Notes From the Margins…

Libya – Another Humanitarian Triumph?

  • August 31, 2011
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Whatever happens over the next few months in Libya, the Gaddafi regime is  dead and only waiting for its formal burial.   Its only possibility of resurrection consists of some form of Gaddafism without Gaddafi perpetuated by the remnants of his regime who have joined the rebellion.

As in the heady aftermath of the Iraq invasion, Western politicians and the media are already celebrating the formal collapse of the regime as a vindication of the initial decision to invade – despite estimates from the Transitional National Council (TNC) that 50,000 Libyans may have died since the uprising began.

Certain sections of the liberal and ‘left’ media – such the truly dreadful Dan Hodges in the New Statesman are already playing the ‘cheering crowds’ card – presenting celebrating rebels as a vindication of the intervention and a refutation of the leftists who opposed it.

Some, like Hodges, display the same gloating enthusiasm that commentators like Andrew Marr and others showed when Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad by hundreds of Iraqis , many of them brought in by the occupying forces as a stage-managed propaganda stunt aimed at only too credulous media.

Such gloating is unseemly to say the least, considering that the vast majority of Libyans have died since the NATO terror bombing campaign was begun as a humanitarian intervention against a dictator who ‘killed his own people’. Some were killed by Gaddafi’s troops,  others by NATO bombing raids.

But the rebels have also killed,  and their targets have included civilians.   Throughout the war rebels have attacked black African migrants on suspicion of being Gaddafi fighter.   There is a clear element of racism in the violent treatment of black African prisoners,  who have been raped, beaten and killed by rebel fighters who often appear disposed to ignore the rules of war or elementary humanity in dealing with Gaddafi’s ‘mercenaries’ – or anyone with a black skin.

Such behaviour makes it very unclear what kind of society is going to emerge in Libya in the near or longer term.   So the cheerleaders who are already beginning to turn their attention to Syria may yet find that their new taste for humanitarian intervention turns somewhat bitter.

Before I be accused of wanting Libya to fall apart, let me make it clear that I do not want this to happen.

I opposed the intervention, though I did have doubts when Gaddafi’s forces were killing civilians in Benghazi.   But as in Iraq, I believed that a grasping Western intervention dressed up as a humanitarian crusade was likely to result in many more dead, and would either produce political and social chaos or a new ruling caste that was likely to be as corrupt, vicious and undemocratic as its predecessor – because these are the kinds of allies that such interventions invariably seek or attract.

It’s impossible to know whether Gaddafi would have carried out his threat of a massacre in Benghazi, but it is at least possible to wonder whether other forms of pressure could have been applied to prevent this outcome, other than a NATO bombing assault, combined with the special forces/spooks/armed and financed rebels formula that has produced such marvellous results in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The moral blackmail implied in the ‘we cannot stand by and allow a dictator to kill his own people’ was particularly galling coming from countries that had sold Gaddafi many of the weapons he was using against his ‘own people’ .  The opportunism and sheer bad faith of the governments (particularly Britain and France) that were crying crocodile tears over dead Libyans was frankly, disgusting.    Had the February uprisings not taken place, these countries would still be pouring money into Gaddafi’s regime, hailing him as a force for stability and praising him for his containment of migrants.

A similar volte face can be seen in the condemnations of Bashir Assad’s massacres in Syria by countries that were once happy to fly suspected terrorists to Syrian torture chambers.

The decision to turn on Gaddafi appears to have been an opportunistic and  hasty gamble, based on the mistaken belief that the regime had no popular support and would quickly fold.  On realising its mistake, NATO embarked on a war of attrition, buttressed by the usual lies, propaganda and misinformation that we have come to expect from similar endeavours elsewhere.

That much is clear.  But there is a school of thought, currently exemplified by some of the more zealous and infantile anti-interventionists over at the Media Lens website, that because the rebels were supported by NATO and the West then Gaddafi was somehow the good guy – even some kind of progressive statesman.

This would be the same Gaddafi who routinely murdered dissidents in his own country and hunted them down abroad, who variously presented himself as the ally of the Palestinians, as a pan-Africanist and a pan-Arabist, as an essential ally in the ‘war on terror’  or an ‘offshore’ border policeman who promised to stop Europe from ‘turning black’ in exchange for large amounts of cash.

For Gaddafi there were no permanent alliances, only permanent interests.

His current enemies operate according to the same principle.  Now they will expect his successors to pay them back for their support.   Already the TNC has signed an agreement to preserve Libya’s repressive anti-migrant apparatus and oil companies are competing with each other for greater access to what Saif al-Islam Gaddafi rightly called “a piece of cake”.

Despite all this, as six months of brutal war appear to be approaching their end I wish Libya well.

I hope that it manages to recover from dictatorship and civil war, and that a popular democratic government can lead the country to a better future without being beholden to the diktats of its liberators.    But I can’t say I’m entirely confident that this is going to happen, and we should be wary of those who would transform NATO’s self-interested intervention into  a template for similar operations in the future.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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