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Is Libyan Democracy a Desert Mirage?

The failure of the west to provide military aerial support to the Libyan people will probably deprive them of a once in a lifetime opportunity to regain their freedom that was stolen from them by Colonel Qaddafi in 1969. ( If the Obama administration insists upon obtaining prior UN authorization to take military action the administration could at least institute the immediate strafing of the Qaddafi regime’s military positions to send a message to the dictatorship not to take further military action againist its people. The strafing option would at least provide urgent relief to the Libyan people and encourage the option of a negotiated political settlement). The reasons why the west must support the Libyan people are outlined in this article by Dr. David Bennett.

The current situation (March 2011) in Libya is appalling because the people of that nation will probably fail in their attempt to free themselves of the Gaddafi regime due to the refusal of the United States and the democracies of the European Union (EU) to provide air support to the rebels*. The mistakes that United States made in Iraq in 1991 have poignant resonance to the contemporary situation in Libya. Had the American led coalition provided air support to cross-communal opposition in early 1991 Iraq probably would have become a democracy in the 1990s. Iraqi exile opposition groups (including Iraqi monarchists) had managed to assemble an alternative provisional government in the Syrian capital, Damascus, in late 1990, to hold the country together until democratic elections were held.

(*The situation is now that bad due to west’s previous failure to provide military aerial support that aerial support for the rebels in holding Benghazi will be required instead of just establishing a no-fly zone).

Ironically the Iranian and Syrian regimes were probably half secretly relieved that the 1991 revolt was crushed by Saddam because as much as these two regimes loathed him they were still weary of Iraq becoming a democracy. Had the United States led coalition supported the Iraqi opposition in 1991 not only would the 2003 invasion have been averted but considerable good will toward America on the part of the Iraqi people would have been generated.

Support for Iraqi democracy was not a strategic calculation for the administration of George H Bush (1989-1993). The peace dividend from the American led liberation of Kuwait was that Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was virtually forced to attend the Madrid Conference of 1992 which paved the way for the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords on the White House Lawn in September 1993 that led to the creation of the Palestinian authority.

Arafat was compelled to take part in negotiations with Israel because American leverage was bolstered by the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. Arafat’s colossal ingratitude to the Kuwaitis by acquiescing to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 led to the Arab Gulf states threatening to cut off from the PLO unless it entered into American sponsored negotiations with Israel. The Arab Gulf states were prepared to support this peace process because they knew that without the American-led victory in Kuwait Saddam would have threatened the entire gulf region.

A future democratic Libya will substantially contribute to peace in the Middle East because democracies do not go to war against each other. Even in the very improbable event that democracy does not eventuate a post-Gaddafi Libya it is still unethical to allow the Libyan regime to massacre its people which it is already showing signs of preparing to do so.

It is ironic that a dictator such as Qaddafi who has preached anti-American revolutionary rhetoric is now confronted with a popular revolt by his own people that will probably be crushed due to American inaction. The last time the United States took military air action in Libya was in April 1986 when military targets were bombed. This military action was undertaken in response to the Qaddafi regime’s involvement in bombing in 1985 of a nightclub in Berlin patronized by American military service personnel.

Unfortunately civilians lost their lives as an unintended consequence of the 1986 American bombing of military targets in Libya. Now that Libyans are losing their lives in opposing Qaddafi the United States has a golden opportunity to show the Libyan people that America has never been against them but rather their dictatorship.

The 1986 bombing did have the effect of Qaddafi curtailing his support for international terrorism to the extent that until the February 2011 revolt his regime had found a surprising degree of international respectability. This was despite the fact that 270 people (flight passengers, crew and civilians in the Scottish village of Lockerbie) were killed after two Libyan secret service agents blew up Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988.

Given the foreign and domestic excesses of the Qaddafi regime most Libyans are now not anti-American. This is evidenced by people in Free Libya expressing their expectation (which is probably a forlorn hope) that the United States and EU nations, such as Britain and France, will provide military aerial support to the rebels. Indeed some Libyans are now fondly recalling the role of the Allies in liberating them from brutal Italian colonial rule in early 1943. It would be very tragic if the Libyan people become genuinely anti-American because the United States failed them in their time of need.

Furthermore, an American failure to support the Libyan people will also alienate many Egyptians (who should be voting in democratic elections in September this year) and people in Arab countries from the United States. Most Arabs believe that the United States is at best ambivalent about democracy in the Middle East because of a desire to secure a dependable supply of oil. However irrational this assumption may be it could ultimately be vindicated by subsequent American and European abandonment of the Libyan people.

