Western Sahara/Morocco: 5 Interviews

Professor Stephen Zunes on Western Sahara, Russia, Ukraine, Biden, Israel and Morocco. February 2023

This is a very short segment of a story about Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara on a Swedish television network (in English, 2 min., 02/27/2024).

Interview for a podcast on U.S. policy towards Israel/Palestine and Morocco/Western Sahara:
Part I (37 min) & Part II (20 min) January 2024.

Transcript of interview for La Tribune Diplomatique Internationale (in English) making the links between the Israeli and Moroccan occupations. 01/20/2024

Also see Western Sahara Uncovered, Episode 01: History of Western Sahara (5-min. video below, November 2023)

Oberlin Club of Washington, DC: Western Sahara

28 January 2022: The United Nations and the World Court have called for the Sahrawi population to be allowed the right of self-determination. The United States, meanwhile, remains the only country in the world that formally recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The presentation is timed with the release of the second revised expanded edition of Professor Zunes’ book Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution, and his return from visiting Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. Professor Zunes will assess the human rights situation under the Moroccan rule, the nonviolent and armed resistance to the occupation, U.S. policy, and more. [FULL LINK]

Biden’s Dangerous Refusal to Reverse Trump’s Western Sahara Policy

In his final weeks in office, President Donald Trump stunned the international community in formally recognizing Western Sahara as part of Morocco. Morocco has occupied much of its southern neighbor since 1975, when it invaded and annexed the former Spanish colony in defiance of the United Nations Security Council and a landmark ruling of the International Court of Justice… [FULL LINK]

Sudan’s 2019 Revolution The Power of Civil Resistance

Stephen Zunes’ April 2021 report* reviews the chronology of the resistance struggle in Sudan, the critical role of nonviolent discipline, other factors contributing to the movement’s success, and the current political situation. It seeks to explain how the movement was able to succeed despite enormous odds against it and what lessons could be learned by those facing similarly difficult circumstances. Given the serious challenges facing the new civilian-led government, there is a real possibility that—as was the case following successful pro-democracy struggles decades earlier—the military could again seize power. However, there are also reasons for hope… Download the PDF here or at *The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC).

Will Biden Admin Reverse Trump’s “Dangerous” Recognition of Morocco’s Occupation of Western Sahara?

Feb. 5, 2021: DemocracyNow! full transcript and video link

President Donald Trump broke with decades of U.S. foreign policy in the waning days of his administration and recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a territory the country has occupied since 1975 in defiance of the United Nations and the international community. U.S. recognition came as Morocco agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, becoming the fourth Arab nation to do so in recent months as part of a regional push by the Trump administration to strengthen Israel without addressing the Palestinian conflict. Now the Biden administration must weigh whether to reverse Trump’s decision on Western Sahara. “It’ll be very dangerous if Biden does not reverse Trump’s unprecedented recognition of Morocco’s takeover of Western Sahara,” says Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. “The United Nations Charter is very clear that the expansion of territory by military force is illegitimate.”
See reviews of his book, “Western Sahara,”related articles, audio and video.

Trump Recognized Morocco’s Illegal Occupation to Boost the Israeli Occupation

Truthout – On December 10, the US became the only country to formally recognize Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony forcibly seized by Moroccan forces in 1975. Trump’s proclamation is directly counter to a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark World Court ruling calling for self-determination. Trump’s decision was a quid pro quo: a reward for Morocco’s formal recognition of Israel, a country which is also an occupying power. Trump had previously broken precedent by recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and greater Jerusalem. US recognition of the annexation of an entire country, which has been recognized as an independent state by 80 countries, is a particularly dangerous precedent. As with his earlier recognition of Israel’s conquests, Trump is effectively renouncing longstanding international legal principles in favor of the right of conquest. [FULL LINK]

The East Timor Model Offers a Way out for Western Sahara and Morocco

Foreign Policy Dec. 9, 2020 – It’s not often that Western Sahara makes international headlines, but in mid November it did: Nov. 14 marked the tragic—if unsurprising—breakup of a tenuous, 29-year cease-fire in Western Sahara between the occupying Moroccan government and pro-independence fighters. The outbreak of violence is concerning not only because it flew in the face of nearly three decades of relative stasis, but also because Western governments’ reflexive response to the resurgent conflict may be to upend—and thereby hamper and de-legitimize for perpetuity over 75 years of established international legal principles. It is imperative that the global community realize the path forward lies in adhering to international law… [FULL LINK]

