One of my favorite actors, Michael Caine (Zulu, The Italian Job, Man Who Would Be King, The Ipcress File, The Quiet American) said, “Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.”
That quote comes to mind when I consider the West’s efforts to keep a lid on things in Libya.
To me, the lesson for Libya (and, for that matter, Syria) is: If a force is too weak to seize power in a country by itself, it’s probably too weak to run the country by itself.
So the West and the Gulf Co-operation Council nations are heroically suppressing their anxiety as the Transitional National Council struggles to stamp out opposition, capture Gaddafi, reconcile its factions, and form a cabinet.As the new government flails in Tripoli, a certain amount of misdirection is needed to distract attention from the desperate paddling and convey an air of in-control serenity.
You’ve claimed that Gaddafi forces killed 50,000 during the revolution, but there’s an awkward shortage of mass graves and corpses? Publicize the exhumation of remains of victims of the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre.
Is vigorous tactical support of the overmatched rebels something of an embarrassment as Sirte and other Gaddafi hold-outs (and their civilians, ostensibly the subject of NATO solicitude) are subjected to a general assault?Point out that Gaddafi representatives had discussions with Chinese weapons suppliers.
Most importantly: Is the West is extremely nervous about dispensing Gaddafi/Libyan state billions to a new government that might crumble overnight or become a creature of battle-hardened Islamists before it follows through on its pledge to honor existing contracts?Better to divert attention from the West’s anxious stinginess by highlighting identical Chinese reluctance.
And if the rest of the world had legitimate concerns about the Libyan operation, don’t be afraid to look like an arrogant racist by pouring scorn on its concerns.
That’s the theme of a piece I wrote for Asia Times on September 17. The links for the citations can be found by clicking through to the Asia Times archive for the piece.China: the West’s bogeyman in Libya
On the matter of Libya, the West appears on its way to a Pyrrhic victory. Success in Libya gives the West a chance to say it got regime change right after its disaster in Iraq – and reassert its global moral relevance after it bungled the world economy into recession.
The rising BRIC countries, on the other hand, find their mistrust of Western self-delusion, enabled by military force and insistence on a rule-based world in which only the Western democracies have the right to break the rules, confirmed.
In an era in which the United States is still the only power capable of projecting military force across the globe, the unique combination of anxiety, arrogance and oblique post-colonial racism that marks the Libyan intervention will probably not signal the twilight of Western influence.
But the West will probably find its ability to project its power beyond the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Gulf Co-operation Council significantly and actively constrained.
Last week, China finally rolled up its sleeves and became involved in that exercise in imperial sausage-making that is New Libya. Per the announcement of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
On September 12, China notified the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) of China’s decision to recognize it. China stated that the Chinese side respects the choice of the Libyan people, values the important status and role of the NTC, and has maintained close contact with it. China recognizes the NTC as the ruling authority of Libya and the representative of the Libyan people and would like to work with it to push for the smooth transition and development of China-Libya relations. China hopes that the previously signed treaties and agreements between the two sides will remain valid and be earnestly implemented.
The NTC said that the Libyan people and the NTC are happy at China’s recognition and has long been looking forward to it. Attaching great importance to China’s status and role, the NTC will honor faithfully all treaties and agreements signed between the two sides, stick to the one China policy, welcome China’s participation in Libya’s reconstruction and jointly advance with China the stable and sustained development of bilateral relations.
This concession by the Chinese was treated with a certain amount of glee in Western capitals and media, as if recognition of the rebel forces that had occupied the capital and virtually all of Libya’s urban areas represented a retreat from China’s policy of non-interference.
Certainly, the collapse of a fellow authoritarian regime confronted by popular unrest caused Beijing’s mandarins considerable heartache and unease. However, it appears more important that the services of the Chinese bogeyman are urgently needed to provide a more flattering contrast to the shaky and dubious Western adventure in Libya.
The Guardian turned to Dr Steven Tsang of Nottingham University to deliver judgement on Beijing’s move:
“They have taken their time in recognizing the rebels,” said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at Nottingham University. … “You will have quite a lot of people concluding China is much more interested in protecting its own national interests than performing its duties as a leading power in the international scene. As [one of the] P5 [permanent members of the UN national security council] there are certain expectations and moral responsibilities … The way the post-Gaddafi situation has been handled, [people] have not been giving China a particularly high mark,” he said.
As to the “people” who are not giving China particularly high marks, one might assume that they are the kind of people Dr Tsang associates with.
