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Here’s the Key Question in the Libyan War


These days the humanitarian warriors are riding high, thanks to their proclaimed victory in Libya.  The world’s only superpower, with moral, military and mercenary support from the democracy-loving emirate of Qatar and the historic imperialist powers, Britain and France, was unsurprisingly able to smash the existing government of a sparsely populated North African state in a mere seven months.  The country has been violently “liberated” and left up for grabs. Who gets what pieces of it, among the armed militia, tribes and Islamist jihadists, will be of no more interest to Western media and humanitarians than was the real life of Libya before Qatar’s television channel Al Jazeera aroused their crusading zeal back in February with undocumented reports of imminent atrocities.

Libya can sink back into obscurity while the Western champions of its destruction hog the limelight. To spice up their self-congratulations, they accord some derisive attention to the poor fools who failed to jump on the bandwagon.

In the United States, and even more so in France, the war party poopers were few in number and almost totally ignored.  But it is as good an occasion as any to isolate them even further.

In his article, “Libya and the Left: Benghazi and After”, Michael Bérubé uses the occasion to bunch together the varied critics of the war as “the Manichean left” who, according to him, simply respond with kneejerk opposition to whatever the United States does.  He and his kind, in contrast, reflect deeply and come up with profound reasons to bomb Libya.

He starts off:

“In late March of 2011, a massacre was averted—not just any ordinary massacre, mind you. For had Qaddafi and his forces managed to crush the Libyan rebellion in what was then its stronghold, Benghazi, the aftershocks would have reverberated well beyond eastern Libya. As Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch wrote, ‘Qaddafi’s victory—alongside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall—would have signaled to other authoritarian governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia to China that if you negotiate with protesters you lose, but if you kill them you win.’…”

“The NATO-led attack on Qaddafi’s forces therefore did much more than prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya—though it should be acknowledged that this alone might have been sufficient justification. It helped keep alive the Arab Spring…”

Now all that is perfectly hypothetical.

Whatever massacre was averted in March, other massacres took place instead, later on.

That is, if crushing an armed rebellion implies a massacre, a victorious armed rebellion also implies a massacre, so it becomes a choice of massacres.

And, had the Latin American and African mediation proposals been taken up, the hypothetical massacre might have been averted by other means, even if the armed rebellion was defeated – a hypothesis the pro-war party refused to consider from the outset.

But even more hypothetical is the notion that the failure of the Libyan rebellion would have fatally damaged “the Arab spring”.  This is pure speculation, without a shred of supporting evidence.

Authoritarian governments certainly did not need a lesson to teach them how to deal with protesters, which ultimately depends on their political and military means.  Mubarak lost not because he negotiated with protesters but because his U.S.-financed Army decided to dump him.  In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia helps kill the protesters.  In any case, authoritarian Arab rulers, not least the Emir of Qatar, hated Kadhafi, who had the habit of denouncing their hypocrisy to their faces at international meetings.  They could only take heart from his downfall.

These pro-war arguments are in a class with the “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq or the threat of “genocide” in Kosovo – hypothetical dangers used to justify preventive war.  “Preventive war” is what allows a military superpower, which is too powerful ever to have to defend itself against foreign attack, to attack other countries anyway.  Otherwise, what’s the point of this superb military if we can’t use it? as Madeleine Albright once put it.

Later on in his article, Bérubé cites his fellow humanitarian warrior Ian Williams, who argued that the litany of objections to intervention in Libya “evades the crucial question: Should the world let Libyan civilians die at the hands of a tyrant?” Or in other words, the “key question” is: “When a group of people who are about to be massacred ask for help, what do you do?”

With this selection of the guilt-tripping “crucial” or “key” question, Bérubé and Williams sweep away all the various legal, ethical and political objections to the NATO attack on Libya.

But nothing has authorized these gentlemen to decide which is the “key question”.  In reality, their “key question” raises a number of other questions.

First of all: Who is the group of people?  Are they really about to be massacred? What is the source of the information?  Could the reports be exaggerated?  Or could they even be invented, in order to get foreign powers to intervene?

