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ANALYSIS and COMMENT (in two parts): Dark politics, economics, and the business of intervention in LibyaLatest News
14 & 20 Mar, 2011
The Libyan crisis is showing all the signs of embroiling the usual western powers in another warmongering scandal, so SomethingDark editor Daryl Champion refocusses on his specialty, Middle East politics, and looks at what might really be happening behind the scenes. In doing so, he hints at the economic motivations for intervention in Libya as a precursor to a number of articles in the forthcoming issue 2 of SDk magazine.
This two-part analysis-and-commentary is presented in a more classic blog style. Part 1 was written shortly before the UN Security Council passed resolution 1973 (2011) on 17 March, and takes somewhat of a satirical approach; part 2 was written shortly after UNSC 1973 (2011). Scroll down to the end of part 1 to read part 2, “Examining the US ‘about-face’ on war in Libya: geostrategics and regime change”.
We hope you find this analysis of contemporary Middle East politics an interesting addition to our Latest News section.
Dark politics, economics, and the business of intervention in Libya (part 1)
Mon 14 Mar, 2011.
by Daryl Champion
We have in recent years become accustomed to seeing a gung-ho United States leading high-tech posses and lynch mobs into international neo-imperial adventures, but this time it is the current leaders of Britain and France – Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy – who have donned the Stetsons and spurs in urging military intervention in Libya.
The two leaders’ opening gambit has been a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Libya, but this should be interpreted as part of a greater marketing campaign to convince their respective publics and a very sceptical European Union that military intervention would be limited. “Limited” it most certainly would not be: besides providing all-but-unlimited opportunities for escalation at will, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has stated outright that a NFZ would essentially mean participating countries would be at war in Libya. This is what Gates told a US congressional hearing on 2 March: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses ... and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down… [it] also requires more airplanes than you can find on a single aircraft carrier, so it is a big operation in a big country”.
Gates’ words were seen as a quick rebuke of Cameron’s enthusiasm for yet more war. The latter, however, was not deterred: he teamed up with fellow hardliner Sarkozy and together they did their best to convince EU leaders gathered in Brussels on 11 March for an emergency summit on Libya to adopt their interventionist agenda. Sarkozy had already proved himself the joker in the EU pack with France’s unilateral recognition of the Libyan rebel council the day before the summit – a radical break with the established protocols of modern western diplomacy from which even a tobacco-chewing Whitehall has backed away. Bolstering his fighting words with preemptive diplomatic action was undoubtedly Sarkozy’s way of applying pressure on more cautious EU leaders running up to the summit.
It’s almost unthinkable that Britain and France, alone, will attempt large-scale, overt military action; if they did, it would bear more than a passing resemblance to the two declining colonial powers’ joint invasion of Egypt that was the Suez debacle of 1956. The fashion in these more PR-savvy times is to procure the fig leaf of international legal sanction, no matter how flimsy; or, failing that, to mount the moral high horse (in more ways than one) and relentlessly press on with launching another war under a barrage of hand-wringing over “human rights”. So, while London and Paris work on changing European leaders’ minds, Britain, its foreign policy tied to a much greater degree to US policy and finding itself restrained by uncharacteristically wise words from across the Atlantic, has not lost hope that Washington will yet see Libya through London’s eyes.
Meanwhile, on the ground, there is no doubt that western powers, most probably Britain in the first instance, and then the United States and France, and perhaps Italy (the latter having been the former colonial master in Libya), would have cultivated close ties with the Libyan opposition over the four decades of Gaddafi’s rule – to believe otherwise would be an admission of gross ignorance of the workings of international relations and the development of long-term political strategy. In other words, it’s more than likely the usual western suspects have been deeply involved in the Libyan rebellion from its beginning. With momentous change sweeping the Arab world, London in particular has decided to seize the moment and try its luck – and the dice have been rolled in Libya (see, for example, the Guardian).
However, Gaddafi looked the West – as much as his own rebels – in the eye and raised the stakes, and soon enough it became clear the gamble to effect relatively quick and easy “regime change” in Libya under the cloak of regional upheaval would require military intervention on the rebels’ behalf. Under these circumstances, for the time being at least, it appears those uncharacteristically wise heads in Washington have been prepared to cut the West’s losses and continue to live with Gaddafi for a while longer, especially considering the compromises he’s made to western interests since 2003.
