The Lessons of Libya
The appointment of Susan Rice and the nomination of Samantha Power elevates and empowers the ideology of war, with trumped up justifications for mass bombings and proxy troops if not actually US boots on the ground, not likely far behind.
In this light, the claims to democratic regime change in Libya with the US “leading from behind” to support rebellious locals rising up against Muammar Ghaddafi, look increasingly suspicious. Indeed, even New York Times Op-Ed pieces warn that in the face of conflicting militias, an ineffectual government and the collapse of the nation’s infrastructure, suggest the US is headed in the wrong direction. (Frederic Wehrey, “Libya Doesn’t’ Need More Militias,” June 11, 2013).
Good intentions gone wrong?
Horace Campbell--who completed work on GLOBAL NATO at the end of last year but appears to have anticipated everything major in Libya since—does not think so. In an uneven book that fails to convince us about Ghaddafi personally listening to Better Angels on the future of Africa, he does convince us that the Better Angels are altogether missing from American policies.
Let’s start back a ways. The rush of outsiders for African resources, the growth of successful economies in parts of Africa, and the struggle of African nations to escape the rule of the IMF, all involve and complicate US strategy, and how could it be otherwise?
Ghaddafi had given in to the West in many ways, after 2000, and without evident remorse plunged the country’s population into austerity, no great success because Libya lost a billion dollars at Goldman Sachs alone. Things looked bleak indeed, but from the other side of the global coin, things looked good for acquisition of political real estate and the demonstration of NATO virility in fields far, indeed, from the North Atlantic.
The Arab Spring offered a change to get rid of the unpredictable dictator once and for all.
What should have been a victory for NATO as international force, advancing the position of AFRICOM on the continent, had so much going for it. By 2011, thousands of Libyan students were going to school in the UK, the Monitor Group (among its members and advisors: Richard Perle and Francis Fukuyama) housed at Harvard had been contracted to produce a tell-all volume on Ghaddafi, in preparation for “understanding” him and smoothing regime change, and within Libya itself, privatization was well under way. As Campbell astutely explains, the dictator could change the talk about “socialism” to talk about “liberalism,” at will, and did, even while hedging his bets by touting himself a leader of African post-colonialism.
Then the moment for rebellion approached, most naturally among those who had not benefitted at all from the plans underway and the technocratic elite that they nurtured. NATO and the American planners, playing a waiting game, had nevertheless been sometimes unnerved (in 2009, Ghaddafi threatened to nationalize the booming oil and gas industries, likely a bluff) and were increasingly ready for action. Western strategists, we know from Wikileaks revelations, already had extraordinary levels of information about the workings of the Libyan intelligence services. It should have been easy.
By March 2011, the Western media reported, without evidence, that Ghaddafi was bombing his own population. Robert Gates responded at first cautiously, but the cry of threatened “genocide” came heavy from French and British sources. Humanitarian intervention, the strategic and tactical operation made popular under Clinton, was quickly rolled out.
Susan Rice, veteran of the Clinton era, would be at the center of the propaganda crusade with Samantha Power at her side. This was the moment for the two and their supporters in high places to prove themselves, a redemption from the unsuccessful US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan (thus, a reprise of sorts of the US failure in Vietnam), and a new beginning for fairly open military action.
Ghaddafi, by threatening to wipe out the opposition centered in Benghazi, gave the UN Security Council a grand opportunity to pass its own resolution—but one without authorizing outside powers to offer air support to overthrow the leader.
The French military already had an attack plan in place. The more Libya looked like the meeting place of the Mediterranean, African and Arab world in moments of high stress, the more the prospects to follow the French impulse became almost compulsory.
Still, Powers found herself badgering the military—unwilling to get itself bogged down in a land war--from within the National Security Council. The French went ahead, and the air war from March to October 2011, was under way.
Think of it: Up to 150 bombing sorties a day by late June, a ceaseless pummeling of infrastructure, military and civilian. Ghaddafi’s forces held on, black Africans inside the country viewed themselves as potential candidates for a real genocide (but not from Ghaddafi!), and the African Union desperately urged a negotiated settlement with the leader stepping aside.
