Wednesday, July 17, 2019

China and the Libyan Muddle and Why Qaddafi Went Down

[Simple answer: Saudi Arabia.  Longer answer (including an explanation of how the PRC viewed the situation) below.  A piece I did for Asia Times in March 2011.  Since it seems to have vanished from the archive, I'm serving it up here as a reminder of what really brought Qaddafi down.  I'm posting this with permission of AT, which has the copyright.  Any other reprints/reposts should get permission from Asia Times.]

China and the Libyan Muddle

By Peter Lee

The United Nations Security Council voted on Thursday at UN headquarters in New York to approve a no-fly zone over Libya and "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from attacks by forces led by Muammar Gaddafi.

The 10-0 vote included five abstentions, notably permanent members China and Russia. The other three permanent members backing the vote were Britain, France and the United States.

The Arab League, a voluntary association of nations, last week resolved that the UN Security Council should declare a no-fly zone over Libya.

China’s attitude takes few by surprise. And history will probably vindicate China’s mealy-mouthed and self-serving stance that the response to the serial crises in the Middle East should be guided by the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of nations.

And history may vindicate China even earlier than most people expect.

The most interesting and dangerous element in the no-fly-zone debate is the dawning awareness that “Responsibility to Protect”–R2P a.k.a. humanitarian intervention in do-gooder jargon—is not just a Western monopoly

It’s not just an opportunity for feel-good posturing by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy that gives the West another chance to assert its global moral leadership.

Once the intervention jinn is out of the bottle, there’s no telling who will seize the R2P sword, or for what manner of end.

Saudi Arabia apparently believes in R2P when it comes to protecting a Sunni autocracy in neighboring Bahrain…

…which raises the disturbing possibility that Iran has a R2P the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain…

…and maybe the Arab world has a R2P the Palestinians next time Israel rampages into the Gaza strip…

If the Arab world’s national revolutions blossom into regional wars, we will soon feel intense nostalgia for the good old days when international affairs were governed by the Treaty of Westphalia, which declared that what rulers did inside their borders was nobody else’s business.

It is unlikely that China will work aggressively to claim the foreign policy high ground, either regionally or in the UN Security Council.

That’s because for China, the key issue at stake in the Libyan conflict is not the slippery slope toward a sovereignty and security crisis in the Middle East.

The key issue is a simple and traditional matter of intense personal enmity between two rulers equally opposed to the democratic wave sweeping the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah detests Muammar Gaddafi and expects all of the kingdom’s solicitous oil allies—of which China is now the foremost—to lend a hand in compassing his overthrow.

The most recent iteration of bad blood between Gaddafi and Abdullah goes back to 2003.

Gaddafi confronted then Prince Abdullah over Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the West in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Gaddafi said that Abdullah had made “a deal with the devil”.

Abdullah riposted that Gaddafi’s “lies were behind him and his grave was before him”.

Although the Western press apparently regarded Abdullah’s remarks as little more than a pithy Arabic aphorism, Gaddafi not unreasonably interpreted them as a death threat.

Gaddafi apparently decided to strike first. 

Libyan security services allegedly staged an inept but extremely well-financed assassination attempt.  The intent was to barrage Abdullah’s Mecca apartment with RPG fire and blame his murder on al Qaeda. 

The plot suffered from a dearth of dedicated and capable Saudi co-conspirators.  One courier, confronted with the enormous stash of cash earmarked for the attempt—over $1 million—simply abandoned the money and fled in panic.

Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Libya for nine months.

The Libyan state-controlled press delivered some entertaining political invective in return:

The Libyan press on Friday launched strong criticism against Saudi Arabia because of its decision to summon its ambassador in Tripoli and to expel the Libyan ambassador in Riyadh, describing Saudi Arabia as "the kingdom of darkness" ruled by Abu Jahel.

