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Touring Spain over Spring Break last week I didn’t have much time to follow the news about Libya; I was in a plane over the Atlantic as the “coalition” strikes began and kept up by watching al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN in Madrid and Barcelona hotels. Back home I’m just now trying to understand the chronology of recent events, and put it all into perspective.
The crisis began six weeks ago, slowly building to the confrontation last week. On Wednesday, Feb. 16, there was a demonstration in al-Bayda against poor housing conditions, while the arrest of a lawyer and human rights campaigner named Fethi Tarbel (or Fathi Terbil) sparked protests in Benghazi. Tarbel, who had represented the families of prisoners killed in the suppression of an uprising in 1996 in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, had been arrested in Benghazi at 3:00 p.m. the day before, questioned then released Wednesday afternoon. According to the Libyan newspaper Quryna, he had been detained on charges of spreading false rumors about Abu Salim being on fire. Meanwhile 110 Abu Salim prisoners belonging to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were also released.
It doesn’t seem that the protests were entirely nonviolent; indeed, BBC reported Feb. 16, “The protesters are said to have thrown stones and petrol bombs, and set vehicles alight. Witnesses said police used rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse them.” Hospital officials say 38 were treated for wounds incurred in clashes, all released the next day.
The protests continued, quickly assuming an anti-Gaddafi character. On Friday protests spread in eastern Libya, including Benghazi. These too were violent. The France24 headline was “Violent Protests Rock Libyan City of Benghazi.” AP reported that protesters in al-Bayda set police stations on fire. The protests don’t seem to have been very large initially; BBC estimated the Benghazi crowd at “up to 2,000.” Libyan officials reported, perhaps accurately, that the demonstrations were small and “infiltrated” by violent elements.
Over the weekend anti-Gaddafi forces surged and seized control of Benghazi. On Feb. 20, as protesters proclaimed the “liberation” of the city, Human Rights Watch put the number of dead protesters in Benghazi at 173. (This would not be surprising in an urban insurrection. Imagine what would happen if “opposition forces” tried to take control of Los Angeles.) The next day two Libyan pilots fled in their aircraft to Malta, declaring that they’d been ordered to bomb civilians. Several diplomats and high government officials resigned in protest of the regime’s violent crackdown as protests spread to Tripoli. On Tuesday, Feb. 22, Gaddafi gave a rambling televised speech vowing to cling to power and denouncing his foes as al-Qaeda linked and/or stoned on hallucinogens.
On Monday and Tuesday some top Libyan ambassadors defected to the opposition while “world leaders” spoke out against Gaddafi’s “brutal tactics.” These were the same leaders who had offered only the gentlest criticism of Mubarak’s brutality on Feb. 2, when the Egyptian Interior Ministry unleashed thugs in Tahrir Square who killed at least 6 and injured 800. Leaders including French president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, just days before the departure of Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine ben Ali had offered to share with him the expertise of French security forces “recognized throughout the world” to help suppress the uprising against him. And Hillary Clinton, who in all other instances of political upheaval in the Middle East urges “dialogue” between the two sides. In what looks like a psy-op, British foreign minister William Hague mentioned reports that Gaddafi may have fled to Venezuela.
On Friday, Feb. 25, Gaddafi addressed a large rally in Tripoli as protesters staged their own demonstration. It became apparent if it had not been earlier that he retains a considerable support base in the capital, and in some other cities such as his hometown of Sirte, home of the Gaddafa clan. It became clear that the Libyan crisis would not be a simple repeat of the “people power” half-revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt but a civil war. Pro-Gaddafi forces launched a counter-attack on foes who, largely through violent encounters with state forces, had acquired a tenuous hold over a number of cities between Tripoli and Benghazi. On March 1 and 2, two U.S. warships moved closer to the Libyan coast, ostensibly to be in place to “assist humanitarian efforts” and evacuate threatened civilians.
But the Obama administration was still divided on the question of intervention; in a Pentagon briefing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates downplayed the prospects of U.S. action, noting that it would require a complex operation. He specifically questioned calls, from Britain, France and some in the U.S. administration, to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya as a “humanitarian” effort. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” he told Congress March 2. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya” to destroy its air defenses. (He had earlier told cadets at West Point that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”) French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe meanwhile said there was no plan for military intervention, including imposition of a no-fly zone, without prior approval from the United Nations. But it subsequently became clear that Paris was pushing for a resolution authorizing just that.
