The Humanitarian-Militarist Project and the Production of Empire in Libya


Encircling Empire: Report #15—The Humanitarian-Militarist Project and the Production Empire in Libya

Encircling Empire Reports is a selection of essays, blog posts, and news reports covering a given time period. They are intended to be useful for those interested in: ● contemporary and critical political anthropology ● public anthropology ● imperialism and imperial decline ● militarism/militarization ● the political economy of the world system ● hegemony and soft power ● counterinsurgency ● revolution ● rebellion ● resistance ● protest ● activism ● advocacy ● critique.

This and previous issues have been archived on a dedicated site—please see: ENCIRCLING EMPIRE.

Not the usual media roundup, this report focuses on some of the questions raised in “The Libyan Revolution is Dead,” as part of a broader critique on the foreign military intervention in Libya, one week after it began. In particular, we examine:

  • the political implications of the war in Western nations;
  • the nature of the media spectacle, and how it resembles/differs from wars of the last 20 years;
  • assessing the “successes” of the no-flight zone (NFZ) and what it allegedly prevented;
  • the human rights frame, and the problem of evidence for “crimes;”
  • the strategy behind the foreign military intervention, and the increasingly rapid slippage from one goal to the next;
  • the slow but growing media analysis of “the rebels” in Libya, getting underneath some of the insurgents’ claims, followed by an examination of some of the promotional propaganda designed to sell them to Western audiences;
  • growing critiques of the war, with perspectives from those outside of Western Europe and North America—one might say, from experts on imperialism for having been at its receiving end for many generations;
  • and, finally, the folly of the late humanitarian project, that refuses to recognize its own complicity in creating the object of its destructive desires.

Links to the relevant articles are to be found throughout.

First, the top recommendations for this week:

  1. The Qaddafi I Know: The Good, the Bad, and the West’s Ugly Intervention,” by Yoweri Museveni, 24 March 2011, Foreign Policy—by very far the best article yet on Libya.
  2. Gaddafi, moral interventionism and revolution,” by Richard Falk, Al Jazeera, 23 March 2011.
  3. The five principles driving war propaganda are in play in Libya,” by Duncan Cameron, 22 March 2011,
  4. Hopes for a Qaddafi Exit, and Worries of What Comes Next,” by David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times, 21 March 2011.
  5. Libyan rebels appear to take leaf from Kadafi’s playbook,” by David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times, 24 March 2011.
  6. Journalists visit prisoners held by rebels in Libya,” by Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times, 23 March 2011.
  7. “‘Humanitarian War’ is an Oxymoron” by Cindy Sheehan, Dandelion Salad, 24 March 2011.
  8. Gadhafi’s military: Trained and armed by Uncle Sam: Millions of dollars in American arms sales have been approved for Libya in recent years,” by Justin Elliott,” by Justin Elliott, Salon, 23 March 2011.
  9. Instead of Bombing Dictators in Libya and Around the World, Stop Selling Them Bombs,” by Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis, AlterNet, 23 March 2011.
  10. Libya’s biggest tribe joins march of reconciliation to Benghazi: Members of Warfalla deny plan to join civilians in carrying olive branches through war zone is a propaganda stunt,” by Ian Black, The Guardian, 23 March 2011.

NB: Recommended reading is not the same as reading whose contents are endorsed, either in part or in whole.

The Humanitarian-Militarist Project and the
Production of Empire in Libya

The War at Home

Rapid intervention abroad, in the name of a vague humanitarianism, occurs at the expense of democratic consultation back home. Utilizing the military as a supposed solution to political conflicts, is a solution that always comes laden with “emergency,” requiring a rush into combat, and a minimization of debate and analysis. This war, like any other, also comes at the cost of democracy at home. While not only promoting the profile of the military-industrial complex, now treated as indispensible to the amelioration of the human condition, the war also promotes the careers of individual politicians, who might otherwise be in jeopardy in upcoming electoral campaigns. One of these is French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who can point to French flags being waved by the Libyan opposition in Benghazi, with some holding up signs that say, “Merci, Sarkozy.”

As Duncan Cameron observed: “The Conservative perpetrators, Sarkozy, Cameron, and Harper all had good reasons to draw momentary attention away from their own domestic failings. Along with U.S. President Obama, none have built a domestic alliance for the pursuit of a prolonged engagement.”

In the United States, it is the imperial presidency that is continually renewed and fortified by war. President Obama, in the most alarmist mode, declared the Libyan situation a U.S. “national emergency,” and one that required immediate action, in violation not just of his campaign promise to not take the U.S. into another war without first consulting Congress, but also in violation of the War Powers Resolution, which he had stoutly defended. But then again, the dishonest reply comes back: this is not a war, it is a “kinetic military operation” that, oddly enough, bears all of the traits of any other war. This euphemistic phrase has rightly earned the scorn and mockery of commentators from across the political spectrum.

While Obama declared Libya’s internal events a national emergency for the U.S., that did not stop him from leaving on a tour of South America, and failing to address the American people, which he is planning to do more than a full week after the bombing began. None of these actions speak of any real “emergency.”

All of these are the costs and consequences of this war, they are not minimal, and we have to decide if they represent a price worth paying for this adventure.

