Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Russ Baker & Stephen Zunes Analysis
The Libya Secret: How West Cooked Up “People’s Uprising”
By Russ Baker on Aug 31, 2011
As I write this, a new day is dawning in Libya. The “people’s revolt” against yet another tyrant is unquestionably exciting, and the demise (political and/or otherwise) of Muammar Qaddafi will, of course, be widely hailed. But barely below the surface something else is going on, and it concerns not the Libyan “people”, but an elite. In reality, a narrowly-based Libyan elite is being supplanted by a much older, more enduring one of an international variety.
The media, as is so often the case, has botched its job. Thus virtually all of its resources over the past six months have gone into providing us with an entertainment, a horse race, a battle, with almost no insight into the deeper situation..
It’s true that Qaddafi, like many—perhaps a majority of—rulers in his region, was a thug and a brute, if at times a comical figure. But one doesn’t need to be an apologist for him—nor deny the satisfaction of seeing the citizenry joyously celebrating his ouster—to demand some honesty about the motives behind his removal. Especially when it comes to our own government’s role in funding it, and thus every American’s unwitting participation in that action.
Let’s start with the official justification for NATO’s launch of its bombing campaign—for without that campaign, it’s highly improbable the rebels could ever have toppled Qaddafi. We were told from the beginning that the major purpose of what was to be very limited bombing—indeed, its sole purpose—was to protect those Libyan civilians rebelling against an oppressive regime from massive retaliation by Qaddafi. Perhaps because of NATO’s initial intervention, the feared Qaddafi-sponsored, genocidal bloodletting never did occur. (At least, not beyond the military actions one would expect a government to take when facing a civil war: after all, remember General Sherman’s “scorched earth” policy in the US Civil War?). However, protecting civilians apparently didn’t generate sufficient public support for intervention, so we started to hear about other purported reasons for it. Qaddafi was encouraging his soldiers to…commit mass rape! And giving them Viagra And condoms.
You can’t make this sort of thing up. And yet that’s just what the NATO crew did—made it up. The media, always glad to have a “sexy” story, especially a sick sexy story, even a sick sexy story with no evidence to back it up, covered this ad nauseum, but never bothered to find out if it was true.
We’ve been expressing doubts about these claims, for a number of reasons—including logic—for some time now. (For more on that, see this and this and this.) But it’s tough to counterpoise hot-button issues with rationality. If you questioned the mass rape story, you were a “rape-enabler.” If you pointed out that Qaddafi was being bombed for anything other than humanitarian reasons, you were a “Qaddafi-lover.”
The media was so gullible that the professional disinformation guys went onto auto-pilot, recycling tired old tropes that nobody ought to be buying anymore. For example, most news outlets reported recently that Libya had fired a SCUD missile at the rebels.
“That it didn’t hit anything or kill anyone is not the point. It’s a weapon of mass destruction that Col. Qaddafi is willing to train on his own people,” said one Western official.
If the effort to rally public opinion against Qaddafi centered on any one factor, it was fury over Libya’s purported role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. As we noted in a previous article, in the years since the conviction of a Libyan intelligence officer in the tragedy, a chorus of doubts has grown steadily. The doubt is based on new forensic evidence and research, plus subsequent claims by prosecution witnesses that their testimony was the result of threats, bribes, or other forms of coercion. It is an ugly and disturbing story, not well known to the larger news audience.
Yet Lockerbie has continued to touch nerves. In February, when Qaddafi’s Justice Minister turned against him and became a rebel leader, he brought with him dynamite. Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil made the dramatic claim that his ex-boss was the culprit behind the bombing of Pan Am 103. He asserted that he had proof of Qaddafi giving the direct order for the crime. This got considerable media attention, though almost no news organizations followed up or reported that Jeleil never did supply that proof. The Libyan convicted of the crime has consistently denied any involvement. Nonetheless, his conviction in the case has had Qaddafi on the defensive for years—and working hard to prove to the West that he can be a “good citizen.” Part of this has entailed his paying out huge sums in reparations.
