[Part 6 of 6 of my series on “Dignity,” this article is itself divided up into a series of articles, each one partly derived and adapted from my book on NATO’s war against Libya. See the bottom of the articles for more details.]
“May God bless them,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with affected piety the day after Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans had been slaughtered in an armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Clinton sounded like a high priest of empire as she continued, “and may God bless the thousands of Americans working in every corner of the world who make this country the greatest force for peace, prosperity, and progress, and a force that has always stood for human dignity—the greatest force the world has ever known. And may God continue to bless the United States of America”.
The greatest force for human dignity that the world has ever known: this surges far beyond hyperbole and into distant constellations of theological fantasy. Just the past decade witnessed the calamity that the U.S. wrought against Iraq, in another unprovoked and unjustified attack, with the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, accompanied by torture, mass displacement, impoverishment, and a vast spread of lethal sickness from both the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the dense amounts of depleted uranium dust unleashed by exploded U.S. ordnance. There too, the U.S. has created a vast training ground for Al Qaeda forces that are as active as ever, in the name of denying Al Qaeda a safe haven and putatively avenging the attacks of September 11, 2001. Even if we restrict ourselves to Iraq alone, it ought to be astounding that any U.S. official could feel that she had the legitimacy not just to claim the moral high ground, but the entire territory of morality and human dignity. But this is how imperial ideology produces its myths, exploiting moments when Americans are killed to invite domestic listeners into a state of collective amnesia, reassuring them of their greatness in the eyes of God, as they are the innocent people who can do no wrong. Every attack they suffer must therefore be explicable only in terms of the dysfunctionality and the congenital and innate perversity of others. In the words of Obama, the dead Americans in Benghazi, “exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives”. Thus the empire of “dignity” comes full circle in denying dignity to all others, in the name of dignity.
Nobody ever said that myths had to be either rational or fair, and the same is true of the myths of interventionist “humanitarian protection,” with all of the mass mediated hypes of “genocide,” the campaigns to “Save Darfur” as Americans committed massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the absurd expeditions of Hollywood celebrities to bring warmth and comfort to those oppressed by others. With a heightened sense of their own entitlement as a people blessed by God and destined to rule the earth, their overweening estimation of their own dignity is accompanied by an equally lordly view of “justice”. The basic structure of belief in providence in shaping empire has changed little since the U.S. wars against Indigenous resistance in the nineteenth century and its invasions and occupations of Central American and Caribbean nations.
In response to the killing of American diplomats and Marines in Benghazi, Clinton vowed, “nor will we rest until those responsible for these attacks are found and brought to justice”. Obama added to that: “We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done”. By now, we should understand what the U.S. leadership can mean with such statements, which can include everything from secret detention, to torture, to extrajudicial executions via drone strikes. With a reelection to safeguard, Obama will want Libyan heads on platters. In the past decade, “bringing to justice” has rarely meant simply arresting persons and bringing them to face fair trials. When the U.S. kills its adversaries, it calls that “justice”—yet when Gaddafi acted against the same forces, often in response to attempted coups, armed revolts, and assassination attempts, his actions were instantly chalked up to the atrocious “human rights record” of a “brutal dictator”. Likewise, the U.S. claims its counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is about nation-building and winning hearts and minds, but Gaddafi’s counterinsurgency in 2011 was a “threat to civilians” that mandated international action to stop it. A hue and cry was raised when Gaddafi referred to his opponents as rats and cockroaches—returning the favour, I might add—but thus far none has protested the language of Hillary Clinton when referring to some of the very same people as “savage”. Again, this contradictory dualism is the work of imperial mythology, where justice and dignity—like capital—accrue only to the dominant and are denied of the dominated.