On the other hand, if the United States were to arrive at the view that military intervention in Libya would be a great and good thing, it would be in Washington’s interests, after leading the charges into Iraq and Afghanistan, to remain in an over-the-horizon support role and allow deputies Britain and France to run the show on the ground – or in the skies over Libya, if intervention is left at that. Think of it as a prudent US public relations exercise at this point in time. And besides, Libya would not be that big a prize for Washington, whose much more substantial interests further east would stand to be compromised by the spectacle of Uncle Sam marching into yet another Muslim country (the Obama administration is very conscious of these issues: see, for example, the Washington Post; see also BBC).
In fact it is Britain that has one of the largest stakes in Libya after the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair oversaw the process, at least to some degree, of bringing Libya back into the fold of nations, which in May 2007 included securing substantial £546 million ($900 million) Libyan exploration concessions for London-based BP, an international oil supermajor and one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. The extent of government–corporate links, the machinations involved in securing the Libyan deal for BP – allegedly dependent on the release of the Libyan man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie Pan Am bombing, Abdelbasset al-Megrahi – and the political, strategic and economic importance of all the dealing, have been outlined in the popular media (see, for example, articles in the Telegraph and the Guardian).* BP’s behind-the-scenes involvement in dealing over a prisoner transfer agreement and oil concessions that led to Megrahi’s release in August 2009 caused outrage in the United States as well as in Britain (see, for example, the New York Times and the Deccan Herald), despite a strong argument that Megrahi was framed for the airliner bombing for political reasons (see John Pilger’s article in the New Statesman).
[* Update on sources (20 May 2017): Revealing Times articles on the BP oil deal with Libya that led to Megrahi’s release are now no longer available without subscription, although pirated copies are freely available to read on the Web: Robin Pagnamenta, “Al-Megrahi’s release ‘would free BP’ to join the rush for Libya’s oil”, Times (London), 15 Aug. 2009; Jason Allardyce, “Lockerbie bomber ‘set free for oil’”, Sunday Times (London), 30 Aug. 2009.]
Having turned once again against Gaddafi, Whitehall appears to have made a gamble it cannot afford to lose, and will not take “No” for an answer from the European Union: if Gaddafi’s regime survives the armed rebellion, he will surely banish all British economic interests from Libya, and BP will lose its oil concessions. Thus do we see Foreign Secretary William Hague – now, significantly, with the support of the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Ed Miliband – declaring the “point of decision” for military intervention has arrived, and will lead London’s case in a meeting of G8 foreign ministers (France, Britain, the United States, Italy, Germany, Canada, Japan and Russia) in Paris this evening, a case that potentially includes arming the rebels in addition to providing military advisers and imposing a NFZ; and, a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution to provide legal sanction for such intervention is now “not necessarily essential” (see the Guardian; also BBC Radio 4, “Today”, 14 Mar., 08:31am).
Lubricating the wheels of public sympathy for what looks like soon becoming the West’s latest war in an expanding region of operations stretching from North Africa to Central Asia is copious streams of crocodile tears over Gaddafi’s repression of his people. At the EU summit last Friday, Sarkozy said “[t]he British and ourselves are wondering what happens if peaceful civilians... are being targeted by aircraft and helicopters shooting directly at the crowd. David Cameron and I wondered: should we simply stand by… or react… we cannot stand by and watch civilians being massacred”. And, for his part, Cameron said “[w]e are witnessing frankly what can only be called barbaric acts, with Gaddafi brutally repressing a popular uprising led by his own people and flagrantly ignoring the will of the international community”. (Reported in the Guardian.)
The hand-wringing and tears belie the realities of the recent past and the present. For example, Saddam Hussein in 1988 carried out what has since been classified as an act of genocide when his air force dropped chemical munitions on the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing some 5,000 civilians and maiming many thousands more in a few minutes (see, for example, Ghosts of Halabja: Saddam Hussein and the Kurdish genocide). And this was only one example of Saddam’s persistent-and-proven genocidal use of chemical weapons during the war he started when he invaded Iran in 1980. Chemicals for these weapons were mostly procured from the West, and nothing was done at the time to bring him and key figures of his regime to justice. It was a time, of course, when Saddam was an ally of the West.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, after Saddam Hussein’s army was vanquished and driven from Kuwait, “the international community” that Cameron now evokes for the rebels of Libya stood by when the Shi-ites of southern Iraq, at first encouraged by the United States, rose up against the dictator and appealed for aid. The victorious western armies and navies were literally next door in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, but they did not receive orders to provide air and naval cover for the Iraqi rebels nor to even meet the rebels’ most basic request to release to them captured Iraqi heavy weaponry to carry the fight to Saddam on their own. The Iraqi rebels were massacred by the elite Republican Guard and other loyal army units whom Saddam had ensured survived the coalition war to evict his forces from Kuwait.
