Vol. 33 No. 24 · 15 December 2011

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Who said Gaddafi had to go?

My admiration for Hugh Roberts as a North Africa scholar and analyst of Islamic activism remains unbounded (LRB, 17 November). I was president of the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009, and I believe that our 2005 report Understanding Islamism, of which he was the primary author, was one of the finest and most influential ICG ever produced. But I am deeply underwhelmed by his lengthy attempt to demonstrate that the military intervention in Libya was nothing more than a rerun of the ‘war party’ bombing for democracy in Iraq.

The Security Council did not invoke ‘democratic principles’ to justify the military intervention, but rather the ‘responsibility to protect’: a principle devised – by the commission sponsored by Canada which I co-chaired with the Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun in 2001 – in the wake of the atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s and the indifference and inaction with which they were met. The principle, embraced unanimously at the UN’s 2005 World Summit, has been invoked by the Security Council on at least six occasions.

Whatever the distaste felt for Gaddafi in the West and by the Arab League, it is inconceivable that the ‘all necessary measures’ resolution in the Security Council would have been pursued, let alone accepted, had there not been a widespread belief (shared by Russia, China and the other abstainers) that Gaddafi’s regime had killed many civilian protesters and, in Benghazi, was about to kill a great many more, and that his behaviour over the three weeks since the preceding Security Council resolution showed him to be resistant to the kind of negotiated political settlement that Roberts argues was still possible.

Roberts is on much firmer ground arguing that the subsequent actions of the Nato-led force grievously stretched the formal Security Council mandate for limited civilian protection into an effectively unlimited brief for regime change. I acknowledge the force of the argument that the only way civilians could reliably be protected in areas, such as Tripoli, that were under Gaddafi’s control was by removing him. But it would have been much preferable to conduct the operation on a more restrained basis: maintaining a no-fly zone, and attacking any concentration of forces clearly about to put civilians at risk, in Benghazi, Misrata or anywhere else. Beyond that the rebels should have been left to fight their own war. This would undoubtedly have led to a more protracted, probably messier war with even more casualties, and harder domestic politics to manage in the US and Europe, but it would have preserved the integrity of the principle of responsibility to protect, and the consensual basis for its future application.

Gareth Evans
University of Melbourne

Hugh Roberts debunks the wild claims made by some in the Libyan opposition that there would have been a ‘genocidal’ massacre if Benghazi had not been protected, suggesting instead that not much would have happened beyond the rolling of the thirty-odd heads of the NTC. Yet according to Human Rights Watch the security forces killed more than 170 civilians between 17 and 20 February. Surely the better equipped and more skilful killers of Gaddafi’s elite forces would have outdone them? HRW estimates that about a thousand people died during the siege of Misrata: scaling up for Benghazi, a reasonable guess would be that at least 2000 died in Benghazi. This is not a ‘genocide’, but it seems more significant than Roberts is prepared to grant. He slides towards apologetics when he suggests that Gaddafi was not ‘killing his own people’ but ‘those of his people who were rebelling’: he is ignoring the chronology of the revolt, in which armed resistance sprung up in response to the initial slaughter of rebellious, but as yet unarmed Libyan citizens.

Roberts argues that the whole operation was unnecessary in any case, because Libya’s problems could have been resolved by arranging a ceasefire followed by negotiations for political reform. The Gaddafi regime did respond to the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 by proclaiming a ceasefire and cessation of military operations on 18 March. However, its forces did not cease firing. Instead, within 24 hours of the declaration they entered Benghazi and began shelling the city. It was easy to get Gaddafi to announce ceasefires; the tricky bit was getting him to implement one, something the International Crisis Group recognised when it extended its plan to include an international peacekeeping force.

The fundamental obstacle to any form of negotiation was the intransigence of the combatants: Gaddafi refused to leave under any circumstances and the NTC refused to contemplate any form of dialogue while he was still in power. The rebels understood the nature of the regime just as well as Roberts, but unlike him drew the logical conclusion. In this their stance was in keeping with the temper of the Arab Spring, all of whose insurgents have insisted that their countries’ leaders must go as a precondition for any settlement.