From the beginning of the Libya saga in February until now, the NATO coalition has never wavered from its initial declaration of humanitarian motives. And, to be sure, we may still learn of horrible, previously-unknown atrocities by Qaddafi. Still, the United States and its allies have little history of using their might strictly to protect civilians. If so, millions of South Sudanese, Rwandans and others might not be in their graves.
Besides, with all the talk about Qaddafi harming his citizens, what about the effect of more than 7000—yes, seven thousand—NATO bombing runs? We heard constant reports about how Qaddafi was facing charges of “war crimes,” with never a word about NATO. To learn the impact of this massive unleashing, you had to be relying on Tweets from Libyans witnessing it, or visiting obscure websites that shared eyewitness accounts.
Some Western military officials couldn’t even be bothered to participate in the “humanitarianism” charade. For example, the top British general explicitly stated that the objective was really to remove Qaddafi. Nobody—including the media—paid much attention to this admission, perhaps because it was already assumed to be the case.
Qaddafi should never be seen as a victim—indeed, he has always been sleazy and monstrous in various ways. But the US and its allies appear to have cared little about this, while being deeply troubled by his role as a fly in the geopolitical ointment. A look at the long and complex historical relationship between Qaddafi and the West begins to explain the true reason he had to go. It also dovetails perfectly with a growing body of indications that Western elites encouraged and even provoked the uprising—while tapping into deep discontent with the dictator.
Qaddafi has long been a thorn in the side of the West’s oil industry and their national security apparatus. In the early 1970s he worked closely with Occidental Petroleum chairman Armand Hammer in thwarting the ambitions of the oil majors. He was a leader in the boycott of Israel and often cozied up to the Soviet Union.
Back in the 1980s, the Reagan Administration plotted for five years to get rid of Qaddafi and sent 18 U.S. warplanes in April 1986 to eliminate the “Mad Dog of the Middle East.” Reporter Seymour Hersh actually did investigate the whys and wherefores of the ensuing bombings over Tripoli. (The bombings killed the Libyan dictator’s daughter but obviously failed to achieve their primary objective). Hersh’s piece in the February 22nd, 1987 New York Times Magazine, “Target Qaddafi,” has striking echoes in the NATO attacks of 2011.
- “internal manipulation and deceit” on the part of the White House to disguise its real intentions, namely, to assassinate Qaddafi;
- Denials after the raid on Qaddafi’s compound that he had been a target, insisting that the compound hit was “a command-and-control” building;
- The training of Libyan exiles, armed by Israel, to infiltrate Libya through Tunisia.
- The creation of a pretext for the attacks. In this case, it was the April 5, 1986 bombing of the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin,a hangout of American servicemen. This bombing was blamed on Libya “based on intercepted communications,” despite the explicit rejection of this claim by Berlin’s then-chief of anti-terrorist police.
- The revelation, according to one intelligence official, that “We came out with this big terrorist threat to the U.S. government. The whole thing was a complete fabrication.”
- As for real motives, Hersh discerned from a three-month investigation that the Reagan Administration saw Qaddafi as being pro-Soviet, “relentlessly anti-Israel,” and a supporter of extreme elements in Syria as opposed to “the more moderate regimes in Jordan and Egypt.”
- Qaddafi’s “often-stated ambition to set up a new federation of Arab and Moslem states in North Africa” frightened policy makers about their access to minerals.
It’s this that has to be considered as background for the true story of Libya—the one the Western media cannot, or will not now, report.
BEHIND LIBYA’S “SPONTANEOUS REVOLUTION”
What the media has so relentlessly characterized as the “spontaneous uprising” of February 2011 was hardly spontaneous. It began even before the Arab Spring itself commenced in Tunisia during December of last year—and it was orchestrated by the West.
In October 2010, Qaddafi’s protocol chief, Nouri Al-Mesmari, arrived in France, purportedly for medical treatment. But he had his family with him, and the declared reason for his trip was a cover story. He almost immediately plunged into talks with the French and their intelligence service. He argued that Qaddafi was weak. He pointed out breaches in Qaddafi’s national security shield that made it possible to take him down. (More on this can be found on the subscription-newsletter site “Africa Intelligence.”)
