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History of US-Libya Relations Indicates US Must Tread Carefully as Uprising Continues

A Libyan man at the looted al La Braq airport steps on the broken portrait of Col. Muammar Gadhafi in an act of disrespect on February 23, 2011. (Photo: Scott Nelson / The New York Times) Since the 1969 coup that overthrew the unpopular pro-Western monarchy of King Idris, Libya has been ruled by Col. Muammar Gaddafi (also spelled Qaddafi, Gadhafi, Khaddafi and other transliterations). Though long considered emotionally unstable, he was also considered politically stable, destined to maintain his iron grip on the country until he died a natural death. Now, even as he unleashes extreme and sometimes lethal violence against the growing pro-democracy uprising, his own days may be numbered.

Since the 1969 coup that overthrew the unpopular pro-Western monarchy of King Idris, Libya has been ruled by Col. Muammar Gaddafi (also spelled Qaddafi, Gadhafi, Khaddafi and other transliterations). Though long considered emotionally unstable, he was also considered politically stable, destined to maintain his iron grip on the country until he died a natural death. Now, even as he unleashes extreme and sometimes lethal violence against the growing pro-democracy uprising, his own days may be numbered.

Given this history, it is important that – despite the ongoing atrocities- the United States and other Western nations resist the temptation to intervene in ways that could provoke a nationalist reaction that could play into Gaddafi’s hands. It is no accident that Gaddafi chose as the backdrop to his bizarre and frighteningly belligerent speech on February 22 a building in Tripoli destroyed in the 1986 US bombing.

And this history of US intervention in Libya pre-dates the Gaddafi era – by 130 years, under President Thomas Jefferson who sent Lt. Stephen Decatur to attack the base of the Barbary Pirates, later referenced in the opening line of the Marine Hymn “… to the shores of Tripoli.”

As outlined below, the uprising comes despite decades of US hostility toward Gaddafi, which paradoxically strengthened the regime and arguably contributed to its longevity. It also comes despite the fact that, compared with the recent successful civil insurrections against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the challenges faced by the pro-democracy forces in Libya have been far greater.

Libya’s Unlikely Revolt

Under the recently overthrown dictators, the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes routinely rigged elections and marginalized opposition parties, but at least those parties existed. Not in Libya. Egypt and Tunisia had trade unions, popular organizations and active civil society groups whose activities were severely restricted and, at times, brutally suppressed, but at least they existed. Again, not in Libya. Furthermore, regional and tribal identity has always been much stronger in Libya than in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s situation is also distinct because, while urban areas have been the base of most of Egypt and Tunisia’s modern political leaders and movements – including the recent uprisings (and most pro-democracy civil insurrections in the world in recent decades) – rural forces have historically dominated politics in Libya.

Libya is an artificial creation consisting of what were three distinct regions – Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan – pulled together by the United Nations following the end of World War II and the defeat of fascist Italy, the colonial power. It is probably no coincidence that the city of Benghazi, located in the east, has been the center of the resistance to Gaddafi, who comes from the western part of the country. However, dramatic urbanization of Libyan society over the past half century and the resulting intermingling and intermarriage has substantially reduced regionalism and all indications are that the resistance is – like in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere – a genuine pro-democracy movement with strong support throughout the country.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the ongoing revolt in Libya and the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is the level of violence inflicted by the regime against the pro-democracy movement. As of this writing, more than one thousand Libyans – virtually all supporters of the pro-democracy struggle – have been killed, and the death toll will likely rise considerably before it is over. Part of the reason, of course, can be attributed to the ruthlessness of Gaddafi himself. There is little question, however, that the recently deposed dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak would have been equally willing to use such force to stay in power. Indeed, more than 300 Egyptian protesters and 200 Tunisians were killed in their respective pro-democracy revolutions. One reason there wasn’t greater bloodshed in those uprisings was that the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries were dependent on Western democracies (primarily France and the US, respectively) for security assistance and other strategic cooperation. Public opinion in Europe and North America would have demanded cutting such ties in the event of large-scale massacres, and many in the military leadership were unwilling to lose that relationship. Similarly, influential sectors of the government, intelligentsia and business class did not want to risk international isolation. By contrast, the Libyan elites have been largely isolated in the international community for most of Gaddafi’s reign, so they have little to lose.

Another reason for the high level of violence has to do with the nature of the resistance.

The resistance movements in Tunisia and Egypt, despite the absence of strong leadership, did engage in tactical coordination and at least some strategic thinking in their successful uprisings against their respective dictators, including a clear commitment to nonviolence. There was some rioting by a minority of protesters in the early phases of the uprisings (and the small minority of protesters who did riot constituted the majority of people killed), but – more significantly – there were virtually no shootings or other lethal attacks by pro-democracy elements against regime supporters, despite violence inflicted against them by security forces. By contrast, the protests in Libya have largely been spontaneous and – while the protesters have been primarily nonviolent and overwhelmingly unarmed – there have also been pitched battles between pro-government forces and civilians who have armed themselves with captured weapons, supported by members of the police and military who have joined the resistance.