The Libyan state run al-Jamahereyah said in its yesterday's editorial under the title "the Kingdom of black comedy" that Saudi Arabia might be the "best ambassador for the pre Middle Ages era." The paper added that "Abu Jahel" (the Saudi royal family) is still giving his rules in the life affairs of the society and bans the woman from driving the car." The Libyan daily al-Zahf al-Akhdar described Saudi Arabia as "a swollen kingdom" and issued an article showing the difference between the life of the common Saudi citizen and the life of luxury members of the ruling family live. [1]

For students of Islamic invective, “Abu Jahel” was the mocking title—“Father of Ignorance”—given to a boss of Mecca who refused to submit to Islam.  He was slain in the Battle of Badr in 624 AD that marked the triumph of Mohammed and secured Islam’s ascendancy in Mecca.

Supposedly, there was a reconciliation between Gaddafi and Abdullah, now King Abdullah, in 2007.

The exchange plays more like a desert re-enactment of the scene in Godfather II where Michael Corleone pretends to forgive his feckless brother Fredo, while secretly plotting his  demise.

Certainly, Gaddafi’s apology left something to be desired, as French 24 reported:

"It has been six years that you have been running away and scared of confrontation and I want to say 'Do not be afraid'," Gaddafi said, addressing Abdullah. "After six years, it has been proven that with ... the grave before you, it is Britain that made you and the Americans that protected you." [2]

French24 continued:

It was not clear if Gaddafi intentionally repeated the accusations or was explaining the incident he wanted to apologise for.

Apparently expecting another attack, Qatar's emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairing the summit, shouted down the Libyan leader.

But Gaddafi, sporting sunglasses and an orange hat and robes, continued his speech in a more clearly conciliatory tone, drawing applause from delegates.

"For the sake of the (Arab) nation, I consider the personal problem between you and me to be over and I am prepared to visit you and receive a visit from you," he told the Saudi king.

In the United States, this is characterized as a “non-apology apology”.

As Gaddafi’s difficulties multiplied in 2011, it was clear that Prince Abdullah did not consider the personal problem over.

Prior to the Arab League meeting in Cairo, the Gulf Co-Operation Council, a congerie of authoritarian sheiks led by Saudi Arabia, delivered a ferocious condemnation of Gaddafi’s behavior.

The GCC’s language went far beyond the genteel wrist-slapping usually meted out to misbehaving Arab potentates.

In a statement issued after their meeting in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on Thursday, foreign ministers from the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) called on the Arab League to take measures to stop the bloodshed in Libya and to initiate contacts with the National Council formed by the opposition.

"When it comes to Libya I think the regime has lost its legitimacy," Hamad bin Jasem bin Jaber Al Thani, the Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, said.

"We support the no-fly zone. We also support contact with the National Council in Libya. It is time to discuss the situation with them and the [UN] Security Council should shoulder its responsibility." [3]

Saudi Arabia put its money where its mouth is, offering to provide substitutes for Libyan petroleum products to Colonel Gaddafi’s customers in Europe.

The next week, the GCC hardline played an important role in driving the deliberations of the Arab League on the Libyan no-fly zone.

The Arab League’s position on Libya has not been a model of consistency.

Prior to the meeting, Libya’s membership in the Arab League had been suspended for its brutal crackdown on demonstrators.

With the Libyan situation in flux—and Libya’s ambassador to the Arab League resigning in protest—it was certainly reasonable to place Libya on probation, as it were, until things sorted themselves out.

When Gaddafi sent a replacement delegate to participate in the Arab League meeting on March 12, a Reuters report indicated that the League still intended to engage with Gaddafi:

"I don't think that they will be allowed to attend because the decision of the council of ministers was to suspend the participation of the Libyan delegation," Hesham Youssef, the League official, told Reuters.

He added that the Arab League had not severed all ties to the Tripoli government and there was a need to discuss the crisis with Gaddafi's administration, including the humanitarian situation and how to stop violence.