The Guardian might have rendered its readers a useful service by revealing that Dr Tsang was previously director of the Pluscarden Center for the Study of Global Terrorism and Intelligence at St Antony’s College at Oxford. St Antony’s is the pet benefaction of conservative Arab governments seeking to burnish their non-terrorist credentials in the West.
According to a study by the Centre for Social Cohesion, a conservative think-tank eager to alert the world to penetration into the West by the Islamic menace, at least two thirds of the endowment of its Middle East Centre – including a donation of 1 million pounds (US$1.54 million) representing 30% of the MEC’s endowment raised in the last 15 years, from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz Foundation – comes from governments or individuals from the conservative Arab monarchies.
The most conspicuous “get” for the Pluscarden Center’s speaker program this year: “His Royal Highness Prince Turki al Faisal, Chairman, King Faisal Centre for Research & Islamic Studies and former Director General of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah.”
The conservative Sunni states forming the Gulf Co-operation Council were Gaddafi’s most implacable enemies and the driving force behind the Arab League / United Nations / North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign for regime change in Libya.
As a matter of fact and public record, the primary enthusiasts for the Libyan operation were the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, and NATO. The rest of the world’s reaction to NATO’s decision to use a UN resolution as a fig leaf to intervene in Libya on behalf of anti-Gaddafi rebels ranged from quiet disgust – India and Brazil – to vocal opposition from China, Russia, South Africa, and the African Union (AU).
With remarkable arrogance, Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, gave her opinion of “those people”:
The US has not been encouraged by the performance of India, Brazil and South Africa during their temporary tenure on the UN Security Council … “It’s been a very interesting opportunity to see how they respond to the issues of the day, how they relate to us and others, how they do or don’t act consistent with their own democratic institutions and stated values,” Rice said at a briefing with reporters. “Let me just say, we’ve learned a lot and, frankly, not all of it encouraging.”
With attitudes like this, it is not surprising that the UN is deadlocked on Syria.
When Gaddafi did fall, it appears that his end did not come at the hands of the inept and bickering Benghazi-based TNC (which opened August, its month of victory, with the unsolved torture and murder of its main military commander, Abdel Fateh Younes). Instead, the regime collapsed as the result of a drive on the capital by the Tripoli Brigade of Islamist fighters under Abdelkarim Belhadj, and the opportune (and perhaps liberally financed) defection of a key Gaddafi brigade.
Back in June, an al-Jazeera video essay filmed at the Tripoli Brigade’s training camp revealed to all who cared to pay attention that Belhaj’s faction was due to receive arms from Qatar and the UAE, in apparent violation of the UN resolutions.
When Belhaj reached Tripoli, the US and the UK had to deal with the awkward fact that Belhaj’s questionable credentials went beyond his Islamist militancy (since renounced) and his reputed links to al-Qaeda (vociferously denied). Belhaj revealed he had been rendered and tortured by the UK and the US in 2004 and delivered to Gaddafi’s Libya for more torture and six years of incarceration, calling into question his enthusiasm for the West and its program in Libya.
In fact, Belhaj looks more like an effective, heavily backed Gulf asset promoting the Saudi ideal of conservative, stable Sunni regimes than a sympathetic ally of the West, making his relationship with the pro-Western TNC bureaucrats out of Benghazi appear rather problematic.
When, after two long and embarrassing weeks, the ostensible architect of the August victory, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, cautiously made his way to Tripoli to deliver his maiden speech in Martyr’s Square, the Western media obligingly provided pictures of adoring crowds waving new black, red, and green flags and English language T-shirts and mylar balloons to celebrate the new regime beneath a fireworks display.
It is difficult to determine whether the scene in the square was a demonstration of the remarkable resilience of Tripoli’s flag, T-shirt, and balloon manufacturers and fireworks distributors after months of bombings and supply dislocations, or just another sign of the West’s persistent spackling of the TNC’s public relations facade.
However, Jalil’s performance probably caused a fair amount of anxiety for his Western and Gulf patrons. Occasionally clutching the twin microphones like an anxious rider gripping the ears of an untrustworthy donkey, Jalil flatly murmured a speech about reconciliation to a crowd of, as the Guardian revealed, “approximately 10,000”.
Even during the darkest days of his regime, in July 2011, Gaddafi was apparently able to muster a bigger, albeit relatively unenthusiastic, crowd of listeners in the square. It will presumably take more than one night of festivities for the residents of Tripoli to forget five months of bombing and sanctions delivered courtesy of the TNC’s NATO air arm, or to forgive the capital’s new masters at the ballot box.
It will also take concerted perception management by the Western and Gulf powers – not to mention the application of billions of frozen Libyan assets – to provide the pro-Western elements of the TNC with a necessary veneer of authority and effectiveness and co-opt the militant Islamists entrenching themselves in post-Gaddafi Tripoli.