Sudan’s Democratic Revolution is Being Undermined by the United States

Last year’s nonviolent pro-democracy revolution in Sudan which brought down the brutal 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir and the subsequent military junta inspired the world. Few popular uprisings in history faced such extremely difficult circumstances and few displayed the kind of courage, tenacity, and effective strategy by pro-democracy activists which led to their victory. Unfortunately, the United States has been pursuing policies which almost seem designed to destroy Sudan’s fragile democratic experiment. [FULL LINK]

INTERVIEW: The Sudanese Ousted a Dictator Last Year—Why Is Washington Still Imposing Sanctions?

INTERVIEW, The Nation March 20,2020 & at Rethinking Foreign Policy: Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes… January 2020, traveled to Sudan to learn about the protest movement that ousted longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir last year. While the military regime Bashir headed is still a powerful force in Sudan, it has been pressed into sharing power with a civilian government in formation. Sudan’s future remains undecided… Sudan is still under strict US sanctions [d]espite now having a moderate, secular, civilian-led government… still listed as a state sponsor of terror. Ironically, the United States spends billions to prop up a military dictatorship in Egypt and sells billions in arms to the Saudis and Emiratis in the Gulf, while a nearby democratic experiment is being punished by sanctions. [FULL LINK]

How Sudan’s Pro-Democracy Uprising Challenges Prevailing Myths about Civil Resistance

[International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, April 22, 2019] A powerful pro-democracy civil insurrection in Sudan which has ousted a longstanding dictator and his successor is still in progress, but Sudanese are hopeful for a full democratic transition. Demonstrations began in December of last year, initially focusing on the deteriorating economic situation, but soon escalated to demand that the authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir—who had ruled the country for nearly three decades—step down and that democracy be restored. By January, the protests had spread to the capital of Khartoum, gaining support from youth and women’s movements as well as a number of opposition parties….

Tunisia’s Democratic Revolution

Whether the overthrow of the corrupt and autocratic Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in a mass civil insurrection will lead to a stable, just and democratic order remains to be seen, but the dramatic events in that North African country underscore a critical point: Democracy in the Arab world will not come from foreign military intervention or sanctimonious lecturing from Western capitals, but from Arab peoples themselves.

While the rioting and other spontaneous violence would seem to differentiate these recent events from the overwhelmingly nonviolent movements that brought down dictators in the Philippines, Serbia, Poland, Chile, and elsewhere, it was the nonviolent aspects of the uprising that proved most decisive. The general strike, the peaceful protests, the refusal to obey curfew orders, the explosion of alternative media, and other acts of nonviolent resistance were far more critical in the downfall of the regime than the violent mob actions, which make for such exciting imagery in the international media, but which were not representative of the movement as a whole.

While the movement was impressive in the way that it was able to transform inchoate populist anger into regime change, effectively employing mass-based tactics to destabilize an autocratic government does not necessarily lead to democracy. Recent history has shown that in such situations, the chances of bringing about a genuine democratic transformation are increased if it comes from a more protracted movement with a comprehensive strategic vision, which seeks to represent the widest range of society and maintains a more conscious nonviolent discipline. The lack of a clear, cohesive leadership group may be partly responsible for the chaos that has followed Ben Ali’s departure. Still, the movement was impressive regarding the way it eventually encompassed diverse elements, which transcended the nation’s religious and political divides, the level of tactical coordination between groups and the way they were able to bring together people of all ages and educational levels out onto the streets. And they did so in the face of severe repression; more than 100 people were killed by government forces over the past four weeks.

Demonstrations began on December 17. Originally led by unemployed youth, the protests were joined a week and half later by professional groups and trade unions, which many thought had been successfully co-opted by the regime. These peaceful demonstrations were violently broken up by security forces as well. On January 6, a general strike by lawyers was 95 percent successful. The following day, the regime arrested a number of prominent journalists, bloggers, activists and musicians. Over the next three days, dozens of protesters were shot dead by security forces, and the nation’s universities were ordered closed by the regime. On January 13, as protests gathered momentum, Ben Ali announced unprecedented reforms and promised not to seek re-election in 2014, but these concessions failed to quell the insurrection. Indeed, the trade union federation issued a formal call for a general strike. The following day, the government imposed a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that “arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded.” As thousands defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry and the general strike effectively shut down the country, Ben Ali fled on January 14.

