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The Undoing of Libya


NATO headquarters shares with the caves of al-Qaeda the error of hubris. The jihadis believe that it was their rag-tag mujahideen that chased the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Nothing in their world-view allows them to share the glory with the United States, the Saudis and the Pakistanis, nor yet with the infestation of economic termites inside the heart of the Soviet industrial base. In much the same way, the NATO war planners believe that it was their seventy-eight day bombing campaign that freed Kosovo from the clutches of Slobodan Milosevic’s forces. Nothing in the Brussels briefing books underlines the crucial step taken by the Russians, when theywithdrew their support of Milosevic and left him, “looking at the stars,” as he put it in his famous invocation of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Neither the mujihideen nor the NATO aircraft are themselves capable of military victories that have a political impact. A skirmish here and a bombing campaign there, but not the decisive blow that overturns a political dispensation.

Outgoing U. S. Defense Chief Robert Gates complains that the Europeans are not bearing enough responsibility for the NATO campaign. France’s Sarkozy replies that Gates’ retirement causes him to use “bitter words.” It is only when they are set to retire or do retire that sensible custodians of the hierarchical world order speak the truth: Eisenhower warned the U. S. about the military industrial complex in his farewell address of 1961, World Bank heads Robert McNamara and James Wolfensohn snubbed their own certainties only when the door of the Bank shut behind them. Gates indicates that the U. S. can no longer use its military power to sustain its flagging hegemony. It has to turn things over to partners. The European ship falters, as the Greek sinkhole widens. It does not have the fortitude.

Gates’ criticism came as Congress sent the White House a confused verdict: no authorization for the Libyan adventure, no allowance for more U. S. participation in the NATO operation, and yet, no cut-off for thefunds needed for the operation. The U. S. drones can continue to work with other NATO warplanes to cut a swath through the civilian districts of Tripoli. The fears of some in Congress is that despite the stalemate in Libya, pressure mounts from the humanitarian interventionist clique around Obama (Samantha Powers, Susan Rice) and from Tel Aviv to stiffen the U. S. stand vis-?-vis Syria, and perhaps Iran. “We don’t have enough wars going on?” asked Dennis Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio). “We have to wage war against another nation which did not attack us?”

The technical discussions about the War Powers Act are of little consequence. Few U. S. presidents have honored the Act. More significant is the crack in the consensus on the doctrine of perpetual war that governs the political economy of the United States: taxpayer spending on warfare provides whatever long-term government stimulus to the economy is allowed, whereas any money spent on the social side of the ledger is sniffed at. Into this breach comes Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, with “How China Plans to Reinforce the Global Recovery” (Financial Times, June 23). Wen calls the bet. China is at ready, but not yet to take on the political challenges alone. It will seek to work through the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) formation.

A Beggar’s Banquet.

The twelve thousand sorties and the two thousand five hundred targets have done little to stop the Qaddafi regime from trying to assert itself. The Libyan army continues to push against Misrata, the city of perpetual dread. The frontline between east and west remains stagnant. The regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is more likely to collapse sooner than that of Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, filed papers in Brussels to sue NATO for its killing of her daughter, Mastoura, her brother and Qaddafi’s two other grandchildren. After this April 30 attack, the Russian Foreign Ministry pointed out that the “physical destruction of Qaddafi and members of his family raise serious doubts.” U. S. Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear told Congressman Mike Turner in May that the NATO forces were trying to kill Qaddafi (or in his more measured language, as reported via Turner, “the scope of civil protection was being interpreted to permit the removal of the chain of command of Qaddafi’s military, which includesQaddafi”). Qaddafi’s resolve is hardened. With everything to lose, he is determined to fight on.

