Top ten myths about the Libya war
By Juan Cole
The opinions expressed are his own.
The Libyan Revolution has largely succeeded, and this is a moment of celebration, not only for Libyans but for a youth generation in the Arab world that has pursued a political opening across the region. The secret of the uprising’s final days of success lay in a popular revolt in the working-class districts of the capital, which did most of the hard work of throwing off the rule of secret police and military cliques. It succeeded so well that when revolutionary brigades entered the city from the west, many encountered little or no resistance, and they walked right into the center of the capital. Muammar Qaddafi was in hiding as I went to press, and three of his sons were in custody. Saif al-Islam Qaddafi had apparently been the de facto ruler of the country in recent years, so his capture signaled a checkmate. (Checkmate is a corruption of the Persian “shah maat,” the “king is confounded,” since chess came west from India via Iran). Checkmate.
The end game, wherein the people of Tripoli overthrew the Qaddafis and joined the opposition Transitional National Council, is the best case scenario that I had suggested was the most likely denouement for the revolution. I have been making this argument for some time, and it evoked a certain amount of incredulity when I said it in a lecture in the Netherlands in mid-June, but it has all along been my best guess that things would end the way they have. I got it right where others did not because my premises turned out to be sounder, i.e., that Qaddafi had lost popular support across the board and was in power only through main force. Once enough of his heavy weapons capability was disrupted, and his fuel and ammunition supplies blocked, the underlying hostility of the common people to the regime could again manifest itself, as it had in February. I was moreover convinced that the generality of Libyans were attracted by the revolution and by the idea of a political opening, and that there was no great danger to national unity here.
I do not mean to underestimate the challenges that still lie ahead– mopping up operations against regime loyalists, reestablishing law and order in cities that have seen popular revolutions, reconstituting police and the national army, moving the Transitional National Council to Tripoli, founding political parties, and building a new, parliamentary regime. Even in much more institutionalized and less clan-based societies such as Tunisia and Egypt, these tasks have proved anything but easy. But it would be wrong, in this moment of triumph for the Libyan Second Republic, to dwell on the difficulties to come. Libyans deserve a moment of exultation.
I have taken a lot of heat for my support of the revolution and of the United Nations-authorized intervention by the Arab League and NATO that kept it from being crushed. I haven’t taken nearly as much heat as the youth of Misrata who fought off Qaddafi’s tank barrages, though, so it is OK. I hate war, having actually lived through one in Lebanon, and I hate the idea of people being killed. My critics who imagined me thrilling at NATO bombing raids were just being cruel. But here I agree with President Obama and his citation of Reinhold Niebuhr. You can’t protect all victims of mass murder everywhere all the time. But where you can do some good, you should do it, even if you cannot do all good. I mourn the deaths of all the people who died in this revolution, especially since many of the Qaddafi brigades were clearly coerced (they deserted in large numbers as soon as they felt it safe). But it was clear to me that Qaddafi was not a man to compromise, and that his military machine would mow down the revolutionaries if it were allowed to.
Moreover, those who question whether there were US interests in Libya seem to me a little blind. The US has an interest in there not being massacres of people for merely exercising their right to free assembly. The US has an interest in a lawful world order, and therefore in the United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that Libyans be protected from their murderous government. The US has an interest in its NATO alliance, and NATO allies France and Britain felt strongly about this intervention. The US has a deep interest in the fate of Egypt, and what happened in Libya would have affected Egypt (Qaddafi allegedly had high Egyptian officials on his payroll).
Given the controversies about the revolution, it is worthwhile reviewing the myths about the Libyan Revolution that led so many observers to make so many fantastic or just mistaken assertions about it.
1. Qaddafi was a progressive in his domestic policies. While back in the 1970s, Qaddafi was probably more generous in sharing around the oil wealth with the population, buying tractors for farmers, etc., in the past couple of decades that policy changed. He became vindictive against tribes in the east and in the southwest that had crossed him politically, depriving them of their fair share in the country’s resources. And in the past decade and a half, extreme corruption and the rise of post-Soviet-style oligarchs, including Qaddafi and his sons, have discouraged investment and blighted the economy. Workers were strictly controlled and unable to collectively bargain for improvements in their conditions. There was much more poverty and poor infrastructure in Libya than there should have been in an oil state.
