here has to do with the logic of events and the policy choices associated with them. In incorporating the ICG’s – or, more generally, the peace party’s – suggestions into the revised text of Resolution 1973, London, Paris and Washington deftly headed off a real debate in the Security Council, one that would have considered alternatives, at the price of making their own resolution incoherent.
London, Paris and Washington could not allow a ceasefire because it would have involved negotiations, first about peace lines, peacekeepers and so forth, and then about fundamental political differences. And all this would have subverted the possibility of the kind of regime change that interested the Western powers. The sight of representatives of the rebellion sitting down to talks with representatives of Gaddafi’s regime, Libyans talking to Libyans, would have called the demonisation of Gaddafi into question. The moment he became once more someone people talked to and negotiated with, he would in effect have been rehabilitated. And that would have ruled out violent – revolutionary? – regime change and so denied the Western powers their chance of a major intervention in North Africa’s Spring, and the whole interventionist scheme would have flopped. The logic of the demonisation of Gaddafi in late February, crowned by the referral of his alleged crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court by Resolution 1970 and then by France’s decision on 10 March to recognise the NTC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people, meant that Gaddafi was banished for ever from the realm of international political discourse, never to be negotiated with, not even about the surrender of Tripoli when in August he offered to talk terms to spare the city further destruction, an offer once more dismissed with contempt. And this logic was preserved from start to finish, as the death toll of civilians in Tripoli and above all Sirte proves. The mission was always regime change, a truth obscured by the hullabaloo over the supposedly imminent massacre at Benghazi.
No evidence to suggest that a massacre was going to take place
The official version is that it was the prospect of a ‘second Srebrenica’ or even ‘another Rwanda’ in Benghazi were Gaddafi allowed to retake the city that forced the ‘international community’ (minus Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany, Turkey et al) to act. What grounds were there for supposing that, once Gaddafi’s forces had retaken Benghazi, they would be ordered to embark on a general massacre?
Gaddafi dealt with many revolts over the years. He invariably quashed them by force and usually executed the ringleaders. The NTC and other rebel leaders had good reason to fear that once Benghazi had fallen to government troops they would be rounded up and made to pay the price. So it was natural that they should try to convince the ‘international community’ that it was not only their lives that were at stake, but those of thousands of ordinary civilians. But in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda. The only known massacre carried out during Gaddafi’s rule was the killing of some 1200 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. This was a very dark affair, and whether or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it. It was therefore reasonable to be concerned about what the regime might do and how its forces would behave in Benghazi once they had retaken it, and to deter Gaddafi from ordering or allowing any excesses. But that is not what was decided. What was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit, and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action.
There was no question of anything that could properly be described as ethnic cleansing or genocide in the Libyan context. All Libyans are Muslims, the majority of Arab-Berber descent, and while the small Berber-speaking minority had a grievance concerning recognition of its language and identity (its members are Ibadi, not Sunni, Muslims), this was not what the conflict was about. The conflict was not ethnic or racial but political, between defenders and opponents of the Gaddafi regime; whichever side won could be expected to deal roughly with its adversaries, but the premises for a large-scale massacre of civilians on grounds of their ethnic or racial identity were absent. All the talk about another Srebrenica or Rwanda was extreme hyperbole clearly intended to panic various governments into supporting the war party’s project of a military intervention in order to save the rebellion from imminent defeat.
February 21: the day all the important cards were dealt
Why did the panic factor work so well with international, or at any rate Western, public opinion and especially governments? It is reliably reported that Obama’s fear of being accused of allowing another Srebrenica tipped the scales in Washington when not only Robert Gates but also, initially, Hillary Clinton had resisted US involvement. I believe the answer is that Gaddafi had already been so thoroughly demonised that the wildest accusations about his likely (or, as many claimed, certain) future conduct would be believed whatever his actual behaviour. This demonisation took place on 21 February, the day all the important cards were dealt.