One important aspect of what some have labeled the “Jasmine Revolution” is the role of the Internet. Ben Ali had imposed some of the heaviest press censorship in the Arab world, leading to an unprecedented level of reliance on the Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Whenever the government tried to block access, ways were found to bypass the censors. (Among the signs at demonstrations was “Freedom From 404” – the Internet error code for “File Not Found.”) Hacktivists retaliated by jamming government web sites. While it is important not to overemphasize this aspect – it was people on the streets who made the uprising possible – it is a reminder of the possibilities available for social movements even in countries under repressive regimes.

With unemployment as high as 30 percent among youth, including those with college educations, frustrations at the economic situation were a major focus of the grievances. While the economic issues were clearly important, they were directly related to the lack of democracy. As the US Embassy acknowledged some months ago, “many civil society activists speculate that corruption – particularly that of First Lady Leila (Trabelsi) Ben Ali and the broader Trabelsi clan – is the fundamental impediment to meaningful political liberalization.”

As when the Iranian regime was faced with a similar mass uprising after the apparently-stolen Iranian presidential election in 2009, the Tunisian regime blamed the uprising as the work of extremists and foreigners. This was clearly a homegrown affair, however, with a strong cultural component. Tunisian artists and musicians played a seminal role, including the popular rapper, Hamada ben Amor, also known as El General, who was arrested last week in response to a widely-circulated anti-government song and video.

The chaos which has taken place since Ben Ali fled the country could be a bad sign of things to come. There are reports that certain security forces loyal to the ousted dictator are largely responsible for the burning and looting after Ben Ali fled the country, thereby giving the Army an excuse to assert its power in the streets that, until recently, were controlled by civilians. It is unlikely that the Tunisian people will allow this to happen, however, having tasted their new-found power. In the best case scenario, this empowerment from having overthrown a dictator ensconced in the presidential palace for 23 years could lead to a dramatic growth in civil society and civic engagement in a society which had known little but authoritarian rule since independence, and, prior to that, an often oppressive French colonialism.

The Unhelpful US Role

In the course of some similar civil insurrections, like those in Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, like Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, particularly if the dictatorship is a US ally like Tunisia, Washington has either backed the government or largely remained silent.

Indeed, rather than praise Tunisia’s largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement and condemn its repressive regime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Tuesday prior to the regime’s overthrow expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the US is “not taking sides” and that she will “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers. Clinton acknowledged the economic problems besetting Tunisia and its neighbors by noting that “one of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis is that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.”

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In reality, however, Tunisia – more than almost any country in the region – has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs” in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.” These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country’s top ruling families. The US has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector. Adopting this neoliberal model also grossly exacerbated inequality between the coastal areas and the interior and southern regions, where the December protests originated.

A 2009 State Department cable recently released by WikiLeaks described Tunisia as a “police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems” and that “President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor.” The country’s elites were described as almost Mafia-like in their complex networks of control, ripping off enormous wealth from almost every sector of the economy, and a series of WikiLeaks documents vividly described the extravagant lifestyle and related egregious behavior by the families of the president and his in-laws.

Some American pundits have tried to portray the uprising as the “WikiLeaks Revolution,” implying that the leaks somehow sparked the revolution. However, none of this was news to the Tunisian people. Indeed, as the US ambassador put it in one of these same documents following a lavish dinner hosted by the president’s son-in-law and heir apparent, “The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali’s family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing.” More importantly, this seems to be yet another effort by Westerners to deny agency to an Arab people who bravely faced down the tear gas and bullets for their freedom.

At least Obama’s appointees in the embassy had a more realistic grasp of the situation than under the Bush administration. In preparation for then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit in 2008, the US ambassador spoke in glowing terms about Ben Ali’s dictatorship. A memo read, “Tunisia styles itself ‘a country that works,'” adding, “While Tunisians grumble privately about corruption by the first lady’s family, there is an abiding appreciation for Ben Ali’s success in steering his country clear of the instability and violence that have plagued Tunisia’s neighbors.” According to Bush officials, “the lack of Tunisian political activism, or even awareness, seems to be a more serious impediment. While frustration with the First Family’s corruption may eventually lead to increased demands for political liberalization, it does not yet appear to be heralding the end of the Ben Ali era.”