Brian Slocock

At last – a comprehensive, coherent, cogent and above all critical assessment of the Gaddafi regime and the forces behind its demise. First, there were the internal forces, for Gaddafi had, as Roberts argues, effectively painted himself into a corner: any dissidence was a threat to his personal political project and achievement. What Roberts generally refers to as ‘the revolt’ was indeed ‘a raw affair’; but how ‘popular’ was it, at least in its early phases? Is it even appropriate to refer to it as ‘a popular revolt’ or an ‘uprising’? It certainly was not a popular mass movement, as in Tunisia and Egypt, or in Syria. ‘Rebellion’ might be better, as the ‘movement’ included dissidents from Gaddafi’s own regime, some of them from the army. Also there was considerable support for Gaddafi – right until the end – and not only from those expected to be ‘loyal’ because of their vested interests. It could be argued that the external forces eventually proved crucial in so far as they both shaped and supported the revolt, as well as ensuring that it persisted when at times it seemed it might be quelled.

As Roberts indicates, ‘the claim that the “international community" had no choice but to intervene militarily and that the alternative was to do nothing is false.’ Detailed proposals involving a ceasefire, followed by political negotiations for an orderly transition to a more ‘legitimate’ form of government, remained on the table in various forms right up until the adoption of Resolution 1973 on 17 March – and even, arguably, afterwards. Gaddafi offered a ceasefire on 18 March, and again on 20 March, while Turkey and the African Union were involved in discussions with him and with the main sponsors of the resolution in Paris, London and Washington during the later part of March and into April. France’s decision on 10 March to recognise the NTC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people certainly proved decisive, but this clearly did not, as Roberts suggests, banish Gaddafi from the realm of international political discourse. It did mean, however, that the decisive weight of the Western powers and some Arab states moved behind military intervention and regime change, whatever was said at the time about Nato intervention as an ‘action to protect civilians’.

Roberts makes clear the blatant absurdity of this justification. There is no evidence that the attempts by the Gaddafi regime to quell the revolt – which undeniably involved violence and armed force – went as far as was suggested at the time, despite accusations of ‘massacres’, ‘potential genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity and crimes of war’ by various sources, inside and outside Libya. On the other hand, the Nato air strikes, arms shipments by various governments (including those of France, Qatar and Egypt, it seems) and military ‘technical advice’ on the ground (by British special forces), together with the one-sided diplomatic effort by those now clearly committed to regime change, ensured that the rebels were able to maintain their challenge to the armed forces of the Gaddafi regime in a way that they almost certainly would not have been able to do otherwise, and over a lengthy period of time, so that there were large numbers of civilian as well as military casualties on both sides. If the outcome was eventually what the sponsors of regime change in Libya had intended, their military intervention certainly did not protect civilians; indeed, it substantially increased the number of those dead and injured. Although definitive figures have yet to be produced, current estimates suggest up to 30,000 dead and 50,000 injured, 20,000 of them seriously.

David Seddon
Brockdish, Norfolk

Only a Libyan who has lived all his life in Gaddafi’s Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya is in a position to point out the many things that Hugh Roberts gets wrong.

Roberts puts Libyans’ per capita income at $12,000. I don’t know where he gets this figure. What I do know, as a Libyan civil servant of more than 15 years, is that the income of the average grade-six government sector employee is 150 Libyan dinars – hardly $100 a month or $1200 a year. A grade-nine employee earns no more than $3000 a year. It isn’t true that Libyans were ‘well fed, housed and schooled’. I remember as a young child in the 1980s having to stand in exhaustingly long queues in front of the state-owned outlet to get the family’s monthly ration of basic food supplies. Good housing and good schooling are unknown to the vast majority of Libyan citizens, who have had to live for generations in the same house and to study in school buildings unfit even for keeping cattle.