On March 2, while Arab states cautioned against intervention, the U.K.’s Royal Air Force began airlifting Egyptian refugees in Libya to Cairo. This apparently humanitarian effort was perhaps designed to test the waters, and provide precedent for military action. On the 3rd and 4th, the Libyan Air Force bombed Adjdbiyah and retook the city. Zawiyah, near Tripoli and the fourth largest city in Libya, was retaken through intense fighting including a tank assault and aerial bombing by March 10. Meanwhile Ras Lanut, an oil refinery town on the coast, was retaken after bombardment from air, land and sea.
During this counter-offensive, on May 6, a team of British agents including Special Air Service (SAS) personnel were apprehended in Banghazi by the rebels in charge. They were found to carry arms and detained. (Just the day before the Mail had reported, “Britain is to send teams of spies and diplomats into Libya to help oust Colonel Gaddafi, it emerged last night. MI6 operatives backed by the SAS are to land in the east around the key rebel stronghold of Benghazi ‘within days’.”) But the local forces, perhaps due to their composition (including forces sympathetic to al-Qaeda), and/or due to the realization that they would be tainted by association with British imperialism, expelled the surprise guests from the country. It was a major humiliation.
On March 10, as the pro-Gaddafi forces appeared to have recaptured momentum, and as the weakness of the opposition as a fighting force became apparent, Sarkozy announced that France had recognized the opposition as the legitimate government of Libya. (This was curious, if only because, as Nicholas Burns, a Bush-era undersecretary of state, recently put it, “This is the first time in American history when we have used our military power to prop up and possibly put in power a group of people we literally do not know.” The French do not know them either; they just prefer, if not anyone-but-Gaddafi, a group they believe they can influence and mold in the future. But Paul Sullivan, a professor of political scientist at Georgetown University specializing in Libya, says “It could be a very big surprise when Qaddafi leaves and we find out who we are really dealing with.”)
The specific organization Sarkozy fealt with was the “Transitional National Council” whose public face is U.S. educated Prof. Mahmoud Jibril (who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pittsburgh). He’s made a good impression on Sen. John Kerry, who met him in Cairo one day after the attack on Libya began in a Cairo hotel. Up until recently he’d been working with Gaddafi’s son Sayf towards reforms in Libya and a project to bring western intellectuals to Tripoli to advise the regime on improving its image.
On March 14 the U.S. State Department appointed a liaison with the little-known rebel force. After the UN General Assembly called for an end to attacks on civilians, and after a talk with Jibril on March 10, Sarkozy called for targeted air strikes if the Libyan government (which he no longer recognized) used chemical weapons or airstrikes against civilians.
On March 12 it was announced with much fanfare that the Arab League, in an emergency meeting in Cairo, had endorsed the idea of a no-fly zone. In fact only 11 of the 22 member nations had sent representatives, and two that did (Syria and Algeria) strongly opposed military intervention. Only one Arab country (the U.S. client-state of Qatar) has offered to fly missions over Libya as part of a coalition effort. But with this putative endorsement and U.S. backing (despite the apparent ambivalence of Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff) France, which took the lead in pressing for a UNSC vote, was able to secure a resolution authorizing war on March 17. Five of the 15 ambassadors (permanent members Russia and China, as well as India, Brazil and Germany) abstained.
A coalition was thrown together hastily: it was to include NATO members Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Spain, Turkey, the U.S. and U.K., as well as Qatar (and later, the UAE). It would be led by the U.S., simply because of the overwhelming U.S. military superiority; over half the 350 aircraft involved are U.S. planes. But there would be an ongoing heated discussion about who should properly head the mission.
On Saturday, March 19, “Operation Odyssey Dawn” began as about 20 French Rafale war planes and Mirage 2000 fighter jets destroyed tanks and armored vehicles near Benghazi. (The French had not, according to diplomats interviewed by the Financial Times, fully informed their allies of this action, which would seem to have nothing to do with establishing a no-fly zone, but rather an effort to weaken one side in a civil war.) British and U.S. forces followed close behind, firing Tomahawk cruise missiles from ships off the coast. While the UN resolution does not endorse the targetting of Gaddafi as an individual, a building in his home compound was destroyed by U.S. airstrikes March 21. By March 22 the U.S., which had conducted 113 of the 176 coalition air sorties, shifted its focus from air strikes on Libyan defenses to attacks on Libyan ground forces. By March 24 it was announced that coalition forces had, through aerial bombing, secured the town of Misrata for opposition forces and halted the government forces’ advance.
