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What's so special about Libya?

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Robin Lustig | 11:34 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

What's so special about Libyan civilians?

I ask the question provocatively, because it's being asked elsewhere following the start of air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya.

What about civilians in Yemen? Bahrain? Syria? And if you want to look beyond the Arab world, what about civilians in Ivory Coast, slipping once again ever closer to all-out civil war?

When the wave of pro-reform uprisings began in Tunisia, thousands of people throughout the Arab world asked themselves: "Could we do the same here?"

And now that US, French and British warplanes are hitting targets in Libya, evidently hoping to destroy Colonel Gaddafi's military infrastructure, Arab leaders must be asking themselves: "Could they do the same here?"

For now, the answer seems to be that it's highly unlikely. A couple of days ago, I asked a senior Conservative MP, James Arbuthnot, chairman of the House of Commons defence select committee: "If Libya, why not Yemen or Bahrain?"

This was his reply: "That's a perfectly fair point. But just because we can't solve every problem doesn't mean we shouldn't solve this problem, which we can solve now ... We have to deal with this on a piece by piece basis."

On Friday, just a matter of hours before the first air strikes in Libya, dozens of anti-government protesters were shot dead in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, and five were killed in the Syrian city of Daraa, close to the border with Jordan.

So far, there's been no suggestion that another UN security council resolution should be drafted, putting in place a no-fly zone over either Yemen or Syria. And in Bahrain, Saudi troops have moved in to help the government, not the protesters.

Diplomacy has always revolved primarily around considerations of self-interest. As the 19th century British prime minister and foreign secretary Lord Palmerston put it: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

So in Western capitals -- and with many misgivings, in Arab capitals too -- the calculation is that national self-interest is better served with Muammar Gaddafi off the scene. He has few friends in places that matter, and has made too many enemies during his 40-plus years in power.

The same is not true of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, or Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or King Hamad in Bahrain. The Yemeni leader is (or was? He may be gone within hours, it seems) regarded as an ally by the US and Saudi Arabia, even if both wish he would do more to accommodate at least some of the demands of the protesters - and President Assad of Syria, while certainly no friend of Washington, is regarded by his fellow Arab leaders as a major figure to be treated with respect.

In Bahrain, King Hamad, and more importantly his uncle, the long-serving prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, are staunch Western allies, and host the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

So perhaps what's special about Libyan civilians is that their leader has too few friends. UN security council resolution 1973 authorises the use of force "to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack". But how, and when, that threat is perceived to have been removed remains unclear.

Meanwhile, other Arab leaders will be busy calculating about how best to protect their own interests. Stand firm, do whatever is necessary to crush the protests? Or follow the example of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and be swept away by the tide of popular protests?


  • Comment number 1.

    Let's face it. The House of Saud could melt their civilians down for soap and all we would hear from the 'Coalition' would be an uncomfortable shuffling of feet. Acting in one's "interests" is more often than not a cover for another immoral, murderous farce.

  • Comment number 2.

    There are few regimes in the Arab world that act so openly to undermine stability in the region, which is fundamentally in everyone's interest. Even in particularly problematic trouble spots such as Israel, talks have brought the two sides to an uneasy, if at times strained, peace. If the Gadaffi regime had continued down the path of consensus, rather than confrontation, as it seemed to be doing but two years ago it might have escaped the wrath of the international community.

  • Comment number 3.

    What is so special about Libyan civilians?
    The article gives several hints to find the answer. From my perspective though, it is a bid more simple:
    First, Col. Gaddafi has crossed any acceptable line of humanity and does not even try to hide this. His few friends in Italy and maybe elsewhere, thus, saw themselves increasingly seen as someone shaking the hand of a pure mass murder.
    Second, as soon as Mubarak sent in some paramilitary forces shooting the protestors in Cairo, President Obama and others urged him to step aside. We will (hopefully) see similar reactions in the very near future concerning Bahrain and Yemen.
    Third, in Libya we have been observing the third (very well justified) revolution of the people almost failing due to the atrocities and brutality of the leading Gaddafi clan. What would have been the message to the other Regimes in the region, if Gaddafi would not have been stopped? They would have perceived this (inaction) as a green light to shoot and kill their own people as much as they consider it necessary. Hopefully, the Libyan people will get rid of their tyranny soon. This will not solve all problems (by far). But it provides a basis for a restart and also sends a helpful message to the remaining dictators.

  • Comment number 4.

    The "international" focus on Libya is more than a symbol than anything else. The Libyan civilians are under the "regime of Gaddafi". Note the name of "Gaddafi". He is a figurehead, just like Saddam. People know him world over. He is a bit of a crazy guy, nukes and all. Gaddafi has a colourful history. People know his name. Moreso than the ousted leaders in Egypt or Tunisia, or, more importantly, in response to your article, much more than those in Bahrain, Yemen or even the Ivory Coast. Thus when Gaddafi does fall, it will be become a symbol of "arab freedom and democracy" in the eyes of the public and history past. But why the "international" forces would want to create that in the first place, is a completely different question...

  • Comment number 5.

    This is starting to resemble a particularly nasty settling of scores. I'm beginning to wonder if the people of Libya are so "special" at all, or if this campaign is nothing more than an enormous beard-singeing.

    Aerial bombardments will be terrifically destructive and will take an enormous toll of the dictator's military hardware, but without ground forces they will achieve no lasting result.

    The rebel "forces", even if they were working in tandem with the coalition, which they are not, resemble nothing more than an ill-disciplined host of trigger happy adolescents with lethal toys. They will not dislodge Gaddafi from Tripoli, not in a million years, begging the question "who will"?