If Clinton and Obama feel that they have the moral authority to publicly and internationally proclaim the dignity and justice of U.S. actions, it is not in small part due to how intervention in Libya was used to give the international image of the U.S. a cosmetic makeover. Apparently believing that its sins in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere would be forgiven and forgotten, U.S. soft power was painted over and redeployed, with the U.S. once again promoting itself as the liberator and protector of Arabs and Muslims. The majority of the North American and European left—reconditioned, accommodating, and fearful—played a supporting role by making substantial room for the dominant U.S. narrative and its military policies. Even here we could find self-described anti-imperialists and Marxists who conceded ground to the State Department which would then be used to amass support for intervention: Gaddafi, in their view, was a dictator, even a collaborator of the West, he should not be defended, and he had to go—and thus they agreed to make an issue out of Gaddafi, not empire. The left joined the choir, and the State Department pointed to the choir in justifying the idea that “the international community” was speaking with one voice against Gaddafi. Other supposed anti-imperialists and “leftists” (including some Marxists, anarchists, and social democrats) even backed the military intervention to “save Benghazi”. In both approaches, the U.S. and other NATO political and military leaderships would benefit from what was at the very least half-praise from supposed ideological opponents at home. These approaches were derided by Latin American socialists, Pan-Africanists and African nationalists alike, who were the only real bastions of anti-imperialism in this entire story. The “neither-nor” à la carte attitude—neither supporting Gaddafi nor supporting NATO (with some exceptions to the latter)—with prompt denunciations of “Stalinism,” paid scarce attention to who stood up against U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya: it was not Benghazi, which played an active role in legitimating and boosting the makeover of the U.S. reputation among Arabs.
Turning a blind eye to Sirte, and a racist blind eye to the plight of black Libyans and other black Africans at the hands of the insurgents, the European and North American left did nothing to oppose imperialism, and have suffered an irreparable loss of international credibility while cementing a North-South dividing line among socialists. It seems that the left of the global North bought into the dominant U.S. self-image of being a “force for dignity,” fearful that its status would be imperilled by seeming to support “dictators” and being aligned with “Stalinists” (they were quick to adopt the cherished epithets of the very same “neocons” that they claimed to loathe). Instead, they effectively opted for imperialism and for the global dictatorship of the U.S., with far more blood on its hands than any number of such “dictators” combined. In denouncing Gaddafi, just as the U.S. was gearing up to depose him, they legitimated the position that Gaddafi’s leadership was somehow the root or the pivot of the intervention, thereby inevitably even if indirectly supporting regime change. They spoke as if all political systems must be identical to ours to be deemed democratic. They treated us to jejune formulas, with fatuous warnings to “Gaddafi supporters”: “the enemy of your enemy is not your friend”. Somehow, they failed to heed their own warning as they embraced the “valiant revolutionaries” of Benghazi, paying heed to neither their racist outrages nor the presence of Islamic reactionaries. In this they shared the same exuberant naïveté of the rightwing militarist Senator John McCain who, after touring Benghazi himself, declared with total confidence: “I have met with these brave fighters, and they are not Al-Qaeda”. Yet, Al Qaeda’s very own second-in-command was the Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi, whose own brother is a senior commander in the Libyan Islamic Fifghting Group. In response to the killing of Ambassador Stevens, McCain could not avoid signaling a u-turn: “It [was] a planned enemy attack, and we all know who the enemy is” (see this and that)—indeed, the enemy’s enemy, who was your friend.
But then what enemy was Gaddafi? According to the historical revisionism of the left in the global North, who want to have their cake and eat it too, Gaddafi would now be promptly reinterpreted as a friend of the West, one who “collaborated” with the U.S. “war on terror”. Yet, it was Gaddafi’s war on Al Qaeda that not only long preceded that of the U.S., it was Gaddafi who was personally the target of assassination attempts by Islamic extremists. In the years Gaddafi’s Libya fought such extremists, the U.S. and Britain actively collaborated with them, first in Afghanistan, then in Bosnia and Kosovo, and in trying to assassinate Gaddafi. It was not Gaddafi who collaborated with the West’s “war on terror”—it was Gaddafi who persistently, even obsessively sought to reorient the U.S. into supporting Libya’s own war on terror. Numerous U.S. embassy cables show Gaddafi constantly lecturing against the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for supporting extremists, and wanting to see a change in this policy. Also numerous were the times that U.S. embassy officials seemed entirely indifferent. It is true that the U.S. renditions sent Libyan extremists back to Libya, on rare occasions. What especially irked those funding and arming groups such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, was that unlike the U.S. with its appeals to “democracy” and “human rights,” Gaddafi could fight Islamic extremism on its own turf. Unlike the U.S., Gaddafi could deploy Muslim missionaries across the planet, developing networks through the World Islamic Call Society, and founding prominent mosques in numerous nations.
