You Lie, Mr. President

About Libya, and much else

by , March 30, 2011

I couldn’t bear to watch the President’s why-we’re-in-Libya speech as it was broadcast: it’s Spring, after all, and my garden needs planting. Priorities, priorities, priorities: so important, in politics and in life.

We all have our priorities: I have mine, and the President of the United States has his. As an indication of the latter, I note that Obama waited a whole week after deploying US forces before deigning to explain his actions to the American people. He has yet to go to Congress for authorization, although he made sure he cleared it with our pushy allies and the UN Security Council. Having received this double-dispensation, Congress is for him but an afterthought. This is the true meaning of “multilateralism”: world opinion matters, American opinion – not so much.

When he finally did come before us to justify this latest episode of world-saving, he didn’t address Congress, but “the most servile audience he could find,” as James Bovard so trenchantly put it, “uniformed military officers at the National Defense University. The room will be full of people who are owned lock, stock, and barrel by the government. The officers have spent their lives working for Uncle Sam, and they know that a single ill-time hoot during Obama’s talk could end their careers.”

There would be no “You lie!” moment in this setting. Such safeguards were not for nothing, because practically every other word out of his mouth was either a lie or a truth so veiled in ambiguity that it merges into untruth on closer inspection.

He started out with a half-truth, paying tribute to the “courage, professionalism, and patriotism” of “our men and women in uniform,” lauding them for helping the Japanese in their hour of need. No American could disagree with that: in the rest of the world, however, there is a less worshipful attitude toward the behavior of US troops stationed abroad. We may be inured to evidence of US atrocities, but those photos of US centurions posing next to the corpses of the civilians they slaughtered in Afghanistan were published the day before the President praised the “professionalism” of the US military.

I’ll leave it to others to sort out whether this qualifies as an outright lie, or a mere fib-by-omission. Obama is an expert at crafting the plausible untruth: not since FDR lied us into war – and much else – in the 1930s have we seen such a master of duplicity in the Oval Office. Inserted into this ode to the military was, indeed, one outright lie: “Because of them and our dedicated diplomats, a coalition has been forged and countless lives have been saved.”

The lives we “saved” are countless only because they don’t exist: we intervened to prevent a holocaust that never happened – and there’s no way of knowing (although plenty of reason to doubt) whether it would have happened without Western intervention. This is the kind of lie that Americans like to hear: he’s telling us we’re heroes, not Ugly Americans.

Quite literally every other word in his Libya peroration is a lie. Take this paragraph:

“For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That is what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks.”

America has played a role that is neither unique in world history nor notable for its benefit to the cause of human freedom. The British, and the Romans before them – and before them, Alexander – thought they could bring order out of the world chaos, and we are merely the latest pretenders to the throne. As for being mindful of the risks and costs of intervention, an audience other than the notables of the National Defense University would be sorely tempted to let loose with a loud guffaw. The really stunning lie that stands out from the crowd, however, is the assertion that “we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges.” After our long and ongoing post-9/11 rampage across the face of the Middle East, it will be many years before any US President can say this without being laughed at. Force, including the threat of it, is the main instrument of US foreign policy, a necessity inherent in the nature of any and all empires, and especially one such as ours, with global pretensions.

“When our interests and our values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” What interests, whose values – and what’s the difference, anyway? The President devotes the rest of his speech to deftly dancing around these three vital questions.

Obama stumbles, though, when he gives us a little geography lesson, in that gently condescending professorial tone he affects when directly addressing us ordinary folk: “Libya sits directly between Tunisia and Egypt,” we are told, “two nations that inspired the world when their people rose up to take control of their own destiny.” Well, yes, Libya does indeed sit “directly” between Tunisia and Egypt, but even more directly it squats squarely between Algeria and Egypt – and the omission is telling.

Algeria, under the self-proclaimed “socialist” dictator turned Western ally Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is also experiencing anti-government protests, which are being met with brutal force. Later on in his speech, Obama notes the disruption an exodus from Libya would have on neighboring countries, which hints at the administration’s real fear: that an influx of revolution-minded Libyans into Algeria would further destabilize the Bouteflika regime.

“Last month,” continued Obama, Gadhafi’s grip of fear appeared to give way to the promise of freedom. In cities and towns across the country, Libyans took to the streets to claim their basic human rights. As one Libyan said, ‘For the first time we finally have hope that our nightmare of 40 years will soon be over.’”

