The Libyan Revolution is Dead: Notes for an Autopsy

Posted on March 18, 2011 by


The “Arab Spring” was a short one; what follows, another NATO Summer, will last much longer.

If you do not think about it, there is a lot to cheer about the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, against what this time has been a mountain of advice, questions, and critiques from all imaginable political quarters, and not as the warmongering extremists would have it, from “Gaddafi lovers” (George Will? Pat Buchanan? Richard Haass? Gen. Wes Clark? Gaddafi lovers?). In previous articles, I have criticized the flip-side enough, meaning the positions taken by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Daniel Ortega, without sparing Gaddafi in the least–I do not need to repeat any of it here, because it is entirely irrelevant to the discussion now. Instead, this is an autopsy, identifying the weapons used, and the criminals responsible for killing the Libyan revolution. This is no longer a Libyan story–that chapter is now closed. My autopsy is divided into several broad categories of actors: the humanitarians, the rebels, the international organizations, the mass media, and the Americans. Finally, what we should be watching in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.

The “Humanitarians”

A great mass of humanitarian social media addicts and self-styled cyberactivists in their hundreds of thousands signed petitions to beg the United Nations to authorize the bombing of Libya. Bearers of good intentions, no doubt, but perhaps less skilled as historians. Many will not even Google their way to the nearest Wikipedia entry that might cause them to ask some basic questions. On the other hand, history does not always repeat itself, and I am not one to make solid predictions, so perhaps this is not a useful basis for discussing the role of “humanitarian concern” in this debacle.

Instead, I have questions.

For example, exactly what kind of global human rights agenda is it that requires substantial military spending, private defense contractors, and a robust air force?

“We can’t stand by and do nothing”–and why not, when it is precisely what you are doing every day when it comes to the slaughter of civilians in Afghanistan (courtesy of our own troops), when it comes to the “secret” war in Pakistan, the “secret” war in Yemen, the “secret” war in Somalia, or for that matter, the killing of civilian protesters today in Yemen and Bahrain? How about how we stood by and did nothing, as our allied torture state, Uzbekistan, boiled alive opponents and the detainees sent to them by the CIA? Boiled alive–whisper it, because not even Gaddafi has imagined perpetrating such horrors. Whisper it, so you can forget it again: “Andijan massacre;” “Uzbekistan: Repression Linked to 2005 Massacre Rife;” “500 bodies laid out in Uzbek town;” “‘High death toll’ in Uzbekistan;” “‘700 dead’ in Uzbek violence.” Surely, by now, we have abundant practice in doing nothing at all–we must be a hardened people, with very thick skin, and an ability to ignore the screams coming from the basement whenever we like. So why must Libya be this exception? What made you wake up, and wake up in such a way that you wanted to be the hero of someone else’s story?

“If the world does nothing, the message to dictators will be: ‘Just kill your own people, we will look away’.” They got that message already, and they are still doing just that, thankful that we are all focused on Libya alone. Indeed, some of them even helped to divert our attention toward Libya.

But how about if we just do not finance them, arm them, school them, and otherwise embrace them to begin with? At the very least, wouldn’t that be the cost effective thing to do? And wouldn’t that start the story with us, by placing responsibility on us first, so we don’t have to send planes in to destroy the planes we sold them? I mean, can one be a humanitarian and logical at the same time, or are these now mutually exclusive?

Either way, “the humanitarians” have validated the military-industrial complex: “The military hierarchy, with their budgets threatened by government cuts, surely cannot believe their luck – those who usually oppose wars are openly campaigning for more military involvement” (source).

“I usually don’t support foreign military intervention, but…” is how some lead their apologies. But…you know what? You do favour foreign military intervention, and having done so you automatically disqualify yourself as a hypocrite next time you try to pretend to oppose it.

The Rebels

I have no intention of simply lambasting those who tried to fight for their freedom, and I think that I can understand their cheers in Benghazi more than ours. However, I cannot deny feeling sadness, watching them cheer, as if victorious, when in fact they had just surrendered. Here too questions remain to be raised/addressed.

This is no longer their story. A major break has occurred. Whatever is written now, it will likely include stories of UN meetings, jet fighters, aircraft carriers, bombs, and the tactical cleverness of Hillary Clinton. Libyans have been displaced as authors of their own destiny. Whatever they wrote, has now become a series of paragraphs in yet another chapter of imperial “morality” deployed from overseas.