"We may meet them. But not in the context of the meeting of the council of ministers," Youssef said. "Nothing has been scheduled as of yet," he said.

"There is a need to discuss all kind of details with Libyan officials," he said. "All these steps require communication with those who control the situation in Libya," he said.

Ahmed Ben Helli, deputy secretary general of the Arab League, told Reuters that "talks and consultations exist".

Youssef said the Arab League had also been in touch with the rebel National Libyan Council in Benghazi. [4]

However, Gaddafi & Son managed to overtax the patience of the Arab League.

In addition to its problems with Saudi Arabia, Libya has also perversely managed to get on the wrong side of most of the Shi’a confession in the Middle East.

As James Denselow of The Guardian reported Gaddafi has been able to unite both Hezbollah and the Hariri government of Lebanon—which is now drafting the UN Security Council no-fly-zone resolution—against him for his suspected role in the murder of a Lebanese Shi’ite cleric.  Iran, Hezbollah’s patron (and not a member of the Arab League) has been equally vociferous in condemning Gaddafi. [5]

A statement by Gaddafi during the assassination spat with Saudi Arabia speaks volumes concerning Libya’s talent for burning bridges beyond nations all the way up to the regional level:

The Libyan leader continued his criticism to the Arab League and the lack of its member states of what he described the unity of ranks in the Middle East. He said that the relations between Libya and Italy are better in thousand of times that Libya's relations with her sister Egypt." He added that the relations between Tunis and Germany is much better from its relations ( Tunisia) with Libya.

After Gaddafi’s humanitarian outrages and insults against the Arab League, Amr Moussa, the Egyptian Secretary General of the league—who had endured Gaddafi’s high-handed dismissal of AL mediation during the crisis in Saudi-Libyan relations--clearly saw no need to shelter Gaddafi in the name of Arab unity.

Before the Arab League meeting, Moussa told Der Spiegel he believed that Gaddafi was delusional:

SPIEGEL: Are you trying to influence him? When was the last time you spoke with the Libyan leader?

Moussa: The way he is now behaving means a personal telephone call makes no sense. Gadhafi lacks the insight that Tunisia's (former) President Ben Ali and (former) Egyptian President (Hosni) Mubarak showed by stepping down. Gadhafi truly believes that the unrest is controlled from abroad and that the Libyan people still adores him. [6]

In the run-up to the Arab League meeting, Saif Gaddafi demonstrated that the acorn did not fall far from the tree:

Saif al-Islam, one of Gaddafi's sons, told supporters in Tripoli this week the Arabs were "nothing." "Screw Arabs and the Arab League," he said.[7]

The Arab League apparently decided to return the favor.

To use an overworked metaphor, Gaddafi faced a perfect storm of negative factors in the week that the Arab League met in its offices just off Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Beyond the malice of the Gulf monarchs, the hatred of Lebanon, and the disdain of Abu Moussa, there is a genuine and widespread desire in the Arab world to support the Libyan rebels, and to prevent a Gaddafi victory that might serve as a repudiation of  the democratic and revolutionary tide sweeping the region.

This desire was reflected in the deliberations in the mixture of old-school autocrats and newly-minted bourgeois democrats in the councils of the Arab League in the form of good, old-fashioned panic.

There appears to have been a generalized fear that any signs of going easy on Gaddafi would be regarded as treason against Arab democracy and dignity by the aroused demonstrators and activists besetting Arab governments across Africa and the Middle East.
As the Voice of America reported:

"Obviously things are changing around the Arab world, and indeed in the Arab League as well," acknowledged Hesham Youssef, chief of cabinet to the Arab League secretary general.

Youssef qualified the Arab League resolution, which was adopted Saturday evening, while demonstrators outside the Cairo headquarters were crying "Action, action! We want action not words!" as "a clear indicator that the Arab world is entering a new phase". "Clearly some of the practices that could have passed before cannot pass now," Youssef added.

