Libya: Western powers are no saviours

Rebel forces in Benghazi hoist banner opposing foreign interference.

(Story still under development)

As soon as significant oil reserves were discovered in Libya in 1959, the Western powers moved in to grab the lionshare. The British propped up a corrupt monarchy with arms supplies and the US maintained a giant military base in the country. When the 1969 nationalist revolution led by Muammar Gaddafi and other junior military officers nationalised the oil holdings of Esso (now Exxon), Shell, and Ente Nazionale Idrocarbuno (ENI), the US government contemplated military intervention but pulled back on the advice of the oil companies who preferred to cut a deal. Following another round of oil nationalisations in the 1980s, the Reagan administration in the US imposed economic sanctions and bombed Libya. Then in the early 2000s the Gaddafi regime made peace with the Western powers. Western oil companies greedily rushed back in as did their arms dealers.

And now these same Western powers want to pose as the saviours of the Libyan people, trying to rob them of victory in a new revolution for democracy.

No thanks, say some of Libya’s new revolutionaries, according to a March 1 Agence France-Presse report:

“The Iraqi example scares everyone in the Arab world,” said Abeir Imneina, a professor of political sciences at the university of Benghazi.

“We know very well what happened in Iraq, which is in the throes of instability. Following in those footsteps is not appealing at all,” she said. “We don’t want the Americans to come and then to have to regret (the end of the rule of) Gaddafi,” she added.

The national fibre appears strong in Libya, where on Sunday Gaddafi opponents announced the creation of “national councils” in all freed cities, that would serve as the “face of Libya in the transitional period.”

In a clear signal of their intentions, the revolution’s spokesman said Libya’s people would liberate cities across the oil rich North African nation and leave the task of freeing the capital Tripoli to the army. The anti regime protesters are “counting on the army to liberate Tripoli,” said Abdel Hafiz Ghoqa.

But “the people of Libya will liberate their (other) cities.”

Ghoqa also rejected the need for “any foreign intervention or military operation.”

…Fethi Terbil, a lawyer whose arrest earlier this month triggered the revolt for change in Libya, said anti regime activists need “intelligence” information but nothing else that would undermine sovereignty. “We would accept a no-fly zone but not economic sanctions that would penalise the people. We want intelligence but nothing that would undermine our air, land or maritime sovereignty,” he told reporters on Saturday.

For Imneina “there is a very strong feeling of nationalism in Libya.” “There is also the feeling that this is our revolution and that it is up to us forge ahead,” she said. “The Tunisians and the Egyptians were successful in their revolutions,” which toppled the long-serving autocratic leaders in those countries, “and this provoked jealousy” among the Libyans, she said. “My students ask me: ‘Why them and not us’,” she added.

According to a March 1 Reuters report, “Western powers have plentiful military resources at their disposal if they want to bring Muammar Gaddafi down, but overt action is unlikely unless there is a dramatic worsening of the turmoil in Libya.”

The Italian port of Naples, 900 km (540 miles) from Tripoli by sea, is home to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, and NATO has an anti-terrorist task force on permanent patrol in the Mediterranean.

While the United States currently has no aircraft carrier in the immediate region, it and NATO could use a wide range of air bases in Europe, including in Italy, Cyprus and Malta, as well as another major naval base in Portugal.

NATO also has the theoretical capability of deploying 25,000 ground troops at short notice.

“There is no question of the capability to perform such operations,” said Shashank Joshi, of London’s Royal United Services Institute, a think tank.

“Compared with say Iraq, we are talking about a very specific area and incredible legions of resources to draw from.

“The Mediterranean is an ideal platform — the southern plank of Europe essentially serves as a giant aircraft carrier, so in that respect things are reasonably straightforward,” he said, adding that Libyan air defences were fairly poor.

A report in the Toronto Star encountered similar anti-intervention sentiments on a journey through rebel-held parts of Libya:

There is concern also about U.S. military assets mustering off Libya’s northern coast, and worries both in Washington and here that any U.S.-led effort to tip the Libyan standoff in favour of the rebels could backfire.

American intervention, if it were ever to involve actual boots on the ground, could sully the sanctity of a Libya’s do-it-yourself revolution and, in a worst-case scenario, inadvertently embroil the U.S. in a third Mideast conflict, even as it moves to extract itself from two it can ill-afford.

“Help is good. But help in order for us to finish the revolution ourselves. Nobody wants foreign soldiers,” said Mustapha Muttardi, a frontline Benghazi activist who has doubled as one of the revolt’s key digital engineers, gathering and uploading dozens of gigabytes of incriminating footage to social networking sites for all the world to see.

“It feels damn good. We can barely contain our excitement. But we need to complete it on our own terms, until everything Gadhafi holds is taken back for the people.”

So far the only people from the rebel side who have been quoted encouraging Western military intervention of some form are a couple of former Gaddafi regime officials who defected to the new revolution. However, the New York Times reports that the rebel’s revolutionary committees are still discussing this question.

Perhaps the loud noise about Western military intervention is designed to pressure the rump of the Gaddafi regime into minimising its resistance. Libyans are no strangers to Western gunboat (or warplane) diplomacy. It is a regularly used weapon of the richest and most powerful states.

Key figures are still not certain that military intervention would suit the West’s imperial interest. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has urged caution as has former Pentagon and US State Department official Kori Schake (now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point):

… we ought to be very cautious about actually using American military force to affect the rebellion in Libya, for four reasons.

First, it is difficult to see what practical measures, short of removing Colonel Gaddafi ourselves or sending military teams into Libya to assist rebel forces, would affect the fight. Defection of military units and tribes seems to have given rebels the necessary weapons; most of the fighting is urban operations not much involving air power.

Second, we have not had an ambassador in Libya for months, and we have evacuated our diplomats; we ought not overestimate how much we understand what is occurring in the country or the shape Libya’s rebellion will take. Arming rebels or undertaking military operations on their behalf makes us parties to the conflict, the inchoate nature of Libya’s rebels argues for caution.

Third, debate over the Security Council resolution suggests it is unlikely the Chinese and Russians would authorize the use of force (they had to be assured the resolution that passed would not), and NATO would not be an alternative without a U.N. mandate. Countries in the region are not likely to be supportive. While international pressure seems to be having little effect on Colonel Qaddafi, international institutions and support are central to the Obama administration’s approach. Military force would have to be a unilateral or by coalition of the willing, which is at odds with the White House’s political strategy.

Fourth, military force is sticky — once the president commits American military forces to involvement, even tangentially, he commits the nation. It is difficult to disengage if the limited force committed doesn’t achieve the president’s objectives, as President Bill Clinton learned in both Somalia and Kosovo, and President George W. Bush realized, leading him to authorize a surge of forces in Iraq in 2006. While symbolic strikes on Colonel Qaddafi’s palaces or no-flight zones would be a show of force, they raise the question of how far we are willing to go to achieve our objectives.

Whatever they finally decide, with the price of oil shooting up, the Western powers are most concerned about protecting the oil installations in Libya. Their belated concern for the plight of Libya’s people and the poor guest workers from around the world trapped in Libya on on its borders (most of the rich Western guest workers have been got out) is a pretence.

Libyans will remember that just yesterday these same Western powers were arming and training the Gaddafi regime’s special forces and police.

The Western powers only want Libya’s oil. And perhaps a restored US military base or two?

20th Fighter-Bomber Wing F-100 at Wheelus AB, Libya. Source: Wikipedia.

Blair and Gaddafi doing their infamous 'deal in the desert' in 2007, which involved British training and advising Libyan special forces.

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