There were a lot of interesting factors at play in the 2011 NATO bombings, and I want to start discussing them by first dispelling any idea that the bombings were somehow undertaken for humanitarian purposes. Continued in part 2.
On March 19th, 2011, just hours after the UN passage of Resolution 1973 authorizing the use of force by UN member states in Libya to “take all necessary measures” to “protect civilians,” France, without warning its fellow NATO countries, began bombing targets in Libya. Gaddafi’s forces were abruptly halted on their rapid advance towards the rebel capital of Benghazi, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, without even so much as giving a fair warning to the representatives of the NATO countries he had been meeting with earlier that very day, began a war which did not end until October of that year.
According to France’s Chief of Defense, the war was supposed to last a matter of “weeks”. However, much of the Libyan populace, especially in the region of Tripolitania, resented the foreign invaders and took up arms to defend their homeland. When Gaddafi’s forces had ruthlessly mowed down protesters in the days leading up to the conflict, the death toll stood somewhere around a thousand. The war would claim the lives of anywhere between 10,000-50,000. The armed Libyan forces fighting against Gaddafi, called the National Transitional Council (NTC), estimate 30,000 dead which would make the conflict in Libya bloody on a scale surpassing every Arab Spring uprising with the exception of Syria. During the civil war, African migrant workers suffered the worst of the violence. Racist hatred was fueled against them by a myth spread most notably by Al Jazeera that African migrant workers in Libya were actually Gaddafi’s hired mercenaries. This racist violence was wrought with a vengeance against the 35,000 citizens living in the city of Tawergha. The Tawerghans were forcibly removed from their homes, a few were executed, and the rest were sent away never allowed to return. Their crime was their supposed support for Gaddafi. Vijay Prashad in Arab Spring, Libyan Winter writes of one incident that took place in the days before the bombings began, when protesters executed 50 “African Mercenaries” at a police station in the province of Cyrenaica. During the bombings, NATO showed no compassion towards the African migrant workers. Horace Campbell, in Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure of Libya writes, “More than 900 Africans drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to escape the fighting in Libya. In one spectacular incident, two survivors reported the tragic story of a boat carrying 72 African immigrants that ran into difficulty trying to reach the Italian port of Lampedusa. The Africans on board, including women and children, were left to drift in the Mediterranean for sixteen days after a number of European military units apparently ignored their cries for help. Two of the nine survivors claimed this included a NATO ship. Despite alarms being raised with the Italian coast guard and the boat making contact with a military helicopter and a warship, no rescue effort was attempted.” This wanton disregard for human life is emblematic of the entirety of the NATO intervention. It was a horrific affair with tens of thousands massacred. In the letter published by U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and British President David Cameron, the three announced that they “would not rest” until, “the Libyan people can choose their own future.” During the fall of Gaddafi’s capital of Tripoli, mobs of barely armed Gaddafi supporters, ordinary citizens of the Libyan city of Tripoli, rallied to defend Gaddafi’s compound Bab al-Aziza. There they were attacked by the full might of NATO’s arsenal. Some 63 bombings were undertaken targeting the supporters at the compound in a single 24-hour period. Apache gunships and drones were used to attack this mass of what were technically “combatants” so that now "the Libyan people can choose their own future."
The NATO forces involved in the conflict have a miserable history in North Africa. At the outbreak of the protests across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, known as the Arab Spring, French Foreign Minister Michelle Aliot-Marie put on display the French commitment to democracy when she offered to send “security forces” to the countries of Algeria and Tunisia to help them quell the growing protests. While U.S. President Barack Obama announced his support for anti-Gaddafi protesters, the U.S. continued to send massive AID to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak whom the U.S. had kept in power for over three decades. Additionally, the protests in Bahrain were crushed after a U.S. supported Saudi invasion of the country. The Italian role in the NATO operation is especially appalling considering the history of colonialism that no doubt played a large role in the unexpected increase in support that Gaddafi received from the Libyan population once the bombings began. Associate Professor of Government at Darmouth College Dirk Vandewalle estimates that during the Italian colonization of Libya (1911-1942), Italian forces were responsible for the deaths of between 250,000-300,000 Libyans out of a population of 800,000-1 million. In 1921 and 1922, 20,000 Libyans were executed by firing squad alone. Not in NATO but welcomed into the coalition was the nation of Sudan whose president Omar al-Bashir currently has an International Criminal Court warrant out for his arrest due to the horrific crimes committed in the Sudanese province of Darfur. And the nation of Qatar which is just as undemocratic and repressive as Gaddafi’s Libya.
What also bears mentioning is the repeated refusal of NATO and the NTC to engage with negotiations that should have been pursued. UN Resolution 1973 was the paper-thin legal justification used for the bombings. It clearly stated that a peaceful settlement to the civil war was the most desirable. As Hugh Roberts writes in his article, Who said Gaddafi had to Go?, “Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments.” Haftar, or spelled Hifter depending on the source, was in the two decades prior to the conflict living in Arlington, Virginia, home to, among other government offices, the Pentagon. “‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west – in other words, he had to accept strategic defeat in advance. These conditions, which were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1.” Aside from Gaddafi’s own initial attempts at negotiation to avoid the subsequent bloodbath, the African Union (AU), with the vocal support of Nelson Mandela, made tireless attempts to get NTC and NATO leaders to sit down with Gaddafi. In response to attempts made in April by the AU, the NTC announced that Gaddafi would have to step down as a precondition for any negotiation. The message was clear, there was no desire by the NTC or NATO for negotiation.
Based on the refusal of the NATO powers to negotiate with Gaddafi while avenues were open, on the glaring hypocrisy of the NATO powers and their allies in the conflict, and, finally, based on the horrific death toll wrought by the conflict and the clear disregard for human life displayed by all sides, we can safely put aside all rhetoric of “freedom,” “democracy,” and “international law,” in this civil war and start to focus on what this conflict was really about. Capital.