More to Libya-US ties than meets the eye

A few years ago, the whole world watched bemusedly as former Spanish premiere Jose Maria Aznar, his then Italian counterpart Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Britain’s Tony Blair literally tripped over each other in trying to be the first to shake Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s hand and explain to a sceptical world that Libya had been ‘rehabilitated’. In the context of development and curbing terrorism, Libya’s new-found commitments to peaceful coexistence are laudable but there is still a strong suspicion that there is more going on between the two countries than that which meets the eye. In 1999, Libya surrendered two nationals suspected of involvement in the Pan Am 103 bombing. This led to the suspension of UN sanctions against the country and the conviction of one of the accused of terrorism. As Gadaffi has maintained that Libya was not involved in the bombing, coupled with the fact that only one of the two accused was convicted, observers say that this was the first concession Libya made to the West. In August 2003, Libya wrote a letter to the Security Council renouncing terrorism and on September 12 of the same year, sanctions were effectively lifted. Libya has paid compensation for the 1999 death of British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, a move that paved the way for the reopening of the British Embassy in Tripoli. Compensation of US$8 million per family has been paid for the Pan Am bombing and one gets the distinct feeling that Libya has paid enough and is now being rewarded for its new-found loyalty to the West. The normalisation of US-Libya relations is a natural marriage of a trigger-happy superpower badly in need of allies in the Arab world and an oil-rich country equally in need of infrastructural development. Ali Aujali, the Libyan Liaison Office chief in Washington recently admitted as much when he said: “Now I think they (oil companies) can compete with the other companies, and they can go ahead with their job in Libya,” he said. American companies such as Marathon Oil, Conoco Phillips and Amerada Hess last year agreed to terms letting them resume oil and gas production in Libya after a 19-year absence. America is simply trying to close the gap on Europe when it comes to Libyan investments as it is an open secret that despite the years of sanctions, Libya and Europe were always intimate, albeit strange, bedfellows. To fully understand the politics at play, one has to look at Gadaffi’s political history and how it has shaped Libyan foreign policy from 1969 when King Idris was popularly dethroned. Gadaffi’s Revolutionary Command Council moved speedily to co-opt leaders of the oil workers union into the government and with characteristic ruthlessness immediately made it treasonous to form a political party. Thus he struck a double blow ‘ he silenced militant trade unionism and ensured there would not be any formal political opposition. By 1973, Libya had one of the largest prison populations (in comparison to national population figures) and after 1978 public hangings of dissenting students were common features. The vast oil resources were used to strengthen state machinery with the view of consolidating power. It was probably this realisation of the immense power of the dollar that drove the good Colonel to harness as much political authority as possible in the oil rich Arab world. What better route to glory was there besides amalgamating oil producing countries into one powerful bloc? This was made all the easier since Gadaffi had emerged on the international scene as a devout follower of Abdel Nasser ‘ probably the greatest leader Egypt has ever had. Writes Steve Jones: “Gadaffi’s calls for Arab unity were aimed solely at the Arab governments. By deploying oil money, cajoling and manoevouring, Libya hoped to collect the disparate Arab-led regimes into a coalition against Israel.” Israel was the only real threat to Libya’s domination of the Middle East apart from Egypt, which was an ally. It has been said that Libya funded the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the West German Red Faction Army among others. It is said Libyan oil money (at the very least) was involved in the assassination of members of the Israeli Olympic Team in 1976. Gadaffi shifted his patronage to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) around 1979 and stood aside as the PLO was besieged by Israeli troops in Beirut in 1982. Cash was offered to African states to break ties with Israel and adopt Islam and Arabic as part of their national cultures. This attracted such ludicrous and diabolic characters as Uganda’s illiterate former and deceased president, Idi Amin. The former USSR became a strong ally because of Gadaffi’s insatiable need to build an arsenal of dangerous weapons. The Colonel supported the ill-fated sojourn into Afghanistan (the same quagmire Bush Junior has found himself bogged down in) and even offered to join the Warsaw Pact. All this time Libya was pumping out billions of barrels of oil ‘ the lifeblood of modern economics. And despite all the self-righteous posturing and table banging and yells of outrage, European firms were tapping into this lucrative resource. Libya has over 30 billion barrels of proven oil reserves worth over 600 billion British pounds and produces somewhere in the region of 1.4 million barrels per day. Europe would certainly not want to miss out on such goodies. It was this oil interest that motivated European opposition to America’s 1986 air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi. Italian car manufacturer Fiat never stopped doing business with the Libyans despite the entire hullabaloo about sanctions and international isolation. They were not the only ones since it goes without say that even though the United Nations banned the trade in Libyan oil, Libya kept on producing. Some will remember Blair popping over to see Gadaffi after attending the service held for the Spaniards murdered in the terrorist train bombings. That little chat was in itself worth a 550 million pound deal for Anglo-Dutch Shell. Libya is now a key partner in the ‘war on terror’ and arms trade has resumed and British Aero Space is said to be already thick with the Libyans. The British Ministry of Defence has even indicated that it will be working with its Libyan counterpart to develop Gadaffi’s army and air force. And what has Gadaffi done to deserve all this? Well, he surrendered a 20 ton stockpile of nerve agent precursors and mustard gas. Saddam Hussein spent 12 years hosting weapons inspectors but it apparently was not enough to convince Europe that Iraq was militarily harmless. Essentially nothing has changed much between Europe and Libya only that now the oil and weapons deals are being done legally and openly. Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem inadvertently spilt the beans when on February 25 2004 he blunderingly but honestly said on BBC Radio that Libya had “bought peace”. This is where the US has now come in. It would not do to have Europe have the larger share of the pie when it is well known that Washington is actively stockpiling oil reserves for its own future economic and physical wars. Apart from the economic aspects, Libya would be a pivotal partner in any future Middle East war. Tripoli has already been a good friend to the US by providing intelligence on Pakistan’s underground nuclear network and lord knows what else.

May 2006
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