This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the Morning Star on 16 June, 2014.
While a few books have been written about the 2011 Libya war from a critical, anti-imperialist perspective (the most important being Cynthia McKinney’s The Illegal War on Libya and Maximilian Forte’s Slouching Towards Sirte), Topping Qaddafi is the first attempt by a mainstream western political scientist to provide a retrospective justification for the war.
The author, Christopher Chivvis, works at a US government-funded think-tank (RAND Corporation) and is a well-connected analyst whose articles have been published in Foreign Policy, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. His book is, as you might expect, unashamedly pro-imperialist, and presents a more-or-less official narrative. As such it should be read critically. Nonetheless, it provides some useful insight into the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the war, as well as revealing the full extent of NATO’s role.
The re-telling of tall stories
Chivvis starts by reiterating the official justification for going to war: that the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was engaged in a deadly crackdown on peaceful demonstrators calling for democracy. What’s interesting is that Chivvis doesn’t manage to introduce any new or convincing evidence, but instead simply recycles the various reports that appeared in the mainstream press at the time and which have since been comprehensively discredited. For example he cites “evidence of systematic rape by regime militias”, a story refuted three years ago by none other than Amnesty International. He further claims that “Qaddafi had reinforced it [the Libyan army] with mercenaries from Africa and Eastern Europe”, with no mention of the discovery that the only ‘mercenaries’ ever captured were not in fact mercenaries at all but rather “undocumented labourers from Chad, Mali and West Africa”.
Any far-fetched and unsubstantiated claims made by supporters of the uprising are treated as being uncontrovertibly true. Among the book’s sources is a Guardian article containing the following passage:
Reports from inside the country claimed pro-regime forces had deliberately aimed at protesters’ heads. A mass funeral for 35 people who died on Friday came under fire from pro-government snipers who killed one person at the procession and injured a dozen more, according to sources in the city. The shootings came amid credible reports of a round-up of government opponents who were taken from their homes in raids by security forces. The crackdown has been led by the elite Khamis Brigade, led by Gaddafi’s youngest son… Unconfirmed reports claim that force has been backed by African mercenaries brought into the country in five separate flights. A video on the Libya 17th February website appeared to show an injured African mercenary who had captured by anti-government protesters.
These few short sentences yield a particularly high-scoring game of spot-the-euphemism. We have “reports from inside the country”, “sources in the city”, “credible reports”, “unconfirmed reports” and “a video” which “appeared to show” something or other – but what we don’t have is any reliable evidence. Indeed, every single one of these “unconfirmed reports” turned out to be untrue.
Real reasons for the invasion
Chivvis goes into detail about the US’ initial reluctance to take military action, correctly pointing out that France and Britain were the main ‘hawks’ in the weeks leading up to the start of the bombing campaign. “As of early 2011, the chances NATO would go to war again seemed remote at best.” Indeed, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates stated on 24 February 2011 that “any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Chivvis notes that, in early March, “less than a third of Americans favoured helping the rebels militarily.”
It’s not that the US wasn’t convinced of the virtues of overthrowing the Gaddafi government – in spite of eight years of rapprochement and somewhat improved relations, the US remained decidedly uneasy about Libya’s resource nationalism, its increased economic ties with China and Russia, and its efforts toward African political, economic and military integration. Continued CIA support for covert anti-Gaddafi organisations like the National Front for the Salvation of Libya is well-known. Meanwhile, the US quickly saw in the ‘Arab Spring’ an opportunity to turn the situation to its own advantage – indeed, Chivvis suggests that one of the motives for intervention in Libya was that a failure of the uprising “could reverse a democratic surge expected to be in the US interest in the long haul”. Hillary Clinton was fairly explicit on the subject: ”The entire region is changing, and a strong and strategic American response will be essential.”
