19 May 2011

Arab Spring - Part 2: Libya

What happened in Libya?

If my previously expounded hypothesis is correct and the Arab Spring is more than a series of spontaneous revolutions which required (a) material and logistic support from outside and (b) at least an active posture of non interference on the part of the armies, then Libya is a very interesting case.

The spark was fairly innocuous in Libya as well:
Inspired by pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world, Libyan dissidents had planned a "day of rage" for Thursday, Feb. 17. On February 15, security forces arrested a prominent lawyer named Fathi Terbil, who had represented families of some of the 1,200 prisoners massacred by Libyan security forces at Abu Slim prison in 1996. Once released later that day, Terbil set up a webcam overlooking Benghazi’s main square, where some of the families had been protesting. With help from exiled Libyans in Canada and around the world, the video spread rapidly on the Internet.

Al Jazeera Arabic conducted a phone interview with Libyan novelist Idris al-Mesmari, who reported that police were shooting at protesters—and then the connection was lost. (Mesmari was reportedly arrested by Libyan authorities.) Shortly thereafter, thousands more began battling Qaddafi's troops, and hundreds are reported to have been killed.
So, in the span of a couple of days, a video being disseminated and an interrupted phone call led to full scale armed insurrection.

Unlike the Tunisian or Egyptian cases, it was not a case of the army waiting on the sidelines, trying to see where this will be going. It was more a case of large chunks of the army and the ruling classes deciding which side they were going to choose and significant numbers defecting right away. In the absence of a cohesive social order and well developed civil society, very few groups felt any allegiance to Qaddafi. So, it was not very unusual for ambassadors, ministers and army commanders to be defecting en masse. What was unusual was the timing. These people did not wait for a Rubicon moment, with a well organized rebel movement marching to Tripoli or something of that nature, they jumped ship right away.

In fact, one of the leaders of the rebel movement Abdel Fattah Younes, was the Head of the Special Forces and Minister of the Interior just before the start of the uprising.

Initially, these defections and the extraordinary spectacle of a rebel army being formed within days and marching on Eastern Libya, the Libyan army appeared reluctant to fight the rebels. Pilots dumped their planes in the sea or landed in Malta. Bombs regularly missed rebel troops. The momentum was such that apparently Qaddafi offered to leave with his family and fortune, but the emboldened rebels simply rejected it.

Even though when the rebels were unable to sustain that initial momentum, they were subsequently labeled a ragtag army, at the time, the overnight formation of an army capable of taking cities from regular troops was nothing short of a miracle. One that would be very hard to explain with the magical powers of FaceBook.  In Libya's case, the assistance of the outside world was more visible than the previous two cases. The US administration asked the Saudis early on to supply the rebels with arms and other logistical assistance. Moreover, McClatchy reported that Younes was quickly replaced by a man named Khalifa Hifter, a one-time top military commander in the Libyan army, who had subsequently emigrated to the West Virginia in the US (Greenwald bemusedly remarked that he was living a few miles away from Langley). As the McClatchy piece notes at the end, no one knew what he did to support his large family all those years in West Virginia and, while this point was not raised, I assume no one could explain either how he was able to drop everything and get up and go to Libya. Or how he got there and how he simply pushed Younes aside -the Head of Special Forces until a month ago- made him accept the deputy post and took command of the rebel army. Sometimes I am amazed by how much is left out of the mainstream reporting.

Besides the inevitable US involvement, there were a number of other outside interventions that played an important role in Libya's case.

Some of these countries had no business getting involved, like France and Britain.

France in Libya: Why?

Less than a month into the Libyan uprising, President Sarkozy declared that France no longer recognized Qaddafi government as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. This came at a time when there was no actual government or even a recognizable leader.