2. Qaddafi was a progressive in his foreign policy. Again, he traded for decades on positions, or postures, he took in the 1970s. In contrast, in recent years he played a sinister role in Africa, bankrolling brutal dictators and helping foment ruinous wars. In 1996 the supposed champion of the Palestinian cause expelled 30,000 stateless Palestinians from the country. After he came in from the cold, ending European and US sanctions, he began buddying around with George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and other right wing figures. Berlusconi has even said that he considered resigning as Italian prime minister once NATO began its intervention, given his close personal relationship to Qaddafi. Such a progressive.
3. It was only natural that Qaddafi sent his military against the protesters and revolutionaries; any country would have done the same. No, it wouldn’t, and this is the argument of a moral cretin. In fact, the Tunisian officer corps refused to fire on Tunisian crowds for dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the Egyptian officer corps refused to fire on Egyptian crowds for Hosni Mubarak. The willingness of the Libyan officer corps to visit macabre violence on protesting crowds derived from the centrality of the Qaddafi sons and cronies at the top of the military hierarchy and from the lack of connection between the people and the professional soldiers and mercenaries. Deploying the military against non-combatants was a war crime, and doing so in a widespread and systematic way was a crime against humanity. Qaddafi and his sons will be tried for this crime, which is not “perfectly natural.”
4. There was a long stalemate in the fighting between the revolutionaries and the Qaddafi military. There was not. This idea was fostered by the vantage point of many Western observers, in Benghazi. It is true that there was a long stalemate at Brega, which ended yesterday when the pro-Qaddafi troops there surrendered. But the two most active fronts in the war were Misrata and its environs, and the Western Mountain region. Misrata fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-defense against attacking Qaddafi armor and troops, finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli. The most dramatic battles and advances were in the largely Berber Western Mountain region, where, again, Qaddafi armored units relentlessly shelled small towns and villages but were fought off (with less help from NATO initially, which I think did not recognize the importance of this theater). It was the revolutionary volunteers from this region who eventually took Zawiya, with the help of the people of Zawiya, last Friday and who thereby cut Tripoli off from fuel and ammunition coming from Tunisia and made the fall of the capital possible. Any close observer of the war since April has seen constant movement, first at Misrata and then in the Western Mountains, and there was never an over-all stalemate.
5. The Libyan Revolution was a civil war. It was not, if by that is meant a fight between two big groups within the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in 2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests, and only when the urban crowds were subjected to artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did the revolutionaries begin arming themselves. When fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing their city quarters taking on trained regular army troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a civil war. Only in a few small pockets of territory, such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Qaddafi civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort into a civil war. Qaddafi’s support was too limited, too thin, and too centered in the professional military, to allow us to speak of a civil war.
6. Libya is not a real country and could have been partitioned between east and west.
Alexander Cockburn wrote,
“It requites no great prescience to see that this will all end up badly. Qaddafi’s failure to collapse on schedule is prompting increasing pressure to start a ground war, since the NATO operation is, in terms of prestige, like the banks Obama has bailed out, Too Big to Fail. Libya will probably be balkanized.”
I don’t understand the propensity of Western analysts to keep pronouncing nations in the global south “artificial” and on the verge of splitting up. It is a kind of Orientalism. All nations are artificial. Benedict Anderson dates the nation-state to the late 1700s, and even if it were a bit earlier, it is a new thing in history. Moreover, most nation-states are multi-ethnic, and many long-established ones have sub-nationalisms that threaten their unity. Thus, the Catalans and Basque are uneasy inside Spain, the Scottish may bolt Britain any moment, etc., etc. In contrast, Libya does not have any well-organized, popular separatist movements. It does have tribal divisions, but these are not the basis for nationalist separatism, and tribal alliances and fissures are more fluid than ethnicity (which is itself less fixed than people assume). Everyone speaks Arabic, though for Berbers it is the public language; Berbers were among the central Libyan heroes of the revolution, and will be rewarded with a more pluralist Libya. This generation of young Libyans, who waged the revolution, have mostly been through state schools and have a strong allegiance to the idea of Libya. Throughout the revolution, the people of Benghazi insisted that Tripoli was and would remain the capital. Westerners looking for break-ups after dictatorships are fixated on the Balkan events after 1989, but there most often isn’t an exact analogue to those in the contemporary Arab world.
