Shadi Hamid's claims that the Western war in Libya went well ignore significant evidence of disaster.
15 June 2016
Shadi Hamid, a well-respected analyst with the Brookings Institution thinktank, recently published an article titled ‘Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure. They’re wrong’. Contradicting even the US President’s analysis of the 2011 NATO intervention – Obama is reported to describe it as a “shit show” – Hamid asserts the “intervention was successful”, later referring to the “justness of the military intervention” in Libya. As the Libyan intervention was supported by 98 percent of British MPs and the majority of the British media, but has since been largely forgotten, it is worth interrogating Hamid’s claims.
Hamid begins by stating “the goal” of the intervention “was to protect civilians and prevent a massacre”, noting “this is what was achieved”. This was certainly how the NATO action was officially justified and presented to the Western publics in 2011 but, as Noam Chomsky has long noted, “it is wise to attend to deeds, not rhetoric” because “deeds commonly tell a different story”.
Ignoring Chomsky’s dictum and taking governments’ public justifications at face value would mean believing Russia intervened in Syria to target ISIS or that Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia for humanitarian reasons. Hamid would laugh at such naïve assertions, yet when it comes to the US government he is ideologically blind.
So what does NATO’s deeds tell us about NATO’s concern for protecting civilians in Libya?
Alarm bells were surely raised for Hamid when Anne-Marie Slaughter, a key figure in the US foreign policy establishment, explained to the New York Times that “we did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side.” However, the reality – that is, the facts and evidence – show that the US and NATO didn’t just “not try to protest civilians” loyal to then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, as Slaughter asserts, but actively took part in directly killing scores of civilians and provided air cover, and military and diplomatic support for rebel forces as they committed war crimes against civilians.
In September 2011 Amnesty International published a report noting killing, torture and other abuses were being carried out by both Gaddafi and anti-Gaddafi forces. In addition, multiple news reports have noted how perhaps 30,000 dark-skinned people from the town of Tawergha were forcibly driven out of their homes – ethnically cleansed – by Western-supported rebels. One witness told IRIN News of “detainees receiving electric shocks, having cold water poured on them and being burned with cigarettes by the revolutionaries”.
Arguably NATO’s most shameful deeds occurred in the coastal city of Sirte, where Gaddafi loyalists had retreated to after Tripoli fell to rebel forces. As the Guardian’s Seamus Milne noted at the time “a two-month long siege and indiscriminate bombardment of a city of 100,000” was carried out by the rebels, with the urban area “reduced to a Grozny-like state of destruction.” How indiscriminate was the attack, you ask? Try this Reuters report from the frontline:
“Obaid pulled up in his pick-up truck to fire the multiple rocket launcher mounted on the back at Gaddafi loyalists holding out in the Libyan city of Sirte, but just as he was about to shoot, he stopped to ask which way to aim. His comrades standing nearby loudly conferred with one another then pointed him to what they agreed was the right direction and Obaid fired four Grad missiles at the city. They all cheered him and shouted ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Smoke rose above the already wrecked city, but no one could say if the Grad rockets hit the target, or even what the target was.”
Still not convinced? Then check out this Reuters video showing wild, indiscriminate fire being directed into the city.
All this was done with NATO air and special forces support, Milne notes. And despite the AFP news agency reporting on 2 October 2011 that the International Red Cross were warning of a medical emergency in Sirte the NATO-rebel attack would continue for nearly three weeks. Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Siraj Assouri said basic medical supplies had run out and people were resorting to drinking contaminated water to survive: “The conditions have been getting worse and worse. There is no medicine for heart disease or blood pressure, or baby milk or nappies.” Mohammed Shnaq, a biochemist, told Reuters the situation was “a catastrophe. Patients are dying every day for need of oxygen.”
According to AFP “some of the hundreds of residents fleeing Sirte said there had been civilian casualties there when residential buildings were hit, either by artillery fire from besieging new regime forces or by NATO airstrikes.” Asked by AFP if NATO was protecting civilians, one aid worker replied “It wouldn’t seem so”, before adding that many residents and doctors he had spoken to had complained about deadly NATO air strikes. One woman told Reuters “Everyone is being hit all day and all night. There is no electricity and no water… there is not one neighbourhood that hasn’t been hit.” AFP spoke to a Libyan charity who said more than 50 bodies of civilians were found under the rubble of a several-storey building flattened in a NATO air strike. Human Rights Watch noted that “several fleeing residents said that NATO bombs had struck schools.”
