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An article by Yash Tandon
How might things move forward in Libya?

NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) sustained assault on Libya ought to lead to calls for its leaders’ prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC), writes Yash Tandon, though ‘we know this will not happen’. A new regime run by ‘the people’, Tandon stresses, will merely see itself at the service of empire, helping to ensure access to oil, shore up Europe against refugees and bolster the region against forces deemed threatening such as Hamas and Iran; the challenge remains for Libyans themselves to sort out their differences and unite.


25 May 2011

I ended the last column ’Whose dictator is Gaddafi?’ with the question: what now? How might things move forward in Libya? Before I deal with the question it is important to remind ourselves that Libya is a neocolonial state, and Gaddafi has objectively been a neocolonial dictator for global finance capital, even though subjectively he was and is anti-imperialist. The empire might have accommodated him, and indeed did rehabilitate him after his turnaround in 1999, over a decade ago, but the ‘Arab spring’ upset the programme of the empire, and it had to quickly take a u-turn and ditch Gaddafi.

So what now? The empire, with the connivance of sections of the Libyan population, had hoped to get rid of Gaddafi quickly. The limited ‘United Nations’ no-fly zone operation has metamorphosed into a ‘NATO’ (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) military operation, which is now in violation of its original mandate. The empire, in its hubris and delusion, had imagined for a while that the UN might extend its authority to allow ‘boots on the ground’. But this failed. Russia and China, who have veto power in the Security Council, argue that the NATO countries have gone far beyond their mandate. Gaddafi, the empire’s erstwhile dictator in Libya, whom they cuddled and kissed after 1999 turn around, has proven to be more resilient than expected. He is back on his anti-imperialist nationalist trail. The imperial war machine has failed to dislodge him.

Since March 2011 NATO has so far flown over 6,000 sorties into Libya, 2,400 of which involving bombing strikes. This is a staggering number by any measure. Faced with a protracted war, the empire is now using subterfuge, deceit and double-speak to illegally extend its military operation in Libya. It kills individuals targeted from the air but nonetheless denies doing so and continues to play the myth that it is only ‘protecting the civilians’. This is a blatant lie. It brazenly bombed Gaddafi’s personal compound in Tripoli on 22 March, hoping to kill him.

Like in the case of Osama bin Laden, the empire has an awesomely simplistic and gruesome military strategy – cut off the head of the snake and the rest of the body will slither or wither away. During the 22 March bombing, however, the empire succeeded only in killing some of Gaddafi’s children, in what can without fear of contradiction be described as a criminal act. This ought to motivate Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the ICC (the International Criminal Court) to investigate and charge NATO leaders for criminal acts. Of course, we know this will not happen. In the international arena impunity has only one face, the imperial face.

So back to the question: what now of Libya?

Although it sounds like a cliché, it is a truism that ‘the future of Libya lies in the hands of the people of Libya’. Even the empire hypocritically endorses the principle – it has to, or else it will have no legitimacy, no excuse, for its action in Libya. But the fact of the matter is that the empire cannot allow self-determination to its neocolonies. That, by definition, would be the end of the neocolonies, and hence the death of the empire. The empire must divide and rule.

In Libya it has actively encouraged a section of the people to fight a proxy war for the empire. To put it starkly, Benghazi (a province) is fighting a war against Tripoli (the centre) on behalf of the empire. The French were active in Benghazi even before the UN Security Council resolution, and were the first imperial country to recognise the National Transitional Council (NTC) at Benghazi. But few countries have followed suit, and so, technically, the Gaddafi regime remains the only legally constituted actor in the conduct of Libya’s diplomatic relations. Against him, the empire uses ‘the people’ as an ideological metaphor to describe the entire ‘nation’ that is supposed to have revolted against Gaddafi. This is another myth.

The media story, for example, that ‘the pro-democracy fighters in Misurata are engaged in trench warfare against Gaddafi’ is a loaded expression. It is aimed at conveying the message that the ‘pro-democracy’ forces are holding out against the dictator. It is also aimed to prepare the psychological and political ground to justify the empire’s open and clandestine military support to ‘the people’. The question to then ask is ‘which people’? Who among the NTC at Benghazi represent the ‘people’?

