NATO’s Debacle in Libya

After three and a half months of bombing and arms supply to various rebel factions, NATO’s failure in its efforts to promote “regime change” in Libya is now glaring.

Obviously NATO’s commanders are still hoping that a lucky bomb may kill Gaddafi, but to date the staying power has been with the Libyan leader, whereas it is the relevant NATO powers who are fighting among themselves.

The reports from Istanbul of the deliberations of  NATO’s Contact Group have a surreal quality, as Secretary of State Clinton and British foreign minister Hague gravely re-emphasize their commitment to regime change and the strengthening of ties to the Transitional Council in Benghazi, while the humiliation of the entire NATO expedition is entering the history books as an advertisement of the dangers of political fantasy in the service of “humanitarian interventionism”,  appalling intelligence work, illusions about bombing and air power, and some of the worst press coverage in living memory.

Take British prime minister David Cameron. He can thank Rupert Murdoch, even the wretched Andy Coulson for one ironic blessing. His appalling misjudgment and obstinacy in hiring former News of the world editor Coulson has so dominated British headlines these past days that an equally staggering misjudgment in the international theater is escaping well-merited ridicule and rebuke.

When Cameron vied with French president Sarkozy in early March in heading the charge  against Qaddafi, no murmur of caution seems to have disturbed the blithe mood of confidence in Downing St. It was as though Blair’s blunders and miscalculations in Iraq, endlessly disinterred in subsequent years, had never been.

Cameron, like Sarkozy, Clinton and Obama  presumably had intelligence  assessments of the situation in Libya Did any of them say that Gaddafi might be a tougher nut to crack than the presidents of Tunisia or Egypt, might even command some popular support in Tripoli and western Libya, historically at odds with Benghazi and the eastern region? If they did, did they pay any attention?

The Western press, along with al-Jazeera,  was no help.  The early charges of Gaddafi committing “genocide” against his own people or ordering mass rapes were based on unverified rumor or propaganda bulletins from Benghazi  and have now been decisively discredited by reputable organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Any pretensions the International Criminal Court might have had to judicial impartiality has been undermined by the ICC’s  role as NATO’s creature, rushing out indictments of Gaddafi  and his closest associates whenever  NATO’s propaganda agenda has demanded it.

The journalists in Benghazi became cheerleaders for what was from the start plainly a disorganized rabble of disparate factions. The journalists in Tripoli were reluctant to file copy which might be deemed by their  editors as “soft” on Gaddafi, a devil figure in the West for most of his four decades in power. America’s pwogwessives exulted that at last they had on their hands  a “just war” and could cheer on NATO’s bombardiers with a clear conscience and entertain fantasies about the revolutionary purity of the rebels.

All history shows that the dropping of thousands of  bombs and missiles, with whatever supposed  standards of “pin point accuracy”, never elicits  the enthusiastic support of civilians on the receiving end, even if a certificate of humanitarian assistance and merciful intent is stamped on every projectile. Recent pro-government rallies in  Tripoli have been vast. Libya has a population of about six million, with four million in Tripoli.  Gaddafi barrels around the city in an open jeep. Large amounts of AK-47s have been distributed to civilian defense committees. Were they all compelled to demonstrate by Gaddafi’s  enforcers? It seems unlikely.

This last week the western press excitedly relayed the news that a handful of  prisoners were denouncing Gaddafi. Well, if you were a prisoner with rebel guns pointed at your head, would you proclaim your fidelity to the prime target of their fury, or murmur that you had been dragooned into unwilling service?  Isn’t this an item from Journalism 101. Are they “black mercenaries” or Libyans from the south who happen to be black and members of Gaddafi’s militias?

Another pointer to NATO’s misjudgments has been the  heavy-handed dismissal of  charges from African, Russian and even  leaders of NATO countries such as Germany that the mandates of two UN security council resolutions  passed in February and then  March 17 ? protection of civilian populations ? were being  brazenly distorted in favor of efforts to kill Gaddafi and install the ramshackle “provisional government” in Benghazi ? a shady bunch from the getgo.

In early March, Sarkozy, languishing in the polls, believed   the counsel of “new philosopher” Bernard-Henri L?vy, after the latter’s March 6 excursion to  Benghazi,  that Libya and its oil were up for grabs. On March 11 Sarkozy took the precipitate step of recognizing the Benghazi gang as the legitimate government of Libya and awaited Gaddafi’s collapse with a confident heart.

In a hilarious inside account of the NATO debacle, Vincent Jauvert of Le Nouvel Observateur has recently disclosed that French intelligence services  assured Sarkozy and foreign minister Juppe  “from the first [air] strike, thousands of soldiers would defect from Gaddafi. They also predicted that the rebels would move quickly to Sirte, the hometown of the Qaddafi and force him to flee the country. This was  triumphantly and erroneously trumpeted by the NATO powers which even proclaimed that he had flown to Venezuela.  By all means opt for the Big Lie as a propaganda ploy, but not if it is inevitably going to be discredited 24 hours later.