In December, Mesmari was joined by three Western-educated Libyan businessmen who had years earlier staged an unsuccessful revolt against Qaddafi. It didn’t take long for the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy to sign on to a covert effort to topple Qaddafi. There are multiple possible reasons for this, including intra-European competition, notably with the Italians, who enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Qaddafi and an inside track on Libya’s oil. In addition, the French were deeply concerned about illegal immigration from Arab and African countries via Libya, that they felt was tolerated or even encouraged by Qaddafi. The French began talking with the British, who shared many of their concerns and a history of cooperation on covert projects.
In November, a French trade delegation, including representatives of multinational corporations, traveled to Benghazi in Eastern Libya. That delegation has been characterized by Africa Intelligence’s Maghreb Confidential as having included French military officials under commercial cover, assessing the possibilities on the ground.
The New Year’s uprising in Tunisia, followed in rapid succession by those in other Arab states, created a kind of perfect storm, arguably even a smoke screen for the “popular revolt.” (It is interesting to note the above newsletter’s assertion that Mesmari paid a brief visit to Tunisia in October on his way to France.)
“Muammer Kadhafi’s [i.e., Muammar Qaddafi’s] chief of protocol, Nouri Mesmari, is currently in Paris after stopping off in Tunisia. Normally, Mesmari sticks closely to his boss’s side, so there’s some talk that he may have broken his long-standing tie with the Libyan leader.”
Egypt followed quickly on Tunisia’s heels, and on February 16, just days after the dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled in neighboring Egypt, peaceful demonstrations began in Benghazi—after calls went out on Facebook for people to take to the streets in protest over the arrest of a human rights lawyer. (The lawyer, Fethi Tarbel, was quickly released—news organizations do not appear to have scrutinized who ordered Tarbel arrested, or exactly why—though this was the seminal event that would ultimately lead to the end of Qaddafi’s regime.)
On February 27, a National Transitional Council, made up of politicians, ex-military officers, tribal leaders, businessmen and academics, announced its launching in Benghazi as the rebel leadership. Not surprisingly, no mention was made of the French back story.
The Italian intelligence services, intent on preserving that country’s advantageously close relationship with Qaddafi, began trying to leak what was going on. (More on the extent of the coziness between Libya and Italian oil companies, and between Qaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi here.) When it proved unable to stop the operation, the Italian government seemingly decided to switch and try to head this particular parade, lest the spoils go to the others.
Qaddafi and Berlusconi (Italy)
The United States was late to this affair, but determined to get its share of the picnic. The US has been as nervous about Qaddafi’s relationship with Russia’s Putin as France was about his ties to Italy.
CIA was ready with its own man and plan. As we previously noted, Khalifa Hifter, a former Libyan army officer, had spent the past two decades living just down the road from CIA headquarters, with no apparent source of income. In 1996, while a resident of Vienna, Virginia, he organized a Benghazi-based revolt that failed. When the current uprising was sputtering in March, CIA sent Hifter in to take command.
When the rebels were being routed, the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly order for Qaddafi. The NATO bombing began almost immediately, under the “humanitarian” label.
Before long, other European countries had covert elements in Libya. The British paper, The Guardian, has just reported the role of British special forces in coordinating the rebels on the ground. This was denied by the UK government. But then another British paper, The Telegraph, cited UK defense sources saying special forces had been in Libya already for weeks, i.e., since early August.)
For the first time, defence sources have confirmed that the SAS has been in Libya for several weeks, and played a key role in co-ordinating the fall of Tripoli.
Now that it is all over, expect details to emerge daily. For example, see this from the Daily Beast on the extent of US involvement behind the scenes, including:
[A]t NATO headquarters outside Brussels, the U.S. was intimately involved in all decisions about how the Libyan rebels should be supported as they rolled up control of cities and oil refineries and marched toward the capital, Tripoli.
NATO’S MARE NOSTRUM
Ok, so certain Western powers wanted, really, really badly, to oust Qaddafi. But why exactly? France’s intra-European competitive motive was certainly one factor. But there was more.
