Washington celebrates Qaddafi’s death

October 24, 2011

Muammar el-Qaddafi was a tyrant despised by the mass of Libyans--but the U.S. helped to overthrow him for very different reasons, write Alan Maass and Lance Selfa.

LIBYA'S FORMER dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi was killed last week as rebels, backed by NATO military forces, conquered the final city holding out against them. The U.S.-backed Transitional National Council (TNC) declared on Sunday that Libya was now "liberated"--but the manner of Qaddafi's downfall raises questions about that claim.

Most Libyans celebrated the death of the man who ruled their country with an iron fist for more than four decades. Hatred of the Qaddafi regime spurred a popular rebellion last February. This mass mobilization against tyranny was another chapter in the Arab Spring that has spread from Northern Africa across the Middle East.

But Qaddafi's overthrow was not accomplished by this rebellion alone. Western military forces played an indispensable role in toppling their former ally, including the operation that led to his death last week. The NATO powers care nothing about Libyans' aspirations for democracy and justice. The U.S. and its allies want to advance their imperialist interests in the region--and they are exploiting their role in the defeat of the Qaddafi regime to do it.

Video footage posted on the Internet showed an injured Qaddafi (left) in the custody of rebels
Video footage posted on the Internet showed an injured Qaddafi (left) in the custody of rebels

Qaddafi was wounded in a NATO air attack on his convoy, which was attempting to flee from his home city of Surt as rebel ground forces battled the last regime loyalists.

Afterward, Qaddafi was videotaped in the custody of rebel fighters, injured but alive. When he was later reported dead, the Western media's enthusiastic accounts said he had bled to death. But further reports revealed that Qaddafi had died of bullet wounds to the head--apparently delivered execution-style sometime after the video showing him without head wounds.

The U.S. and other Western governments called for an investigation into how Qaddafi died. But this supposed concern for human rights is hypocritical. If Qaddafi had died from injuries caused by the high-tech weapons fired by U.S. and French warplanes, there would be no investigation.

And we know the U.S. did try to assassinate Qaddafi before. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. warplanes to bomb sites in Libya, including Qaddafi's compound--in retaliation for Libya's role in a bombing of a German disco. Qaddafi escaped, but 15 Libyans died in the attack. One of the seriously wounded was Qaddafi's son Seif el-Arab, then 4 years old. A NATO raid in April killed him, 25 years later.

There's another reason to doubt Washington's "concern" about Qaddafi's apparent summary execution. If Qaddafi had ever faced trial for his crimes, his defense would likely have exposed his secret deals with Western oil companies and collaboration with the U.S. system of "black site" torture chambers used in the "war on terror." U.S. officials are no doubt breathing easier now that Qaddafi won't be around to air their dirty laundry.

Western calls for an "explanation" also came with what the New York Times called "hearty congratulations"--and the U.S. media mirrored this self-congratulatory attitude with their grisly recounting of Qaddafi's final hours, reminiscent of how they gloried in the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May.

Among the worst of the media cheerleaders were liberal commentators for outlets like MSNBC. They touted Qaddafi's death--along with the earlier assassinations of bin Laden and U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar Awlaki in Yemen--as evidence that their man Barack Obama was tougher on terrorism than George W. Bush.

THE LIBYAN uprising against Qaddafi began in February, clearly inspired by the revolutions that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. In their final days, these two dictators could still count on support from Qaddafi, if almost no one else.

The revolt in Libya spread quickly from its starting point in the east of the country, next to Egypt, with the city of Benghazi as its informal capital. For a time at the end of February, it seemed that Qaddafi's rule would be ended by revolution in a matter of days.

The spread of the rebellion and its obvious mass character exposed Qaddafi's absurd claims to have been, for four decades, the "Brother Leader" and "Guide of the Revolution" in Libya. It also showed up his apologists in other countries, including the U.S., where left-wing organizations such as the Party of Socialism and Liberation and the Workers World Party continued to claim Qaddafi as an anti-imperialist, and denounced all those who struggled against him.

Tragically, Qaddafi was able to survive the rebellion's first tide, and his regime unleashed a savage counter-offensive. Government troops moved from city to city across Libya's northern coast--by mid-March, they were poised to attack Benghazi.

