Can Libya Survive NATO?

The stalemate continues. No asp crawls up Qaddafi’s arm. NATO remains without triumph. To go around the stalemate, the leaders of Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa met in Sanya, China on April 14. Between discussions on the credit crunch and their mutual trade relations, these so-called BRIC states released a statement on the events in the Middle East and North Africa. What they saw was a “shift of power towards ordinary citizens,” a fact that must have certainly confounded one or two of the heads of government who had to swallow hard while they accepted that phrase into their final communiqué.

When it came to Libya, the consensus was not so clear. As it happens these five countries are all current members of the UN Security Council, and all took part in the debate and vote over Resolution 1973 (to authorize the no-fly zone over Libya). Brazil, China, India and Russia abstained from the vote, and South Africa went along with it after Jacob Zuma fielded an emergency phone call from Barack Obama. The lack of unanimity in the Council meant that the Sanya Declaration was also a bit stifled. Nonetheless, the five states agreed that the military option had run aground, and that “all parties should resolve their differences through peaceful means and dialogue in which the UN and regional organizations should as appropriate play their role.”

Jacob Zuma came to Hainan Island after a visit to see Col. Qaddafi. He led an African Union High-Level Panel Initiative on Libya. The Panel included heads of government (such as Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali) and foreign ministers (such as Henry Oryem Okello of Uganda). Touré was an interesting choice. In 1991, as head of the parachute commandos he overthrew the austerity dictatorship of Moussa Traoré (who governed Mali from 1968), but turned over the country to civilian rule. Not for nothing is he known as “The Soldier of Democracy.” Ten years later, Touré returned to politics, and has since won two elections to lead his country. Okello studied and lived in Britain for a number of years before he returned to enter the family business (his father was president of Uganda in the 1980s). He was an active member in the Juba peace talks with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their credibility is as good as anyone else.

The other two members of the Panel are pale shadows of Touré and Okello. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz also conducted a coup in Mauritania, but he took up office in the transition. To his credit, he resigned his position, put on a suit to campaign and won the election to the presidency in 2009. But there was no real transition. Congo Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso has presided over his country and run it since 1979. Sassou Nguesso shares much with Qaddafi, including a putative radical past (he is the leader of the Parti Congolais du Travail, but is better known as a big spender to tender his own family’s needs). He saw the writing on the wall in 1991, was ousted from power, engineered a civil war that lasted through the 1990s and returned to being head of government in 2002. Sassou Nguesso’s path lies before Qaddafi, unless the old warhorse decides to take up an offer that has reportedly come from the Europeans, to make him honorary head of the African Union and shuttle  him off  to Ethiopia.

On April 10, the African Union team met with Qaddafi. The team was a month late. On March 10, at an AU meeting in Addis Ababa, a panel had been assembled to travel to Tripoli by March 20 and engage Qaddafi to draw back his troops. French attacks on Libyan air defenses (March 19) on the heels of the UN resolution 1973 (March 17) impeded the envoys. The UN declined to allow them to proceed, despite assurances from both Tripoli and Benghazi that they would entertain the mediation. It is a remarkable – although unsurprising —  example of the UN stopping a peace envoy and preferring bombardment.

In the UN’s Security Council “emergency room” there is a mural done by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh. Its panels showcase everyday life in Northern Europe. At its bottom center there is a phoenix, emergent from the flames, around which stand people who might just be “Eastern” (the women here have their faces covered, and the men wear turbans). A field artillery gun points at these people. It is their fate. Under such illusions, the Security Council deliberates.

In the context of the military stalemate, the African Union team was finally allowed to visit the two centers of the Libyan conflict. The AU mission had European Union approval. It was also welcomed by an increasingly desperate NATO command, whose inability to enforce a military breakthrough has called into question its power. NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said of the AU trip, that the alliance has “always made it clear that there could be no purely military solution to this crisis.” Qaddafi naturally agreed with the AU proposal: an immediate ceasefire, unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid, protection of foreign nations and a dialogue with Benghazi for a political settlement. If this were to begin, then NATO airstrikes would be suspended.

Zuma’s South Africa had voted for Resolution 1973. He had credibility in Benghazi. Bizarrely, Zuma went off from Tripoli for South Africa, and then onward to the BRICS summit in China. He never went to Benghazi. The rest of the team got a cold reception. The rebels’ leaders – and their sponsors —  were not interested in any deal that left Qaddafi in office. An already demoralized AU had to chalk up another defeat.