But would the French formally recognise the Libyan opposition? "France recognises states, not parties", said a senior official on March 9th.
Strange, then, that the very next morning, on March 10th, two representatives of the Libyan opposition emerged from a meeting with President Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace to announce that "France recognises the Libyan Transitional National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people". France, they added, would be sending an ambassador to Benghazi, their stronghold. Bizarrely, their meeting was facilitated by  Bernard-Henri Lévy, a left-leaning philosopher and media celebrity, who has been urging Mr Sarkozy to intervene. Mr Lévy, who has no official diplomatic role, announced that France was considering targeted air strikes.

What is odd is that the new Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé and even the Prime Minister François Fillion did not know about Sarkozy's move. Moreover, foreign policy is normally the domain of the EU and under normal circumstances, France would not have made unilateral statements without first consulting its European partners.

Within days of that announcement, Sarkozy began pushing for a no-fly zone over Libya.

Sarkozy's game plan involved a number of domestic and international calculations.

Domestically, with Marine Le Pen rapidly rising in opinion polls and with Dominique Strauss Kahn (known as DSK in France) beating him in hypothetical electoral match ups, Sarkozy clearly needed what the BBC called a "De Gaulle moment." But, while De Gaulle's "others" were his European partners in the 1965 "empty chair" crisis or NATO members, given France's domestic realities, Sarkozy's "others" had to include Muslims and Arabs around a careful equation.

In the last few years, French media have been full of stories about Muslims quietly taking over France, its culture and its way of life. Currently, there is a clear "us" and "them" sentiment that did not exist a few decades earlier where French people had marched to chants of "Touche pas a mon pote." Nowadays, not only would such a sentiment be unthinkable but, if the polls are to be believed, most French people are ready to march to kick the Muslim immigrants out.

An anti-Arab or anti-Muslim act would give Sarkozy a boost among Le Pen's constituencies but it could prove disastrous for his support among immigrants. There, Qaddafi presented the perfect target: he is widely loathed by Arabs everywhere who see in him a clownish anti-Muslim figure who refuses even to recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian claims (he, for instance, suggested with a straight face the creation a bi-communal new state called Isratine).

Hence, Sarkozy felt that a flamboyant and belligerent gesture against Qaddafi would bolster his anti-Muslim credentials without alienating France's sizable Muslim and Arab minorities.

Internationally, it would make France relevant again as a major actor in Europe and within the EU.

There were also economic benefits to these actions. First, it would break the current ideological pressures to implement austerity measures in the middle of an major economic recession. Instead of increasing public spending to get out of this recession most governments were forced by international financial markets to cut their spending forcing them into a downward deflationary spiral. A military campaign in an oil-rich country is one of the few acceptable ways to increase public spending.

Secondly, if Qaddafi is ousted successfully, as the leading country in getting rid of him, France will likely reap economic benefits from it. After all, the new regime is unlikely reward the Italian companies like Eni that invested in and supported Qaddafi's administration. Total or GDF could be their replacement.

Britain in Libya: Really?

Historically, Britain has a love and hate relationship with Qaddafi. So, even though they do not have a shared colonial past, Britain often meddled into Libyan affairs and at times absorbed difficult blows just to maintain this relationship. Their relationship has always included a number of contextual variables.

Without narrating the past (which can be seen from the above mentioned documentary) this time these contextual variables included the following: First of all, and starting from the least important, Cameron, like Sarkozy, saw this as a way to make Britain relevant again. Secondly, as Cameron appears to be a rather vindictive petty human being, he seems to be using his tough guy stance on Libya to recast the liberation of Lockerbie bomber al Megrahi as the act of a gullible idiot, referring to his predecessor, Gordon Brown. Thirdly and more importantly, British economy is in free fall and since he ruled out (for ideological reasons) any kind of Keynesian stimulus, a nice mini war could do wonders for spending the UK's way out of a recession. Britain also stands to gain from a post war redistribution of spoils.

Merkel's hesitant stand gave him another opening as Sarkozy could no longer count on the Franco-German alliance that proved to be the dominant force in EU affairs for decades.

What about others?