Almost immediately the “coalition” began to fray as erstwhile supporters of the operation questioned the choice of targets. In response to Libyan reports of civilian casualties of coalition attacks (including 64 killed in bombardments on March 19-20), the Arab League began to distance itself. Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa announced on March 20 that the bombing had “led to the deaths and injuries of many Libyan civilians.” “What is happening in Libya,” he observed, “differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.” He called for another emergency meeting of the Arab League.
The Obama administration, never united on the mission, was at pains to explain the inexplicable. It insisted that Gaddafi was not a target. “We are not engaged in militarily-driven regime change,” deadpanned White House Press Secretary Jay Carney March 24. But Obama has been saying since March 3 that “Gaddafi must go.” “So let me just be very unambiguous about this,” this champion of Bahrain’s King Al Kalifah and Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh—who are shooting protesters in their capitals, having no worries about no-fly zones—had declared. “Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave. That is good for his country. It is good for his people. It’s the right thing to do. It’s time for Gaddafi to go.”
Obviously regime change is the goal, rather than “protecting civilians.” (And won’t efforts to arm the protesters, as advocated by Senators Joe Lieberman, Kent Conrad, and Mary Landrieu, and British Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State William Hague as well as Sarkozy, transform them into soldiers and legitimate targets for the national army? Are the “rebels” streaming into Adjdabiyah, “shooting weapons into the air”—or those heading towards Ras Lanuf observed by a Reuters reporter driving along in a machinegun-mounted pickup escorting a busload of captured soldiers—civilians needing “protection” from the Libyan army?) On the face of it, this is at minimum an effort to consolidate a separatist oil-rich state of Cyrenaica [or Eastern Libya] by preventing the Libyan army from engaging its opponents. Small wonder members of Congress and journalists are puzzled about the mission in a country Gates himself has said is not “a vital interest for the United States.”
Confusion about mission goals pervades the coalition. Norway suspended its participation pending clarification of those goals. No doubt they are perceived differently by the members, of which France has been the most aggressive. Paris would like to see Gaddafi fall, and would apparently be happy to use force to obtain that end. Others (such as Turkey) want to stick strictly to the UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone to protect civilians.
Those who had abstained from the vote soon became harshly critical. On March 20 the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement claiming the air strikes on Libya had included attacks on non-military targets, killing 48 civilians and wounding over 150. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on March 21 opined that the UN “resolution is defective and flawed. It allows everything. It resembles medieval calls for crusades . . . I am concerned by the ease with which decisions to use force are taken in international affairs. This is becoming a persistent tendency in US policy.” Recalling the NATO bombing of Serbia and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he noted, “Now it is Libya’s turn, under the pretext of protecting the peaceful population.”
The next day in Slovenia he declared, “the number of victims is growing” from the conflict in Libya. “Those who take part in this tragedy should think about it, they should think about it and pray for the salvation of their souls.”
President Dmitry Medvedev distanced himself from Putin’s remarks, noting that the prime minister does not control Russian foreign policy, but Putin is perhaps the more powerful of the two.
In China the People’s Daily criticized the UN resolution, declaring: “Historical experience has shown that humanitarian intervention is only an excuse for military intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs… They claim to be motivated by morality but in fact they are driven by narrow political and economic interests.” On March 22 Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu stated, “China noticed reports of civilian casualties from the multinational military action against Libya and is very concerned with this.”
Concern about international, especially Arab, reaction to Operation Odyssey Dawn, and difference of opinion about mission goals fed the debate over command structure. The U.S. took command responsibility beginning March 19, but almost immediately attempted to wiggle out of what looks to be a potentially disastrous commitment. Congress is unsupportive. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) are cosponsoring a resolution to defund the mission. House Speaker John Boehmer is “troubled” about the operation. Obama, Gates and Hillary Clinton wanted badly to pass the baton to NATO. But on March 21 and 22 fierce divisions in NATO became clear. France argued (quite reasonably) that NATO was so tainted in the eyes of Arabs due to the war in Iraq (which France had opposed) that a separate command structure, led by the U.S., France and U.K. would be preferable. Turkey also argued against NATO, worrying that NATO would exceed the UN authorized mission. Italy warned that it would reconsider providing its air bases for the mission if it moves away from NATO control.
One has the sense that, aside from normal inter-imperialist rivalries at work, all parties involved feel they may be headed for headaches and have different assessments of how to prevent them. According to the Financial Times, “Relations grew so tense on [March 21] that French and German ambassadors to Nato walked out of a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s decision-making body, after Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general, criticised Paris for impeding Nato involvement and Germany for not actively participating.” In any case on Wednesday, March 23, Sarkozy backed down and agreed to NATO leadership over the operation. But the U.S. would retain control over air strikes on ground forces. (On Monday, March 28 this decsion was reversed and NATO was given responsibility for those strikes too.)