Echoing Milne’s reference to Grozny, as the fighting waned the Washington Post reported Sirte “appeared… to have been largely destroyed”.
“Mission creep on steroids”: regime change
So, if NATO’s intervention wasn’t about protecting Libyan civilians, what was behind it?
“Once underway, the NATO operation unilaterally expanded and qualitatively shifted the mission as authorized, and almost immediately acted to help the rebels win the war and to make non-negotiable the dismantling of the Qaddafi regime”, notes Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton and former United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. “This was not just another instance of ‘mission creep’ as had occurred previously in UN peacekeeping operations (for instance, the Gulf War of 1991), but rather mission creep on steroids!”
Falk’s analysis is supported by an extraordinary admission in the New York Times’s recent in-depth two-part series about the Libyan intervention. “I can’t recall any specific decision that said ‘Well, let’s just take him out’”, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said. Publicly “the fiction was maintained” that the goal was limited to disabling Colonel Gaddafi’s command and control, noted Gates. Commenting on Gates’s testimony, Micah Zenko, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that “Given that decapitation strikes against Qaddafi were employed early and often, there almost certainly was a decision by the civilian heads of government of the NATO coalition to ‘take him out’ from the very beginning of the intervention.” Zenko’s conclusion? “In truth, the Libyan intervention was about regime change from the very start.” Indeed, NATO’s true intentions were so obvious that in April 2011 the Guardian’s Middle East Editor published an article titled ‘Libya regime change is west's goal, but doubts remain over how to achieve it’.
Another thing that is “absolutely obvious” according to Middle East specialist Professor Gilbert Achcar, was “that oil is a key factor in NATO’s intervention”. Obvious to everybody except Hamid that is, who doesn’t mention the idea Libya’s huge oil reserves were likely a key driver behind NATO’s intervention in the country in his 2,500-word article.
On 2 April 2011 Hillary Clinton’s close advisor Sidney Blumenthal emailed the then US Secretary of State with a summary of five interests his intelligence sources had told him the French had in Libya. The first item mentioned? “A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production”. Nothing about protecting civilians, of course.
Speaking to The Real News Network after surveying 250,000 leaked US State Department documents, Kevin Hall, the Economics Correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, explained “a full 10 percent of them, a full 10 percent of those documents, reference in some way, shape, or form oil.”
That oil was very likely a key reason behind the Libyan intervention is confirmed by a study of external interventions in civil wars conducted by academics from the universities of Warwick, Essex and Portsmouth that found, according to one of the authors, “clear evidence that countries with potential for oil production are more likely to be targeted by foreign intervention if civil wars erupt.” Another author elaborated: “The ‘thirst for oil’ is often put forward as a near self-evident explanation behind the intervention in Libya and the absence of intervention in Syria. Many claims are often simplistic but, after a rigorous and systematic analysis, we found that the role of economic incentives emerges as a key factor in intervention.”
Were military intervention or inaction the only two choices available in early 2011?
As is common with those who support Western military interventions, Hamid frames the discussion in simplistic, black and white terms:
“…we should compare Libya today to what Libya would have looked like if we hadn’t intervened. The country is better off today than it would have been had the international community allowed dictator Muammar Qaddafi to continue his rampage across the country.”
In the real world military intervention and inaction were not the only two options available to the West. Hugh Roberts, Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at Tufts University and the former director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG): “The claim that the ‘international community’ had no choice but to intervene militarily and that the alternative was to do nothing is false. An active, practical, non-violent alternative was proposed, and deliberately rejected.”
An ICG report from June 2011 clarifies what happened: “UNSC resolution 1973 emphatically called for a ceasefire, yet every proposal for a ceasefire put forward by the Qaddafi regime or by third parties so far has been rejected by the TNC [Transitional National Council] as well as by the Western governments most closely associated with the NATO military campaign.” This description is echoed by other reports which have highlighted how proposals for a negotiated settlement originating from Gaddafi were blocked by the US Government, while African Union peace initiatives were “killed by France, Britain and the United States”, according to Africa specialist Professor Alex de Waal. “London, Paris and Washington could not allow a ceasefire because it would have involved negotiations, first about peace lines, peacekeepers and so forth, and then about fundamental political differences”, Roberts notes. “And all this would have subverted the possibility of the kind of regime change that interested the Western powers.”
All of the facts and evidence (mainstream news reports, eye-witness accounts, expert analysis etc.) that I’ve cited above are freely available on the public record. Hamid doesn’t mention any of these, despite the fact they are extremely pertinent to – and directly contradict – the case he makes in support of the intervention.
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence