Once held up as a model of 'humanitarian intervention' Libya's decent into bloody violence tells a story our rulers would rather we forget argues Kit Klarenberg
On October 20th 2011, Operation Unified Protector – a ‘humanitarian intervention’ into Libya – culminated with the gruesome televised murder of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. His slaughterers – rebel forces that Nato had equipped, assisted and sheltered over the previous seven and a half months – had much to celebrate, as did the Western states (the US, UK and France) that had led the endeavour. Elation was writ large; Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen celebrated the cessation of hostilities by dubbing the Operation “one of the most successful in Nato’s history”.
The 'Mad Dog’s' lurid massacre was merely the icing on the interventionist cake; the West’s Libyan incursion was effectively already over in September of that year, when David Cameron decided to stop by and rejoice in the dropping of ‘freedom’ from on high with a gathering of newly ‘liberated’ Libyans.
Informing the assembled that “Benghazi is an inspiration to the world”, the Prime Minister welcomed a “new era” in Libyan history, and pledged that Libya’s “friends” in Britain and France would “stand with you as you build your democracy and build your country for the future”.
From left to right, Britain’s mainstream press applauded Cameron’s dauntless decision and intestinal fortitude; The Daily Mail praised his “strong performance” – he was a “giant among ducklings”, thoroughly “in his element”; The Guardian commended his resolve in the face of pusillanimous ‘sceptics’ in his Cabinet, and fawningly documented his ideological ‘transformation’, “from a reluctant to a passionate interventionist”; The Independent noted the “rock star’s welcome” that received him, and positively greeted news that Britain would benefit when contracts to rebuild the “oil-rich” North African state were awarded.
State of constant failure
Today, Libya is a country riven, and blighted by disorder and chaos. As far as insurrectionary violence goes, the grim bedlam that has accompanied Libya’s nigh-on utter political, social and economic breakdown over the past three years has been almost stultifying to behold. An apparently inexorable cavalcade of reports has documented the attempted assassination of public figures, the successful assassination of public figures, unending sectarian clashes, attacks on embassies by gunmen, attacks on embassies via car bomb, etcetera ad nauseum. In September 2014, a massive increase in bloodletting in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, forced Members of Parliament to decamp from the country’s legislative buildings. Proceedings resumed in a Greek commercial liner more commonly used for the transportation of cars.
Tripoli is now a lawless city state administrated by violent militias; many other regions of Libya had gone the same way. In mid-2013, Cyrenaica declared independence from the Libyan government, and it was reported in early November 2014 that Derna had become an Isis stronghold (a development seemingly confirmed a day later with the announcement that three young local activists had been found beheaded). In late October 2014, the country’s macabre condition was unambiguously underlined by an Amnesty International report, which concluded that;
“In today’s Libya, the rule of the gun has taken hold. Armed groups are running amok, launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas and committing widespread abuses, including war crimes, with complete impunity.”
AI’s report has been endorsed by the UN, and the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
However, it’s not merely ‘at home’ that Nato’s “most successful” intervention has unravelled quite so brutally. At the G8 summit in 2013, David Cameron announced an initiative that would see the UK, US, Italy and Turkey train 15,000 Libyan soldiers for defensive purposes; however, a mere week before the fall of Derna, the Ministry of Defence quietly declared it would abandon the policy due to a series of criminal charges for sex offences being levelled at Libyan soldiers stationed at an army barracks in Cambridgeshire. This followed a similar cancellation of commitments by the US in the summer; by the US government’s own admission, “not a single soldier” had been successfully trained by the time the endeavour terminated.
There appears to be no end to the disintegration in sight, and the situation seems to worsen by the day. Sadly, most of the scenes that have played out in Libya will have been depressingly familiar to those who have witnessed similar nightmare realms ripen in the states unfortunate enough to be caught in the crosshairs of the 'War on Terror'. What makes these events all the more perverse is that they are the direct result of an ‘intervention’ marketed to the public by commentators and politicians on the basis of its inherent benignancy.
The same figures, on both the alleged right and left of the mainstream political and media sphere, were eager to echo General Rasmussen’s haughty heralding of success; the same voices abruptly fell mute when word of ensuing tumult and fracture reached Western shores. In an excellent article published on The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain asked;
“What happened to the deeply felt humanitarianism? Where did it go?”
The obvious answer is that is never existed in the first place – although, astoundingly, David Cameron purportedly refers to Libya as his “happy place”; a sanctuary he can mentally beckon to remind himself that he is capable of achieving positive ends. Every empire in history has justified its reprehensible behaviour on altruistic grounds; the British lugged a ‘White Man’s Burden’ across a quarter of the globe; France’s ‘Civilising Mission’ brought death, destruction and barbarism to Africa and South East Asia.
White man's burden 2
Former British Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks summed up Britain’s true intentions far more honestly when he remarked;
"We did not conquer India for the benefit of the Indians. I know that it is said at missionary meetings that we have conquered India to raise the level of the Indians. That is cant. We conquered India as the outlet for the goods of Great Britain."
As has been consistently proven since its institution in the 1990s, ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ is just the latest privileging spin applied to the imperialist activities of world powers. The real aims of the Libyan folly, as ever, were control of and access to resources, the destruction of alternative political exemplars, the crushing of nationalism abroad, the improvement of electoral chances at home, and the cultivation of regional instability – each objective feeding into an overall aim of ever-greater power and profit for the already prosperous and prevailing.
The British public do not benefit from Britain’s overseas exploits; they pay, occasionally with their lives and invariably with their taxes. The grotesque logic of humanitarian intervention, and the 'War on Terror', ensures that the world in general, and participating states on both sides of a conflict, are more dangerous places once the bombing ceases.
The developments in Libya post-intervention have offered some of the most compelling arguments against the doctrine of humanitarian intervention imaginable, and should seriously undermine the claims of Western politicians that positive political and social conditions can be enforced by a hail of machine gun fire.
The apparently swift, efficient and hazard-free (for the West, at least) Libyan campaign was presented at its conclusion as a compelling argument in favour of yet further interventions down the road. Whilst the Operation’s descent into chaotic, unequivocal failure should confirm its unsuitability as a propaganda tool, it’s not enough to hope that the public are less enthusiastic about foreign military adventures as a result – and it’s not enough to hope that the British political class aren’t brazen enough to exploit it for such purposes in future.
The Kosovo War, to this day paraded and spun by interventionists on both sides of the Atlantic as a war ‘done right’, obliterated great swathes of Serbia’s civilian and industrial infrastructure (such as roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, factories and power stations), caused environmental destruction and pollution (including the poisoning of the river Danube, that provided drinking water for 10M people), killed over 2,000 Serbs and displaced almost 230,000 more.
We must work together to ensure the lessons so candidly communicated by Britain’s calamitous contemporary foreign policy record aren’t forgotten so easily.