Given the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, it is worth recalling in more detail what U.S. diplomats recorded when Gaddafi was in power. In a 2005 meeting with Libyan diplomats and intelligence officials, U.S. diplomats were told “the Saudis were to blame for inciting trouble in Libya,” that the Libyan opposition, “derives from radical Islam,” and the Libyans asked the U.S. to influence the Saudis and to “ask them to rein in the Islamists”. In his meeting with Congressman Tom Lantos, the U.S. embassy recorded in a cable marked “secret” that Gaddafi went to great lengths to impress upon the visiting U.S. delegation the threats posed by Wahabi/Salafi extremism: Gaddafi “dedicated the majority of time to an hour-long tête-à-tête with Representative Lantos focusing on Wahabism in Saudi Arabia, which has become one of his standard topics”; and, intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi “took credit for the GOL [Government of Libya] putting Osama bin Laden on an Interpol watch list in 1997, showing that they had an inkling of events to come far in advance of 9/11.” Gaddafi also accused the U.S., in a meeting with Senator Arlen Specter, of supporting Wahabi extremists.
It is understandable that, in an uncritical reading of U.S. embassy cables, one could form the opinion that Gaddafi collaborated with the U.S., when it was more the other way around, and not always. It was the late Christopher Stevens himself who reported the following in a cable marked “secret”:
“Libya has been a strong partner in the war against terrorism and cooperation in liaison channels is excellent. Muammar al-Qadhafi’s criticism of Saudi Arabia for perceived support of Wahabi extremism, a source of continuing Libya-Saudi tension, reflects broader Libyan concern about the threat of extremism. Worried that fighters returning from Afghanistan and Iraq could destabilize the regime, the GOL has aggressively pursued operations to disrupt foreign fighter flows, including more stringent monitoring of air/land ports of entry, and blunt the ideological appeal of radical Islam. The Qadhafi Development Foundation brokered talks with imprisoned members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that led to the release earlier this year of about 130 former LIFG members. The GOL considers the program an important means to signal willingness to reconcile with former enemies, a significant feature of Libya’s tribal culture. Libya cooperates with neighboring states in the Sahara and Sahel region to stem foreign fighter flows and travel of trans-national terrorists. Muammar al-Qadhafi recently brokered a widely-publicized agreement with Tuareg tribal leaders from Libya, Chad, Niger, Mali and Algeria in which they would abandon separatist aspirations and smuggling (of weapons and trans-national extremists) in exchange for development assistance and financial support. Libya also cooperates closely with Syria, particularly on foreign fighter flows. Syria has transferred over 100 Libyan foreign fighters to the GOL’s custody over the past two years, including a tranche of 27 in late 2007. Our assessment is that the flow of foreign fighters from Libya to Iraq and the reverse flow of veterans to Libya has diminished due to the GOL’s cooperation with other states and new procedures. Counter-terrorism cooperation is a key pillar of the U.S.-Libya bilateral relationship and a shared strategic interest.”
