Dreamy visions of Gaddafi at the London Review of Books


Hugh Roberts has a nearly 13,000-word essay about Libya in the London Review of Books but the best six words are the title: “Who said Gaddafi had to go?”  Though generally a war skeptic, I supported the NATO intervention to aid the rebels — for the reasons I laid out here — but nevertheless regard this is as a good and legitimate question; alas, it deserves a better and more compelling answer than Roberts provides.  His essay begins like a spinning top that wobbles slightly and then, suddenly, spins off wildly into some other orbit entirely.  In the end, Roberts lambasts NATO for not giving negotiation more time to work before resorting to force and makes much of the fact that Gaddafi himself agreed to talks; yet, at no point in his long essay does Roberts provide reason to believe Gaddafi would ever have agreed to resign, which meant a ceasefire and negotiation were mere stalling tactics to allow the Gaddafi regime to regroup and bring its far superior resources and materiel to bear on crushing the rebels.  All the parties understood this: that’s why the rebels rejected a ceasefire, even though they were the weaker party, and that (surely) is why Gaddafi accepted it.

But, to the beginning.  The essay opens by asking what Libya got in exchange for the destruction caused by its revolution.  Then the wobble: instead of addressing that, Roberts immediately positions Libya within a wide range of nefarious Western interventions as if they were all of a piece.

Presented by the National Transitional Council (NTC) and cheered on by the Western media as an integral part of the Arab Spring, and thus supposedly of a kind with the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan drama is rather an addition to the list of Western or Western-backed wars against hostile, ‘defiant’, insufficiently ‘compliant’, or ‘rogue’ regimes: Afghanistan I (v. the Communist regime, 1979-92), Iraq I (1990-91), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (over Kosovo, 1999), Afghanistan II (v. the Taliban regime, 2001) and Iraq II (2003), to which we might, with qualifications, add the military interventions in Panama (1989-90), Sierra Leone (2000) and the Ivory Coast (2011). An older series of events we might bear in mind includes the Bay of Pigs (1961), the intervention by Western mercenaries in the Congo (1964), the British-assisted palace coup in Oman in 1970 and – last but not least – three abortive plots, farmed out to David Stirling and sundry other mercenaries under the initially benevolent eye of Western intelligence services, to overthrow the Gaddafi regime between 1971 and 1973 in an episode known as the Hilton Assignment.

But one can imagine any number of criteria that differentiate these interventions; not least, relatively few of them were preceded by large-scale public revolts against the regime, as occurred in Libya.  This is the essential point, not to be missed: as I argued in a piece in mid-March called “Libya and the end of the neo-colonial argument,” in a country without free speech or fair elections, large-scale public revolt (made at great risk) is often the only quasi-democratic declaration possible and seems to me a necessary precondition for any foreign intervention to be regarded as legitimate.  I recognize that this is a standard ripe for abuse — how many people do you need to constitute a public revolt and how do you know who sent them to do it — and Roberts expends a great many words making a specious argument about who counts as ‘the Libyan people.’  But the difficulty of making this judgment is a reason to regard each claim of just cause skeptically rather than to conclude there are no just causes. To conflate, as Roberts does, Libya earlier this year or the Shi’a uprising in Iraq in 1991 with the Panama or Iraq invasions or freelance mercenary activity is to make an argument so ludicrous that it suggests dishonest intent.

But it is in the next few paragraphs that the wobble begins to pitch badly to one side. Roberts departs from the issue of whether Western intervention was legitimate to take a swipe at the Libyan rebels for their supposedly Islamist — and thus, one is to understand, inherently suspect — character:

[T]he Libyans who took up arms against Gaddafi’s Jamahiriyya have sedulously avoided this [Islamist] label, at least when near Western microphones…But it has become impossible to ignore the fact that the rebellion has mobilised Islamists and acquired an Islamicist tinge.

That “at least when near Western microphones” is the first sign of the sort of snide, undocumented insinuations that will pile up in this essay, biasing the reader without adding clarity to the argument.  In fact, though, Roberts is going to try to prove that the intervention was wrong, not that it was unwise, so this Islamist issue is something of a red herring.

Roberts then compares the Libyan uprising (unfavorably) to those elsewhere in the region, saying:

The Libyan uprising diverged from the Tunisian and Egyptian templates in two ways: the rapidity with which it took on a violent aspect – the destruction of state buildings and xenophobic attacks on Egyptians, Serbs, Koreans and, above all, black Africans; and the extent to which, brandishing the old Libyan flag of the 1951-69 era, the protesters identified their cause with the monarchy Gaddafi & Co overthrew.

