The Libyan Disaster: This Time Imperialism Pretends Anti-Interventionism


When it was still called the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Al-Jamahiriya al-arabiya al-Libiya al-sha’abiya al-ishtirakiya), and Col. Muammar Gaddafi was still the de facto head of state, Western powers led by the US had no hesitation in finally achieving their dreams of overthrowing the Libyan government and murdering Gaddafi. In addition, the US-led coalition of interventionists delighted in persecuting Libyan government supporters, civilians for the most part, with automatic death sentences delivered by cruise missiles, bombs, drone strikes, and helicopter gunfire, not to mention Special Forces of multiple interventionists on the ground, hundreds (likely thousands) of foreign troops from Qatar and Sudan, and repeated NATO violations of the UN arms embargo in order to load Gaddafi’s weak opponents with heavy weapons. This was in addition to any training they received abroad as exiles, or in-country from the CIA and SAS during the 2011 war. To justify this carnage, European and North American officials shockingly claimed that their intention was to “save lives” and “protect civilians,” especially when they did just the opposite. Bodies, reason, diplomacy, and any notion of civilized behaviour in international relations were all equally murdered, not to mention the defeat of a local socialist alternative to Western power in Africa.

Proudly presiding over their pet project, Western leaders loudly proclaimed the successful birth of a “new Libya,” born of Western airstrikes. In Ottawa, the government of Stephen Harper organized an expensive flyover of jets of the “Royal Canadian Air Force,” as part of what are now obviously premature victory celebrations.

Obama’s and Clinton’s boasts from Washington ranged from the extravagant to the ghoulish. As for France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, fresh from fighting a brutal war to overthrow Libya’s government, in an utterly bizarre statement in Libya he spoke of history moving “towards reconciliation and not toward war”. France’s Libyan flatterers claimed that foreign intervention was on a “purely humanitarian basis” and intended to stop “genocide” — even as their own forces carted truckloads of African migrants and black Libyans off to prison camps, where they faced torture and execution, routinely abducting black people found anywhere on the streets of Libya. In one of the Christian Science Monitor‘s many blundering reports, that usually presented either the exact opposite of reality or reached dramatically premature conclusions, Scott Peterson claimed:

“Unlike Iraq – in which looting, burning, and violence shot up after the toppling of Saddam Hussein – Libya appears less vulnerable to chaos and insurgency. Anti-Qaddafi forces have been forming a detailed takeover plan for months. Tripoli is not ‘broken,’ water has been restored, and violence has been relatively light considering the Qaddafi-era arsenals left unguarded, and the number of guns in the streets.”

Even back in September, 2011, with Gaddafi still in Sirte, there was evidence of growing competition among the patrons of the Libyan insurgents, with competing visits by Cameron with Sarkozy, and then Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to see who would reap the rewards of war. US officials and the companies they promoted, along with Canada, were also at the front of that pack that lusted for new contracts:

“Sarkozy and Cameron obviously wanted to beat Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Libya with the quick visit. The new leaders in Tripoli have made the calculated move of announcing that their Western allies will be favored when contracts are awarded. Both the British and the French hope to recoup the costs of their military operations through lucrative deals for their companies back home. The British Ministry of Defense has estimated the cost of the first six months of their service in Libya at some £260 million ($425 million), while France estimated their operations had cost a €1 million ($1.4 million) per day.”

Just over three years later, and Libya is ruined. Now headlines of “civil war” and “failed state” dominate the news. There are two competing parliaments and two competing prime ministers, as war rages (it never really ceased) in the cities and towns of Libya. This time, regional powers have risen to greater prominence in trying to move events in Libya in the directions they prefer. In one of many reports that now review events in Libya as a descent into chaos and disaster, Scott Taylor summed up the situation as follows:

“It was not long after Gadhafi’s brutal execution that the pro-democracy rebels revealed themselves to be primarily Islamic extremists….The hodgepodge militia units that had battled Gadhafi loyalists immediately began battling each other. No central authority emerged in the wake of the Gadhafi regime, and even NATO’s plan to train and equip a regular Libyan army has been abandoned….Britain cancelled a training initiative after Libyan army recruits went on a rape and pillage spree outside their barracks in the city of Cambridge. Likewise, a group of recently trained Libyan naval officers currently sit in limbo in France, their education costs unpaid and with no navy to return to. Furthermore, Libyan diplomats have long since admitted that their once prosperous oil exporting country has become a failed state. The collapse of all authority, compiled with an abundance of unregistered military hardware that was left unsecured following the rebellion, resulted in Libya becoming an export hub of extremist violence into neighbouring countries like Mali.”