  • Comment number 6.

    What's so special about Libyan civilians?
    The excuse, my boy, the excuse: The citizens are the focus of the so-called humanitarian crisis, and everyone knows that Gaddafi is a mad-dog who feeds onm the entrails of his people daily.
    Yes, I too have asked: What about civilians in Yemen? Bahrain? Syria, the Ivory Coast, Tunisia - thousands of people throughout the Arab world asking themselves: "How come the United Nations does not help us? How come all this help is going to Libya? What does it mean?"
    Sweet crude!
    That's what it means: SWEET CRUDE!
    N sooner had Colonel Gaddafi's military infrastructure, including his palace been struck, then Arab leaders were complaining "This is not waht we had in mind when we supported R-1973." Somehow, they were quickly silenced by the west, which likely mens that they were told: "We can come to your country. We can do the same to you. So crawl home you Arabs (tail between your legs) and keep your mouths shut!"
    Why Libya?
    Why this problem, and not Yemen?
    Any fool can tell you, it's the sweet crude, the perfect oil, and it sits in the East of Libya. So the weestern attempt will likely be to Balkanize Libya - east and west. (Divide and conquer.)
    Oh how I want another UN Resolution! Oh how I want another UN Resolution that says: CEASE FIRE ON LIBYA, YOU WESTERN, GREEDY, ARROGANT AMERICAN MILITARY/COMPLEX!"
    you have said it: "in Western capitals - and with many misgivings, in Arab capitals too - the calculation is that national self-interest is better served with Muammar Gaddafi off the scene" because he is the only force that has kept Libya united for over forty years; he is the only force that has shared the oil wealth and educated his peopl.
    How fair is his desposal?
    How democratric?
    How hypocritical!
    How calculated and bloodthirsty!!
    Who armed the Libyan rebels? How come we see the same pictures of the same rebels day after day, after day, AFTER DAY? Who gave the west to right to take out Gaddafi? The United Nations didn't.
    So perhaps what's special about Libyan civilians is that their leader leads a country of sweet crude. UN security council resolution 1973 authorises the use of force "to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack". What a joke! Where were these civilians - inside Gaddafi's tent?
    If other Arab leaders nations had any spine, they would be at the United Nations demanding a ceasefire. If the west had any concern for citizens they would stop this miserable charade.
    I am sick of the west, its spin, its lies, its mirepresentations, and to speak plainly, I would like to see its military/complex planning backfire.

  • Comment number 7.

    The difference is one of scale.

    In Bahrain the reports suggest that 5 anti-government protesters have been killed. In Libya that figure is thought to be over 5 THOUSAND.

    Where relatively low numbers are involved a diplomatic response is appropriate. Where government forces are effectively conducting wholesale slaughter a more robust response is required.

  • Comment number 8.

    Interesting piece. And yes of course national diplomacy is ruled by national self interest. However I'm not clear why protecting Libyan civilians right now is in the UK's national interest. Until very recently its been in our national self interest to sell him arms, develop trade and welcome him to the international community. And whilst it is very easy to state that the west is simply motivated by 'the oil' I'm not convinced it's that simple - after all Western special forces had to rescue foreign oil workers from Libya just a few weeks ago, so it seems to me like we were already profiting from Libyan oil. If anyone (Robin L?) would like to explain please feel free

  • Comment number 9.

    #8 Adpedant This is what David Cameron said on Saturday:

    "If Gaddafi's attacks on his own people succeed, Libya will once again become a pariah state, festering on Europe's border, a source of instability, exporting strife beyond her borders.

    "A state from which literally hundreds of thousands of citizens could seek to escape, putting huge pressure on us in Europe."

    "We must remember that Gaddafi is a dictator who has a track record of violence and support for terrorism against our country and against Scotland specifically.

    "The people of Lockerbie, 100 miles away from here, know what he is capable of.

    "I am clear: taking action in Libya is in our national interest and that's why Britain, with our allies like America and France, and alongside the Arab world, must play our part in responding to this crisis."

  • Comment number 10.

    i response, what's so special about U.K citizens ?

  • Comment number 11.

    The people behind this little imperial adventure have little concerns about the Libyan civilians they claim to protect.

    The Arabs are not allowed to be independent. That would weaken the West's hegemonic hold. The West is letting them know who the boss is.


  • Comment number 12.

    I completely disagree. I think we need to put things in perspective first. The situation of the protesters in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria is not nearly as bad as of those in Libya and the duration of time is also crucial. The protests in Syria began only a few days ago and the same goes for the shootings in Yemen. The war in Libya has been going on for weeks and resolution 1973 was definitely not a hasty decision. Why now expect a much more rapid reaction to a much less serious situation in Yemen or Syria?

    I certainly wouldn't bet my money that if the situation in those countries was to reach the level of atrocities we see in Libya today, the international community would not use force. The deployment of military force in Libya helps those in other countries at least in that, that it averts a situation where a leader is permitted to cling on to power through the use of violence and gives other leaders a clear example to follow.

    Furthermore, the reason Ben Ali and Mubarak left without considerable bloodshed is that the West had a certain influence over their regimes and was able to put direct pressure on them. Hopefully the same mechanism will apply in Yemen and Bahrain, and if not, than how can we continue to consider those regimes as allies of the West? You don't become an ally only by taking aid and not giving anything back. If, say, president Saleh was to declare an all out war against his opposition and start using heavy military equipment against them, he would automatically fall out of the "friends of the West" category and the West would, in my opinion, have no misgivings against using military force against him, if only to show other "friends" that disloyalty is not welcome and carries consequences.


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