Back in 2007, European Union leaders were seriously toying with the idea of NATO-izing the entire Mediterranean, turning it into the new mare-nostrum originally contemplated in Roman days. In 2007, France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy invited 27 European Union heads of state to launch a “Mediterranean union.” He also invited 17 non-EU Mediterranean countries to use, as Britain’s Daily Telegraph put it, “imperial Rome’s centre of the world as a unifying factor linking 44 countries that are home to 800 million people.”
One leader did not buy in, however: Muammar Qaddafi. He claimed the scheme would divide Africa and the Arab World. “We shall have another Roman empire and imperialist design,” he was quoted as saying in July, 2008. “There are Imperialist maps and designs that we have already rolled up. We should not have them again.”
Qaddafi was particularly angered that an earlier plan, which contemplated building closer co-operation among a few southern European and North African states bordering the Mediterranean, had been replaced with one which included the whole EU, the Middle East—and Israel—in the new “Union.”
“It is unbelievable that I would come to my own country and people and say that I have a union with Israel. It is very dangerous,” he said, referring to the possibility of the plan fomenting jihadism throughout Europe, not just the Middle East.
Despite this “insult,” however, Qaddafi had been attempting for some time to get his country out of the near-global embargo imposed after blame for the Lockerbie bombing was laid at Libya’s feet. And the West, for its part, had been largely in a great hurry to “forgive”—and to get access to Libya’s riches.
Qaddafi and Condoleezza (US)
While Qaddafi was discussing with the Russians in 2007, for instance, the prospect of building a Russian military base in Libya, he’d also been busy rapidly repairing relations with other potential allies. French President Sarkozy visited that year, and signed a number of agreements, including a deal for France to build a nuclear-powered facility to desalinate ocean water for drinking. The next year, Qaddafi signed a cooperation treaty with Italy’s Berlusconi. And American secretary of state Condi Rice came calling in 2008, accelerating the thaw George W. Bush had avidly begun early in his administration.
In recent years, Qaddafi was on such good behavior that U.S. officials showered him with the sort of praise usually reserved for those officially deemed to be close allies. If that sounds unlikely, all you need to do is watch this video of Republican Sen. John McCain on an August 2009 visit to Tripoli—with his buddy Joe Lieberman, known to most as a pro-Israel, pro-Iraq-war hawk—gushing about Qaddafi and his regime. Emerging from meetings, they evoked a spirit of friendship and mutual respect, and endorsed the US providing defense equipment to that regime. (Ever the political animal, in recent weeks, the very same McCain who led that delegation has turned to criticizing Obama for not being willing to bomb Libya heavily enough.)
A cable from the US embassy in Tripoli, released by WikiLeaks, confirms that on the 2009 visit, “Lieberman called Libya an important ally in the war on terrorism, noting that common enemies sometimes make better friends,” the cable continues. “The Senators recognized Libya’s cooperation on counterterrorism and conveyed that it was in the interest of both countries to make the relationship stronger.”
This rapprochement was characterized by a land rush of Western corporations that had long coveted their share of Libya’s oil revenues. Leading the way was the investment bank Goldman Sachs. Qaddafi and his advisers trusted Goldman’s claims that it would turn handsome profits with any funds entrusted to it. Yet Goldman managed to lose an astonishing 98 percent of the funds, which were the Libyan people’s sovereign wealth. No matter. Goldman was soon back with more brilliant ideas—including suggesting, at the height of the Wall Street crisis, that Qaddafi buy a substantial stake in the Goldman firm itself.
Qaddafi was faced with these huge losses at the very time Libya was carrying a crushing obligation of reparations for the Lockerbie bombing that had been pressed on Libya as a condition of its re-emergence from years of isolation, and he began to worry about how he would pay for it all. Keeping the Libyan population at a relatively high standard of living (compared certainly to neighboring Egypt) was essential to his maintaining power. It was at this point that Qaddafi began pressing foreign oil companies to increase the royalties they pay, and the companies began grousing about it.
Could this hardening of postures have contributed to the sudden decision to oust a man who had worked hard to ingratiate himself with the West?