On 21 February the world was shocked by the news that the Gaddafi regime was using its airforce to slaughter peaceful demonstrators in Tripoli and other cities. The main purveyor of this story was al-Jazeera, but the story was quickly taken up by the Sky network, CNN, the BBC, ITN et al. Before the day was over the idea of imposing a no-fly zone on Libya was widely accepted, as was the idea of a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions and an arms embargo, freezing Libya’s assets and referring Gaddafi and his associates to the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity. Resolution 1970 was duly passed five days later and the no-fly zone proposal monopolised international discussion of the Libyan crisis from then on.
Many other things happened on 21 February. Zawiya was reported to be in chaos. The minister of justice, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, resigned. Fifty Serbian workers were attacked by looters. Canada condemned ‘the violent crackdowns on innocent demonstrators’. Two airforce pilots flew their fighters to Malta claiming they did so to avoid carrying out an order to bomb and strafe demonstrators. By late afternoon regime troops and snipers were reliably reported to be firing on crowds in Tripoli. Eighteen Korean workers were wounded when their place of work was attacked by a hundred armed men. The European Union condemned the repression, followed by Ban Ki-moon, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi. Ten Egyptians were reported to have been killed by armed men in Tobruk. William Hague, who had condemned the repression the previous day (as had Hillary Clinton), announced at a press conference that he had information that Gaddafi had fled Libya and was en route to Venezuela. The Libyan ambassador to Poland stated that defections from the armed forces as well as the government could not be stopped and Gaddafi’s days were numbered. Numerous media outlets carried the story that Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfalla, had joined the rebellion. Libya’s ambassadors to Washington, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia all resigned, and its deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, rounded off the day by calling a news conference at Libya’s mission in New York and claimed that Gaddafi had ‘already started the genocide against the Libyan people’ and was flying in African mercenaries. It was Dabbashi more than anyone else who, having primed his audience in this way, launched the idea that the UN should impose a no-fly zone and the ICC should investigate Gaddafi’s ‘crimes against humanity and crimes of war’.
At this point the total death toll since 15 February was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. The Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme suggested between 300 and 400 (but it also announced the same day that Sirte had fallen to the rebels). We can compare these figures with the total death toll in Tunisia (300) and Egypt (at least 846). We can also compare both HRW’s and FIDH’s figures with the death toll, plausibly estimated at between 500 and 600, of the seven days of rioting in Algeria in October 1988, when the French government rigorously refrained from making any comment on events. But the figures were beside the point on 21 February; it was impressions that counted. The impression made by the story that Gaddafi’s airforce was slaughtering peaceful protesters was huge, and it was natural to take the resignations of Abdul Jalil and the ambassadors, the flight of the two pilots, and especially Dabbashi’s dramatic declaration about genocide as corroborating al-Jazeera’s story.
Goodies and baddies (to use Tony Blair’s categories) had been clearly identified, the Western media’s outraged attention totally engaged, the Security Council urgently seized of the matter, the ICC primed to stand by, and a fundamental shift towards intervention had been made – all in a matter of hours. And quite right too, many may say. Except that the al-Jazeera story was untrue, just as the story of the Warfalla’s siding with the rebellion was untrue and Hague’s story that Gaddafi was fleeing to Caracas was untrue. And, of course, Dabbashi’s ‘genocide’ claim was histrionic rubbish which none of the organisations with an interest in the use of the term was moved to challenge.
These considerations raise awkward questions. If the reason cited by these ambassadors and other regime personnel for defecting on 21 February was false, what really prompted them to defect and make the declarations they did? What was al-Jazeera up to? And what was Hague up to? A serious history of this affair when more evidence comes to light will seek answers to these questions. But I don’t find it hard to understand that Gaddafi and his son should suddenly have resorted to such fierce rhetoric. They clearly believed that, far from confronting merely ‘innocent demonstrators’ as the Canadians had it, they were being destabilised by forces acting to a plan with international ramifications. It is possible that they were mistaken and that everything was spontaneous and accidental and a chaotic muddle; I do not pretend to know for sure. But there had been plans to destabilise their regime before, and they had grounds for thinking that they were being destabilised again. The slanted coverage in the British media in particular, notably the insistence that the regime was faced only by peaceful demonstrators when, in addition to ordinary Libyans trying to make their voices heard non-violently, it was facing politically motivated as well as random violence (e.g. the lynching of 50 alleged mercenaries in al-Baida on 19 February), was consistent with the destabilisation theory. And on the evidence I have since been able to collect, I am inclined to think that destabilisation is exactly what was happening.
