I think a bit of detail on a couple of specific cases, Libya and Syria, is justified here by the alarming tendency of many who claim they oppose war to make exceptions for particular wars, including these—one a recent war, the other a threatened war at the time of this writing. First, Libya.
The humanitarian argument for the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya is that it prevented a massacre or it improved a nation by overthrowing a bad government. Much of the weaponry on both sides of the war was U.S. made. The Hitler of the moment had enjoyed U.S. support off-and-on in the past. But taking the moment for what it was, regardless of what might have been done better in the past to avoid it, the case is still not a strong one.
The White House claimed that Gaddafi had threated to massacre the people of Benghazi with “no mercy,” but the New York Times reported that Gaddafi’s threat was directed at rebel fighters, not civilians, and that Gaddafi promised amnesty for those “who throw their weapons away.” Gaddafi also offered to allow rebel fighters to escape to Egypt if they preferred not to fight to the death. Yet President Obama warned of imminent genocide.
The above report of what Gaddafi really threatened fits with his past behavior. There were other opportunities for massacres had he wished to commit massacres, in Zawiya, Misurata, or Ajdabiya. He did not do so. After extensive fighting in Misurata, a report by Human Rights Watch made clear that Gaddafi had targeted fighters, not civilians. Of 400,000 people in Misurata, 257 died in two months of fighting. Out of 949 wounded, less than 3 percent were women.
More likely than genocide was defeat for the rebels, the same rebels who warned Western media of the looming genocide, the same rebels who the New York Times said “feel no loyalty to the truth in shaping their propaganda” and who were “making vastly inflated claims of [Gaddafi’s] barbaric behavior.” The result of NATO joining the war was probably more killing, not less. It certainly extended a war that looked likely to end soon with a victory for Gaddafi.
Alan Kuperman pointed out in the Boston Globe that “Obama embraced the noble principle of the responsibility to protect—which some quickly dubbed the Obama Doctrine—calling for intervention when possible to prevent genocide. Libya reveals how this approach, implemented reflexively, may backfire by encouraging rebels to provoke and exaggerate atrocities, to entice intervention that ultimately perpetuates civil war and humanitarian suffering.”
But what of the overthrow of Gaddafi? That was accomplished whether or not a massacre was prevented. True. And it is too early to say what the full results are. But we do know this: strength was given to the idea that it is acceptable for a group of governments to violently overthrow another. Violent overthrows almost always leave behind instability and resentment. Violence spilled over into Mali and other nations in the region. Rebels with no interest in democracy or civil rights were armed and empowered, with possible repercussions in Syria, for a U.S. ambassador killed in Benghazi, and in future blowback. And a lesson was taught to other nations’ rulers: if you disarm (as Libya, like Iraq, had given up its nuclear and chemical weapons programs) you may be attacked.
In other dubious precedents, the war was fought in opposition to the will of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. Overthrowing governments may be popular, but it isn’t actually legal. So, other justifications had to be invented. The U.S Department of Justice submitted to Congress a written defense claiming the war served the U.S. national interest in regional stability and in maintaining the credibility of the United Nations. But are Libya and the United States in the same region? What region is that, earth? And isn’t a revolution the opposite of stability?
The credibility of the United Nations is an unusual concern, coming from a government that invaded Iraq in 2003 despite UN opposition and for the express purpose (among others) of proving the UN irrelevant. The same government, within weeks of making this case to Congress, refused to allow the UN special rapporteur to visit a U.S. prisoner named Bradley Manning (now named Chelsea Manning) to verify that she was not being tortured. The same government authorized the CIA to violate the UN arms embargo in Libya, violated the UN ban on “a foreign occupation force of any form” in Libya, and proceeded without hesitation from actions in Benghazi authorized by the UN to actions around the country aimed at “regime change.”