Then there are the many thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces in the subsequent wars: obliterated either accidentally, carelessly, or deliberately in acts of undisciplined brutality.
There is not the same outcry over events in Yemen, where the security forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh are becoming murderous in their suppression of reform protesters. But then, Yemen is an impoverished, relatively economically insignificant backwater compared with Libya and its oil resources, and therefore not as important to the West. Just how important Yemen is to the West compared with the likes of Egypt is demonstrated in reports of the killing of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in the early hours of Saturday morning (12 March) in “a central square in the capital, Sana’a” (Guardian). While the world became familiar with Cairo’s Tahrir Square – usually mispronounced by reporters and news readers – Yemen has not been important enough to determine, or to bother reporting, basic information such as the name of the square in which outrages are being committed. In addition to being a poor country, President Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, is an ally in the ongoing US “war against terror” since Al Qa’ida is as much a threat to the Yemeni regime as it is to any western interests there. Of course, William Hague did express de rigeur “shock” and the UK’s “serious concern” at the civilian deaths (Guardian).
And then there was a similarly muted response to the news today (14 March) that Saudi Arabia had sent 1,000 army troops and some 150 armoured personnel carriers across the causeway to Bahrain to help the regime suppress pro-democracy reformers. Bahraini security forces killed seven protesters in February, and the British and Australian governments have responded to these events only by warning their citizens against travel to the tiny island kingdom. Washington has “urged restraint” on the part of Saudi and other Gulf Arab forces being sent to aid the Bahraini regime (see BBC; also Guardian). The United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy a rare and highly valued “special relationship”, and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.
Returning now to the EU emergency summit in Brussels last Friday, amongst the copious amounts of rhetoric about “a democratic awakening” in north Africa, in some of David Cameron’s other words we catch a glimpse of the real reasons for military intervention:
...I think it is the moment for Europe to understand we should show real ambition… Now we should be reaching out to these countries, offering them a new partnership, opening up our markets and welcoming their approach of greater democracy, greater freedom, greater human rights. (Guardian)
As observed, there is no talk of intervening on behalf of “democracy” in Yemen, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, as there was none when it came to Egypt. What we can also observe, are: BP oil deals in Libya; a special relationship with the world’s major oil producer, Saudi Arabia; and a major US naval base in Bahrain. And Cameron stood in parliament today (14 March) and, like a true politician, claimed failure to intervene in Libya would expose the West to accusations that military action in North Africa and the Middle East was only forthcoming when western interests are directly involved. (Cameron, reported in the Guardian.)
Although not as obvious in its sympathy for the British interventionist agenda as the BBC, the UK national liberal broadsheet, the Guardian, has covered the Libyan crisis in a way that has, de facto, bestowed a rosy glow upon the prospect of Gaddafi’s fall. However, one of the most erudite pieces of writing arguing against western military intervention has been written by the Guardian’s Seamas Milne. The tenor of his comment piece is well conveyed with these words:
The “responsibility to protect” invoked by those demanding intervention in Libya is applied so selectively that the word hypocrisy doesn’t do it justice. And the idea that states which are themselves responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in illegal wars, occupations and interventions in the last decade, along with mass imprisonment without trial, torture and kidnapping, should be authorised by international institutions to prevent killings in other countries is simply preposterous. The barefaced cheek of William Hague’s insistence that there would be a “day of reckoning” for the Libyan regime if it committed crimes or atrocities took some beating. (Seamas Milne, “Intervention in Libya would poison the Arab revolution”, Guardian, 2 March 2011.)
