Canada’s forgotten war

Revisiting NATO’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya
Photo: Ben Sutherland

The situation in which Libyans currently find themselves is dire. Residential neighbourhoods are being shelled, the United Nations has evacuated its staff from the country, embassies have closed, and people are dashing for the border by the tens of thousands.

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Gas and power are scarce. Hospitals are short on medicine and workers, rebels have blockaded oil ports for a year and no political entity can claim nation-wide hegemony. Only 18 per cent of the potential electorate participated in the general election last June.

This summer hundreds have died due to fighting between militias in Libya’s two major cities. In Benghazi, Islamists are engaged in battle with rogue General Khalifa Haftar, a dubious character with historical ties to the CIA. In Tripoli, the country’s capital, nationalist militias from the city of Zintan are battling Islamists and their allies from Misrata for control of a bridge that leads to Tripoli’s airport, itself a site of combat. The fighters from Zintan are allied with the National Forces Alliance Party in the legislature while those from Misrata side with the Justice and Construction Party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya’s parliament. Air strikes have been carried out by the United Arab Emirates, allegedly with assistance from the regime in Egypt.

The UN’s Support Mission in Libya has warned of “catastrophic consequences” if the country’s fighting continues.

Remembering Operation Mobile

Stories in the Canadian media about the violence and insecurity endured in Libya have contained depressingly little reflection on Canada’s part in bringing disaster to that country. In 2011, the Canadian military played an important role in NATO’s military intervention in Libya. Canadian Lt. Gen Charles Bouchard was named commander of NATO's military mission. The Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois all voted in favour of Canada’s mission, which was called Operation Mobile. Canada sent a Sea King helicopter as well as 240 officers and sailors aboard the ship HMCS Charlottetown, which was later replaced by the HMCS Vancouver. Ten combat aircraft, two planes for airborne refueling and 200 Canadian Forces personnel also went to Libya. Canada spent $347 million on Operation Mobile.

Stories in the Canadian media about the violence and insecurity endured in Libya have contained depressingly little reflection on Canada’s part in bringing disaster to that country.

NATO’s intervention in Libya began in March 2011. Protests against the government of Muammar Qadhafi had begun on February 15, and soon Western officials and a docile mainstream media were circulating trumped-up claims about Qadhafi’s conduct, leading the public in countries such as Canada to acquiesce to their government’s intervention. In a profoundly cynical move that exploited the violence that women experience daily across the world, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton repeated claims by officials that Qadhafi was giving his troops Viagra to fuel mass rape. Although Qadhafi’s forces certainly committed acts of sexual violence, Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders found no evidence of the systematic, government-directed campaign that Rice and Clinton claimed the regime had undertaken. (Maybe someday Qadhafi’s stores of Viagra will be found buried next to Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.)

Western elites also alleged that Qadhafi’s government was on the verge of carrying out genocide. However, as Professor Alan J. Kuperman pointed out in 2011, Qadhafi’s actions “were a far cry from Rwanda, Darfur, Congo, Bosnia, and other killing fields. Libya’s air force . . . targeted rebel positions, not civilian concentrations. Despite ubiquitous cellphones equipped with cameras and video, there is no graphic evidence of deliberate massacre.” Further, Qadhafi did not “ever threaten civilian massacre in Benghazi, as Obama alleged.”

Similarly, it became commonsensical to assert that Qadhafi was bombing protesters from the air. But US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen maintained there was, in Mullen’s words, “no confirmation whatsoever” that such bombing was happening. Nor did a 2012 UN Human Rights Council report on the conflict attribute any such action to Qadhafi.

Yet the belief that Qadhafi was bombing protesters was the foundation for UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone and authorized “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, a provision that Western leaders claimed included the right to overthrow Qadhafi’s government.

War atrocities ignored

War enthusiasts attempted to justify military intervention by pointing to Qadhafi’s dismal human rights record, but failed to acknowledge that NATO was empowering rebels who were committing atrocities, as was NATO itself. For example, on September 15, 2011, two jeeps belonging to pro-Qadhafi forces were destroyed by a pair of missiles fired from NATO aircraft. According to an investigation by the Independent Civil Society Mission to Libya, a crowd of civilians rushed to the vehicles. A third missile fired by NATO nearly five minutes after the initial attack killed 47 civilians.

Anti-Qadhafi fighters, meanwhile, were principally Arab Libyans, many of whom held racist attitudes toward black Libyans, whom they often regarded with little basis as mercenaries for Qadhafi. Consequently, black Libyans were subject to multiple crimes carried out by the rebels. The UNHRC report notes that these crimes included arbitrary arrests, torture, murder, and the depopulation of Tawergha, a town mostly made up of black residents.

The Canadian government supported these crimes, aided in large measure by mainstream media coverage.

The Canadian government supported these crimes, aided in large measure by mainstream media coverage. The discourse on international conflict tends to portray those states that carry out counterinsurgency operations as bulwarks against barbarism or megalomaniacal tyrants, and insurgents as romantic liberators or vicious criminals, with all roles cast based on which group is favoured by elites in the West.

Opportunities for a negotiated settlement to the Libyan crisis abounded, so there was no need to make a zero-sum choice between a return to Qadhafi’s undemocratic regime or a devastating war. Yet NATO opted for an avoidable conflict that has left Libya in tatters. To name only three of several examples where alternatives were presented, the International Crisis Group’s March 10, 2011, proposal for facilitating a peaceful settlement that would lead to the replacement of Qadhafi’s government was not seriously pursued by the international community; Turkey’s offer in late March to broker a ceasefire was ignored; and the African Union’s peace initiative was dismissed by Western powers. Seizing one of these opportunities could have protected Libyan civilians from Qadhafi, the rebels and NATO, as well as facilitated political change without destroying the country and its institutions to the degree that has occurred.

Moreover, the Libya intervention cannot be understood as a case of good intentions gone awry. As Maximilian Forte details in his important book on the war, Slouching Towards Sirte, and as I have argued previously, NATO made war on Libya because Qadhafi’s regime stood in the way of Western pursuits in Africa.

Though Qadhafi’s government had normalized relations with the West during the latter stages of his rule, US policymakers nevertheless saw his government as a barrier.

Though Qadhafi’s government had normalized relations with the West during the latter stages of his rule, US policymakers nevertheless saw his government as a barrier to such goals as outcompeting China for access to natural resources on the continent or growing the number of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) bases.

In these ways, NATO’s war in Libya is a case study in why Western-led humanitarian interventions can more accurately be understood as imperialist ventures. The rulers of powerful states exploit a crisis involving a less powerful nation, whose leader displays an independent streak, so that the former can attempt to control the latter with the entire venture inflicting disastrous consequences on the local population.

A failure to honestly reckon with the role Canada played in creating the situation in Libya will compound the injustice of having fought the war in the first place. Moreover, it can only guarantee that the wrong will be repeated.

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