The author of Exit the Colonel..., Ethan Chorin, and the front cover of his book
By Karen Dabrowska
In Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution Ethan Chorin, a long time Middle East scholar and one of the first American diplomats posted to Libya after the lifting of international sanctions, goes well beyond recent reporting on the Arab Spring to link the Libyan uprising to a flawed reform process, egregious human rights abuses, regional disparities, and inconsistent stories spun by Libya and the West to justify the Gaddafi regime's “rehabilitation.”
The book is based upon extensive interviews with senior US, EU, and Libyan officials, and with rebels and loyalists, a deep reading of local and international media and significant on-the-ground experience pre-and post-revolution.
The book provides rare and often startling glimpses into the strategies and machinations that brought Gaddafi in from the cold, while encouraging ordinary Libyans to “break the barrier of fear.” Chorin also assesses the possibilities and perils for Libya going forward, politically and economically.
He was one of the first US diplomats posted to Libya since the lifting of UN sanctions, 2004-2006. Since leaving the Foreign Service, he has been an advisor to the 2008 Obama campaign, head of Corporate Responsibility for Dubai Ports World and co-founder of the Avicenna Group, working on medical capacity in Benghazi since April, 2011.
He is currently a Director at Berkeley Research Group, a law and economics consultancy.
During a lecture at London university’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Chorin pointed out there was an escalating history of social unrest in Libya which was largely unknown when the first diplomatic relations were restored: the 1996 Abu Salim massacre of political prisoners from the east and social problems with African immigrants who were rounded up and sent home.
There were rumours that some were summarily executed. The Benghazi riots took place in 2006 ostensibly against the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. Gaddafi wanted to engineer a riot to put pressure on the Italians for reparations but the rioters vented their anger on Libya government installations.
Chorin described how Gaddafi went from being a charismatic, relatively popular figure after the 1969 revolution to a progressively more totalitarian individual, erratic in his behaviour but nevertheless a master of manipulation.
He ensured there were competing power centres so that no one was focusing on him long enough to cause any problem.
In Gaddafi’s mind everything was linked. The bombing of Tripoli in retaliation for attacks on targets in Europe in 1986 sent him into a major period of non responsive depression that most likely set off the impetus for the Lockerbie and UTA bombings.
Once the sanctions were imposed all of Gaddafi’s actions were focused on exonerating himself.
In his book, Chorin says that in 1992, former Libyan dictator wanted to blow up a plane over the Gulf of Sirte and claim that this was an act of terrorism on the part of the USA. The bomb did not explode and it is alleged that he mobilised a couple of MIGs to ram it. The current government is investigating the bombing.
There are two narratives about the West’s interaction with Gaddafi. From the US side it is stated that Gaddafi was horribly afraid that he would wind up like Saddam Hussein and decided to give up his WMD’s, collaborate on information about terrorism and stop supporting counter insurgency in Africa and the IRA. But Libya was suing for peace since 1992 through approaches to US senators and private individuals.
Gaddafi was coming under pressure from his inner circles who wanted to spend their largess in Europe and the situation in Benghazi was getting worse.
He was able to use the rapprochement to tell his own people he could deliver them from the sanctions straight jacket and give them some hope of reform which he saw only as economic reform, not political reform.
The US first became interested in making up with Gaddafi after the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings in 1998 when it thought he would have information on Al Qaeda due to his contacts in East Africa.
His son Seif Al Islam was seen as part of a class of reformers who were part of the regime yet different from it. American and British consulting firms came in and tried to spin the notion that there was a chance of fundamental change in Libya.
In Chorin’s analysis revolutions happen when things are getting better, not worse. In Libya people were able to talk more freely about certain issues that were troubling them, the country was opening up, access to the media improved and when Egypt and Tunisia fell they saw their chance.
The international media underplayed the lifting of two very stringent arms embargoes: the UN embargo and the EU embargo. Libya received $1billion of high tech surveillance equipment and small arms as well as training for military personnel. Without that the conflict may not have lasted as long as it did.
The situation in the US establishment when intervention was decided on was quite chaotic. The information was sketchy from the time of the sanctions.
In 2006 and 2007 it became difficult for diplomats to get information on the ground in view of the Wikileaks revelations. The year before the revolution relations between the US and Libya were not good. There were rumours that Gaddafi was going to start a renationalisation of the oil industry.
The American intervention was not an ordered process and there was no appetite in the USA for another protracted campaign. Gaddafi said he was going to flatten Benghazi and this was a perfect case for the responsibility to protect.
In his new beginning speech in 2009 Obama promised to stand with the Arab street against tyranny. If Syria had blown up before Libya there would have been a very good chance that even with an assault on Benghazi the USA would not have intervened.
The role of the UK and France in advancing the responsibility to protect argument and recognising the transitional council was important.
With the attack on the US mission in Benghazi and the attack on the Italian counsel it is easy for people on the outside to say Libya is in chaos and things are going to get worse.
To counter that it has to be acknowledged that at each point in the last year and a half the Libyans have managed to articulate a vision for the future and a statement of principles.
The February 17th coalition that preceded the Transitional National Council was made up of four individuals who were part of Seif Al Islam’s group. They put forward a statement of the goals of the revolution. This was critically important in persuading the United States that there was something to recognise, a case to pursue.
The idea that after the end of the Transitional National Council’s period Mustafa Abdul-Jalil would retire to his home was quite amazing. There was no contesting of power. There were free and fair elections without violence and a minimum of interference. The elected officials took care of municipal services.
But against that, Chorin says that there is the growing Islamist influence, corruption is still rampant and ingrained in the culture, there is an extraordinarily weak rule of law and two to three thousand individuals are being held by various militias without access to due process of law.
The last two issues Chorin drew attention to in his lecture were the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice and Reconstruction party in Libya and the myth of irrelevance.
Eighty of the national assembly seats were based on party allegiance and the remainder were allocated to individuals who associated themselves with the brotherhood.
The United States has always seen Libya as a side show. Even during the Idris years there was the Eisenhower doctrine and its concern about preventing the spread of communism. Libya was promised aid which was not delivered.
Gaddafi’s pressure on independent oil companies reverted a tremendous amount of power to oil producing states that was not there before. That clearly affected US and Western interests. His involvement in promoting terrorist movements and reversing regimes which he found distasteful was also a huge security threat to Western interests.
The role of Libya in the Arab Spring has been critical because this was the case in which the United States could say it had done something as opposed to Syria where the consequences of botching the intervention or intervening at all are tremendous.
In Libya the question of how bad things could get if there was no intervention was very much in evidence.
Chorin commented on quite extensive Western intervention in Libya without making adequate provision for what was going to come next in terms of technical assistance and protecting foreign personnel.
The militia that was assigned to provide auxiliary support for the American mission in Benghazi was notably rather unreliable and had very close ties to Ansar Al Shariah, the group that was an offshoot of the February 17 brigade.
Information was being passed back and forth and provided an opportunity for them to take advantage of the weak security posture.
At the end of his lecture Chorin criticised the lack of attention to what was going on both in terms of protecting diplomatic personnel and being more aggressive in helping Libyans with what they needed in terms of administrative support, medical capacity building and other assistance.
USAID and DIFID UK spent tiny amounts of money for assisting Libya with post conflict reconstruction. “I think that is a mistake,” he concluded.