The “detailed takeover plan” proved to be a farce. When Westerners claimed Gaddafi ruled by force, his successors used force in greater amounts against fellow Libyans, and could not rule. In a period of 18 months, there were five prime ministers. When Westerners claimed Gaddafi bought support through patronage, his successors lavished funds on the insurgents and spread money around widely, and still could not rule. One would at least hope that pop-polisci analyses trotted about in the media would finally vanish. The reality revealed is that Gaddafi had genuine support and a mass base that upheld the Libyan government for over four decades. His opponents, as should be obvious now, had no such mass base, no comparable degree of legitimacy, and not even a minimal respect for each other. But this was already known before the US-NATO bombing campaign began, and the results should have been easily predicted by anyone with even basic knowledge about Libya. Yet, few if any of the routinely acknowledged experts offered any such predictions.

Italy’s government is thus far the only one to officially acknowledge that foreign intervention in 2011 was a mistake. As Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni recently stated on the Italian public broadcast network: “Three years ago we might have made a mistake, when international forces interfered without thinking through the scenario, what will happen afterwards. [The] Italian voice was too weak.”

So now that the civilian body count mounts once again, what has happened to the argument that there should be foreign intervention to stop atrocities in Libya, to establish order, and to protect civilians and save lives? What happened to the routine, almost automatic calls for action by the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) lobby? Why has the UN not convened urgent meetings to rally support for “protection”? Why has the UN Commission on Human Rights not pilloried Libya with accusations of atrocities like it did when Gaddafi was at the helm?

Ironically, pro-interventionist stances have been replaced by the opposite—with the US itself taking a supposed anti-interventionist position. For example:

  1. US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters: “Outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition” (August 26, 2014) – this identical position was also expressed in the “Joint Statement on Libya by the Governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States” (August 25, 2014)

  2. Speaking of the current crisis, the head of US Africa Command, General David M. Rodriguez has gone on record to say that the US does not support the idea of outside forces intervening in Libya (August 27, 2014)

  3. Claudia Gazzini, International Crisis Group: “Any viable solution must come from within Libya. Intervention by outsiders picking sides may just make things worse.” (September 6, 2014)

  4. The Madrid Conference (Ministerial Conference on Stability and Development in Libya, which included delegates from the Libyan House of Representatives and from 21 foreign governments) proclaimed that “there is no military solution to the current crisis”. Meanwhile, Libya’s current Foreign Minister amazingly stated that his government was “not inviting any country to do any kind of military intervention in Libya. What we have seen is foreign intervention has always lead to disaster [sic]”. (September 18, 2014)

  5. The United Nations, the European Union and 13 countries condemned any “foreign interference” in Libya (September 22, 2014)

  6. John Kerry, US Secretary of State, is reported to have stated in September that, “Libya’s problems can really only be solved by the Libyans themselves” (November 6, 2014)

  7. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry declared: “The crisis in Libya can be resolved only by ceasing foreign interventions, reaching a cease-fire and a comprehensive political dialogue” (December 4, 2014)

  8. An unnamed senior US official stated, “It seems quite clear that the more foreign countries get involved in Libya, the more unstable the situation becomes” (December 8, 2014)

These exact same statements could/should have been made back in February-March 2011, when these government officials were saying just the opposite. Yet, just as they articulate this anti-interventionist reasoning…it is only applied to Libya. The opposite applies to Iraq and Syria.

What accounts for this apparent reversal on Libya, assuming that it really is a reversal? First, the US leadership is clearly not ready to take on another Iraq- or Afghanistan-style occupation, which would bring home more US forces in body bags than ever. Second, with Libyan oil less in demand now than before, the US lacks any compelling economic motive to intervene. Third, the real reason behind the proclaimed anti-interventionism is to keep regional powers such as Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey at bay. In openly denouncing Egyptian intervention, more so than in any other example of foreign “meddling,” it would seem that the US is more preoccupied with the intentions of Egypt and its collaboration with Algeria. This may be to prevent the restoration of a Gaddafi government, specifically one in which Said Mohammed Gaddaf al-Dam may occupy a prominent place.