The Media Spectacle

There have been a few unexpected ironies and reversals that have arisen in this war. One of these is that, while still a cheerleader for war, CNN has tended to have more commentary that is skeptical, even critical, of the war, than has the supposed counterweight to U.S. militainment, Al Jazeera.

One other apparent difference, impressionistic at best, is that at least where cable news media are concerned there is a comparatively less war pornography when compared to the early days of the Iraq invasion and the Kosovo air war: few dazzling shots of weapons in action, not many “bomb cam” videos, and rather lackluster Pentagon PowerPoint presentations with a handful of generally unspectacular slides. Unlike Kosovo, no triumphalist, jubilant daily briefings that glorify air assaults and heap insults on the “enemy.” This might change, but for now one is left to wonder about the reason for the apparent minimalism. It might be part of an effort by the Pentagon to tone down the militainment, so as to create a better illusion that the U.S. is not in the lead; it might be out of respect for a public that is tired of war, that has seen enough already, and this is just another war among the others currently taking place; and/or it might be that the Pentagon is still working on its media strategy for this war (most doubtful of all).

Rather than loving descriptions of weaponry and journalists fondling bombs, or asking for details on technical specs of ordnance and how machines performed in battle, CNN, Fox News, and other mainstream media in the U.S. have produced stories that critically detail how much this added war will cost the American public in a time of economic crisis, budget deficits, states eliminating benefits, and cities shutting down services (see: “U.S. Role in Libya Already Costs Hundreds of Millions,” Fox News). By now, we have the figures memorized: just one Tomahawk missile costs in excess of $1.4 million, and the U.S. has fired more than 160 to date into Libya; it costs $10,000 per hour to keep a bomber in the air, and bombing runs from the U.S. last 25 hours.

What continues unabated, even increasing, is the kind of spastic demonization that we see in the Christian Science Monitor, in particular this 25 March 2011 article by Scott Peterson, “In Libya, a campaign to confuse: Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, with his claims of total popular support and theatrical displays at bombing sites, treads a fine line between rhetoric and reality.” In that article we read everything from Gaddafi being a “mad dog,” because a U.S. president said so, to having a “borderline personality,” because one U.S. academic says so from afar…in which case, if mentally ill, he cannot be held accountable for his actions by any court—one irony of overkill.

The “successes” of the “No-Fly Zone” (NFZ)

The US-led military intervention has boasted of having destroyed the Libyan air force, of destroying military convoys on the ground, and of establishing a NFZ that cannot be challenged by Libyan government forces. Thus in terms of practical implementation, the intervening Western powers can claim success.

One week on, however, what we have not seen is evidence of:

1) significant government or military defections to the side of the insurgents;

2) an ability by the insurgents to advance without the support of what is ultimately the world’s most biggest air force;

3) popular uprisings against the Gaddafi regime across Libya;

4) a loss of popular support for Gaddafi, who retains the backing of several tribes, including the Gadadfa, Megarha, Tarhuna, and the country’s biggest tribe, the Warfalla.

What we have witnessed, instead, included:

1) increased worries by the NATO interventionists that there could be a “stalemate” on the ground and that the regime might not be overthrown;

2) determined NATO involvement as a partisan to the conflict, with the rapid slippage from “protecting civilians,” to clearly protecting the insurgents and aiding their military advance (which few seem to envision as opening up a threat to the safety of civilians as they are placed within the crossfire between government forces and the insurgents), to outright calls for regime change—going well beyond what UN Security Council Resolution 1973 either specified or authorized;

3) an expansion of the expected duration of the military intervention, escalating quickly from statements that said “days, not weeks,” to now “weeks, not months;”

4) a rise in the fighting between government forces and insurgents (“According to reports from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, new fighting erupted Monday at Misrata”); and,

5) an increased outflow of refugees from towns at the centre of the increased hostilities (“Simon Brooks, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross operations in eastern Libya, reported big population movements from the Ajdabiyah area because of the fighting;” “Residents had already fled the [Zintan] town center to seek shelter in mountain caves”).

Precisely in line with what multiple critics of the NFZ said would happen, as it was in Kosovo, was that the NFZ—and the ensuing attacks on ground forces (not specifically mandated by UNSC1973), which were also predicted to result from the limitations of a NFZ to achieve the stated “humanitarian” objectives—has not caused the regime to fall, has helped to escalate hostilities, has heightened the refugee crisis, and has opened the door to further foreign military intervention that goes well beyond purely humanitarian goals.

What we have all been told, instead, is that the foreign military intervention averted what “would have been” a “massacre” in Benghazi. There is never any evidence for “would have been”—it is simply a belief premised on prediction, nor is there any evidence that Gaddafi aimed to target civilians in general. Had the Gaddafi regime wished to target civilians in Benghazi and “massacre” them, it could have easily done so using its air force alone, when it still had one. The convoy destroyed by French jets, on the road to Benghazi, was a small one, and not one up to the task of either occupying a large city, or wiping out its inhabitants. Leaving aside the obvious hyperbole and alarmism that helped to create a mandate for intervention, what the intervention likely did accomplish was to sustain the insurgents by exogenous means, setting in motion their continued dependence on foreign air cover just to move from one location to another.

Evidence of crimes by the Gaddafi regime, post-NFZ

In a following section we look at evidence of human rights and/or Geneva Convention violations for which the insurgents are responsible, as documented by Western journalists, but passing entirely without comment by either the UN, NATO, or any of the officials of the intervening Western powers.

