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Gilbert Achcar: Slaughter of democratic uprising by Gaddafi was imminent, but killing of civilians and regime change by foreign intervention unacceptable

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. In Libya the planes are pounding Gaddafi air force and his on-the-ground antiaircraft artilleries, but they are also killing civilians, which has prompted the head of the Arab League to say that the attack is going beyond the limits of what the Arab League supported.


AMR MOUSSA: We requested the Security Council to establish a no-fly zone in order to protect the civilians, in addition to safe areas for the civilians to sit in without attacks on them. But the military developments that happened today, I really have no reports as yet.


JAY: The issue of the resolution at the United Nations in this attack is quite controversial, obviously. And now joining us to give us his views on the resolution and what’s now happening in Libya is Gilbert Achcar. Gilbert teaches at the Department of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He’s also the author of the book The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Israeli-Arab War of Narratives. Thanks for joining us, Gilbert.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: So, first of all, let’s talk about your initial take as we were heading towards the UN resolution, and then Saturday’s meetings with NATO. What–you gave a kind of qualified position on the resolution. Explain what it was.

ACHCAR: My position was that with this mass movement in Libya asking for a no-fly zone in order to protect them from Gaddafi’s forces and the main asset that he has, which makes his military superiority, which is aviation, and with the people in Benghazi really been fearing for their lives, you know, faced with a dictator who has been threatening them in all sorts of forms, I couldn’t see, I can’t see how, humanly, one could say, well, no, we’re sorry; we are against renting you a no-fly zone; we are against our governments intervening in any way in that; and, well, you know, you will have to be massacred, and that’s all we can do. I mean, I think this is too cynical. This is not a possible attitude. That’s why I said that one can’t reasonably, in my view, in such a condition, which is very specific–you have a real uprising. You have a real request by the uprising for this. You have a real threat of massacre, of mass murder. And, actually, there–I mean, the–until now, you had several thousands of people killed in Libya from the beginning of the uprising. So, I mean, in this specific situation, I think that opposing this, the demand put forward by the movement was not something that I could subscribe to from a left-wing perspective, which doesn’t mean–I mean, which doesn’t mean having the slightest confidence or actually support for those powers who are now implementing this no-fly zone.

JAY: Well, the critique of the intervention is that it’s being done simply to secure Western oil interests. How do you respond to that?

ACHCAR: That’s–doesn’t hold water, because we’re not speaking of a state or a regime, Gaddafi’s regime, which has been clashing with Western interests. Actually, there are–I mean, the whole range of Western oil companies are represented in Libya and exploitation and exploration of oil in Libya. And this regime has been a close collaborator of Western powers over the last years. You know, Gaddafi played it very close-buddy to all sorts of Western leaders–Berlusconi, Tony Blair, the United States. So–and he has been collaborating in concrete forms with all these people. So to think that this intervention is about what, about granting concessions to Western oil companies, they have them already. No, the point is not here. Of course, there is an oil dimension in all that. It’s the one I stress. That is, they are faced with the likelihood of a massacre at a big scale, very big scale, which would mean, if this happens, I mean, putting them in the necessity of, at the very least, creating an embargo on Libyan oil. And in the conditions of the oil market and in the conditions of the global economy presently, this is not sustainable. And that’s why they have to prevent that. They have to prevent that. And that’s why they finally opted, some of them with some hesitation, like the case for the United States, for this intervention.

JAY: And it seems the French stuck their neck out more or less ’cause they thought this–everyone was predicting Gaddafi was going to lose pretty quickly. So I assume the French thought they were picking a winner fairly early in the game by backing the rebellion.

ACHCAR: Yeah. Well, that there are factors behind that. On the one hand, it’s pure demagogy from Sarkozy, after the scandals of the collusion between the French government and the Tunisian dictatorship in particular. So now he’s playing, you know, big Mr. Democrat, big supporters of uprising, the kind of new incarnation of Lafayette, going, you know, to the–helping revolutions. But of course no one is fooled. Basically, behind that is a kind of interest, more seriously speaking. I’m sure that he contemplates that France could, having played this role, be rewarded with a larger slice of the Libyan oil cake than what it had until now. French interests are represented in Libya–Total Elf Fina–but they are not the major–they don’t have a major share of oil interests there.

