Battling the Beast

Libya has dislodged from the headlines a nuclear catastrophe in Japan, on top of a seismic one, that’s one of the epic dramas of the past half-century and what’s doubly weird is that the actual fighting in Libya is a series of tiny skirmishes. The muscle-bound adjectives and nouns used to describe the military engagements – if they even deserve that word – in press reports remind me of a Chihuahua trying to mount a Newfoundland.  Ambition far outstrips reality, which is in this case is a nervous rabble motley insurgents – maybe 1,500 or so at most, posing for television crews and then fleeing back down the road to the next village (“strategic stronghold”) at the first whiff of trouble.

By my count, the mighty armies contending along the highway west of Benghazi would melt into the bleachers at a college baseball game. News stories suggest mobile warfare on the scale of the epic dramas of the Kursk salient in World War Two. But most of the action revolves around one tank. I’ve seen it in hundreds of video feeds. Like the tooth passed from witch to witch in Greek myththis tank performs many functions and to judge from the graffiti on its turret, it’s always the same vehicle. Maybe that’s why there’s endless bickering about whether the U.N. resolution covers the supply of arms and heavy equipment. The war’s PR men want to freshen up the visuals.

The “no-fly zone” prompted, just as it did in Iraq, endless US sorties aimed at destroying antennas  that might be picking up data useful to Libya’s anti-aircraft defenses, which scarcely exist.   As with any bombing, civilians died. A team of Russian doctors wrote to the president of the Russian Federation, the oleaginous Dmitry Medvedev, as follows (as cited on the Global Research site on March 28):

“Today, 24 March 2011, NATO aircraft and the U.S. all night and all morning bombed a suburb of Tripoli – Tajhura (where, in particular, is Libya’s Nuclear Research Center). Air Defense and Air Force facilities in Tajhura were destroyed back in the first 2 days of strikes and more active military facilities in the city remained, but today the object of bombing are barracks of the Libyan army, around which are densely populated residential areas, and next to it – the largest of Libya’s Heart Centers. Civilians and the doctors could not assume that common residential quarters will be about to become destroyed, so none of the residents or hospital patients was evacuated.

“Bombs and rockets struck residential houses and fell near the hospital. The glass of the Cardiac Center building was broken, and in the building of the maternity ward for pregnant women with heart disease a wall collapsed and part of the roof. This resulted in ten miscarriages whereby babies died, the women are in intensive care, doctors are fighting for their lives. Our colleagues and we are working seven days a week, to save people. This is a direct consequence of falling bombs and missiles in residential buildings resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries, which are operated and reviewed now by our doctors. Such a large number of wounded and killed, as during today, did not occur during the total of all the riots in Libya. And this is called ‘protecting the civilian population?”

NATO planes fly thither and yon looking for targets. There was a rumor that George Monbiot had handcuffed himself to the Libyan nuclear research center to show solidarity with  Qaddafi’s alleged commitment to research into nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, but the word from Monbiot HQ was that that the silliest man in Great Britain is planning a symbolic flyover of Chernobyl as a monument to the safety of nuclear power, before inaugurating a “nuke camp” next to Daiichi 2 at Fukushima.

Everything is out of proportion. Qaddafi is scarcely the acme of monstrosity conjured up by Obama or Mrs. Clinton or Sarkozy. In four decades, Libyans have gone from being among the most wretched in Africa, to considerable elevation in terms of social amenities. President Obama’s hands are stained with more blood and suffering than those of the man who has given the world endless diversion through two generations. In terms of evil deeds, is Qaddafi a Mobutu, a Bokassa, a Saddam, or any U.S.  president? Surely not.

Obama’s speech this week, belatedly seeking to rationalize his latest war, was ludicrously disproportionate too: pompous and offensive treacle about America’s special role as savior of the afflicted ladled over one more plateful of folly in the nation’s downward slide.

These “humanitarian interventions” follow a familiar script: demonization, hand in hand with romantic effusions about the demon’s opponents, whether the Mujahiddeen in Afghanistan reinvented as Robin Hoods of the Hindukush  or the Albanian mafiosi tarted up as freedom-loving Kossovars.

The U.S.-led war on Iraq in 1991 included a propaganda campaign contracted by the government of Kuwait with the pr firm Burson Marsteller, which produced such triumphs as the babies allegedly hurled by Saddam’s troops from their respirators in a Kuwait hospital – a fraud I think I can claim to have been the first to expose. In this connection, one does have to wonder, at least for a moment, about that woman bursting into the journalist’s hotel in Tripoli, claiming to have been raped by some of Qaddafi’s troops, though if the intent was to rally liberals in America to the cause of intervention, allegations planted by Burson-Marsteller or some kindred outfit of a “hate crime” against gay Libyans, or a negative attitude to gay marriage on the part of Qaddafi might have been more effective.

