To the Shores of Tripoli

In the "sandstorm" of revolts spreading through the Arab world that began in January with the ouster of Tunisia’s "president" Ben Ali, the revolt in Libya has been the stark anomaly. While there were clashes of police and the military with protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen — with loss of life — the Libyan protests quickly devolved into open warfare. Unlike the other governments shaken by revolts, the regime of Colonel Gadhafi has not been anyone’s client. Last, but not least importantly, the conflict in Libya appears to have a regional and tribal background — but then, so does Bahrain. Yet the Empire’s reactions to events in Libya and that tiny Gulf kingdom could not have been more different.

Strange Bedfellows

Media coverage from Libya has been confusing at best, and often contradictory. Air attacks that never happened, heavy fighting that was nothing of the sort, rebel advances that ended up being retreats without a shot fired — all in all there has been very little "news" from the shores of Tripoli, and a whole lot of propaganda. Also suspicious is the fact that, alone in all of North Africa and Arabia, the Libyan rebels have clamored for foreign help from the start.

For his part, Colonel Gadhafi has maintained that the rebellion was actually orchestrated from the West, and that he was fighting both the Empire and al-Qaeda.

A hint of confirmation could be found in a fawning portrait of rebel fighters in the March 13 Washington Post. One exemplary rebel interviewed by reporter Laila Fadel turns out to be a veteran of the Iraqi insurgency. One of his brothers blew himself up to kill U.S. Marines. Another is an al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan. But "Abu Sultan" says he disapproves of his brother’s al-Qaeda ways, wants a "civilian government with justice, freedom, and a constitution," and though he considers this "a Libyan fight" would very much like a no-fly zone and foreign intervention. Make of that what you will.

Going After Gadhafi

At first, the debate over Libya in Washington sounded like a time-tunnel trip to 1990s Bosnia, where the White House got involved through gradual escalation so as to overcome objections by the Congress and the reluctant public. As the tides of war turned and the anti-Gadhafi rebels began to retreat, the tone had changed to resemble the run-up to the 1999 Kosovo war. Writing in Counterpunch on March 8, Diana Johnstone noted some disturbing parallels in how the Empire got involved in both conflicts, and on what grounds.

This time, however, it was difficult to tell almost to the last moment which way the scales would tip. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times urged against intervention, quoting reformed Bosnia interventionist David Rieff — who, in turn, quoted John Quincy Adams on the wisdom of not meddling around the world. Her colleague Roger Cohen argued for it, predictably invoking Bosnia, but wanted the Empire to "go in ruthlessly."

In the Washington Post, none other than Gen. Wesley Clarke, who commanded NATO forces in the 1999 attack on Yugoslavia, argued against going into Libya. Kosovo was different, Clarke claimed, because NATO had UN authorization. This prompted David Bosco of Foreign Policy to bristle at Clarke’s "rewriting [of] history" thus: "…the United States at this moment has as much legal authority to intervene in Libya as NATO did in Kosovo, which is to say not much."

On Thursday, March 17, that authorization was given. The UN Security Council authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya and approved "all necessary means" to protect civilians from violence. How bombing Libyans will make them safer is anybody’s guess.

Without Remorse

A day or so later, the resolution might have been unnecessary; the rebels were mostly routed and government troops were preparing to enter the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and end the war. Upon the news of the UN decision, Gadhafi vowed to show the rebels "no mercy" and said his government would retaliate by attacking Western civilian targets.

Between all the non-news about Libya and the shocking images of devastation wrought by the earthquake and the tsunami in Japan, the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain has received very little media attention. It is the events in Bahrain, however, driving up the global oil prices and possibly portending a wider conflict in the Gulf.

Bahrain is an island kingdom ruled by a Sunni Arab dynasty with connections to the Saudi royals, itself connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. The majority of Bahrainis, however, are Shia Muslims. For a month now, the people have been demonstrating against the government in Manama, only to be clubbed, gassed, and shot. All assembly has now been banned, and Saudi troops have entered Bahrain to help the royal family suppress the protests. Even as Washington called on the government to negotiate with the protesters, all the protest leaders were under arrest.

How come there are no calls for an intervention in Bahrain? Well, for one, it is a major base for the U.S. 5th Fleet. Sunni Arab rulers of Arabia and the Gulf states have been the principal U.S. allies for decades. So, while the Shia majority in Bahrain is crushed so as not to give their brethren in Saudi Arabia any ideas, Washington turns the other way.

This may well provoke Iran, which sees itself as a protector of Shia interests in the region. Strangely, Washington doesn’t seem to care. Unless a war with Iran is what the Empire really wants

License to Meddle

In 1999, NATO governments came up with a doctrine of "humanitarian" warfare called the "responsibility to protect." In theory, this meant that any time a government used force against its own people, it forfeited sovereignty and other governments had the right to intervene. In practice, it was an open-ended license to meddle anywhere, anytime, the old Communist "Brezhnev doctrine" writ large.

The "R2P" was a fig leaf intended to hide the evil that was the attack on Yugoslavia and the subsequent occupation of its province of Kosovo. In 2004, in the presence of some 40,000 NATO peacekeepers, ethnic Albanian mobs rampaged across the province for four days, targeting the remaining Serbs and torching their villages and churches. The Empire’s response to the pogrom was to reward the Albanians with independence. So much for humanitarian morality, then and now.

Whether it remains confined to air strikes — and it will not — or escalates into something no one can predict at the moment, the impending intervention in Libya is a stupid, unnecessary war of choice. There are many good reasons against it, ranging for "we have no right" to "we are broke." But remember, this is the view from the "reality-based community," to which the Imperial policymakers are entirely immune. To them, this looks like a perfect short victorious war, something to boost Empire’s flagging reputation and influence. In actuality, it is the foreign policy equivalent of the Fukushima meltdown.

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Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.