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As the third anniversary of the attack on Libya approaches, Chris Nineham draws the lessons from Horace Campbell's Global Nato and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya

HoraceCampbell, Global Nato and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya (Monthly Review Press 2013), 320pp.

From mid-March to October 2011, Libya was rarely out of the headlines as Western air forces averaged 150 air strikes per day on the hapless population. The brutal killing of Gaddafi – co-ordinated, Campbell says here, by US, British and French special forces and drones – was followed by a brief media celebration. Since then, with the exception of puzzled reports about the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi in September 2012, and scattered references to chaos and militia rule, there has been virtual radio silence. The traumatic impact of this pummelling was so obvious on the ground, the western media simply slunk away.

The attack on Libya was officially the most thoroughly humanitarian of wars. ‘Conflict prevention expert’ Gareth Evans was joining a chorus of western opinion when he insisted in March 2011 that the operation ‘was not about bombing for democracy or Muammar Gaddafi’s head. Legally, morally, politically, and militarily it has only one justification: protecting the country’s people’ (p.134).

Horace Campbell’s account of the war effectively demolishes the notion that the intervention had even traces of humanitarianism about it. Campbell has some blind spots; he plays down Gaddafi’s totalitarian record and plays up Obama’s instincts for peace. Sometimes his argument is a little hard to follow. Nevertheless, this a very important story, because, as the third anniversary of the attack on Libya approaches, calls for other, similar humanitarian interventions keep getting louder. While the wider population in Britain and elsewhere is becoming more and more hostile to foreign wars, the case for intervention seems to be gaining ground in liberal and left circles.

Causes and consequences

Campbell clearly outlines the catastrophic results of the western bombing. Around 50,000 people died after the intervention started as opposed to a few thousand before, and the Libyan state fell apart under the impact of mass bombardment and the subsequent rise of the militias. Crucially also, he shows how this disastrous outcome was a direct consequence of the motives that drove the intervention.

Bernard Henri-Levy, the French intellectual who proudly claimed to have done the intellectual and diplomatic heavy lifting to clear the way for the attack, admitted that France had been planning intervention years before (p.73). When the opportunity came, it was not a co-ordinated, considered intervention but an unseemly scramble for advantage. France launched its bombers within hours of the UN voting that it had a responsibility to protect in Libya. In the words of a British military advisor:

‘At the end of the meeting … President Sarkozy announced to the world’s media and without consultation with either of the allies, who he had been with minutes before, that French aircraft were in action over the city. Within two hours, French forces had engaged Qadhafi’s tanks and armour in a dramatic series of attacks which halted the immediate advance of the government forces on Tripoli’ (p.117).

Rather than condemning the French, the British and Americans scrambled to catch up. The French started bombing at 6pm on March 19, by midnight, American and British submarines were launching Tomahawk missiles on prearranged targets around the country. Rivalry ran right through the campaign. The participants could not even agree on a name for the operation. According to Italian parliamentarian Giampiero Cantoni, France strongly objected to Nato oversight ‘because they wanted to secure post war oil contracts for themselves’ (p.119).

The International Institute of Strategic Studies reported that the supposed objective of defending Benghazi was achieved within two days (p.119). The bombing went on for another five months, involving 9,700 bombing missions. There were moments of truth after Tripoli fell. On 1 September, a Guardian headline ran, ‘the race is on for Libya’s oil, with Britain and France both staking a claim’ (p.83). As if to illustrate the claim, in the next few weeks Tripoli was visited by Cameron, Sarkozy, Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Paolo Scaroni, the CEO of Italian energy giant ENI.

The Guardian headline was shorthand. It was not just oil that the Western powers were after. Campbell documents important discoveries of gas in the 1990s making Libya the second largest source in the world. France was also interested in the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, one of the biggest underground sources of freshwater anywhere on the globe, and German companies had for sometime been surveying Libya’s desert areas for future production of solar power for Europe.

A contested world

If the Western powers’ motives were predatory, their actions can only be fully understood in a wider geopolitical context. A careful reading of this dense and slightly disorganised book tells us much about this context and identifies trends that are likely to shape western foreign policy for some time.