JAY: Now, a lot depends on how you assess who is in the rebellion. Some of the critique that’s coming is portraying Gaddafi as still having some kind of anti-imperialist character to him, and then portraying the rebellion as essentially being kind of pro-Western or Western-inspired. So what do you make of it? Who are the rebels?

ACHCAR: Well, the rebels are a political mixture. As we have seen in every single uprising in the whole region, I mean, whether in Yemen, of course, or even in countries, like, which are, let’s say, with different social structures, like Egypt and Tunisia, we have had a very broad spectrum of political forces engage in the movement with one single objective in common, which us to get rid of the dictatorship and the demand for democratic freedoms, for free elections, and the rest, I mean, basic human rights people are fighting for in this part of the world. And, again, I mean, the clash was not about anti-West and pro-West. Until the very last minute, I mean, until this UN resolution, all that, and even after a little after, Gaddafi was, you know, asking his Western friends, his European friends, and all that to support him. And he–I mean, his discourse was saying this is an al-Qaeda led uprising, and if you guys want me to continue contributing or collaborating with you in fighting al-Qaeda (because he rendered services to the United States in that regard, his service, his secret services and the rest), you have to support me. And now, I mean, after the bombing, we have seen him radically change now his discourse into saying–into borrowing the exact phraseology, vocabulary of al-Qaeda, and saying this is a crusader war. And the word crusader in Arabic, Horoob Salebeya, is more–I mean, it’s not metaphoric. It’s more directly related to religion than in European languages. It’s a crusader war against Islam. And as one of the members of the transitory council in Libya was saying on Al Jazeera in Arabic a little while ago, nobody can be fooled by that, because he is the one who took Libya very close to this governments that he’s denouncing now, he is the one who brought them in, he is the one who actually helped Bush save face after the debacle of the so-called weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and, you know, the Bush administration was able to say, look, we have achieved something, the Libyans renounced to their program of weapons of mass destruction and the rest. He has been, you know, developing all kind of links with all the Western governments, including the absolutely dirty role that the Libyan government has been playing against immigration from African shores to Italian shores, to Italy, or to Europe through Italy. And so all that–I mean, how can anyone believe–I mean, except out of sheer ignorance about what Gaddafi has been doing over the last years, how can anyone believe that this is something about toppling an enemy of the West? This is ridiculous.

JAY: What did you make of the United Nations resolution itself? You said it’s hard to oppose it, given there was about to be an attack on Benghazi that could have been a slaughter of the people there. On the other hand, the resolution itself seems rather open-ended. What do you think of the kind of wording of it is? And how do you see the fight now in terms of global public opinion? As I said, the Arab League leaders said that the bombing that’s taking place now is going beyond what the Arab League ever supported in terms of the resolution.

ACHCAR: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they asked for this no-flight zone because that was the demand of the uprising. And it got popular, actually, even generally speaking, in the Arab world, because people were seeing that these people–I mean, you know, TV reportage from there showing these people really frightened about what was going to happen to them. I mean, people were seeing the movement, asking, requesting this no-fly zone and were asking for that. And, of course, when the Arab League relayed that kind of demand, it did that very hypocritically. And that’s no doubt about that, because many of the states involved in this league of Arab states are themselves repressing violently their own populations. But still what they are seeing is–I mean, Amr Moussa in particular, because he has–you have even a personal dimension: the secretary of the Arab League is someone who is contemplating running for president in Egypt–came out now denouncing, and rightly so, certainly, the fact that–I mean, the way that the strikes were led. In order supposedly to implement, to enforce the no-flight zone, they are resorting to such heavy means, with these usual, between quote marks, “collateral damage” and killing civilians. And, of course, this is not a way to protect civilians.

JAY: The bombing in Tripoli doesn’t seem to have anything to do with preventing the attack on Benghazi.

