Libya was probably the Obama administration’s biggest foreign policy disaster, inflicting hellish chaos on a country with a repressive but stable government. From Eric Draitser at counterpunch.org:
The scorching desert sun streams through narrow slats in the tiny window. A mouse scurries across the cracked concrete floor, the scuttling of its tiny feet drowned out by the sound of distant voices speaking in Arabic. Their chatter is in a western Libyan dialect distinctive from the eastern dialect favored in Benghazi. Somewhere off in the distance, beyond the shimmering desert horizon, is Tripoli, the jewel of Africa now reduced to perpetual war.
But here, in this cell in a dank old warehouse in Bani Walid, there are no smugglers, no rapists, no thieves or murderers. There are simply Africans captured by traffickers as they made their way from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, or other disparate parts of the continent seeking a life free of war and poverty, the rotten fruit of Anglo-American and European colonialism. The cattle brands on their faces tell a story more tragic than anything produced by Hollywood.
These are slaves: human beings bought and sold for their labor. Some are bound for construction sites while others for the fields. All face the certainty of forced servitude, a waking nightmare that has become their daily reality.
This is Libya, the real Libya. The Libya that has been constructed from the ashes of the US-NATO war that deposed Muammar Gaddafi and the government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. The Libya now fractured into warring factions, each backed by a variety of international actors whose interest in the country is anything but humanitarian.
But this Libya was built not by Donald Trump and his gang of degenerate fascist ghouls. No, it was the great humanitarian Barack Obama, along with Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Susan Rice, Samantha Power and their harmonious peace circle of liberal interventionists who wrought this devastation. With bright-eyed speeches about freedom and self-determination, the First Black President, along with his NATO comrades in France and Britain, unleashed the dogs of war on an African nation seen by much of the world as a paragon of economic and social development.
But this is no mere journalistic exercise to document just one of the innumerable crimes carried out in the name of the American people. No, this is us, the antiwar left in the United States, peering through the cracks in the imperial artifice – crumbling as it is from internal rot and political decay – to shine a light through the gloom named Trump and directly into the heart of darkness.
There are truths that must be made plain lest they be buried like so many bodies in the desert sand.
The War on Libya: A Criminal Conspiracy
To understand the depth of criminality involved in the US-NATO war on Libya, we must unravel a complex story involving actors from both the US and Europe who quite literally conspired to bring about this war, while simultaneously exposing the unconstitutional, imperial presidency as embodied by Mr. Hope and Change himself.
In doing so, a picture emerges that is strikingly at odds with the dominant narrative about good intentions and bad dictators. For although Gaddafi was presented as the villain par excellence in this story told by the Empire’s scribes in corporate media, it is in fact Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, French philosopher-cum-neocolonial adventurist Bernard Henri-Levy, and former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who are the real malevolent forces. It was they, not Gaddafi, who waged a blatantly illegal war on false pretenses and for their own aggrandizement. It was they, not Gaddafi, who conspired to plunge Libya into chaos and civil war from which it is yet to emerge. It was they who beat the war drums while proclaiming peace on earth and good will to men.
The US-NATO war on Libya represents perhaps one of the most egregious examples of US military aggression and lawlessness in recent memory. Of course, the US didn’t act alone as a wide cast of characters played a role as the French and British were keen to involve themselves in the reassertion of control over a once lucrative African asset torn from European control by the evil Gaddafi. And this, only a few years after former UK Prime Minister and Iraq war criminal Tony Blair met with Gaddafi to usher in a new era of openness and partnership.
The story begins with Bernard Henri-Lévy, the French philosopher, journalist, and amateur foreign service officer who fancied himself an international spy. Having failed to arrive in Egypt in time to buttress his ego by capitalizing on the uprising against former dictator Hosni Mubarak, he quickly shifted his attention to Libya, where an uprising in the anti-Gaddafi hotbed of Benghazi was underway. As Le Figaro chronicled, Henri-Levy managed to talk his way into a meeting with then head of the National Transition Council (TNC) Mustapha Abdeljalil, a former Gaddafi official who became head of the anti-Gaddafi TNC. But Henri-Levy wasn’t there just for an interview to be published in his French paper, he was there to help overthrow Gaddafi and, in so doing, make himself into an international star.