As for evidence of crimes committed by Gaddafi forces, against civilians, in areas they occupy, this has proven to be more than just tricky for those who militated for intervention and advocate for the overthrow of the regime. If true, then it would be further proof of the failure of the NFZ/air strikes to achieve their stated objectives.

But then, how do we know what the truth is? Some seem to chafe at the very asking of questions about evidence, especially in social network sites such as Twitter. Social media is great comfort food for the mind, apparently, and also great for creating swarms of unanimity that actively work to stifle anyone asking critical questions, or even basic ones such as: how do you know what you claim to know? As I have argued elsewhere, social media is a great crowdsourcing tool for propagating and enforcing hype that serves official propaganda purposes.

Here is one example, where supposed humanitarian sympathy works to enforce alarm and suspend critical thinking—from Global Voices. “Amid the stories of destruction and the mounting death toll,” Amira Al Hussaini writes, “Libyan netizens are waking up this morning to news of…”—the language thus far is careless, for the best she can do, and even then without firm support, is to quote possible Libyans who are all outside Libya, glossed over by the phrase “Libyan netizens,” while referring to “stories” that they are waking up to…which rather distances them from the experience about which they are supposed experts. More importantly, she adds: “the world continues to watch as more evidence of horror and atrocities come out from Misrata”—but she cites no evidence, even less can she claim that the regime deliberately targeted civilians. Instead, what does she offer? Lopsided social media unanimity—a selection of tweets, some of which consist of little more than slogans. Asked to explain, Global Voices failed to respond.

Here is the “evidence” of “crimes” in Misrata, occurring during the last days of fighting, as reported by the international media—and this is critically important, because if Gaddafi and officials in his regime are ever to be held accountable by the International Criminal Court, one has to know what kind of evidence there is for his crimes:

  • In “U.S.: Libya forces attack civilians in third largest city of Misrata,” Reuters reports: “The on-scene commander of the international coalition for Libya is confirming that civilians are under attack by government forces in Misrata, the North Africa nation’s third largest city.” The problem with this statement is that United States Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear is not actually on the scene, and is clearly not an independent source. In addition, no evidence was furnished to substantiate his claims.
  • “A doctor in Misrata said the tanks fled after the airstrikes began around midnight, giving a much-needed reprieve to the city, which is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists” (AP). This signals that reports cannot be independently verified
  • “After five days of fighting, resident Ali al-Azhari said….Al-Azhari, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone from the city, said one officer told rebels he had order ‘to turn Zintan to a desert to be smashed and flattened’ (AP). We do not know more than this person is a “resident,” that AP reporters had not actually met him, and that his report is little more than second-hand hearsay.
  • “Rashid Khalikov, the U.N. aid coordinator for Libya, said Wednesday he was ‘extremely concerned’ about the plight of civilians there, adding that the global body hasn’t received any firsthand information about the humanitarian situation inside the country for a week” (AP). Again, this confirms that there is no independently verified, primary evidence.
  • Note how this Reuters report moves from a grand claim to minimal numbers: “Residents said a ‘massacre’ was taking place with tank and artillery fire destroying buildings and snipers picking off people indiscriminately….A rebel spokesperson said 16 people had been killed in Misrata and another six in attacks on Zintan, another rebel-held town in west Libya,” and, “It was impossible to independently verify the reports.”
  • We do know that coalition bombers launched an attack against “an ammunition bunker near Misrata” but we are not told how near Misrata, or whether civilians live close to the bunker (AP).
  • “a resident said pro-Gaddafi snipers were still shooting at people from rooftops in the centre of the town and that the death toll during the past week had reached 115 people, including several children” (Reuters). Is the resident a partisan source? How does this resident know the total of all those killed in the city for the past week? We simply do not know.
  • “ ‘Snipers continue to target civilians,’ said the resident, who did not give his name” (Reuters). Even if we use hearsay, is there at least a second source to corroborate this? More credible evidence is provided by doctors—yet, they do not speak of any number of people killed, just those wounded, and we do not know who wounded them given the fight between opposing forces.
  • CNN provides more than Reuters above: “A doctor said 109 people have died in Misrata over the past week. Six were killed Thursday by Gadhafi’s rooftop snipers — unseen but too often precise. More than 1,300 others have been wounded since the protests erupted in the western city last month.” Of the 109 people killed and 1,300 wounded, how many were insurgents? Do injured insurgents have their own, independent, medical treatment capabilities?
  • “Gaddafi’s forces shelled an area on the outskirts of the city, killing six people including three children, a rebel said” (AP). In other words, we have the word of a single person, a partisan, that indicates a small number of casualties, and does not address whether the intentional targets were civilians.

When civilians die in the cross-fire between government forces and insurgents, are these to be treated as crimes by the regime alone? Are they to be treated as a deliberate attack on the civilian population?

None of this amounts to either the need to “support” the Gaddafi regime, or to avoid democratization, nor does it mean that no crimes could have possibly been committed and that there is no need for accountability. Needless to say, some heads will explode nonetheless when what is challenged is the act of emoting in an information-depleted environment.