While the UNSC debate in New York today (14 March) reached the predicted stalemate on the imposition of a NFZ (see, for example, France24), Britain’s leadership in the march to war will have been reinforced at the G8 foreign minister’s summit in Paris tonight by an extraordinary Arab League vote on Saturday (12 March) that both endorsed a NFZ and recognised the rebel council as the legitimate leadership of Libya. Approval for western military intervention by the Arab League is, in the gleeful view from London and Paris, a strong candidate for replacing a UNSC resolution as the legal basis for military intervention in Libya – yet the mainstream media, for example the Washington Post in the article cited above, presents the Arab League vote as only “increasing the pressure” on the West to act. It is, however, the kind of “pressure” to which the usual suspects are delighted to be subjected.
Thus may Washington swing behind intervention – and another war – as long as the Arab League vote can be credibly dressed up as legal sanction and Britain and France take the lead. But why don’t the Arab League states do their own dirty work in Libya? The answer is simple: because a gang of dictators and self-styled royal families of absolute power rushing to overthrow one of their own ilk on behalf of “democracy” would lend new meaning to the word hypocrisy. While they will run to the aid of despots in Bahrain, it would be more than those opposites of “democracy” could themselves stomach to participate in the overthrow of Gaddafi, let alone the political and philosophical ammunition it would provide to the dissenting elements of their own populations who would dearly love to follow the example of the Libyan rebels.
So the extent of concern for “democracy”, freedom and the protection of civilians in Libya is driven by a mutual desire on the part of key Arab League and western states to be rid of a maverick who for many years has plotted a course relatively independent of both. This is the reality of the dark politics driving international policy – and not just in relation to the Middle East, although the Middle East does provide a particularly rich and complicated area for study.
And let us not forget those lucrative exploration concessions for BP, which are likely to be little compared with the riches on offer after helping the rebels to power. Add to the corporate gain a secure supply of oil and gas on Europe’s southern doorstep, and we can easily comprehend why British and French imperial instincts have been so vigorously revived.
Copyright © Daryl Champion and SomethingDark 2011. All rights reserved.
Sun 20 Mar, 2011.
by Daryl Champion
Most commentators accepted at face value the initial American reticence over whether to support western military intervention in Libya. Most still do, and this testifies to how well the US administration handled the very delicate public relations surrounding involvement in yet another war. Important figures in the US government needed to be convinced, the American public needed to be convinced, and, most importantly, Arab states and Muslim populations globally needed to be given credible reasons to believe the United States was not, on this occasion, the enthusiastic instigator of war.
The first fact that needs to be established in any analysis of the western interventionist strategy is that the very term “military intervention” is a misnomer: we are referring to an absolute military commitment, short of a full-scale ground invasion, on behalf of one side in a civil war. Efforts to continue masking the true objectives behind the well-marketed ruse of a “no-fly zone” (NFZ) will no doubt be made, or, more likely, those objectives will be gradually revealed couched in terms such as reluctant-but-determined-necessity, and unavoidable “mission creep”; however, the real objectives are already clearly discernible.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011), passed on Thursday 17 March, provides official international legal sanction for military “intervention” in Libya that goes far beyond authorising a NFZ; paragraph 4 states the following:
“[the resolution] Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements... to take all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory…”
This has led to speculation on the part of legal and military specialists that alerts us to the possibility, if not the likelihood, of a far greater commitment to war – including ground operations that fall short of occupation – than what the US, UK and French governments are at this stage willing to reveal to their respective publics. For example, a professor of international law at the University of Leicester, Malcolm Shaw, described UNSC 1973 as sanctioning the most comprehensive measures for military intervention since the resolutions of 1990 in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which provided the basis for the Gulf war of 1991. The Guardian published Shaw’s responses to a number of related legal questions:
Ground spotters to improve the accuracy of air strikes might even be allowed under the terms of the resolution which explicitly excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”, some lawyers suggested. If the intention is not to occupy, then their presence could be deemed not to conflict with the UN’s aims. “Some supportive ground presence would be authorised,” Professor Shaw said. [See the Guardian, at 1:57pm.]
Philippe Sands, a professor of law at University College London and a barrister practicing in the field of general international law at Matrix Chambers, London, concurs:
...the language precluding any “foreign occupation force” is also ambiguous. It might be interpreted to allow the arming of rebel groups and – to the extent it is requested by those groups – feet on the ground in the form of support that falls short of being “an occupation force”. [See the Guardian.]