Despite all this, Gaddafi’s regime appears to be crumbling. Virtually all of the cities in the eastern half of the country and a number of cities elsewhere have been liberated by pro-democracy forces. There have been defections of cabinet members, ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers. Pilots have deliberately crashed their planes, flown into exile or otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers have defected or refused to fire on crowds, forcing Gaddafi to rely on African mercenaries, which has only further angered the population against a dictator willing to bring in foreigners to murder his own citizens.

The biggest question, then, is not whether Gaddafi will be ousted, but how many of his fellow Libyans he is willing to bring down with him.

Gaddafi Versus the United States

Upon seizing power nearly 42 years ago, Gaddafi nationalized Libya’s foreign-controlled oil industry and ordered the closure of the Wheelus Air Base, one of the largest US facilities in the world. Despite this antagonism, Gaddafi’s anti-Communism allowed for some initial, cautious optimism from the United States about the new regime, but diplomatic relations were downgraded in 1973 and were formally broken eight years later.

Under Gaddafi’s rule, Libya made impressive, if uneven, gains in health care, education, housing, the rights of women and basic social services. His brand of Islamic socialism, combined with the country’s relatively small population and large oil reserves, made Libya one of the more prosperous and egalitarian societies in the Middle East, even though the promise generally outpaced actual performance. Though he was a classic strongman in one sense, Gaddafi also allowed for a relatively decentralized political system which allowed for direct democracy and popular participation in some limited political spheres.

However, political repression has always been widespread. As with the monarchy that preceded it, Libyan law has prohibited the formation of political parties and criticism of the political system. The regime prevented the establishment of independent human rights organizations or nongovernmental organizations of any kind, and the press was strictly controlled by the government. For most of Gaddafi’s rule, there were hundreds of political prisoners, and torture in detention has been common. Outspoken opponents of the government were murdered both at home and abroad.

Given that the US has long supported similarly repressive regimes in the Middle East, such repression was never a major concern of the eight US administrations that have governed since Gaddafi seized power. More problematic for the United States was Gaddafi’s outspoken advocacy of radical Arab and other “third world” causes and his support for extremist movements abroad, including terrorist groups, some of which were responsible for the deaths of American citizens.

During the early 1980’s, there was a series of military clashes between the United States and Libya, during which Libya attacked US navy ships and US forces destroyed Libyan military ships and aircraft and bombed coastal military installations. The Reagan administration supported a wide range of covert activities targeting Libya, including disinformation campaigns, propaganda, sabotage and support for opposition groups. The US also provided logistical support for French military operations against Libyan forces in the disputed Ouzou Strip region of northern Chad. The US goaded Mubarak, seen as a friendlier dictator, to confront Libya, resulting in a series of clashes along the Egyptian-Libyan border.

In 1982, the United States initiated a series of sanctions against Libya, including an embargo on Libyan oil and a new requirement for export licenses for most American goods. Comprehensive sanctions were imposed in 1986, including a freeze of Libyan assets and a ban of all trade and financial dealings with the country. These sanctions – which were not lifted until 2004 – also forbade Americans, including journalists and academics, from traveling to Libya without permission from the US government. (One reason for the conflicting analyses of the ongoing struggle is that, due to nearly a quarter century during which Americans were effectively prevented from even visiting Libya, there is a dearth of US scholars and journalists familiar with the country.)

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the US government issued a series of reports, widely circulated in the media, designed to discredit and demonize the Libyan government. These reports included charges of a Libyan hit squad targeting American officials, of coup attempts against Gaddafi and of the presence of a large underground chemical weapons factory. Subsequent investigations found all of these reports were false.

Indeed, prior to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi was the Middle Eastern leader Americans most loved to hate. Reagan, for example, referred to him as the “mad dog of the Middle East.” Demonizing the eccentric Gaddafi, with his penchant for harsh and provocative rhetoric, proved useful for bolstering the domestic standing of successive US presidents and in feeding the sense of self-righteousness Americans feel for the US’s role in the world, but that same demonization may have also strengthened the Libyan dictator. Since, at that time, US-backed terrorists in Central America were killing far more civilians than were Libyan-backed terrorists, and the United States was supporting repressive Central American dictators with even worse human rights records than Gaddafi’s, there were also serious questions as to whether the United States had any moral standing in its crusade against the Libyan dictator. In certain respects, these hyperbolic and hypocritical attacks on Gaddafi created a kind of “crying wolf” effect, making it easier for some critics of US imperialism to downplay his repression, foreign intervention, support for terrorism and general thuggery.

In April 1986, following a terrorist bombing in Berlin that killed an American serviceman, the United States bombed Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s two largest cities, killing up to two dozen civilians, including Gaddafi’s daughter. The attack was widely condemned as a violation of international law, which recognizes the legitimacy of the use of military force only in self-defense from an armed attack, not for retaliation. The civilian casualties from the air strikes and the serious damage caused to the French embassy and other diplomatic facilities provoked outrage throughout the world and bolstered Gaddafi’s standing both at home and abroad.