In the days that followed I made efforts to check the al-Jazeera story for myself. One source I consulted was the well-regarded blog Informed Comment, maintained and updated every day by Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. This carried a post on 21 February entitled ‘Qaddafi’s bombardments recall Mussolini’s’, which made the point that ‘in 1933-40, Italo Balbo championed aerial warfare as the best means to deal with uppity colonial populations.’ The post began: ‘The strafing and bombardment in Tripoli of civilian demonstrators by Muammar Gaddafi’s fighter jets on Monday …’, with the underlined words linking to an article by Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael for Associated Press published at 9 p.m. on 21 February. This article provided no corroboration of Cole’s claim that Gaddafi’s fighter jets (or any other aircraft) had strafed or bombed anyone in Tripoli or anywhere else. The same is true of every source indicated in the other items on Libya relaying the aerial onslaught story which Cole posted that same day.
I was in Egypt for most of the time, but since many journalists visiting Libya were transiting through Cairo, I made a point of asking those I could get hold of what they had picked up in the field. None of them had found any corroboration of the story. I especially remember on 18 March asking the British North Africa expert Jon Marks, just back from an extended tour of Cyrenaica (taking in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Brega, Derna and Ras Lanuf), what he had heard about the story. He told me that no one he had spoken to had mentioned it. Four days later, on 22 March, USA Today carried a striking article by Alan Kuperman, the author of The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention and coeditor of Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention. The article, ‘Five Things the US Should Consider in Libya’, provided a powerful critique of the Nato intervention as violating the conditions that needed to be observed for a humanitarian intervention to be justified or successful. But what interested me most was his statement that ‘despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.’ So, four weeks on, I was not alone in finding no evidence for the aerial slaughter story. I subsequently discovered that the issue had come up more than a fortnight earlier, on 2 March, in hearings in the US Congress when Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying. They told Congress that they had no confirmation of reports of aircraft controlled by Gaddafi firing on citizens.
The story was untrue, just as the story that went round the world in August 1990 that Iraqi troops were slaughtering Kuwaiti babies by turning off their incubators was untrue and the claims in the sexed-up dossier on Saddam’s WMD were untrue. But as Mohammed Khider, one of the founders of the FLN, once remarked, ‘when everyone takes up a falsehood, it becomes a reality.’ The rush to regime change by war was on and could not be stopped.
The intervention tarnished every one of the principles the war party invoked to justify it. It occasioned the deaths of thousands of civilians, debased the idea of democracy, debased the idea of law and passed off a counterfeit revolution as the real thing. Two assertions that were endlessly reiterated – they were fundamental to the Western powers’ case for war – were that Gaddafi was engaged in ‘killing his own people’ and that he had ‘lost all legitimacy’, the latter presented as the corollary of the former. Both assertions involved mystifications.
‘Killing his own people’ is a hand-me-down line from the previous regime change war against Saddam Hussein. In both cases it suggested two things: that the despot was a monster and that he represented nothing in the society he ruled. It is tendentious and dishonest to say simply that Gaddafi was ‘killing his own people’; he was killing those of his people who were rebelling. He was doing in this respect what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion. We are all free to prefer the rebels to the government in any given case. But the relative merits of the two sides aren’t the issue in such situations: the issue is the right of a state to defend itself against violent subversion. That right, once taken for granted as the corollary of sovereignty, is now compromised. Theoretically, it is qualified by certain rules. But, as we have seen, the invocation of rules (e.g. no genocide) can go together with a cynical exaggeration and distortion of the facts by other states. There are in fact no reliable rules. A state may repress a revolt if the permanent veto-holding powers on the Security Council allow it to (e.g. Bahrain, but also Sri Lanka) and not otherwise. And if a state thinks it can take this informal authorisation to defend itself as read because it is on good terms with London, Paris and Washington and is honouring all its agreements with them, as Libya was, it had better beware. Terms can change without warning from one day to the next. The matter is now arbitrary, and arbitrariness is the opposite of law.
