Libya after Gadhafi

Now that Libya’s dictator, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, is being hunted down by his own people, he must be wondering what went wrong with his calibrated program to re-invent his regime’s image. In the last 10 years, Gadhafi went out of his way to befriend the West. He tried to impress upon the world that he was steering Libya in the direction of an open economy and a modern constitutional democracy.

After many years of denial and haughty indifference, he agreed to compensate the victims of a passenger plane that had been blown up by a Libyan agent. He welcomed back foreign investors into Libya’s lucrative oil and gas industry. He offered himself to America as a secular ally in this troubled region in the battle against Islamist terrorism. To an increasingly xenophobic Europe, he projected himself as a reliable gatekeeper who would help stem the flow of African migrants from across the Mediterranean.

He sent his favorite son, Saif al-Islam, to study at the London School of Economics to specialize in global governance and the role of civil society. He gave a generous donation to one of the school’s research centers. He invited his son’s professors, many of them venerable figures from British academia, to come to Tripoli to design a plan for Libya’s transition to a modern democratic polity. He commissioned a strategic consulting firm with close ties to Harvard to help conceptualize a role for civil society in global governance. He welcomed Europe’s visiting heads of state into the “new” Libya. The rhetoric of the recalcitrant ruler who delighted in playing godfather to revolutions in other places gave way to the measured pleasantries of a global social climber who pined to be accepted by the West.

Through all these, Gadhafi sought to project the portrait of a statesman keenly attuned to the political needs of world society. This was the reverse of the image he had earned for himself in a previous incarnation—as the eccentric leader of a rich rogue state that used its vast oil wealth to fund various wars of liberation abroad.

Since he had ruled Libya unchallenged for nearly 42 years, Gadhafi might have thought, in his deluded moments, that earning respectability in the modern world would be as easy as buying the services of mercenaries. But, he would have known that the Western powers were never interested in his political vision, whatever that might have been at any given moment, but only in his country’s oil resources.

Foreign investors took what they were offered in the early stage of this rapprochement, but their eyes were riveted on the entire wealth they could seize for themselves at the right time. The awaited moment came with the onset of the Arab Spring, when young people, from North Africa to the Middle East, began to use their mobile phones and computers as weapons in their struggle to gain a voice in the running of their societies. One after the other, people power uprisings exploded in the public squares of the region. Where the army stood by and hesitated to act against the unarmed crowds, as in Egypt, the fall of the government did not take very long. Tunisia quickly followed. Then the conflagration spread to Morocco, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Gadhafi’s army in Libya, consisting mainly of members of his tribe, stood by him. But his government was drained by the defection of his top officials to the rebels who had captured the major city of Benghazi in the eastern part of the country. Poorly armed and loosely organized, the rebels retreated when Gadhafi mounted his murderous campaign against all Libyans who dared to oppose him. On the initiative of the United States, the United Nations issued a mandate to stop him from slaughtering his own people. The US led the first strikes to enforce a no-fly zone and to immobilize Gadhafi’s killing machine. Then it handed over to Nato the humanitarian task of protecting civilians.

The Western powers’ liberal interpretation of this mandate has been astounding. They took it as a license to bomb the Gadhafi regime out of existence. What the Libyan rebels on the ground lacked in weaponry and fighting skills, Nato more than made up for by launching air strikes aimed at decapitating the Gadhafi regime. Soon the air strikes were targeting places where the dictator and his family were known to be staying.

By any reckoning, this has become a war of aggression against the government of a sovereign nation, using as cover the humanitarian concern to protect the lives of civilians in a society torn by civil war. What we have seen in Libya in the past five months revises everything we have been taught about the proper conduct of relations among nations. That Gadhafi has been a bad leader and deserves to be overthrown does not justify this revisionism. That we can identify with the aspirations of Libyans to free their country from tyranny does not make this form of foreign intervention right.

Someone said that if broccoli, instead of oil, had been Libya’s main product, it is doubtful if Europe and America would have bothered to carry out even a tiny fraction of the 7,459 bombing attacks they have launched in the name of the Libyan people. In the coming months, the costs of this foreign meddling may become clear as the country resumes its production and export of oil under new management. Right after the 1969 revolution, Gadhafi put Libya’s oil fields under national control. He drove away the British and American bases from his country. One wonders how much of that revolution’s anti-colonial legacy will be preserved after Gadhafi.

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