The Arab League official acknowledged that calls around the Arab world for democracy is imposing "a more forthcoming and a more effective approach" by the league towards all issues, including those related to human rights. "The influence of (Arab) public opinion is now becoming very marked in the positions and policies adopted by the Arab League," Youssef said. [8]

If the name Hesham Youssef sounds familiar, he was the same official who complaisantly told Reuters before the meeting that there “is a need to discuss all kind of details with Libyan officials”.

What a difference a week makes, at least in the Middle East in 2011.

The fact that the Middle East’s ultimate autocracy, Saudi Arabia, had the opportunity to turn the Arab regime’s freedom-and-democracy anxiety to account against Libya is, perhaps, somewhat ironic.

The general fug of fear, opportunism, anger, and disarray may account for the fog of misleading rhetoric surrounding the Arab League’s decision.

The call for the Libyan no-fly zone was reported to be a unanimous resolution.

Perhaps it was, but with an asterisk.

It subsequently emerged that Algeria and Syria were strongly opposed to the measure.  The Syrian state media subsequently came out with a solidly traditional statement opposing Western intervention in Arab affairs, one that Beijing no doubt found welcome and appropriate.

Syria’s ambassador to the Arab League stated to the gathering:

"Any such intervention is a violation of Libya's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and is inconsistent with the Charter of the League of Arab States and the principles of the international law…

Ambassador Ahmed warned that any decision by the Council to impose a no-fly zone on Libya could become a mere legal tool and a legitimate cover in the near future to target Libya militarily by a resolution of the NATO or the UN Security Council in order to legitimize the military intervention.

"Syria affirms that any decision by the AL Council, in order to get unanimous approval, must take into account clear and unequivocal guarantees of the absolute rejection of all forms of foreign intervention in Libya, and the commitment to the national unity and territorial integrity of Libya and its people, along with the need of protecting the Libyan citizens against the air strikes they are subjected to," indicating that the AL must not accept any foreign intervention in Libya or give cover for such intervention or be part of it.

After putting the resolution to the vote, Ambassador Ahmad stated that Syria is not part of this resolution, as it rejects all forms of foreign intervention in Libya's affairs out of its keenness on Libya's territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence.

Following the announcement of the Syrian stance, Algeria's Foreign Minister and head of the Mauritanian delegation asked for their countries' stances to be registered against the content of the resolution because it has not addressed the remarks and sources of concern expressed by the delegations of Algeria and Mauritania at the first session.

It transpires that there was a second resolution condemning foreign intervention in the Libya crisis; when bookended with the contradictory first resolution calling for imposition of a no-fly zone, the League appears somewhat ridiculous.

It is unclear whether Syria and Algeria voted traded the passage of the second resolution for their votes on the first, but the non-intervention call was clearly overshadowed by the virtually unprecedented, widely reported demand of the first resolution that the UN Security Council establish a no-fly zone.

While generating a show of unity on intervention, the League was also extremely uncomfortable with calling a spade a spade i.e. acknowledging to the unpredictable but reliably nationalist citizens of the Arab world that any no-fly zone would be enforced by NATO and the United States; instead the problem was kicked upstairs as the “responsibility” of the UN.

Perhaps members of the Arab League—other than Syria and Algeria--were subsequently chastened by realization of the consequences of stripping the Libyan government of its sovereignty and legitimacy but abdicating the leadership role to the Security Council.

Once it is open season on Libya, events are in the hands of the military powers eager to act, not the notoriously toothless and divided League:

French Ambassador Gerard Araud urged other members in the Council to refer an earlier UN resolution authorizing the No-Fly Zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993, pointing out that it "did not say who was imposing the No-Fly Zone, how it was going to be imposed."

"This Council is not a military headquarter; this Council is supposed to give a political authorization, and, after that, the countries can work together to impose it." [9]

Perhaps the members of the Arab League found the Libya debate a traumatic muddle.  Beijing undoubtedly found it appalling and inappropriate.