At least two factors appear to have come together to create an impossible situation for Qaddafi: (1) The French, perhaps
impatient with Qaddafi’s independence, and frustrated with his Italian alliance, began considering whether they might effect a change of government in Libya. And (2) the Arab Spring. Suddenly, a startling number of the thuggish Middle Eastern allies of the NATO countries began to come under threat. For a number of U.S. Eastern Establishment types, at least, these regional spasms of disaffection and bravery seemed to come as a genuine surprise. The Council on Foreign Affairs produced articles titled “What Just Happened?” and “Why No One Saw it Coming,” in the May/June issue of its Foreign Affairs magazine, dedicated to “the New Arab Revolt.”
No one seemed to know for certain what was going to happen, although there was plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking about how the Arab Spring was entirely predictable in light of the world-wide financial meltdown in 2008-09 and a growing restiveness in the Arab world. (See also our recent article about a correlation between skyrocketing food prices and the revolts.)
But while it may take years to put the Arab Spring in its proper perspective, it surely had begun to occur to foreign policy elites that NATO’s plans for a militarized Mediterranean would be susceptible to unraveling if Libya’s unpredictable Qaddafi remained…unpredictable. Especially with the NATO-allied dictator Mubarak on his way out and Egypt destabilized.
A mere glance at the map reveals the strategic location of Libya. Right next to Egypt. Large. Unlike Egypt, full of oil. And of a particularly sought-after grade of sweet crude oil. (If you had momentarily forgotten how incredibly important oil is to Western government and corporations, consider this news item: Exxon Mobil reported second quarter profits of $10.7 billion, up 41 percent from the previous year.)
In other words, Libya is both sitting on gobs of oil and perfectly, strategically located for military bases to protect that oil and the oil of nearby countries, including Saudi Arabia, whose citizens have expressed hostility to the sitting of American troops there. Almost nobody could stand Qaddafi. So if he were pushed out, who would complain? By getting behind the rebels (or, even better, helping to create and fortify the rebels) the forces of the West might be able to have their own Arab Spring.
WHAT? IT’S ALL ABOUT OIL?
In an inexcusable affront to the public, the media (with notable exceptions such as The Guardian) has largely waited until Qaddafi was destroyed to begin focusing on this incredibly obvious oil factor. One example is a piece just published by the New York Times. How useful is it to allow the one-sided demonization of this man, and then, when he is on his way out, to begin saying, Oh, by the way, it was always about oil?
The piece focuses on the rebels’ plans to favor the countries who backed them over those who preferred a negotiated settlement with Qaddafi: “We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and U.K. companies,” Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the Libyan rebel oil company Agoco, was quoted by Reuters as saying. “But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.”
Russia, China and Brazil did not back strong sanctions on the Qaddafi regime, and they generally supported a negotiated end to the uprising. All three countries have large oil companies that are seeking deals in Africa.
This feels like Iraq Redux, only with different players and, so far, a different outcome. In 2003, Germany and “Freedom-fries” France refused to join the “Coalition of the Willing” in George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Why? Because they had pending oil deals with Saddam Hussein.
There are other possible factors, including Qaddafi’s unique influence as an uncontrollable, Castro/Chavez-style independent nationalist with influence throughout the region. Qaddafi was an avid promoter of African unity, of governments that would remain free from the influence of the major powers. He poured a lot of money into South Africa, for instance, when it was struggling to free itself from Western influence after the fall of the apartheid regime there. As Qaddafi was going down to defeat, the West began pressuring South Africa to turn over frozen Libyan funds. (Not incidentally, there’s more than $35 billion of frozen Libyan assets in the U.S., and a comparable sum in Europe.)
African nationalism remains a big concern for Western mining, banking and industrial interests. Though the people of Africa remain desperately poor, the continent is the earth’s richest potential source of precious and strategic metals, minerals and resources of every stripe.
In hindsight, the Libyan “revolution” may be viewed as a clever effort to harness genuine domestic discontent to a global competition for the resources necessary to sustain the industrial West as well as newly emerging industrial countries like China, India and Brazil. Refracted this way, the whole NATO involvement in Libya appears to be, at root, business as usual. As they say in law enforcement, follow the money. In the midst of a severe fiscal crisis, Pentagon spending alone on Libya through the end of July was $896 million. Will everyone who believes that the Western military establishment is spending such vast sums to further the “aspirations of the Libyan people,” please raise their hands?