Apparently, neither administration shared its concern over the regime’s persistent pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations. Indeed, Tunis became the home of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a regional office for the State Department’s democratic reform program. US policy was justified in the name of the “war on terror,” even though radical Islamist movements are weaker in Tunisia than in practically any other Arab country. Ben Ali’s regime assisted the United States in “extraordinary rendition,” where suspected Islamist radicals captured by US forces or kidnapped by intelligence services were brought to Tunisia for torture. Tunisia was also one of the governments more willing to cooperate with the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in its efforts to extend US military operations and military relations with African countries.

As the popular uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship commenced last month, Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments (the others being Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Colombia) provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid in the foreign appropriation bills. Tear gas canisters lobbed at pro-democracy demonstrators were inscribed with the words “Made in USA,” a reminder of whose side Washington was on in the struggle against the dictatorship.

After official silence following more than two weeks of protests and savage repression by the government, the State Department began to issue some mildly-worded rebukes over the police attacks against demonstrators. Even though most of the protests had been nonviolent, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley chose to represent the movement as its most unruly components, stating that the Obama administration was “concerned about government actions, but we’re also concerned about actions by the demonstrators, those who do not have peaceful intentions.”

US policy began to shift as the pro-democracy movement gained momentum, however. Just two days after the interview in which she appeared to back the Ben Ali regime, Clinton took a more proactive stance at a meeting in Qatar, where she noted that “people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order” and called for “political reforms that will create the space young people are demanding, to participate in public affairs and have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives.”

Then, on Friday, as Ben Ali was fleeing the country, President Obama came forward with the most pointed declaration in support of democracy in the Arab world since he became president:

“I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.

“As I have said before, each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia’s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.”

There has long been a sense of fatalism in the Arab world that they are simply passive victims of outside forces. While it is easy to dismiss Obama’s comments as simply a matter of throwing support to the winning side at the last minute, this shift is indicative of the significance of what has happened in Tunisia: rather than Washington controlling the course of events impacting the Arab street, the Arab street is impacting policies emanating from Washington.

A Precedent?

All this inevitably raises the question as to whether Tunisia will spark pro-democratic contagion throughout the region. Tunisia’s small size; relatively large, educated middle class; absence of a strong right-wing Islamist influence; and other factors make the country unique in a number of ways. Certainly, popular pro-democratic movements in Eastern Europe and Latin American swept through those regions in rapid succession in the 1980s, sweeping entrenched dictatorial regimes from power. Vicarious fascination with the Tunisian events in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and other US-backed authoritarian regimes in the region is indicative of the hope, whether realistic or not, that democratic forces in these country could emulate their Arab brethren in Tunisia. Mohammed al-Maskati, a blogger in Bahrain, Twittered, “It actually happened in my lifetime . An Arab nation woke up and said ‘enough.'”

Despite some recent claims in US media outlets to the contrary, this is not the first time popular protests have brought down an Arab or North African government. In Sudan, in both 1964 and 1985, popular, largely nonviolent, mass protests brought down dictators in those countries. The 1985 overthrow of the US-backed dictator Jafaar Numeiry resulted in Sudan becoming the most democratic government in the Arab world for the next four years, only to be tragically cut short in a 1989 military coup. In Mali in 1991, a nonviolent revolution overthrew the Traore dictatorship despite the shootings of hundreds of peaceful protesters. Even though Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries, it has remained the most democratic county in northern or western Africa ever since.

The people of Tunisia have demonstrated their power to oust a dictatorship. The coming period will tell if they can actually build a democracy.

Libya: More Balance Needed

Key Points

* The U.S. has maintained a hostile relationship toward the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi for over two decades, including a series of military confrontations in the 1980s.

* Qaddafi’s repression at home, anti-Western foreign policy, and support for extremist movements—including terrorist groups—have fueled the anti-Libyan sentiment of successive U.S. administrations.