China, after all, is no stranger to the practice of using live ammunition on its own population.  The possibility that a regional grouping, like ASEAN, for instance, could take it upon itself to unilaterally declare China’s sovereignty revoked and call for Western military intervention, which would then come at the pleasure of the Western military powers, is not a pretty one—or, to the Chinese, particularly legitimate.

China has little scope to advance its views on the issue.  Without any impressive pro-democracy or military cards to play in the Middle East, Beijing is marginalized to a somewhat embarrassing degree in the Libyan crisis.

It dispatched a junior functionary, Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun  to tour Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria and declare China’s support for the idea of noninterference.

It is a nostrum that has limited resonance in the Arab world as revolution sweeps across national borders and local elites scramble to confront and/or accommodate the new forces.

The best the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs could come up with was that the four countries “had approved of China’s position” without, of course, any indication that they would imitate it. [10]

As a practical matter, China may be forced to abandon its principle now that its most important interlocutor in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, has committed itself to intervention in Libya in principle and also in the neighboring nation of Bahrain in practice.

China cannot cavalierly ignore Saudi priorities.

As Andrew Critchlow pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, China has a high degree of dependence on Saudi Arabian oil—and little leverage:

The newly crowned world's second-largest economy surpassed the U.S. as the biggest importer of oil from Saudi Arabia in 2009, and the kingdom's crude is an increasingly important factor in powering the nation's growth. Considering the economic importance of the Middle East for Asia as a whole, Beijing and its neighbors remain unable to influence the course of events in the Arab world, while being arguably the most exposed to the changes under way.

Despite China's best efforts to diversify, most of the imported crude it needs to fuel growth comes from Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the kingdom's energy-rich Shiite Eastern province plays a key role in the nation's production. The Middle East provides 2.9 million barrels of oil a day to China, more than half its total imports, and Saudi Arabia alone accounts for about 1.1 million barrels a day.

Faced with ostracization by Europe as well as the detestation of most of the Arab states, Gaddafi tried to gain some geopolitical traction by offering petro-opportunities to China, Russia, and India.

Despite Colonel Gaddafi’s inducements, his oil and gas will continue to flow to Europe, and not to China.  This makes shielding Libya much less important and attractive than China’s determined dalliance with Saudi Arabia’s other sworn enemy, Iran.

Despite expectations that it will express its fundamental hostility to endorsing US and NATO intervention in the Middle East, China may decide it is in its interests to burnish its global leadership credentials by orchestrating passage of a no fly resolution in some form—such as one that pays lip service to the “humanitarian assistance” justification.

China also happens to hold the presidency of the UN Security Council this month.  As France, Britain, and the United States pushed for a quick vote, Ambassador Li Baodong, did not appear to be slow-walking the process, telling reporters: "We hope we will have real progress tomorrow." [11]

In justifying his decision to convert to Catholicism in order to gain the French crown, Henry IV is said to have declared, “Paris is worth a mass”.

To China, Saudi oil might be worth a vote.

China may well decide to cast a vote on the Security Council in favor of an Libya no-fly zone process in order to mollify Saudi Arabia--while providing much appreciated political cover to the United States and other non-intervention minded Western powers, and getting the Arab League off the hook.

 Beijing may well be hoping that the rebellion will collapse and fail and Gaddafi’s forces will enter Benghazi before the no-fly zone “gets off the ground”.

1. Libyan press strongly criticize Saudi Arabia, Arabic News, Dec 25, 2004.
3. Libyan delegation arrives in Cairo, Aljazeera, Mar 11, 2011.
5. Libya and Lebanon: a troubled relationship, Guardian, Mar 16, 2011.
6. 'The Beginning of an Epochal Development', Spiegel, Mar 16, 2011.
11. Libya no-fly zone supporters push for UN vote, Aljazeera, Mar 17, 2011.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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