One opposition leader reportedly said, “We asked for a no-fly zone to be imposed from day one.” From day one? He’s not kidding either. So why were you prepared to hand over the reins of power to foreign actors, so soon, so quickly? You boasted of defections from the military, of vast popular support, of marching on Tripoli–it did not sound like you needed any global cavalry to come in and save your day. Why did you ask, and then demand?

Elements of the rebel leadership have stained their own name, and stained their revolution. That is inescapable now. But what is damaging to all of us is the narrow, self-centered, provincialism of what is clearly a neo-colonial elite of former regime insiders serving as self-appointed “representatives of the Libyan people,” elites who like the neo-colonized, depend on aid from abroad as part of their self-fulfillment. Cheering for what will be a NATO-led operation, is a validation and legitimation of that organization, and in a time when budgets for education, health, public works, and programs for the poor are all being slashed across the West, they help to validate the need for maintaining heavy military spending. Nobody is out in the streets cheering universities and hospitals, but apparently they are out in the street cheering the bomb. Their provincialism was displayed in their lack of solidarity, or even passing concern, with social justice and anti-war activists in the West, in cases berating those of us who felt we should have a voice–these are, after all, our planes, our bombs, and our political leaders–because all we needed to know was that “Libyans” asked for this intervention. If that is a reflection of the kind of political work and solidarity-building they did at home, then no wonder they had to turn to artificial, prosthetic solutions. Not just the anti-war movement, and the anti-secrecy movement, will be damaged here, as the clock is turned back to 2003–it is the very meaning of “revolutionary,” which can now be made to include those who would be clients of imperial patrons.

In the meantime, a theory is circulating–that the West deliberately delayed so that the rebels would be militarily degraded, and more dependent than ever on NATO, which will now have the upper hand in stage managing their revolt. We will have to see if there is any evidence that comes to light to support that.

The International Organizations

If one were to read the speech given by Alain Juppé, the French Foreign Affairs Minister, at the UN Security Council meeting that passed 1973, one should have an awfully difficult time understanding how everything he said could not also be said about the NATO war, his war, against the people of Afghanistan, and the dictator that they prop up there. Yet, this is what sets the code by which to administer Libya. As for the five countries that merely “abstained” from voting (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Germany)–what portraits of courage. They opted for diplomatic wiggle room and plausible deniability.

The Arab League’s decision to first call for a no fly zone can only invite the most scornful mockery. This is a club of dictators, who found the ideal opportunity to remove a competing dictator that they have long resented and detested. Soon after their vote, Saudi Arabia sent its troops into Bahrain to smash peaceful, unarmed protesters, and the Gulf Cooperation Council agreed to intervene against the fight for democracy there. Human rights have always been the least of the Arab League’s concerns.

But Washington, skillful and cynical, pressed the Arab League to speak first in favour of a no-fly zone, so it could then use that thin pretense of “answering” the calls of authentic Arabs. Never mind that the U.S. would need their overflight “permission” anyway, for sorties to be flown from U.S. airfields in Iraq, against Libya.

The Mass Media

Here I will focus on one of the other great disappointments in this story: Al Jazeera (with whom I have terminated my relationship). Al Jazeera’s coverage has been heavily slanted, in terms of amount of coverage, to the story of Libya, rather than other cases where tyrants were beating and killing peaceful and unarmed protesters at the very same time: Yemen and Bahrain, to name just two. Today, while they wait for NATO bombs to drop, they have turned a little to Yemen, which has turned much uglier–but is an ally of the U.S. in the “war on terror,” and no UN meetings have been called. When the UN passed the latest resolution against Libya, the Al Jazeera correspondent in Benghazi, Tony Birtley, engaged in obscene and undignified cheering and gloating. Utterly delirious. Never, he said, had he been hugged so much since the birth of his daughter. Rich symbolism. The liberating angel embraced. Had this been Fox News, we would all be slamming it as propaganda. It is. And it covers for the Emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera’s paramount if not exclusive financial sponsor, who by all means has topped anything Rupert Murdoch could ever dream of being powerful enough to do: the Emir is an interventionist in his own right, supporting the Saudi invasion of Bahrain, the crushing of peaceful protest, to which he may add more Qatari forces, while also promising support for the implementation of the no fly zone against Libya. If Murdoch had done just half of that, American protesters would likely reduce Fox News studios to rubble. Al Jazeera is not the voice of the Arab Spring after all, as some of us thought.