* U.S. sanctions against Libya have continued, despite the suspension of UN sanctions following the extradition and trial of Libyan suspects in the Lockerbie PanAm bombing.

In 1969, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi led a military coup in Libya against King Idris, an unpopular pro-Western leader. A left-leaning Arab nationalist and a harsh critic of Israel and the West, Qaddafi nationalized Libya’s foreign-controlled oil industry and ordered the closure of Wheelus Air Base, one of the largest U.S. military facilities in the world. Although Qaddafi’s anticommunism allowed for some initial cautious optimism from the U.S., diplomatic relations were downgraded in 1973 and were formally broken eight years later.

Under Qaddafi’s rule, Libya has made impressive gains in health care, education, housing, women’s rights, and basic social services. His brand of Islamic socialism, combined with the country’s relatively small population and large oil reserves, has made Libya one of the more prosperous and egalitarian societies in the developing world, even though rhetoric has outpaced performance. A decentralized political system has allowed for democracy and popular participation in some political activities.

Political repression, however, is widespread. Serving both monarchs and military rulers, Libyan law prohibits the formation of political parties and criticism of the political system. There are no independent human rights organizations or nongovernmental organizations of any kind, and the government strictly controls the press. There are hundreds of political prisoners, and torture in detention is common. Outspoken opponents of the government have been murdered, both at home and abroad.

More distressing to the U.S. has been Qaddafi’s support for extremist movements abroad, including terrorist groups, some of which may have been responsible for the deaths of American citizens. He has also been an outspoken advocate of radical third world and Arab causes.

During the early 1980s, there was a series of military clashes between the U.S. and Libya, with Libya attacking U.S. navy ships, and U.S. forces destroying Libyan military ships and aircraft and bombing coastal military installations. In April 1986, following a terrorist bombing in Berlin that killed an American G.I., the U.S. bombed Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s two largest cities, killing more than sixty civilians. The Reagan administration supported a wide range of covert activities targeting Libya, including disinformation campaigns, propaganda, sabotage, and encouragement of opposition groups. The U.S. also provided logistical support for French military operations against Libyan forces in the disputed Ouzou Strip region of northern Chad, and Washington encouraged Egyptian hostility toward Libya, resulting in a series of clashes along their common border.

In 1982, the U.S. initiated a series of sanctions against Libya, including an embargo on Libyan oil and a new requirement for export licenses for most American goods. Comprehensive sanctions were imposed in 1986, including a freeze of Libyan assets and a ban on all trade and financial dealings with Libya. These sanctions also forbid Americans, including journalists and academics, from traveling to Libya without permission from the U.S. government.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Washington issued a series of reports, widely circulated in the media, designed to discredit and demonize the Libyan government. These included charges of a Libyan hit squad targeting American officials, reports of coup attempts against Qaddafi, and allegations of a large underground chemical weapons factory. Subsequent investigations found all of these reports to be false.

When an investigation of the 1988 PanAm airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, fingered two Libyan intelligence agents, the U.S. and Great Britain demanded their extradition to stand trial. In 1992, as the International Court of Justice was addressing the extradition question, the U.S. successfully pressured the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Libya to force the government to hand over the suspects. These international sanctions prohibited the export of aviation, military, or petroleum equipment to Libya, banned commercial flights to or from Libya, limited Libyan diplomatic representation abroad, and placed restrictions on certain Libyan financial activities.

In 1999, all parties agreed to have the Libyans tried in the Netherlands before three Scottish judges. UN sanctions against Libya were suspended in 1999 when the two Libyan suspects were extradited for trial, though the U.S. has maintained its own unilateral sanctions. The judges made their ruling in January 2001, convicting one suspect and acquitting the other. It is still unclear whether the bombing was a rogue operation or ordered by higher-ups, including possibly Qaddafi, himself, in retaliation for the 1986 bombing raids.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems
* Military attacks against Libya have led to civilian deaths, have violated international law, and have strengthened Qaddafi’s standing in Libya and the international community.

* Washington’s opposition to political repression and support of terrorism by the Libyan government is compromised by U.S. support of other autocratic regimes and acquiescence to terrorist activities by American allies.

* The sanctions against Libya have been largely ineffective in altering Tripoli’s behavior but have been harmful to American businesses and other interests.