No deal: NATO would not accept African mediation under any circumstances. The war went on, with an astounding 9700 bombing sorties by October—long after Ghaddafi’s air defenses had been wiped out. With the protection of Benghazi secured, the purported objectives became muddled. Obama declared that “it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gadhafi in power.” Thus: Regime Change.
From Europe, Bernard-Henri Levi, multi-millionaire playboy French intellectual, was the most vocal of hawks, pounding in the lesson that nothing less could be accepted.
The regime hung on, and Vladimir Putin jumped off the train, likening the air war to a medieval crusade.
The Turks, for their part, became increasingly nervous.
The African Union repeatedly urged peace, or at least a humanitarian pause in the bombing, for the sake of some 600,000 foreign workers alone. In one incident, almost 900 Africans drowned, seeking to escape Libya by water.
The West turned a blind eye, as it did to an appeal by some two hundred African intellectuals after NATO forces overran Tripoli in August, 2011.
Among the most depressing developments, and most important to understand in retrospect, is the unanimity of the Western official press at skepticism of Africans’ own reportage and, by contrast, the credulity at the reporting of the New York Times and its European counterparts.
“Precision” bombing turned into something else very quickly, and remained there, while Al Jazeera joined CNN, BBC and other in playing down civilian casualties. If Congressman Denis Kucinich had warned way back in March that Obama was trampling on the War Powers Act, if Ron Paul concurred from the Right, Obama’s team had to insist that because US action in Libya did not constitute “hostilities,” the War Powers Act did not apply!
Campbell argues that Qatari troops, disguised as rebels, made the final assault on Tripoli. However that may be, the reports of spontaneous resistance by residents against the invasion, and the consequent intensification of bombing, were details easier to ignore than deny. Bring in the photo-ops, although unlike Iraq, no air craft carrier with a European leader (or Obama) offering thumbs-up Mission Accomplished seems to have been practicable.
We may skip over the capture and execution of Ghaddafi, to the struggles among competing militias that have dominated the Libyan setting ever since. Oil operations recommenced before the end of the year, and US diplomats moved into the super-luxurious Tibesti Hotel in Benghazi, a bit run-down for the moment but a major perk for a certain diplomat, Chris Stevens, who declared Benghazi was his favorite posting, ever.
Cut to the attack that has confused but also emboldened raucous Republicans, along with Fox News, into ranting and raving. Stevens the new-made hero and martyr, had , of course, been quietly in touch with a major CIA center of activities in Benghazi, a CIA operation that plainly failed to anticipate the attack and defend the diplomatic staff. When the CIA had actually offered information to Congress, State Department representatives and some Congressman objected at potential loss of vital secrecy for ongoing projects in Libya.
Campbell insists that the Libya adventure backfired, as the Republican effort to make political hay may also have backfired. I’m not at all sure of that. The slaughter of 70,000 civilians could be put aside, has been put aside, as one more African tragedy, no matter who did the killing. At the least, however, as Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent, the US has successfully stoked Al Qaeda. This can’t be a success.
The author’s attempt to scoop up into this mess the rise and fall of General Petraeus, amid the grand “Crusade” that has obviously failed, seems a claim too far, at least for this book. Themes do come together here in the frustrated military plans for Africom, but not very usefully.
Campbell returns to the main point in his conclusion. Seen in geostrategic terms, and notwithstanding the leader’s megalomania, socialism-turned-to-neoliberalism and much else, the Libyan elites had actually begun to make their own plans, linking up their oil and gas economy with Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) rather than the US and Europe, pushing aside IMF and perhaps offering Africans, among others, a different development path.
The US mobilization of one militia against another, a strategy clear in several other parts of Africa, is morally corrupt but destined to be tried again and again—with a gap between rhetoric and action at least as great as anything dreamed up by Ghaddafi.
A half-century after the CIA–aided assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Campbell notes, Africans have failed to free themselves of the colonial incubus. Liberation will not be easy, but for our part, we can liberate ourselves from the hawkish plans even now being hatched anew in Washington
Global NATO AND THE CATASTROPHIC FAILURE IN LIBYA, Lessons for Africa in the Forging of African Unity. By Horace Campbell. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013.299pp, $19.95 pbk.
Paul Buhle is retired historian and the authorized biographer of Pan African giant, C.L.R. James.
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