Hugh Roberts’ new article in the London Review of Books is the best story I have yet read about the war of regime change in Libya. It is meticulously detailed, rich in context — historical, cultural, political — carefully measured and soberly expressed.
The article should be read in full — anyone who cares at all about a deeper understanding of these events would be foolish to miss it — but I want to highlight just one aspect: the deliberate falsehoods — fanned by the media, including many “progressive” voices — which were used as a justification for the Western military intervention.
Roberts first details how the Western powers and the Libyan rebels repeatedly rejected all opportunities for a ceasefire in the conflict — despite the fact that a ceasefire was the first and chief demand of the UN resolution used as the authorization for the Western attacks:
Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. …
London, Paris and Washington could not allow a ceasefire because it would have involved negotiations, first about peace lines, peacekeepers and so forth, and then about fundamental political differences. And all this would have subverted the possibility of the kind of regime change that interested the Western powers. The sight of representatives of the rebellion sitting down to talks with representatives of Gaddafi’s regime, Libyans talking to Libyans, would have called the demonisation of Gaddafi into question. The moment he became once more someone people talked to and negotiated with, he would in effect have been rehabilitated. And that would have ruled out violent – revolutionary? – regime change and so denied the Western powers their chance of a major intervention in North Africa’s Spring, and the whole interventionist scheme would have flopped. The logic of the demonisation of Gaddafi … meant that Gaddafi was banished for ever from the realm of international political discourse, never to be negotiated with, not even about the surrender of Tripoli when in August he offered to talk terms to spare the city further destruction, an offer once more dismissed with contempt. And this logic was preserved from start to finish, as the death toll of civilians in Tripoli and above all Sirte proves. The mission was always regime change, a truth obscured by the hullabaloo over the supposedly imminent massacre at Benghazi.
Here Roberts gets to the crux of the matter: the lie that launched the wider war.
The official version is that it was the prospect of a ‘second Srebrenica’ or even ‘another Rwanda’ in Benghazi were Gaddafi allowed to retake the city that forced the ‘international community’ (minus Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany, Turkey et al) to act. What grounds were there for supposing that, once Gaddafi’s forces had retaken Benghazi, they would be ordered to embark on a general massacre?
Gaddafi dealt with many revolts over the years. He invariably quashed them by force and usually executed the ringleaders. The NTC and other rebel leaders had good reason to fear that once Benghazi had fallen to government troops they would be rounded up and made to pay the price. So it was natural that they should try to convince the ‘international community’ that it was not only their lives that were at stake, but those of thousands of ordinary civilians. But in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda. The only known massacre carried out during Gaddafi’s rule was the killing of some 1200 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. This was a very dark affair, and whether or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it. It was therefore reasonable to be concerned about what the regime might do and how its forces would behave in Benghazi once they had retaken it, and to deter Gaddafi from ordering or allowing any excesses. But that is not what was decided. What was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit, and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action.
There was no question of anything that could properly be described as ethnic cleansing or genocide in the Libyan context. All Libyans are Muslims, the majority of Arab-Berber descent, and while the small Berber-speaking minority had a grievance concerning recognition of its language and identity (its members are Ibadi, not Sunni, Muslims), this was not what the conflict was about. The conflict was not ethnic or racial but political, between defenders and opponents of the Gaddafi regime; whichever side won could be expected to deal roughly with its adversaries, but the premises for a large-scale massacre of civilians on grounds of their ethnic or racial identity were absent. All the talk about another Srebrenica or Rwanda was extreme hyperbole clearly intended to panic various governments into supporting the war party’s project of a military intervention in order to save the rebellion from imminent defeat.
Why did the panic factor work so well with international, or at any rate Western, public opinion and especially governments? … I believe the answer is that Gaddafi had already been so thoroughly demonised that the wildest accusations about his likely (or, as many claimed, certain) future conduct would be believed whatever his actual behaviour. This demonisation took place on 21 February, the day all the important cards were dealt.
On 21 February the world was shocked by the news that the Gaddafi regime was using its airforce to slaughter peaceful demonstrators in Tripoli and other cities. The main purveyor of this story was al-Jazeera, but the story was quickly taken up by the Sky network, CNN, the BBC, ITN et al. Before the day was over the idea of imposing a no-fly zone on Libya was widely accepted, as was the idea of a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions and an arms embargo, freezing Libya’s assets and referring Gaddafi and his associates to the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity. Resolution 1970 was duly passed five days later and the no-fly zone proposal monopolised international discussion of the Libyan crisis from then on.
Many other things happened on 21 February. …The minister of justice, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, resigned … Two airforce pilots flew their fighters to Malta claiming they did so to avoid carrying out an order to bomb and strafe demonstrators. By late afternoon regime troops and snipers were reliably reported to be firing on crowds in Tripoli. … The European Union condemned the repression, followed by Ban Ki-moon, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi. Ten Egyptians were reported to have been killed by armed men in Tobruk. William Hague, who had condemned the repression the previous day (as had Hillary Clinton), announced at a press conference that he had information that Gaddafi had fled Libya and was en route to Venezuela. The Libyan ambassador to Poland stated that defections from the armed forces as well as the government could not be stopped and Gaddafi’s days were numbered. Numerous media outlets carried the story that Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfalla, had joined the rebellion.
Libya’s ambassadors to Washington, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia all resigned, and its deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, rounded off the day by calling a news conference at Libya’s mission in New York and claimed that Gaddafi had ‘already started the genocide against the Libyan people’ and was flying in African mercenaries. It was Dabbashi more than anyone else who, having primed his audience in this way, launched the idea that the UN should impose a no-fly zone and the ICC should investigate Gaddafi’s ‘crimes against humanity and crimes of war’.