I do not understand what Roberts means when he refers to ‘the supposedly imminent massacre at Benghazi’. There was nothing supposed about Gaddafi’s intentions towards the people of Benghazi. I stayed up all night on 18 and 19 March, trying to assess how close the troops were to our house by listening to the thunderous missile bombardment. I wasn’t armed and my nine-year-old car is too shaky to be used as a getaway vehicle. If Roberts and his family had been subjected to the sufferings of the residents of Misrata, Zawiya, Ajdabiya, Benghazi, he too would have ‘panicked’ and welcomed the Nato intervention with relief.

Roberts speaks about Gaddafi as if he were a normal world leader who had done no more than any self-respecting dictator would do: that is, attempted to quash the revolution and execute his opponents. Does Roberts have no moral objection to this? Gaddafi did not regard the NTC alone as his enemy: he held all the residents of Benghazi responsible for what had happened to him. He was a man who believed in collective punishment. If Roberts doesn’t believe this he should ask the people of Derna, Tubruq, Benghazi or the place he purposefully ignores, Misrata, about the ‘supposed’ atrocities of Gaddafi’s troops. If what happened in Misrata doesn’t count as a ‘massacre’ I don’t know what does.

Roberts speaks of Gaddafi’s ceasefires. No one believed Gaddafi because he told nothing but lies. Ask the people of Chad who had to listen to Gaddafi denying the presence of Libyan troops on Chad’s soil while their villages were being bombed by the same non-existent troops. Would Roberts have been satisfied if Gaddafi’s troops had succeeded in killing a million Libyans before an intervention was allowed?

Nafa Tashani

In his critique of the Nato intervention in Libya, Hugh Roberts spares a few moments for Gaddafi’s role in the politics of the Maghreb. I find it astonishing that he never mentions the disputed territory of the Western Sahara. Gaddafi was an early, erratic supporter of the Western Saharan liberation movement, Polisario, for reasons of his own, before Algeria backed their cause in 1975. Three decades later, Western Sahara is still a major obstacle to good relations between Rabat and Algiers. But Roberts circumvents the issue by asserting that Moroccan-Algerian relations have been hamstrung by territorial rivalry over neighbouring Mauritania. The gravel wastes of northern Mauritania, briefly contested in the 1970s, have little to do with the destructive conflict over a botched decolonisation of Western Sahara. Independence remains the key issue in this former Spanish colony, overrun by Morocco in 1975. Passionate in his opposition to the Nato assault on Gaddafi’s regime, Roberts is a stickler for international law. On Western Sahara, he has taken a realpolitik stance since the 1980s, unimpressed by the legitimacy of the Saharans’ case in the face of force majeure. So which is it to be, international law or realpolitik?

Jacob Mundy
Colgate University, Hamilton, New York

Hugh Roberts writes: Ignoring my clear critique of the Jamahiriyya, Hisham Matar misrepresents my opposition to the war policy as a lament for Gaddafi’s dictatorship and accuses me of disregarding the will of the Libyan people when the Libyan people, pre-empted by Western governments, rebel militias and Nato, have had no opportunity to express their will (Letters, 1 December). It is precisely because I had sympathy for the aspirations of those Libyans who wanted a democratic law-bound republic in place of Gaddafi’s regime that I advocated a ceasefire and negotiated transition, in which Libyan public opinion could at last have its say.

I appreciate and reciprocate former ICG president Gareth Evans’s kind sentiments, but consider that democratic principles were indeed at issue because the NTC claimed to represent them in opposition to Gaddafi’s dictatorship, a claim endorsed by the Western powers. Certainly the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ he has advocated, based on the events in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, was invoked by Resolution 1973. But was Libya a proper case for ‘R2P’? Pre-empting the ICG, which after carefully considering the facts decided it wasn’t, Evans argued it was in an article as early as 27 February, and on 24 March insisted that the military intervention, rationalised in terms of his doctrine, was not and should not be about regime change. What prompted Evans to see an analogy with Bosnia and Rwanda as early as 27 February if it was not the spurious story about Gaddafi’s air force slaughtering protesters? And since he does not challenge my debunking of this story, might he not now recognise that he got that wrong and accordingly reconsider his view that this was a genuine exercise in R2P and not about regime change when it was in fact a genuine exercise in regime change that occasioned many thousands of avoidable civilian casualties and so a misappropriation of his well-intentioned idea?

