Libya: When is regime change not regime change?


In a written answer in Dáil Éireann on 14 April 2011, Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, said:


“Calling for Colonel Gaddafi to relinquish power does not amount to actively seeking regime change” [1]


That remark is beyond parody.  If the Qadhafi regime is no longer in power in Libya, the regime will have changed.  So when, earlier in his answer, he said that “Colonel Qadhafi and his family should surrender power and leave the political stage in order to allow the Libyan people to peacefully determine their future”, he was seeking regime change – and arrogantly deciding on the Libyan people’s behalf that their future must exclude Colonel Qadhafi and his family.


Libyan Foreign Minister, Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, was quoted in the Guardian on 20 April 2011 as saying:


"The US, Britain and France – sometimes those countries contradict themselves. They talk about democracy, but when it comes to Libya, they say he [Qadhafi] should leave. It should be up to the Libyan people. This should not be dictated from any other head of state. It is against the principle of democracy." [2]


Minister al-Obeidi should add Ireland to his list of countries that contradict themselves.


(Gilmore was replying to an interesting question from Fine Gael Deputy, Eoghan Murphy, who asked for “details of all those Heads of State outside of the European Union that the European Council has formally called on to step down”.  Currently, it seems that Colonel Qadhafi is the only one that the EU has called on to step down.)


Who do they think they’re kidding?

In their letter to various papers on 14 April, Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy were also reluctant to use the phrase “regime change”, while saying they wanted regime change.  They wrote:


“Our duty and our mandate under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians, and we are doing that. It is not to remove Qaddafi by force.  But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power.” [3]


Who do they think they’re kidding?  Of course, they are trying to “remove Qaddafi by force”.


They have been attempting to destroy as much of Qadhafi’s armed forces as possible; they have been giving air support to the armed rebellion against his regime; they have admitted to supplying non-lethal equipment and training to the rebel forces (they haven’t so far admitted to supplying arms); they have now got boots on the ground, albeit in limited numbers.


One could be forgiven for thinking that they want the rebellion to succeed in overthrowing the Qadhafi regime by force with their help.


NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, once foolishly took the provisions of Resolution 1973 about protecting civilians literally and suggested that NATO would be prepared to bomb rebel forces, if they were threatening civilians.  That was the wrong message.  He said it only once.


What is authorised in Resolution 1973?

There has been a lot of media chatter about what actions by NATO are authorised under Resolution 1973.  Arming the rebels?  Providing forward air controllers to the rebels to identify targets for NATO bombers?  Training the rebels?  Putting foreign troops on the grounds?  Targeting Qadhafi?  Academic lawyers and politicians have given their various opinions ad nauseam.


But, the truth is that if you are a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, as the US, UK and France all are, you can make a Security Council resolution mean what you want it to mean, because, even if you stretch its meaning way beyond credibility, you are immune from sanction by the Security Council for doing so – since you have a veto.


Remember, the US/UK claimed Security Council authority for invading Iraq in March 2003 in Resolution 678 passed in November 1990 for the very different purpose of expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait.


Of course, there may be a more general political price to pay in claiming authority way beyond the obvious meaning of a resolution.  Perhaps, Russia and China, who allowed 1973 to pass by abstaining in the Security Council, will be less inclined to sit on their hands in future.  But, it is absurd for them to be complaining, as they have been doing, that US, UK and France have been acting beyond the terms of the resolution.  It’s even more absurd for South Africa, which voted for 1973, to be complaining.   The US, UK and France were always going to interpret the resolution as authorising whatever they think is necessary for the rebellion to succeed in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime.



Up to now, they have been pinning their hopes on destroying Gaddafi’s forces from the air and giving air support to the rebel forces in the Benghazi area as a means of achieving regime change.  However, the rebel forces don’t show much sign of becoming effective.


The US, UK and France seem to be strangely reluctant to arm them, even though the arms embargo imposed by Resolution 1970 was specifically cancelled in Resolution 1973 in the context of taking action to protect civilians.  Could it be that they are worried that arms they supply might eventually fall into the wrong hands?