Henri-Levy quickly pressed his contacts and got on the phone with French President Nicholas Sarkozy to ask him, rather bluntly, if he’d agree to meet with Abdeljalil and the leadership of the TNC. Just a few days later, Henri-Levy and his colleagues arrived at the Élysée Palace with TNC leadership at their side. To the utter shock of the Libyans present, Sarkozy tells them that he plans to recognize the TNC as the legitimate government of Libya. Henri-Levy and Sarkozy have now, at least in theory, deposed the Gaddafi government.
But the little problem of Gaddafi’s military victories and the very real possibility that he might emerge victorious from the conflict complicated matters as the French public had become aware of the scheme and was rightly lambasting Sarkozy. Henri-Levy, ever the opportunist, stoked the patriotic fervor by announcing that without French intervention, the tricolor flag flying over five-star hotels in Benghazi would be stained with blood. The PR campaign worked as Sarkozy quickly came around to the idea of military intervention.
However, Henri-Levy had a still more critical role to play: bringing the US military juggernaut into the plot. Henri-Levy organized the first of what would be several high-level talks between US officials from the Obama Administration and the Libyans of the TNC. Most importantly, Henri-Levy set up the meeting between Abdeljalil and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While Clinton was skeptical at the time of the meeting, it would be a matter of months before she and Joe Biden, along with the likes of Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and others would be planning the political, diplomatic, and military route to regime change in Libya.
The Americans Enter the Fray
There would have been no war in Libya were it not for the US political, diplomatic, and military machine. In this sense, despite the relatively meager US military involvement, the war in Libya was an American war. That is to say, it was a war that could not have happened were it not for the active collaboration of the Obama Administration with its French and British counterparts.
As Jo Becker of the NY Times explained in 2016, Hillary Clinton met with Mahmoud Jibril, a prominent Libyan politician who would go on to become the new Prime Minister of post-Gaddafi Libya, and his associates, in order to assess the faction now garnering US support. Clinton’s job, according to Becker, was “to take measure of the rebels we supported” – a fancy way of saying that Clinton attended the meeting to determine whether this group of politicians speaking on behalf of a diverse group of anti-Gaddafi voices (ranging from pro-democracy activists to outright terrorists affiliated with global terror networks) should be supported with US money and covert arms.
The answer, ultimately, was a resounding yes.
But of course, as with all America’s warmongering misadventures, there was no consensus on military intervention. As Becker reported, some in the Obama Administration were skeptical of the easy victory and post-conflict political calculus. One prominent voice of dissent, at least according to Becker, was former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Himself no dove, Gates was concerned that Clinton and Biden’s hawkish attitude toward Libya would ultimately lead to an Iraq-style political nightmare that would undoubtedly end with the US having created and then abandoned a failed state – exactly what happened.
It is important to note that Clinton and Biden were two of the principal voices for aggression and war. Both were supportive of the No-Fly Zone from early on, and both advocated for military intervention. Indeed, the two have been simpatico in nearly every war crime committed by the US in the last 30 years, including perhaps most egregiously in support of Bush’s crime against humanity that we call the second Iraq War.
As former Clinton lackey (Deputy Director of Secretary of State Clinton’s Policy Planning staff) Derek Chollet explained, “[Libya] seemed like an easy case.” Chollet, a principal participant in the American conspiracy to make war on Libya who later went on to serve directly under Obama and at the National Security Council, inadvertently illustrates in stark relief the imperial arrogance of the Obama-Clinton-Biden liberal interventionist camp. In calling Libya an “easy case” he of course means that Libya was a perfect candidate for a regime change operation whose primary benefit would be to boost politically those who supported it.
Chollet, like many strategic planners at the time, saw Libya as a slam dunk opportunity to turn the demonstrations and uprisings of 2010-2011, which quickly became known as the Arab Spring, into political capital from the Democratic camp of the US ruling class. This rapidly became Clinton’s position. And soon, the consensus of the entire Obama Administration.
Obama’s War Off the Books
One of the more pernicious myths of the US war on Libya was the notion – propagated dutifully by the defense lobbyists-cum-journalists at major corporate media outlets – that the war was a cheap little war that cost the US almost nothing. There were no American lives lost in the war itself (Benghazi is another mythology to be unraveled later), and very little cost in terms of “treasure”, to use that despicable imperialist phrase.