7. There had to be NATO infantry brigades on the ground for the revolution to succeed. Everyone from Cockburn to Max Boot (scary when those two agree) put forward this idea. But there are not any foreign infantry brigades in Libya, and there are unlikely to be any. Libyans are very nationalistic and they made this clear from the beginning. Likewise the Arab League. NATO had some intelligence assets on the ground, but they were small in number, were requested behind the scenes for liaison and spotting by the revolutionaries, and did not amount to an invasion force. The Libyan people never needed foreign ground brigades to succeed in their revolution.
8. The United States led the charge to war. There is no evidence for this allegation whatsoever. When I asked Glenn Greenwald whether a US refusal to join France and Britain in a NATO united front might not have destroyed NATO, he replied that NATO would never have gone forward unless the US had plumped for the intervention in the first place. I fear that answer was less fact-based and more doctrinaire than we are accustomed to hearing from Mr. Greenwald, whose research and analysis on domestic issues is generally first-rate. As someone not a stranger to diplomatic history, and who has actually heard briefings in Europe from foreign ministries and officers of NATO members, I’m offended at the glibness of an answer given with no more substantiation than an idee fixe. The excellent McClatchy wire service reported on the reasons for which then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Pentagon, and Obama himself were extremely reluctant to become involved in yet another war in the Muslim world. It is obvious that the French and the British led the charge on this intervention, likely because they believed that a protracted struggle over years between the opposition and Qaddafi in Libya would radicalize it and give an opening to al-Qaeda and so pose various threats to Europe. French President Nicolas Sarkozy had been politically mauled, as well, by the offer of his defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, to send French troops to assist Ben Ali in Tunisia (Alliot-Marie had been Ben Ali’s guest on fancy vacations), and may have wanted to restore traditional French cachet in the Arab world as well as to look decisive to his electorate. Whatever Western Europe’s motivations, they were the decisive ones, and the Obama administration clearly came along as a junior partner (something Sen. John McCain is complaining bitterly about).
9. Qaddafi would not have killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents in Benghazi, Derna, al-Bayda and Tobruk if he had been allowed to pursue his March Blitzkrieg toward the eastern cities that had defied him. But we have real-world examples of how he would have behaved, in Zawiya, Tawargha, Misrata and elsewhere. His indiscriminate shelling of Misrata had already killed between 1000 and 2000 by last April,, and it continued all summer. At least one Qaddafi mass grave with 150 bodies in it has been discovered. And the full story of the horrors in Zawiya and elsewhere in the west has yet to emerge, but it will not be pretty. The opposition claims Qaddafi’s forces killed tens of thousands. Public health studies may eventually settle this issue, but we know definitively what Qaddafi was capable of.
10. This was a war for Libya’s oil. That is daft. Libya was already integrated into the international oil markets, and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI, etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who had signed them. They had often already had the trauma of having to compete for post-war Iraqi contracts, a process in which many did less well than they would have liked. ENI’s profits were hurt by the Libyan revolution, as were those of Total SA. and Repsol. Moreover, taking Libyan oil off the market through a NATO military intervention could have been foreseen to put up oil prices, which no Western elected leader would have wanted to see, especially Barack Obama, with the danger that a spike in energy prices could prolong the economic doldrums. An economic argument for imperialism is fine if it makes sense, but this one does not, and there is no good evidence for it (that Qaddafi was erratic is not enough), and is therefore just a conspiracy theory.
This piece originally appeared on Professor Cole’s blog, Informed Comment.