The ‘people’ is a simplified presentation of a complex reality, because there must be people even in Benghazi who must have realised by now that they are hostages of the empire, that they cannot run the show on their own without the empire. But these ‘rebels among the rebels’ (if this is what they may be called) are probably marginalised by the coalition of political forces around the NTC at Benghazi. It is a complex issue; not as simple as the empire and its media makes out to be.

The hard reality is that as long as the empire dictates the terms and means of engagement with Gaddafi, ‘the people’ will never determine their future. It is as simple as that. When a nation has surrendered its sovereignty to the empire, it can recover it only when it liberates itself from the empire. When the streets revolted against the regime of Gaddafi, it was also revolting against the imperial order. But now the situation is out of the people’s control. The empire has taken over the task of removing Gaddafi from power and, apparently, helping ‘the people’ to put in power a more ‘democratic regime’. This new regime, the empire will make sure, is bound so tightly to the apron strings of the empire that it continues to service the empire’s economic and strategic interests in the region – including access to oil, stopping the inflow of boatloads of refugees to Europe and, above all, the protection of Israel, the empire’s outpost in the region against threats posed by, for example, Hamas, Syria and Iran.

So, then, back to the question: what is the possible way forward for the nation of Libya? Here, it might be helpful for the nation (a better term than ‘people’) to take a leaf from the experience of the nation of Palestine to move forward in their struggle for national self-determination. Palestine is an occupied nation. The people of Palestine cannot negotiate with Israel as long as their lands are occupied. And yet, this is what the empire has been encouraging the Palestinians to do for the last 60 years. It is an impossible situation. How can Palestine negotiate as an equal when it is occupied? The empire has come in to ‘mediate’ but it is not a neutral mediator. It is not an honest broker. Countries like Norway that have brokered negotiations between Palestine and Israel act as surrogates of the empire, in fact, as an integral part of the imperial system. The so-called Oslo Accord mediated by Norway, for example, was a partisan process on behalf of collective imperialism.

As Ziyad Clot, one-time adviser to the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), says: ‘The “peace negotiations” were a deceptive farce whereby biased terms were unilaterally imposed by Israel and systematically endorsed by the US and EU. Far from enabling a negotiated and fair end to the conflict, the pursuit of the Oslo process deepened Israeli segregationist policies and justified the tightening of the security control imposed on the Palestinian population, as well as its geographical fragmentation. Far from preserving the land on which to build a state, it has tolerated the intensification of the colonisation of the Palestinian territory. Far from maintaining a national cohesion, the process I participated in, albeit briefly, was instrumental in creating and aggravating divisions among Palestinians. In its most recent developments, it became a cruel enterprise from which the Palestinians of Gaza have suffered the most. Last but not least, these negotiations excluded for the most part the great majority of the Palestinian people: the seven million Palestinian refugees. My experience over those 11 months in Ramallah confirmed that the PLO, given its structure, was not in a position to represent all Palestinian rights and interests’ (Ziyad Clot, ‘Why I blew the whistle about Palestine’, The Guardian, Saturday 14 May 2011).

Of course, nothing remains the same forever. Even after 60 years of sustained efforts by the empire to divide the nation of Palestine, to compel them to negotiate ‘peace terms’ with Israel with ‘aid’ funds and graft, and to force it accept its apartheid existence, the people of Palestine are finally united (at least for now, for the empire and Israel will continue their efforts to divide them). Hamas and Al Fatah have buried their hatchets, and are now (at the time of writing this piece) presenting a common front to Israel and the empire – what the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu disingenuously described as ‘a victory for terrorism’ and a ‘mortal blow to peace’.

A further word of advice from Ziyad Clot on Palestine applies to Libya too. Here is what he says: ‘Finally, I feel reassured that the people of Palestine overwhelmingly realise that the reconciliation between all their constituents must be the first step towards national liberation. The Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinians living in exile have a common future. The path to Palestinian self-determination will require the participation of all in a renewed political platform.’

