Here we go again. The cheering crowds. The deposed dictator. The encomiums to freedom and liberty. The American military as savior. You would think we would have learned in Afghanistan or Iraq. But I guess not. I am waiting for a trucked-in crowd to rejoice as a Gadhafi statue is toppled and Barack Obama lands on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit to announce “Mission Accomplished.” War, as long as you view it through the distorted lens of the corporate media, is not only entertaining, but allows us to confuse state power with personal power. It permits us to wallow in unchecked self-exaltation. We are a nation that loves to love itself.
I know enough of Libya, a country I covered for many years as the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, to assure you that the chaos and bloodletting have only begun. Moammar Gadhafi, during one of my lengthy interviews with him under a green Bedouin tent in the sprawling Bab al-Aziziya army barracks in Tripoli, once proposed marrying one of his sons to Chelsea Clinton as a way of mending fences with the United States. He is as insane as he appears and as dangerous. But we should never have become the air force, trainers, suppliers, special forces and enablers of rival tribal factions, goons under the old regime and Islamists that are divided among themselves by deep animosities and a long history of violent conflict.
Stopping Gadhafi forces from entering Benghazi six months ago, which I supported, was one thing. Embroiling ourselves in a civil war was another. And to do it Obama blithely shredded the Constitution and bypassed Congress in violation of the War Powers Resolution. Not that the rule of law matters much in Washington. The dark reasoning of George W. Bush’s administration was that the threat of terrorism and national security gave the executive branch the right to ignore all legal restraints. The Obama administration has made this disregard for law bipartisan. Obama assured us when this started that it was not about “regime change.” But this promise proved as empty as the ones he made during his presidential campaign. He has ruthlessly prosecuted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where military planners speak of a continued U.S. presence for the next couple of decades. He has greatly expanded our proxy wars, which rely heavily on drone and missile attacks, as well as clandestine operations, in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Add a few more countries and we will set the entire region alight.
The NATO airstrikes on the city of Sirte expose the hypocrisy of our “humanitarian” intervention in Libya. Sirte is the last Gadhafi stronghold and the home to Gadhafi’s tribe. The armed Libyan factions within the rebel alliance are waiting like panting hound dogs outside the city limits. They are determined, once the airstrikes are over, not only to rid the world of Gadhafi but all those within his tribe who benefited from his 42-year rule. The besieging of Sirte by NATO warplanes, which are dropping huge iron fragmentation bombs that will kill scores if not hundreds of innocents, mocks the justification for intervention laid out in a United Nations Security Council resolution. The U.N., when this began six months ago, authorized “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” We have, as always happens in war, become the monster we sought to defeat. We destroy in order to save. Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council estimates that the number of Libyans killed in the last six months, including civilians and combatants, has exceeded 50,000. Our intervention, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, has probably claimed more victims than those killed by the former regime. But this intervention, like the others, was never, despite all the high-blown rhetoric surrounding it, about protecting or saving Libyan lives. It was about the domination of oil fields by Western corporations.
Once the Libyans realize what the Iraqis and Afghans have bitterly discovered—that we have no interest in democracy, that our primary goal is appropriating their natural resources as cheaply as possible and that we will sacrifice large numbers of people to maintain our divine right to the world’s diminishing supply of fossil fuel—they will hate us the way we deserve to be hated. Libya has the ninth largest oil reserves in the world, which is why we react with moral outrage and military resolve when Gadhafi attacks his citizens, but ignore the nightmare in the Congo, where things for the average Congolese are far, far worse. It is why the puppets in the National Transitional Council have promised to oust China and Brazil from the Libyan oil fields and turn them over to Western companies. The unequivocal message we deliver daily through huge explosions and death across the occupied Middle East is: We have everything and if you try and take it away from us we will kill you.
History is replete with conquering forces being cheered when they arrive, whether during the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine in World War II, the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon or our own arrival in Baghdad, and then rapidly mutating from liberator to despised enemy. And once our seizure of Libyan oil becomes clear it will only ramp up the jihadist hatred for America that has spread like wildfire across the Middle East. We are recruiting the next generation of 9/11 hijackers, all waiting for their chance to do to us what we are doing to them.
As W.H. Auden understood:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
The force used by the occupier to displace the old regime always makes sure the new regime is supine and complaint. The National Transitional Council, made up of former Gadhafi loyalists, Islamists and tribal leaders, many of whom detest each other, will be the West’s vehicle for the reconfiguration of Libya. Libya will return to being the colony it was before Gadhafi and the other young officers in 1969 ousted King Idris, who among other concessions had let Standard Oil write Libya’s petroleum laws. Gadhafi’s defiance of Western commercial interests, which saw the nationalization of foreign banks and foreign companies, along with the oil industry, as well as the closure of U.S. and British air bases, will be reversed. The despotic and collapsed or collapsing regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria once found their revolutionary legitimacy in the pan-Arabism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. But these regimes fell victim to their own corruption, decay and brutality. None were worth defending. Their disintegration, however, heralds a return of the corporate and imperial power that spawned figures like Nasser and will spawn his radical 21st century counterparts.
The vendettas in Libya have already begun. Government buildings in Tripoli have been looted, although not on the scale seen in Baghdad. Poor black sub-Saharan African immigrant workers have been beaten and killed. Suspected Gadhafi loyalists or spies have been tortured and assassinated. These eye-for-an-eye killings will, I fear, get worse. The National Transitional Council has announced that it opposes the presence in Libya of U.N. military observers and police, despite widespread atrocities committed by Gadhafi loyalists. The observers and police have been offered to help quell the chaos, train new security forces and provide independent verification of what is happening inside Libya. But just as Gadhafi preferred to do dirty work in secret, so will the new regime. It is an old truism, one I witnessed repeatedly in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, that yesterday’s victims rapidly become today’s victimizers.