There were no shortage of motives for a NATO war on Libya. However, the Pentagon was hoping that the rebels might be able to conduct a successful coup without the help of the international high-tech-destruction community. Apart from anything else, there was a preference to avoid another unpopular war in the Middle East, especially in light of the hugely negative public perception of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ”Secretary Clinton had favoured keeping all options on the table, while sometimes leaning toward the more cautious position of the Defence Department, largely in hope that Qaddafi might simply yield to the rebels without an intervention.”
When it became clear that a successful rebel uprising was not even a slightly likely outcome, we saw a swift metamorphosis in US foreign policy circles as doves turned into hawks. Chivvis tries to cover NATO’s tracks by claiming that “it was the imminent threat Qaddafi’s forces posed to the civilian population of Benghazi combined with the emergence of a military option that could save thousands of imperiled lives that led to intervention”. But it is common knowledge that the ‘imminent threat’ was massively and deliberately overstated in order to build a case for war – as Stephen M Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, wrote back in April 2011, “the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.”
It is again common knowledge that it was armed insurgents that were under threat rather than the ‘civilian population’. The only meaningful change that occurred between the beginning of March and the middle of March was that the Libyan state had moved decisively to suppress a coup. ”The … most important change was Qaddafi’s rout of the rebel forces. Over the weekend, Qaddafi’s army began to make rapid progress, pushing rebels out of the oil port of Ras Lanuf on March 11 and crushing the uprising in Zawiyah.”
Beyond the removal of an inconveniently anti-imperialist and independent government, the possibility of NATO intervention had certain other attractive qualities in the eyes of western policy-makers. Perhaps the most important of these was the example an intervention would provide for other regional powers. Acknowledging that the level of violence went well beyond what was authorised in the UN Security Council’s resolution for a no-fly zone, Chivvis admits that it “was no doubt intended to demonstrate US capabilities to other regional powers – such as Iran and Syria.”
One subtle and often-overlooked factor in the US decision to join – and take charge of – the military campaign against Libya is that it was keen to reassert its dominance over a Europe that is no longer so unambiguously tied to the Washington Consensus as it once was. Implying (not entirely unfairly) that a British/French-led attack would be little more than a vanity project for Cameron and Sarkozy, Chivvis states his doubt that the EU forces would have been up to the job of regime change in Libya. “The outlook for the European Union’s decade-long effort to build an EU alternative to NATO was rather gloomy. Toppling Qaddafi was exactly the kind of operation the EU had originally aspired to with its security and defence policy, but it had proven totally useless for this purpose.” Chivvis goes on to gloat that “the United States was the ‘indispensable nation’ for these kinds of military operations. No other country – China, Russia, and India included – could have provided the capabilities that the United States did.” Thus, the regime change operation in Libya served as a message of US supremacy, directed not just to the baddies in Tehran and Damascus but also to the major west European powers.
For NATO, by NATO – a brutal colonial war
UN Security Council resolution 1973, approved on 17 March 2011, called for “a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians” and the seizing of Libyan state assets. The wording did not allow for a regime change operation, nor for direct assistance to anti-government groups in Libya, nor for wide-ranging attacks against targets on the ground. The no-fly zone was presented as being a very limited operation, not a massive aerial onslaught. In practice, as Chivvis is forced to admit, it was a NATO war on a similar scale to the brutal attack on Yugoslavia, fought and won by a western imperialist air force with the assistance of special forces on the ground.
All told, the operation would draw on more than 8,000 personnel, 21 warships, and some 250 aircraft flying more than 26,000 sorties. Nineteen countries contributed military forces, including four from the Middle East.
Chivvis notes a close level of tactical collaboration between the rebels and NATO, without which the overthrow of the Gaddafi government would not have been possible. “The thuwwar could never have won by themselves. Without NATO’s intervention, their uprising would most likely have been snuffed out by Qaddafi’s assault on Benghazi, and even if it had not, it would probably have become a low-level insurgency and dragged on for years… ‘I can’t say we dislike or like NATO,’ said one tha’ir on the eastern front, but ‘without them we would have been finished.’”
