A month since the air strikes, the road to interventionist hell in Libya has been paved with nothing but folly.
“The easiest way to achieve complete strategic surprise,” reads the motto on U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates' desk, “is to commit an act that makes no sense or is even self-destructive.” Journalist Peter Bergen uses the maxim to begin his book “The Longest War” which is about U.S. action in Afghanistan, but it has an equally frightening meaning for the ongoing strikes against Libya.
This week marks a month since the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and its allies began their bombardment, after UN Security Council resolution 1973 authorised members “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Arab Libyan Jamahiriya.” The threat to civilians had been portrayed as being dire and imminent. Yet a month later, after more than 1,150 air strikes on Qadhafi-controlled Libya (2,700 sorties in all), the countries carrying them out have yet to prove how dire that threat is, and are no closer to making Libyans any safer than when they started out. In fact, it is quite the reverse.
Reversal of stand
To begin with, the action in Libya itself was based on a shaky premise that led the U.S. to reverse, practically overnight, its stand on the need for air strikes. Just days after Mr. Gates called the need for strikes ‘loose-talk,' the U.S. was talking war at the Security Council, pushing through the resolution. France and Britain were the original sponsors of the action, no doubt, but it would have been a non-starter without the U.S. turnaround. Explaining the vote at the time, President Barack Obama said the resolution was to halt “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” The need was so urgent that the Security Council didn't even wait for the UN Secretary-General's special envoy, who had travelled to Libya, to return with his report. The speed was necessitated by the ‘conscience of the world,' heavy with guilt over not having moved fast enough in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda.
Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi may be capable of cruelty, yet weeks later where is the evidence that he had planned or carried out any act of genocide? For more than a month before the strikes, the international media has been freely reporting from Benghazi and other rebel-controlled cities, the areas most threatened by Col. Qadhafi. Many thousands fled these areas to neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia and were free to tell their stories. Yet there was no mass grave, gruesome image of bombed civilian areas or proof of mass casualties. It must be remembered that the former U.S. President, George W. Bush, took months to prepare the world when he said he would bomb Iraq in 2003, and built several cases, some false, on Saddam Hussein's stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and his links to the 9/11 conspiracy before going in. It is surprising that the U.S. administration and its European allies didn't feel the need for these.
What ‘dire threat'?
So what was the ‘dire threat' Mr. Obama referred to? In his address, he mentioned Col. Qadhafi's by now famous ‘Zenga-Zenga' speech in which he threatened to hunt down insurgents in every alleyway. The words were menacing, and could be compared to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud-Al Fasal's threat, at a press conference the same week, to “cut off any finger” raised against the government during proposed protests. The double standard has continued through the conflict. The latest worry for the western press have been reports that Col. Qadhafi's forces are using banned ‘cluster-bombs' in Misurata — the same weapon Israel used for months in its bombing of Lebanon in 2006, and with no threat of reprisal.
The next false premise was that of international consensus. At the Security Council, 10 countries voted for the strikes, while five including India abstained, with serious reservations. In an article last week, co-authored by Mr. Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the leaders stressed that they had bombed Libya on the Arab League's prompting. Yet within 24 hours of the first strike on March 19, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa condemned it. Foreign Minister of Bahrain (which is a key U.S. ally) Sheikh Khaled bin Khalifa told CNN-IBN that the “Western action on Libya isn't really protecting the people of Libya.” Pushing for regime change was not part of the Arab League's mandate, he added, and it was only causing more suffering for the people of Libya. Next to follow was the 53-nation African Union's boycott of the Libya conference in London, expressing disappointment with “western military attacks.”
The emerging nations Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit in Sanya last week criticised the strikes, marking a turnaround for South Africa in particular, that had voted for the UN ‘no-fly' resolution. Within NATO too, there have been sharp differences over the road ahead, putting paid to the Obama-Cameron-Sarkozy contention, in their article ‘Libya's Pathway to Peace,' that the coalition has been united from the start and united in what needs to happen next.
Perhaps the greatest dissonance has come from Mr. Obama who on March 27, said “broadening the military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” but in the article on April 14 he said that it was “unthinkable” that Col. Qadhafi should remain in power. Perhaps President Obama should remember the words of Candidate Obama, who had said in December 2007, “The President doesn't have the power, under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the United States.”
But memory seems in short supply, given the proposal now to arm and train the rebels in eastern Libya against Col. Qadhafi's forces. It would seem unthinkable 30 years after the ‘Mujahideen' experiment — of raising and funding thousands of fighters to carry out a mission of regime change in a foreign land that went so horribly wrong — that the U.S. and Britain can even consider something similar so openly. The U.S. has succeeded in confusing even the al-Qaeda now, leaving it unsure ‘who the enemy is', as this weekend, Ayman Al Zawahiri put out a statement calling for Muslim countries to “rise up and fight both the mercenaries of Gaddafi and the rest of NATO” if they sent ground troops in.
Maybe the best hope for the world now is that Col. Qadhafi, like the West, doesn't learn lessons from the past. Author and international commentator Mahmood Mamdani quotes a chilling story during a state visit by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to Egypt in the 1970s, where he asked President Nasser about a young man in uniform. “Why?” asked Nasser. “That's Gaddafi, the new Libyan leader.” “Oh!” replied Zhou, “Well he just asked me what it would cost to buy an atomic bomb!”
Col. Qadhafi must be wondering today if he did the right thing by giving up his dreams of nuclear deterrence at the behest of the West. Instead, he embarked on a mission to please the countries now bombing him, sent his children to be educated in the U.S. and the U.K, gave those countries preferential oil deals, and, in the process, built his own economy. In 2010, Libya held the highest per capita income in Africa (approximately $12,000), afforded its citizens free housing and had a very low rate of inflation. It was also a remarkably liberal country, one of the few Arab nations without the presence of the al-Qaeda. As he sits in his Bab el Aziza compound, friendless amidst the ruins of his country, pondering this, it must be hoped that the NATO alliance will also pause its bombings to think of what they are paving the way for — given that the rebels it has relentlessly supported have no popularity in other parts of the country and can never hope to control the whole of Libya. The Gates desk motto “lacking in sense and even self-destructive” comes to one's mind.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. It would seem the road to interventionist hell in Libya today has been paved with nothing but folly.
(Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)