Time is Qaddafi’s friend. As each day goes by, more and more of NATO’s propaganda ploys unravel. Donatella Rovera (Amnesty International) spent three months in Libya, investigating the various claims. She now reports that many of them are figments of the imagination, not the least of which is the one about Libyan troops given Viagra to conduct the mass rape of women (this was repeated as fact by the International CriminalCourt’s Luis Moreno-Ocampo). Other crimes are certainly in evidence, such as the bombardment of civilian areas, but these now seem to have been conducted by both the Libyan army and by the NATO warplanes. There is no moral high ground.

The NATO war in Libya is far off from the UN Resolution 1973, and its philosophical underpinning (the Responsibility to Protect Civilians). The International Crisis Group’s June 6 report (Making Sense of Libya) points out that no-one seems concerned with civilians, as the refugee crisis explodes without care and the civilian deaths increase. No one has created a humanitarian corridor out of the two sides of the country, to allow war refugees to leave what is plainly a civil war. It is a shameful situation.

The stalemate affects the morale in Benghazi. Handouts from the Atlantic powers and the Gulf States do not amount to much, leaving the Transitional Council on a tight leash. The Council’s vice chair, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, sang a different tune on June 25, expecting Qaddafi to make another political offer. “We want to preserve life, so we want to end the war as soon as possible. We have always left [Qaddafi] some room for anexit.” The latter is not the case, but the sentiment is what is important: there is no exit room for Qaddafi, who is boxed in by the bombs and Ocampo’s indictment. Idi Amin’s old abode on the top two floors of the Novotel Hotel in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) is no longer for rent, and Venezuela’s Chavez has already declined to make a new bed in the Miraflores Palace. But Ghoga indicates that even the Benghazi leadership, despite its close ties to Paris and Langley, know that Libya is being presented with a beggar’s banquet of unsavory things.

Even the International Crisis Group has come to the view that “a political breakthrough is by far the best way out of the costly situation created by the military impasse.” Both sides must agree to an immediate ceasefire, to be monitored by on-the-ground UN peacekeepers. Negotiations cannot take place directly between Benghazi and Tripoli, but must be run through a third party. No one thinks this third party can be from the Atlantic powers. They have no credibility on both sides. According to the Crisis Group, “A joint political initiative by the Arab League and the African Union — the former viewed more favorably by the opposition, the latter preferred by theregime — is one possibility to lead to such an agreement.” There is a basis for this dialogue, built up by the visits of the African Union’s Libya panel to Tripoli and Benghazi and by the work of the UN Special Envoy to Libya, the Jordanian politician Abdul Ilah Khatib (who once famously said of the Atlantic powers, “Only when there is a crisis do they realize that they have to do something”). All this is of no consequence, the Crisis Group reports without “the leadership of the revolt and NATO rethinking their current stance.”

The African Union will meet in Equatorial Guinea on June 30. The AU Libya panel’s chair, Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has already gone on record that Qaddafi “can no longer lead Libya.” But the AU, unlike NATO and Benghazi, will not make Qaddafi’s departure a precondition for negotiation. That is a recipe for no dialogue at all, as the Crisis Group recognizes. It is likely that the negotiations will result in Qaddafi’s removal from power, but that is a possible outcome of the discussion between the two sides. A preparatory meeting of the AU panel on June 26 did not suggest anything new. That is not the point. They have a roadmap, but require NATO to stand-down.

Will NATO and the Atlantic powers allow the AU and the BRICS countries to take charge of the dynamic? The Cold War ended at the same time as the Third World project ran out of steam. During the 1990s, the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America tried to develop a new set of institutions to push against the economic and political domination of the Atlantic powers. The Non-Aligned Movement formed the Group of Fifteen (G15), which narrowed into the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) bloc, and then finally to the BRICS. They have made their claim to planetary governance, with a platform that is far more multipolar and polycentric than that of the Atlantic powers. The African Union would act as more of an agent of the BRICS than of Washington and Paris. Libya is a test case for the transfer of power from the moribund G7 to the more robust BRICS formation. But the Atlantic powers are not going to allow this, and that is the undoing of Libya.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at:



Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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