Imperial war behind a humanitarian charade

June 15, 2011

The U.S. government doesn't care about ordinary Libyans, but maintaining its power.

AFTER NEARLY three months of the Western bombing campaign in Libya, the truth about what is taking place--an imperial war, not a humanitarian mission--can no longer be denied.

The UN Security Council's Resolution 1973, approved March 17, authorized "all necessary measures" against the regime of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in order to prevent "crimes against humanity."

Qaddafi's regime was, indeed, carrying out a savage assault against protesters who had risen up to demand democracy, taking inspiration from the wave of uprisings across the Middle East. But the UN-sanctioned intervention, at first supposedly focused on imposing a "no-fly zone," quickly--and predictably--transformed into what Western leaders now openly say is a war to topple Qaddafi.

Rather than a mission that promotes democracy and freedom for the Libyan people, the Western war is about strangling hopes for a democratic Libya--because intimately connected to the push to overthrow Qaddafi is the plans of the U.S. and its allies to put in place a new regime that serves their interests.

A Libyan home destroyed in the course of intensified bombing since the western "humanitarian" intervention began
A Libyan home destroyed in the course of intensified bombing since the western "humanitarian" intervention began (Essam Mohamed)

Anyone who cares about justice will be horrified by Qaddafi's crimes over many years. But at the same time, this truth about U.S. imperialism must never be forgotten: no matter what its rhetoric about "humanitarian" concerns, the U.S. government uses its military machine to protect and extend its own interests--and those interests don't square with winning true democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.


THE NATO bombing campaign in Libya has intensified in recent weeks, with regular assaults against Tripoli, Libya's capital city. Rather than preventing "crimes against humanity," the Western powers are committing them on a regular basis.

On June 7 alone, for example, NATO warplanes conducted 66 air strikes. According to Libyan government officials, some 31 people--soldiers, guards and civilians--were killed that day alone, although the real number of dead is impossible to know.

"The surge in the number of attacks on targets in Tripoli," reported Britain's Guardian, "is a clear attempt to end the military stalemate on the ground and hasten Qaddafi's exit. Nearly four months into the conflict, rebels control large parts of eastern Libya, the coastal city of Misurata, and a string of towns in the western mountains, near the border with Tunisia. But the rebels...are making very slow progress towards Tripoli, where the regime still has a tight grip on the population."

Early on, Barack Obama said that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." But "regime change" is clearly the order of the day for the U.S. and NATO now--preferably with a missile taking out Qaddafi along the way to silence any embarrassing revelations about his on-again-off-again relationship with the West.

The Obama administration hasn't bothered to seek congressional approval for U.S. involvement in the war against Qaddafi--but no one batted an eye when officials said the U.S. fully supported NATO's announcement in early June that it would continue its operations in Libya for at least another 90 days.

On the diplomatic side, South African President Jacob Zuma engaged in talks with Qaddafi on a mission sanctioned by the African Union in late May. Zuma announced that Qaddafi would accept the so-called "African road map for peace," which calls for an immediate ceasefire and halt to NATO bombing, international supervision and negotiations between Tripoli and the rebels. But Qaddafi said nothing after Zuma's visit.

Likewise, Russia, long considered an obstacle to the West's intervention against Qaddafi, is apparently taking a new tack. In late May, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev offered to attempt to persuade Qaddafi to leave power.

Such "diplomacy" is meant to send a message to the Libyan ruling elite beyond the circle around Qaddafi to switch sides while there's still time. But more immediately, when Qaddafi refused these overtures, it became further justification for the intensified NATO bombing campaign that is now pounding Tripoli.

To date, NATO has flown more than 10,000 sorties into Libyan territory--in some cases, more than 150 bombing runs in a single day.

More of the Libyan elite are jumping ship. In late May, eight top army officers, including five generals, defected. Appearing at a press conference orchestrated by the Italian government, Gen. Melud Massoud Halasa told reporters that Qaddafi's military forces are now "only 20 percent as effective" as before the revolt broke out in mid-February, and that "not more than 10" generals remain loyal to Qaddafi.