The war has been sold as humanitarian, allegedly to prevent a “massacre” that officials assert “would have happened” with civilians presumably the intended target (no discussion of why, if that was the Gaddafi regime’s goal, the air force was not used to raze Benghazi while Libya still had an air force). As Cameron points out:

“The main motivation given for the bombing of Libya by western forces is the need to protect the civilian population from bombing attacks ordered by Gaddafi on insurgents in eastern Libya, and stop an expected massacre in Benghazi by advancing armored divisions. When asked at a press briefing March 1 if there was evidence of bombing attacks on civilians, American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates replied ‘We’ve seen the press reports, but we have no confirmation of that.’ U.S. Admiral Mullen added: ‘That’s correct. We’ve seen no confirmation whatsoever.’ Their statements confirmed what Russian military intelligence sources had previously reported: the attacks had never happened.”

Nonetheless, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton persists: “We faced the prospect of an imminent humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were in danger,” and, “a massacre in Benghazi was prevented.”

As for rebel spokesmen, and as noted by the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick (see below), statements about Gaddafi’s atrocities have frequently been wildly overblown and unsubstantiated, and apparently designed to motivate international action. For example, Abdel Rahman Al Abar, Libya’s Chief Prosecutor who defected to the opposition, told Al Jazeera, “What happened and is happening are massacres and bloodshed never witnessed by the Libyan people.” Never before witnessed­—an interesting erasure of Italian colonialism (perhaps convenient, since Italian bombs may soon be raining down on Libyan soil once again), which seems to forget the actual genocide practiced by the Italians in launching air strikes on civilian populations, using mustard gas, killing thousands in detention camps, and in some estimates, killing off as many as 37% of all Libyans. We see history being reinvented before our very eyes, if we choose to remain awake.

“Protecting civilians” means regime change, expanded war, and ignoring consequences

Not content with the obvious failures of the current air war to achieve any of the ultimate political objectives, the Obama administration—still not wanting to be seen as leading this “kinetic operation”—is considering drastically more lethal firepower: “Among the weapons being eyed for use in Libya is the Air Force’s AC-130 gunship, an imposing aircraft armed with cannons that shoot from the side doors with precision. Other possibilities are helicopters and drones that fly lower and slower and can spot more than fast-moving jet fighters” (AP, 26 March 2011: “US eye more firepower to hit pro-Gadhafi forces”). The aim, clearly, is not just to negate Libyan air capabilities, or to remove them from positions where they can harm civilians, but to “remove” government forces from their own country entirely. Hopefully, none of these government troops have families, or those benefitting from NATO’s actions that terminate them will likely feel the wrath of revenge for some time to come.

Learning more about the insurgents and the political opposition

According to Hillary Clinton, “When the Libyan people sought to realize their democratic aspirations, they were met by extreme violence from their own government.” Yet, the New York Times correspondent on the ground, David Kirkpatrick, gives us a different account: “In the neighborhoods of the capital that have staged major peaceful protests against Colonel Qaddafi, many have volunteered — speaking on the condition of anonymity — that their demonstrations were nonviolent mainly because they could not obtain weapons fast enough.”

Kirkpatrick presents this analysis of what we know, and still do not know about the opposition:

“The behavior of the fledgling rebel government in Benghazi so far offers few clues to the rebels’ true nature. Their governing council is composed of secular-minded professionals — lawyers, academics, businesspeople — who talk about democracy, transparency, human rights and the rule of law. But their commitment to those principles is just now being tested as they confront the specter of potential Qaddafi spies in their midst, either with rough tribal justice or a more measured legal process.

“Like the Qaddafi government, the operation around the rebel council is rife with family ties. And like the chiefs of the Libyan state news media, the rebels feel no loyalty to the truth in shaping their propaganda, claiming nonexistent battlefield victories, asserting they were still fighting in a key city days after it fell to Qaddafi forces, and making vastly inflated claims of his barbaric behavior.

“Skeptics of the rebels’ commitment to democracy point to Libya’s short and brutal history. Until Colonel Qaddafi’s revolution in 1969, Libya could scarcely be considered a country, divided as it was under its former king into three separate provinces, each with myriad tribes of rural, semi-nomadic herders. Retaliatory tribal killings and violence were the main source of justice.”

TIME’s Mark Thompson in “Just Who Are These Libyan Rebels?” is worried by what he sees as evidence that the Benghazi region is in fact a base for those who fought the U.S. in Iraq, finding data that supports what Hillary Clinton stated to Congress and, oddly enough, giving some weight to what the media otherwise treated as Gaddafi’s “crazy” allegations about “Al Qaeda” fighters.

On another issue, the clear dependence of the Libyan insurgents on NATO air strikes, and the fact that some journalists are saying there is clear evidence of the coordination between the two, Yoweri Museveni makes the following stinging, valid, point: “if the Libyan opposition groups are patriots, they should fight their war by themselves and conduct their affairs by themselves. After all, they easily captured so much equipment from the Libyan Army, why do they need foreign military support? I only had 27 rifles. To be puppets is not good.”

As if hearing Museveni’s criticism, one insurgent, Ahmed al-Aroufi, told Reuters: “We don’t depend on anyone but God, not France or America. We started this revolution without them through the sweat of our own brow, and that is how we will finish it” (source).

