Unintended Consequences in Libya

 “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.”

–Nicholas Burns, Bush-era undersecretary of state, writing in March 2011 about U.S. support for anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya

“It could be a very big surprise when Qaddafi leaves and we find out who we are really dealing with.”

— Paul Sullivan, professor of political science at Georgetown University specializing in Libya, March 2011

Well surprise, surprise, everybody! Especially you warmongers, neocons, “liberal interventionists,” congressional cowards, and slavish press! Your efforts to shape and exploit the Arab Spring have stirred up hornets’ nests.

One should probably not call the various embassy attacks sparked by a grotesque and hate-filled film, and the killing of four U.S. diplomats in Libya, an instance of “the chickens coming home to roost.” Not because this isn’t true, but because one doesn’t want to meet the fate of Ward Churchill, persecuted for observing that in relation to the 9/11 attacks. Instead let’s quote the dry commentary of Rick Gladstone of the New York Times:

“The protests [throughout the Muslim world]…seemed to highlight the unintended consequences of U.S. support of movements to overthrow those autocrats [such as Qaddafi], which have empowered Islamist groups that remain implacably hostile to the West.”

Well, as the kids say,  duh… The CIA has a term for such “unintended consequences:”  blowback.

Gladstone cites Rob Malley, North Africa specialist with the International Crisis Group: “We have, throughout the Arab world, a young, unemployed, alienated and radicalized group of people, mainly men, who have found a vehicle to express themselves…[In various Arab countries] the state has lost a lot of its capacity to govern effectively. Paradoxically, that has made it more likely that events like the video [attacking Islam and the Prophet Muhammad] will make people take to the streets and act in the way they did.”

Malley might have added: “a vehicle to express themselves against the U.S.” The toppling of tyrants has allowed the unemployed, alienated Muslim masses more freedom to express their outrage against those who support Israel as it occupies Palestinian land, abuses and humiliates Palestinians in myriad ways, and routinely invades and bombs its neighbors. The new freedom allows them to decry U.S. support for fallen and continuing tyrannies (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain). It permits them to vent their anger against the murderous sanctions imposed on Iraq, followed by a bloody war based on lies and cruel occupation. There is no end of (thoroughly rational and justified) Arab reasons to resent U.S. policies and behavior in the region.

But the fact that greater freedom has allowed expressions of outrage is not really paradoxical at all. Isn’t it consistent to hate both the local oppressor now gone and those who armed him, signed trade deals with him, and diplomatically supported him for years?

As for Gladstone’s mention of “U.S. support of movements to overthrow those autocrats”… pleeeease! Support in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen was late in coming, minimal, and prompted by opportunism. The U.S. backed its dear friend Mubarak to near the bitter end, when there was a choice to either keep backing him—and risk an anti-U.S. explosion that could jeopardize the U.S.-brokered peace agreement with Israel—or urge him to step down in deference to U.S. interests. Only them came the U.S. president’s predictable flattering words for the mass movement.

Only when it became clear that more uprisings were in the offing did the imperialists (including among others the French, British, and Italians) discover some sudden empathy with the Arab street. The Arab Spring had to be co-opted. How better to do that than to hone in on a regime in Libya which, while in fact intimately aligned in some ways with imperialist objectives, could be easily vilified and toppled with the NATO bombers posturing as “friends of the people”?

Many in the corporate media are expressing puzzlement about why these people, these Arabs, who ought to be grateful to the U.S., feel such (“anti-American”) outrage. Thus Richard Engels in a report on NBC News pronounces it “ironic” that after “U.S. diplomats… helped to give these demonstrators, these protesters, a voice” are venting such inexplicable range and attacking U.S. embassies.

Unfortunately the people of this country are not generally aware of how monstrously the U.S. government has behaved throughout the Middle East. So such expressions of injury and indignation probably resonate. Surely many are thinking: Those ungrateful wretches!

There’s a widespread perception that yes, “we” have made “mistakes,” “like all countries.” But not (yet) a general perception that the U.S. is an imperialist power driven by geopolitical considerations rooted in the competitive need to secure markets, raw materials, and military bases to maintain and expand the informal empire. Not an understanding that the “mistakes” are really always in their time calculated crimes that “we” (ordinary citizens of this country) have nothing to do with. Not an understanding that U.S. imperialism inflicts real suffering on real people, on a massive scale, routinely.

In the real world, the U.S. has always helped deny a voice to the Arab masses, by rejecting the results of free elections, coddling the most repressive regimes, training torture squads, providing police tear-gas canisters clearly labeled “Made in USA.” Just this morning (Sept. 16) I read in the New York Times that “The Egyptian government, responding to administration pressure, cracked down on protesters in Cairo on Saturday.” Reminds me of how George W. Bush ordered Pakistani president Musharraf to forbid anti-U.S. demonstrations in his country after 9/11. So much for “free speech.”