The United States also has a moral obligation to support the Libyan people in 2011 because Washington had discreetly supported Qaddafi’s September 1969 military coup military coup against King Idris (1890-1983) while His Majesty was out of the country. This very unfortunate support for the 1969 coup was due to American alienation from King Idris because His Majesty had insisted that the United States eventually close its Wheelus Military Air Base. (The American mistake in supporting King Idris’s ouster in 1969 became apparent when Qaddafi abruptly closed down this air base in June 1970).

Contrary to popular Libyan opinion it was King Idris who had discreetly made prior arrangements with the Americans for them to close down their Wheelus Military Air Base. The pro-western king’s quiet insistence that the American remove their military presence was derived from His Majesty’s desire that Libya be free from all foreign forces which had been in the country since the Italian invasion of 1911.

If the Libyan people do ever regain their freedom they will hopefully favourably remember King Idris. During King Idris’s reign (1951 to 1969) the three historical regions of Libya, (Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan) were administratively united in 1963 thereby fostering needed national unity. In 1949 the future king (who was then the emir of Cyrenaica) helped thwart a proposed de facto 1949 Anglo-French-Italian division of Libya under the aegis of a ten year United Nations mandates for these three nations respectively ruling Libya’s three regions.

The most important legacy of King Idris’s reign was the utilization of revenue from the American lease of the American Wheelus Military Air Base in Libya to re-commence oil exploration in 1959. The subsequent discovery of oil led to Libya eventually becoming a wealthy nation. The king was careful to encourage foreign investment so that the oil extraction could be professionally undertaken. To ensure that no one region of Libya benefited from oil extraction at the expense of another (in stark contrast to the recent years of Qaddafi’s rule) King Idris instituted the previously mentioned local government reforms of 1963.

King Idris’s major abuse of power was that His Majesty banned political parties after the February 1952 parliamentary elections following Libyan independence in December 1951. The 1952 elections were won by royalist independents backed by the king’s Senussi religious brotherhood and Bedouin clans. The only remotely organised political party at this time was the Tripoli Congress Party which as its name suggested was based in the capital.

The Tripoli Congress was the major representative group for Tripolitania Province at the United Nations authorized May 1951 Conference held to establish an independent Libya. This conference was attended by an equal number of representatives from Libya’s three provinces. These delegates designated Emir Idris of Cyrenaica as king of a new united independent Libyan kingdom.

The delegates from Tripolitania supported Emir Idris as king of a united Libya to prevent a return of Italian rule in their province. Those delegates representing the Fezzan region at the 1951 Conference came predominately from Bedouin clans who were keen to end the French UN mandate of their province which had constituted a de facto attachment to French ruled Algeria.

The banning of the Tripoli Congress Party (which was affected by deporting its major leaders) helped ensure that parliament lacked the coherence to govern the country because of the absence of a party system. The frequency with which King Idris engineered changes in government also undermined the scope for Libya to develop a stable parliamentary system crucial to the operation of a democratic constitutional monarchy. Furthermore the king’s botched attempt to abdicate from abroad created the confusion that was crucial in allowing Qaddafi to seize power in 1969.

However King Idris’s achievements in gaining Libyan independence, forging national unity and his nation becoming an oil producing country by insisting that oil exploration be undertaken are accomplishments that can never be denied His Majesty. The king’s regime by comparative political standards (with the possible exception of Lebanon) then and after was probably the most democratic in the Arab world. Had the 1969 coup not occurred Libya might have become a fully democratic constitutional monarchy.

The Libyan royal family greatly suffered as a result of Qaddafi’s coup. The worst abuse that they endured was a mob ransacking their house in 1984 and forcing them to live on a rudimentary dwelling on a Tripoli beach. For reasons that are difficult to decipher (which is often the case with Colonel Qaddafi whose seemingly inexplicable actions always end up contributing to his holding onto power against the odds) the Libyan royal family was allowed to depart for Britain in 1988. In Europe the Libyan royal family has been accepted by the royal courts, such as King Juan Carlos’s of Spain.

The current royal claimant (since the death of Crown Prince Hasan in 1992) to the Libyan throne, Prince Muhammad Al- Senussi, has emphasised that his priority is to help Libya become a constitutional democracy. The role that Libyans are fulfilling in courageously rebelling against Qaddafi is inspiring and reflective that the Libyan people should never have been caricatured as uncritical supporters of their republican dictator who is as ruthless in eliminating Libyans at home as he was of Libyan exiles and of foreigners by supporting international terrorism.