In a poorly titled promotional piece, “Libya’s Reformist Revolutionaries,” by Anjali Kamat and Ahmad Shokr—they are either reformists or revolutionaries, but cannot be both, if one understands even the basic meanings of these political concepts—the authors set the tone for their piece with a hostile and defensive reaction:

“The newly formed and heterogeneous rebel council that has taken control of parts of eastern Libya realises that what began as a hopeful pro-democracy uprising has been forced into a perilous war against a quasi-fascist regime. It is in desperation in the face of mounting casualties that the National Transitional Council has supported the ‘no-fly zone’ demand. The imperative for solidarity with the Libyan rebels is being lost in anti-imperialist polemics, some of which has [sic] casually dismissed those Libyans who call for a no-fly zone as naïve or, even worse, as imperial stooges.”

It is also a misleading and inaccurate piece of propaganda. There have been no casual dismissals, but very studied critiques that have advanced many skeptical and critical questions that go unanswered (and remain so, even after articles such as the one above). In addition, the calls for a NFZ preceded any threats of a “massacre” by weeks, so it was by no means a last-resort call. This was established already, in the words of opposition leaders themselves, in the last article on this site. Finally, it is a high-ranking member of the opposition Transitional National Council, Ali Tarhouni, who himself suggested the insurgents were naïve: “…the lingering disarray stemmed from an initial expectation that Gadhafi would quickly crumble and flee after the uprising’s initial success, Tarhouni said.” Kamat and Shokr need to have some discussions with those they claim to represent and support, before impugning the rest of us.

As for the “imperative for solidarity”—there is no imperative, though one can certainly appreciate the totalitarian tone. The insurgents are not entitled to solidarity, not automatically, not without question. What is interesting is that even with the support of the world’s most powerful militaries, even with the backing of the UN, the Arab League, and a mass of self-described humanitarians, that articles like this still need to be written—as if stricken by fear that they might not have also won total unanimity, as if some questions cause too much discomfort, and risk becoming contagious. Far from winning sympathy, articles such as this one by Kamat and Shokr invite even more criticism.

Contrary to the “imperative for solidarity,” more sober documentary analyses from correspondents on the ground provide a very disturbing picture of these “reformist revolutionaries.” In “Libyan rebels appear to take leaf from Kadafi’s playbook,” Los Angeles Times reporter David Zucchino writes:

“The rebels of eastern Libya have found much to condemn about the police state tactics of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi: deep paranoia, mass detentions, secret prisons and tightly scripted media tours….

“But some of those same tactics appear to be creeping into the efforts of the opposition here as it seeks to stamp out lingering loyalty to Kadafi. Rebel forces are detaining anyone suspected of serving or assisting the Kadafi regime, locking them up in the same prisons once used to detain and torture Kadafi’s opponents….”

In particular, they are focusing on sub-Saharan Africans, with an approach that can only be characterized as racially selective xenophobia. They are either violating the human rights of innocent civilians, beating them and wrongly imprisoning them (sometimes worse), or violating the Geneva Conventions by parading prisoners of war if they are truly mercenaries. So far, the evidence that some are mercenaries is backed by the insurgents who merely present their African passports to journalists, as if this was sufficient proof. See also: “Libyan rebels appear to take leaf from Kadafi’s playbook,” by David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times, 24 March 2011.

See also: “Libya’s Rebels Embrace West,” by Yaroslav Trofimov and Charles Levinson, Wall Street Journal, 21 March 2011; “Key figures in Libya’s rebel council,” by David Gritten, BBC News, 10 March 2011.

Critiques of the war, from outside Europe and North America

From Africa and the Caribbean, articles are now appearing that condemn Western military intervention in Libya. This is by no means even the start of a representative summary, which might be the focus of upcoming reports. In Trinidad & Tobago, Khafra Kambon, a respected long-time activist, writes in “Africans need a strong international voice” (and read the comments):

“If it is the protection of civilians, and we abhor the indiscriminate killing of unarmed, peaceful protestors, why was the fervour to intervene not decreased when it was clear that the Gadaffi government was in fact faced with an armed uprising? The opposing sectorally-based militia, has even war planes, which was revealed when one was shot down. They are brutally murdering the Black-skinned citizens of other African countries, who have been working in Libya. No mention is made of the plight or protection of these civilians.

“Why does the UN-mandated ceasefire apply only to the government while the armed insurgents advance to take over cities under cover of coalition aircraft?

“Why was the Western media silent on the African Union’s rejection of military intervention and proposal for a negotiated solution? Why did the allies block the AU team from going to Libya before they started their assault? Libya is an African country and part of Gadaffi’s problem with the Arab world stems from his identification with Africa.

“Libya now faces a serious threat of being destroyed as a nation. Africa and Africans around the world need a louder international voice if we are to survive as a viable people in a dangerous world where wars for resources and battles for our minds are intensifying.”

Also, Guyanese journalist Rickey Singh, also a long-standing critical voice in the region’s media, wrote in “Arab ‘fig leaf’ for regime change”:

“the US, UK and France using as a ‘fig leaf’ the Arab League’s flattering endorsement of a ‘no-fly zone’ in Libya to unleash enormous military power and now the warning from President Obama that ‘Gadaffi must go’, President George W Bush must be smiling.

“Let us get ready for regime change in Tripoli — compliments of even a coalition of intervening powers with conflicting messages and priorities.”