From a military perspective, Brigadier Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), speaking at an IISS special briefing on Libya on 16 March, outlined in some detail various military options and combinations thereof that could be employed by the intervening western powers, including the use of special forces working on the ground with the revolutionaries: “As in Afghanistan, [the effectiveness of western air power] would be much improved by the presence of special forces on the ground. They might also be able to undertake ground raids on particularly important government targets, albeit with increased risk” (see the IISS briefing, from 0:42:10; also earlier, from 0:25:05)*. It should not be surprising if western special forces, British SAS or SBS in particular, have been playing a role on the ground for some time already, albeit a hitherto relatively restrained role. The debacle of at least six SAS soldiers arrested by rebels after being dropped at night by helicopter near Benghazi in early March, far from being dismissed as an object of ridicule, should be viewed as firm evidence of the intention to use such forces on the ground in Libya (see, for example, BBC). Now that UNSC 1973 has been passed, and, as noted, the use of special forces being not inconsistent with the prohibition of an occupation of Libya, it would be naïve to believe the use of such forces is not likely.
[* Update on sources (21 May 2017): A full video recording of the IISS briefing, “The conflict in Libya and military options for the international community”, was originally hosted on the IISS website but is now unavailable on that site; it was uploaded to YouTube on 16 March 2011.]
Barry made clear that western military intervention, especially the more rigorous options, “carries with it significant risk of civilian casualties” – one of Germany’s reasons for refusing to support intervention both at the G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Paris on 14–15 March, and at the UNSC vote on resolution 1973 on 17 March. At the latter, German ambassador Peter Wittig specifically referred to “the likelihood of large-scale loss of life” as one of a number of reasons for his country’s abstention (see UNSC 1973 news document). This would, of course, defeat what is currently presented as the main purpose for “intervention”. Brigadier Barry also pointed out that “fighting in urban areas, with resulting civilian casualties, is not itself a war crime; it would only be a war crime if you cross the threshold of deliberately seeking to inflict disproportionate civilian casualties, or... if massacres occurred thereafter”. He then went on to suggest the Libyan government may be “calculating… and seeking to avoid trying to create the conditions that would call for increased international military intervention... it is a proposition that I think could usefully be tested” (IISS briefing, from 1:01:37).
In other words, despite some characteristically bellicose statements, Gaddafi is not the madman his opponents would have the world believe, and it is far from clear whether the Libyan regime is deliberately targeting civilians in the civil war; what is clear, is that it’s in the interests of the regime to combat the revolutionaries without providing further grist for the West’s mill of humanitarian intervention. The numerous western media reports of civilian casualties in the Libyan civil war, often augmented with quotes from anti-Gaddafi “eyewitnesses” claiming “massacres”, are not presenting excessive numbers of casualties considering the battles for control of urban centres; the casualty numbers cited would appear to be consistent with “collateral damage” – a term with which the consumers of mainstream western news services would be familiar in light of the reporting of coalition (and particularly US) military operations in the 1991 Gulf war, and in the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars.*
[* Update on sources (21 May 2017): The original BBC source provided for examples of alleged eyewitness accounts of regime-instigated “massacres” now leads to an irrelevant page, “Battle over US budget”; this incorrect link is active from within other current BBC web pages: BBC online live coverage, Libya, 20 March, 11:07. The original text of the BBC report was: “1107 An eyewitness in Misrata has told a BBC team that government tanks have rolled into the centre of the city. He described what he called a ‘massacre’ with 40 civilians injured and at least 10 dead with civilian buildings coming under attack. The BBC cannot independently confirm the details”. Similar examples from the BBC’s live coverage of Libya in March 2011 are now difficult to find; one that is still available, albeit before western military intervention, is: “1940 Eyewitnesseses are reporting what they call a ‘massacre’ in the Fashloum and Tajoura districts of the Libyan capital Tripoli, AFP reports” (BBC online live coverage, “As it happened: Mid-East and North Africa protests”, Libya, 21 Feb. 2011, 19:40). Subsequent investigations into the British conduct of the war, the role of then-Prime Minister David Cameron in particular, found in 2016 that “The Government launched air strikes after exaggerated threats that Col Gaddafi was about to massacre civilians in Benghazi” (Ben Farmer, “David Cameron’s ‘ill-conceived’ Libya war led to rise of Islamic State, say MPs in damning attack on former PM”, Telegraph, 14 Sept. 2016).]