But while the total cost of the war paled in comparison to the monumental-scale crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the means by which it was funded has cost the US far more than dollars; the war on Libya was a criminal and unconstitutional endeavor that has further laid the groundwork for the imperial presidency and unconstrained executive power. As the Washington Post reported at the time:
Noting that Obama had said the mission could be paid for with money already appropriated to the Pentagon, [former House Speaker] Boehner pressed the president on whether supplemental funding would be requested from Congress.
Unforeseen military operations that require expenditures such as those being made for the Libyan effort normally require supplemental appropriations since they are outside the core Pentagon budget. That is why funds for Afghanistan and Iraq are separate from the regular Defense Department budget. The added costs for some of the operations in Libya are minimal…But the expenditures for weapons, fuel and lost equipment are something else.
Because the Obama Administration did not seek congressional appropriations to fund the war, there is very little in the way of paper trail to do a proper accounting of the costs of the war. As the cost of each bomb, fighter jet, and logistical support vehicle disappeared into the abyss of Pentagon accounting oblivion, so too did any semblance of constitutional legality. In essence, Obama helped establish a lawless presidency that not only has little respect for constitutionally mandated checks and balances, but completely ignores the rule of law. Indeed, some of the crimes that Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr are guilty of have their direct corollary in the Obama Administration’s prosecution of the Libya war.
So where did the money come from and where did it go? It’s anybody’s guess really, unless you’re one of those rubes who likes taking the Pentagon’s word for it. As a Pentagon spokesperson told CNN in 2011, “The price tag for U.S. Defense Department operations in Libya as of September 30 [was] $1.1 billion. This included daily military operations, munitions, the drawdown of supplies and humanitarian assistance.” However, to illustrate the downright Orwellian impossibility of discerning the truth, Vice President Joe Biden doubled that number when speaking on CNN, suggesting that “NATO alliance worked like it was designed to do, burden-sharing. In total, it cost us $2 billion, no American lives lost.”
As is painfully evident, there is no clear way to know how much was spent other than to take the word of those who prosecuted the war. With no congressional oversight, and no clear documentary record, the war on Libya disappears down the memory hole, and with it the idea that there is a separation of powers, Congressional authority to make war, or a functioning Constitution.
America’s Dirty War in Libya
While the enduring memory of Libya for most Americans is the political theater that resulted from the attack on the US facility in Benghazi that killed several Americans, including US Ambassador Stevens, it is not nearly the most consequential. Rather, America’s use of terrorist groups (and the insurgents who emerged from them) as military proxies may perhaps be the real legacy from a strategic perspective. For while the corporate media presented the narrative of spontaneous protests and uprisings to overthrow Gaddafi, it was in fact a loose network of terror groups that did the dirty work.
While much of this recent history has been buried by bad reporting, establishment mythmaking, and conspiracist muddying of the truth, it was surprisingly well reported at the time. For example, as the New York Times wrote of one of the primary US-backed forces on the ground during the war in 2011:
“The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was formed in 1995 with the goal of ousting Colonel Qaddafi. Driven into the mountains or exile by Libyan security forces, the group’s members were among the first to join the fight against Qaddafi security forces… Officially the fighting group does not exist any longer, but the former members are fighting largely under the leadership of Abu Abdullah Sadik [aka Abdelhakim Belhadj].”
Even at the time, there was considerable unease among Washington’s strategic planners that the Obama Adminstration’s embrace of a terror group with known links to al-Qaeda could prove to be a major blunder. “American, European and Arab intelligence services acknowledge that they are worried about the influence that the former group’s members might exert over Libya after Colonel Qaddafi is gone, and they are trying to assess their influence and any lingering links to Al Qaeda,” the Times noted.
Of course, those in the know at the various US intelligence agencies already had a pretty good sense of who they were backing, or at least the elements likely to be involved in any US operation. Specifically, the US knew that the areas from which it was drawing anti-Gaddafi opposition forces was a hotbed of criminal and terrorist activity.
In a 2007 study entitled “Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records” which examined the origins of various criminal and terrorist groups active in Iraq, the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point concluded that:
“Almost 19 percent of the fighters in the Sinjar Records came from Libya alone. Furthermore, Libya contributed far more fighters per capita than any other nationality in the Sinjar Records, including Saudi Arabia… The apparent surge in Libyan recruits traveling to Iraq may be linked with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s (LIFG) increasingly cooperative relationship with al-Qa’ida which culminated in the LIFG officially joining al-Qa’ida on November 3, 2007…The most common cities that the fighters called home were Darnah [Derna], Libya and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with 52 and 51 fighters respectively. Darnah [Derna] with a population just over 80,000 compared to Riyadh’s 4.3 million, has far and away the largest per capita number of fighters in the Sinjar records.”
