MSNBC host and Young Turk Cenk Uygur speaks with Colonel Jack Jacbos (U.S. Army, Retired) and history Professor Juan Cole about the history of U.S. interventions abroad in the context of the no-fly zone in Libya from a coalition looking to overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya: Humanitarian Interventions and Supported Insurrections
The Middle East is now convulsing under the strains of the so-called Arab Awakening. First Tunisia, then Egypt, and now such places like Yemen, Bahrain, and even Syria and Jordan witness scenes of popular unrest and public displays of dissatisfaction. In the midst of these popular demonstrations and government crackdowns, the evens in Libya stand out as somewhat uncharacteristic and even extreme. Rather than protesting against Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, some people in Libya have actually taken up arms and have commenced a veritable uprising, an uprising that rapidly turned into a civil war of sorts.
The Colonel and his forces, however, fought back and easily defeated the rebels who retreated to the city of Benghazi. It was then that Gaddafi appears to have made his most serious miscalculation. Instead of merely attacking the city and crushing the rebellion, he issued threats to the city, its 700,000 residents and the opposition forces: the “hour of decision has come . . . The matter has been decided . . . we are coming. There is amnesty for those who throw away their weapons and sit in their house . . . No matter what they did in the past, [they will be] forgiven [, but] there will be no mercy or compassion [for those who resist]”. Gaddafi made this ominous warning on Thursday night (17 March) and subsequently, the international media as well as political leaders worldwide started uttering such words and phrases like ‘massacre’, ‘genocide’ aimed at ‘unarmed civilians’. As a result, the Free World’s leader felt forced to act. President Obama who had till then shown great restraint, now felt at ease threatening Gaddafi: “All attacks against civilians must stop. Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiya, and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya. Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable”.
But unlike his predecessor, Obama did not rush in and throw American weight around. He waited for the United Nations to provide legal justification. And, compelled from above, the Security Council could not but oblige and passed resolution 1973, authorizing its member states to implement a “no-fly zone . . . [and] to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”. As a result, on 19 March, the anniversary of the Bush campaign of Shock & Awe that was meant to bring Saddam Husain to his senses, the U.S. commenced Operation Odyssey Dawn, assisted by France, the UK, and Canada. The Arab League, which had been pleading for the implementation of a no-fly zone was shocked at first as it had apparently not realised the exact military ramifications of putting such a zone in place. Arab leaders soon changed their tune however. Commentators have not missed the opportunity to refer to Kosovo bombing campaign of 1999, which had also adhered to a humanitarian rationale.
Then, Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević used his troops and supporters to ethnically cleanse the then-province of its Albanian inhabitants. Bill Clinton’s war against Milošević was relatively short yet decidedly harsh in indiscriminately pursuing Serb positions, including occasional civilian targets in Belgrade and elsewhere. The Albanians who were then forced to flee their homes at gunpoint have now back home in Kosovo unilaterally declared their independence from Serbia. At the time, the misery inflicted upon the Albanian population was highly visible and beyond doubt, but subsequently, critics of Clinton’s policies have emerged indicating that the real reason behind the bombing campaign was the Trans-Balkan pipeline running from the Black Sea to the Albanian port of Vlore. And adding weight to this interpretation is the continued existence of Camp Bondsteel, strategically located next to the pipeline’s projected trajectory. The leftist critic Paul Stuart explains that in “June 1999, in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Yugoslavia, US forces seized 1,000 acres of farmland in southeast Kosovo at Uresevic, near the Macedonian border, and began the construction of a camp. Camp Bondsteel is known as the “grand dame” in a network of US bases running both sides of the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. In less than three years it has been transformed from an encampment of tents to a self sufficient, high tech base-camp housing nearly 7,000 troops – three quarters of all the US troops stationed in Kosovo”.
Barack Obama has now reassured his war-weary people that the United States will not embark upon yet another war, but that responsibility for maintaining the no-fly zone would pass to NATO or other interested parties, which effectively means that the allied forces are actively supporting the rebels in their efforts to defeat Gaddafi. But the world is still reeling under the consequences of the financial crisis and austerity measures are being implemented everywhere. The initial costs of the Libya intervention were substantial: Tomahawk missiles worth nearly $260 million have been fired; while neutralising Libya’s air defenses cost more than $800 million; and maintaining the no-fly zone is estimated to cost approximately $100 million per week. Domestically however, the Obama Administration, aided by the Republican-controlled Congress, is cutting services and curbing spending. In contrast, the Financial Times’ Jack Farchy and Roula Khalaf indicate that Colonel Gaddafi “is sitting on a pot of gold. The Libyan central bank . . . holds 143.8 tonnes of gold, according to the latest data from the International Monetary Fund, although some suspect the true amount could be several tonnes higher”. They continue that Gaddafi’s gold is “worth more than $6.5bn at current prices”.
The past weekend BBC America’s Ted Koppel exclaimed the following question on live television: “why it is that Libya, of all countries in that region, has won the humanitarian defense sweepstakes of 2011?”. Koppel’s query seems more than justified. In the U.S. the plight of the inhabitants of Darfur has been highly publicised in the past, whereas the situation in the DRC is nothing short of genocidal, and currently the Ivory Coast is descending rapidly into a civil war. Libya’s underground assets arguably play a role, and the news agency Reuters has stated that about 32 percent of Libya’s oil goes to Italy, 14 percent to Germany, 10 percent to France and China and 5 percent to the United States. Could this meagre 5% explain President Obama’s initial reticence?