Lucking out in Libya


Colonel Gaddafi's regime is crumbling. Dramatic announcements are being made of his perishing in battle or of total victory. But this was meant to happen sooner, when NATO forces began assisting Libya's rebel forces with tactical airpower in March. Many in Libya will rejoice in the regime's fall. But it is fitting to see exactly what has and has not gone right.

The passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 took place ostensibly to protect civilians with an unspecified 'no-fly zone'. 'This is the international community acting under international law to prevent mass murder,' suggested Daniel Serwer in The Atlantic in March.

A closer reading of what happened shows something different — that the resolution, according to a Security Council source cited in the Guardian, was intended to 'throw a protective ring around the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi'. Sides, in other words, were taken early on in the conflict.

From the start, it was questionable whether the resolution authorised regime change, let alone the backing of one faction in the conflict. The Arab League expressed its fears that the resolution was being violated. Russia and India made similar protests at such hair-splitting by NATO forces.

The Obama administration and NATO have been lucky that this campaign has worked thus far, if imperfectly. Slaughter may have been avoided in Benghazi and other strategic rebel points. But to participate in a brutal civil war is always a dangerous game of chance.

'Your own instinct is to say: "We must do something,"' Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle told the Guardian. But once committed to, such engagements can be prolonged.

They can also be confused. Disagreements between NATO members began early in the campaign. Was the regime the intended target? Or was protecting civilians the order of the day?

The haphazard outcome has encouraged some to predict that the Libyan 'solution' might reveal how the US will involve itself in humanitarian interventions on the cheap. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has insisted European powers throw in more military muscle behind such missions.

Could this be the face of humanitarian intervention after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan? Perhaps we are set to continue what New York Times Magazine contributor David Rieff, among others, termed a 'new age of liberal imperialism'.

What should bother members of the international community is where the rebel National Transitional Council goes next. NATO members have wholeheartedly embraced the rebel collective, but continue to know little about its rag-tag members. What is better known is that the NTC has proven to be a fractious entity prone to acts of spontaneous and at times lethal violence.

In March, its members detained their own leader, General Abdel Fatah Younes, summarily charging him with treachery. There were few formalities — he was taken away from his guards and killed.

While this was taking place, the wheels of recognition for the NTC were moving at some speed. As Patrick Cockburn, veteran journalist of middle eastern affairs wrote in the Independent this month, 'The rebel leadership, previously portrayed as a heroic band of brothers, turned out to be split by murderous rivalries and vendettas.'

Given that such individuals are happy to dispatch their own leaders one wonders whether the temptation for retribution will prove too strong once Tripoli is secured. So far, the rebels have limited their bouts of revenge to arson and looting. A blood bath has not ensued, at least not yet.

Then there are such immediate concerns as to the fate of Gaddafi's weapons supply, comprising 30,000 shoulder-fired rockets, an assortment of chemical agents and raw nuclear material. For one, a last apocalyptic stand might be mounted by the besieged Colonel. Alternatively, they might fall into the hands of other militant factions.

The NTC will have to be reminded that the Security Council Resolution 1970 gives the International Criminal Court full jurisdiction 'over crimes committed in Libya after February 15', a referral made necessary by the fact that Libya is not a member of the Rome Statute.

The ICC has indicted Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and intelligence chief Abdullah Sanussi for crimes against humanity in their alleged targeting of civilians in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata and other Libyan cities. Whether they will ever see a court room alive is another matter.

The demise of the Gaddafi regime will add another trophy to the 'spring' movement that has swept North Africa and the Middle East. Where this will go is hard to say. Syria might be next. What the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated is that eliminating brutal dictatorships is a relatively simple matter. Reconstruction, democratisation and reform will be quite something else.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Libya, Gaddafi



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Existing comments

The problem with involving yourself in someone else's fight is withdrawing. Once in you are committed.

I have a theory that if a nation is left to sort out its own problems the outcome will be more stable. We got involved in Vietnam and lost, What a lose of life and health. If we had "won" would the Nation have been better off than it is now?
The Middle East conflict has lasted since the time of Moses and the parting of the waters. When was the last time they faced each other in their own right, certainly not in the last 100 years. Thinking about it, even the Crusades had an influence.

Many years ago I asked "When is Father coming home?" The answer - that depends on if there is a war in Korea. Very confusing to a four year old. Splitting Korea into North and South in the 1940's did not achieve its intention then and withdrawing completely from the situation appears to be impossible.

I have more respect for those that fight for a better nation (Libya) than those that run away and seek refuge in another country (Afghanistan). I know my preference as neighbour.

Fred of Townsville | 26 August 2011  

It seems to me that all the commentators gloss over the role of the Arab League in all of the problems in their domain over the last quarter century.

What role, you might ask? That's exactly the point. The Arab League seems very happy to call for the West to become involved in the problems of the Middle East and then to stand back and see what happens. It's a win:win for them. If the situation devolves into chaos, then it's the West's fault. If the intervention by the West results in positives, then the Arab League can say we asked them to come in.

It struck me at the time the AL was calling for NATO and the US to help in Libya that they were perfectly capable of intervening themselves but didn't want to be seen as actually taking sides.

It's time for them to stand up and be counted, instead of relying on others to do the dirty work for them.

ErikH | 26 August 2011  

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