A young French film-maker, Julien Teil, has filmed a remarkable interview in which the secretary general of the Libyan League for Human Rights, Slimane Bouchuiguir, candidly admits that he had “no proof” of the allegations he made before the U.N. Human Rights Commission which led to immediate expulsion of the official Libyan representative and from there to U.N. Resolutions authorizing what turned into the NATO war of regime change.  Indeed, no proof has ever been produced of the “bombing of Libyan civilians” denounced by Al Jazeera, the television channel financed by the Emir of Qatar, who has emerged with  a large share of Libyan oil business from the “liberation war” in which Qatar participated.

Just imagine how many disgruntled minority groups exist in countries all around the world who would be delighted to have NATO bomb them to power.  If all they have to do to achieve this is to find a TV channel that will broadcast their claims that they are “about to be massacred”, NATO will be kept busy for the next few decades, to the delight of the humanitarian interventionists.

A salient trait of the latter is their selective gullibility.  On the one hand, they automatically dismiss all official statements from “authoritarian” governments as false propaganda.  On the other hand, they seem never to have noticed that minorities have an interest in lying about their plight in order to gain outside support.  I observed this in Kosovo.  For most Albanians, it was a matter of virtuous duty to their national group to say whatever was likely to gain support of foreigners for their cause.  Truth was not a major criterion. There was no need to blame them for this but there was no need to believe them, either.  Most reporters sent to Kosovo, knowing what would please their editors, based their dispatches on whatever tales were told them by Albanians eager to have NATO wrest Kosovo away from Serbia and give it to them.  Which is what happened.

In fact, it is wise to be cautious about what all sides are saying in ethnic or religious conflicts, especially in foreign countries with which one is not intimately familiar.  Perhaps people rarely lie in homogeneous Iceland, but in much of the world, lying is a normal way to promote group interests.

The poignant “key question” as to how to answer “a group of people about to be massacred” is a rhetorical trick to shift the problem out of the realm of contradictory reality into the pure sphere of moralistic fiction. It implies that “we” in the West, including the most passive television spectator, possess knowledge and moral authority to judge and act on every conceivable event anywhere in the world.  We do not.  And the problem is that the intermediary institutions, which should possess the requisite knowledge and moral authority, have been and are being weakened and subverted by the United States in its insatiable pursuit to bite off more than it can chew.  Because the United States has military power, it promotes military power as the solution to all problems.  Diplomacy and mediation are increasingly neglected and despised.  This is not even a deliberate, thought-out policy, but the automatic result of sixty years of military buildup.

The Real Crucial Question

In France, whose president Nicolas Sarkozy launched the anti-Kadhafi crusade, the pro-war unanimity has been greater than in the United States.  One of the few prominent French personalities to speak out against it is Rony Brauman, a former president of Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and a critic of the ideology of “humanitarian intervention” promoted by another former MSF leader, Bernard Kouchner.  The November 24 issue of Le Monde carried a debate between Brauman and the war’s main promoter, Bernard-Henri Lévy, which actually brought out the real crucial question.

The debate began with a few skirmishes about facts.  Brauman, who had initially supported the notion of a limited intervention to protect Benghazi, recalled that he had rapidly changed his mind upon realizing that the threats involved were a matter of propaganda, not of observable realities. The aerial attacks on demonstrators in Tripoli were an “invention of Al Jazeera”, he observed.

To which Bernard-Henri Lévy replied in his trademark style of brazen-it-out indignant lying.  “What!?  An invention of Al Jazeera?  How can you, Rony Brauman, deny the reality of those fighter planes swooping down to machinegun demonstrators in Tripoli that the entire world has seen?”  Never mind that the entire world has seen no such thing.  Bernard-Henri Lévy knows that whatever he says will be heard on television and read in the newspapers, no need for proof.  “On the one hand, you had a super-powerful army equipped for decades and prepared for a popular uprising.  On the other hand, you had unarmed civilians.”

Almost none of this was true.  Kadhafi, fearing a military coup, had kept his army relatively weak.  The much-denounced Western military equipment has never been used and its purchase, like the arms purchases by most oil-rich states, was more of a favor to Western suppliers than a useful contribution to defense.  Moreover, the uprising in Libya, in contrast to protests in the surrounding countries, was notoriously armed.