At this juncture, it seems realistic to expect the US and its allies to settle in, nice and comfortable, on Libyan “assets” for a very long time. Anyone who doubts that might want to check out US statements, not widely discussed, of intent for US troops to remain in Iraq well past the original troop departure date. Or a proposal for the same thing in Afghanistan—see this report about a desire to keep substantial military personnel there through 2024. Then do a little reading on the potentially $1 trillion worth of minerals in Afghanistan which the US says it only recently learned about. (Wink, wink.) As The New York Times reported in June, 2010 (the story generated little public reaction):
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.
Some will say that ascribing solely selfish motives to Western “liberators” is too cynical. For one thing, aren’t the rebels at least an improvement on Qaddafi in terms of human rights, liberties, and so forth?
For a possible answer, it’s worth reading the British journalist Patrick Cockburn. He nicely sums up the craziness, brutality and internecine murder taking place in the rebels’ ranks without proper Western media attention. They appear to have killed one or possibly two of their own commanding generals on suspicion of treachery—or at least being partial to the wrong faction. For example, we’ve been hearing—in part via a seemingly well-informed individual inside Libya—that the reason the rebels killed their own commander-in-chief General Abdul Fatah Younis was his advocacy of negotiations with Qaddafi. If that’s correct—and these subjects need more reporting by the news organizations there on the ground—then we’d like to know what position all those Western spooks took on the ouster and killing of this man.
Continuing on this score, we have the plight of black Libyans, generally among the poorest in the country. We’ve seen a steady stream of indications that, almost by definition, anyone black in Libya (many African migrant workers but also some Libyan citizens) has been lumped in with Qaddafi’s non-Libyan African mercenaries, considered a suspected Qaddafi loyalist and therefore targeted for harassment, physical violence and death.
Meanwhile, the rebels have released, en masse, prisoners linked to extremist Islamic movements. And one analyst is currently asserting that an Al Qaeda-linked figure is the new military commander of post-Qaddafi Tripoli.
Here’s another twist: The Libyan convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, released in 2009 from jail in Scotland and allowed to return home for health reasons, is now, according to CNN, on his death bed, said to be deprived of medicines due to the recent looting of Libyan pharmacies. Once the rebels had consolidated their hold over Tripoli, CNN found Abdel Basset al-Megrahi comatose, and while he has consistently maintained his innocence, it is unlikely the world will ever learn what he knows. With him and Qaddafi disappearing from the scene, any demand for a deeper inquiry into the bombing will likely evaporate.
But where is the West in all of this? A leaked plan for post-Qaddafi Libya shows how elaborately involved NATO has been in the entire operation. It includes a carefully thought-out proposal for avoiding the mistakes made in the Iraq occupation—including embracing most of Qaddafi’s security forces, and an initial occupying force “resourced and supported” by the United Arab Emirates, with essentially no (visible) Western “boots on the ground.”
Doesn’t this sound more and more like an invasion, for spoils? And one that could—notwithstanding lessons supposedly
learned—quickly get very messy?
Professor of Politics and Chair of Mid-Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco
Lessons and False Lessons from Libya
The downfall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime is very good news, particularly for the people of Libya. However, it is critically important that the world not learn the wrong lessons from the dictator's overthrow.
It is certainly true that NATO played a critical role in disrupting the heavy weapons capability of the repressive Libyan regime and blocking its fuel and ammunition supplies through massive airstrikes and by providing armaments and logistical support for the rebels. However, both the militaristic triumphalism of the pro-intervention hawks and the more cynical conspiracy mongering of some on the left ignore that this was indeed a popular revolution, which may have been able to succeed without NATO, particularly if the opposition had not focused primarily on the military strategy. Engaging in an armed struggle against the heavily armed despot essentially took on gaddafi where he was strongest rather than taking greater advantage of where he was weakest - his lack of popular support.