The Americans

Good morning America! It’s a great day to be an American again! Finally, a bad guy, who isn’t American. Finally, a good guy, who is American. Once again, another crazy murderous Arab, easy to mock and hold up as the target of mass orchestrated contempt. The kids got all busy making viral “zenga zenga” videos, and the media proudly featured them, enjoying the fruit of their own labour in shaping young minds. Hey and guess what? This evil Arab tyrant might also have some WMDs! Every night I watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper, hot, breathless, turgid, anally righteous, spewing venom against the dictator–much of it deserved, some of it resting on ignorance and fabrication–the dictator’s “lies,” “keeping them honest,” all principles never directed back at CNN. Expect to see pictures of Gaddafi’s dead sons happily featured on evening broadcasts. The blood thirsty ghouls are back.

What a perfect war this will be. No troops on the ground. Do you hear that, suicide bombers? No troops on the ground. No roadside bombs. This will be clean and surgical, the way spectators imagine high-tech war to be. Death from above, baby. War will be spectacularized once again, with an appropriate focus on ordnance, impressive gadgets, mellow-voiced professional pilots, and a wonderful assortment of planes. Already, talk that this will be a cakewalk. Cakewalk, baby.

America is on top again. Iraq? Afghanistan? Fuck you! If anyone in the world for a moment thought these did any damage to the American soul, or to the fact that America remains “the indispensable nation,” then someone missed the fact that Americans have finally been cheered as liberators, in Benghazi. Iraq syndrome? As if! Humanitarian imperialism is back, NATO is cool, America thank you, cakewalk.

Who imagined that this, political satire with puppets, would rise to the status of a documentary? Who expected this to become the liberation charter, the theme song, for both desperate, groping Libyan opportunists and Americans thirsting for patriotic self-validation? The world policeman…is back, baby.

What to Watch For

These are just some of the things we will want to watch for over the coming hours, and years:

  1. Which nation’s planes will be the first to bomb? After that, in the overall number of sorties, how many will have been flown by U.S. pilots? This will be important to see how the U.S. ensures that, in terms of image management, an illusion that the U.S. is not in the lead is created.
  2. When civilians are killed from aerial bombardment, who will get the blame?
  3. Gaddafi is a dead man–and he knows it. Will he just resign to the fact stoically? Last night he said: “If the world is crazy, we will be crazy, too.” Will Gaddafi outlive the coming air war? How will he be removed from power?
  4. Will hostilities on the ground be escalated? Will there be larger numbers of refugees?
  5. Fracturing of the opposition. Will the “Interim Transitional National Council” become truly national, or remain a creature of Benghazi? Will it seek to become somewhat less “interim,” and somewhat more secure in its hold on power?
  6. Opportunistic infiltration, by that other group also desperate for renewed validation: Al Qaeda. Yes, indeed, Gaddafi hurled all sorts of “crazy” allegations that the opposition comprised Al Qaeda terrorists. Interestingly, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton partly backed him up (not that many bothered to comment on this): “many of the Al-Qaeda activists in Afghanistan and later in Iraq came from Libya and came from eastern Libya which is now the so-called free area of Libya.” Clinton also noted: “It’s important to recognize that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the motives, the opportunism, if you will of people who are claiming to be leaders right now.” This also means that the U.S. reserves for itself the right to decide who will be treated as legitimate, and who will be treated as the enemy.
  7. How will the U.S. exercise leverage over the opposition/government in waiting? Will it be slow to lift sanctions in order to obtain concessions?
  8. American media coverage: how much time will be spent describing the hardware? How lovingly will fighter pilots and their machines be portrayed? How many times will you hear American voices, compared to Libyan voices?
  9. The bases used for operations: there has been no buildup of U.S. aircraft carriers in the region. Expect flights from land bases nearby. Will this be used to legitimate the American need to hold on to those bases?
  10. Will there be continued subdivision of the left in the West? Are we seeing the emergence of a rift between the Arab left and the Latin American left, whose leaders have been resolutely anti-intervention and in some cases pro-Gaddafi? What about divisions within the left inside the West, and with regard particularly to the anti-war movement?
  11. Will there be diminished cuts to military spending, or no cuts at all in coming years?
  12. How will the U.S. manage yet another war added to its roster, which includes: the lingering occupation of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the “secret” wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia…and now Libya? How much of this weight will have to be shouldered by NATO partners, and their tax payers?
  13. Will dissent and critique of this war be silenced, marginalized, and virtually criminalized as it has in all of the other recent Western wars? Which politicians’ fortunes will be made on the basis of this war, and who will be made to suffer for not supporting it?
  14. If this ends up being a fiasco, or with the need for foreign troops on the ground, will it be the final act that breaks the back of empire?
  15. Which questions would you add here?