23 June 2011 — Stop Nato
French President Nicolas Sarkozy started the Libyan war – what drove him to risk the effort?
It is clear that without his personal intervention there is very little chance it would have happened. Only small children and nice-minded little old ladies are inclined to believe it is solely about the welfare of the Libyan people. If it was, France and NATO would be at war with half the world, including themselves, for what they are doing to civilians in Afghanistan.
The history of Khadafy’s relationship with the West, and the United States in particular, is the stuff of pulp fiction. In 1969 the CIA under the newly elected President Nixon helped him overthrow the British puppet King Idris in the newly oil rich kingdom. They picked the wrong guy. The first thing he did was to close the US Wheelus airbase and invite in the Soviets. So naturally in due course he became President Reagan’s ‘mad dog’ and our unspeakable enemy. Eventually he cut a deal with the Bush 2 administration and became our friend.
All the nations of the West beat a path to his door to sell him everything that was not nailed down including the weapons we are now busy blowing up. In 2007 he was welcomed to Paris for five days and even allowed to pitch his tent in the gardens of the Elysée. Obama was mates with him and there are happy smiling photos of him shaking hands with Hilary Clinton in 2009. The Italians under Berlusconi signed a treaty of friendship with and actually apologised to him and paid compensation only three years ago for pre-war colonial savagery in which tens of thousands of Libyans died. Then in the twinkling of an eye he is the mad dog again and getting the Iraq treatment.
It was a belligerent (and selectively misquoted) speech directed at the rebels that gave the French President a fleeting opportunity to intervene in the uprising in Libya that he did not miss. His claim to be concerned about the people of Libya and ‘to protect the civil population’ sits uneasily with the report in the usually well-informed newspaper Canard Enchainé that French intelligence agents have been active in stirring up rebellion in Libya since well before the outbreak of hostilities. Khadafy has raised the standard of living of his people to one of the highest in Africa so the tenacious rebellion has come as something of a surprise. The ‘Brother leader’ was not beloved of all his people but it sounds awfully like another case of a western use of the intelligence services lighting the blue touch-paper and then shrieking for the military fire brigade in the inevitable ensuing mayhem. At a very deep level was Sarkozy acting as a stalking horse for Obama or some other element in US governmental circles?
However that may be, Sarkozy seized a fleeting opening and, through the unorthodox medium of the intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévi, met and then granted the rebels in Benghazi diplomatic recognition. Resolution 1973 was then scrambled through the UN Security Council authorising a no-fly zone to protect the civilian population and calling for a ceasefire. Notably Brazil, India, China, Russia, and Germany abstained – a big chunk of international opinion.
Only nine days later the Sarkozy French initiative had morphed into a full-blown NATO aerial attack on Libya with the stated objective of the defence of the civil population, free movement of humanitarian aid and the forced return of the Libyan army to barracks. There have followed some pretty unsubtle attempts to assassinate Khadafy, which have resulted in the death of one of his sons and other members of his family. It was not long before NATO leaders and President Sarkozy were talking about the inevitability of regime change. All other considerations apart ‘return to barracks’ by the Libyan army and regime change, spiced with assassination attempts, seem a long way beyond a ‘ceasefire and protecting civilians’ as the Russian government has not been slow to point out.
They have been joined now by South Africa and others in the African Union. An uneasy awareness is growing that the colonialists are back with a vengeance whilst a real, if eccentric, ally and financial supporter is being lynched and lost for ever. Meanwhile much of the French media at least are brazenly putting out the idea that regime change was the original UN mission.
Khadafy’s first problem is that Libya is a big strategically placed country with weak defences, a small population, sitting on top of huge and much coveted oil and gas reserves. Since he overthrew King Idris in 1969, as a dashing young nationalist and socialist army officer, he has upset a lot of people and countries including calling the Gulf Arab monarchs ‘a lot of fat corrupt women,’ but he has survived determined attempts by the West to unseat him and, on one occasion at least, in 1986, to kill him. He has not hesitated to repay the compliments with terrorist attacks. In addition he would seem to have been deliberately smeared for certain acts of terrorism for which he was not responsible. His isolation is increased by his hostility to Islamic fundamentalists.