Despite their bluster, Sarkozy and Cameron knew they would be unable to do anything on their own. The entire UK Navy Tomahawk missile arsenal is just 64 whereas by the end of the first week of hostilities the US had already used about 200 of those missiles. Add to this the complicated business of coordinating a multinational force and logistic support for the operation and it becomes clear that the Europeans were not up to the task.

On the surface of it the US appeared as a reluctant participant: it was evident that Egypt was critical for US interests, but Libya, not so much. But in reality, the US was deeply invested in this as can be seen from their success in pulling not one but two miraculous diplomatic coups: They got the Arab League (and African Union) to agree to a no-fly zone against Qaddafi. And they got a very broadly worded resolution out of the UN Security Council without Russia or China using their veto. Neither of which is possible without serious arm-twisting and the Americans are the only ones capable of doing it.

Some commentators claim that the US got involved at the request of Turkey but this is a misreading of the situation. What is more likely is the fact that Turkey and the US have been playing with the same chess board and working on a long term game plan for the Middle East. I will try to explain the game plan in the next few posts.

Turkey's involvement was very critical in that specific conflict. It has significant investments in Libya, with Turkish construction companies standing to lose close to 20 billion dollars because of the hostilities. It would be very difficult to ask them to absorb these losses without being involved in the conflict and its aftermath. Moreover, the US did not want to have a situation where it looked like Western colonial powers were ganging up on a weak Muslim country. The presence of Turkey was deemed to be critical to change that impression. In that context, they did not like Sarkozy's initial efforts to sideline Turkey by pushing for a non-NATO operation. They quickly made sure that NATO (and not France) was the command center.

Of course, when US pushed successfully for a NATO operation they were asking for the integration of a powerful NATO member with veto power into the Libyan operation, a member, I should add, that Sarkozy did everything to humiliate in recent weeks. From the infamous fast-moving-gum-chewing five-hour visit to Ankara, to steadfast efforts to exclude Turkey from Libya coalition by citing Turkey's "other" loyalties, he tried everything to show his displeasure with them.

In trying to put Turkey in its place, Sarkozy made a couple of serious mistakes. One was to alienate the Muslim world by presenting the Libyan conflict as a crusade and last time this was done it was the Europeans who pointed out its serious connotations and it ended up having a lot of serious repercussions. Secondly, by so overtly snubbing Turks he offended the Americans, as they clearly wanted Turkey as an ally not only in Libya but also as a regional superpower in the Middle East. Thirdly, by delaying the start of the operations while trying to exclude Turkey, he missed a major window of opportunity in Libya. If the no-fly-zone strikes coincided with the early defections and military momentum of the rebels, Qaddafi would have been more likely to negotiate a reasonable exit. Instead he realized that he was in for he fight of his life and if he gave in his life would be over.

As a result of these mistakes, Libya is on its way to becoming what the Americans call (since Vietnam) a quagmire. If Qaddafi hangs on to the eastern part of the country the possibilities are (a) protracted civil war or (b) the partitioning of the country.  These are equally bad and unpalatable choices. Since there is something worth fighting for in Libya (like Sudan and unlike Yemen) there is always the possibility that some foreign partners will finance one side and others will back the other side and this could go on for a long time.

Also, early on, there was a very legitimate case to be made with reference to the shameful global inaction in Rwanda and the need to intervene before hundreds of thousands people were massacred. But if this intervention ends in another quagmire, next hot spot where a dictator decides to kill a few hundred thousand people will be met with hesitation and reticence.

That kind of change of meaning is also very significant in terms of long term consequences. If this operation looks less like a humanitarian intervention by a multi-cultural coalition and more like the West punishing a rogue developing country, in the future similar powers will think twice before cooperating with the West.

After all, Saddam and Qaddafi gave up their WMDs and within a few years they were both occupied and destroyed. Given this objective fact, how likely is it that Iran and North Korea will be agreeable to give up their arsenal if it looks like the West has an odd way of rewarding such gestures.

Next is the chess game in the Middle East and why.

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