NATO’s Debacle in Libya
By Alexander Cockburn
After three and a half months of bombing and arms supply to various rebel factions, NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) failure in its efforts to promote ‘regime change’ in Libya is now glaring.
Obviously NATO’s commanders are still hoping that a lucky bomb may kill Gaddafi, but to date the staying power has been with the Libyan leader, whereas it is the relevant NATO powers who are fighting among themselves.
The reports from Istanbul of the deliberations of NATO’s contact group have a surreal quality as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Minister William Hague gravely re-emphasise their commitment to regime change and the strengthening of ties to the Transitional Council in Benghazi, while the humiliation of the entire NATO expedition is entering the history books as an advertisement of the dangers of political fantasy in the service of ‘humanitarian interventionism’, appalling intelligence work, illusions about bombing and air power and some of the worst press coverage in living memory.
Take British Prime Minister David Cameron. He can thank Rupert Murdoch, even the wretched Andy Coulson, for one ironic blessing. His appalling misjudgement and obstinacy in hiring former News of the World editor Coulson has so dominated British headlines these past days that an equally staggering misjudgement in the international theatre is escaping well-merited ridicule and rebuke.
When Cameron vied with French president Nicolas Sarkozy in early March in heading the charge against Gaddafi, no murmur of caution seems to have disturbed the blithe mood of confidence in Downing Street. It was as though Blair’s blunders and miscalculations in Iraq, endlessly disinterred in subsequent years, had never been.
Cameron, like Sarkozy, Clinton and Barack Obama presumably had intelligence assessments of the situation in Libya. Did any of them say that Gaddafi might be a tougher nut to crack than the presidents of Tunisia or Egypt, might even command some popular support in Tripoli and western Libya, historically at odds with Benghazi and the eastern region? If they did, did they pay any attention?
The Western press, along with al-Jazeera, was no help. The early charges of Gaddafi committing ‘genocide’ against his own people or ordering mass rapes were based on unverified rumour or propaganda bulletins from Benghazi and have now been decisively discredited by reputable organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Any pretensions the International Criminal Court (ICC) might have had to judicial impartiality have been undermined by the ICC’s role as NATO’s creature, rushing out indictments of Gaddafi and his closest associates whenever NATO’s propaganda agenda has demanded it.
The journalists in Benghazi became cheerleaders for what was from the start plainly a disorganised rabble of disparate factions. The journalists in Tripoli were reluctant to file copy which might be deemed by their editors as ‘soft’ on Gaddafi, a devil figure in the West for most of his four decades in power. America’s pwogwessives exulted that at last they had on their hands a ‘just war’ and could cheer on NATO’s bombardiers with a clear conscience and entertain fantasies about the revolutionary purity of the rebels.
All history shows that the dropping of thousands of bombs and missiles, with whatever supposed standards of ‘pin point accuracy’, never elicits the enthusiastic support of civilians on the receiving end, even if a certificate of humanitarian assistance and merciful intent is stamped on every projectile. Recent pro-government rallies in Tripoli have been vast. Libya has a population of about 6 million, with 4 million in Tripoli. Gaddafi barrels around the city in an open jeep. Large amounts of AK-47s have been distributed to civilian defence committees. Were they all compelled to demonstrate by Gaddafi’s enforcers? It seems unlikely.
This last week the Western press excitedly relayed the news that a handful of prisoners were denouncing Gaddafi. Well, if you were a prisoner with rebel guns pointed at your head, would you proclaim your fidelity to the prime target of their fury, or murmur that you had been dragooned into unwilling service? Isn’t this an item from journalism 101. Are they ‘black mercenaries’ or Libyans from the south who happen to be black and members of Gaddafi’s militias?
Another pointer to NATO’s misjudgements has been the heavy-handed dismissal of charges from African, Russian and even leaders of NATO countries such as Germany that the mandates of two UN Security Council resolutions passed in February and then March 17 – protection of civilian populations – were being brazenly distorted in favour of efforts to kill Gaddafi and install the ramshackle ‘provisional government’ in Benghazi – a shady bunch from the get-go.
In early March, Sarkozy, languishing in the polls, believed the counsel of ‘new philosopher’ Bernard-Henri Lévy, after the latter’s 6 March excursion to Benghazi, that Libya and its oil were up for grabs. On 11 March Sarkozy took the precipitate step of recognising the Benghazi gang as the legitimate government of Libya and awaited Gaddafi’s collapse with a confident heart.
In a hilarious inside account of the NATO debacle, Vincent Jauvert of Le Nouvel Observateur has recently disclosed that French intelligence services assured Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Alain Juppé ‘from the first [air] strike, thousands of soldiers would defect from Gaddafi’. They also predicted that the rebels would move quickly to Sirte, the hometown of Gaddafi and force him to flee the country. This was triumphantly and erroneously trumpeted by the NATO powers, which even proclaimed that he had flown to Venezuela. By all means opt for the ‘big lie’ as a propaganda ploy, but not if it is inevitably going to be discredited 24 hours later.
