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Barack Obama's presidency

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Surreal Rhetoric on Libya

By Lawrence Davidson
April 1, 2011

Editor’s Note: War rhetoric is heating up in Washington as politicians and commentators alike propose various bloody schemes for eliminating Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, from his assassination to his violent overthrow by a CIA-trained-and-armed rebel army.

Very few voices are advocating a cease-fire or a negotiated settlement. To do so would invite accusations of being “soft on Gaddafi” and that would disqualify you from a spot as a “serious” Washington thinker. But there are grave dangers involved in a wider war, as Lawrence Davidson notes in this guest essay:

Spokespersons for NATO, European politicians, members of the Obama administration, and the President himself have been out and about seeking to articulate justifications for the ongoing intervention in Libya. For better or worse, their public statements do not always make sense.

On 28 March, the Secretary General of NATO, General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, insisted that coalition forces in Libya were acting in a strictly "impartial" manner even as NATO aircraft attacked the town of Sirte in support of rebel forces.

"NATO is impartial" repeated Rasmussen, and is present in Libya to "protect civilians within the framework of the U.N. mandate, no more no less."

This statement is utterly surreal. Does the Secretary General actually believe this? Can it be that he is ignorant of what his organization is actually doing in North Africa? Is he consciously attempting to mislead?
On the same day Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” repeated for what must be the hundredth time the allegation that Muammar Gaddafi was preparing to massacre civilians in Benghazi as well as other parts of eastern Libya and quick U.S. action prevented a "full scale slaughter."

U.S. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, speaking at a Pentagon briefing, also on March 28, said the message being sent to Gaddafi loyalists is "Stop killing your own people." No one is denying that Gaddafi is a tyrant and a man perfectly capable of murdering his fellow Libyans.

However, as a rule the United States has supported many such "leaders," including Hosni Mubarak, Augusto Pinochet, the last Shah of Iran, Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, Argentina’s old junta of Generals, Indonesia’s Suharto and, as of late in a de facto manner, the monarch of Bahrain.

Why are Gaddafi’s murderous ways so special? Then again, for all the talk of mass murder in Libya, there has been little incontrovertible evidence of it and surely if there was such evidence Fox TV would be running the video images every 15 minutes.
Finally, there was the statement of President Barack Obama, delivered to the American people on the evening of March 28. Certainly heartfelt in its delivery, the 28-minute speech was a mixture of established rationales (America "halted a slaughter that could have shaken the stability of the entire region") and national glorification ("to brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and more profoundly our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are").

First of all, just how Gaddafi’s attempt to assert government control over rebellious provinces would "shake the stability of the entire region" or endanger the present processes of reform in Egypt and Tunisia is yet to be explained.

Actually, it can be argued that it was the violent suppression of unarmed demonstrators calling for democratic reform by the monarch of Bahrain (and not the violence in Libya) which sent out the signal that repression in the form of shooting down your own people was now an acceptable option in the region.

Secondly, while I am willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt and accept that he speaks from the heart, his statement about who we Americans are as a nation is not historically accurate. Our military interventions have never reflected any sincere sense of "responsibilities to our fellow human beings."

Just ask the Vietnamese, the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Palestinians, the Chileans, the Guatemalans, the people of El Salvador, Cubans, Panamanians, Filipinos, ad infinitum.

I would even be willing to believe that the President has had an epiphany and really wants to lead the nation in the way of goodness, if it weren’t for his persistent catering to the distinctly less-than-good Israelis regarding their treatment of the Palestinians. No. President Obama’s statements are just too out of national character to be believed.
In the meantime, NATO spokespersons project a 90-day mission in Libya, but this is probably optimistic, for the complications and contradictions are only now beginning. Here are some examples:
1. The rebels cannot defeat Gaddafi unless they are armed with much heavier weapons then they now possess and also trained in their use.

Despite Secretary of State Clinton verbal gymnastics this would be the sort of reinterpretation of U.N. Resolution 1973 that is very likely to lead to the splintering of the NATO coalition. Will President Obama support actions that might have long-term detrimental consequences for the alliance? 
2. If the coalition creates a well-armed rebel army and assists it with close air-support, it will almost certainly kill and maim as many, if not more, civilians as they move west, than Gaddafi was allegedly doing as his forces moved east.  
3. The rebel coalition is tribal in nature and potentially fractious in character. What holds them together is not their alleged desire for democracy, but rather their dislike of Gaddafi. In a post-Gaddafi Libya there is a chance that the rebels will start fighting among themselves over control of the country’s resources? 
4. There are some reports that a NATO multinational force is being considered to keep the peace in Libya. Well, Gaddafi always said that this was a "Crusader" venture against his country. Putting European troops into Libya would be utterly stupid. But you never know where the mysterious logic of present-day Western leaders might lead you.
There is a remarkable irony in all of this. It was back in 2003 that Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear and chemical weapons programs. On the face of it such moves toward disarmament are good things. However, I don’t think you will be seeing many more of them in the future.

The present intervention in Libya, whether justified or not, has demonstrated to everyone (and, no doubt, particularly to the Iranians) that if you want to keep the Americans and their friends out of your country, having an atomic bomb or two may well be the only sure way of doing so.  

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest; America's Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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