U.S. hostility toward Libya appears to have been largely reactive and not based on any well-conceived strategy. Demonizing the eccentric Qaddafi, with his penchant for harsh and provocative rhetoric, has been useful in bolstering the domestic standing of successive U.S. presidents and feeding the sense of self-righteousness Americans feel for the U.S. role in the world. But it has netted little tangible benefit for U.S. policy interests. For example, Qaddafi’s 1986 claim that the entire Gulf of Sidra was within Libyan territorial waters had no legal justification. Yet the U.S. insistence on militarily challenging the claim seemed more designed as an excuse to attack the country than to enforce international law, particularly since Libya was not enforcing its claims.

More tragically, what apparently provoked the Libyan terrorists who destroyed the Pan Am airliner in 1988 were the U.S. bombing raids against Libyan cities two years earlier. The U.S. justified the air strikes on the grounds that they would prevent future Libyan-sponsored terrorism—an ironic justification, given the subsequent event. Moreover, international law only recognizes the legitimacy of the use of force for self-defense, not for retaliation. The numerous civilian casualties from the air strikes and the serious damage caused to the French embassy and other diplomatic facilities provoked outrage throughout the world and bolstered Qaddafi’s standing both at home and abroad. Indeed, Washington’s support for terrorist groups like the Nicaraguan contras, U.S. failure to extradite CIA-connected terrorists currently indicted in two Latin American countries, and America’s role in a deadly 1985 car bombing in a Beirut suburb have hampered U.S. credibility as a crusader against the Libyan regime’s alleged links to terrorism.

Although the UN sanctions against Libya never inflicted the serious humanitarian consequences that have plagued Iraq, they did retard Libya’s economic development and isolated the country internationally, discouraging liberalizing influences. The ongoing unilateral U.S. sanctions have had a similar effect. Even Qaddafi’s Libyan opponents have opposed the sanctions on the grounds that this tactic has played into the hands of the Libyan dictator.

What made the Libyans particularly reluctant to accede to initial demands to extradite the bombing suspects was the realization that the U.S. would oppose the lifting of UN sanctions even if they complied, since Washington’s target was not really the indicted men but rather the Qaddafi regime. Indeed, even though UN sanctions have been suspended against Libya, the U.S. has blocked efforts to have them completely lifted.

A particularly problematic manifestation of U.S. sanctions has been the 1996 D’Amato Act, the motivation for which may go beyond simply curbing terrorism to exerting U.S. pressure on weaker countries. The law says that the president can “determine” that a person, company, or government is in violation of the act, and the aggrieved party has no recourse to challenge the president’s determination in court or anywhere else. With such wide latitude of interpretation, a president can impose sanctions or other punitive measures based more on political considerations than on any objective criteria, thus honing the mechanisms by which the U.S. can force foreign countries to cooperate with its strategic and economic agendas.

The bill provides for an array of sanctions, including banning the sale of products of culpable firms in the United States. As with similar extraterritorial efforts regarding Cuba, even America’s strongest allies have raised vehement objections to the law, which apparently violates World Trade Organization rules. Ironically, this is the same sort of secondary boycott that the U.S. has vehemently opposed when applied by Middle Eastern states to U.S. companies doing business in Israel. If the U.S. secondary boycott is maintained, other countries are likely to take over lost American business. Thus, it will not be the targeted regime that will be hurt by U.S. policy—it will be American businesses and American credibility.

The crimes committed over the years by Qaddafi’s Libya, though frequently exaggerated and not always unique, are still very real. Similarly, double-standards are commonplace both in U.S. diplomatic history and in the foreign policies of every great power. Yet in many respects, just as Qaddafi has gained political mileage in portraying himself as a victim of a vengeful and hypocritical U.S., there are those in the U.S. who also benefit from maintaining a hostile relationship with this leader whom Americans love to hate. Hostility toward “rogue states” like Libya helps justify continued high military budgets, encourages unilateral military initiatives, and feeds the self-righteous and sanctimonious U.S. perception of its role in the world.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that Libya’s most serious offense in the eyes of U.S. policymakers does not concern human rights abuses, terrorism, nuclear ambitions, subversion, or conquest but rather the impudence to challenge American hegemony in the Middle East. Regimes like Libya and other so-called “rogue states” are preventing the U.S. from exercising its political dominance over this crucial region. By overthrowing or subjugating these regimes, American policymakers believe they will gain unprecedented leverage in shaping the future direction of the Middle East.

