Obama’s Middle East retreat – Remember Libya

By Jonathan Power

American Middle East interventionists chide President Barack Obama for not doing more. Why is the US running away from Yemen, why didn’t the US go into Syria and depose President Bashar al-Assad, why did Obama pull troops out of Iraq prematurely, why isn’t he putting “boots on the ground” in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS)? Why, in short, doesn’t the US use its military might to subdue the stormy parts of the Middle East?

The first answer must be that he does not have to be George W. Bush’s surrogate. It was Bush who triggered much of the upheavals with his invasion of Iraq – although ex-President Jimmy Carter bears the responsibility for arming the Taliban and thus the establishment of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Why should Obama want to continue to try and mop up after Bush’s dirty work, especially as more intervention is likely to up the ante rather than calming the situation?

That said Obama made his own serious mistake of intervening to depose Muammar al-Qaddafi in Arab Libya. Although the UK and France led from the front the US was backing them up in every way – with intelligence and close -in naval support. While this failure is not responsible for the Middle East debacles it has helped spread Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State through northwest Africa.

Alan Kuperman writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “ As bad as Libya’s human rights situation was under Qaddafi, it has gotten worse since NATO ousted him. Immediately after taking power the rebels perpetuated scores of reprisal killings, in addition to torture and beating. Human Rights Watch declared that the abuses ‘appear so widespread and systematic that they may amount to crimes against humanity’. Although the White House justified its mission in Libya on humanitarian grounds, the intervention magnified the death toll.”

With the information we now have we know that Qaddafi’s own pre-invasion crackdown turns out to have been much less lethal than media reports indicated at the time. Human Rights Watch documented only 233 deaths in the first days of the fighting, not 10,000 as Saudi Arabia claimed. Qaddafi tried to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Only 3% of the wounded were women and children. Moreover, before the uprising Qaddafi had released nearly all his political prisoners.

By the time NATO bombers started their work Libya’s violence was winding down. The rebels were retreating. At this point the rebels issued warnings of an impending blood bath. The Western press fell for the propaganda and this helped move the US, UK and France to ask the US Security Council for authorization to intervene to protect the civilian population.

Russia and China did not veto the carefully worded resolution that authorized intervention but which did not give NATO a carte blanche to do what it then decided to do – use massive force to overthrow the regime. No wonder the Russians felt misled. It is part of the reason why Russia isn’t being very helpful in bringing peace to Syria. When the UN is abused by one of the big powers it doesn’t like a rubber band spring back into shape again. The hypocrisy of the West over Crimea is something to behold when one considers this Western action in Libya and also the decision in 1999 to bomb Serbia on behalf of the independence-seeking Kosovo without any Security Council approval, contrary to the Charter of the UN.

Today, Qaddafi gone, the militias use force indiscriminately. Libya and its neighbour Mali have been turned into terrorist havens, whereas Qaddafi had successfully suppressed the havens. When the Tuaregs serving in Gaddafi’s security force returned home to Mali to fight their government their struggle was hijacked by the so-called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It has provided training camps and arms to Boko Haram in Nigeria. The spillover in Libya has also spurred the deadly conflict in Burkina Faso and the growth of radical Islam in Niger. France felt compelled in 2012 to intervene on the government’s side in Mali- and has ended up fighting the jihadists in the north, with no end in sight.

Weapons have leaked out of Libya to militant Islamists even further afield, to Somalia, Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq and the rebels of Syria.

Overlooked in all this is that in his later years Qaddafi had been trying to mend his fences with the West. He voluntarily halted his advanced nuclear and chemical weapons programs and surrendered them to the US. How does his overthrow look to other states, like North Korea or Iran, whom the West is trying to persuade to forgo such weapons?

Obama, the UK and France made a catastrophic mistake in the name of “humanitarian intervention”. No wonder that Obama has now become even more cautious about intervention in the Middle East than he was before- and so he should be.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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