Due to the air strikes, over the last few days the opposition has retaken cities including Adjdabiyah, Ras Lanouf, and Brega. The New York Times reports that “the rebel victory” in Ajdabiyah “was the first sign that the allied attacks, directed not only against Khadafy’s aircraft and defenses but also against his ground troops, were changing the dynamics of the battle for control of the country.” Tomahawk cruise missile have destroyed government tanks, and presumably anyone inside them, in order to empower “a group of people” that as Burns says, “we [meaning the U.S. government] do not know.” Who are these people on whose behalf the major imperialist powers are intervening?
They no doubt include numerous unaffiliated people—professionals, women, youth. But the major organization involved in the “Transitional National Council” seems to be the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO). This is a coalition of ostensibly pro-democracy and human rights groups, including prominently the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) based in Sudan since its founding in 1981 and hosted by the regime of Col. Gaafar Nimeiry until he was overthrown in 1985. (Nimeiry was aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and imposed Sharia law in Sudan.) In May 1984, NFSL operatives attempted to assassinate Gaddafi at a barracks near Tripoli. The effort at least succeeded, supporters contend, in killing eighty Libyans, Cubans and East Germans. This episode alone would, you might think, place the NFSL on the U.S. State Department’s list of “terrorist organizations.” (But no. The group has received support from the CIA and funding from Saudi Arabia.)
There are Islamist elements in the opposition. Members of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group, rooted in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan and once pro-al-Qaeda, were targeted by the authorities in the 1996 Abu Salim prison uprising in which about 1000 were killed. The LIFG made a deal with the regime in 2008 to renounce al-Qaeda ideology and violence in return for the release of prisoners. Talks with security forces facilitated by Gaddafi’s son Sayf al-Islam resulted in a document reformulating the group’s concept of jihad, but it remains committed to some version of an Islamic state.
Abdul-Hakim al-Hasadi, described in the press as a “rebel leader” has proclaimed an “Islamic Emirate” around the port town of Darnah, east of Benghazi. Captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where he fought with the Taliban in 2002, he was imprisoned in Pakistan then Libya until his release in 2008. Darnah is the place of origin of nearly half of the Libyans fighting U.S. forces in Iraq. Libyans comprise one-quarter of foreign fighters engaging occupation forces in Iraq. “I sent over about 25 [to Iraq],” al Hasadi told the Italian newspaper Il Sol. “Some came back, and today are on the Ajdabiya front; they are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists. I condemn the September 11 attacks, and attacks against innocent civilians in general. But the members of al Qaeda are also good Muslims, and are fighting against the invader.” Forces loyal to the Emirate of Barqa stormed a military depot Feb. 21, killing four soldiers, seizing 250 weapons, and taking civilians and soldiers hostage, “threatening to execute them unless a siege by security forces is lifted” according to AFP.
The “opposition” or “rebels” are obviously a mixed bag, united principally in their loathing of Gaddafi. Whether or not they are any more “progressive” (Gaddafi himself has been seen by many as a relatively progressive figure in, for example, arranging a more equitable distribution of income than pertains in most Arab countries) has yet to be seen. It surely makes no sense at this point for the radical left in the world to embrace these rebels as we did the masses of Egypt in their uprising. Not when they—or some of them, anyway—chant “Sarkozy, Sarkozy, Sarkozy” for the cameras. The fact that they’re not only willing and eager to accept imperialists’ help but dependent upon foreigners’ air strikes to hold their own in what’s become a civil war is not encouraging. This is not a people’s war but a Faustian bargain.
Questions for discussion:
International law forbids attacks on sovereign states, and the assassination of foreign leaders. Thus all involved here choose their words carefully. All they want to do, they say, is protect civilians from the savage attacks of the Gaddafi government (not to topple it by force). But no one is suggesting that the victims of Libyan army action number in more than the hundreds. Is the U.S. alone spending up to a billion dollars (according to the Stars & Stripes) to save hundreds, or even thousands, from annihilation? That’s seems unlikely given the value U.S. forces in Afghanistan impute to their victims. (“Blood money” to civilian survivors there runs in the one to two thousand dollar range.) What’s the real reason the U.S. has attacked Libya?