Popular “progressive” U.S. radio host Ed Schultz argued, with vicious hatred in every word he spat out on the subject, that bombing Libya was justified by the need for vengeance against that Satan on earth, that beast arisen suddenly from the grave of Adolph Hitler, that monster beyond all description: Muammar Gaddafi.
Popular U.S. commentator Juan Cole supported the very same war as an act of humanitarian generosity. Many people in NATO countries are motivated by humanitarian concern; that’s why wars are sold as acts of philanthropy. But the U.S. government does not typically intervene in other nations in order to benefit humanity. And to be accurate, the United States is not capable of intervening anywhere, because it is already intervened everywhere; what we call intervention is better called violently switching sides.
The United States was in the business of supplying weapons to Gaddafi up until the moment it got into the business of supplying weapons to his opponents. In 2009, Britain, France and other European states sold Libya over $470m-worth of weapons. The United States can no more intervene in Yemen or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia than in Libya. The U.S. government is arming those dictatorships. In fact, to win the support of Saudi Arabia for its “intervention” in Libya, the U.S. gave its approval for Saudi Arabia to send troops into Bahrain to attack civilians, a policy that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly defended.
The “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, meanwhile, whatever civilians it may have begun by protecting, immediately killed other civilians with its bombs and immediately shifted from its defensive justification to attacking retreating troops and participating in a civil war.
Washington imported a leader for the people’s rebellion in Libya who had spent the previous 20 years living with no known source of income a couple of miles from the CIA’s headquarters in Virginia. Another man lives even closer to CIA headquarters: former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. He expressed great concern in a speech in 1999 that foreign governments were controlling oil. “Oil remains fundamentally a government business,” he said. “While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East, with two thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.” Former supreme allied commander Europe of NATO, from 1997 to 2000, Wesley Clark claims that in 2001, a general in the Pentagon showed him a piece of paper and said:
I just got this memo today or yesterday from the office of the secretary of defense upstairs. It’s a, it’s a five-year plan. We’re going to take down seven countries in five years. We’re going to start with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, then Libya, Somalia, Sudan, we’re going to come back and get Iran in five years.
That agenda fit perfectly with the plans of Washington insiders, such as those who famously spelled out their intentions in the reports of the think tank called the Project for the New American Century. The fierce Iraqi and Afghan resistance didn’t fit in the plan at all. Neither did the nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But taking over Libya still made perfect sense in the neoconservative worldview. And it made sense in explaining war games used by Britain and France to simulate the invasion of a similar country.
The Libyan government controlled more of its oil than any other nation on earth, and it was the type of oil that Europe finds easiest to refine. Libya also controlled its own finances, leading American author Ellen Brown to point out an interesting fact about those seven countries named by Clark:
“What do these seven countries have in common? In the context of banking, one that sticks out is that none of them is listed among the 56 member banks of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). That evidently puts them outside the long regulatory arm of the central bankers’ central bank in Switzerland. The most renegade of the lot could be Libya and Iraq, the two that have actually been attacked. Kenneth Schortgen Jr., writing on Examiner.com, noted that ‘[s]ix months before the US moved into Iraq to take down Saddam Hussein, the oil nation had made the move to accept euros instead of dollars for oil, and this became a threat to the global dominance of the dollar as the reserve currency, and its dominion as the petrodollar.’ According to a Russian article titled ‘Bombing of Libya – Punishment for Gaddafi for His Attempt to Refuse US Dollar’, Gaddafi made a similarly bold move: he initiated a movement to refuse the dollar and the euro, and called on Arab and African nations to use a new currency instead, the gold dinar.
“Gaddafi suggested establishing a united African continent, with its 200 million people using this single currency. During the past year, the idea was approved by many Arab countries and most African countries. The only opponents were the Republic of South Africa and the head of the League of Arab States. The initiative was viewed negatively by the U.S. and the European Union, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling Libya a threat to the financial security of mankind; but Gaddafi was not swayed and continued his push for the creation of a united Africa.”