An important piece of the background relates to the way the US’s relative decline had opened up space for emerging economies to re-orientate. As Campbell comments ‘if the Iraq War discredited neo-conservatism, the fall of Lehman brothers in 2008 discredited the ideas of neo-liberalism’ (p.31). Tony Blair was acting with the blessing of the US when he made high-visibility overtures to Gaddafi in the Libyan desert in 2003. Despite these advances and an initial rapprochement with the West, by the end of the decade the Gaddafi regime was developing a foreign and economic policy that was more and more independent of the west as a response to the US’s problems and the growing strength of rivals. Libya’s links with China, Russia and Brazil were developing fast. At the same time, conscious that six of the ten fastest developing countries were in Africa, Gaddafi was also orientating politically and economically more and more towards the African continent. He was using the rhetoric of Pan Africanism and forging close trading ties particularly with other states that had recently discovered new mineral resources.

Faced with this evidence of stubborn autonomy, the US began to develop a second track to its Libyan policy by encouraging alternative leadership figures. According to one analyst of the Wikileaks exposures, ‘the US cultivated relations with certain figures in Gaddafi’s regime, and secretly discussed the benefits of Gaddafi’s removal from the scene’ (p.48).

Various high-level Libyan bureaucrats who had been educated in British universities and ‘persuaded’ by neo-liberal economics were turned against the regime. In 2008, one of them, Ibrahim el-Meyet, was reported by the US embassy as saying that he had concluded that ‘there will be no real economic or political reform in Libya until al Gaddafi passes from the scene’ and this ‘will not occur while Gaddafi is alive’ (p.73).

The second important element involves the Arab revolutions. The revolts in Egypt and Tunisia had caused pandemonium in Washington. It was not just that two of the West’s favourite dictators had been overthrown, but copycat uprisings threatened to spread the virus of democracy across a region that the US liked to regard as part of its patrimony. The experience of Haiti had taught that armed civil wars can provide favourable conditions for foreign interventions. Good connections with disgruntled figures in the regime were one important asset. Western leaders also sensed that because of the authoritarian nature of the Libyan state, the democratic uprising in the East of the country would be led by people with little depth or experience in politics. The West’s gamble was that key rebel figures could be won away from a principled struggle for democracy and independence to a pro western, and therefore open market agenda. This was the work undertaken by Henri-Levy and others in the run up to the bombing. Unfortunately it was very successful.

The calculation may have been that a western backed regime change would lead to a flourishing free-market democracy. It did not quite work out that way. The West’s foregrounding of clan and ethnic identity as part of its policy of co-option led to chaos and collapse rather than a bright new neoliberal order. No matter. Combined with outright repression in Qatar and elsewhere the intervention at least had the effect of demoralising and disorientating the revolutionary forces in the Middle East.

A new kind of war

The final piece of the jigsaw concerns the evolving strategy of the west, led by the US. The humiliating experience of Afghanistan and Iraq had made full-scale land invasions unappealing even for the hawks, at least for the time being. The result was not a turn away from an aggressive foreign policy, but a move towards proxy wars, special operations and drone attacks. The real story behind the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi exposed the extent to which these kinds of strategies were deployed in Libya and continued in Syria. In Campbell’s words:

‘The military-intelligence hierarchy had formulated a policy to align with certain militia groups in eastern Libya … France, the CIA and AFRICOM had aligned with these jihadists to destabilize Libya, freeze billions of dollars of assets, execute Gaddafi, and keep the alliance going, using Libya as a rear base in the drive for regime change in Syria’ (p.261).

While the dark operations got underway, the intervention was being presented as an act of high morals which would save lives not waste them. It was proclaimed under the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ policy adopted by the UN in 2005. Far too many liberals and leftists were taken in. Somehow they allowed themselves to believe that the western war machine could turn benign. They cannot have even listened to the speeches properly. US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was frank, ‘a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy their air defences … and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry too much about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts’ (p.119).

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.


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