It was quite unbelievable, of course, when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had taken up arms to overthrow King Idris of Libya in began to talk like a monarch himself – a monarch who, moreover, believed in the ‘divine right’ of kings to rule.
Spouting fire at the ‘rebels’ who had taken up arms against his rule in February 2011, Gaddafi described them as “drug users” and “rats”. And he said his army would come looking for them “from house to house” and street to street to kill them.
Gaddafdi’s son and designated heir as ruler of Libya, Saif Gaddafi, was even more arrogant. He warned that the streets of Libya would run with “rivers of blood” if the opposition’s protests continued. The reports of hundreds dead were “a huge exaggeration”, Saif claimed.
The “opposition elements” causing trouble, he added, were those “living abroad” who were trying to stir up “an Egyptian-style Facebook revolution.” Saif added that the rebels were nothing but “drunkards and thugs” who were driving tanks about the streets. Like his father, he accused many of the ‘rioters’ of being ‘fuelled by drugs.’
Today, however, it is Muammar Gaddafi who is being sought “from house to house”. And Saif and his brother, Mohammed Gaddafi, are both in the hands of the rebels upon whom the Gaddafis had once poured contempt. The International Criminal Court (ICC), ever ready to “try” murderers from developing countries but completely unmoved by the relatively more hideous crimes of George W Bush (in Iraq and Afghanistan) or Tony Blair (Iraq and Afghanistan), wants the Gaddafis to be brought to the ICC to be tried.
Indeed, the Libyan tragedy is chockfull of ironies. For one of the most tragic issues in modern international geopolitics is the phenomenon of punishing millions of people while trying to “relieve” those same people from the tyranny of a ruler who is oppressing them.
We saw it at its worst in Iraq. Because the Americans and their allies wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein – who was, undoubtedly, a murderous ruler in the eyes of many of his people -- the allies rained bombs on Iraqis from the air. They killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children.
Worse, their invasion served as a trigger to the resurgence of internecine animosities within Iraqi society, that resulted in yet more deaths of thousands who were innocent of any crime except that of belonging to one religious sect or the other. According to the US publication, Information Clearing House, the “number of Iraqis slaughtered since the U.S. Invaded Iraq [stands at] 1,455,590”.
Alas, there is a danger that the same tragedy has will happen before our very eyes in Libya, and from the best of motives. You see, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) decided to intervene in the Libyan conflict, it did so to prevent the Libyan city of Benghazi from falling into the hands of the forces of Col. Muammar Gadhafi. Because of the terrible threats uttered against the rebels by the Gaddafis, humanitarian concern was aroused not only in NATO countries but elsewhere.
The Arab world was basking in the “Arab Spring”, which had seen off the authoritarian rule of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, in a relatively peaceful manner. In Africa too, there was support in some quarters for the anti-Gaddafi forces, because many Africans have themselves experienced the iniquities of totalitarian rule.
It was therefore a fatal mistake for Col. Gaddafi and his sons to threaten to pour fire and brimstone on their enemies. The first major tactical error occurred when fighters opposed to Gaddafi took over Benghazi.
Greatly incensed, Gaddafi made a radio broadcast on 17 March 2011, in which he fiercely promised to storm the city of 700,000 inhabitants. As mentioned earlier, he threatened: “We shall show no mercy, no pity", he threatened. "We will come... house by house, room by room!... They are rats and drug users. They are Al Qaeda!”
Now, in a political struggle, especially one with an international dimension – and Libya’s position as a leading oil producer automatically puts her in the category of nations whose affairs are closely scrutinised by those envious of her oil -- words are extremely important. Especially in these days when the Internet makes it easier for the actual words of international operators to be conveyed to the rest of the world.
So, as Gaddafi made his inflammatory statements about what he would do to his enemies, his words were being captured on Youtube as well as being transmitted in Tweets and on Facebook. And a groundswell of emotion poured out across the world in support of the citizens of Libya who were not being allowed to experience “the Arab Spring”.
The situation was tailor-made for politicians anxious to find a bandwagon on which to jump to improve their approval ratings in their own countries. The message these politicians transmitted to the world was simple: If Gaddafi wanted to show the people of Benghazi that “might” was “right”, then he too would be shown that “right” (the people of Benghazi’s right and correct appeal to the world to be saved from Gaddafi’s threat to exterminate them) could also summon an even more powerful “might” to its side.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France were more nimble in the diplomatic game than Gaddafi, and did not waste time in going to the United Nations. There, they used remarkable diplomatic skill to get a Security Council that included Russia and China, to pass a resolution that could be interpreted to enable them to take whatever action they thought right to “protect the civilian population” of Benghazi and other threatened cities of Libya.
Security Council Resolution 1973, which was also supported by the Arab League and the African Union, read in part:
“The Security Council… expressing grave concern at the deteriorating situation [in Libya], ….Reiterating the responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population and reaffirming that parties to armed conflicts bear the primary responsibility to take all feasible steps to ensure the protection of civilians, …
“Considering that the widespread and systematic attacks currently taking place in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity… [declares] that “the situation in Libya continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security” and therefore demands “the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians.”
The key provision in the Council’s resolution was this: [The Security Council] “authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”
Gaddafi had shot himself in the foot but he didn’t know it. Yet. So long as NATO forces were not on the ground in Libyan territory, their actions would be lawful. It was on the basis of the Security Council authorisation that NATO warplanes made their numerous “sorties”, raining death against Gaddafi’s forces.
Once Gaddafi’s army was being crippled from the air, his enemies on the ground, however bedraggled, were on the path to victory. This weekend, the victory became a reality.
In an article in The New York Times, Cameron, Sarkozy and Barack Obama (a late-comer to the campaign to defeat Gaddafi) wrote: “So long as Gaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds. Then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders.”
It is the “after-Gaddafi” scenario that carries the great danger. It is as if the Western leaders were unaware that similar attempts to instal a new generation of leaders, such as have followed the invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan, had been anything but a shining success.
Unless great care is taken, Libya too will fall in to the hands of corrupt kleptocrats who will auction Libya’s oil resources to companies most able to fill the pockets of the “new leaders” with money that cannot be traced in any banks.
Meanwhile, the lesson for the rulers of developing countries is clear: do not depend on “might” to rule your people. For if you depend on might, a mightier force than you possess, can neutralise your own use of force.”
President Assad of Syria, are you listening?