Gwynne Dyer: Libyans must provide their own democratic revolution

Once upon a time, a U.S. president was appalled by the actions of a murderous Arab dictator. He got the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force to stop the dictator, put together a coalition of NATO and Arab countries, and did precisely that. Sound familiar?

The president’s name was George Herbert Walker Bush, and the Arab dictator was called Saddam Hussein. Saddam had invaded the sovereign state of Kuwait, and the UN authorized Bush to drive him out again. It did not authorize him to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam—so he didn’t.

The senior Bush has been vilified ever since for sticking to the letter of the UN resolution, and not using his army to overthrow Saddam Hussein when he had the chance. What are the odds that President Barack Obama will do the same and not overthrow Muammar Gadhafi in Libya? Pretty good, if you believe what he says.

“Our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives,” Obama said in his speech on March 28, denying that the real goal of the air campaign against Gadhafi’s military forces was regime change. The United States had acted militarily because it “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action”, but there would be no foreign troops in Libya and no direct attempt to overthrow Gadhafi.

If Obama sticks to that resolve, then there is a very good chance that Gadhafi will still be in power, in the western half of a divided Libya, five years from now. The cities of Tripolitania (western Libya) have already been reduced to submission by his forces, with the sole exception of Misrata, and the rebels in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) show no sign of being able to defeat his army in the field.

Should Gadhafi try once more to reconquer Cyrenaica, then the air-power of the coalition (basically the NATO countries but also including a few Arab countries) will stop him again. But if he just consolidates his hold on the west, who’s going to force him out? Certainly not the hysterical rabble of rebel fighters who repeatedly charge west along the coast highway, and then come fleeing back as soon as they stumble into the first ambush.

U.S. troops could easily drive Gadhafi from power if they were let off the leash, but Security Council Resolution 1973 does not permit the entry of foreign troops into Libya. Moreover, no Arab country wants to see this too-familiar sight once again.

If Obama abides by the terms of the UN resolution, however, he is likely to end up in the same awkward position as his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush. He will have sent U.S. forces into battle, and yet he will not have got rid of the bad guy. But is that such a terrible thing?

George Bush senior was acting to repel an unprovoked invasion when he committed American forces to the liberation of Kuwait, but he was also trying to restore the role of the UN Security Council as the bulwark against aggressive war. The Cold War had just ended, and Saddam’s invasion of Iraq was an opportunity to demonstrate how the system should work.

That’s why the senior Bush would not to exceed the limits of his authority as an enforcer of the UN rules against aggression. The UN had not authorized him to overthrow Saddam, and so he did not. He then muddied the waters by calling on the Kurds and Shias of Iraq to rebel, and standing by while Saddam massacred them, but that does not invalidate his original decision.

Fast forward 20 years, and Barack Obama is trying to enforce a fragile new UN rule: that the Security Council may authorize military intervention if massive abuses of human rights are being committed by the government. He has carried out the intervention, and the wholesale massacres that would probably have occurred if Gadhafi’s troops had overrun Cyrenaica have been averted.

That’s the limit of Obama’s UN mandate, so, like George H.W. Bush, he should now stop. The aerial campaign was meant to prevent mass killing, not to provide the rebels with close air support in what has become a civil war.

One side in this civil war is run by a brutal and cynical dictator, while the people on the other side are brave idealists seeking democracy, but that doesn’t mean that foreigners should decide the outcome. That would be contrary to international law—and besides, if there is to be a real democratic revolution in Libya, then the Libyans must do it for themselves.

If that means that Libya must spend some months or years as a divided country, with the western half still under Gadhafi’s yoke, then so be it. The only legitimate tools that foreigners may use against him are financial sanctions, trade boycotts and diplomatic isolation.

Cut off his cash flow, and Gadhafi might fall quite quickly. Or he might not, which would be a pity. But the only reason that Resolution 1973 got the support of the Arab League, and abstentions by China, Russia, and India, was that it authorized military action to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.” And that is all that the coalition should do.




Apr 1, 2011 at 2:06pm

Whoa, I think Dyer just gave the U.S. a backhanded compliment. I'm sure it was a mistake, that's against his nature.

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Bob Fowler

Apr 1, 2011 at 4:05pm

Agreed! Stick to a disciplined policy and not dragged into a decades-long Long War lilke in Iraq. Many may not like leaving a undecided, divided Libya, but it's the best of a bad lot. And it would mean a lot of good soldiers would live for more important battles ahead.