The Libya that the U.S. has now “created” after months of devastating bombings is almost the exact opposite of what Stevens described above: Libya now lacks the power that creates the agency necessary for “cooperation” and the Islamic extremists that Libya countered, through its own network of African and Middle Eastern collaboration, have been unleashed, killing the very author of the cable above. Michael S. Smith, author of a report titled, “A View to Extremist Currents in Libya,” argued that, “the very extremist currents that shaped the philosophies of Libya Salafists and jihadis like (Abd al-Hakim) Belhadj appear to be coalescing to define the future of Libya” (source)—the significance of Balhadj (Belhaj) is that he became the head of the Tripoli Military Council following the overthrow of Gaddafi, his militia was backed by Qatar, and he is a former head of the LIFG who fought in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda and recently ran in Libya’s elections (source). It’s clear from the U.S. embassy cables coming out of Tripoli that Christopher Stevens, author of many of the cables on Islamic extremism, was keenly aware in considerable detail of the nature and degree of Islamic militancy in eastern Libya, particularly in Derna (see here, here, here, here, and there). When Gaddafi stated in an interview with the BBC, early in the 2011 rebellion, that these “are not my people, they are al-Qaeda,” he was guilty of making a sweeping generalization at worst, but not of being completely wrong, and the U.S. would have known that at the time.
To cast the cooperation referred to in the cable quoted above in conspiratorial terms as a subordinate collaboration requires an even more fanciful position because why, after all, would the U.S. overthrow a valued partner? Why would Stevens himself actively work with rebels in Benghazi to overthrow Gaddafi? The question opens the door to the narrative that the U.S. was so shocked by Libyan human rights abuses, which it discovered in February of 2011, that it could do nothing but act against Gaddafi. In other words, here too the denunciation of Gaddafi as a “collaborator” can serve to legitimate Western intervention and regime change, and at the very least it works to silence opposition to regime change. When empire called, many were cowed.
After Clinton cast the U.S. as the greatest force for human dignity ever known, it was unsurprising to hear Obama dust off a statement from a former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, when he told Telemundo that the U.S. is an “indispensable” nation. The U.S. plans to make itself “indispensable” to Libya’s future, with a vengeance. After the killing of its embassy staff, State Department spokesmen announced that AFRICOM was rapidly deploying a Marine Corps “fleet antiterrorism security team” (FAST) and two warships ostensibly “to secure the diplomatic facility in Tripoli, our Embassy, and protect U.S. citizens as needed,” but they also added, “the Department of Defense is ready to respond with additional military measures as directed by the President” (source; source). The U.S. also dispatched CIA and FBI agents, as well as Predator and Reaper drones (source). Obama notified Congress that forces “equipped for combat” were being sent to Libya, this time choosing to abide by the War Powers Resolution, which might also suggest a longer term commitment to have “boots on the ground” (source).
From this point onwards, it should be obvious to all Libyans that with the destruction of the Jamahariya, the U.S. will feel free to march in at will. Having begged for NATO intervention, and emphasizing the need for “protection,” those Libyans that called for and relied upon foreign support cast themselves as helpless creatures, incapable of either self-defense, or other forms of resistance, or even flight. Extended to the present, the “helpless Libyan” has become the Libyan incapable of self-rule. This is a bleak vision of humanity that has been erected by the “humanitarians” and by some Libyans, one at odds with history, sociology, and anthropology, which are rich with countless cases of people who have been able to fight, resist, and practice multiple forms of self-protection—indeed, local actors struggling for change often prefer their own solutions over those imposed by outsiders. It’s as if everything we had learned had been dismissed and erased by both NATO and the “responsibility to protect” crowd, forcing some to go back and relearn some very basic lessons, even if they do so with reluctance to sacrifice the agency of international interventionists (see for example here and here). Whether it is the motive or outcome is an academic question, but this tenacious unlearning of resistance and self-protection is the basis for creating a neo-colonial relationship of dependency. Those who speak of the “responsibility to protect” of course never utter terms such as “neo-colonialism,” except maybe to mock it; no, instead their world is populated only by the victims of dictators, and themselves as the liberators.
 There is a naming controversy around how some attach the label “Wahabi” to the Salafis—the details go beyond the scope of what is presented here, suffice it to say to the reader that “Wahabi” is another name for Salafi, but one that Salafis themselves normally reject.
Al Jazeera English (AJE). (2012/9/13). “US Warships Steam Towards Libya Coast”. Al Jazeera English, September 13.
Bruce, Mary. (2012/9/14). “Obama Notifies Congress of Troops Deployed to Libya and Yemen”. ABC News, September 14.