And it will also require a fair amount of China-bashing to draw attention away from the West’s continued manipulation of Libyan sovereignty through the medium of the TNC.
The most amusing instance occurred when Canada’s Globe and Mail obtained documents detailing contacts between Gaddafi’s regime and three of China’s leading arms exporters in refuse piled in an upscale Libyan neighborhood.
There was no documentation that contracts had been concluded, let alone that arms had been delivered. The Chinese government issued an explicit denial.
Without providing any evidence, the TNC darkly hinted that these dealings had resulted in the introduction of Chinese arms into Gaddafi’s arsenal in violation of UN sanctions.
One purpose of the charge against China seems to have been to shift the focus away from the NATO/GCC serial violation of the UN Security Council resolution 1973 – not only with 8,000 NATO combat sorties on behalf of the rebels (to date, with more ongoing), but also the covert provision of arms and training to the rebels by the French, British, and US and the Gulf States – by alleging malfeasance by a disliked authoritarian regime on Gaddafi’s behalf.
Another reason was probably an attempt to put China on the defensive on the matter of unfreezing Libyan assets by tarnishing its credentials as a nation that honored the letter of the UN resolutions on Libya.
The Chinese government has been conspicuously unenthusiastic about approving the unfreezing of Libyan assets through the UN Libyan Sanctions Committee (of which it is a member thanks to its UNSC seat). This is taken as churlishness toward the TNC.
Certainly, Chinese lack of enthusiasm toward the TNC is a given. However, China does not go out of its way to increase its isolation by casual displays of diplomatic vindictiveness. Money and face are probably more compelling explanations for Beijing’s behavior.
China had sizable exposure to Libya, not in the areas of oil and gas exports that obsess Europe, but in about 50 infrastructure and industrial projects. When the rebellion heated up, China pulled out 35,000 of its nationals in a massive evacuation effort that left behind half-finished projects, large amounts of material and equipment, and a pile of invoices that the Libyan government had yet to pay.
The biggest single item was a half-finished project to construct 20,000 residential units, which apparently left the China State Construction Engineering Corporation out of pocket by over $2 billion. Counting evacuation costs, China may be looking at a potential loss of around $3 billion.
Potential, that is, because it looks like Beijing, as a matter of commerce and national prestige, hopes to get the money back.
On March 4, Global Times reported:
Media reports suggested that, before the evacuation, many Chinese companies ordered their personnel to back up important files and make detail lists of equipment for future compensation claims.
That provides the necessary context to the September 12 Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement that “the NTC will honor faithfully all treaties and agreements signed between the two sides”.
As yet, no formal matching statement by the TNC has appeared. Given the nascent character of the TNC bureaucracy, that is understandable. But there is the question of who will be making or breaking or delivering on the TNC’s promises in the coming weeks as the various factions sort things out.
China’s not the only country that’s worried. At an August 25 State Department press briefing, a correspondent made an interesting point:
Question: One is you said at the beginning that the TNC has promised that it will meet all of its international commitments. Does it – has the TNC actually made or been in a position to make any binding commitments? I mean, it hasn’t. You’re just talking about promises that they’ve made to –
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland: We’re talking about –
Question: There’s nothing in writing here. They haven’t signed any treaties that – they aren’t a UN member, so these are just the assurances that they’ve given to you?
VN: These are assurances they’ve given to us. These are assurances they’ve given to the members of the international community. These are also assurances that they have made publicly over the past weeks and that, in fact, Prime Minister Jibril made again yesterday. He spoke in his own press conference – I think you saw it, probably – about creating transparent judicial systems, building new institutions including a national congress that’s going to be elected. He called for the humane treatment of all Libyans by other Libyans, protection of prisoners.
Question: Right –
VN: He also said that Libya intends to honor the oil contracts that were signed during the Qadhafi era –
Question: Which is –
VN: – another important international commitment.
Question: Which is all fine, except that there is no constitution. I mean, he could say anything he wants.
VN: Obviously, we have to –
Question: But you –
VN: – we’re at the beginning stages here.
Question: But – right, but the commitments that you’re talking about are all stuff that he has just said or promised or that they have assured. There isn’t anything binding about them. In other words, you have no recourse if all of the sudden tomorrow he says something different.
VN: We have always said that there is a long road ahead. What we are saying today is that we’re heartened by the commitment to international institutions, international standards, openness, transparency, nonviolence, a unitary –
VN: – Libya. But obviously, they have to – as they can assume power, as they can begin to establish security and control throughout Libya, we will all be looking for them to walk the walk even as they talk the talk.