It was known at the time that the majority of the anti-Gaddafi forces hailed from the region including Derna, Benghazi, and Tobruk – the “Eastern Libya” so often referred to as anti-Gaddafi – and that the likelihood that al-Qaeda and other terror groups were among the ranks of the US recruits was very high. Nevertheless, they persisted.
Take the case of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, charged by the US with guarding the CIA facility in Benghazi at which Ambassador Stevens was murdered. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2012:
“Over the last year, while assigned by their militia to help protect the U.S. mission in Benghazi, the pair had been drilled by American security personnel in using their weapons, securing entrances, climbing walls and waging hand-to-hand combat…The militiamen flatly deny supporting the assailants but acknowledge that their large, government-allied force, known as the Feb. 17 Martyrs Brigade, could include anti-American elements…The Feb. 17 brigade is regarded as one of the more capable militias in eastern Libya.”
But it wasn’t just LIFG and al-Qaeda affiliated criminal groups entering the fray thanks to Washington rolling out the blood-stained red carpet.
A longtime asset of the US, General Khalifa Hifter and his so-called Libyan National Army have been on the ground in Libya since 2011, and have emerged as one of the primary forces vying for power in post-war Libya. Hifter has a long and sordid history working for the CIA in its attempts to overthrow Gaddafi in the 1980s before being resettled conveniently near Langley, Virginia. As the New York Times reported in 1991:
The secret paramilitary operation, set in motion in the final months of the Reagan Administration, provided military aid and training to about 600 Libyan soldiers who were among those captured during border fighting between Libya and Chad in 1988…They were trained by American intelligence officials in sabotage and other guerrilla skills, officials said, at a base near Ndjamena, the Chadian capital. The plan to use the exiles fit neatly into the Reagan Administration’s eagerness to topple Colonel Qaddafi.
Hifter, leader of these failed efforts, became known as the CIA’s “Libya point man,” having taken part in numerous regime change efforts, including the aborted attempt to overthrow Gaddafi in 1996. So, his arrival in 2011 at the height of the uprising signaled an escalation of the conflict from an armed uprising to an international operation. Whether Hifter was directly working with US intelligence or simply complimenting US efforts by continuing his decades-long personal war against Gaddafi is somewhat irrelevant. What matters is that Hifter and the Libyan National Army, like LIFG and other groups, became part of the broader destabilization effort which successfully toppled Gaddafi and created the chaotic hellscape that is modern Libya.
Such is the legacy of the US dirty war on Libya.
The Past is Prologue
It is September 2020. Americans are focused on an election between an Orange Fascist criminal and an old-school right-wing Democrat war criminal. Where Donald Trump projects chaos and disorder, Biden projects stability, order, and a return to normalcy. If Trump is the virus, then surely Biden is the cure.
It is September 2020. Libya prepares to enter its eighth year of civil war. Slave markets like the one in Bani Walid are as common as youth literacy centers were in Gaddafi’s Libya. Armed gangs and militias wield power even in areas nominally under government control. A warlord regroups in the East as he looks to Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates for support.
It is September 2020 and the US-NATO war on Libya has faded to a distant memory as other issues like Black Lives Matter and police murder of Black youth have captured the public imagination and discourse.
But these issues are, in fact, united by the bond of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. The Libya once known as the “Jewel of Africa,” a country that provided refuge for many sub-Saharan African migrant workers while maintaining independence from the US and the former colonial powers of Europe, is no more. In its place is a failed state that now reflects the kind of vicious anti-Black racism forcefully suppressed by the Gaddafi government.
Libya as the global exemplar of the exploitation and disposability of the black body.
Squint a little and you can see President Joe Biden getting the old band back together. Hillary Clinton welcomed into the Oval Office as an influential voice, someone to give words to the demented thoughts of the living corpse serving as Commander-in-Chief. Derek Chollet and Ben Rhodes laughing together as they buy another round at their favorite DC hangout, toasting to the re-establishment of order in Washington. Barack Obama as the éminence grise behind the political resurgence of the liberal-conservative dominant structure.
But in Libya, there is no going back, no fixing the past to escape the present.
Perhaps the same might be true of the United States.