As pointed out in my earlier article on the war in Libya (above), other Arab regimes are, or have been, at least as repressive as Libya’s, including the Saddam Hussein regime of Iraq when that regime was a useful ally of the West; and the Egyptian regime of the recently overthrown president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak – a western ally; and the current Yemeni regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh – a western ally; and the current Bahraini regime of the Al Khalifa – a western ally. The Yemeni regime in particular has taken to the premeditated mass killing of unarmed pro-democracy protesters without significant reaction from Washington, London or Paris (see, for example, New York Times; Al Jazeera).
If the humanitarian case for western entry into the Libyan civil war is not as sound as it is being presented, then what could be the reasons for the enthusiasm for war, especially that displayed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy? Britain, as also pointed out in my article above, has a very clear economic motive for seeing the Libyan rebels attain power: securing and expanding the oil concessions already signed with Libya for BP. BP’s oil deal, initially worth around £546 million but potentially worth some £13 billion, was announced mid-2007 and ratified in January 2008 (see the Telegraph; Reuters). The BBC in July 2010 reported drilling was about to commence, and that BP chief executive Tony Hayward “hailed it as ‘BP’s single biggest exploration commitment’ and ‘a welcome return to the country for BP after more than 30 years’” (BBC). These oil interests stand to be enhanced by a grateful, new Libyan revolutionary government.
Conversely, now that Britain is decisively supporting the rebels, these lucrative oil interests are at risk if the present regime prevails: last Tuesday, 15 March, Gaddafi gave an interview to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale in which he was reported as saying:
I was really shocked by the attitude of my European friends… They have damaged and endangered a series of major accords on security that were in their interests and the economic cooperation that we had. […] I think and hope that the Libyan people will reconsider economic and financial ties and also those in the field of security with the west. [See Reuters.]
More specifically, in an interview for German TV, Gaddafi said “We don’t trust [western] ambassadors, they conspired against us. We don’t trust their companies… We will now invest in Russia, India and China. Our money will be invested there. Our oil contracts will go to Russian, Chinese and Indian companies. Forget the West!” (summary of broadcast, N-TV news channel).
On the other hand, Alaa al-Ameri “the pen-name of a British–Libyan economist and writer”, had a comment piece entitled “Libya will not forget this help” published in the Guardian on 18 March. In this piece Ameri wrote “Libya even has the means to pay for the cost of the intervention upon victory”, and “[j]ust as we will not forget those who stand against us, we will owe a great debt to those who have chosen to stand with us”.
It is clear that, economically, the interventionist powers have everything to gain by their support for the revolutionaries.
But why the American about-face on military intervention in Libya? Washington’s change of heart, from reticence to commitment, was nothing short of breathtaking: from apparently uncharacteristically wise heads advocating a rare grip on the dogs of war, to moving at lightning speed and with an absolute sense of purpose to play a decisive part in pushing through a resolution at the United Nations Security Council that not only sanctions a no-fly zone, but also gives a very malleable mandate to the interventionist powers to pursue what is clearly emerging as the real agenda: regime change. Less than 24 hours after UNSC 1973 was passed, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a press conference in Washington in which she said “[w]e will continue to work with our partners in the international community to press Gaddafi to leave, and to support the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people” (see Reuters news video).
For reasons that should be apparent, the United States could not afford the political damage it would sustain, particularly in the Muslim world, to be seen to be leading the western war effort in Libya. Statements from journalists such as “[l]ike the first Gulf war, the involvement and support of Arab countries means the Libyan war will not be defined, except by hardline jihadis and al-Qaida, as another western assault on Muslim lands” reveal a profound misunderstanding, if not ignorance, of the Muslim world, the history of Western–Middle Eastern relations, and the extent to which the reputation of the United States has suffered since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq (see the Guardian). Even before the initiation of those wars, the US reputation was unenviable. While Britain’s image has also suffered enormously since 2001 due to its eager participation as America’s principal partner in the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, it was in a better position, along with France, to lead the diplomatic effort for entry into the Libyan civil war. It is a measure of public-relations damage control on the part of both Washington and London, however, that the first high-profile air strikes against Libyan targets on Saturday 19 March were conducted by French warplanes while the United States and Britain limited themselves to firing cruise missiles from naval forces in the Mediterranean.