Eager to widen any cracks in the regime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced that Western governments have pledged as much as $1 billion in support for the Libyan opposition, despite UN sanctions against Libya that remain in place.

This opposition--now anointed by the U.S. and other countries as the country's "legitimate" representative--includes the Transitional National Council, a group with CIA ties.

Such groups are not representative of the democratic protests that emerged in February in the streets of Misurata and other Libyan cities. Instead, they have been handpicked by the U.S. and other Western countries precisely because they are likely to be amenable to Western interests in the future--whether or not those interests line up with those of the Libyan people.

As journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in the Independent:

Libya has...moved a long way from the democratic hopes of February. An important signal since the start of June has been the intervention of NATO attack helicopters, making the rebels more an auxiliary force in a foreign-run campaign. The deployment of the rebels is now largely decided by NATO, without whose air power the local anti-Qaddafi forces would long ago have been defeated.

Many Libyans want Qaddafi to go, but the Transitional National Council in Benghazi may not have the legitimacy or the support to replace him. He is very likely to be displaced before the end of the year, but this will be a victory primarily won by NATO, and not popular revolution.


SOME MIGHT ask why it matters. Isn't it positive for Qaddafi to be toppled, whatever the means?

But the question to ask is what regime would replace Qaddafi's--and in whose interests will a post-Qaddafi Libya be run.

For its part, the U.S. government is concerned about the future of Libyan rebels not out of some sense of altruism, but a desire to divert and dampen the wave of uprisings that continue to inspire millions across the Middle East and North Africa.

The scale of repression unleashed by the Qaddafi regime against those rebelling in Misurata and other cities presented the U.S. and other Western powers with an opportunity. Despite their willingness to work with Qaddafi as a junior partner in the "war on terror" over the past decade, it became more expedient for the West to support the uprising against him--with a strategic goal of establishing a reliably pro-Western regime in a region that had seen two revolutions in the first few months of this year.

By selectively choosing which factions of anti-Qaddafi rebels to support--a large number of former officials of the Qaddafi regime among them--the U.S. is hoping to insure that whatever government replaces the dictator will be friendly to U.S. interests in the future.

Another factor in the decision to intervene was no doubt the souring relations between the Qaddafi regime and U.S. oil companies in recent years. As the Washington Post reported, quoting U.S. State Department documents revealed by WikiLeaks:

[Qaddafi] demanded tough contract terms. He sought big bonus payments up front. Moreover, upset that he was not getting more U.S. government respect and recognition for his earlier concessions, he pressured the oil companies to influence U.S. policies...

By November 2007, a State Department cable noted "growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism." It noted that in his 2006 speech marking the founding of his regime, Qaddafi said: "Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money." His son made similar remarks in 2007.

It would be wrong to say that the U.S. went to war on Libya primarily over oil. Rather, the point is that Qaddafi became unpalatable to the West not because he was slaughtering his own civilians or squashing the democratic hopes of protesters--but because he was no longer compliant and reliable for Western interests. When it became clear that the U.S. could better serve its imperial aims by removing Qaddafi from power than standing by as he killed civilians, it chose to remove him.

As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald put it:

The U.S. does not object in the slightest when a leader oppresses or even attacks his own people. The U.S. adores leaders who do things like that. Its best friends in the region have long done and continue to do exactly that--from Mubarak to the Saudis to Yemen's Saleh to the Bahrainis, not to mention the Shah of Iran and even our one-time good friend Saddam...

If Qaddafi had continued to be as compliant as he had been in the past, does anyone really believe we would have invaded his country and spent months trying to kill him and replace him with another regime?

That's the truth about the imperial war being carried out against Libya today. The U.S. doesn't care about the lives of ordinary Libyans, but about maintaining its power in a crucially important part of the world.

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