But substantial slabs of what passes for the left in America are ecstatic at the intervention – a “good one” at last —  and excitedly  pass from hand to hand the vacuous “letter to the left”  by Professor Juan Cole, replicated on  almost every progressive website. You can tell Cole is a liberal academic by his disdain for any discussion of the fact that aside from other considerations  the war launched  by Obama and his secretary of state is an outrage to the U.S. Constitution, for which he merits impeachment, as pursued by Rep Dennis Kucinich.  Liberal academics have not the slightest interest in the Constitution, since the document doesn’t address issues of tenure and preferment. They evince similar loathing for the jury, putting their faith in “good judges”.

Cole’s role is somewhat akin to that of Todd Gitlin, another liberal academic now pensioned out to rich pasture at Columbia. Their credential, beloved by the press, is as fearless tribunes of the truth, bravely wagging their fingers at the cowardly left. Back in 2005 Cole was counseling the heightened use in Iraq of “special forces and air power.”

Two weeks ago I outlined some of the evidence that the freedom fighters of Benghazi might have close connections to al-Qaida, and since then it’s become matter of some embarrassment to the NATO coalition. A senior Pentagon commander says yes, there are intelligence reports suggesting an al-Qaida connection. The Daily Beast this week had a very loosely sourced story about Libyans fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan – some 200 – packing up and heading home to carry the torch of Islamic fundamentalism against Qaddafi and presumably the Great Satan shortly thereafter. In The First Post, Robin Fox cites reports relayed to the Pope by Franciscan monks in eastern Libyan about these same al-Qaida connections. The Pope was concerned enough to dispatch a special Vatican envoy to the London conference.

Shaukat Qadir, formely a brigadier in Pakistan’s army and with excellent intelligence connections, instructively deployed in his reports for CounterPunch, emailed me Wednesday night from Lahore that  “Every single Muslim majority country has its share of Muslim extremists; it should be no surprise that Libya has some too. However, I would like the fellow who authored the Beast piece to tell me which individual in the Haqqani group the Beast’s source has contacts with? To my knowledge, Libyans in Afghanistan/Pakistan are less than 20 and, while some might have left, I have not heard of an exodus. I do not know if the Beast piece is a U.S. government plant for justification, but it is a carefully woven piece mixing little fact with lots of fiction.”

It requites no great prescience to see that this will all end up badly. Qaddafi’s failure to collapse on schedule is prompting increasing pressure to start a ground war, since the NATO operation is, in terms of prestige, like the banks Obama has bailed out, Too Big to Fail. Libya will probably be balkanized. The CIA, on some accounts,  had already some time ago sent back its supposed asset, an ex-Colonel of the Libyan army, Khalifa Heftir who has been living in Virginia, not far from Langley to command the motley forces mentioned above. Vijay Prashad described yesterday how

“the Benghazi council chose as its leader the colorless former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil. Jalil’s brain is Mahmoud Jibril, a former head of the National Economic Development Board (NEDB). A U. S. embassy cable from May 11, 2009 (09TRIPOLI386) describes Jibril as keen on a close relationship with the U. S. and eager ‘to create a strategic partnership between private companies and the government.’ Jibril’s NEBD had collaborated with Ernst & Young and the Oxford Group to make the Libyan state more ‘efficient.’ Jibril told the ambassador that ‘American companies and universities are welcome to join him’ in the creation of new sectors outside hydrocarbons and that ‘we should take him up on his offer.’”

The “allies” will stab each other in the back, seeking advantage. It’s all reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ great description at the start of the Tale of Two Cities: “The Dover mail was in its usual genial position that the guard suspected the passengers, the passengers suspected one another and the guard, they all suspected everybody else, and the coachman was sure of nothing but the horses; as to which cattle he could with a clear conscience have taken his oath on the two Testaments that they were not fit for the journey.”

On the intervention and on Obama I yield the floor to Bill Blum who gave us an acrid Philippic, on this site last week:

“So who are the good guys? The Libyan rebels, we’re told. The ones who go around murdering and raping African blacks on the supposition that they’re all mercenaries for Gaddafi. …During the 1990s, in the name of pan-African unity, Gaddafi opened the borders to tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans to live and work in Libya. That, along with his earlier pan-Arab vision, did not win him points with The Holy Triumvirate. Oh, and did I mention that Gaddafi is strongly anti-Zionist?