As the transcript of the concurrent August 25 background briefing by the State Department reveals, the United States could release the $30 billion in Libyan funds that it froze any time it wants to.
Instead, it chooses to hide behind the UN Libyan Sanctions Committee on the issue of unfreezing assets … until it’s sure that the “walking” matches the “talking”.
We can thank Joe Lauria of the Wall Street Journal for asking the right question at the briefing:
Question: Yes, thank you. Hadn’t the US already unilaterally frozen these funds from Libya before the Security Council passed its sanctions? And if so, why didn’t the U.S. unilaterally unfreeze them the way Italy apparently did today, the $500 million?
Senior administration official one: It’s not clear that the money that the Italians unfroze was actually covered by UN Security Council 1970. There are various pots of money. Yes, we did unilaterally freeze assets before we got the Security Council resolution. Once we had the Security Council resolution, we wanted to work within the UN sanctions regime in order to unfreeze it if we possibly could. …
Question: Oh, so this was a matter of choice, then, not a legal obligation?
Senior administration official one: Correct … [It] was our preference for maintaining the integrity of the UN system, but we were prepared to act on our own if we couldn’t make that happen.
The inference can easily be drawn that the US is keeping the TNC on a short leash (and dangling inducements just beyond the reach of the Islamist Tripoli Brigade, which seems to hold the key to power in western Libya) until it is sure that the new government is displaying the necessary combination of effectiveness and obedience, and walk the walk in addition to talking the talk about those oil contracts and the democratic and free market reforms dear to the hearts of the West.
If the US, a key patron of the TNC, wants to keep its hand on its (actually Libya’s) wallet, it is understandable that China has exactly the same attitude about its dealings with the TNC.
If it doesn’t get its $3 billion back, if the TNC decides it’s going to punish China for its at best lukewarm attitude toward the new regime by shutting it out on new contracts, then China is going to make things as difficult as necessary in the matter of the release of frozen funds.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu declared that China had “no difficulty in principle” with the release of Libyan assets. Practice is, perhaps, another matter.
Per China Daily, Chinese experts offered plenty of reasons for slow-walking the release of funds, at least for a few months:
Gong Shaopeng, a professor of international relations at China Foreign Affairs University, said unfreezing Libya’s frozen assets should be a gradual process, as agreed upon during an international conference on Libya’s reconstruction in Paris last week.
He said that the assets already unfrozen, worth $15 billion, are enough for the NTC to operate for eight months before a general election is held.
He Wenping, an expert on African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a supervision mechanism is vital for the assets to be used in a proper way.
“It will be irresponsible if the assets are released without supervision. That may open the door for corruption,” she said.
To be fair, Western attitudes on Libya do not appear to be solely a matter of hypocritical maneuvering in order to preserve the facade of a triumph of democratic values over a rebellion that succeeded to a significant extent through the efforts of Islamist militants funded by Gulf autocracies. Genuine Atlantic-centric obtuseness seems to play a role as well.
In a remarkable op-ed, the chief of Reuters’ South Africa bureau, Marius Bosch, pressed South Africa to forget about its loyalty to Gaddafi – who, ostracized by most of the Arab community, pursued an Africa-centric foreign policy and lavished support on the African Union – and get with the Western program in Libya. Otherwise, he warned darkly, South Africa might find it getting its lunch eaten – by Nigeria, which recognized the TNC in late August.
South Africa’s refusal to recognize Libya’s new rebel rulers has again exposed the excessive bureaucracy that often stymies decision-making in Pretoria and could have disastrous consequences for its standing and influence in Africa.
South Africa’s snub of the interim ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) puts Africa’s largest economy at odds with the West and African economic rival Nigeria.
Bosch quoted other commentators – who appear to be what one might delicately be term Africans of the Caucasian persuasion – who seemed eager to drive a stake in the heart of the African Union, in which South Africa carries heavy influence:
Greg Mills, director of economic think-tank the Brenthurst Foundation, said in a blog post that South Africa’s diplomacy has infuriated many diplomats. “They (diplomats) are angered by what is increasingly viewed by some as Pretoria’s destructive stance. The term ‘rogue democracy’ is now on people’s lips.”
Savoring the delicious term “rogue democracy” and the implication that, once again, “those people” who represent the majority of South African voters are unsuitable stewards of the republic’s foreign policy, and leaving aside the question of whether there is any genuine enthusiasm inside Africa for the NATO/GCC-imposed regime change in Libya, the hard fact remains that the Libyan rebellion has been marked by a brutal, racist backlash against the African migrants who provided much low-cost labor in Gaddafi’s Libya.