Most striking of all, is the balanced, very detailed, and very critical article by Yoweri Museveni, which is this week’s top most recommended article and defies any neat summary, but I will leave it at this extract:

“I am not able to understand the position of Western countries, which appear to resent independent-minded leaders and seem to prefer puppets. Puppets are not good for any country. Most of the countries that have transitioned from Third World to First World status since 1945 have had independent-minded leaders….

“Qaddafi, whatever his faults, is a true nationalist. I prefer nationalists to puppets of foreign interests. Where have the puppets caused the transformation of countries? I need some assistance with information on this from those who are familiar with puppetry….

“Excessive external involvement always brings terrible distortions. Why should external forces involve themselves? That is a vote of no confidence in the people themselves. A legitimate internal insurrection, if that is the strategy chosen by the leaders of that effort, can succeed. The Shah of Iran was defeated by an internal insurrection; the Russian Revolution in 1917 was an internal insurrection; the Revolution in Zanzibar in 1964 was an internal insurrection; the changes in Ukraine, Georgia, and so forth — all were internal insurrections. It should be for the leaders of the resistance in a given country to decide their strategy, not for foreigners to sponsor insurrection groups in sovereign countries.

“I am totally allergic to foreign, political, and military involvement in sovereign countries, especially the African countries. If foreign intervention is good, then, African countries should be the most prosperous countries in the world, because we have had the greatest dosages of that: the slave trade, colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, etc. But all those foreign-imposed phenomena have been disastrous. It is only recently that Africa is beginning to come up, partly because we are rejecting external meddling. External meddling and the acquiescence by Africans into that meddling have been responsible for the stagnation on our continent. The wrong definition of priorities in many African countries is, in many cases, imposed by external groups….Quislings and their external backers do not care about all this.”

And finally, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam in the U.S., with a stirring denunciation of the intervention, in a video originally taken down by YouTube after it had received almost half a million views:

The folly of spontaneous and reactive “humanitarianism”

Much of the overwrought “humanitarian concern” expressed mostly by Western liberals, social democrats, and some socialists, including many who were not even paying attention to Libya just over a month ago, deserves continued critique. (Of course, in terms of American party politics, there are Republicans who support and who oppose the war, so I am not backing the misunderstanding that opposition to the war is either “left” or “right”–unlike Juan Cole’s piece of misguided ideological claptrap, a scribe too enthused by NATO propaganda to ever be taken seriously again.) The displacement of sympathy, after the fact of repression, in a selective and impetuous manner, is a manifestation of dependence both on mainstream media for their guidance, and a rejection of their own primary responsibility in not working against the military-industrial complex which armed and trained these regimes in the first place. Instead, they praise the work of the very same war corporatism in bringing “salvation” to civilians.

What we know is that Col. Gaddafi obtained his own military training in Britain in the 1960s. In addition, in an article by Justin Elliott, “Gadhafi’s military: Trained and armed by Uncle Sam,” we learn the following:

“in fiscal 2009 (the year beginning in October 2008)…the Defense Department spent about $30,000 training two Libyans in the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program. An annual report on foreign military training talks about increasing spending for fiscal 2010, including a State Department program to teach English to Libyan officers. The report praises Libya as ‘an important partner in counterterrorism and regional stability,’ and makes the case for future training.

“In September 2009, three senior Libyan military officers visited headquarters of the U.S. Africa Command in Germany to receive ‘in-depth briefings on the command, how it functions and works with African militaries,’ according to a DOD report. The Africa Command is now overseeing the bombardment of Libya.

“Earlier that year, in March, ‘Libyan naval officers spent a day aboard the USS Eisenhower in the Mediterranean Sea to speak with crew members and watch flight deck operations,’ according to the same report. That followed the January 2009 signing of a ‘memorandum of understanding’ between the U.S. and Libya on military cooperation.

“There’s also evidence that Libya has purchased American weapons. More than $15 million in arms sales from U.S. manufacturers to Libya were authorized by the government in fiscal 2009 alone, according to the State Department. (Only $400,000 of that was delivered that year; presumably the rest was delivered in later years, for which data is not yet available.) That sum was mostly authorized in the category of ‘aircraft and associated equipment.’ That year more than 20,000 components and parts of aircraft were authorized for sale to Libya. In 2008, $46 million in military sales were approved by the government.

“In late February, the State Department suspended all arms export licenses for Libya, suggesting there may have been a flow of U.S. arms into the country until very recently. U.S. allies in the fight against Gadhafi have also been involved in arms deals with Libya, including Britain and France, which has reportedly sold missiles to the Libyans…”

An article by Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis in AlterNet, “Instead of Bombing Dictators in Libya and Around the World, Stop Selling Them Bombs” (23 March 2011), also tells us:

“In 2009 alone, European governments–including Britain and France–sold Libya more than $470 million worth of weapons, including fighter jets, guns and bombs. And before it started calling for regime change, the Obama administration was working to provide the Libyan dictator another $77 million in weapons, on top of the $17 million it provided in 2009 and the $46 million the Bush administration provided in 2008.”

(After this was published, this excellent overview of European arms sales to Gaddafi was recommended to me: “EU arms sales to Libya: fleshing out the figures.”)