Although he is slightly cagey on the subject, the author also has to admit that there was direct military assistance on the ground – something that was strenuously denied at the time.
“It is now clear from official statements, news reporting, and other published sources that special forces from Britain, France, Italy, Qatar, and the UAE were on the ground at various locations across the country from the start of the conflict, and they became more and more engaged as the situation evolved. These forces were never more than a few hundred, of which Europeans figured only a small portion, but they were enough to make a significant difference on the course of the war.”
The role of these “few hundred” special forces was not limited to friendly advice. “Special forces were training thuwwar, providing advice at the tactical and strategic level to thuwwar commanders, deconflicting NATO air strikes with thuwwar movements, providing intelligence to them, and ultimately fighting alongside them as they took Tripoli and tracked down Qaddafi afterward.”
Chivvis denies that the rebels were “calling in air strikes”, but states that they “eventually learned where to go and not to go and would wait as NATO hit targets to clear a path for them to advance”. Further, “as the war progressed, special forces teams on the ground were doing this for the rebels, with greater and greater frequency, in a rough approximation of the ‘Afghan Model’”. The situation was summed up quite neatly by a rebel commander in June 2011: “we don’t move unless we have very clear instructions from NATO.”
The above sounds a lot more like a ‘war of regime change’ than a ‘no-fly zone’. NATO’s actions were so outrageous as to draw a complaint from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (in spite of the fact that the Arab League had been cheerleading for the NFZ): “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”
In March, at the beginning of the invasion, the chief of the UK defence staff, General David Richards, told the BBC that targeting the Libyan leader was “not allowed under the UN resolution”. And yet Chivvis describes in some detail the crucial involvement of NATO forces in the capture and murder of a sovereign nation’s head of state: “On October 20, after several days of gradual rebel advances on Sirte, NATO planes spotted a convoy leaving the city. Before it was even two miles outside, a Predator that had been circling overhead fired a Hellfire missile that destroyed the leading vehicle. Two French Mirages then also attacked, scattering the convoy, and Thuwwar gave chase on the ground. Qaddafi leapt from one of the cars into a nearby drainpipe, where he attempted to hide. Nearby rebel fighters, however, converged on the spot and quickly pulled him out, beat him, and shot him in the head.”
There are some curious omissions in ‘Toppling Qaddafi’. Chivvis barely mentions, for example, the ferocious NATO onslaught on Sirte – perhaps because bombing a city “into the Dark Ages” is not entirely consistent with his overall narrative. Nor does he see the need to discuss the “compendious evidence of mass abduction and detention, beating and routine torture, killings and atrocities by the rebel militias Britain, France and the US have backed”. While it was apparently essential to protect anti-Gaddafi protestors in Benghazi, the victims of mass execution in Sirte are not worthy of so much as a passing mention in Chivvis’ book.
Another key element of the war ignored by Chivvis is the racist violence meted out by NATO’s ‘rebel’ mercenaries. Reports of widespread lynching and torture of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers by rebel forces were appearing as early as February 2011 – before the NFZ was even being discussed. Seumas Milne wrote a few months later that “African migrants and black Libyans [were] subject to a relentless racist campaign of mass detention, lynchings and atrocities”. NATO-backed forces were found to be caging black Africans like animals in a zoo; there were reports of black Libyans being forced to climb up a pole shouting ‘monkey need banana’. And yet the widespread ethnic cleansing, torture and murder of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers by rebel forces doesn’t make it onto Chivvis’ balance sheet when assessing the overall success of NATO’s war on Libya.
Give peace a chance?
Chivvis claims that the NATO bombing was necessary in order to avert a humanitarian crisis, but he almost completely fails to mention all the other options available for restoring stability and peace in Libya. The Gaddafi government offered a ceasefire immediately after the passing of Resolution 1973, including a full amnesty for rebels who had taken up arms. In late April, Gaddafi again offered a full ceasefire, stating: “We were the first to welcome a ceasefire and we were the first to accept a ceasefire… but the Crusader Nato attack has not stopped. The door to peace is open.”
