Indian Decade

Libya and the Tomahawk

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Indian Decade

Libya and the Tomahawk

The West risks providing a new sanctuary for al-Qaeda with its attack on Libya, says UNESCO Peace Chair Madhav Nalapat.

The Diplomat speaks with Indian Decade writer and UNESCO Peace Chair Madhav Nalapat about the situation in Libya.


What have you made of India’s response to the unfolding events in Libya?

India joined Russia, China, Brazil and Germany in abstaining from UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Had the Arab League not backed the resolution, the Indian government would almost certainly have opposed it. Remember, the Indian parliament passed a unanimous resolution against the US-UK invasion of Iraq on the day coalition forces entered Baghdad in 2003.

It’s interesting you mention Iraq because comparisons are inevitably drawn between the action against Muammar Gaddafi and the Iraq War. What do you make of such comparisons?

Back in the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein was forced to surrender his WMD stockpiles after his military defeat, which was followed by successive UN Security Council resolutions. Although almost all narratives in the Western media claim that he ‘concealed’ the fact that there were no longer any WMD in Iraq, the reality is that multiple Iraqi spokespersons made the same claims, only to be ignored by those countries that refused to accept such assertions, and who subsequently went to war against Iraq.

Gaddafi's trajectory was different. Persuaded by his sons that a grand bargain with the West was possible, in which their hold over power in Libya would be accepted at the price of destruction of the country's WMD assets, the Libyan dictator entered upon a honeymoon with Europe and North America. However, once protest against his rule appeared in the east of the country, which is the location of more than two-thirds of Libyan oil reserves, the transition back from newfound ally into the more traditional role of pariah was swift.

Unlike in the case of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain, where crackdowns on the civilian population failed to elicit a vigorous Western reaction, the Libyan crackdown has been met with military force, albeit sanctioned by UNSC 1973. But the Arab world has long been characterised by authoritarian rule, whether monarchical, quasi-monarchic — for example Syria and Egypt — or republican. Over the previous two centuries, local potentates carved out agreements, explicit or otherwise, with a medley of European and subsequently North American powers. In exchange for fealty and for hewing to the economic and other requirements of the protector power, they would get ‘air cover’ for their rule.

The experiences of first Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and now Gaddafi, however, indicate that such an arrangement is no longer valid. Adherence to Western ‘advice’ is no longer a guarantee of support in a crisis. Should there be trouble, they are on their own or — as in Gadaffi's case — themselves a target. But the impact of such a show of Western unreliability is likely to loosen the links that have bound much of the Arab elite to Western strategic objectives.

You mentioned that China joined India in abstaining over UNSC 1973. What did you make of that decision?

Had China voted against UNSC 1973, it would have shown itself to have been a reliable partner of a long-term friend. However, Beijing and Delhi seem to have been confused by the Arab League's
endorsement of the no-fly zone proposal, thereby preventing it from exercising a veto.

Subsequent developments must be leading to considerable disquiet in China’s Foreign Ministry — the agency that pushed for an abstention rather than a UNSC veto — for China is looking as helpless in Libya as Russia looked during the Kosovo crisis. The latter resulted in a significant increase in the distance between Russian and Western strategic paths, while the present campaign in Libya is likely to have the same effect on China, strengthening those who are in favour of building a robust military capability to meet unexpected contingencies.

However, an increase in the level of Beijing's distrust of Western intentions isn’t the only reason why the present Libyan campaign represents a strategic reversal for the West, even though it may gain some tactical victories. Another is of course the dissolution of the invisible pact that bound local elites to the NATO powers, in which the former played ball with the alliance, including in the economic sphere, and were assured in exchange diplomatic and even military protection.

While it’s the Egyptian military that asked Mubarak to quit, the fact remains that this was a decision nudged on it by major NATO capitals, who were in shock at the ferment within the Arab street. In the case of Gaddafi, it has been forgotten that he has destroyed his WMD stockpiles, given preference to Western companies in his oilfields and has reduced to near zero financial and other assistance to groups in the region that challenge Western interests (unlike several of the rulers of other states in the region).

Seeing the ‘reward’ that Gaddafi has got for his good behaviour, it’s unlikely that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would follow his example in a hurry. The events in Libya have demonstrated the fickle nature of Western friendship, and the consequent desirability of keeping one's powder dry.

More importantly, the NATO powers have neglected to factor in the reality that the civil conflict in Libya is in essence not a battle of democracy versus dictatorship, but is a reaction by a few tribes against Gaddafi's policy of allowing his own and a handful of other tribes (such as the Al Magariha) to populate the ranks of the government far out of proportion to their relative strength within the population. The opposition to Gaddafi is being driven mainly by a tribe that has significant shared characteristics with the Wahhabi population of Saudi Arabia, and therefore sees the secular Gaddafi as anti-Islam. Should eastern Libya become a new Kosovo, out of the reach of Tripoli, the chances are high that it would very quickly become a refuge for religious extremists who have been persecuted and neutralised by the Gaddafi regime.

Any other thoughts on the likely longer term impact of the current military strikes?

The attack on Libya is a mistake reminiscent of the 1982 bid led by then-Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon to back the Maronite Christians against the Shiites in Lebanon. It will exacerbate tribal tensions throughout the region, while in Libya, the success of the operation will result in a haven for al-Qaeda elements that were otherwise almost obliterated by the brutal but secular Gaddafi.

Within a week, scenes of the bombing will solidify anger against the West. There are no shortcuts to success in the region, and popularity certainly doesn’t flow from the nosecone of a Tomahawk.