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Darwin Toivo

Apr 2, 2011 at 8:28am

By being "adamant for drift" you automatically side with whoever has the larger arsenal, in this case the crazy dictator. You can't have liberty without cost. If you believe in an idea then you must see it through. Ill-equipped, ill-trained civilians are up against a battle hardened army in Libya. They want liberty and are prepared to die for it. And that is precisely what will happen if we don't do enough to assist them with training, intelligence, weapons, ammunition, medical supplies and shoulder to shoulder help. The American revolution got help from the French you remember or it would have fizzled and failed. Underdogs needs help and we in the West are the holders of a great legacy of democracy, imperfectly as we practice it. What do we believe in, democracy, liberty, opportunity - then we must fight for it wherever it is struggling in the world. To do otherwise will only heap shame on our heads.

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Paul C

Apr 2, 2011 at 8:30am

Egyptian ground troops backed by NATO air power would sort this out in a hurry. As Dyer himself pointed out a few columns ago.

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Philip Reid

Apr 2, 2011 at 8:54am

Over the years Kaddafi has put down two other armed rebellions that started from Bengasi. This rebellion is not a popular uprising like what we are seeing in Egypt and Tunisia but an armed insurrection. The people that Kaddafi s army is going after are not innocent civilians.

Much like the Bush regime hijacked the 9/11 attacks to go after oil rich Iraq, the west has hijacked the support for the civilian uprisings in the Arab world to back the armed rebels in Libya, calling Kaddafi’s reactions to these armed rebels attacks against innocent civilians.

It seems like the French and British are orchestrating the propaganda on this one with the Support of the Saudi’s, the Americans have taken too much heat and they are in too much financial trouble to take the lead in this one.

This is just another war by the usual suspects based on lies and deception.

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Arm the Rebels

Apr 2, 2011 at 11:48am

I never thought I would hear those words but it is what is being said in the news. It all unfolded with Egypt's ailiing leader who stepped down after his military left him to work out the uprising by himself. Egypt is now run by the military who picked up where the old leader left off.
What are you going to do now Egyptians have democracy which dictator will they pick?

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Apr 3, 2011 at 3:37pm

It's starting to feel like Gaddafi will outlive a few more US presidents after all.

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Apr 4, 2011 at 4:37pm

The Western leaders are a bunch of hypocrites for supporting this intervention (imo).

They choose sides in a civil war - though they openly admit they are not exactly sure of the intentions of the leaders of the rebels they are prepared to kill innocent civilians to help gain power.
But they sit by and do virtually nothing while protesters all over the middle east are being slaughtered by their governments for protesting without resorting to violence.

The message from the West/UN seems to be - we will come to your aid only when you a) start killing people b) say much nicer things then those you are trying to take power from and c) start to lose.

But to those that choose the path of peace (even if they are getting slaughtered by their governments), all they seem to offer is a 'good luck with that. We are behind you - in spirit'.

And most of the masses are falling for this hypocritical, war loving nonsense.

Just as most of the masses fall for Keynesian economics on a massive scale (spend now - pay later) which is doing nothing but causing inflation, making the rich richer and bankrupting their futures.

Ignoramuses. The masses are ignoramuses.

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Apr 4, 2011 at 10:48pm

I half-agree with Gwynne Dyer. With neither side able to beat the other, this civil war could last an awfully long time. However, I think this isn't a bug: it's a feature.

Put yourself in the position of military/strategic planners and thinkers over the past few months: with the fall of the dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia these planners must have been trying to solve one problem: How to prevent this movement from reaching Saudi Arabia and other major oil-producing countries. Because if that happens, oil prices skyrocket, and the worst of the 2008 recession will look like the "good old days".

I think the uprising in Libya gave them a solution. By giving enough support to the rebels to prevent them from being utterly annihilated by Gadhafi's forces, but not enough to allow them to overthrow him, the Western powers are simply prolonging a civil war. Which means that for weeks, months, if not years, images of this war will be beamed throughout the Arab world and serve to remind everyone, in Saudi Arabia especially, that however unpleasant life in a dictatorship is, it beats life in a war zone.

However cynical the above may sound, it does explain why the Arab League approved this action (protecting civilians has never been a high priority for the dictatorships which mostly still make up the Arab League, but preventing themselves from being overthrown certainly is). I think they're hoping that this civil war in Libya will be awful enough to deter their own respective peoples from attempting any uprisings.

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Apr 5, 2011 at 12:26pm


Some really interesting points (imo).


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