How the War on Libya was Sold

Has there ever been a war justified more glibly? One supposes so but it’s hard to recall when. Even the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as disastrous as they proved, involved the public articulation of a more-or-less coherent plan, something that’s patently lacking from the adventure unfolding in Libya.

The mission will last days rather than weeks, says Obama – and the French immediately warn of a long fight. The Americans say Gaddafi is not a target; the British briefly insist that he is but then almost instantly change their minds. The goal of intervention is – or perhaps isn’t – regime change, depending on who you listen to and when they’re speaking.

For a particularly grotesque example of where we’re now at, one need go no further than the New Republic, where Steven Metz advises the US to prepare both tactics against an insurgency (for use against pro-Gaddafi forces) and tactics for an insurgency (to assist anti-Gaddafi elements).

Would George W Bush, for all his Texas swagger, have dared to cowboy up a military conflict on such a crazy basis? Surely not — and yet across the world, the Libya intervention, a conflict with contradictory aims, no discernable exit strategy, and little public support, has been lauded by progressives.

The war was sold – as these things always are – by neatly uncoupling the undeniably awful situation in Benghazi from the real world and its history, like one of those thought experiments in Philosophy 101, where only two choices exist to save someone from a runaway train. Here’s Obama: ‘Our military action is in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Col. Gaddafi to his people. Not only was he carrying out murders of civilians but he threatened more.’

With Gaddafi at the gates, the dismal record of previous humanitarian invasions – all of which were, of course, launched for equally pressing reasons against equally despotic regimes (remember, Saddam Hussein and the Kurds; the Taliban and women, etc) – became of interest only to pedants or cowards. You were for a NFZ or you wanted Benghazi to burn. The massacre looming in Libya bore no relationship to massacres of the past, nor, for that matter, to other massacres taking place elsewhere (say, at the hands of US-backed regimes in Bahrain or Yemen).

No, with the fierce urgency of now replacing the inconvenient necessity of thought, Benghazi could be envisaged as a tabula rasa, with a fresh history of Western humanitarianism carved out by Tomahawk missiles and Stealth bombers.

Well, where are we at now? Yes, the rebel-held areas might enjoy some breathing space. But when the revolt was a social uprising, activists in Tripoli had some prospect of winning over Gaddafi’s supporters, even those in the army. Now UN intervention has fairly definitively transformed a revolution into a conventional civil war. So either the Western forces overthrow Gaddafi (which the UN mandate explicitly forbids, and which, in all probability, requires a Fallujah-style campaign into Tripoli, with all that entails) or, more likely, they cede him (at least temporarily) the capital – and thus the insurgent population living there.

This, presumably, leaves the rebels of Tripoli (and there are lots of them) facing whatever was previously in store for the rebels of Benghazi. Already the BBC reports from Tripoli that  ‘everyone knows someone who has been beaten, detained for a day or two or “disappeared”.’

Humanitarianism? No, not so much.

From here in Australia, the most likely long-term outcome seems to be Western-backed partition – that is, a Balkanization of an oil-rich country, enforced by foreign powers, which seems a recipe for generations of conflict.

Let’s look back at the progressive rationale for intervention, usually raised through a simple cry: ‘We must do something about Benghazi.’ And, though it was never spelled out, ‘we’, in that context, always meant the West.

But think about that for a minute.

The revolution in Libya was never inspired by the west. The war in Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan: these salutary instances of Western-backed ‘liberation’ did not move Libyans to rebel. On the contrary, the revolt against Gaddafi followed the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, revolutions that not only didn’t involve the West but were, to a greater or lesser degree, fought against western-backed dictators.

So why then was the progressive debate about Libya in the English-speaking world so exclusively focused around the proposition that ‘we’ would save a revolutions in which ‘we’ had previously played no role whatsoever?

It’s not just the whiff of a colonial arrogance, it’s also that the emphasis inherently ruled out any solution to the Benghazi crisis other than imperial intervention. Had the debate shifted from one totally centered on the West to at least consider the agency of people who actually lived in the region, a few better options might have raised themselves. Was it not possible, for instance, that Benghazi might have been reinforced by activists from Egypt, rather than bombers from Washington? That might sound terribly naïve — except, of course, that across the Arab world, the solidarity of ordinary people has brought more democracy in the space of a few weeks than decades of bombings and killings in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, if pro-intervention liberals tended to ignore the agency of Arab people, they correspondingly overstated their own influence. On the left, the UN resolution on Libya was widely portrayed as a response to humanitarian pressure, with the Obama administration reluctantly acceding to grassroots demands to do the right thing.

Except that, as everyone knows, President Obama regards his grassroots with undisguised contempt. As Glenn Greenwald says, Republicans fear their base – and Democrats despise theirs. Yet we are supposed to believe that progressives who have singularly failed to shape administration policy on immigration, labor law or civil liberties or anything much else are somehow in the drivers’ seat when it comes to war.

In reality, the rhetoric about humanitarianism merely provided useful cover.  Having been entirely sidelined during the Arab Spring, the US can, through this UN mandate, reassert itself as the key player in the region, while ensuring that events in that country don’t take on too radical a character. In the civil war now underway, the Obama administration has an opportunity link with the ex-Gaddafi ministers who have proclaimed themselves the leaders of the rebellion, so as to better shape the future of whatever regime eventually emerges from the bloodshed.

That’s why Obama’s prepared to risk a third military quagmire. If the mission in Libya seems incoherent, it’s because the real game’s being played out over the region as a whole. By making

itself indispensible to the Libyan rebellion, the White House has a chance to change the dynamic across the Arab world,. And if that means a Balkanized north Africa, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

The enthusiasm of the liberal left for humanitarian interventions has long resembled the famous running joke in Peanuts, in which Charlie Brown perpetually agrees to kick the football that Lucy perpetually whips out from under him. Except, of course, that, when it comes to war, it’s always someone else who does the falling down.

Isn’t it past time that progressives stopped playing that game?

JEFF SPARROW is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.


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