The international respect that the Libyan royal family now has and the fact that they too have suffered as the Libyan people have will hopefully allow them to return to fulfil an important role in a post dictatorship Libya. Widespread usage of the pre-1969 flag during the 2011 revolt is a promising sign that the memory of King Idris and the Libyan royal family will be well regarded if they eventually return to live in Libya.

However the prospects of Libya again becoming free are near impossible unless there is prompt foreign military aerial support for the revolt. The Libyan people have never forgotten that Haiti’s unexpectant and defiantly courageous change of vote at the United Nations in 1949 provided the one vote margin necessary to defeat the Bevan-Sfroza Plan that would have thwarted Libyan unity and effectively perpetuated foreign rule.

Hopefully, if the Libyan people again become free, they will always remember that Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called for military aerial support to help them. France and Britain* are also distinguishing themselves by trying to gain international support for a no-fly zone. (A no-fly zone is probably now no longer viable due to international delay in helping the Libyan people. International military air action against Qaddafi’s ground forces is now needed if the situation is to be redeemed).

(*The British foreign office has traditionally being pro-Arab since Lawrence of Arabia helped lead an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War).

France’s action in diplomatically recognizing the Libyan transitional authority representing the Libyan people is reflective of the principled emphasis that the Sarkozy government has consistently placed in supporting human rights around the world. Indeed many Algerians still remember the courage with which President De Gaulle defied the military and the powerful nationalist right to grant Algerian independence in 1962.

Many Arabs were thankful to the United States (a notable exception was an ungrateful President Gamal Nasser of Egypt) for its refusal to support the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Egypt following Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The United States still maintained cordial relations with Israel despite Israeli participation in the abortive Anglo- French invasion of Egypt. The dividend of American support for Egypt in 1956 came in the 1970s when President Anwar Sadat effectively aligned his country with the United States to sign the Camp David Peace Accords of 1979 with Israel.

It remains an open question if the Libyan people will be thankful to the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ‘talked the talk’ about supporting the Libyan people but she is still to ‘walk the walk’ with regard to taking practical action. President Barak Obama is a brilliant rhetorician but there is a major gap between rhetoric and reality in regard to the president’s fine sounding words being followed up by military action that is supportive of the Libyan people.

Indeed it is better that the Obama administration refrain from the hypocrisy of fine sounding rhetoric concerning Libya if the administration has no real intention of providing military air support. For all the future verbal and written skill that will be displayed by senior officials of the Obama administration in excusing their abandonment of Libya the historical reality will not be negated in the future as a major American foreign policy failure in both moral and realpolitik contexts.

The Obama administration’s denunciation of Qaddafi and his family could conceal the administration’s underlying reluctance to provide military support. This is because verbal denunciations of the Libyan regime by foreign governments only disinclines Qaddafi and his family from departing into exile. Furthermore from Qaddafi’s perspective why should he go into exile if his regime is in a military position to prevail over the Libyan people?

With regard to the Qaddafi family it should be admitted that Qaddafi’s second son and probable heir, Saif Qaddafi is intelligent, if not brilliant. His first class political skill has been manifested by his previous success in helping Libya gain international respectability that was once thought to be impossible. In contrast to Hosni Muburak of Egypt’s son Gamal, there was a preparedness on the part of most Libyans to accept Saif as his father’s successor for an intermediary period because he was believed to be a political liberal.

When the revolt initially broke out in Libya in February 2011 it would have been smarter for Qaddafi to have made way for his son as his successor (‘Guide of the Revolution’). As his father’s successor Saif was well positioned to have called a political conference of political factions (including opponents of the regime) to establish a provisional government with a Qaddafi component within it. Saif could then have led a Qaddafist party in future elections and in doing so protected his family’s interests in a democratic Libya.

Instead Saif moved to secure his position as his father’s heir against rival siblings by denouncing the revolt in a televised national address. Saif’s rambling bellicose speech to the nation was virtually a dare to the Libyan people to rise up by warning them that the regime would wreak havoc if they did so. The Libyan people responded by rebelling because they had nothing to lose.

In the early stages of the revolt it seemed that the regime would fall. However Qaddafi shrewdly and brutally first focused on securing the capital Tripoli by using foreign mercenaries to subdue the capital. Having done so, the regime is now using better trained and armed troops to march out from the capital to crush the revolt against enthusiastic but mainly amateur volunteers. Tentatively (due to trepidation of provoking a foreign military response) the regime is now using air power to crush the revolt.