Gaddaf al-Dam is a cousin to the late Muammar Gaddafi, and is a dual Egyptian-Libyan citizen. One researcher presented this profile:

“Brigadier Said Mohammed Gaddaf al-Dam, Secretary of the People’s Committee of the Sirte sha’abiya (October 1998 to March 2004), then since March 2004, General Coordinator of the Social People’s Leadership Committees, and thus, according to Gaddafi, should be successor as Head of State should he die”. (Mattes, 2008, p. 74)

In spite of repeated calls for Gaddaf al-Dam’s extradition to Libya, when it was under the National Transitional Council and its immediate successor, Egypt refused to do so. Indeed, he was acquitted of all charges and released in Cairo, after a trial for an alleged shoot-out with police, when Morsi was in power. Morsi backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya and had no sympathies for any Gaddafi. Morsi’s overthrow saw Gaddaf al-Dam go free. Moreover, Gaddaf al-Dam has retained access to substantial financial resources, and is touch with a large community of over 1,200 Libyan former government officials now in Egypt. His name has also been removed from the UN’s international sanctions list and he is free to travel internationally. With more frequent appearances in the media by Gaddaf al-Dam, his stated intention to return to Libya, support from Algeria for a proposed mediator role that he would undertake, it would almost appear as if Egypt were harbouring the nucleus of a new Libyan government, preferring something resembling what held Libya together for 42 years than what came after. This must make Washington worry, especially as Gaddaf al-Dam even recently denounced NATO in strong terms for its destruction of Libya. The last thing the US will tolerate is another Gaddafi from Sirte, even as it imposes on the world the priorities of its own political dynasties.

US “anti-interventionism” may thus be little more than an opportunistic attempt to prolong and widen its regime change effort. Otherwise, the anti-interventionist stance is amply contradicted both by the US, France, and their African allies (such as Niger), each of which has been ringing increasingly loud alarms in the international media about a supposed ISIS presence in Libya. The anti-interventionist stance is thus a hegemonic play to diminish African and Arab efforts to resolve Libya’s conflict, which would threaten the chances for an extended US and allied European presence in Libya’s future.

Select References

ABC. (2014/9/22). Libya Rival Backers Reject outside Interference. ABC News, September 22.

AP. (2014/8/26). Egypt, United Arab Emirates airstrikes on Libya reveal impatience with U.S. CBC News, August 26.

Cléroux, Richard. (2012/3/14). Harper spends money on big party. Westmount Examiner, March 14.

Gamali, Ayman. (2014/8/27). Head of US Africa Command: We Do Not Support Idea of Foreign Forces in Libya. Middle East Monitor, August 27.

Mattes, Hanspeter. (2008). Formal and Informal Authority in Libya since 1969. In Dirk Vandewalle (Ed.), Libya since 1969: Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited (pp.55-81). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

MEE. (2014/9/18). Madrid: Military Intervention Not the Way Forward for Libya. Middle East Eye, September 18.

Peterson, Scott. (2011/9/15). Sarkozy, Cameron visit Libya for victory lap, pep talk. Christian Science Monitor, September 15.

Rohde, David. (2014/12/8). Libya peace talks may be doomed by meddling powers: U.S. Reuters, December 8.

RT. (2014/12/5). West’s action in Libya in 2011 was a ‘mistake’ – Italy’s foreign ministry. RT, December 5.

Schiavenza, M. (2014/11/6). Libya’s Downward Spiral Continues. The Atlantic, November 6.

Simons, Stefan. (2011/9/15). Sarkozy and Cameron in Libya: Heroes for a Day. Der Spiegel, September 15.

Taştekin, Fehim. (2014/12/4). Turkey’s war in Libya. Al-Monitor, December 4.

Taylor, Scott. (2014/11/9). On Target: Libyan fiasco should be a warning. The Chronicle Herald, November 9.

US Department of State. (2014/8/25). Joint Statement on Libya by the Governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Washington, DC: Office of the Spokesperson, US Department of State.