“We underestimated al-Gaddafi ,” one French officer told Jauvert. “He was preparing for forty-one years for an invasion. We did not imagine he would adapt as quickly. No one expects, for example, to transport its troops and missile batteries, Gaddafi will go out and buy hundreds of Toyota pick-up in Niger and Mali. It is a stroke of genius: the trucks are identical to those used by the rebels. NATO is paralyzed. It delays its strikes. Before bombing the vehicles, drivers need to be sure they are whose forces are Gaddafi’s. ‘We asked the rebels to a particular signal on the roof of their pickup truck, said a soldier, but we were never sure. They are so disorganized …’”

When collapse did not arrive on schedule the French government  breezily confirmed earlier this month  it was  shipping and air-dropping dropping arms supplies to Libyan rebel groups. We can safely assume Britain has its own clandestine operations in train, though the capture of the SAS/MI6 unit by Libyan farmers was not an inspiring augury.

The NATO coalition is now falling apart, though disclosure of this development has been muted to non-existent in the US press.   French defense minister Gerard Longuet gave an interview at the end of last week to a French tv station saying that military action against Libya has failed , and it is time for diplomacy: “We must now sit around a table. We will stop bombing as soon as the Libyans start talking to one another and the military on both sides go back to their bases.’ Longuet suggested that Gaddafi might be able to remain in Libya, ‘in another room of the palace, with another title’.”

If Longuet’s startling remarks were for local consumption on the eve of an Assembly vote, it clearly came as a shock to Cameron and Secretary of State Clinton. To heighten the impression of a civil war in NATO Cameron and Clinton rushed out statements asserting the ongoing goal of  regime change, and that Gaddafi’s departure was a sine qua non, as demanded by the Benghazi gang.

But Berlusconi, his country the objective of tens of thousands of refugees from the  fighting and from  economic dislocation in Libya is now saying he was against the whole NATO adventure from the start. He may decline to renew in the fall current basing agreements in Italy for the  NATO intervening powers. Germany has always been unenthusiastic.  Initially, France and Britain nourished hopes of close military liaison but that soon collapsed for all the usual reasons — inertia, suspicion and simple incompetence.

Sarkozy’s suspicions of Germany  and Turkey were apparently so intense, according to Le Nouvel Observateur, that he called for the  sidelining the Turkish and German officers present in the command structure of NATO, on the grounds that they could undermine the war given Berlin and Ankara’s distaste for the whole exercise. Normal guidelines dictate that when the supreme commander of NATO, an American general and his No. 2, a Briton, are on leave, the No. 3, is to be a German. Sarkozy had this sequence nixed.

Obama has been playing a double game, reflective of domestic pressures and political priorities. At the start, the rush to the UN Security Council was very much Secretary of State Clinton’s initiative. In political stature early to mid-February Obama was at his nadir. There was growing talk of a one-term presidency.  Clinton rushed into what she perceived as a tempting vacuum, perhaps even began to entertain some hopes of accelerating Obama’s decline and proffering herself as a potential contender in 2012. Obama, still fighting the “wimp” label, swiftly  endorsed the NATO mission and defied challenges as to  its constitutional propriety. Clinton soon thereafter announced she was not particularly interested in staying in national politics after 2012.

In terms of equipment the US has been crucial. According to one French general cited by Le Nouvel Observateur, “33 of 41 tanker aircraft used in the operation are American, most of the AWACS as well, all the drones as well, as 100 per cent of anti-radar missile and laser guidance kits for bombs. And that’s not all. The main means of command and control of NATO as the huge bandwidth for transmitting all the data is American.”  The Director of Military Intelligence, General Didier Bolelli, revealed that over 80 per cent of the targets assigned to the French pilots in Libya was designated by U.S.! “They give us just enough so that we do not figure we were breaking,” says one diplomat.

Those whose memories stretch back to the Suez debacle of 1956 might recall that Eisenhower simply ordered the British, French and Israeli forces to abandon the effort to overthrow Nasser.  We could well be seeing a less overt  rerun of that conclusive demonstration of post World War II US dominance, with the Obama administration making the point that any effort at asserting European primacy in the Mediterranean region is doomed to failure.

Before his retirement Defense Secretary Gates took the opportunity to twist the knife in a speech in Brussels: “The mightiest military alliance in history, is .?.?. into an operation against a poorly-armed regime in a sparsely populated country ? yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.” He said ominously,  “future U.S. political leaders .?.?. may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”

Even if Obama is in fact wholeheartedly for regime change in Libya the political temperature here does not favor the sort of escalation ? hugely costly and much against the public mood —  required  in the wake of the failure of the bombing campaign.

There’s no evidence that Labor’s leader, Ed Miliband, lion-like in his eagerness to seize the reins of  the anti-Murdoch bandwagon, has the political agility to toast Cameron for the Libyan farce. By disposition he’s probably keener on “humanitarian interventions” than Cameron  and can only reproach him for not trying hard enough.

