Libya is a Mass of Contradictions


Tuesday, 04 October 2011 07:22

_Libya_However history judges the meaning of the current events in Libya, one conclusion might be hard to dismiss: that the situation there is a mish-mash of contradictions that appear to defy logic, in the conventional sense of that term. But there is at its heart of the Libya intervention what might be called imperial-political logic: my enemy’s enemy is my friend (at least for now). It makes for an explosive brew, pregnant with potential for violent blowback in all directions – the western powers that led the charge, the various factions collectively known as the ‘rebels’ but, most of all, to the Libyan population at large in whose name, and for whose alleged protection or advancement, the west intervened.

Originally touted as a UN-authorised intervention to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya, the US fired dozens of million-dollar Tomahawk missiles at Gaddafi regime targets from the outset, deliberately aiming at regime change, a goal rhetorically rejected as an object of US and western policy but aimed at nonetheless. It is crystal clear that a policy claiming to protect civilians, aspects of which are contested by human rights monitoring organisations like Amnesty, by attacking Gaddafi forces instantly transformed into military belligerence on behalf of one side of the domestic conflict as NATO rained bombs from the skies through thousands of airstrikes. The legitimacy of the intervention was, and remains, in doubt. To argue that the UN gave authorisation for intervention was exposed as a sham as soon as the US and Anglo-French forces started attacking Gaddafi’s infrastructure. That the Arab League, originally established with British colonial-era support, provided legitimacy was always hollow – the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other ‘conservative’ Gulf States repress their populations and put down domestic rebellions with ruthless force, and are hardly bastions of human rights and democratic virtue. Indeed, alongside support for Western intervention in Libya, the Saudis and others were busy putting down with military force uprisings in Bahrain.

Neither UN authority nor Arab League support legitimised intervention in a civil war, particularly the kind of selective interventions that are the hallmark of imperial powers.

On the other hand, it is interesting that the ‘rebels’ of the National Transitional Council (NTC) are a mixed, and contradictory, bag: there are former CIA agents in the lead, some people who have yet openly to be named, as well as people who support Al Qaeda and have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan against US and western forces. The legitimacy of the NTC is pretty tenuous (The Economist, 27.8.11), while the right-wing Daily Mail (24.8.11) referred to Britain’s favoured Libyan groupings as “a rackety gang of incompetents and hoodlums”. The Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), largely based in Benghazi, Darnah and Tobruk, all in eastern Libya, supplied more suicide bombers to the ’cause’ in Iraq, per capita, than did Saudi Arabia. According to a 2007 paper by West Point academics, Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, based on 600 Al Qaeda personnel files seized by US forces in Iraq, Darnah supplied one fighter in Iraq for every 1500 of its population, a higher proportion than Riyadh. It was from this area that a major Islamist-led uprising against the Gaddafi regime occurred in 1996.

Echoes of the US (and Pakistani) creation of al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union are all too clear, and the possibility of blowback from support of LIFG and affiliates appears to be downplayed. One would think that with the approach of the 10th anniversary of 9-11, the west would reflect on its past practices and learn some valuable lessons.
The goals of the US and those of LIFG are not identical once Gaddafi has been definitively deposed. The people who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and presumably will continue to do so, are unlikely to cooperate with increased western control of national resources in oil and gas, of which Libya has 46.4 billion barrels of oil reserves and 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the 9th highest proven reserves in the world. They will want to create a very different type of internal regime and culture, with a very different idea of foreign policy.
A current military commander of rebel forces – Khalifa Hifter – defected from Libya in the late 1980s and lived just 5 miles from CIA HQ at Langley, Virginia. Closely associated with a CIA-funded organisation for Libya’s salvation, Hifter is for all intents and purposes a CIA asset. He headed for many years a contra-style organisation called the Libyan National Army (Washington Post, 26.3.1996).
Another leading figure among rebels is Abdel Hakim Belhaj – who was renditioned, tortured and held without charge by Britain with US support, and the assent of the Gaddafi regime, for 6 years. He is currently thinking over whether to sue the British government over his maltreatment.
The ‘rebels’ are actually made up of dozens of factions, possibly up to 40 in total, who owe only slight loyalty to the NTC which is a largely Benghazi-based organisation, representing various tribes that predominate in that region. And, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (September/October 2011), they have engaged in murderous racial attacks on black Libyans they have erroneously declared mercenaries for Gaddafi. Tribally-based, it is not clear that the NTC has legitimacy across the country as it embarks on ‘nation-building’ with western support.
This national revolution contains another contradiction: it’s not national, and its revolutionary credentials are contested. The ‘rebels’ have come to power due to NATO’s military might in knocking out the bulk of Gaddafi’s military forces, as well as various western special forces on the ground who coordinated the rebel armies and identified targets for airstrikes. That is a contradiction that will haunt this ‘revolution’ – led by Islamist militants, tribal leaders, monarchist exiles, and former Gaddafi regime high officials. They have already promised lucrative contracts to rebuild Libya’s rich and ‘sweet’ oil fields and refineries, and its infrastructure. Every western country – as are Russia and China – is lining up to reap the fruits of their state’s military investments. As the Daily Telegraph reported (23.8.11), Britain is determinedly seeking to “recover commercially some measure of [its]… significant diplomatic and military investment.” Gaddafi – according to many reports – including US embassy cables released by Wikileaks – was increasingly engaging in “resource nationalism” against foreign, mainly western, oil companies, demanding more and more nationalist concessions, and possibly expulsion of non-compliant foreign corporations.
The declarations from practically all parts of the political spectrum that Libya was a humanitarian intervention may be deafening but they are nonetheless problematic. Libya is an imperial intervention, a colonial intervention that has not only secured control of scarce energy resources – a key force in the west’s increasingly fraught contest with rising powers in the east – but also placed in virtual power a far more compliant regime in Tripoli. Libya has also placed the west back in the ‘good’ books of broad swathes of Arab opinion, for now at least.
In Tony Blair’s memoir – A Journey (2010)- he reflects on the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan, claiming that he knew all that there was to know about the unhappy fate that has met every foreign occupier there. Yet, Blair fully supported an invasion and occupation of that tragic country. 10 years later, the bloodbath continues there.
Imperial leaders believe that they can overcome, despite history. They cannot help themselves. It is the very essence of their imperial mentality that they know best, that they will prevail. To achieve short term objectives, they side with all manner of ‘allies’ – empowering all sorts of people whose longer term goals are very different.

Therein lies the fatal flaw in imperial-political logic.

Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of Government at the University of Manchester, Vice Chair of the British International Studies Association,
This post first appeared at his US Blog.
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