Pace Brian Slocock, the revolt exhibited a violent side from 15 February, when state buildings were set on fire in al-Baida and Zintan. Similar violence occurred in al-Baida and al-Quba the next day. Lynchings of policemen and ‘Africans’ began two days later. The regime’s repression was certainly brutal, but the notion that it was confronting only peaceful demonstrators is a myth.

None of my critics denies that Gaddafi immediately complied with Resolution 1973; they merely offer threadbare excuses for the NTC-Nato violations of it. Slocock’s suggestion that Gaddafi was intransigent is untrue. Nafa Tashani complains that Gaddafi was a liar, as if the NTC was not repeatedly found to be lying as well. Ceasefires are agreed by adversaries in war, where truth is the first casualty. Gaddafi had honoured the commitments he had made since 2002 with the US, the UK, Italy and other partners. Any residual problem of mistrust could have been resolved by deploying a peace-keeping force and by mobilising international pressure, including pressure from Libya’s African friends, to ensure that the ceasefire had powerful external guarantors. This was entirely feasible, as Western governments must have known.

In describing my position on Libya as that of ‘a stickler for international law’ Jacob Mundy caricatures my argument, while the contrast he suggests with my earlier work on Western Sahara is a hallucination. In both cases I have advocated strategies for resolving the conflicts in question through compromises consistent with democratic principles and criticised the UN Security Council and the Western powers for thwarting such possible outcomes for unstated reasons of their own.

Men bear the heavier burden (oh yes)

Where to start with C. Coghlan’s feminist-baiting misrepresentation of 18th-century social history (Letters, 1 December)? Perhaps by referring him (presumably Coghlan is a man) to Mary Wollstonecraft, who spelled out what legal disabilities meant in practice and refuted the idea that an absence of responsibility was a desirable condition for an adult human being: ‘Struggle with any obstacles rather than go into a state of dependence!’ It is patently misleading to assert that a married couple were deemed to be one person: what happened was that the wife’s identity was subsumed in that of the husband. As Blackstone put it, woman’s ‘civil death’ on marriage was written into the law of the land. For 18th-century women, the marriage contract was ‘an agreement to cease to be’, and the institution a negation of freedom.

Liz Willis
London W7

The Death of Dag Hammarskjöld

Fifty years after Dag Hammarskjöld’s death in September 1961, conspiracy theories are still being put forward about the plane crash in which he was killed. Ten years ago Matthew Hughes suggested in this paper that his plane had crashed as the result of a failed kidnap attempt by Belgian mercenaries (LRB, 9 August 2001). In her recently published book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, Susan Williams asserts that Hammarskjöld’s death was ‘almost certainly the result of a sinister intervention’. Like others who have suggested that the accident was the result of sabotage, she dismisses the findings of the Rhodesian investigation and the subsequent public inquiry into the crash. She argues that local people’s claims to have seen a second aircraft on the evening of the crash were ignored. However, neither Williams nor other conspiracy theorists have considered the technical findings of the investigation. My father, the late Bob Nelson, was one of the two UN observers who took part. A leading expert in air accident investigation, he was employed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and had been the head of its Aircraft Accident unit. He flew out to Rhodesia immediately after the crash to examine the site and the wreckage with a Canadian colleague from ICAO.