In sum,  we on the left should rejoice that a simple colonial smash and grab is  currently in a shambles, with serious long-term consequences for NATO’s  credibility and pretenses to respect for international law . The kangaroo cage known as the International Criminal Court has been even further discredited, another cause for joy.

What next? The air is thick with speculations about a brokered settlement, salted with hopeful bleats from the Americans and British that Gaddafi is on the verge of collapse, that he is running out of fuel, that the rebels are tightening the noose around Tripoli, that the Russians re brokering some sort of a face-saving deal.  It seems a better bet to  recognize that after four and a half months, NATO and the interventionists are being humiliated. Throw in the humiliation of Rupert Murdoch and we can legitimately raise our champagne glasses even higher.

A Great New Book from CounterPunch

Here’s  an exciting bit of news from CounterPunch. Fans of our website and newsletter will easily recall the terrific series of articles radical anthropologist and CounterPuncher David Price has contributed, on the march of the CIA onto the campuses, the deepening recruitment of anthropologists into the U.S.’s imperial wars. We’re very proud to announce David’s new book, Weaponizing Anthropology, just published by CounterPunch Books and AK Press and now available from our CounterPunch  bookstore.

Weaponizing Anthropology documents how anthropological knowledge and ethnographic methods are harnessed by military and intelligence agencies in post-9/11 America to placate hostile foreign populations. Price’s inquiry into past relationships between anthropologists and the CIA, FBI, and Pentagon provides the historical base for this expose of the current abuses of anthropology by military and intelligence agencies. Weaponizing Anthropologyexplores the ways that recent shifts in funding sources for university students threaten academic freedom, as new secretive CIA-linked fellowship programs rapidly infiltrate American university campuses. He examines the specific uses of anthropological knowledge in military doctrine that have appeared in a new generation of counterinsurgency manuals and paramilitary social science units like the Human Terrain Teams.

It’s a very important book, and here’s what Marshall Sahlins,  one of anthropology’s current titans, says about it:

“Even before he published this masterly and comprehensive account, David Price has long been in the forefront of those warning of the adverse effects of militarizing the human sciences. Now, by matching an extraordinary command of the sources to a telling sensitivity to the political and intellectual consequences, he demonstrates in this definitive work that weaponizing anthropology is as damaging to the soul of the nation as it is to the integrity of the science. “ –Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago

And here’s Henry Giroux:

“This may be one of the most important books written in the last few decades on the merging of the military and intelligence agencies with the academy. Beautifully written and rigorously argued, Weaponizing Anthropology is a must read for students, educators, and anyone else concerned about the fate of the academy, the corruption of anthropology, the  militarization of politics, and the future of democracy.”

?Henry Giroux, McMaster University,  Author of University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex.

One more testimonial from David Graeber:

“Anthropology was always a field of political struggle between servants and opponents of imperialism and it still is – with much of our funding, employment, and research direction still coming directly from the CIA and US military. No one genuinely concerned with the integrity of the discipline can afford to ignore this important book.”

?David Graeber, Goldsmiths, University of London. Author of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.

Order Weaponizing Anthropology now!

Our Latest Newsletter Hits the Stands

Could it be that the press coverage of NATO’s Libyan onslaught is actually worse than the reporting on NATO’s attacks on the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, or on Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion by the U.S.A. and its coalition partners? Read CounterPunch’s special report, by Patrick Cockburn and yours truly.

Also in this newsletter is a fascinating interview between death penalty defense attorney Mike Snedeker and Jan Haaken on her book Hard Knocks, a history of one of the profound social movements of recent decades, the effort to bring the issue  of domestic violence ? something never officially approved of but nonetheless privately tolerated ? into the public sphere. Haaken asks, did feminists win a Pyrrhic victory?

MS: [You suggest is] that it takes two to tango, that domestic violence is an interactive phenomenon. The feminist countermyth is that men initiate 95 per cent of violence in couples.

JH: This has been an important aspect of the movement: moving away from violence as a general human problem to the claim that violence actually is a male problem. But we overshot the mark. The cost of insisting on violence as a male habit of power and control was in losing ground on how to deal with female violence or aggression that is not simply defensive. The main feminist argument was that when women are violent, it is because they are pushed to the wall and only fight back defensively. But that position, as an a priori stance, keeps women as perpetual innocents, as children before the law. So, an unintended consequence of this countermyth was to place women who are violent outside the bounds of female normalcy, as perverse or unnatural. I think all movements that are attempting to lift people from oppression have to allow for people that have been harmed by life in ways that don’t make them nice.

This terrific new newsletter has two further superb reports. Stewart Lawrence describes an appalling new Alabama law targeting immigrants. Richard Wilcox writes from Tokyo on censorship in Japan and the Fukushima cover-up.

Subscribe now!

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.