Well before the NFZ declaration, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez offered to broker a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. The rebels – clearly confident that the west would come and wage war on their behalf – simply responded that they would “never negotiate with Gaddafi”. Tellingly, the Guardian noted that “reports that Chavez’s proposal was being taken seriously by Arab leaders has pushed down oil prices.” The implication of which is: the oil companies wanted war on Libya.
South African president Jacob Zuma led African Union efforts to design a comprehensive ceasefire, which was agreed to by Libya. However, this was rejected out of hand by both Washington puppet-masters and Benghazi puppets on the basis that a ceasefire would only be considered if Gaddafi agreed to leave the country. In fact, between March and September 2011 – including in June and July when government positions were looking extremely strong – Gaddafi consistently called for a ceasefire and his calls were consistently ignored. The attitude of NATO and the rebels was: “accept defeat and we’ll stop bombing you” – hardly a serious approach to the project of saving lives and restoring peace.
Another conundrum is that “Qaddafi’s air force and long-range surface-to-air systems were flattened in a matter of a few short days”. That is to say, the mandate of the NFZ was complete in less than a week. So why didn’t the bombardment end? Chivvis does not address this question.
Disaster for Libya and the entire region
“In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war, or it could descend into chaos. The stakes are high.” (Hillary Clinton)
So was it all worth it? In the eyes of Christopher Chivvis, yes. The toppling of the Gaddafi government was “ultimately just an opening toward a richer and more meaningful kind of freedom that might allow Libya’s new citizens to go about their lives with less fear and greater dignity.” He continues: “The results are far from perfect and postwar stabilisation has faltered, but ultimately the choice to intervene was the right one.”
Chivvis struggles to qualify the assertion of success, given the “faltering postwar stabilisation” – a pretty transparent euphemism for “complete and utter mess”. Seumas Milne notes that “three years after Nato declared victory, Libya is lurching once again towards civil war.” Patrick Cockburn concurs: “Libya is tipping toward all-out civil war as rival militias take sides for and against an attempted coup led by a renegade general that has pushed the central government towards disintegration”.
Furthermore, “Libya’s turmoil is acquiring continental significance”. One of Gaddafi’s major priorities was to promote regional stability and coordination. The post-Gaddafi power vacuum has created space for militias of every shape and size to create havoc across the region, from Mali to Chad to Syria to Nigeria.
However, ‘success’ depends on how you measure it. The key to Chivvis’ thinking can be found in the following passage:
“In general, Libya should remain a positive, if smaller-scale, antidote to the sense of helplessness and cynicism about American power setting in after the deeply trying experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is a good thing.”
This is a brutally honest statement about the role of the Libya war in the geostrategic context of the Project for a New American Century – the US’ desperate attempt to maintain its hegemony and prevent the emergence of a multipolar world order. According to Chivvis’ logic, the deeply unpopular, expensive and catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were damaging to US hegemony, but the Libya war furnishes new proof of the US’ role as the world’s policeman. The US maintains its “responsibility to take the actions that we can take, however imperfect, to uphold the values in which our model is grounded.”
NATO’s war on Libya was therefore a key part of an ongoing strategy to “divide and ruin” – violating national sovereignty, creating civil wars, and removing states that refuse to go along with its diktat, all serving to create an unstable global political environment that only the western powers (led by the US) have the military weight to control. The wars in Libya and Syria; the NATO- and EU-sponsored boiling pot in Ukraine; the ‘revolt of the rich’ in Venezuela; the CIA-funded social media campaigns in Cuba; Obama’s “Pacific Pivot”: these are all part of a wide-ranging strategy to maintain western imperialist hegemony. It is the duty of all progressive humanity to recognise and oppose such a strategy.