(Note: Charles Davis is an imperial leftist who supports foreign intervention and regime change; referring to Gaddafi casually as a “dictator” as the above article does is also not being endorsed here.)

Rather than fight their countries’ original intervention in supplying arms and training, many of those advocating for the NFZ turned their sights on the anti-interventionists. As international lawyer and UN special rapporteur Richard Falk notes,

“The anti-interventionists, who doubt the current effectiveness of hard power tactics, especially under Western auspices, were outmanoeuvred, especially at the United Nations and in the sensationalist media that confused the Gaddafi horror show for no brainer/slam dunk reasoning as to the question of intervention, treating it as a question of ‘how’, rather than ‘whether’, again failing to fulfil their role in a democratic society by giving no attention to the anti-intervention viewpoint.”

Instead of action against militarism, the ironic humanitarians/liberal imperialists will quicker denounce the “anti-war crowd,” than face their own complicity in creating the monsters they first ignored, and now tilt against with full-throated indignation. But this is the “feel good” war, an act of self-fulfillment in the white, western, civilizing mode.

Meanwhile, unlike any of the other international governmental organizations, such as the Arab League and the UN, whose stated concern for protecting civilians did not lead them to think of peaceful means of conflict resolution and diplomacy—it is the African Union that has stepped forward to both criticize Gaddafi and propose a nonviolent resolution. The African Union called for a transition period that would lead to democratic elections—this is a chance for the opposition to definitively demonstrate the extent of its popular support, rather than rush to grab power by force of arms. AU leaders rebuked Gaddafi and called for reforms that could well lead to his removal—“A Libyan government delegation is meeting in Ethiopia with five African heads of state who plan to develop a road map to encourage political reform in the North African country. It couldn’t immediately be confirmed if Libyan rebels were also in attendance” (source). Jean Ping, the AU commission chairman, stressed the inevitability of political reforms in Libya and called the aspirations of the Libyan people “legitimate” (source). (Also see: “African Union invites Libya govt, opposition to talks.”) What will the “humanitarians” do, dismiss regional solutions for peaceful conflict resolution and democratization…and support more bombing?

12 thoughts on “The Humanitarian-Militarist Project and the Production of Empire in Libya

  1. John Allison

    Thanks for the footwork, Max.
    Excellent summary of the cultivated, peaceful, armed, spontaneous, popular uprising; and excellent questioning of why a recognized, presumed-legitimate national government would NOT put down an armed uprising using the military.
    There does seem to be a headlong rush to condemn Kaddafi, in spite of evidence that he has produced changes that have benefited the health and education of his people.
    Certainly, when Kadaffi offered to receive a UN fact finding mission, that should have at very least been seriously explored before “Don’t bother me with the facts ma’am, I’ve made up my mind.”
    I had done that and unquestioningly supported Kadaffi; but then read an article by a socialist that made me re-open my mind.

    We all should be re-opening our minds, stopping bombing, and trying to really know what lies behind the screen of projected “news” of a place and a people that we cannot really understand. We should not be destroying that people.
    We should turn back and accept Kadaffi’s offer of hosting a fact finding mission.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      It’s strange that we see the repetition of this theme, which compares French assistance to the American revolution to NATO assistance to the Libyan insurrection. Beyond the one basic idea, “help from outside forces,” I cannot see how you can compare two situations that are structurally so different, where the geopolitics and power relations differ so markedly, among a range of other differences.

      For example, the U.S. was under the rule of one imperial power, fighting to shake off its colonial bondage, with the limited assistance of another imperial power, a rival to Britain. France would then experience its own revolution and find itself wracked by a series of wars.

      For the comparison to work, Libya would have to be a colony, calling on the support of the imperial power which rivals the one which rules it.

      Let’s put this another way. For the comparison to be between two comparable situations, imagine this case: post-colonial U.S., an independent state, having had its revolution and free from British domination, finds its government being attacked by an insurgent group which has called upon Britain for support.

      The structural and geopolitical circumstances which differ (Libya is not recapitulating U.S. history, as heart-warming as this might be to American liberal imperialists, sorry), produce different politics where the insurrection is concerned, with radically different orientations. One leads to independence, the other does not seem to lead in the same direction.

      So, for me, the comparison does not work.

      1. Maximilian Forte

        My last point on your article John, then I will leave it open to others to comment:

        “And for those aged, desiccated pundits and politicians screaming, ‘it’s unconstitutional’, give us all a break. Take a sedative, or laxative, and retire. Global governance and opinion making is now the purview of the young–graybeards need not apply. But do keep your Face Book and Twitter accounts open; maybe, now and then, you’ll get contacted for a comment.”

        I was extremely surprised by this easy dismissal of something like the Constitution…so much for that American Revolution. “Power to the state, fuck the people”~(revised) Benjamin Franklin. Let’s leave it up to the young, and to Facebook and Twitter, the swarm always knows better…like when they put Obama in power, and he turned around and screwed them.

  2. John stanfon

    I wonder how many who cite the US Constitution have read any more than the Bill of Rights. The articles speak as much to securing national interests as anything else.

    So what should the USA do about Syria, Jordon,’Lebanon, Yemen, Mexico?

    Each National Security Strategy of the USA set forth by the President indicates that the USA will peotect its interests irrespective of the actions of any other country. That’s about as radical a middle finger as it gets.