This brings us to the final irony. Their role as an impediment to hegemonic American ambitions lends these regimes the credibility and legitimacy they would not otherwise receive, since most Middle Eastern people resent foreign domination.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations
* The U.S. should significantly ease sanctions against Libya as a means of encouraging a more pluralistic society and responsible foreign policy.

* The U.S. should promote arms control throughout North Africa and should pledge not to attack Libya unless there is clear evidence that Libya has attacked first.

* Diplomatic relations should be restored and most economic sanctions lifted; military sanctions should be retained, and any trade that could strengthen the regime’s repressive apparatus or export of violence should be stifled.

Washington needs to encourage Libya to play a more responsible role both toward its own citizens and as a member of the international community. Current policy needs an overhaul, however, if such policy ambitions are to be successful.

Many of Qaddafi’s stated objectives—encouraging sustainable broad-based economic development, promoting Palestinian rights, and defending the Arab world’s cultural, religious, and national rights from Western domination—have some legitimacy and evoke solidarity throughout the Middle East. A U.S. decision to address the legitimate concerns and adopt more responsible policies in the Middle East would rob demagogues like Qaddafi of their popular base and obstruct their dangerous policies. Such an approach would prove more successful at controlling Qaddafi than air strikes and punitive sanctions, which only appear to strengthen his power and influence.

Washington should go on record with the promise that it will not attack Libya unless there is clear evidence that Libya has attacked first. Proactively, the U.S. should promote arms control across North Africa as a means of bringing greater peace and stability to the region. Normal diplomatic relations should be restored and sanctions should be substantially liberalized to allow for normal business activity as well as academic and tourist exchanges. A whole generation of Americans has grown up with the news media and popular culture depicting Libyans as terrorists. Normal interchanges between the two countries would greatly enhance better understanding between the two peoples and minimize the risk of violence against either.

Military sanctions should remain in place. Similarly, the U.S. should maintain restrictions against commercial or other activities that could directly strengthen the regime’s repressive apparatus or foster terrorism.

Recent conflict between the U.S. and Libya has harmed the credibility of U.S. efforts to promote a more open and pluralistic society in Libya. Encouraging a greater role for international nongovernmental organizations—untainted by a direct U.S. presence—could help this process. Libya’s impressive advances in some aspects of economic development, including innovations in appropriate technology, deserve examination as possible models for development elsewhere.

Lingering concerns about potential Libyan involvement in terrorism should be addressed through international organizations and law enforcement, not through unilateral actions. Washington must renounce its support for any irregular forces or governments involved in terrorism in order to become a more effective leader in the war against terrorism. Moreover, the U.S. should acknowledge that its previous attacks against civilian targets in Libya were themselves a form of terrorism.

Similarly, Washington’s concerns about Qaddafi’s ongoing human rights violations would be enhanced if the U.S. ended its silence about human rights violations by such U.S. allies as Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. There is nothing wrong with constraining—using economic sanctions, if necessary—regimes that export terrorism and violate human rights. However, until the U.S. is willing to end its flagrant double-standards, such efforts—even where justified—will get little international support.

Finally, if the U.S. is really interested in democratic change in Libya, it should recognize that Qaddafi is not the only important political actor in that country. Washington must analyze Libya’s social structure and regional differences. There are technocrats, ideologues, military and religious leaders, and other competing interest groups outside Qaddafi’s complete control. Together they constitute a complex internal political dynamic in Libya.

Libya should not be used as a symbol, a whipping boy, an excuse for higher military spending, or a vehicle for proving a president’s machismo. U.S. policy should be guided more by area specialists and less by military leaders and national security managers who are unfamiliar with Libya, its politics, history, and culture. The demonization of Qaddafi and Libya should be replaced by a more balanced approach that recognizes the regime’s accomplishments as well as its many serious problems.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chairperson of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. Zunes is also a senior analyst and the Middle East and North Africa editor at Foreign Policy In Focus.

Recommended Citation:
Stephen Zunes, “Libya: More Balance Needed” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, October 6, 2005)

http://www.fpif.org/articles/libya_more_balance_needed