The second of those is easiest to dispense with: Libya received (nominal) independence in 1951 and since that time has had only two leaders and two flags; they were not about to fly Gaddafi’s flag, so they reverted to the monarchy’s flag by default.  No great meaning should attach to this: if there was a single Libyan rebel fighting for the actual restoration of the monarchy, I did not hear his call.  But the rebellion began in Cyrenaica, in the east, which had been the monarchy’s base, so there was undoubtedly an element of flying the flag to undo what they saw as western Libya’s usurpation of eastern privilege.

But it is the first of those assertions, regarding the use of violence, that reveals what will become the thrust of the rest of Roberts’s essay and its unexpected, other-planet conclusion.  His contention is that it was the rebels who resorted to violence and that this shows they were not ‘peaceful protestors’ like those in Egypt and Tunisia.  There is no denying that the Libyan revolution was far bloodier, but most neutral observers recognize that this was a consequence of Gaddafi’s willingness to deploy far greater violence than either Ben Ali or Mubarak and his use of foreigners (including this Croat mercenary) to prop up his regime.  It was Gaddafi who declared war, vowing to fight ‘to the last drop of blood’ and to ‘purify the country inch by inch, house by house,’ as he put it in a speech on 22 February:

Roberts has great fun casting doubt on the rumor that circulated briefly that Gaddafi was using fighter jets against civilians, as if this were the only known instance of his willingness to use overwhelming force against his citizens.  He also savages the notion that Gaddafi intended to perpetrate ‘a second Srebrenica’ on narrow, technical grounds — that Libya lacks diverse ethnicities so could not engage in ethnic cleansing —  rather than addressing whether it is the slaughter, not the rationale, that might make the analogy valid.  But Roberts is up to no good here, which is how things slip into apologia.  Of the well-known massacre of 1,200 prisoners in Abu Salim prison in 1996, he says “whether or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it.”  As indeed it is since it is scarcely conceivable such a thing could happen without Gaddafi’s prior approval.

Throughout, Roberts is inclined to take an improbably benign view of Gaddafi’s intentions.  Roberts semi-traffics in vindicating theories about the Lockerbie bombing by bringing them up and then saying he does not really know.  More pertinently, he dismisses the use of artillery against rebels this way:

It is tendentious and dishonest to say simply that Gaddafi was ‘killing his own people’; he was killing those of his people who were rebelling. He was doing in this respect what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion.

But anyone who has visited Libya — as I did in 2004 — knows that Gaddafi’s use of violence against his people was a feature of his regime long before anyone rebelled against it.  Even tourists will have left with whispered stories of state-sanctioned murder and political persecution and will have witnessed instances of the sort of skittish paranoia that comes from constant fear, as I did in Tripoli.  Does Roberts really not know this?

Maybe not.  He gives Gaddafi’s oddball political philosophy of jamahiriyya or ‘state of the masses’ (which he developed in the 1970s in his famous Green Book) more considered regard than almost any analyst I’ve ever read — and I say this having tried to analyze the Green Book myself. Roberts concludes:

The Jamahiriyya lasted 34 years (42 if backdated to 1969), a respectable innings. It did not work for foreign businessmen, diplomats and journalists, who found it more exasperating to deal with than the run of Arab and African states, and their views shaped the country’s image abroad. But the regime was not designed to work for foreigners and seems to have worked fairly well for many Libyans much of the time.

This is when it starts to seem that Roberts’s essay has left Earth orbit and is giving Pluto a flyby.  Roberts allows that the various congresses and committees of the jamahiriyya were ineffective because they had a ‘tension’ within them — though, in fact, the tension was that they were useless theater since Gaddafi retained all the power for himself — but he places inordinate faith in the periodic talk of reform.  Dictatorships of all stripes go through waves of so-called reform (look at Bashar al-Assad, when he took over in Syria) that rarely amount to more than luring dissidents from their hiding places with the promise of a coming Spring so they can be cut down in the inevitable Winter.  And by Roberts’s own admission, Gaddafi was always tweaking and fine-tuning his jamahiriyya project once its excesses — like sudden decrees banning all trade, or the use of foreign languages — threatened to sink an already leaking ship.  Yet Roberts is working up to a conspiratorial view of Western intervention being driven by a desire to cut short these putatively sincere reform efforts.  He believes the accusations of Libyan complicity in the Lockerbie bombing were one such example and sees the events of this spring through that lens.  This is what he has to say about Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, who once talked a good game about reform but ended up on television in front of national maps plotting attacks on his countrymen to protect his father’s rule:

While it was always unrealistic to suppose that [Saif al-Islam] could have remade Libya into a liberal democracy had he succeeded his father, he certainly recognised the problems of the Jamahiriyya and the need for substantial reform. The prospect of a reformist path under Saif was ruled out by this spring’s events. Is there a parallel with the way international sanctions in the wake of Lockerbie put paid to the earlier reform initiative?