    The US Constitution,’the NSS of the USA, the Military Strategy of the USA, the Joint Operating Environment, Congressionallly mandated Foreign Internal Defense which authorizes special ops overt and covert in other countires are all premised in one way or another of securing US interests.

    That is right in the USC for all to see. In short,’the reality is that the USA from Washington to Obama has been expansionist,’globalkst,’colonialist, imperialist, socialist (read john nichols) , etc. Those traits are all drawn from the US Constitution. In order to change the US Constitjtion and the people that live by it there would have to be a violent overthrow of the US government and a rewrite of my country’s playbook.

    Would you endorse such a violent revolutiom that would likely spill into Canada? As other countries came to the aid of the anticonstitutionalists would you take sides or simply manage the standard antiimperialist critique?

    Do you have any interest in your country or are you just waiting for something better to come along?

    My points here are that it’s fine to critique the USA. As citizens here it is incumbent upon us to do that. I’ve been doing so like many others for a long time. But at some point you have got to offer a solution, alternatives rather than just repettive critique.

    I happen to be partial to Marx, Tom Paine, Marcuse,’Lukacs,Honsbawm even Lenin. Americans are symptoms of the US Constitution. Their consciousness, false as it may be, is built upon that contradictory document. And there is not a country in the solar system that is as contradictory as the USA.

    No good anti imperialist just scratches the chalk board but has some alternative in mind. Even the geeat writers at world socialists have one which is to join them and mobilize.They wouldmfind governance just as difficult.

    Yes using French intervention to compare to Libya….It is rather a fine example that covers funding, tactics, etc…Perhaps Montequieu should not have intervened in Jefferson and friend’s minds or John Adams suggestion that the President should be referred to as King and Excellency might have taken hold. You’d really have your hands full Max.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      It’s not your story to “do something about,” John, and here you write like any other imperialist, for all of your weak and equivocal attempts at nuance in this comment.

      You make the false assertion that there has been only critique and no suggestion of a solution. If you can say that, then you just haven’t been reading, that’s all. Across several articles now I said that what was needed was for the states that arm and aid these regimes, to cut those ties–in Libya’s case, that was done, however late–except that they wish to arm the rebels, who have had a very quick start at violating human rights. In addition, see the paragraph at the very end of the article above. You clearly missed it.

      As for “Do you have any interest in your country or are you just waiting for something better to come along?” I can’t imagine what you meant by that, except that you wanted to score some sort of quick insult. Really, shame on you–you should know better than to suggest I am one of the passive masses, tied to a shopping cart, too busy window shopping to take any interest in anything outside of personal consumption and personal self-fulfillment.

      “At some point you have got to offer a solution”–but you’re not actually doing any of that intellectual work, are you. You are just riding on the coat tails of a predetermined imperialist effort, and simply echoing some familiar nationalist scripts. I am surprised you did not call the Libyan insurgents “the moral equivalent of the founding fathers of America.” You need to brush up on your Reagan, he has done all your thinking for you already, and he is chock full of “solutions.”

      Thanks for ignoring the fundamental errors in your comparison, but that’s the way this goes it seems.

  3. John stanfon

    Your solution is to cut ties? Then what? Watch the mayhem unfold and do nothing? It is everyone’s duty in this life to do something to contriibute to their society for the better no matter whehter in a civic group, a simple act of kindness or ecen an article that stimulates a thought.

    You are stuck in a sort of classical world view, a sort of Einstein I guess who once said god does not play dice. Bohr told him to stop telling god what to do. I will take Bohr’s side.

    The question posed to you about your nation’s interest and what or whom you are willing to sacrifice for those/your interests is a very straightforward one that I pose to students and adults in studying national security. Why is that such an uncomfortable question to answer?

    So, on the Libya Feb 17 matter I stand firmly with the imperialist running dogs and have stated as such for the record. My piece Western Decline Accelerates: USA/Europe Can’t Handle Change speaks a wee bit to some of these matters.’Also, to close out on the “solutions” matter, on the antiimperialist skde,’when I take it, I have advocated a string of measures written about 7 years or so ago with one of them being American Revolution Now!

    Oh if I recall, the US Congress has declared war 5 or 6 times over the life of the USA. Congress rarely exercises its full powers with respect to the executive branch.’Each branch is supposse to scrape and claw
    to maintain its power and keep the 3 branch system working. I did not say that! My fellow Virginian and imperialist running vacuous doogie Jefferson

    1. Maximilian Forte

      “Then what? Watch the mayhem unfold and do nothing?”

      Just like you are perfectly willing to do when it comes to Yemen and Bahrain–right now–and countless other local battles before. What do you know about any mayhem, and from whom? I am not denying it, I am questioning the imagined scale of events, the alarmism and hyperbole. I am sorry that I cannot answer your question–it is far too garbled for me to even understand what you are saying.

      Anyway, you keep refusing to read…because I went beyond just cutting ties. Again, FINAL PARAGRAPH, John, and check through the last three articles as well. How you imagine that we should all be supporting these rebels, without question, is quite beyond me…and you too apparently.

  4. David

    I remember the sudden increase in the popularity of Margaret Thatcher after the victory in the Falklands war and I think the same situation will repeat when the military operation in Libya is finally successful. David Cameron will definitely be one of the winners.

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