The British political and public-relations policy patterns on Libyan regime change are shared with those of the United States: behind PM Cameron’s continual emphasis on the humanitarian reasons for joining the Libyan civil war lay the objective of aiding the revolutionaries to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. Many instances can be cited, but, for example, UK Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 programme “Any Questions?” on the evening of 18 March, repeatedly stressed the British government would not stop at protecting Libyan civilians, but that the ultimate goal was to force Gaddafi from power: “We are very clear: we want Gaddafi to go” (BBC Radio 4). It is potentially relevant that Barker spent 10 years in the London-based finance industry, and for some two years 1998–2000 was head of international investor relations for the major Russian oil company Sibneft, which he helped open up to western markets.
Speaking at the IISS special briefing on Libya, Dana Allin, IISS senior fellow for transatlantic affairs, made the point that military intervention in conflicts needed to be targeted politically as well as militarily, and that a successful outcome of western intervention in Libya virtually depended on the intervening powers taking the side of the revolutionaries (IISS briefing, from 54:49 / 56:52). The only credible political objective of military intervention on the side of revolutionaries in the Libyan civil war is regime change.
Mainstream media commentators are beginning to catch up on the bigger picture of US, UK and French determination to effect regime change in Libya. Statements such as “capturing or killing Gaddafi has now become an end in itself for the western allies” reflect the political and strategic reality of the western war in Libya (see the Guardian), although scenarios such as “[Gaddafi] could well survive as the overlord of western and southern Libya following a de facto partition, hostile, vengeful and highly dangerous” still underestimate the level of calculation and planning that would have gone into preparing for regime change from at least the beginning of the rebellion. That is, all means will be employed, including ground forces if necessary and especially special forces, to prevent the survival of any remnant of Gaddafi’s regime in any form. The true significance of such mainstream media reports, however, is this: they are indicators that American, British and French official justification for war meant for public consumption – these governments’ political marketing campaigns – have moved into their second phases, working to shift public acceptance of a humanitarian mission to one of regime change, although the two will be conflated with the latter presented as a necessary extension of the former (see, for example, BBC).
And what would be the purpose of regime change? It is possible the economic benefits of lucrative oil and gas contracts for western companies, and securing energy supplies for Europe from a source that would be convenient both for ease of supply and for defending, provide sufficient motivation. I would, however, posit another geostrategic benefit that would be of more direct interest to the United States: a strategic insurance policy with regard to the now-uncertain trajectory of Egyptian politics. In the meantime, since geostrategic opportunities can flow in more than one direction, Egypt would benefit, as all states would, from having a powerful influence on the politics of a direct neighbour; indeed, there have been apparently confirmed reports the Egyptian military has been supplying arms to the Benghazi-based rebels (in violation of an official arms embargo on Libya), and unconfirmed reports of Egyptian special forces support for the rebels (see the Wall Street Journal and IISS briefing, from 55:32, respectively).
Uncertainty over both Egypt’s and Libya’s respective political futures, the fear of increased Islamist influence over the longer term in particular, may also help explain what has rightly been described as the “extraordinary” Arab League vote endorsing a western-led NFZ over Libya. This very rare Arab League demonstration of singular purpose, notwithstanding three expressions of dissent from the historic vote (out of 22 members), continues to perplex Middle Eastern specialists. The same uncertainty concerning the future political shape of Egypt and Libya may also have been a factor in Russia and China failing to exercise their veto during the vote for UNSC 1973: a US-sponsored stability may be preferable to the political wilds of the region considering the problems Russia and China have been, or are, facing with Islamic movements in Chechnya and Xinjiang, respectively.
No analysis or commentary that gives credence to the words emanating from Washington, London and Paris about protecting the people of Libya can be taken seriously, and Washington’s conduct throughout the crisis suggests careful orchestration with key allies Britain and France to reduce the US political risk of pressing another war against another Muslim country. There is no doubt that the result of massive military “intervention” is to effect another regime change in favour of western – mainly American, British and French – geostrategic and economic interests. The information and the evidence for these conclusions are in the public domain; those who reject such evidence in favour of accepting the (initial) official discourse on humanitarianism and human rights concerns on the part of the governments advocating war have, to say the least, learned nothing of the nature of state power from the Wikileaks affair.
Copyright © Daryl Champion and SomethingDark 2011. All rights reserved.