Another half-truth. Libyans did indeed take to the streets, but was it really to “claim their basic human rights”? At this point, the demands of the rebels seem to be limited to “Gadhafi must go!” What comes after Gadhafi is as much a mystery after Western intervention as it was before. Gadhafi has slimed the rebels as agents of al-Qaeda, which, oddly, puts him in the same camp as some extreme neocons, who see the Muslim world as inherently and incorrigibly authoritarian, and some opponents of US intervention, such as Alexander Cockburn, who give credence to some allegedly “secret documents” dug up by US intelligence which point to Libya as a focal point in al-Qaeda’s recruiting efforts. All this because some self-appointed “commander” of the rebel forces once fought against the Americans in Iraq. Rather than handing power over to bin Laden, the rebels will more likely want to restore the monarchy and install the heir of King Idris I (there are two to choose from).

In any case, the alleged goodness of the opposition is a difficult case to make, and so the President plays his trump card, the indisputable evil of Gadhafi:

“Faced with this opposition, Gadhafi began attacking his people. … In the face of the world’s condemnation, Gadhafi chose to escalate his attacks, launching a military campaign against the Libyan people. Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. The water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misratah was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assault from the air.”

If, during the Civil War, Confederate newspapers reported that Lincoln had begun “attacking his people,” well, then they weren’t exactly wrong about that. The bald statement of this fact, however, leaves out a certain context. Innocent people are targeted in every war, including those conducted by the United States: take the hit on the Serbian state television station during the Kosovo war, a conflict this intervention is often compared to. The Israelis targeted water supplies in Lebanon, along with churches and factories, and yet we heard not a peep out of any party politician above the rank of dog catcher – and certainly not aspiring politician Obama at the time – on that one.

As for the fate of journalists in war zones: the same Al Jazeera that has been singled out by Gadhafi was singled out by the US in Iraq. Journalists are being killed by government-connected death squads in US-occupied Iraq today. As for journalists being sexually assaulted: it happened in Tahrir Square, too, you’ll recall, but somehow this failed to spur US intervention.

I could wade through this miasma of murky logic and dubious doubletalk all day and all night, and still not hone in on the central affront to reason contained therein, and so let me get to that without further ado. After giving us a hair-raising build-up to the climax of his narrative, the President gets down to the nitty-gritty:

“At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Gadhafi declared that he would show ‘no mercy’ to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

“It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing….”

Gadhafi never said he would “show ‘no mercy’ to his own people,” but rather that he would show no mercy to the organizers of the rebellion – presumably, the interim “council” that now rules Benghazi, including his own former Interior Minister. These are the “rats” he referred to – defectors from his own government, who deserted what they perhaps rightly regard as a sinking ship.

Contrary to the President’s assertion that a massacre was imminent, there is no credible evidence Gadhafi was preparing any such action. Not a shred. Indeed, common sense, and military necessity, would argue against it: after all, having taken Benghazi, the Libyan despot would still have to rule it. It’s easy to demonize Gadhafi as a putative madman, yet he didn’t survive all these years for nothing. Indeed, he does have substantial support within the country, centered in the west, around Tripoli, as well as the southern oases of the Fezzan.

“America is different,” says the President. That’s why we intervened, because we can’t just stand by while atrocities are being committed – except when we’re the ones committing them, that is. Then we not only stand by, we call it “liberation.”

Every intervention in the post-cold war world has some significance as a precedent, establishing a new principle governing the ever more expansive definition of US “interests.” This one sets a new standard by positing a potential “humanitarian disaster” as a tripwire that sends American troops into battle. A version of it was utilized in the run-up to the Iraq war, with the President and his advisers invoking that ever-present “mushroom cloud” as the rationale for war. This time it was a purported madman about to commit mass murder on his own people. Next time – oh, just use your imagination. Any number of possible scenarios, based on factoids of dubious provenance, come to mind – along with a great number of possible targets.

Given the routine misery and oppression the governments of the world inflict on their subjects as a matter of course, the opportunity for fresh interventions by the Forces of Goodness & Light is effectively unlimited. In cheerleading Obama’s Libyan adventure, the President’s supporters are signing on to a future of perpetual warfare.

To be sure, the righteous tone of the President’s speech was ameliorated by protestations that the action was “limited,” and assurances that we’d soon be handing the effort off to NATO, and that there wouldn’t be any troops on the ground. This last, by the way, is yet another brazen lie: if we don’t have CIA over there already, aiding the rebels and coordinating air strikes with rebel actions on the ground, then somebody is not doing their job.

We are already half way down the slippery slope of Libya’s internal turmoil, and we’re in so deep at this point that I cannot see our way out for quite some time. The President is reported to have told congressional leaders that the intervention should last “days, not weeks,” and this is the biggest lie of all, a lie the President is apparently telling himself as well as us. We now own Libya’s insurrection: its fate belongs to us, and we’ll be wearing that albatross around our necks for quite some time to come.

Read more by Justin Raimondo