Nigeria, the African state that Bosch claims will backfill in Libya at South Africa’s expense, recently had something to say about the state of its relations with the new Libya.
The word “genocide”, certainly a hot-button term in the continent that witnessed the Rwandan terror, came up in an article titled: Nigeria Protests the Killing of Its Nationals in Libya.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Amb[assador] Olugbenga Ashiru abandoned a church service yesterday to take distress calls of Nigerians in Libya, including their co-ordinator, Mr Daramola Siji.
Nigerians are being attacked in Tripoli, Benghazi, Gath, Agadez and Sirte …
A source said: “Unharmed Nigerians are being killed in tens for no just cause. In some instances, they rape Nigerian women before shooting them to death.
“Yet, this is the same TNC that the Federal Government is backing in Libya. The blacks are not involved in Libyan crisis; they do not deserve this massacre.”
In one of the distress notes sent to the Presidency and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Siji, who is from Emure-Ekiti, said: “We cannot go out of our homes, my wife and children. We will certainly be shot. We don’t have food and we lack everything.
“We can save lives. I am calling on AU to act and save African families boxed in troubled Libya and if anyone could reach out to the Nigerian government to stop the killing of Nigerians by the former rebels who are now the new leaders in Libya, it will be better.”
In a telephone chat with our correspondent, Siji gave details of how Nigerians have become the targets of the rebels.
He added: “The truth is that when Gaddafi was in office, he had sympathy for black Africans and many have even settled in Libya … But due to Gaddafi’s sympathy for the blacks, the rebels assumed that the blacks will naturally do everything to protect Gaddafi. So, they decided to kill any black man on sight.
“Nigerians have been the butt of the attacks on the blacks because the rebels could hardly differentiate them from Ghanaians, Malians, Nigerians, Burkinabes, Senegalese and Gambians …”
… A government source said: “Apart from talking to Siji directly, the Minister also reached out to the TNC, Britain and France on the need to stop the killing of black migrant workers, especially Nigerians. For about five hours yesterday, the Minister was talking to the TNC leaders, Britain and France on why the genocide must stop.
“The Federal Government has pleaded with Britain and France to prevail on the TNC leaders to ask their foot soldiers to end the massacre of blacks in Libya.
The Minister said Thursday: “The Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria wishes to note with concern reports of incessant abuse of helpless civilians in Libya … Regrettably, these reports revealed outright killings, rape and extortion of money from these helpless Africans who have taken refuge in camps as well as those in detention and incarceration.
“This development is a deviation from the overall expressed desire of the TNC, the African Union and indeed the United Nations for the restoration of democracy and good governance in Libya.
“These extra-judicial killings certainly run contrary to Nigeria’s call for the leadership of the TNC to be magnanimous in victory and can only stand in the way of peace building, early reconciliation and reconstruction in Libya.”
It remains to be seen whether the Western powers are as eager to exercise their responsibility to protect Nigerian and other African immigrants against an ongoing massacre in Libya as they were to protect their clients from the hypothetical threat of massacre in Benghazi.
However, it would appear that with the killing of black Africans and the burning of their homes and settlements, the new Libya is also burning its bridges to a convenient source of cheap labor.
Fortunately, there is one country that possesses the human and engineering resources to step in and do the necessary work that the oil-rich and labor-poor nation of Libya is unable or unwilling to perform itself. That country, of course, is China.
1. A degree of influence, Centre for Social Cohesion, 2009.
2. A Saudi National Security Doctrine for the New Decade, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, 2011.
3. China and the Libyan muddle, Asia Times Online, Mar 19, 2011.
4. U.S. ‘Not Encouraged’ by India, South Africa, Brazil at UN, Bloomberg, Sep 13, 2011.
5. ‘Tripoli Brigade’ trains to take capital, YouTube, Jun 6, 2011.
6. Libyan rebel leader addresses crowds in Tripoli, Guardian, Sep 14, 2011.
7. China offered Gadhafi huge stockpiles of arms: Libyan memos, The Globe and Mail, Sep 3, 2011.
8. China counting financial losses in Libya, China.org, Mar 4, 2011.
9. UN Sanctions Committee on Libya, US Department of State, Aug 25, 2011.
11. Beijing denies Gadhafi arms trade, China Daily, Sep 6, 2011.
12. S. Africa’s out-of-sync Libya policy may cost it dearly, The Citizen, Sep 13, 2011.
13. Nigeria protests killing of its nationals in Libya, The Nation, Sep 5, 2011.