In a New York Times news analysis (4/29/18) examining how the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi after he agreed to halt his nuclear program might influence North Korean thinking about disarmament, the Times’ Peter Baker writes that “President Barack Obama and European allies launched military action against Libya in 2011 to prevent a threatened massacre of civilians.” Later, Baker recounts that Gadhafi “vowed to crush his opponents, including civilians, prompting Mr. Obama and European allies to intervene to stop him.”
But did Gadhafi actually threaten to massacre civilians? A radio broadcast by the Libyan leader in which he declared he would show “no mercy” in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi was offered as justification for the UN Security Council vote that authorized “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. “Gadhafi Vows ‘No Mercy’ as UN Eyes Action,” was how AP (3/17/11) reported on the Security Council deliberations.
But when the New York Times (3/17/11) itself reported on the speech, it described it as a threat against rebel combatants, not against civilians: Gadhafi “promised amnesty for those ‘who throw their weapons away’ but ‘no mercy or compassion’ for those who fight,” the Times’ David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim reported.
The myth that Gadhafi had openly threatened civilians and thus necessitated international military intervention sprang up quickly as the US and its NATO allies launched an attack on Libya’s government. “What obviously changed [Obama’s] mind” about using force, reported the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman (4/3/11), “was the fear that Moammar Gadhafi was bent on mass slaughter — which stemmed from Gadhafi’s March 17 speech vowing ‘no mercy’ for his enemies.” But the claims that Gadhafi was intending to slaughter tens or hundreds of thousands were, wrote Chapman,
outlandish scenarios that go beyond any reasonable interpretation of Gadhafi’s words. He said, “We will have no mercy on them”—but by “them,” he plainly was referring to armed rebels (“traitors”) who stand and fight, not all the city’s inhabitants.
Elsewhere in his Times article, Baker refers to the nuclear deal Iran made with the United States:
Iran was not known to have weapons but did have a nuclear program that seemed intended to develop them when it signed an agreement with Mr. Obama’s administration in 2015 to give up its program.
This too contradicts earlier New York Times reporting: “American intelligence analysts continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb,” wrote James Risen and Mark Mazzetti (2/24/12), under the headline “US Agencies See No Move by Iran to Build a Bomb.” They reported that US intelligence agencies were standing by their 2007 assessment that “Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years earlier.”
Baker’s piece ends with the observation that “each side sees its own very different lessons” from the Libyan history. It’s easier to draw correct lessons from history when the paper of record reports history as it happened.