ACHCAR: No, but it’s about the no-fly zone thing. That is, they pretend, or at least they say they are striking at anti-air installations and aviation installations. This is to make sure that they control the air over Libya. And as far as understood from the news, they are now saying that this has been–I mean, the no-fly zone is enforced. So does it mean that this kind of bombings will stop? We’ll have to see. The latest news, also, are about a new offensive of the insurgents and new territorial gains made by the uprising, by the insurrection. All this I’m saying without any means of verification, of course, but these are the latest news that I’ve heard at this moment, at the moment of speaking.

JAY: The resolution clearly did not mandate regime change, and it didn’t mandate paving the way for regime change either, in other words, bombing in such a way that it puts Gaddafi in such a situation that the rebellion can overthrow him. It was meant, if I understand it correctly, simply to protect Benghazi and some of the other cities from being bombed, civilian populations being bombed. China’s already said there’s been too many civilian deaths in the course of this. What do you think is going to be–is sort of–in terms of international progressive public opinion, what is the point of struggle now?

ACHCAR: But let me stress one point before that which is very important in this whole discussion about this resolution. It is that the resolution included something that the uprising have been very, very clear about, which is they don’t want any ground forces to intervene in Libya. And this is stated very clearly in the resolution. That’s probably where the resolution is most directly responding to the requests by the uprising, and also the issue of the no-fly zone. Beyond that, this resolution leaves such a wide margin of free interpretation for those powers that have the means to intervene that of course it’s nothing that I can support. I didn’t say I support this resolution, just said that you can’t oppose it, in the sense that saying that, well, we are against any no-fly zone, and even at the cost of a massacre. I can’t see this as a reasonable position. But this said, once this is here, we have to be absolutely vigilant. We have to condemn the forms of bombings. And every time that they really, as has been the case, strike at civilians, we have to–therefore, to act against that. And this is the anti-imperialist struggle. We have to be vigilant also about any attempt to go beyond the–I mean, in other ways, beyond the limits of this resolution, which is only about protecting civilians.

JAY: There is an argument or a critique of the resolution which says that occupation is not the same as no ground troops. When the resolution says “no occupation”, it doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be an attack with then, supposedly, an attempt to get out or in fact an actual getting out, that there is sort of a room there for ground forces, as long as they leave after this protection of civilian is over.

ACHCAR: It excludes foreign occupation forms of any form on any part of Libyan territory. Now, if that–if people try to twist that into meaning that they can intervene on the ground, this at the very least would not only contradict the text, but also the very clearly stated position of the uprising, and reiterated today again. I heard that in statements on the television that they are against–and for good reason–against any intervention of troops on the ground. They don’t need troops on the ground, actually. And, as I said, the latest news that they are–that the uprising resumed offensive, which, if true, is certainly good news to me, because I think that there should be no hesitation in supporting the uprising against this absolutely bloody and reactionary dictatorship of Gaddafi–.

JAY: Once you’re in a situation where essentially Gaddafi can’t fight back because of the foreign forces and the rebels start being on the offensive, then don’t you have actually a kind of foreign management of the civil war? I mean, isn’t the issue at this point now there has to be a ceasefire and some peaceful way to resolve this, whether it’s a call for elections or something like this?

ACHCAR: I can’t see the Gaddafi regime accepting any form of solution of this kind. Now, the key issue is, of course, I mean, if the issue is implementing a ceasefire, I’m speaking here of rebellion in the cities and towns. So it’s about movement of troops, it’s about a ceasefire of this kind. I don’t think it means stopping the uprising, because the uprising, of course, is a democratic right that can’t be stopped. But now, of course, if–I mean, it’s not up to me to say what should be accepted or not as a political solution on the ground; this is up to the people concerned. My only issue here is of the fact that this is a very specific situation, and therefore one where an action was needed in order to prevent a massacre. And that was true. It wasn’t some kind of a pretext invented, as we have seen so many times, by the United States and its allies in order to implement an invasion. That’s a different case, although, again, I don’t lend any support to the kind of armed intervention that they are undertaking. I think we have to be very critical and vigilant and denounce any, you know, killing of civilians on the part of this coalition.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Gilbert.

ACHCAR: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.