Supporters of Gaddafi’s regime aren’t part of ‘the Libyan people’
The idea that Gaddafi represented nothing in Libyan society, that he was taking on his entire people and his people were all against him was another distortion of the facts. As we now know from the length of the war, the huge pro-Gaddafi demonstration in Tripoli on 1 July, the fierce resistance Gaddafi’s forces put up, the month it took the rebels to get anywhere at all at Bani Walid and the further month at Sirte, Gaddafi’s regime enjoyed a substantial measure of support, as the NTC did. Libyan society was divided and political division was in itself a hopeful development since it signified the end of the old political unanimity enjoined and maintained by the Jamahiriyya. In this light, the Western governments’ portrayal of ‘the Libyan people’ as uniformly ranged against Gaddafi had a sinister implication, precisely because it insinuated a new Western-sponsored unanimity back into Libyan life. This profoundly undemocratic idea followed naturally from the equally undemocratic idea that, in the absence of electoral consultation or even an opinion poll to ascertain the Libyans’ actual views, the British, French and American governments had the right and authority to determine who was part of the Libyan people and who wasn’t. No one supporting the Gaddafi regime counted. Because they were not part of ‘the Libyan people’ they could not be among the civilians to be protected, even if they were civilians as a matter of mere fact. And they were not protected; they were killed by Nato air strikes as well as by uncontrolled rebel units. The number of such civilian victims on the wrong side of the war must be many times the total death toll as of 21 February. But they don’t count, any more than the thousands of young men in Gaddafi’s army who innocently imagined that they too were part of ‘the Libyan people’ and were only doing their duty to the state counted when they were incinerated by Nato’s planes or extra-judicially executed en masse after capture, as in Sirte.
The same contempt for democratic principle characterised the repeated declarations in the West that Gaddafi had ‘lost all legitimacy’. Every state needs international recognition and to that extent depends on external sources of legitimation. But the democratic idea gives priority to national over international legitimacy. With their claim of lost legitimacy the Western powers were not only pre-empting an eventual election in Libya which would ascertain the true balance of public opinion, they were mimicking the Gaddafi regime: in the Jamahiriyya the people were liable to be trumped by the Revolution as a source of superior legitimacy.
‘If you break it, you own it,’ Colin Powell famously remarked, in order to alert the Beltway to the risks of a renewed war against Iraq. The lesson of the mess in Iraq has been learned, at least to the extent that the Western powers and Nato have repeatedly insisted that the Libyan people – the NTC and the revolutionary militias – own their revolution. So, not owning Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, Nato and London and Paris and Washington cannot be accused of breaking it or be held responsible for the debris. The result is a shadow play. The NTC occupies centre stage in Libya, but since February every key decision has been made in the Western capitals in consultation with the other, especially Arab, members of the ‘contact group’ meeting in London or Paris or Doha. It is unlikely that the structure of power and the system of decision-making which have guided the ‘revolution’ since March are going to change radically. And so unless something happens to upset the calculations that have brought Nato and the NTC this far, what will probably emerge is a system of dual power in some ways analogous to that of the Jamahiriyya itself, and similarly inimical to democratic accountability. That is, a system of formal decision-making about secondary matters acting as a façade for a separate and independent, because offshore, system of decision-making about everything that really counts (oil, gas, water, finance, trade, security, geopolitics) behind the scenes. Libya’s formal government will be a junior partner of the new Libya’s Western sponsors. This will be more of a return to the old ways of the monarchy than to those of the Jamahiriyya.