The Libyan military is not as strong as what Saddam’s military was in 1991 in Iraq but the underlying dynamic is still the same - an absence of foreign air power to allow a popular revolt to be crushed by a trained army. The only real difference with regard to Iraq in 1991 is that it will take longer for the Qaddafi regime to militarily prevail so that it will be more embarrassing for the international community to stand by as the revolt is crushed.

A strategy that is now probably being employed by foreign leaders is that of expressing verbal moral support for the rebels and making international military aerial support conditional on gaining international authorization from the United Nations and/or the Arab League. Diplomatic temporizing provides world leaders with the necessary alibi to excuse their failure to militarily assist the Libyan people.

Even though the Arab League has just called for a no-fly it has done so at a point when this option will probably not save the Libyan people. The current situation in Libya is similar to the situation in Iraq in 1991. In Iraq the first Bush administration enforced a no fly zone in Iraq in 1991 at the point when Saddam’s regime could crush the revolt in the Shiite areas of Iraq without resort to air power. The only beneficiaries of a no fly zone were the Kurds who were thankfully able to establish enclaves along the Turkish border which up until the 2003 American led invasion were a beacon of hope to Iraqi Arabs.

The current beacon of hope to Libyans is rebel held is the city of Benghazi. The residents of this city will undoubtedly put up a strong and bloody defence but it will be to no avail due to their lack of adequate weapons and air power. As the regime approaches Benghazi the international community will make give verbal indications of providing aerial military support but ultimately refrain from doing by invoking international wrangling as the pretext.

After the revolt is crushed, Saif, having secured his position as his father’s successor, will make conciliatory domestic and diplomatic gestures so that threatened international sanctions can be averted. The Qaddafi regime has probably already done exclusive deals with particular customers to access Libya’s oil wealth in the future. Such customers will in turn exercise their political and business leverage to ensure that threatened international sanctions against a Qaddafi ruled Libya never take effect.

The problem with a western betrayal of Libya is that there is going to be a wave of political liberalization in the Middle East. Ironically, anti-American sentiment will be manifested in democratic elections throughout the region if the Americans fail to support a people who have rebelled against a regime that has history of anti-Americanism !

If the United States wishes to secure its position in Libya it should support the Libyan people in establishing a democracy. Valuable steps that the United States could take to support a future Libyan democracy would include promptly linking up with the British and the French to provide the Libyan rebels with air support. The option of a no-fly zone has probably passed due to previous military in action by the international community.

If international aerial support is provided to support the people of Benghazi then the Qaddafi regime will be obliged to negotiate with the rebels to avoid a permanent division of Libya. Negotiations are a plausible option to create a viable interim government because most Libyans have a strong sense of national identity. However those now living in Free Libya do not want to national unity at the price of again being ruled by Qaddafi.

Saif Qaddafi can redeem himself by representing his father in negotiations at a political conference to form an interim government to rule a united Libya until national elections are held. There would probably have to be an international force deployed in Libya to enforce the authority of the interim government. Such an international should be composed of troops from the African Union (AU) and the Arab League but under a United Nations command to safeguard Libya’s territorial integrity. It would be imperative that no American or European nation participate in a multi-national force due to Libyan sensibilities regarding western colonialism that go back to the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911.

The viability of a Libyan interim government and the deployment of an international peace keeping force is now however dependent upon prompt military aerial support from the United States and EU nations. Too much time and too many Libyan lives have been lost due to the previous western refusal to provide military aerial support. A continued failure to do so (regardless of the articulate reasons that will be advanced) will be correctly regarded by most Arabs as a sign of western indifference if not western hostility to Middle East region becoming democratic.

Western nations are understandably reluctant to become embroiled in a possible Libyan quagmire due to events in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the crucial difference is that the political dynamics in Libya are conducive to an interim government without the involvement of western troops. All that is needed is for the back up of western aerial power and Arab League diplomatic involvement to form an interim Libyan government.

Eerily enough the situation in Libya is similar to Iraq in 1991 where had the people on the ground received western military aerial support an interim Iraqi democratically inclined government could have been formed. Although the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are now relieved that Saddam’s rule has ended there is probably still an understandable Iraqi reticence to feel full gratitude toward the United States due to the American failure to support them in 1991. Hopefully such a scenario will not be repeated in Libya.

Dr. David Bennett


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