Libya's war, history's shadow

The diplomatic context of the anti-Gaddafi war is different from that of earlier western military interventions in the Arab world. But its motives, methods, silences, and falsities are all too familiar.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 March 2011

The Libya war is shifting from the status of an internal to an international conflict, as western forces degrade Libya’s air-defences and general ability to deliver air-power. A campaign that started with French air-raids against troops and armour of the Muammar Gaddafi regime advancing on the eastern city of Benghazi on 19 March 2011 has continued with air- and missile-attacks against a wider set of Libyan naval and army targets. 

These vigorous attacks from the three leading members of the coalition - France, the United States, and Britain - have not yet disabled the Gaddafi regime or prevented it from threatening some of the rebel areas, notably the town of Misrata to the east of Tripoli.

The coalition forces have now begun the more complex task of trying to target regime forces operating in urban areas. The likely pattern is that loyalist soldiers will quickly learn how to avoid exposure to attack, with many potential operations against them curtailed to avoid civilian casualties.

It is already apparent that early expectations of sudden regime collapse among some western analysts have proved unfounded. This outcome - one that Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Barack Obama must devoutly wish for - is still possible. But it is safer to assume that Gaddafi will survive for some weeks and possibly much longer. 

Moreover, even the leader’s flight into exile (a possibility floated both by Britain’s foreign secretary on 21 February, and by the US secretary of state on 23 March) may not lead to wholesale regime implosion: the rebel forces are quite weak, and tens of thousands of Libyans have a vested interest in defending a system built on autocracy and largesse over four decades.

The coalition’s problems

The unusually robust United Nations Security Council mandate for the coalition’s operation means that the Libya war differs greatly from that against Iraq in 2003. But even in these early days the multiple problems facing the coalition are evident.

Among them are the following:

• Dissent within Nato from Turkey, Germany and Italy, not least over the desirability of Nato taking overall control

• The clear desire of the Barack Obama administration to take a back-seat role, in terms both of military operations and overall leadership

• The cautious attitude of Brazil, Italy and Germany in the UN Security Council debate, leading to their abstention

• The failure of Arab states to provide direct support - Qatar’s two warplanes and one transport aircraft are little more than symbolic

• The evident reluctance of the two key states adjoining Libya, Egypt and especially Algeria, to be engaged. Indeed, Algeria’s stance is of singular value to the Gaddafi regime.

The western mind

The next phase in the interlocking process of military combat, diplomatic positioning, and movement on the ground in Libya will become clearer in coming days, including after the coalition conference in London on 29 March.

Alongside it, much of the broader public debate about the war focuses on the persistent issue of western double-standards. This has at least three aspects: changing attitudes to Libya, approaches to human-rights violations being driven by self-interest, and an evasion of historical responsibilities.

The recent French and Italian support for Gaddafi’s armed forces, and broader western participation in the Tripoli arms fair in November 2010, are among many examples of the first. The lack of support for Arab protesters in (for example) Bahrain or Yemen is evidence of the second, as is the condemnation of the shootings of demonstrators in Syria (a second-tier member of the George W Bush administration’s “axis of evil”).

It is notable here that the Bahraini royal elite’s harsh suppression of dissent is aided by direct paramilitary support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - and that the armed forces of these three Gulf states have received substantial and lucrative support from the very countries now targeting Libya (see "Libya, Bahrain, and the Arab spring", 17 March 2011).

The contradiction here raises the third aspect of western double-standards, in that the spectacle of powerful states imposing their will on an Arab country (with, in the case of Nicolas Sarkozy at least, an element of domestic political calculation at work as well) suggests a failure to learn from a tarnished history of colonial rule and the attitudes that go with it (see Patrice de Beer, "France, Europe, and the Arab maelstrom", 9 March 2011).

The European control of most of the region for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the more recent experience of the US-led war in Iraq and backing for Israel, mean that strong suspicion of western policy in the middle east persists - even if sanctioned by a UN resolution, supported by a few Arab states, and undertaken against a figure as unpopular as Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover, the further from Washington, London and Paris is the view of events the more rooted is the condemnation (see "Libya: the view from where you are", 21 March 2011).

The other’s view

Libya in 2011 is not Iraq in 2003, though there are comparable features (of which the fact that the wars were launched a day apart in their respective years is the least). Perhaps an incident that took place at the very end of the first Gulf war, in February 1991, holds out the darkest warning for the new western coalition.

The late drama in the United States-led war to eject Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait involved what American observers called a “turkey-shoot” by aircraft and helicopter-gunships of vast numbers of Iraqi soldiers fleeing from Kuwait on Highway 80 across Mutla ridge. The destruction was total as thousands of vehicles were caught in the open; the Iraqis killed probably numbered in the thousands (see "The myth of a clean war - and its real motive", 16 March 2003).

Any embarrassment of western leaders was muted: a war against an illegal invasion had been won, Egyptian and Syrian forces had played a small part, the messy aftermath of Shi’a uprising and Kurdish flight was still to come. Yet the extent of the carnage, a stark reminder of the sheer power of the United States and its European partners, had a lasting impact across the middle east.

The French attacks on Libyan army columns south of Benghazi on 19 March were very different in context and scale. They may well have saved many lives in Benghazi, and for that alone will appear to many far more justified than Mutla ridge. But they also left long chains of burned-out trucks, tanks and artillery-pieces, as well as many charred bodies; graphic images of this death and destruction were shown on middle-eastern TV channels.

The impact of a single incident cannot be precisely measured. But whatever the rightness of the Libyan war or the strength of the United Nations sanction, an attack of this kind is also a demonstration of the hard strength of western states which elsewhere give military aid to brutal regimes whose atrocities they fail to condemn.

Many people across the “greater middle east”, including those active in the Arab awakening of 2011, are provoked to great anger by this mix of power, violence, and hypocrisy. The feeling, with strong foundations in history, may be largely beyond the west's grasp. All the more reason for the west to try to understand it.

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