At this point, the U.S. and its allies in Europe saw an opportunity to reassert themselves in a region that had seen two revolutions since the start of the year. But that meant turning on their former ally in Libya.

During the Cold War era, the Qaddafi regime had been a client of the ex-USSR, and succeeding U.S. presidents had branded the Libyan leader as the "madman of the Middle East." But in the 1990s and 2000s, Qaddafi gradually became a friend. After the September 11 attacks especially, he was a loyal supporter of the U.S. "war on terror." The corrupt kleptocracy centered around Qaddafi's family enriched itself enormously through business deals with Western corporations.

That's why the U.S. attitude to the Libyan rebellion in its opening weeks was noticeably tame. It seemed for a time that Washington might stand aside and let Qaddafi crush the movement against him, rather than allow another revolt against a North African dictator who cooperated with the West.

But the scale of violence carried out by the regime and the prospect of a long civil war, a refugee crisis and the possible disruption of oil supplies added to the pressure to intervene. Once a few Arab states signed on, the United Nations sanctioned Western military intervention, led by the U.S.

The operation was initially justified as a "humanitarian" mission to stop the massacre of civilians, with the U.S. role limited to imposing a "no-fly" zone and targeting the regime's military forces. But predictably, those restrictions were disregarded almost immediately.

Between the start of the intervention in mid-March and the conquest of the capital of Tripoli five months later, Western forces flew almost 7,500 missions in Libya--an average of about 50 per day. Barack Obama co-signed an op-ed article with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that declared, "It is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power."

NOW, THE U.S. government and its allies are cheering the definitive end of Qaddafi's rule--and boasting about their part in it. Obama declared that "the Libyan people can now celebrate their freedom and the beginning of a new era of promise"--and that the U.S. would work to "advance a stable, democratic transition."

Making sure the West would be able to shape such a "transition" was a top priority throughout the months after military intervention. The rebel fighters against government forces didn't have a central command, and especially during the conquest of Tripoli, popular mobilizations played an important role in local battles for control. But Western governments also attempted to train and coordinate various rebel units--and above all, NATO acted as the de facto air force for anti-Qaddafi fighters.

The attack on Qaddafi's convoy outside Surt illustrated once again the central role of U.S.-led forces. Without the missile strikes by NATO planes, Qaddafi might have escaped and remained at large. Though Western forces weren't necessarily giving operational orders to rebels on the ground, they were directly involved in the operation against Qaddafi, as they have been throughout the rebel offensive against the old regime.

What will happen after Qaddafi's death? Because of the decentralized character of the rebel forces, it may be some time before a new government fully establishes itself. Different militias in Libya received aid from various external sources, and the militias themselves reflect regional and political divides within the country. As a result, it may not be so easy for the most pro-Western, NATO-allied elements in the TNC to win support for their agenda from other opposition forces.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-backed TNC will have an enormous advantage in any struggle for power in the coming weeks, precisely because it has been promoted by the Western governments that were instrumental in Qaddafi's downfall.

It was the TNC's chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who appeared in Benghazi to officially declare Libya's "liberation"--and that the council would announce an interim government in the coming weeks, to be followed by elections.

Whatever differences about post-Qaddafi Libya exist among those who fought the regime, there's certainly no question where Jalil and the TNC stand.

As author and antiwar activist Phyllis Bennis wrote after Tripoli fell in late August, Jalil held a press conference where he "thanked the international community as a whole but singled out those countries that had been especially supportive of the TNC; the implication was unmistakable that those countries, presumably the United States, other NATO members, and Qatar (whose special forces had trained the TNC's 'Tripoli Brigade') could expect closer ties and privileged access to Libyan resources in the future."

Qaddafi was a tyrant whose corrupt rule served to enrich the tiny circle around him, while the mass of Libyans endured poverty and repression. No one should shed a tear that he is gone.

But the U.S. government has advanced its imperial interests with its role in Qaddafi's death and the overthrow of his regime. All those opposed to war and oppression need to speak out against U.S. attempts to determine Libya's future--and to curb the Arab revolution.

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