Friday, November 11, 2011

Libya: The Backstory

Libyan Leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 1971,
two years after he seized power in a coup d'etat
In a very comprehensive review of Libyan history and politics over at The London Review of Books, Hugh Roberts points to some very inconvenient truths in the overthrow of Gaddafi.
While there was no doubt that Gaddafi was a cruel dictator, did the western powers act with honor in their efforts to oust him?  It appears not.  Despite repeated offers of ceasefire by Gaddafi and his forces (17 March, 30 April, 26 May and 9 June), all of which were rejected by the opposition forces (in apparent defiance of UN resolutions)  It's quite apparent that the end-game all along was to topple the Gaddafi regime, not to ensure the safety of Libyan civilians.
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.
But Gaddafi did not have a history of "massacres."  He was not Saddam Hussein.  There is only one recorded incident, in 1996, when 1200 Islamists were murdered and it is still unclear if Gaddafi ordered it.
It is reliably reported that Obama’s fear of being accused of allowing another Srebrenica [massacre] 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. 
The source of the stories coming out of Libya about the Libyan Air Force attacking demonstrators came from one place: Al Jazeera.  The story was picked up by all major western news media.  There was just one problem...
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 avalanche has begun, it's too late for the pebbles to vote."
‘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. 
Correction, it is compromised again.

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