Libya’s lesson for Iran: Beware of rapprochement
Three years ago, in late October 2011, the world witnessed the final defeat of the Libyan Jamahiriya - the name by which the Libyan state was known until overthrown in 2011, meaning literally the “state of the masses” - in the face of a massive onslaught from NATO, its regional allies and local collaborators.
It took seven months for the world’s most powerful military alliance - with a combined military spending of just under $1 trillion per year - to fully destroy the Jamahiriya (a state with a population the size of Wales) and it took a joint British-French-Qatari special-forces operation to finally win control of the capital. In total, 10,000 strike sorties were rained down on Libya, tens of thousands killed and injured, and the country left a battleground for hundreds of warring factions, armed to the teeth with weapons, either looted from state armouries or provided directly by NATO and its allies. Britain, France and the US had led a war which had effectively transformed a peaceful, prosperous African country into a textbook example of a “failed state.”
Yet the common image of Libya in the months and years leading up to the invasion was that of a state that had “come in from the cold” and was now enjoying friendly relations with the West. Tony Blair’s famous embrace of Gaddafi in his tent in 2004 was said to have ushered in a new period of “rapprochement” with Western companies rushing to do business in the oil-rich African state, and Gaddafi’s abandonment of a nuclear deterrent apparently indicative of the new spirit of trust and co-operation.
Yet this image was largely a myth. Yes, sanctions were lifted and diplomatic relations restored; but this did not represent any newfound trust and friendship. Gaddafi himself never changed his opinion that the forces of old and new colonialism remained bitter enemies of African unity and independence, and for their part, the US, Britain and France continued to resent the assertiveness and independence of Libyan foreign policy under Gaddafi’s leadership. The African Oil Policy Initiative Group (AOPIG) - an elite US think tank comprising congressmen, military officers and energy industry lobbyists - warned in 2002 that the influence of “adversaries such as Libya” would only grow unless the US significantly increased its military presence on the continent. Yet, despite “rapprochement,” Gaddafi remained a staunch opponent of such a presence, as noted with anxiety in frequent diplomatic cables from the US Embassy. One, for example, from 2009, noted that “the presence of non-African military elements in Libya or elsewhere on the continent” was almost a “neuralgic issue” for Gaddafi. Another cable from 2008 quoted a pro-Western Libyan government official as saying that “there will be no real economic or political reform in Libya until al-Gaddafi passes from the political scene” which would “not happen while Gaddafi is alive,” hardly the image of a man bending to the will of the West. Gaddafi had clearly not been moved by the flattery towards Libya (or “appropriate deference” as another US Embassy cable put it) that was much in evidence during the period of “rapprochement.” Indeed, at the Arab League summit in March 2008, he warned the assembled heads of state that, following the execution of Saddam Hussein, a former “close friend” of the US, “in the future, it’s going to be your turn too...Even you, the friends of America - no, I will say we, we the friends of America - America may approve of our hanging one day.”
So much for a new period of trust and co-operation. Whilst business deals were being signed, Gaddafi remained implacably opposed to the US and European military presence on the continent (as well as leading the fight to reduce their economic presence) and understood well that this might cost him his life. The US too understood this, and despite their outward flattery, behind the scenes were worried and resentful.
Thus, the so-called rapprochement period was anything but. The US continued to remain hostile to the independent spirit of Libya - as evidenced most obviously by Gaddafi’s hostility to the presence of US and European military forces in Africa - and it now seems that they and the British used this period to prepare the ground for the war that eventually took place in 2011.
The US, for example, used their newfound access to Libyan officials to cultivate relations with those who would become their key local allies during the war. Leaked diplomatic cables show that pro-Western Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul-Jalil arranged covert meetings between US and Libyan government officials that bypassed the usual official channels and were therefore “under the radar” of the foreign ministry and central government. He was also able to speed up the prisoner release programme that led to the release of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group insurgents who ultimately acted as NATO’s shock troops during the 2011 war. The head of the LIFG - al-Qaeda’s franchise in Libya - eventually became head of Tripoli’s military council, whilst Abdul-Jalil himself became head of the “Transitional National Council,” that was installed by NATO following the fall of the Jamahiriya.
Another key figure groomed by the US in the years preceding the invasion, was Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Economic Development Board from 2007, who arranged six US training programmes for Libyan diplomats, many of whom subsequently resigned and sided with the US and Britain once the rebellion and invasion got underway.
Finally, the security and intelligence co-operation that was an element of the “rapprochement” period was used to provide the CIA and MI6 with an unprecedented level of information about both Libyan security forces and opposition elements they could cultivate that would prove invaluable for the conduct of the war.
Thus rapprochement, whilst appearing to be an improvement in relations, may actually be a “long game” to lay the groundwork for naked aggression, by building up intelligence and sounding out possible collaborators, effectively building up a fifth column within the state itself. This is what the neo-conservatives in the US Congress opposing Obama’s “thaw” in Iranian relations apparently fail to understand. Thankfully, it is likely that the Iranians understand it perfectly well.
- Dan Glazebrook is a political writer specialising in Western foreign policy. He is author of Divide and Ruin: The West's Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Moamer Gaddafi addresses delegates during the 12th African Union summit at the United Nations Headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa on 4 Feb, 2009 (AFP)