‘We underestimated al-Gaddafi,’ one French officer told Jauvert. ‘He was preparing for forty-one years for an invasion. We did not imagine he would adapt as quickly. No one expects, for example, to transport its troops and missile batteries, Gaddafi will go out and buy hundreds of Toyota pick-up in Niger and Mali. It is a stroke of genius: the trucks are identical to those used by the rebels. NATO is paralysed. It delays its strikes. Before bombing the vehicles, drivers need to be sure they are whose forces are Gaddafi’s. “We asked the rebels to a particular signal on the roof of their pick-up truck,” said a soldier, “but we were never sure. They are so disorganised…?”’
When collapse did not arrive on schedule the French government breezily confirmed earlier this month it was shipping and air-dropping arms supplies to Libyan rebel groups. We can safely assume Britain has its own clandestine operations in train, though the capture of the SAS/MI6 unit by Libyan farmers was not an inspiring augury.
The NATO coalition is now falling apart, though disclosure of this development has been muted to non-existent in the US press. French Defence Minister Gérard Longuet gave an interview at the end of last week to a French TV station saying that military action against Libya has failed, and it is time for diplomacy: ‘We must now sit around a table. We will stop bombing as soon as the Libyans start talking to one another and the military on both sides go back to their bases.’ Longuet suggested that Gaddafi might be able to remain in Libya, “in another room of the palace, with another title”.’
If Longuet’s startling remarks were for local consumption on the eve of an assembly vote, it clearly came as a shock to Cameron and Secretary of State Clinton. To heighten the impression of a civil war in NATO Cameron and Clinton rushed out statements asserting the ongoing goal of regime change, and that Gaddafi’s departure was a sine qua non, as demanded by the Benghazi gang.
But Berlusconi, his country the objective of tens of thousands of refugees from the fighting and from economic dislocation in Libya, is now saying he was against the whole NATO adventure from the start. He may decline to renew in the fall current basing agreements in Italy for the NATO intervening powers. Germany has always been unenthusiastic. Initially, France and Britain nourished hopes of close military liaison, but that soon collapsed for all the usual reasons – inertia, suspicion and simple incompetence.
Sarkozy’s suspicions of Germany and Turkey were apparently so intense, according to Le Nouvel Observateur, that he called for the sidelining the Turkish and German officers present in the command structure of NATO, on the grounds that they could undermine the war given Berlin and Ankara’s distaste for the whole exercise. Normal guidelines dictate that when the supreme commander of NATO, an American general and his no. 2, a Briton, are on leave, the no. 3, is to be a German. Sarkozy had this sequence nixed.
Obama has been playing a double game, reflective of domestic pressures and political priorities. At the start, the rush to the UN Security Council was very much Secretary of State Clinton’s initiative. In political stature early to mid-February Obama was at his nadir. There was growing talk of a one-term presidency. Clinton rushed into what she perceived as a tempting vacuum, perhaps even began to entertain some hopes of accelerating Obama’s decline and proffering herself as a potential contender in 2012. Obama, still fighting the ‘wimp’ label, swiftly endorsed the NATO mission and defied challenges as to its constitutional propriety. Clinton soon thereafter announced she was not particularly interested in staying in national politics after 2012.
In terms of equipment the US has been crucial. According to one French general cited by Le Nouvel Observateur, ‘33 of 41 tanker aircraft used in the operation are American, most of the AWACS as well, all the drones as well as 100 per cent of anti-radar missile and laser guidance kits for bombs. And that’s not all. The main means of command and control of NATO as the huge bandwidth for transmitting all the data is American.’ The Director of Military Intelligence General Didier Bolelli revealed that over 80 per cent of the targets assigned to the French pilots in Libya was designated by US! ‘They give us just enough so that we do not figure we were breaking,’ says one diplomat.
Those whose memories stretch back to the Suez debacle of 1956 might recall that Eisenhower simply ordered the British, French and Israeli forces to abandon the effort to overthrow Nasser. We could well be seeing a less overt re-run of that conclusive demonstration of post-Second World War US dominance, with the Obama administration making the point that any effort at asserting European primacy in the Mediterranean region is doomed to failure.
Before his retirement Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the opportunity to twist the knife in a speech in Brussels: ‘The mightiest military alliance in history, is … into an operation against a poorly-armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.’ He said ominously, ‘future U.S. political leaders … may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.’
Even if Obama is in fact wholeheartedly for regime change in Libya, the political temperature here does not favour the sort of escalation – hugely costly and much against the public mood – required in the wake of the failure of the bombing campaign.
There’s no evidence that Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, lion-like in his eagerness to seize the reins of the anti-Murdoch bandwagon, has the political agility to toast Cameron for the Libyan farce. By disposition he’s probably keener on ‘humanitarian interventions’ than Cameron and can only reproach him for not trying hard enough.
In sum, we on the left should rejoice that a simple colonial smash-and-grab is currently in a shambles, with serious long-term consequences for NATO’s credibility and pretences to respect international law. The kangaroo cage known as the International Criminal Court has been even further discredited, another cause for joy.
What next? The air is thick with speculations about a brokered settlement, salted with hopeful bleats from the Americans and British that Gaddafi is on the verge of collapse, that he is running out of fuel, that the rebels are tightening the noose around Tripoli and that the Russians re-brokering some sort of a face-saving deal. It seems a better bet to recognise that after four and a half months, NATO and the interventionists are being humiliated. Throw in the humiliation of Rupert Murdoch and we can legitimately raise our champagne glasses even higher.
Libyans Dancing in the Streets