There is a portentous tone to that last sentence*.  But it turns out that this sense of Gaddafi’s Libya as a slightly dysfunctional but essentially decent place amenable to reform is the requisite backdrop for Hugh Roberts’s own arrival onto the stage.  Earlier this year, during the months when revolution was sweeping North Africa, Roberts was the director of the International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project, which issued an open letter to the UN Security Council on the eve of the debate about Resolution 1973 proposing a ceasefire and the establishment of a contact group that would negotiate a transition of power.  This proposal was not taken up and the decision to intervene militarily was made.  Roberts finds this inexplicable and imputes the worst intentions to the Western powers as a result.  But he has written a 13,000-word essay making clear that Gaddafi was never going to step down voluntarily, so maybe the reason no one took up what Roberts calls his “worked-out proposal” to negotiate is that no one else thought there was a chance in hell it would work out.

The best that can be said for Gaddafi is that when he seized the country in 1969 it was in undeniably poor condition: a weak king, limited infrastructure, a brutal colonial experience under the Italians, and a landscape carved up by foreign oil interests.  But Gaddafi ruled for over four decades, with a lot of oil money at his disposal and a small population on which to spend it, yet when I visited in 2004 even a stronghold of Gaddafi support like Sabha looked no more prosperous than the dreary minor industrial towns of Egypt and quite a bit poorer than Tunisia, the two other countries where economic frustration contributed to revolutionary fervor.  And as Roberts himself acknowledges, “After 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule, the people of Libya were, politically speaking, not much further forward than they were on 31 August 1969.”

Given that, can we really debate whether it was time for him to go?  The Libyans themselves — or a great many of them anyway — had publicly declared that Gaddafi’s time had come by going into open revolt.  There is no evidence, at this point, that the Western powers put them up to it.  Gaddafi turned it into a war, in ways that Ben Ali and Mubarak could not or would not do. So the question policy-makers faced was awkwardly straightforward: do we watch the rebels get crushed or do we aid them?  Many times, in many places, the West has averted its eyes from such a choice.  But I don’t see how one can lament Western inaction on Zimbabwe or Darfur or Rwanda or Bosnia or the Shi’a uprising in Iraq or Myanmar after the monks’ protests or Tiananmen and, at the same time, lament intervention in Libya when it is preceded by large-scale revolt. At least this time, the right thing was done.


* So where does Roberts’s tone of portent (above) lead him?  To this remarkable assertion:

London, Paris and Washington could not allow a ceasefire because it would have involved negotiations, first about peace lines, peacekeepers and so forth, and then about fundamental political differences. And all this would have subverted the possibility of the kind of regime change that interested the Western powers. The sight of representatives of the rebellion sitting down to talks with representatives of Gaddafi’s regime, Libyans talking to Libyans, would have called the demonisation of Gaddafi into question. The moment he became once more someone people talked to and negotiated with, he would in effect have been rehabilitated. And that would have ruled out violent – revolutionary? – regime change and so denied the Western powers their chance of a major intervention in North Africa’s Spring, and the whole interventionist scheme would have flopped.

There are many, many things to say about this career-imperiling paragraph — not least that it was the West itself that had rehabilitated Gaddafi after he gave up his so-called WMD program — but here is just one: in his essay Roberts has already acknowledged that the senior rebel Khalifa Haftar, speaking on behalf of the NTC leadership, rejected the ceasefire immediately.  So who, then, were to be these “Libyans talking to Libyans” that had to be held apart by the scheming Western powers?


As a side note, if you are inclined to take Gaddafi at his word, here he is in 1976 arguing on behalf of the right to intervene with weapons and money on the side of those fighting for freedom. The beginning of this BBC documentary about him is shameless Islam-fearing propaganda — it asks, naively, “Who is this man who prays five times a day…Is he a dangerous religious fanatic?” — but the relevant section on intervention begins around the 6min 35sec mark:


2 Responses to “Dreamy visions of Gaddafi at the London Review of Books”

  1. Tettodoro says:

    An excellent detailed critique of Roberts’ very strange argument. As it points out Roberts central point – that there was a real possibility of a negotiated solution to the Libyan conflict – is entirel belied by his own analysis of the regime.

  2. […] here for all my posts on Syria and the Middle East.  Or here to read my takedown of this ridiculous apologia for Gaddafi that the London Review of Books once […]

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