The US justified the air strikes on the grounds that it would prevent future Libyan sponsored terrorism. Instead, it had the opposite effect: two years later, in retaliation for the bombing, Libyan agents blew up a US airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

When Gaddafi refused to hand over for trial in Britain two Libyan agents indicted for the terrorist attack, the United States successfully pushed the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions against Libya to force the government to hand over the suspects, an unprecedented action for a extradition dispute. (Ironically, during this period, and to this day, the United States has refused to extradite a number of right-wing Cuban exiles indicted on terrorist charges in several Latin American countries, including those responsible for blowing up an airliner.) These international sanctions prohibited the export of petroleum, military or aviation equipment to Libya, banned commercial flights to or from Libya, limited Libyan diplomatic representation abroad and placed restrictions on certain Libyan financial activities. When Libya eventually turned over the suspects for trial in 1999, UN sanctions against the country were suspended, though US sanctions remained in place for another five years.

In 2003, following prolonged negotiations with the United States and Great Britain, Libya announced that it was giving up its nascent biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs and accepting international assistance and verification of its disarmament efforts. In return, the United States ended its sanctions and restored diplomatic relations the following year. The successful elimination of the threat of Libyan weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should have been recognized as a triumph of patient diplomacy. However, in June 2004, a large bipartisan majority in the US House of Representatives passed a resolution claiming that the elimination of Libya’s nuclear program “would not have been possible if not for … the liberation of Iraq by United States and Coalition Forces.” In reality, chief US negotiator, Flynt Leverett, writing in The New York Times, noted that Libya had approached the United States about eliminating its WMD programs well prior to the invasion of Iraq and the negotiations were successful because incentives, rather than just threats, were used for this successful nonproliferation effort. Indeed, given that Iraq had disarmed and was invaded anyway, the Iraq war could hardly be seen as an incentive for Libya to give up a potential deterrent.

What Now?

Even prior to the protests that were launched a few weeks ago following the Tunisian uprising, there were signs that Gaddafi’s rule was beginning to slip.

Gaddafi’s leadership style has always been repressive, impulsive, unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary. Yet his nationalism, anti-imperialism and professed socialism led many educated Libyans who formed the backbone of the government to stay loyal despite their misgivings, in large part in reaction to what was seen as the punitive and hypocritical sanctions imposed by Western nations and the constant threat of renewed US air and missile strikes against the country. It was only when the sanctions and threats of war subsided that there began to be a dramatic increase in resignations and self-imposed exile by prominent Libyans who had been members and supporters of the government. In short, the US-led efforts to isolate, punish and threaten the regime likely contributed to Gaddafi’s longevity as dictator. Once relations were normalized and the isolation and threats subsided, Gaddafi was seen less as the strong leader defending his nation against Western imperialism and more as the mercurial and brutal tyrant that he is.

Given this history, it is important that – despite the ongoing atrocities – the United States and other Western nations resist the temptation to intervene in ways that could provoke a nationalist reaction that could play into Gaddafi’s hands. It is no accident that Gaddafi chose, as the backdrop to his bizarre and frighteningly belligerent speech on February 22, a building in Tripoli destroyed in the 1986 US bombing.

The crimes committed over the years by Gaddafi’s Libya, while frequently exaggerated and not always unique, were and are still very real. Similarly, the double standards used to rationalize foreign policy are certainly not an unusual phenomenon in US diplomatic history, or in the foreign policies of any great power. Indeed, in recent decades, the United States has ignored killings of many thousands of unarmed opponents by such allied regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Indonesia and Iraq, among others. Libya’s most serious offenses, in the eyes of US policymakers, have not been in the areas of human rights, terrorism, nuclear ambitions, subversion or conquest, but in daring to challenge American hegemony in the Middle East. Serving as an impediment to such American ambitions gives these regimes credibility and legitimacy they would not otherwise receive from large numbers of Middle Eastern peoples resentful of such foreign domination, thereby strengthening these regimes’ rule at home, as well as their influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

It is therefore important for the United States – as long as it continues to back other autocratic regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and other countries currently suppressing pro-democracy activists – to avoid appearing too sanctimonious in its denunciation of the Libyan regime and its support for the uprising. Some humanitarian and carefully targeted capacity-building assistance could be appropriate if done in conjunction with a broad consensus of the international community and with close consultation with pro-democracy forces. However, given the history of the United States in relations to Gaddafi’s Libya, the best thing the United States could do to support the pro-democracy movement is to avoid any unilateral actions that a dangerous and unstable dictator could use to his advantage.

Gaddafi joined the Libyan armed forces as a young man, not because of an interest in a military career per se, but because he wanted to become the country’s ruler. In the Middle East in those days, if you weren’t part of a royal family, the key to political power was through the military. What Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated, however, is that political power ultimately comes from the acquiescence of the people. And if people no longer recognize their leader’s authority and refuse to obey their leader’s orders, that person will no longer be the leader. This is the kind of power the United States and other Western nations must recognize. For democracy to come to the Middle East, it must come from the people themselves.

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