The people of Libya will eventually also realise that the contradiction between ‘Tripoli’ and ‘Benghazi’ is a secondary contradiction between the peoples, fuelled by the empire in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’ which is selectively applied in the case of Libya, but not, for instance, in the case of Bahrain or Yemen. They will realise that their principal AND immediate contradiction is with the empire. In the case of Palestine, the new regime in Egypt played a catalytic role in bringing Hamas and Fatah together. Perhaps they can play a similar role in Libya. Egypt can also play a role in mobilising the Arab League against NATO’s illegal bombing of Libya. Following the bombing of Tripoli, its Secretary General Amr Moussa said that the league’s approval of a no-fly zone on 12 March was based on a desire to prevent Gaddafi’s air force from attacking civilians and not designed to endorse the intense bombing and missile attacks — including on Tripoli and on Libyan ground forces.

The people of Libya must apply their own historical wisdom in resolving differences among themselves. The wisdom of the Orient is deep. One is the value of patience, especially in the desert. It takes a long time to reach your destination on camels, and you must prepare your journey properly and with care. Also, the desert is the arena for wars and fierce battles. But an oasis is different. An oasis is not only a break with the desert but also a neutral place of sanctity and peace inhabited mostly by women and children. Visitors never enter the life of the oasis; they leave the people in the oasis alone. It is taboo for visitors to interfere with the hospitality of the inhabitants of the oasis.

This is not so with the Western empire. This is an empire historically born out of pillage and plunder. It is an empire of globalisation of interference; in this empire there is no room for an oasis of decency. The empire believes, wrongly, that it can bomb Afghanistan and Libya to force submission. The Western empire is an uncivilised culture. It displays its crass culture when it rejoices at the killing of Gaddafi’s children in their homes. The empire does not understand that though you can hold a grain of sand in the palm of hand and puff it away, it has taken millions of years to make the sand. Eastern civilisation is still young, but it has been there a long time, longer than the Western civilisation; you cannot just puff it away like a grain of sand. The empire is oblivious to the finer aspects of civilisation; it does not realise that though it may win in the short run, it may lose in the long run; what goes around comes around like a catapult.

And so back to Libya again. The Libyans must get back to their ‘oases culture’, find a place where they can leave their guns and camels outside the tents and sort out their differences and unite against the empire – like in Palestine.

The next question is whether there is a role for the larger international community in this sordid war? By the international community I do not mean the empire’s ‘coalition of the willing’. By it I mean the community outside the war coalition. How can the leaders of the Third World help for example? After the initial UN Security Council resolution, these countries have unfortunately allowed the United Nations to be used by the empire, with the blatant complicity of the current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. They must take control of the political and diplomatic processes of the UN.

How might they do so? First, they must bring the Libya issue back to the council for a review of the original mandate. Failing that they could bring the matter before the General Assembly under the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution which the Americans had first used in 1950 to get the UN’s endorsement for action in Korea. The UNGA resolution 377 (V), the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution, states that in cases where the UN Security Council fails to act owing to disagreement between its five permanent members, the matter ‘shall’ be addressed by the General Assembly, using the mechanism of the emergency special session. Secondly, the leaders of the Third World must also review the Security Council resolution 1674 of 28 April 2006. This resolution reaffirms paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document containing, among other things, the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’, or R2P, which has been seriously abused by the empire in the case of Libya.

This, the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ and the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’, are matters that I shall take up in the next issue of Pambazuka. The imperial dictators are inflicting carnage on Libya with complete impunity. What we are witnessing in Libya is not ‘audacity of hope’ but audacity of madness. This carnage and madness must stop.

Yash Tandon
pambazuka.org, 25 May, 2011.


Yash Tandon is a Ugandan policymaker, political activist, professor, author and public intellectual. He has lectured extensively in the areas of International Relations and Political Economy. He was deeply involved in the struggle against the dictatorship of Idi Amin in 1970’s Uganda and has spent time in exile. He is the author and editor of numerous books and articles and has served on the editorial board of many journals.

All the versions of this article:
- Comment les choses peuvent-elles évoluer en Libye ?