But aside from the facts of the matter, the crucial issue between the two Frenchmen was a matter of principle: is or is not war a good thing?

Asked whether the Libya war marks the victory of the right of intervention, Brauman replied:

“Yes, undoubtedly… Some rejoice at that victory. As for me, I deplore it for I see there the rehabilitation of war as the way to settle conflicts.”

Brauman concluded: “Aside from the frivolity with which the National Transition Council, most of whose members were unknown, was immediately presented by Bernard-Henri Lévy as a secular democratic movement, there is a certain naiveté in wanting to ignore the fact that war creates dynamics favorable to radicals to the detriment of moderates.  This war is not over.

“In making the choice of militarizing the revolt, the NTC gave the most violent their opportunity. By supporting that option in the name of democracy, NATO took on a heavy responsibility beyond its means. It is because war is a bad thing in itself that we should not wage it…”

Bernard-Henri Lévy had the last word: “War is not a bad thing in itself! If it makes it possible to avoid a greater violence, it is a necessary evil – that’s the whole theory of just war.”

The idea that this principle exists is “like a sword of Damocles over the heads of tyrants who consider themselves the owners of their people, it is already a formidable progress.”   Bernard-Henri Lévy is made happy by the thought that since the end of the Libya war, Bashir Al Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sleep less soundly. In short, he rejoices at the prospect of still more wars.

So there is the crucial, key question: is war a bad thing in itself?  Brauman says it is, and the media star known as BHL says it is not, “if it makes it possible to avoid a greater violence”.  But what violence is greater than war?  When much of Europe was still lying in ruins after World War II, the Nuremberg Tribunal issued its Final Judgment proclaiming:

“War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

And indeed, World War II contained within itself “the accumulated evil of the whole”: the deaths of 20 million Soviet citizens, Auschwitz, the bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and much, much more.

Sixty years later, it is easy for Americans and Western Europeans, their lives still relatively comfortable, their narcissism flattered by the ideology of “human rights”, to contemplate initiating “humanitarian” wars to “save victims” – wars in which they themselves take no more risk than when playing a video game.  Kosovo and Libya were the perfect humanitarian wars: no casualties, not even a scratch, for the NATO bombers, and not even the necessity to see the bloodshed on the ground.  With the development of drone warfare, such safe war at a distance opens endless prospects for risk-free “humanitarian intervention”, which can allow Western celebrities like Bernard-Henri Lévy to strut and pose as passionate champions of hypothetic victims of hypothetical massacres hypothetically prevented by real wars.

The “key question”?  There are many important questions raised by the Libya war, and many important and valid reasons to have opposed it and to oppose it still. Like the Kosovo war, it has left a legacy of hatred in the targeted country whose consequences may poison the lives of the people living there for generations.  That of course is of no particular interest to people in the West who pay no attention to the human damage wrought by their humanitarian killing.  It is only the least visible result of those wars.

For my part, the key issue which motivates my opposition to the Libya war is what it means for the future of the United States and of the world.  For well over half a century, the United States has been cannibalized by its military-industrial complex, which has infantilized its moral sense, squandered its wealth and undermined its political integrity.  Our political leaders are not genuine leaders, but have been reduced to the role of apologists for this monster, which has a bureaucratic momentum of its own – proliferating military bases around the world, seeking out and even creating servile client states, needlessly provoking other powers such as Russia and China. The primary political duty of Americans and their European allies should be to reduce and dismantle this gigantic military machine before it leads us all inadvertently into “the supreme international crime” of no return.

So my principal opposition to this recent war is precisely that, at a time when even some in Washington were hesitant, the “humanitarian interventionists” such as Bernard-Henry Lévy, with their sophistic “R2P” pretense of “protecting innocent civilians”, have fed and encouraged this monster by offering it “the low-hanging fruit” of an easy victory in Libya.  This has made the struggle to bring a semblance of peace and sanity to the world even more difficult than it was already.

DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions. She can be reached at  diana.josto@yahoo.fr

Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book, Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton, will be published by CounterPunch in September 2015. She can be reached at diana.johnstone@wanadoo.fr

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