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Libya intervention destroyed great power unity in rush to regime change

By using humanitarian intervention to overthrow Gaddafi, the NATO intervention poisoned trust and made future cooperation much harder

Rarely has there been a foreign policy critique as devastating as the one delivered by the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee this week against the military intervention in 2011 in Libya. The Chilcot report, which forensically exposed the blunders of the attack on Iraq in 2003, set the tone this summer, but in some ways the Libya report goes further. 

The invasion of Iraq took place in a different context. There was widespread public dissent over what the US and UK governments were seen to be planning, and although a few reporters played a disgraceful role in peddling leaks of false intelligence, there was a spirited debate in much of the media about the wisdom of regime change by force and by outsiders. 

A herd mentality took over, in which the media were leading actors, egging the politicians on to use military force

That was not the case in the Libyan crisis. A herd mentality took over, in which the media were leading actors, egging the politicians on to use military force. Barely a dozen MPs stood out against launching air strikes. In France, a crucial part was played by hysterical intellectuals of the “humanitarian intervention” school like Bernard-Henri Levy who conjured up unjustified comparisons with Srebrenica and Rwanda. 

The air war was sparked by a claim that Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, who were advancing on the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi, would commit a massacre of civilians if they were not stopped. Reporters on the ground failed to check this scare story. But as the well-known experts on Libya, Alison Pargeter and Professor George Joffe, pointed out in their brilliantly argued evidence to the foreign affairs committee, the record of recent events pointed in the opposite direction. 

In Alison Pargeter’s words: "Gaddafi had already retaken other towns in the east. There had been no large-scale massacre there - for example, in Ajdabiya. Actually, the regime’s initial reaction after the uprising started in Benghazi was to try to reach out and appease some of the rebels. Gaddafi sent his son Saadi out to Benghazi and he promised them lots of development assistance - was sort of pleading with them. Saif al-Islam was pleading with some of the Islamist prisoners that he had released from prison over the last couple of years. He also released a load more Islamist prisoners as a sort of gesture of appeasement. So I don’t think the evidence is there that he was going to go and launch some widespread massacre. I don’t think it would have been in his interests to do so. He would have alienated a lot of the tribes in the east of Libya."

Massacre unlikely

Joffe adduced evidence from an earlier crisis: “There were past examples of the way in which Gaddafi would actually behave. If you go back to the American bombings in the 1980s of Benghazi and Tripoli, rather than trying to remove threats to the regime in the east, in Cyrenaica, Gaddafi spent six months trying to pacify the tribes that were located there. The evidence is that he was well aware of the insecurity of parts of the country and of the unlikelihood that he could control them through sheer violence. Therefore, he would have been very careful in the actual response."

'Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians'

As additional evidence, the foreign affairs committee cites the figures of those killed and wounded in Tripoli and Misrata in early 2011 before the Benghazi scare. It points out that barely one percent were women and children and concludes: “The disparity between male and female casualties suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. More widely, Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.”

In spite of these facts, the few analysts who questioned the story of a looming massacre were drowned out by those who clamoured for intervention. The hawks seized on a speech by Gaddafi in which he thundered: “I will hunt them down street by street”, as though this was proof he wanted a blood orgy. 

William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, told the committee it was Gaddafi’s “stated intention” to exact revenge on the people of Benghazi. His advisers, as well as most reporters in Libya, conveniently forgot or suppressed the opening phrase of the speech in which the Libyan leader supposedly threatened mass killings. “I’m going to go for the bearded ones,” he said, thereby indicating that he was targeting the Islamist rebels, not the civilian population. 

Islamist presence ignored

Indeed, the very fact that Islamist gunmen from well-established militia groups, some of which had fought Gaddafi for years, were entrenched among the rebels was largely ignored by the British and French decision-makers who led the drive for military intervention. Damningly, the foreign affairs committee reports that they asked Liam Fox, then Britain’s defence secretary, if he knew the rebellion included militant Islamists. He answered that he did not "recall reading anything of that nature”.  

The fact that Islamist militia groups were entrenched among the rebels was largely ignored by the British and French decision-makers who led the drive for military intervention

His answer, as well as the tone of much of the media coverage at the time, shows there was a tendency to romanticise the rebellion, putting it on a par with the “people’s power” which had captivated reporters and more distant observers during the street demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo earlier in 2011. The fact that the struggle against Gaddafi in Libya quickly became an armed rebellion should have alerted outsiders’ curiosity. They ought to have seen that Libya was riven by long-standing tribal and regional conflicts and a very different society from Egypt and Tunisia. Similarly, in Syria, it took many media analysts and government advisers a long time to recognise that the anti-Assad forces were not just young civil society activists, but included hard-line Islamists with narrow sectarian agendas.

The sad fact is that it was not just British and French hawks who misjudged the situation in Libya. The Americans were equally to blame since they authorised the air attacks and joined in even though they let Britain and France take the propaganda lead once Gaddafi was toppled.

Blame also attaches to Russia and China who abstained on the UN Security Council resolution authorising the air war in Libya, though they may have had realpolitik reasons for not wanting to veto a Western show of strength, which, unlike the Iraq war, had Arab League backing. 

Mission creep or deliberate deception?

A question-mark remains over whether the air strikes were designed to lead to regime change rather than being, as initially stated, nothing more than a geographically limited tactic to protect Benghazi, on the pattern of the no-fly-zone over northern Iraq that was imposed by the US, Britain and France in 1991 (though never authorised by the UN). The foreign affairs committee sees the switch to regime change as “opportunistic” mission creep.  

The Libyan intervention poisoned the one moment in recent years when there was great power unity on the use of force against a sovereign state

Those who remember how the US used the rebels of the Northern Alliance to be the boots on the ground against the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan while US missiles and bombs rained down from the sky will be tempted to think regime change was on the agenda from the start of the intervention. The Russians have subsequently argued that they were deceived by Western governments who claimed the intervention was limited. They cite this as a reason why they are reluctant to authorise similar “humanitarian” actions against the government in Syria.

The Libyan intervention was therefore a game-changer. It poisoned the one moment in recent years when there was great power unity on the use of force against a sovereign state. Equally badly, once regime change had happened, the powers which had combined to bring it about did little positive to help Libyans to reconstruct their country. Another lesson of the Iraq war went unlearned.

Jonathan Steele is a veteran foreign correspondent and author of widely acclaimed studies of international relations. He was the Guardian's bureau chief in Washington in the late 1970s, and its Moscow bureau chief during the collapse of communism. He has written books on Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, South Africa and Germany, including Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq (I.B.Tauris 2008) and Ghosts of Afghanistan: the Haunted Battleground (Portobello Books 2011).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Image: A picture taken on 10 November 2011 shows heavily damaged apartment buildings in a residential campound reportedly hit by NATO air strikes in the war-battered city of Sirte (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.