In addition, he has used his oil wealth to fund the African Union to the detriment of Sarkozy’s NATO/US neo-con-inspired Mediterranean Union and encouraged it to be as independent as possible of the West. Much of the huge sums of money seized by the western nations during this war was intended to fund initiatives in Africa. He has also funded an independent African satellite telephone system with a view to reducing the cost of telephone calls in Africa from the highest in the world. This has allegedly cost European companies 500 million Euros a year in revenues. He has considered nationalising the oil industry and renegotiated contracts. Perhaps worst of all he has proposed a new all-Africa currency backed by gold and threatened to demand payment for oil in it rather than the dollar.
This would have seriously embarrassed the already rickety United States dollar regime, but also the currency in former French West Africa the CFA Franc linked to the French Franc.
The United States, to say the least, does not easily tolerate defiant small countries and has a long memory. Never mind about the civilian population, the treatment NATO is dishing out to Libya, Khadafy and his family is an awful warning to other potentially independent-minded leaders who get ideas of excessive independence in the future. No doubt the Washington war hawks have not forgotten the years of defiance and the expulsion from Wheelus in 1969. If all goes well for NATO, U.S. ‘amour propre’ will be avenged and the inconvenient Colonel replaced by a more oil and currency compliant government à la Saudi Arabia.
Most deadly of all for the turbulent colonel, his two lead enemies, Sarkozy and Obama, face tough elections next year. At the head of a rickety coalition, Cameron in the UK could face one any day. Now that battle is joined, for that above all the ‘Brother leader’ can expect to get the full treatment. It would not be desirable for the voters to get the idea that their leaders had been made fools of yet again by the wily Libyan. At the same time the question is worth posing whether the sudden outburst of the Arab Spring, so long ruthlessly and effectively suppressed with full western support, was essentially an attempt by Obama via his vast secret service organisation to improve his electoral chances with increasingly critical Democratic voters by having a clear-out of elderly and embarrassing dictator allies, whilst at the same time of course retaining remote political control? The determined effort to eliminate Khadafy would fit that pattern. As would the fact that the French secret services were clearly taken completely by surprise by the initial outbreak in Tunisia. Incidentally, the Libyan leader is not helped by the fact that both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo are up for re-nomination in 2012 as well and hence particularly prone to pressure to be ‘helpful’.
But why such an obvious, sudden and potentially embarrassing Western U-turn? A more gradual and subtle double cross would certainly have exposed Western cynicism less brutally to an increasingly sceptical non-NATO international opinion and even within NATO. It could be that Sarkozy’s motivation for triggering this diplomatic and military coup when he did was an acute awareness of a unique opportunity to overthrow Khadafy but combined with an equally acute awareness of a gathering financial tsunami that may gravely impair the ability of the US and NATO to carry through such military political stunts in future, by which time the wily Libyan leader might well have got himself into a position where he was too strong to take down. The rise of the views of the Dr. Ron Paul and the recent vote in the US House of Representatives against the Libyan war would seem to support this idea.
More generally, Sarkozy as the instigator of all this gets brownie points with the still militarily all-powerful United States, which is important for French business and diplomatic interests world-wide. Plus everybody has now forgotten about his government’s embarrassing Tunisian performance and the Foreign Minister Alliot-Marie resignation fiasco. France gets rid of a troublesome influence in France Afrique. Finally at the risk of sounding a cynical note, if after all he loses the presidential election in 2012, he has set himself up for a Blair-style multi-million payoff from sympathetic neo-cons and business people in the U.S. He might even get to take over from the ex-British Prime Minister as the Middle Eastern Peace envoy or win the Nobel Peace prize.
Robert Harneis is a political journalist based in Strasbourg