Libya: palace intrigue replaces people power

Recent events confirm that NATO’s numpty-led war has led to the colossal disempowerment of the Libyan people.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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‘What happens to Gaddafi is ultimately a question for the Libyan people. It’s for the Libyan people to determine their own future’, said UK foreign secretary William Hague on Monday. His French counterpart and fellow NATO bombardier, Alain Juppé, was equally infused with the democratic spirit. ‘At the end of the day Gaddafi is going to have to abandon power, military and civil. Then it will be for the Libyan people to decide.’

Yet while the sentiments are grand, the actions of NATO, with the UK, France, the US and Norway to the fore, tell a somewhat different story. And it is not one of rising people power. Rather, the main theme of the West’s infernal intervention in Libya over the past four-and-a-half months has been the wresting of the future of this part of north Africa from the hands of the people who live there. This was apparent in Hague’s announcement on Wednesday that all current Libyan diplomats will be expelled from the London embassy and the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) invited to take their place. The NTC is not winning legitimacy from the Libyan population; it is having legitimacy conferred upon it by a Western elite.

This colossal disempowerment of the Libyan people was further evident in the reluctantly Blimpish Hague’s admission that Gaddafi – international bête noire, March 2011 – could be allowed to stay in Libya if he relinquishes power. Given that it is NATO members dispensing such allowances, this is not a mark of a people deciding its own future; rather it is a sign of the NATO allies’ willingness to cut a deal with Gaddafi so that Britain et al can extricate themselves from a conflict that none of them has the will to continue fighting.

What makes Hague’s admission even more remarkable is that at the end of June, he and Cameron were busily hailing the International Criminal Court’s decision to prosecute Gaddafi and two others – his son, Saif al-Islam and his intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi – for ‘crimes against humanity’. Back then, the thought of leaving Gaddafi to live out his days in Libya, powerless but at semi-liberty, was apparently unthinkable. ‘For the future of Libya and its people’, declaimed Cameron on the eve of the conflict, ‘Colonel Gaddafi’s regime must end and he must leave’. But it has now since emerged that NATO ally France is rather less excited about arraigning Gaddafi before The Hague, preferring a ceasefire and a spot of behind-closed-palace-doors deal-brokering. The French defence minister, Gérard Longuet, even suggested that Gaddafi could remain in Tripoli ‘in another room in his palace’ while talks were held. Either way, it now seems that the UK government has come round to France’s way of thinking: they are both prepared to let Gaddafi off their hook.

Quite where the decision-making power of the Libyan people came into this shift in focus is a mystery. Yes, the leader of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, may have said something along the lines of Gaddafi being allowed to remain on Libyan soil at a place of the rebels’ choosing. But given that Abdel Jalil, as Gaddafi’s former justice minister, was as implicated in the Tripoli-based regime’s reign of tyranny as he is now apparently opposed to it, it is not entirely obvious that he speaks for the people.

In fact, a quick look at what has been said by others currently attempting to fight Gaddafi’s troops suggests that there are plenty who would like to mete out their own ICC-free justice to Gaddafi. A rebel commander in Misrata, for instance, sounded far from quiescent when he said: ‘We will not stop until we reach Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli and catch Gaddafi.’ And a rebel official who refused to be named was similarly set upon removing Gaddafi, not just from Libya, but from this mortal coil: ‘Speaking as an average Libyan, I don’t care what Mustafa Abdel Jalil or William Hague says. None of the Libyan people will allow him to stay here. We want him dead and buried.’

But then, the Libyan people, now mainly cast as spectators, have long since ceased to be the determining factor in what has become a thoroughly internationalised conflict. In The Economist in June, a report from Tripoli inadvertently summed up the view of the Libyan people as a passive audience for NATO’s low-commitment, high-flying war of attrition against the Gaddafi regime. ‘There are few visible signs’, it said, ‘of a mass uprising in the offing. But there is a sense, under the surface, that people are waiting for the regime’s end.’ People forging their own future don’t ‘wait’; they act.

There has even been the suggestion that NATO is perfectly happy with the impotence of the rebels. As one newspaper editorial asserts, ‘The big hope is that the regime in Tripoli will fizzle from within rather than be swept away by an advancing rebel army.’ While this would be great for those international powers hoping to manage a low-fuss transition to a new regime in Libya, it does not seem to have very much to do with ‘a people determining their own future’, to use Hague’s words.

Not that this should be any surprise. Intervention by a set of external powers was always going to negate a people’s own potential self-determination. As Sean Collins warned back in March, as soon as the West got involved, on the pretext of protecting Libyan civilians, the capacity for Libyans to seize hold of their own future was demolished. NATO, or more particularly the US, France and the UK, led the airborne charge instead. Self-determination quickly became determination by others, with ‘[rebel] groups that were once vying for the hearts and minds of the people… becoming the supplicants for [NATO] favours’.

Which is exactly what has happened. A couple of weeks ago the NATO-established Libya Contact Group went so far as to declare that the National Transitional Council was ‘the legitimate authority of Libya’. Attempting to win the support of the Libyan people, and therefore to gain real legitimacy, is no longer the NTC’s objective; gaining the support of its international sponsors has become far more important.

Yet while the Libyan people might not be driving the rebellion, as Brendan O’Neill explained in April, the NATO allies have repeatedly demonstrated that they are far from willing, or indeed capable, of assuming control. Quite the opposite. Responsibility for leading the war against Gaddafi has resembled a game of pass the parcel in which none of the participants want the music to stop. It’s been more numpty-colonialism than neo-colonialism. Within just 48 hours of launching bombing raids, the US stated that its military leadership would last ‘days, not weeks’. The aim was merely to ‘shape the conditions for the international community to act together’, said President Barack Obama. But although the buck was duly passed to ‘the international community’, and specifically to NATO, neither was particularly keen to seize the opportunity. As a result, a heavily committed France was prompted to criticise its fellow NATO members’ half-heartedness for sending the wrong signals to the Libyan rebels. Not that this meant that France, with President Sarkozy initially seeming to be the most grandstandingly belligerent, was eager to take up the bombs-and-strategy mantle itself. The French government just did not want to end up leading a mission for which it had no stomach.

What has emerged during the course of this brutally buffoonish intervention – in which Gaddafi has holed himself up in and around Tripoli, the rebels make slow, NATO-directed progress from the east, and speechifying Western politicians lack anything resembling a strategy – is a conflict that no one seems to have the wherewithal actually to win. Last month, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared, revealingly, that ‘time was working against Gaddafi’. That agency is being assigned neither to the rebels nor to NATO, but rather to the passage of time, shows just how unwilling the world’s most powerful nation is to assume responsibility for a military campaign it helped to start.

What is clear is that any momentum the Libyan rebels might have had earlier this year, any popular support they might initially have been able to garner, has long since dissipated. Instead you have a rag-tag stage army complete with a National Transition Council stuffed full with Gaddafi’s ex-cronies, while behind the scenes a clueless crew of international directors try to come up with some sort of script. But these directors, this Western coalition of the utterly unwilling, are so bereft of strategy and objectives that they aren’t even sure what they would like to happen to Gaddafi. One thing’s for sure: as long as the intervention continues, it will not be for the Libyan people to decide.

Tim Black is senior writer for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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