There has been little attention paid to the fact that the reason the anti-Gaddafi rebels were able to unexpectedly march into Tripoli last weekend with so little resistance appears to have been a result of a massive and largely unarmed civil insurrection which had erupted in neighborhoods throughout the city. Indeed, much of the capital had already been liberated by the time the rebel columns entered and began mopping up the remaining pockets of pro-regime forces.
As Juan Cole noted in an August 22 interview on Democracy Now!, "the city had already overthrown the regime" by the time the rebels arrived. The University of Michigan professor observed how, "Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands and just threw off the regime." Similarly, Khaled Darwish's August 24 article in The New York Times describes how unarmed Tripolitanians rushed into the streets prior to the rebels entering the capital, blocked suspected snipers from apartment rooftops and sang and chanted over loudspeakers to mobilize the population against Gaddafi's regime
Though NATO helped direct the final pincer movement of the rebels as they approached the Libyan capital and continued to bomb government targets, Gaddafi's final collapse appears to have more closely resembled that of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali than that of Saddam Hussein.
It should also be noted that the initial uprising against Gaddafi in February was overwhelmingly nonviolent. In less than a week, this unarmed insurrection had resulted in pro-democracy forces taking over most of the cities in the eastern part of the country, a number of key cities in the west and even some neighborhoods in Tripoli. It was also during this period when most of the resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Gaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers took place. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution. It was only when the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, that the revolution's progress was dramatically reversed and Gaddafi gave his infamous February 22 speech threatening massacres in rebel strongholds, which in turn, led to the United States and its NATO allies to enter the war.
Indeed, it was only a week or so before Gaddafi's collapse that the armed rebels had succeeded in recapturing most of the territory that had originally been liberated by their unarmed counterparts six months earlier.
It can certainly be argued that, once the revolutionaries shifted to armed struggle, NATO air support proved critical in severely weakening Gaddafi's ability to counterattack and that Western arms and advisers were important in enabling rebel forces to make crucial gains in the northwestern part of the country prior to the final assault on Tripoli. At the same time, there is little question that foreign intervention in a country with a history of brutal foreign conquest, domination and subversion was successfully manipulated by Gaddafi to rally far more support to his side in his final months than would have been the case had he been faced with a largely nonviolent indigenous, civil insurrection. It isn't certain that the destruction of his military capabilities by the NATO strikes was more significant than the ways in which such Western intervention in the civil war enabled the besieged dictator to shore up what had been rapidly deteriorating support in Tripoli and other areas under government control.
I could achieve an outcome I desired in an interpersonal dispute by punching someone in the nose, but that doesn't mean that it, therefore, proved that my action was the only way to accomplish my goal. It's no secret that overbearing military force can eventually wear down an autocratic militarized regime, but - as the ouster of oppressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, the Philippines, Poland, Chile, Serbia, and scores of other countries through mass nonviolent action in recent years has indicated - there are ways of undermining a regime's pillars of support to the extent that it collapses under its own weight. Ultimately, a despot's power comes not from the armed forces under his command, but the willingness of a people to recognize his authority and obey his orders.
This is not to say that the largely nonviolent struggle launched in February would have achieved a quick and easy victory had they not turned to armed struggle with foreign support. The weakness of Libyan civil society, combined with the movement's questionable tactical decision to engage primarily in demonstrations rather than diversifying their methods of civil resistance, made them particularly vulnerable to the brutality of Gaddafi's foreign mercenaries and other forces. In addition, unlike the well-coordinated nonviolent anti-Mubarak campaign in Egypt, the Libyan opposition's campaign was largely spontaneous. However, insisting that the Libyan opposition "tried nonviolence and it didn't work" because peaceful protesters were killed and it did not succeed in toppling the regime after a few days of public demonstrations makes little sense, particularly since the armed struggle took more than six months. And it does not mean there were no other alternatives but to launch a civil war.
The estimated 13,000 additional deaths since the launching of the armed struggle and the widespread destruction of key segments of the country's infrastructure are not the only problems related to resorting to military means to oust Gaddafi.