At the time of writing (24 April 2011) a military stalemate exists.  The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has admitted as much.  The best way to protect civilians and minimise civilian casualties is to have a ceasefire, as soon as possible, and to take up offers of mediation from, for example, Turkey, which has offered to mediate from the outset. 


But that is intolerable to the US, the UK and France, because that would leave Qadhafi in power.  So, the likelihood is they will continue to bolster the rebels, and turn civil unrest into civil war.  Whether they eventually succeed in making the rebel army into something that with close air support from NATO can take control of more territory from Qadhafi remains to be seen.  What is certain is that a lot of civilians will die in the process.


The overthrow of Gadaffi may require substantial numbers of NATO troops on the ground, something which the US, the UK and France are reluctant to do, because they don’t want to become embroiled in another country after their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That, rather than Resolution 1973’s ban ona foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”, is what is deterring them.  If necessary, NATO troops could be portrayed as “a liberation force”, as journalists have already been speculating.


So, the likelihood is that bolstering the rebels will continue for the foreseeable future.


Was a massacre imminent?

The US, UK and France constantly justify their intervention in Libya on the grounds that it has saved many, many lives, especially in Benghazi.


In his weekly address to the American people on 26 March 2011, President Obama told them that Qadhafi was threatening a “bloodbath”.  But he reassured them:


“We’re succeeding in our mission.  We’ve taken out Libya’s air defenses.  Qaddafi’s forces are no longer advancing across Libya.  In places like Benghazi, a city of some 700,000 that Qaddafi threatened to show ‘no mercy’, his forces have been pushed back.  So make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians—innocent men, women and children—have been saved.” [4]


Two days later, he asserted:


"We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte (NC) — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” [5]


That implies that, without NATO intervention, Gadhafi might have killed nearly 700,000 people.


The view that a massacre was imminent in Benghazi is based on a speech made by Qadhafi on 17 March 2011, in which he threatened "no mercy" for his enemies.


He did say: "We will have no mercy on them".  But by "them" he clearly meant armed rebels, who stand and fight, not all the city’s inhabitants.


He also said: "We have left the way open to them.  Escape. Let those who escape go forever” and that "whoever hands over his weapons, stays at home without any weapons, whatever he did previously, he will be pardoned, protected”.


But the best evidence that Qadhafi was not planning a massacre in Benghazi was that he didn’t perpetrate a massacre in the other cities his forces recaptured, either fully or partially, including Zawiya, Misurata, and Ajdabiya.  There is no doubt that considerable numbers of civilians have been killed in the process, but it cannot be said that massacres have occurred.


The above is based on Did Obama avert a bloodbath in Libya? by Chicago Tribune columnist, Steve Chapman, published on 3 April 2011 [6].  He says that he


“emailed the White House press office several times asking for concrete evidence of the danger, based on any information the administration may have, but a spokesman declined to comment”. 


He comments:


“That's a surprising omission, given that a looming holocaust was the centerpiece of the president's case for war. Absent specific, reliable evidence, we have to wonder if the president succumbed to unwarranted panic over fictitious dangers.”


Strangely, in their letter on 14 April, Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy didn’t claim to have saved any lives at all, merely, that “tens of thousands of lives have been protected” by their action.


What did the Arab League request?

The powers that are bombing Libya boast that they have the support of the Arab world for doing so.  Didn’t the Arab League request intervention at its meeting in Cairo on 12 March 2011, which the Security Council endorsed by passing Resolution 1973 a few days later?


Leaving aside the fact that the leaders of the 22 states that make up the Arab League are mostly unelected despots, what did the Arab League actually decide at this meeting?  According to the Al-Jazeera video report on the meeting (Arab League seeks Libya no-fly zone, 12 March 2011 [7]), the League took two more or less contradictory decisions:


“Behind the scenes there were heated discussions resulting in two almost contradictory resolutions – there should be no foreign interference but at the same time the League wants the UN to set up a No Fly Zone.”