The lack of political movement is a consequence of the “humanitarian intervention.” It has hardened the sides, and made dialogue less than possible. Qaddafi’s vengeance against rebellion has been brutal (this is a long history from the 1980s to the present shelling of Ajdabiya). But the brutality was not on the scale of the UN’s understanding of genocide, and so of its “responsibility to protect” (R2P). [Western journalists breathlessly describe Misrata as “Stalingrad” while simultaneously estimating maybe 200 fatalities in the siege so far. AC/JSC]  Those who called for an intervention presaged that Qaddafi would massacre the populations of Benghazi, as they now tell the journalists  that there will be a massacre in Misrata. But nothing that has occurred comes close to the so-called R2P (“responsibility to protect”) standard. More significantly, the violence calls into question the reliance upon military solutions to enforce the R2P: is there really an armed means to protect civilians?

Air strikes over the past several weeks have not dampened Qaddafi’s counterattack. It is unlikely that an escalated military intervention will do any more. I wonder if the NATO and US military planners are studying the 1991 crackdown by Saddam Hussein on the rebellion in the north and south of Iraq, when the casualty rate reached upwards of 200,000 dead. What would the US have done then, having once provoked the Shi’a to rise and then found that they had no way to provide military support (despite a no-fly zone)? It is the same situation in Libya now, once the rebels have been provoked, there is no military assistance that can be provided.

Qaddafi’s survival is premised on the destruction of those who oppose him. Similarly, the rebels say that Qaddafi’s eviction, not to say, termination, is a sine qua non. This is a recipe for protracted civil war. No political position is possible out of this intractable world-view. Qaddafi probably rues the day he decided to give up his nuclear weapons agenda. The nuclear cover is now seen from Pyongyang to Teheran as the only adequate insurance policy against the agenda of the US and NATO. Despite Fukushima, few would discount the blue chip standard of a nuclear shield, particularly after Hillary Clinton noted that the military intervention in Ivory Coast “sends a strong signal to dictators and tyrants throughout the region and the world” that they “may not disregard the voice of their own people.” (A UN official said of those events, “The action in the Ivory Coast was given a psychological lift by the fact that it is happening against the backdrop of Libya, and supports Mr. Obama’s narrative that intervention is justified in some cases”). Despite political deadlock and a divided polity, it is for the “international community” to translate the voice of the people, or to provide the narrative of justification for intervention. The AU was able to secure what might be the best kind of agreement; Qaddafi does not want to be an utter pariah, at least not in the eyes of his peers (mainly the African leadership). That is the only lever possible.

The Benghazi rebels are now convinced that NATO’s no-fly zone will soon morph into armed supply, and perhaps boots on the ground (this is promised in Resolution 1973). They have no need to compromise.. Nothing short of riding an M1 Abrams tank into Tripoli, greeted with flowers and sweets, is acceptable. This is the reason why they did not see eye-to-eye with the African Union delegation. They continue to think that the regime in Tripolitania is like the Qing dynasty during the Taiping Rebellion, and that Qaddafi’s “dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air” (Marx on the Qing). Such a state has not occurred, as it did not occur in China (the Qing vanquished the Taiping, only to become further drawn into the European orbit). The rebels, like the contras and mujahideen before them, are dispensable to the NATO capitals – a time will come when they will be abandoned, and their fate before Qaddafi and Saif-al-Islam will be comparable to that of the civilians of Halabja, Iraq. NATO support is not permanent.

From such hardened positions, the way forward is difficult to surmise. The easy answer from London and Qatar is for greater military force against the Tripoli hub. Libya is poised to being destroyed for the purposes of higher aims. On March 2, before the conflict heated up, Hillary Clinton warned that if the rebels did not prevail Libya might become “a giant Somalia.” On March 30, Qaddafi’s former confidant, Moussa Koussa said, “I ask everybody to avoid taking Libya into civil war. This would lead to so much blood and Libya would be a new Somalia.” The bombardiers and  artillerymen have made their case, and they have failed. It is time for NATO to pressure Benghazi, and for the AU to renew its pressure on Qaddafi: there is no substitute for an armistice and a political discussion that has been decades in the making.

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 (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).