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Gilbert Achcar: US/NATO should get out of Libya, rebels should be armed to wage their own fight

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And Monday night in Washington, President Obama defended his policy in Libya. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say.


BARACK OBAMA: We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. The task that I assigned our forces, to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger and to establish a no-fly zone, carries with it a UN mandate and international support. It’s also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put US troops on the ground.


JAY: While President Obama said the mission’s been limited to protect civilians, Anne Gearan, national security writer for AP, writes: “President Barack Obama wanted to tell a hesitant America why he launched a military assault in Libya, and he wanted to describe it on his terms – limited, sensible, moral and backed by international partners with the shared goal of protecting Libyans from a ruthless despot. Trouble is, the war he described Monday doesn’t quite match the fight the United States is in.” Anne Gearan goes on to say: “Over the weekend, US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft, designed to provide battlefield support to friendly ground forces, flew attack missions for the first time in this conflict. The Pentagon also disclosed Monday that Air Force AC-130 gunships, low-flying aircraft armed with a 105mm howitzer and a 40mm cannon, had joined the battle. Those two types of aircraft give the US more ability to confront pro-Gadhafi forces in urban areas with less risk of civilian casualties. . . . If the purpose of the UN-sanctioned military action is to protect civilians. . . .” then “the role of Western air power … went beyond that initial humanitarian aim, to in effect provide air cover for the rebels while pounding Gadhafi forces in a bid to break their will or capacity to fight.” Now joining us from London to give his views on President Obama’s speech and what’s happening in Libya–including in London today, where a conference is being held, being chaired by the British foreign minister, attended by Hillary Clinton, to talk about the future political vision for Libya–is Gilbert Achcar. Gilbert teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Thanks for joining us, Gilbert.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Thank you, Paul. Always a pleasure. So start, first of all, with your reaction to President Obama’s speech and the clip that he played?

JAY: The statement that the United States has through its action prevented a massacre, as he puts it, is, I think, true, as I’ve been saying and many people have been saying, and as reporters on the ground have been saying, those in Benghazi. One most recent piece, for instance, was the one by Jon Lee Anderson on The New Yorker confirming that, I mean, the–when the intervention started, the Gaddafi troops were–started to enter the city and were on–about to really be able to conquer it rather quickly. And that’s also because of the discrepancy in military forces between whatever exist in Libya and the forces of Gaddafi, who–by the way, as Abdel Bari Atwan, the one certain someone who knows Libya quite well (he’s the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi), just reminded us recently that Gaddafi dissolved the army 20 years ago after an attempt by some military officers to overthrow him, and replaced it with units directly led by either his sons or people from his tribe. And these are the units that are fighting for him on his behalf. And they have weapons. They have everything. So indeed a massacre has been avoided through the action. But the point is–and that’s very interesting. In Obama’s speech, when he raises the point that, okay, it’s true that, as many people say in Washington, we can’t intervene everything there’s an impending massacre somewhere [sic]; we’re not, you know, the police of the world. And I agree. And therefore he–I mean, he puts it quite clearly. There should be a mix between, you know, the necessity to intervene in our interests. And that’s the key point here. So the point is not as–I mean, as some people would put it, that this intervention had no effect on protecting civilians. It had, of course. But the question is: why did they want to protect civilians and protect an uprising in this situation and other situations? And there you get into the discussion about, well, the fact that of course oil is very much related to the issue. And they will get entangled into real contradictions with all that, because, for instance, Hillary Clinton was recently asked–I think it was on CBS Face the Nation, about Syria, “What would you do in Syria?” or “What about Bahrain and the rest?” And she said, well, there hasn’t been anything comparable to Libya, where the air force has been used to, you know, pound the civilians and all that with heavy casualties. That’s absolutely true that there is no comparison between the level of killings in Libya prior to the intervention and whatever we’ve seen in any other Arab country until now. But what would be her argument when Israel would be pounding, you know, bombarding, bombing Gaza or Lebanon like in 2006, or if the Saudi Kingdom uses the air force against the eastern province, for instance, if you have any kind of uprising there? And we can multiply this. So they are putting themselves, of course, into real contradictions with these double standards that they have of, you know, intervening when it suits American interests and for the purpose of this [inaudible]

JAY: Is part of the issue here is that the Americans, President Obama’s administration, recognize [that] these rebellions across Northern Africa and the Arab world, many of them are going to be successful? They’re at least shaking the foundations of these regimes. And the United States is very actively interested in determining the outcome. So in Libya, where he says in his speech that it’s very confined to protecting civilians from protecting Benghazi, the AP piece I read a quote from, it points out that in fact what’s happening on the ground is they’re acting more like the arm of the rebellion. And this is quite different from just protecting civilians. Now they’re trying to determine who wins. And this conference in London, they’re even involved in–you know, some people are saying they want to find the new Karzai.