“Does anyone know what kind of government the rebels would create? … Will they do away with much of the welfare state that Gaddafi used his oil money to create? Will the state-dominated economy be privatized? Who will wind up owning Libya’s oil? Will the new regime continue to invest Libyan oil revenues in sub-Saharan African development projects? Will they allow a US military base and NATO exercises? Will we find out before long that the “rebels” were instigated and armed by Holy Triumvirate intelligence services?…

“If John McCain had won the 2008 election, and then done everything that Obama has done in exactly the same way, liberals would be raging about such awful policies. I believe that Barack Obama is one of the worst things that has ever happened to the American left. The millions of young people who jubilantly supported him in 2008, and numerous older supporters, will need a long recovery period before they’re ready to once again offer their idealism and their passion on the altar of political activism.”

I wouldn’t have put that last paragraph as politely as Bill. There was plenty of evidence available in 2008, much of it amassed by CounterPunch, allowing conscientious enquirers  to conclude that Obama was very bad news, in the pockets of the banks and big corporations. How about the words “dumb” and “credulous”, right next to “idealism and passion”?

A good point raised by Frank Brodhead

ALEXANDER COCKBURN’s brief characterization of [Obama’s NSC aide]  Samantha Power’s Problem from Hell as a study of “US foreign-policy response to genocide” is not quite accurate.  Among  its “case studies,” the book includes only those situations/countries where the genocide was outside the US sphere/area of control.  It does not include any studies about genocides that took place in areas within the US sphere/area of control, such as Indonesia, Guatemala, Turkey/the Kurds, etc.  I asked her about this at one of her lectures; she said my complaint was false, because her chapter on Saddam’s gassing of Halabja was of the period in which Saddam was a US ally/client. Not much of a defense….Whether deliberately or not, Power’s argument for US intervention against mass killing is framed as an argument for expanding the United States’ military reach, while not troubling itself about mass killing within its own sphere of control/influence.

Frank Brodhead

Why the Pentagon Budget Keeps Going Up

Back in 1983 Andrew Cockburn published The Threat the only accurate assessment of Soviet military potential in the 20 years before the fall of the Soviet Union. Now our latest CounterPunch newsletter features a brilliant, extended special report by Andrew of what, in terms of Pentagon expenditures, the Cold War was really about, and what has happened to U.S. military spending between the collapse of “the enemy” and today.

“It mattered little,” Andrew writes, “what the Soviet enemy was actually doing. All that was required was for an announcement that ‘intelligence’ had revealed an ominous ‘gap”’ between U.S. and Soviet capabilities, and the money flowed….Commentators referred to the Cold War defense environment as the “arms race.” It is important to understand that there was little or no element of military competition with the Soviets, rather one of mostly one-sided budget enhancement.”

Andrew probes arms spending scandals, from the Korean war  (“Like some threadbare guerilla army, GIs would raid enemy trenches to steal the warm, padded boots provided by the Communist high command.”) to corporations today like CACI, a corporation that has risen to  great prosperity (with a headquarters building emblazoned with its titular acronym looming over I-66 on the western approach to Washington, D.C.) without actually making anything at all.”

Also in this newsletter hot off the presses a marvelous report from Andrea Peacock on the battle over:

“a smallish piece of land, 130,000 acres southwest of the reservation. Technically, the Badger-Two Medicine is national forest land and, to the naked eye, is not distinguishable from the rest of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. But the Badger is the key to what happened here and why. The Badger-Two Medicine is part of the Backbone of the World. It’s full of mountains named for the supernatural beings who live there, “other-than-human persons,” as one writer calls them: Morningstar, Poia, the colorful Thunder bird, Wind Maker, and Medicine Grizzly. “It is precisely this mythic understanding of kinship and reciprocity with the land – all rocks, plants and animals – which empowers the Badger-Two Medicine as a sacred landscape,” writes Jay Vest in his 1988 article, “Traditional Blackfeet Religion and the Sacred Badger-Two Medicine Wildlands.”

“When oil companies Chevron and Fina were poised in 1993 to send in their drilling rigs, Floyd “Tiny Man” Heavy Runner told reporters, ““What you’re doing is putting us on the road to extinction. We are here to notify you that we have no alternatives. We are not going to stand back.” Heavy Runner, leader of the warrior Brave Dog society, explained that the nature of the Blackfeet’s relationship to the Badger-Two Medicine is not something that can be taken into account by the oil companies’ talk of “improved technology,” “small footprints” and “seasonal occupancy.” If one drop of oil  were spilled on the land , he said, the place would be ruined.”

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And once you have discharged this enjoyable mandate I also urge you strongly to click over to our Books page, most particularly for our latest release, Jason Hribal’s truly extraordinary Fear of the Animal Planet – introduced by Jeffrey St Clair and already hailed by Peter Linebaugh, Ingrid Newkirk (president and co-founder of PETA) and Susan Davis, the historian of Sea World,  who writes that “Jason Hribal stacks up the evidence, and the conclusions are inescapable. Zoos, circuses and theme parks are the strategic hamlets of Americans’ long war against nature itself.”

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.