At this point the total death toll since 15 February was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. The Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme suggested between 300 and 400 (but it also announced the same day that Sirte had fallen to the rebels). We can compare these figures with the total death toll in Tunisia (300) and Egypt (at least 846). We can also compare both HRW’s and FIDH’s figures with the death toll, plausibly estimated at between 500 and 600, of the seven days of rioting in Algeria in October 1988, when the French government rigorously refrained from making any comment on events. But the figures were beside the point on 21 February; it was impressions that counted. The impression made by the story that Gaddafi’s airforce was slaughtering peaceful protesters was huge, and it was natural to take the resignations of Abdul Jalil and the ambassadors, the flight of the two pilots, and especially Dabbashi’s dramatic declaration about genocide as corroborating al-Jazeera’s story.
Goodies and baddies (to use Tony Blair’s categories) had been clearly identified, the Western media’s outraged attention totally engaged, the Security Council urgently seized of the matter, the ICC primed to stand by, and a fundamental shift towards intervention had been made – all in a matter of hours. And quite right too, many may say. Except that the al-Jazeera story was untrue, just as the story of the Warfalla’s siding with the rebellion was untrue and Hague’s story that Gaddafi was fleeing to Caracas was untrue. And, of course, Dabbashi’s ‘genocide’ claim was histrionic rubbish which none of the organisations with an interest in the use of the term was moved to challenge. [Italics added.]
These considerations raise awkward questions. If the reason cited by these ambassadors and other regime personnel for defecting on 21 February was false, what really prompted them to defect and make the declarations they did? What was al-Jazeera up to? And what was Hague up to? A serious history of this affair when more evidence comes to light will seek answers to these questions. But I don’t find it hard to understand that Gaddafi and his son should suddenly have resorted to such fierce rhetoric. They clearly believed that, far from confronting merely ‘innocent demonstrators’ as the Canadians had it, they were being destabilised by forces acting to a plan with international ramifications. It is possible that they were mistaken and that everything was spontaneous and accidental and a chaotic muddle; I do not pretend to know for sure. But there had been plans to destabilise their regime before, and they had grounds for thinking that they were being destabilised again. The slanted coverage in the British media in particular, notably the insistence that the regime was faced only by peaceful demonstrators when, in addition to ordinary Libyans trying to make their voices heard non-violently, it was facing politically motivated as well as random violence (e.g. the lynching of 50 alleged mercenaries in al-Baida on 19 February), was consistent with the destabilisation theory. And on the evidence I have since been able to collect, I am inclined to think that destabilisation is exactly what was happening.
The evidence is indeed compelling on this point. Most of the people making these initial accusations almost certainly knew they were false, and part of a wider agenda of regime change. These noxious seeds of deceit very quickly bore fruit in the work of credulous commentators, including the influential progressive, Juan Cole, as Roberts reports:
In the days that followed I made efforts to check the al-Jazeera story for myself. One source I consulted was the well-regarded blog Informed Comment, maintained and updated every day by Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. This carried a post on 21 February entitled ‘Qaddafi’s bombardments recall Mussolini’s’, which made the point that ‘in 1933-40, Italo Balbo championed aerial warfare as the best means to deal with uppity colonial populations.’ The post began: ‘The strafing and bombardment in Tripoli of civilian demonstrators by Muammar Gaddafi’s fighter jets on Monday …’, with the underlined words linking to an article by Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael for Associated Press published at 9 p.m. on 21 February. This article provided no corroboration of Cole’s claim that Gaddafi’s fighter jets (or any other aircraft) had strafed or bombed anyone in Tripoli or anywhere else. The same is true of every source indicated in the other items on Libya relaying the aerial onslaught story which Cole posted that same day.
I was in Egypt for most of the time, but since many journalists visiting Libya were transiting through Cairo, I made a point of asking those I could get hold of what they had picked up in the field. None of them had found any corroboration of the story. I especially remember on 18 March asking the British North Africa expert Jon Marks, just back from an extended tour of Cyrenaica (taking in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Brega, Derna and Ras Lanuf), what he had heard about the story. He told me that no one he had spoken to had mentioned it. Four days later, on 22 March, USA Today carried a striking article by Alan Kuperman, the author of The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention and coeditor of Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention. The article, ‘Five Things the US Should Consider in Libya’, provided a powerful critique of the Nato intervention as violating the conditions that needed to be observed for a humanitarian intervention to be justified or successful. But what interested me most was his statement that ‘despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.’ So, four weeks on, I was not alone in finding no evidence for the aerial slaughter story. I subsequently discovered that the issue had come up more than a fortnight earlier, on 2 March, in hearings in the US Congress when Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying. They told Congress that they had no confirmation of reports of aircraft controlled by Gaddafi firing on citizens.
The story was untrue, just as the story that went round the world in August 1990 that Iraqi troops were slaughtering Kuwaiti babies by turning off their incubators was untrue and the claims in the sexed-up dossier on Saddam’s WMD were untrue. But as Mohammed Khider, one of the founders of the FLN, once remarked, ‘when everyone takes up a falsehood, it becomes a reality.’ The rush to regime change by war was on and could not be stopped.
As I said, there is much more to the article, extending far beyond the headlines of the recent upheaval. But this sorry episode takes on heightened importance as the world enters yet another round of ratcheted-up tensions based on hearsay, exaggeration, supposition — and outright, deliberate deceit — aimed at instigating violent regime change in Iran.