Years after the end of the Vietnam War, as memories of its horrors and folly dimmed, conservative “revisionists” emerged to peddle the myth that U.S. commitment there was both justified and “winnable.” By obfuscating the historical record, they sought to undo the painful lessons learned by a generation of Americans about the perils of intervention and the costs of government lying.
The same kind of revisionism is being peddled today by interventionists to explain away a staggeringly costly string of more recent American failures in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq and other theaters of conflict. A new article by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Shadi Hamid, who touts the nobility of NATO’s disastrous campaign in Libya, illustrates the shameless mythmaking of such revisionists.
Last year, Glenn Greenwald reminded us that Brookings — the venue for Hillary Clinton’s first major foreign policy campaign address — “served as Ground Zero for centrist think tank advocacy of the Iraq War … Brookings’ two leading ‘scholar’-stars — Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon — spent all of 2002 and 2003 insisting that invading Iraq was wise and just, and spent the years after that assuring Americans that the “victorious” war and subsequent occupation were going really well…
“Since then, O’Hanlon in particular has advocated for increased military force in more countries than one can count. That’s not surprising: Brookings is funded in part by one of the Democratic Party’s favorite billionaires, Haim Saban, who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel and once said of himself: ‘I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.’”
Hamid, the think-tank’s senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, is cut from the same cloth. Following publication of Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent interview with President Obama in The Atlantic magazine, Hamid accused Obama of drawing the wrong lessons from Iraq and thus shying away from using military force in foreign conflicts such as Syria.
Of course, Hamid’s argument falls flat because Obama did approve the use of force in Libya in March 2011, leading to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and a host of now-familiar consequences: ongoing civil war, economic collapse, the rapid spread of jihadists in Libya and across North Africa, and a massive refugee crisis.
Now, on Vox.com, Hamid argues that Obama was right to intervene in Libya — and that widespread condemnation of NATO’s operation as a “failure” or “disaster” is fundamentally misguided. “NATO intervened to protect civilians, not to set up a democracy,” he declares. “And that is what was achieved.”
Evidently, we should take comfort from this success that “only” 4,500 people were killed during the first phase of Libya’s civil war, and only two million Libyans — a third of the population — have become refugees. Hamid’s logic suggests further that we overlook the “crimes against humanity” committed by anti-Gaddafi rebels, including systematic killings, torture, detentions, and forced displacement of tens of thousands of black Libyans.
Hillary Clinton, who argued forcefully for the mission during her tenure as secretary of state, may rejoice at this defense of her policy, but Hamid’s claims are disingenuous at best, verging on dishonest.
“Here’s what we know,” Hamid writes: “By March 19, 2011, when the NATO operation began, the death toll in Libya had risen rapidly to more than 1,000 in a relatively short amount of time, confirming Qaddafi’s longstanding reputation as someone who was willing to kill his countrymen (as well as others) in large numbers if that’s what his survival required.”
“There was no end in sight,” he insists. Without NATO’s intervention, “The most likely outcome … was a Syria-like situation of indefinite, intensifying violence.”
Of course, even with NATO’s intervention, Libya today does suffer from “indefinite, intensifying violence,” albeit far from Syrian levels. It results from ongoing clashes between rival militias and large numbers of ISIS fighters who are entrenched in Gaddafii’s former home of Sirte thanks to the disintegration of his regime.
As a recent article in London’s Independent noted, “ISIS’s expansion in Libya has been alarming, and the country’s civil war and lack of a coherent government structure provide a fertile ground for extremism. …US officials have said that ISIS now has the capability to organize attacks on Western targets out of its base in Libya.”
Meanwhile, reenergized and rearmed by the collapse of Gaddafi’s army, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has made a “devastating comeback” and is now “storming into new territory across three nations,” according to The New York Times.
Hamid blames all such unpleasantness on NATO’s failure to intervene more in Libya to rebuild the country’s institutions after eliminating Gaddafi. Too bad NATO forgot to study its playbook of previously successful nation-building exercises in Africa and the Middle East. Oh yes — all of its pages are empty.
But what about Hamid’s claim that NATO at least prevented more violence in the short run?
In a recent review of the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya, New York Times correspondents Joe Becker and Scott Shane report that claims of impending massacres cited in defense of NATO’s intervention were bogus: “Human Rights Watch would later count about 350 protesters killed before the intervention — not the thousands described in some media accounts.”
Even at the time, Amnesty International rejected propaganda claims by rebels — widely cited by Clinton and other war advocates — that Gaddafi’s troops had engaged in mass rapes, hired bloodthirsty foreign mercenaries, or turned its aircraft against civilians. “We have not found any evidence or a single victim of rape or a doctor who knew about somebody being raped,” said a senior adviser to the human rights organization.