One problem with an armed overthrow of a dictator, as opposed to a largely nonviolent overthrow of a dictator, is that you have lots of armed individuals who are now convinced that power comes from guns. The martial values and the strict military hierarchy inherent in armed struggle can become accepted as the norm, particularly if the military leaders of the rebellion become the political leaders of the nation, as is usually the case. Indeed, history has shown that countries in which dictatorships are overthrown by force of arms are far more likely to suffer from instability and/or slide into another dictatorship. By contrast, dictatorships overthrown in largely nonviolent insurrections almost always evolve into democracies within a few years.
Despite the large-scale NATO intervention in support of the anti-Gaddafi uprising, this has been a widely supported popular revolution from a broad cross section of society. Gaddafi's brutal and arbitrary 42-year rule had alienated the overwhelming majority of the Libyan people and his overthrow is understandably a cause of celebration throughout the country. Though the breadth of the opposition makes a democratic transition more likely than in some violent overthrows of other dictatorships, the risk that an undemocratic faction may force its way into power is still a real possibility. And given that the United States, France and Britain have proved themselves quite willing to continue supporting dictatorships elsewhere in the Arab world, there is no guarantee that the NATO powers would find such a scenario objectionable as long as a new dictatorship was seen as friendly to the West.
Another problem with the way Gaddafi was overthrown is the way in which NATO so blatantly went beyond the mandate provided by the United Nations Security Council to simply protect the civilian population through the establishment of a no-fly zone. Instead, NATO became an active participant in a civil war, providing arms, intelligence, advisers and conducting over 7,500 air and missile strikes against military and government facilities. Such abuse of the UN system will create even more skepticism regarding the implementation of the responsibility to protect should there really be an incipient genocide somewhere where foreign intervention may indeed be the only realistic option.
Furthermore, while it is certainly possible that Gaddafi would have continued to refuse to step down in any case, the NATO intervention emboldened the rebels to refuse offers by the regime for a provisional cease-fire and direct negotiations, thereby eliminating even the possibility of ending the bloodshed months earlier.
Indeed, there is good reason to question whether NATO's role in Gaddafi's removal was motivated by humanitarian concerns in the first place. For example, NATO intervention was initiated during the height of the savage repression of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in the Western-backed kingdom of Bahrain, yet US and British support for that autocratic Arab monarchy has continued as the hope for bringing freedom to that island nation was brutally crushed. And given the overwhelming bipartisan support in the United States for Israeli military campaigns in 2006 and 2008-09 which, while only lasting a few weeks, succeeded in slaughtering more than 1,500 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, Washington's humanitarian claims for the Libyan intervention ring particularly hollow.
It's true that some of the leftist critiques of the NATO campaign were rather specious. For example, this was not simply a war for oil. Gaddafi had long ago opened his oil fields to the West, with Occidental, BP and ENI among the biggest beneficiaries. Relations between Big Oil and the Libyan regime were doing just fine and the NATO-backed war was highly disruptive to their interests.
Similarly, Libya under Gaddafi was hardly a progressive alternative to the right-wing Arab rulers favored by the West. Despite some impressive socialist initiatives early in Gaddafi's reign, which led Libya to impressive gains in health care, education, housing, and other needs, the past two decades had witnessed increased corruption, regional and tribal favoritism, capricious investment policies, an increasingly predatory bureaucracy and a degree of poverty and inadequate infrastructure inexcusable for a country of such vast potential wealth.
However, given the strong role of NATO in the uprising and the close ties developed with the military leaders of the revolution, it would be naïve to assume that the United States and other countries in the coalition won't try to assert their influence in the direction of post-Gaddafi Libya. One of the problems of armed revolutionary struggle compared to unarmed revolutionary struggle is the dependence upon foreign supporters, which can then be leveraged after victory. Given the debt and ongoing dependency some of the rebel leaders have developed with NATO countries in recent months, it would similarly be naïve to think that some of them wouldn't be willing to let this happen.
In summary, while Gaddafi's ouster is cause for celebration, it is critical that it not be interpreted as a vindication of Western military interventionism. Not only will the military side of the victory likely leave a problematic legacy, we should not deny agency to the many thousands of Libyans across regions, tribes and ideologies, who ultimately made victory possible through their refusal to continue their cooperation with an oppressive and illegitimate regime. It is ultimately a victory of the Libyan people. And they alone should determine their country's future.