Libya: A War For Regime Change?

23/08/2011 19:19 BST | Updated 22/10/2011 10:12 BST

"Our differences could have been resolved very easily..." said Mohammed Gaddafi as the deafening sound of an AK47 round thundering from its barrel drowned out his voice. Colonel Muammar's son was giving a live telephone interview from his home (where he was supposedly under house arrest) last night when the line went dead, cutting off his cry "I'm under attack right now". The rebel army has taken Tripoli.

As thousands discharged weapons into the air with gleeful smiles, it was easy to be swept up in the triumphalism of the moment. As Brutus said, "then walk we forth even to the marketplace, and, waving our red weapons o'er our heads, let's all cry out 'peace, freedom, and liberty!'"

But along with pictures of elated Libyans celebrating in the newly reclaimed (and renamed) Martyr Square, came the inevitable question: where is Muammar Gaddafi? And then its corollary: have NATO therefore been successful?

The whereabouts of the Colonel are still unknown, but many commentators have been quick to declare victory, and praise the NATO campaign. USC professor Josh Lockman appeared on Al Jazeera last night to declare that Obama's decision to engage in Libya had been "vindicated", and that NATO forces had followed UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

The second of these pronouncements is obviously false. No sensible definition of the "measures to protect civilians" that UNSCR 1973 mandates can include bombing a densely populated Tripoli. In addition, both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have quite openly claimed that the Libya campaign's overall aim was the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. Given these facts, and that NATO has conducted over 7000 strike sorties in the past six months, the flimsy R2P interpretation of the resolution can be safely shelved. NATO have been acting as a rebel air force.

Leaving the legality of a regime change war aside for a moment, we should turn to assessing whether or not the description is even accurate. Has the Libya campaign really aimed to remove Gaddafi as Cameron and Obama say? And now that the TNC has control of Tripoli, does that therefore mean NATO deserves some of the praise?

It's first necessary to remember that until it was impossible to continue doing so, the West supported Gaddafi rule in Libya. It is possible, of course, that messrs. Sarkozy, Obama and Cameron were genuinely concerned for the people of Benghazi, and were moved to end Gaddafi rule purely by terror of his threats. Were that the case, why were the people of Bahrain, Syria and the Ivory Coast not shown the same tender care, faced as they were with the reality, not merely the threat, of atrocities?

On June 21st, I predicted that Gaddafi's offer to end the conflict and hold internationally monitored elections would be ignored by NATO. That prediction proved to be correct. If the objective of the campaign was the end of Gaddafi, why was this offer neglected? Either we must assume that NATO feared Gaddafi would win a free election (unlikely), or that there were motivations beyond 'regime change'.

The claim that UNSCR 1973 has been followed is flatly false, but the claim that regime change is the real motive is also untennable. Other motivations present themselves. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and is Europe's single largest provider. It's also blessed with at least 1 trillion cubic metres of gas.

The smiles in Martyr's square may well turn to frowns if it comes to pass that NATO really intends to ensure that those energy reserves aren't threatened by instituting a new Libyan leadership that is both more reliable, and more conducive to Western resource needs, than Gaddafi's.