Similarly, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen told Congress on March 2, 2011 — before formal approval of the NATO intervention — that they had no confirmation of inflammatory reports that Libyan aircraft were firing on civilians.
Propaganda over Truth
The distinguished North Africa scholar Hugh Robert later noted that “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.”
The Washington Times reported last year that “The intelligence community gathered no specific evidence of an impending genocide in Libya in spring 2011, undercutting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s primary argument for using the U.S. military to remove Col. Moammar Gadhafi from power, an event that has left his country in chaos.”
Contrary to claims by Clinton and President Obama that Gaddafi was threatening to “massacre” tens of thousands of people in Benghazi, the paper reported, “the Pentagon’s judgment was that Gadhafi was unlikely to risk world outrage by inflicting large civilian casualties” and “defense officials had direct information … that Gadhafi gave specific orders not to attack civilians and to narrowly focus the war on the armed rebels.”
On April 14, 2011, just weeks after the start of NATO’s operation, University of Texas scholar Alan Kuperman made mincemeat of Obama’s claim that he was preventing a slaughter of civilians. “The best evidence that Khadafy did not plan genocide in Benghazi is that he did not perpetrate it in the [four] other cities he had recaptured either fully or partially,” Kuperman noted.
“Nor did Khadafy ever threaten civilian massacre in Benghazi, as Obama alleged. The ‘no mercy’ warning, of March 17, targeted rebels only, as reported by The New York Times, which noted that Libya’s leader promised amnesty for those ‘who throw their weapons away.’ Khadafy even offered the rebels an escape route and open border to Egypt, to avoid a fight ‘to the bitter end.’”
Kuperman warned at the time that far from protecting innocent lives, “intervening actually magnifies the threat to civilians in Libya, and beyond. That is because armed uprisings, such as Libya’s, typically provoke massive state retaliation that harms innocents.”
In an ex-post analysis of the Libyan conflict two years later, Kuperman concluded that his dire predictions had come true.
“When NATO intervened in mid-March 2011, Qaddafi already had regained control of most of Libya, while the rebels were retreating rapidly toward Egypt. Thus, the conflict was about to end, barely six weeks after it started, at a toll of about 1,000 dead, including soldiers, rebels, and civilians caught in the crossfire. By intervening, NATO enabled the rebels to resume their attack, which prolonged the war for another seven months and caused at least 7,000 more deaths.”
He added, “NATO’s action magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors. If Libya was a ‘model intervention,’ then it was a model of failure.”
Less Than Noble Motives
Did Clinton and Obama simply misread the intelligence while acting on humanitarian motives?
A recent report in the New York Times suggests that what moved President Obama was not a moral argument about saving civilians, but Clinton’s practical argument that intervention would allow the administration to shape the situation while supporting traditional European and Arab allies who wanted Gaddafi ousted.
Worse yet, Secretary Clinton rejected an overture by Gaddafi’s son in mid-March 2011 for talks that could have brought peace to the country. Before long, Washington and its allies were openly fighting for regime change, not to protect civilians caught in a civil war.
Clinton also knew that NATO leaders were using humanitarian rhetoric to cloak more sordid raisons d’etat. In an email to Secretary Clinton on March 22, 2011, her confidant Sidney Blumenthal noted that French intelligence had helped organize and fund the Libyan rebels, in return for them supporting “French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya.”
In a subsequent email to Clinton on April 2, 2011, Blumenthal confirmed that “Sarkozy’s plans are driven by the following issues: a. A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production, b. Increase French influence in North Africa, c. Improve his internal political situation in France, d. Provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world, e. Address the concern of his advisors over Qaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.”
In other words, the Libya intervention was grounded in base motives and it led — as numerous critics warned at the time — to a regional catastrophe that haunts Europe and the United States to this day. Hamid may count Libya as a model intervention, he ranks among a dwindling number of true believers.
Retired General and Secretary of State Colin Powell said last year, “as we learned, especially in Libya, when you remove the top and the whole thing falls apart, there’s nothing underneath it you get chaos.”
And only a week before Hamid published his encyclical on the morality of bombing Libya, the famed former head of Israel’s Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, offered a few observations of his own on that misadventure.
“I think the operation originally launched by Britain and France turned out to be the biggest mistake committed by Western Europe in recent years,” he told an interviewer for Sky Television. “The initiative to go into Libya was a major mistake, and … now Libya is a center of ISIS, which is a real threat to Europe, and the European capacity to find elements on the ground who can stop this, and move in and destroy the ISIS presence in Libya, do not exist anymore.”
By Jonathan Marshall