You invade Afghanistan, clueless about the culture, to topple a regime you do not understand—since you with your simple “for us or against us” mentality refuse to “distinguish” it from the (really very different) al-Qaeda. (Recall G. W. Bush’s declaration on 9/11, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”) You proudly boast “We don’t do nuance” and in fact make no distinction between boys and adults, or those with al-Qaeda connections and those with none. You torture innocent and guilty alike with electric shock, water boarding, sleep deprivation, freezing cold, sexual humiliation, attack dogs…

Long after al-Qaeda is gone from Afghanistan you randomly invade and ransack homes in the middle of the night, subjecting home-secluded women to foreigners’ gaze, humiliating their husbands and fathers. You attack wedding parties with drone-fired missiles. You disgust the Afghan troops you’re supposed to train by your constant profanity that offends their religious sensibilities. You revolt them by publicly urinating. Indeed you urinate on corpses, taking photos.

You burn Qu’rans. You go berserk and methodically shoot down 16 men, women and children to avenge one of your fallen comrades. And then you’re shocked at how unappreciative the Afghans are as their parliamentarians protest your killings. You’re shocked at the rising instance of “green-on-blue” (now officially called “insider”) killings, over 50 so far this year. You’re shocked by the fact that, a decade after the invasion, the massive army you’re supposed to train can’t do anything by itself because the illiterate kids aren’t in it from conviction but for a paycheck in a desperately poor country. And it seems the more closely they work with you, the more they come to despise you. You wonder why the Taliban, defeated so decisively within weeks of the October 2001 invasion, have been able to regroup and bog you down, denying you the victory you once thought was so obvious and clear.

You’re perhaps shocked by the fact that the Iraqis refused to allow U.S. troops to remain on their soil beyond 2011, despite the Obama administration’s repeated efforts to retain bases and U.S. forces in the country. Why don’t they welcome a 60-70 year presence, like Germany, Japan or Korea?

You’re surely shocked by Libyans, who received so much help in their civil war (culminating in the capture, videotaped knife-rape, and murder of Qaddafi), repaying “us” for that help with the savage attack on the Benghazi consulate. But didn’t sober voices note early last year that Benghazi was a hub of radical Islamist activity and that the largest number of foreign al-Qaeda militants in Iraq had journeyed there from Libya?

* * *

There’s a mounting awareness that the U.S. is controlled by, and governed in the interests of, the 1%. Hence the appeal of the Occupy movements. But these were inspired by the “Arab Spring,” by movements challenging not just Presidents Bin Ali, Mubarak, Saleh etc. but that very same 1% that determines U.S. foreign policy. Fundamentally, the attacks on symbols of U.S. global power—U.S. imperialism—are not attacks on the people of this country but attacks on the regime that has provoked resistance from Tunis to New York, Cairo to Seattle.

In March 2003, following an anti-government demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo including 12-hour occupation of the square, a participating student  blogged,  “Many I’ve met, young and old, had the same comment, coming from an old song written by Salah Jahin. They told me, El sharei lena—the street is ours. Even one young woman commented: ‘I never understood what that meant, now I do.’ The street was ours, and were not finished yet, the days ahead are crucial, we can make Tahrir Intifada our own Seattle, and out of it comes a movement the can challenge those rulers and there falling regimes.”

Our own Seattle! This was a reference to the often violent protests involving tens of thousands during the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999. Righteous riots inspiring other riots in very different environments but with a globalizing human culture.

What about the issue of “clash of civilizations”? What of Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism? Of course it’s there, fed by ignorance of history, science, political theory, etc. (rather like Christian fundamentalist fanaticism). Arab regimes’ lack of attention to education is in fact scandalous; literacy in Egypt is lower than in Laos, Burundi or Nepal. It’s fed too by the perceived assault of western culture, and the psychological refuge religion can provide.

But even in the protests, peaceful as well as violent, throughout the Muslim world in the last few days, it’s doubtful that indignation over an asinine, comically poor-quality movie trailer was the only or even principal energizing factor. Surely there is the sense that those humiliating the Arab masses politically, economically, and militarily are rubbing salt into the wounds by insulting the Islamic religion central to so many people’s identity. Since many do not realize—in their countries where governments have always controlled the media, that the U.S. government played no role in producing the “movie” or posting it online—it’s natural (however foolish) for them to assume that Obama bears responsibility.

But just as it was entirely predictable that when the U.S. toppled the Taliban (whom however cruel and narrow-minded, maintained peace in Afghanistan during their rule) the country would descend back into chaos as warlords recovered control of their baronies and a weak Pashtun was appointed as president; and just as it was predictable that when the U.S. toppled the secular, modernizing regime of Saddam Hussein Iraq would descend into sectarian conflict; so it was predictable too that having “liberated” Libya the U.S. would face blowback.

The blowback isn’t the direct affect of U.S.-NATO forces killing over 70 Libyan civilians, including at least 29 women (New York Times and Human Rights Watch) in 2011. Those who torched the Benghazi consulate, who are delighted by the fall of Qaddafi, may not be concerned with those figures. But it is an effect of the U.S.-NATO decision to topple a regime and (as Burns put it) “put in power a group of people we literally do not know.”

The Libyan central government under Mohammed Magarief (a trusted U.S. ally who lived from 1980 to 2011 in the U.S.) is very weak. The country is controlled by tribal-based militias about which Washington knows little. Such is the karma of U.S. imperialism.

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 JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu