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Libya: "Freed" and Forgotten

The motives behind NATO's military intervention in Libya

by Nadia Kanji

Goran Tomasevic, Reuters: NATO airstrikes destroy vehicles belonging to pro-Gaddafi forces
Goran Tomasevic, Reuters: NATO airstrikes destroy vehicles belonging to pro-Gaddafi forces

“Canada is proud to have played a leading role in the UN-sanctioned NATO mission that helped protect civilians during the liberation of Libya,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, almost a year after Canada dropped their first four 500-pound bombs on Libya.

Canada’s military mission in Libya, said Baird, was about “respond[ing] to the demands by the Libyan people for democracy and freedom.” Baird visited Libya in 2011 to show support for the regime change, which Canada would support with a warship, six Hornet fighter aircrafts, two Boeing CC-177 Globemasters, two CP-140 Auroras, 200 Canadian Forces personnel, and other material. Canada allocated $20 million to help destroy weapons of mass destruction, provide electoral assistance, generate employment, and assist the Libyan authorities through IMF reforms.

In February and March 2011, UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973 were passed, allowing NATO to militarily intervene in the Libyan civil war under the “responsibility to protect,” and authorizing a no-fly zone. On March 19th, 2011, NATO began bombing the South of Benghazi. During that same week, and with considerably less fanfare, Saudi Arabian troops crossed into Bahrain to suppress democratic protests.

Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard was appointed commander of NATO’s military mission in Libya. Canada started off Operation Mobile by bombing the city of Misrata, east of Tripoli. Two months into their military mission, Canada had dropped 240 bombs on Libyan targets, and engaged in psychological warfare by diffusing messages to Gaddafi loyalists telling them not attack civilian populations. They finally ceased their military operations within a couple weeks of Gaddafi’s death in the Battle of Sirte.

While most will agree about the number of bombs dropped, narratives diverge when it comes to the overall effect of NATO’s intervention.

Three years after the intervention, armed militias continue to ravage Libya; the country has collapsed into a drawn-out civil war: Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, described a 2013 visit.

“Libya is imploding. Its oil exports have fallen from 1.4 million barrels a day in 2011 to 235,000 barrels a day. Militias hold 8,000 people in prisons, many of whom say they have been tortured.”

Speaking at the same time about the same intervention, NATO members are lauding themselves for what Foreign Affairs called a “model intervention”. In Canada, Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP all voted in favor of the Libyan military intervention and continue to speak positively about it.

The Canadian public may have had a different view, but it lacked advocates in the political class. “Opinion polls showed 70% of Canadians were opposed, said Jooneed Khan, former foreign correspondent for La Presse, “but the government, the opposition, and the media ignored that, and were all gung-ho for war.”

Canada didn’t just implement the no-fly zone mandated by UN Resolution 1973. “They bombed government positions, and quite a lot of civilians were killed, and then they even went into ground operations which was totally illegal,” said Khan.

NATO has been accused of war crimes in Libya for targeting civilian areas. There is an investigation into the cause of 47 civilian deaths in Sirte. A Human Rights Watch report released in 2012 titled “Unacknowledged Deaths” describes eight NATO air strikes in Libya that killed 72 civilians, including 20 women and 24 children.

As the Gaddafi-led government collapsed, militias vied for power and human rights abuses were rampant. Zahra Moloo, a reporter for Integrated Regional Information Networks who was in Libya a little over a year after NATO intervened told the Media Co-op that the situation was “explosive.”

“Thousands of [internally displaced persons] from around the country had come to Tripoli,” said Moloo. She added that the town of Tawergha, made up of about 30,000 people, was viewed as a pro-Gaddafi stronghold after they launched an attack on Misrata. “Residents of Misrata reported being tortured and raped by Gaddafi loyalists from Tawergha, and so the subsequent Misrata-based militias descended on Tawergha and the population fled.”

"The last I heard is that they are still displaced, over two years later," she said.

The conflict appears to be escalating. Three young activists were recently beheaded in Derna. According to Libya Body Count, 2483 people have been killed in 2014 alone. According to the International Red Cross and Libyan Red Crescent, “there is an acute shortage of medical supplies,” which gravely affects victims of ongoing violence.

Arms supplied to resistance fighters by Canada, the US and others may be making the situation worse. Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), told the Ottawa Citizen that arms “stolen from Libyan stockpiles during the uprising have found their way into the hands of AQIM and other Islamic groups in the region.” Khan added that arms were channeled to Syrian rebels from the Libyan stockpile. According to Fowler, factions of ISIS are now starting to operate in Libya.

Arms and fighters backed by the West in Libya may now be stoking civil wars in Iraq and Syria. In a vicious cycle of military intervention, David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen suggests that in its fight against ISIS in Iraq, Canada might now start bombing the very rebels they supported in the first place, now that ISIS is moving people from Syria and Iraq into Libya.

Vijay Prashad, the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, argues that Western intervention was not necessary to replace Gaddafi. “By the time the Americans started talking about intervening, a third of Libya was out of Gaddafi’s hands. [...] His rule was going to fall. There was no need for NATO intervention,” he said in an interview with Democracy Now.

Other initiatives, such as a proposal by the African Union, could plausibly have avoided the ongoing, multi-year civil war that ensued. The proposal suggested the implementation of a ceasefire, and using diplomacy to come to a solution. According to Alex DeWaal of the World Peace Foundation, it was “unfairly derided and dismissed by the western powers.”

Why did NATO intervene in Libya?

As Arab Spring uprisings toppled western-backed governments in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), the West’s influence in the Middle East suddenly became precarious.

Egypt, the biggest Arab country in the MENA, is home to the Suez Canal and exerts geopolitical significance. The US has been financially supporting Egypt since the Camp David Accords in 1979; billions in military and economic aid ensure that Egypt’s government protects Israel's western border and controls the crossing into Gaza. Egypt was one of the first countries to join the US-led military coalition against Iraq in 1991, and they backed US moves to curb Iran’s influence in the region.

Stanford professor of Middle East History Joel Beinin told that aside from the Jordanian and Saudi monarchies, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was the most important US ally in the region. The alliances were based on the defense of oil... the defense against the vast popular anger in the Arab and Muslim world against the United States — for its positions vis-à-vis Palestine-Israel, for invading Iraq, […] which led to the unnecessary deaths of untold Iraqi children,” Beinin said.

If Mubarak could be deposed by protesters, what other US allies might follow? US allies in the Gulf were feeling the heat from protest movements, which were gaining momentum. Saudi Arabia had its own uprising, which started after a 65 year-old man set himself on fire in the town of Samtah. People that tried to organize protests were shot. Government forces used live ammunition against protesters in Yemen. Protests in Kuwait were met with smoke bombs. A major uprising of the Shia majority in Bahrain made headlines briefly, but little was said in the west when it was crushed by government forces and Saudi troops.

The US, scrambling to maintain regional dominance, needed to regain the initiative. The March 2011 bombing of Libya was the first of a series of decisive moves that gave the US control of the situation. Obama declared support for the resistance in Egypt, moved to assemble a coalition to bomb Libya and began stoking a civil war in Syria. Media attention shifted away from democratic movements aiming to topple repressive US-backed monarchies in the Gulf and focused on official US enemies.

Three years later, stories about democratic movements have been replaced with headlines about civil war and attendant atrocities. According to Noam Chomsky, this is typical of Western reactions. He described the the pattern in an interview with IPG Journal:

support your favorite dictator as long as possible. If it becomes impossible because the military or business classes turn against him or for some other reason, then send him off somewhere, issue ringing declarations about your love of democracy, and try to restore the old order as fully as possible 

The West backed the dictators oppressing people and then superficially backed the oppressed only when it was clear that the dictators were on their way out. “You get Sarkozy and Obama and all of them talking as if they are the children of Tahrir square,” Prashad said, “when actually they’re cronies of the fellows who are being thrown out.”.

What’s the difference between Abdullah and Gaddafi?

Libya’s Gaddafi-led government, like many other western-backed Gulf leaders, imprisoned and tortured regime opponents while repressing protests. However, the regime compared favourably to its North African neighbours in some respects. Gaddafi's government maintained sovereignty over Libya’s resources, provided free healthcare, and free education. His government attempted to engage citizens through the Jamahiriyya, or “state of the masses,” where people made decisions through congresses. According to the UNDP, with life expectancy at birth at 74.5 years, an 88.4% adult literacy rate and a gross enrolment ratio of 94.1%, Libya had one of the highest Human Development Indices in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Considered for decades a rogue state, Gaddafi staged a dramatic rapprochement with the West after September 11th 2001. He renounced the development of weapons of mass destruction and payed 1.86 billion pounds to the relatives of the 1988 Lockerbie victims. Though his human rights record at home had scarcely improved, Western leaders began to warm up to the oil-rich country. Gaddafi welcomed Canadian companies like SNC Lavalin and Suncor, among many other international players, with open arms.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin was one of the first leaders to engage with Gaddafi. Proud of his heritage and typically extravagant, Gaddafi agreed to meet with Martin in a green and yellow tent in the Libyan Desert. Prime Minister Martin and Gaddafi shook hands and smiled as they announced deals worth one billion dollars.

“We are friends not just because he is the prime minister of Canada but we shall always be friends, even if he is not the prime minister,” said Gaddafi after their meeting.

The Canadian private sector, such as Pure Technologies, Petro Canada, and Caradan Chemicals, were able to enhance trade and investment with oil, telecommunications, and infrastructure industries. From $67 million worth of exports to Libya in 2006, this quickly increased to $246 million in 2010. In 2013, bilateral trade increased by 24.6% from 2012. Montreal-based SNC Lavalin particularly made the headlines in terms of economic dealings with the Libyan regime. Canada had a lot of investment at stake in Libya if Gaddafi had picked up his old ways.

NATO’s argument that they militarily intervened in Libya for humanitarian purposes, and to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi’s human rights abuses is unconvincing when one looks at the West’s biggest allies in the Gulf. Despite Saudi Arabia’s 59 state-sanctioned beheadings just this year, the West’s alliance with them remains intact to this day. According to General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO during the Kosovo War, Libya was on a “hit list” of countries to be taken out by the United States, which also included Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran. General Clark had received this information from the Pentagon.

Gaddafi has remained a precarious figure for the West. After nationalizing Western oil companies and closing down America’s air base after coming to power in 1969, Gaddafi was not a figure the West could easily meddle with. More recently in 2007, Gaddafi, with a bit of help from the African Development Bank, purchased Africa’s first communications satellite. This was an economic blow to European communication companies that previously pocketed $500 million annually to lease the satellite. Gaddafi did not capitulate to desires of the United States and its “junior partners,” like Canada and the EU. Gaddafi also had aspirations of creating a single African trading bloc with its own currency. He tried to maintain some semblance of African unity and autonomy from the West by aiding in the establishment of the African Monetary Fund, the African Central Bank, and the African Investment Bank –initiatives that would decrease dependence on IMF and World Bank loans. Gaddafi’s track record is riddled with anti-imperialist gestures and rhetoric:

“There is a conspiracy to control Libyan oil and to control Libyan land, to colonise Libya once again. This is impossible, impossible. We will fight until the last man and last woman to defend Libya from east to west, north to south," he said on Al-Ouroba TV, a Syrian station in 2011.

Any alliance between Gaddafi and the West was doomed to be temporary. As soon as the Middle East became destabilized during the Arab Spring, his government became a target.

According to Khan, one of the main causes of NATO intervention was due to the Gaddafi regime’s ongoing measures to decouple African currencies from the US dollar. He was working on the concept of a gold dinar based on oil for all African transactions. “That has been nightmare for the European Union, and for NATO countries, and OECD countries,” said Khan.

Gaddafi was one of the last few leaders who didn’t acquiesce to the West’s demands. According to a cable released onto Wikileaks, the Libyan National Oil Company threatened to nationalize Petro Canada’s assets after being snubbed by a Canadian government official.

Gaddafi never completely let go of his anti-imperialist habits; nor did he wholeheartedly adopt neoliberal policies as pro-western leaders are usually expected to. Despite gradual economic liberalization, Gaddafi “did not turn over the resources of the country to Western oil companies,” said Khan. “He was playing his cards in a realistic way.”

Still, according to Moloo, a lot of people claim that the situation in Libya under Gaddafi prior to the intervention was great, which is “simply not true”.

“I think that some people were glad that there was an intervention because it allowed them to have a new start to build their country,” she said, “but I think there wasn’t a realization of the extent to which they actually weren’t in control of their own country finally.”

While Gaddafi held onto power for four decades, he built a prison in Tripoli with the help of Montreal contractor SNC Lavalin, crushed dissent, and violated human rights. However, NATO’s motives for intervention in Libya appear to have had a lot more to do with regional dominance and trade deals, than with promoting democracy.


The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), championed as a form of humanitarian intervention, is a doctrine maintaining that the international community has the right to militarily intervene in a country when sovereign states are not fulfilling their duties to protect their own civilian populations from atrocities. When Canada’s military helped remove a democratically elected government Haiti in 2004, it was justified under R2P. More recently it was used to justify intervening in North Africa.

Either Western countries take up arms through unilateral intervention, as the US did in the 2003 Iraq war, or they do this under the guise of a humanitarian intervention, as was the case with Libya. R2P has been contrasted as a softer approach to invasions and regime change than the unilateral invasion with a “coalition of the willing” championed by George W. Bush.

According to Prashad, the Arab Spring provided the US with a new platform where it could save face after the US’s 2003 invasion in Iraq.

“R2P re-legitimized the United States’ ability to intervene into countries after being delegitimized in Iraq,” he said. […] It gave them enormous opportunity to say this is a humanitarian operation, nothing to do with our interests.”

As a result, the Saudis were able to crush dissent in Bahrain, dampening the Arab Spring’s momentum in the Gulf Monarchies while Western attention was directed to Libya, where the West could portray themselves as saviors. Prashad also pointed out NATO’s hypocrisy by questioning why R2P was not implemented in the Congo where the death toll was incomparably higher than in Libya.

Divide and Conquer?

The United States is currently militarily involved in at least 49 out of the 54 African states, what Seamus Milne of The Guardian compares to “a new carve-up of the continent: a scramble for resources and influence in the face of China's growing economic role, underpinned with an escalating military presence that spreads terror as it grows.”

Militias across the country are leading to an increasing amount of polarization. They are using the very arms that NATO had given the Libyan rebels to try and gain control over Libya. Though oil production is steadily increasing, the control of oil is yet to be determined due to ongoing tensions between the two adversarial governments. Detainees are languishing behind bars to their death without fair trial, and militias in Misrata are killing protesters.

General Khalifa Haftar is currently playing a leading role in fighting Islamist groups, namely Libya’s al-Qaeda franchise, Ansar Al-Sharia. He lived near Langley, Virginia for 20 years with a deep-seated grudge against Gaddafi after the war in Chad. This raised suspicions that Haftar was a US asset who was trained by the CIA. He was also associated with the US-backed National Salvation Front against Gaddafi in the 80s.

Over three years after NATO intervened under the pretext of “respond[ing] to the demands by the Libyan people for democracy and freedom,” as Baird put it, it seems to be that they have failed to do so. In September of this year, NDP MP Jack Harris spoke in Parliament about the aftermath of Canada’s “humanitarian” mission in Libya, which became strictly about overthrowing Gaddafi. 

"The effort to provide some support based on the responsibility to protect turned into a very different mission... that we had to get Gadhafi. We had to destroy the government totally. Then everybody left, and what was left behind was a country that was unable to govern itself. There was civil war, which is continuing now, followed by destruction into Mali and other things. [...] The nation building that was required did not take place. The assistance to form a stable government did not take place. We are now left with a mess in Libya, south of Libya in the desert, and in Mali."

The NDP's about face on the Libya intervention is testament to the fact that according to its stated aims, Canada's mission has failed in Libya. 
Libya shows that even countries with a widespread desire for democracy can be torn apart by reckless militarily interventions that have nothing to do with sowing reform. Under the guise of democracy promotion and human rights, Canada helped create an ongoing civil war and bolstered the enemies it is now bombing in Iraq. But it isn't clear that Canadians are getting that message.
But that's the message that needs to get through. Vijay Prashad explained the aftermath in the simplest terms. “It takes hundreds of years to build a state; you can destroy it in an afternoon."

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