Of course, resolution 1973 goes much further than the imposition of a No Fly Zone, authorising virtually unlimited foreign interference, short of foreign military occupation, ostensibly to protect civilians in Libya.  So, the Arab League didn’t request all the provisions of Resolution 1973, merely, the imposition a No Fly Zone. 


There is no doubt that, without this request from the Arab League, Resolution 1973 would never have been passed by the Security Council.  With it, the resolution only got 10 votes, with 5 abstentions – the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) plus Germany.   Without it, the resolution would probably have failed to get the 9 votes necessary to pass. 


The US-Saudi deal on Libya

The states in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) – Saudia Arabia plus the Gulf sheikdoms of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), all absolute monarchies – took the lead in pressing for action by the Arab League against Libya.  This was driven in part by a visceral hatred between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Qadhafi.


After a meeting in Riyadh on 10 March 2011, GCC foreign ministers called upon the Arab League to take measures to stop the bloodshed in Libya and to initiate contacts with the National Council formed by the Libyan opposition (see Asia Times, 19 March 2011, [8]).  Hamad bin Jasem bin Jaber Al Thani, the Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, said:


“When it comes to Libya I think the regime has lost its legitimacy.  We support the no-fly zone. We also support contact with the National Council in Libya. It is time to discuss the situation with them and the Security Council should shoulder its responsibility.” (ibid)


Why have the GCC states adopted this stance so enthusiastically?  Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, believes he knows the answer.  He wrote on 14 March 2011:


A senior diplomat in a western mission to the UN in New York, who I have known over ten years and trust, has told me for sure that Hillary Clinton agreed to the cross-border use of troops to crush democracy in the Gulf, as a quid pro quo for the Arab League calling for Western intervention in Libya.” [9]


This has been confirmed elsewhere (see, for example, Exposed: The US-Saudi Libya deal by Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, 2 April 2011 [10]).


So, it appears that GCC support for Western intervention ostensibly to bring “freedom and democracy” to Libya was a result of a deal, under which the US cynically endorsed the use of Saudi forces to suppress the democracy movement in Bahrain and, if necessary, in other Gulf states.


Another point: the Arab League’s endorsement of a No Fly Zone was far from wholehearted [10].  Of the 22 full members, only 9 voted for it.  6 of these, including Saudi Arabia, were GCC members, whose votes had been bought by the US.  Two others, Syria and Algeria, were opposed, on the grounds that it amounted to “foreign interference”.  This opposition seems to have been the reason why a resolution opposing “foreign interference” was also passed.


A few days later the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 and “foreign interference” began in Libya.


Nasrallah speaks

The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, is one of the few Arab leaders, who has warned of the dangers of this “foreign interference” in the Arab world, even though he supports the anti-Qadhafi forces in Libya. 


(There has been a longstanding antagonism between Hezbollah and the Qadhafi regime, the origin of which lies in the disappearance of leading Lebanese Shiite cleric, Imam Musa Sadr, and two companions on a visit to Libya in 1978 at the invitation of the Qadhafi regime.  This may account for Hezbollah’s support for Qadhafi’s Libyan opponents today.)


Addressing a rally in Beirut on 22 April 2011 in solidarity with the revolts in the Arab world, including in Libya, his message was that the failure of Arab leaders to take responsibility for what’s happening in the Arab world had “opened the way for a Western intervention in Libya” [11].  He continued:


“This opens the way for foreign interference in every Arab country, bringing us back to the days of occupation, colonisation and partition. … The rebels need to be aware that international intervention could embroil Libya in the great game of nations.”


Happily, further Western military intervention is unlikely.  Libya was a special case.  Its leader is roundly disliked by other Arab leaders, especially the House of Saud.  Without that, the Arab League would not have requested a No Fly Zone.  Without that, Security Council Resolution would not have been passed.  Without that, there would have been no military intervention.


In discussions in the Security Council about events in Syria, both Russia and China have made clear their opposition to military intervention.



David Morrison

April 2011