Clinton, Hillary. (2012/9/12). “Remarks on the Deaths of American Personnel in Benghazi, Libya”. U.S. Department of State, September 12.
Díaz-Balart, José. (2012/9/12). “Exclusiva: Entrevista completa de Telemundo con presidente Obama”. Telemundo, September 12.
Dozier, Kimberly. (2012/9/15). “US Scrambles to Rush Spies, Drones to Libya”. Associated Press, September 15.
EuroNews. (2012/9/15). “Al-Qaeda: US Ambassador is Vengeance for Al-Libi”. EuroNews, September 15.
Forte, Maximilian C. (2011/8/31). “The Top Ten Myths in the War Against Libya”. CounterPunch, August 31.
[updated version: (2012). “Top Ten Myths in the War on Libya”. In Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, eds., Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. Oakland, CA: AK Press. Pps. 249-264.]
[expanded and updated: (2011). “Demons, Angels, and the Messiah: The Top Ten Myths in the War against Libya”. In Maximilian C. Forte (Ed.), The New Imperialism, Vol. 2: Interventionism, Information Warfare, and the Military-Academic Complex. Montreal, QC: Alert Press. Pps. 145-195.
Herridge, Catherine. (2012/1/4). “The Islamist Winter: New Report Suggests Extremist Views Winning in Libya”. Fox News, January 4.
IRIN. (2012/2/10). “Security: New Report on R2P Challenges Humanitarians”. IRIN: Humanitarian News and Analysis (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), February 10.
McCain, John. (2011/4/22). “Statement by Senator McCain in Benghazi, Libya”. U.S. Senator John McCain, Arizona: Press Releases.
Muñoz, Carlos, & Herb, Jeremy. (2012/9/12). “Al Qaeda’s Hand Seen in Killings in Libya”. The Hill, September 12.
Obama, Barack. (2012/9/12a). “Statement by the President on the Attack in Benghazi”. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 12.
————— . (2012/9/12b). “Remarks by the President on the Deaths of U.S. Embassy Staff in Libya”. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 12.
Smith, Michael. (2012/7/7). “Outcome of Libyan Elections Could Spell Trouble for US”. Fox News, July 7.
South, Ashley, & Harragin, Simon. (2012). Local to Global Protection in Myanmar (Burma), Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe. London, UK: Humanitarian Practice Network, Overseas Development Institute.
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U.S. Embassy-Tripoli (USET). (2005/8/15). “Libyans Pleased with Saudi Decision”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, August 15.
————— . (2006/8/31a). “Congressman Lantos Stresses Bilateral Achievements and Regional Challenges with Libyan Officials”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, August 31.
————— . (2006/8/31b). “Senator Specter Reviews Bilateral Relationship with Senior Libyan Officials”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, August 31.
————— . (2008/2/15). “Extremism in Eastern Libya”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, February 15.
————— . (2008/4/8). “Assassination of Security Officer in Eastern Libya”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, April 8.
————— . (2008/4/10). “MFA Discourages Idea of Soft Power Programming in Eastern Libya”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, April 10.
————— . (2008/6/2). “Die Hard in Derna”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, June 2.
————— . (2008/8/29). “Scenesetter for Secretary Rice’s Visit to Libya”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, August 29.
————— . (2009/2/2). “Libya: Meeting with Returned Gtmo Detainees Under USG-GOL Transfer Framework MOU”. U.S. Embassy Cable, Tripoli, Libya, February 2.
The Dignity Series
- Keep Your Money: A Series on Dignity
- A Tear for Africa: Humanitarian Abduction and Reduction
- Zimbabwe: “Keep your money, keep your power, and keep away from us”
- Still Standing: Zimbabwe
- Stay Up, Zimbabwe: Pan-Africanism, Caribbean Solidarity, and Dignity
- Libya: Empire or Dignity
- Libya: Imperial Humanists and Helpless Others
SLOUCHING TOWARDS SIRTE: NATO’S WAR ON LIBYA AND AFRICA
6977, rue Lacroix
Montréal, Québec (QC)
Also available from most online book vendors.