ACHCAR: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that one can sense that there are some, of course, differences and disagreements among–within this coalition. And the United States wanting, you know, now to adopt a kind of low profile and backstage [inaudible] of course is not really sustainable, because NATO cannot function without the United States, as everybody knows. But basically Obama’s insistence on the fact that regime change is not part of the mission is not exactly the view of people in Paris, for instance, or even London, I would say, for that matter, where there is this temptation of, you know, fine-tuning or micromanaging what’s there on the ground, and therefore in the–being–putting themselves in a position to, you know, go for regime change and the rest, and wishing that through that they would get some kind of government which would be supportive of their interests. Now, this said, on the one hand, to imagine that you can have a Karzai through air power alone doesn’t hold water. I mean, to have a Karzai, you need to have troops on the ground. And the pledge by Obama that we won’t have–we won’t send any troops on the ground–he reaffirmed that in his speech. The fact that it is in the UN resolution very clearly against any occupation troops on any part of Libyan territory, and the fact that the–above all, the fact that the uprising themselves don’t want troops–they were very clear about the fact that they don’t want troops on the grounds there–makes the possibility, you know, of just deciding from a meeting in London or anywhere else who will rule Libya in case, in case–and it is still a big if now–Gaddafi is [inaudible] and I think it doesn’t really hold water. But the fact is that indeed they–I mean, in the way they are intervening, in the way they are turning this from the no-fly zone from the initial necessary actions to prevent Gaddafi troops from entering populated areas and committing massacres, turning that into a kind of rather long-term, now NATO say 90 days low-intensity (as it might turn to be) action, but still they are micromanaging what is happening, is something which should be, in my view, condemned. I made, I mean, this position very clear. And it is related to what the British defense minister just said one, two days ago, that we–I mean, he said that we won’t deliver any weapons to the insurgents in Libya, because this would be contradicting the UN resolution about the arms embargo on Libya. So if arms embargo on Libya means everybody in Libya, we should be absolutely against this, because now that they have destroyed, I mean, most of what Gaddafi has as air power or whatever, they should, I mean, stop this intervention and rather arm the uprising, deliver whatever weapons they need to be able to continue to battle themselves, without NATO fighting on their behalf. I think the anti-imperialist movement should be acting in this direction.

JAY: So you’re–in fact, Hillary Clinton was on one of the Sunday morning programs, and she was asked this question about the arms embargo, and she said she did not think it prohibited arms to the anti-Gaddafi forces. She thought it meant only arms going to Gaddafi’s government. So there may be a difference there, interpreting this, between the US and the UK. But you think the–the position you–you support the position that they should be armed, and NATO air force and such should get out.

ACHCAR: I think so. I think the no-fly zone, which was the demand of the uprising, has been achieved, basically. If ever there are any threats of something, you know, a resurgence of air power hidden somewhere by Gaddafi, and if needed, this no-fly zone can remain implemented with any actions needed, really, in that sense. But beyond that, I–of course I’m against this war being turned into NATO’s war. And that’s why I am against enabling the uprising to fight for themselves with the weapons [inaudible]

JAY: Aren’t you concerned about the precedent this all sets? Like, it’s one thing, it seems, to have a humanitarian intervention to stop the slaughter of people in Benghazi, but it seems to be another thing entirely to pick the winner in this struggle, which arming one side and bombing the other certainly does.

ACHCAR: No. Yes. As I said, I’m not for–I’m not in favor of them continuing to intervene through, you know, bombing forces on the ground which are not related any longer to no-fly zone or even civilian protection. This said, I am–have absolutely no problem with the issue of delivering weapons to the insurrection, to the insurgency, because actually they have armed Gaddafi. Gaddafi has been able to buy a huge lot of weapons, and in recent years, after he became, you know, a friend of the West, including Western weapons. And you can find the list on the Internet of Western countries that have been selling weapons to Gaddafi. They have armed him. So it’s their moral duty to deliver arms to the insurrection.

JAY: Does Gaddafi have more popular support than people thought?

ACHCAR: There’s no oil state that doesn’t have a constituency. I mean, when you have oil, when you have the amount of money, the billions and billions of dollars that an absolute dictatorship like the Gaddafi or the oil monarchies in the Gulf or the Saudi Kingdom or anybody like that, that they have under their control, they can buy a lot of people. And if you add to that the tribal factor, which Gaddafi has been exploiting ever since he came to power in 1969, if you add to that the fact that he even–and it’s well known; it’s not new–he has been hiring mercenaries, I mean, hiring people from poorer countries against high salaries to fight for him in his various forces–. Of course he has some social force with him, but, I mean, all basic reports, if you take Tripoli, even Tripoli, where it’s the siege of power [sic], there are absolutely no sign of any real mass support. On the contrary, you have a lot of reporters who reported about people, you know, in fear of expressing anything there because of the terror exerted by Qaddafi’s troops. So that’s how it stands.

JAY: So you think the resolution now is at a point where NATO should get out and it should be possible for the rebellion to buy arms.

ACHCAR: Not to buy arms.

JAY: To be given arms.

ACHCAR: They don’t have money now. And it would be very cynical to turn that into another, you know, trade in arms. No, they should be given weapons by those countries who armed Gaddafi. This is their responsibility. They should give these people weapons to be able to fight for themselves.

JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us, Gilbert.

ACHCAR: Thank you, Paul.

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

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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.