We can assume that capitalist-imperialist countries compete and contend with one another (for global market share, control of resources, military advantage) even in this “globalist” age. From time to time imperialist countries like the U.S. and France differ. (This happened in the Suez Crisis of 1956, DeGaulle’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated command structure in 1966, France’s opposition to the attack on Iraq based on lies in 2003, etc.). But why, when the U.S. military leadership saddled with two un-winnable wars showed little enthusiasm for this operation, questioning its “vital interest to the U.S.” did the U.S. opt to embrace the Anglo-French- (principally French-) driven project to make war on Libya? Why, after Obama hesitated, and bipartisan support in Congress was so thin?
Why didn’t Washington say, “This isn’t our war. Go ahead and intervene if you want, claiming you need to do it to help the Libyan people, but handle it yourselves”? Does the drive to maintain leadership of the western imperialist camp and shoulder the role of global policeman here (as in the case of the 1999 war on Serbia, also based on lies) trump the rational purely acquisitive interests of the U.S. ruling class?
The interests of that ruling class were being well satisfied by the Gaddafi regime. As the Project to Enhance the Profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi (apparently facilitated by Jabril) makes clear, from 2006 Libya welcomed a series of high-profile western opinion makers to help refurbish Gaddafi’s reputation in the world. Notorious neocon and Zionist Richard Perle was welcomed twice in 2006. Sociologist Anthony Gibbons, Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, British talk show host David Frost and many others met with Gaddafi. Former British prime minister Tony Blair visited twice. Italian prime minister Berlusconi visited Libya in March 2008, publicly kissing Gaddafi’s hand, and rolled out the red carpet for him in Rome. Why did they all turn on him so suddenly in February? Is it because his actions suddenly provoked their moral outrage? Or because they sensed he was goners, like Mubarak, and thought it’d be best to abandon him now and kiss the opposition’s ass at the decisive moment?
Why is the Pentagon so eager to consign command responsibility to NATO, as opposed to itself, or alternatively, to France? Is it because of an uneasy sense that if Washington continues to carry the ball, while things go badly, the world and the people of this country will blame it? And that it can control things anyway through NATO, using its Denmarks and Norways as fig leafs, posturing as “the international community” while diffusing the liability? Is it because the U.S. as the leader of NATO has to be in charge, to beat down the threat of an independent Europe, and the formation of a specifically EU force (the “Military of the European Union”) as advocated by Germany and France? A force that channels investment to Airbus and Rolls Royce-Snecma as opposed to the U.S. military-industrial complex?
Congressman Dennis Kucinich points out that Obama’s actions in Libya “would appear on its face to be an impeachable offense…. There is no question the president exceeded his constitutionally authorized authority.” All this is of course true. Obama’s taken the nation into yet another war without Congressional authorization. (The point is not that getting such authorization would really make it any more valid. The point is that the ruling class has grown impatient with its own tiresome rules. Recall George W. Bush’s ejaculation, as reported by three GOP politicians in November 2005: “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face! It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!)
Kucinich is enough of a mainstream politician to add hastily that impeachment just “won’t happen.” Why does the entire political class allow presidents to ignore the Constitution in going to war (always based on lies)? Is it because they fear that hearings and investigations into such matters as the (completely undebated) use of Tomahawk missiles to kill Arab soldiers (as opposed to petty poltically driven hearings into private sexual conduct such as hounded Bill Clinton) would somehow produce widespread realization and outrage in this country?
Why is NATO so divided (and Turkey so wary) about this supposedly “humanitarian” mission? Do some (recall Putin’s words) really “think about the salvation of their souls”—not in the crude religious sense but the sense of ongoing moral culpability at a time of Arab awakening and moral indignation at the sickening hypocrisy of the western world? These missile strikes intended to demonstrate solidarity with oppressed Libyans (future seducible Libyans by reason of their gratitude) may backfire, as have U.S. interventions sold as “humanitarian” have backfired in the past in Lebanon and Somalia.
What would have happened if the U.S. had said, “No, anyone advocating U.S. involvement in another war on an Arab country should have his head examined” and left it up to others to “protect civilians” in Libya? What would have happened it Obama stated in answer to a press conference question, “Frankly we don’t see any difference between Libyan forces shooting demonstrators or Bahraini or Yemeni forces shooting demonstrators”? What would have been wrong or illogical about that?
Many commentators have noted that tribal loyalties remain strong in Libya. They have weakened due to urbanization and industrialization, but political allegiances often have more to do with tribal identity than ideology. Are the Benghazi-based rebel leaders drawing upon bourgeois-democratic sentiments or merely exploiting tribal and regional allegiances to their own advantage? Is there anything positive in a movement that chants, “Sarkozy, Sarkozy, Sarkozy?” while advancing on Sirte courtesy of U.S. and British Tomahawk bombardment?
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org