My father supported the findings of the Rhodesian investigation. In 1993, when Bengt Rösiö was commissioned by the Swedish government to investigate rumours surrounding the accident, my father wrote to him summarising his view that the Swedish aircraft had flown under control into trees ten miles from Ndola airport, where the pilot had been intending to land. At the time it should have been flying 1600 feet above the ground. It had its wheels and flaps down, ready for landing. If it had been shot down or there had been an explosion on board, the aircraft would have fallen vertically into the trees; in fact it flew into the trees at a shallow descending angle (5º). Sabotage was thus ruled out. My father agreed that the crash was the result of pilot error, which could have been caused by faulty instrument readings while making a night-time approach.

Despite this expert assessment the report of the official UN inquiry in 1962 was inconclusive. My father’s view was that this was due to political pressure, and the Swedish government’s reluctance at that time to consider the possibility that the Swedish crew was in any way responsible for the accident. Nonetheless, Rösiö, in his 1993 review, acknowledged that the evidence indicated the aircraft had made a controlled descent and that there was no evidence that it crashed as the result of outside interference.

Williams includes a number of photographs taken during the investigation of the crash. One shows the damage to the trees; Williams notes that this extended over a 150-yard stretch, without being aware that this pattern of damage indicates a controlled descent. Another picture is of four men at the scene of the crash. Williams identifies two of the men, dressed in boiler suits, as ‘Swedish experts’ and the other two men, dressed in shorts, as Rhodesians. She criticises the ‘relaxed attitude of the Rhodesian investigation’. However, my father is one of the men dressed in shorts, and on the back of his copy he has noted that the other three men in the photograph were Swedish government representatives. Her error in wrongly identifying the men in this photograph, and then linking their casual style of dress to a lack of rigour in the conduct of the investigation, does not inspire confidence in the rigour of her own research.

Suzy Nelson
London N16

Serial and Surreal

As Nick Richardson writes, Pierre Boulez’s 1952 analysis of Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic achievement was ‘reductive’, but to claim that ‘the French were interested only in the abstract side’ risks doing them the same disservice (LRB, 20 October). Both Messiaen and Boulez ventured into abstraction (with Mode de valeurs et d’intensités and Structures, Livre I respectively) and promptly moved on, integrating method with that broader thing, compositional technique. Messiaen used serialism selectively to create surreal visions of French landscape in Catalogue d’oiseaux (the clue’s in the title – it wouldn’t be a complete injustice to call it ‘Series of Birds’). He preferred odd numbers – primes in particular – to twelves, and it would be nice to think that the 13 pieces in the Catalogue are a wry nod to Schoenberg’s triskaidekaphobia; they probably aren’t, but it’s likely to be a statement of independence (from his students as well). Boulez also became less rigorous in Le Marteau sans maître (settings of René Char); both realised the kinship of serialism and surrealism, Messiaen through the use of image, Boulez poetry.

Roderick Chadwick
London SE20

Have they already been?

Brian Porter is wrong to say the lunar surface is unchanging (Letters, 1 December). Solar radiation churns the lunar soil, and the meteor clouds that light up the Earth’s night sky also shower the Moon’s surface. In only a few thousand years the unprotected footprints of Armstrong, Aldrin et al will be obliterated, although the impression of the landing craft will last much longer, unless hit by a meteoroid – one of which struck the Moon on 2 May 2006, leaving a crater three metres deep and 14 metres wide.

Peter Slessenger

Measuring Matilda

Marc Morris writes about my piece on Queen Matilda: ‘Tom Shippey … alleges (following Borman) that Matilda was 4'2". This is a modern myth’ (Letters, 1 December). I didn’t allege anything of the sort. I reported Borman’s claim, adding ‘forensics, however, can’t be trusted’ and ‘it isn’t unlikely they got Matilda wrong.’ It seems my suspicions were correct. Thank you, Mr Morris, for confirming this, but can’t you read?

Tom Shippey
Buckland Newton, Dorset


James Meek claims that the official name of the hated poll tax was ‘council tax’: a fine example of Freudian slippage with its apparently unconscious reference to another levy for which many people claim to see no obvious benefit (LRB, 1 December). The poll tax was of course the ‘community charge’, just as the Falklands War was officially the ‘Falklands conflict’.

Harry Watson

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