The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

AFRICOM, NATO and the 2011 War on Libya

  • Maximilian C. ForteEmail author
Living reference work entry



This essay argues that there is little to sustain a credible, logical justification for the 2011 war on Libya as being about human rights, and describes how this perspective suffers from a severe deficiency of empirical substantiation. Conversely, while oil was not insignificant, it was neither the sole concern nor the single determinant of the US-led war. In narrow terms, the imposition of a no-fly zone would serve as a gateway for military action designed to secure regime change, an objective pursued by the US since 1969. In broad terms, what was at stake in Libya was the strategic repositioning of the US in Africa, guided by economic interests and pursued through its new unified combatant command (AFRICOM), in developing a militarised neoliberal relationship with African states.

One of the more successful results of US information operations and public diplomacy during the March–October 2011 war on Libya was to create a debate about the purposes of the war, and to even ‘define down’ war itself so that it was officially classed instead as a kinetic humanitarian action: not war, but rather ‘protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis, and setting up a no-fly zone’ (Rhodes 2011). Thus, on one side is an assertion that the military campaign, first led by the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) on 19 March 2011, invoking the mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of 17 March, and then led by NATO until the official cessation of its combat role on 31 October, was to be understood primarily as a humanitarian effort legitimised by the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. At stake, in the latter perspective, were the lives of civilians, and a ‘popular uprising’ for democracy, pitted against the ‘brutal dictatorship’ of Muammar Gaddafi. On another side was strong scepticism that primarily emphasised that this was instead another war about oil. On closer examination, there is little to sustain a credible, logical justification for the war on Libya as being about human rights, and the position suffers from a severe deficiency of empirical substantiation. On the other hand, while oil was not insignificant, it was neither the sole concern nor the single determinant of the US-led war. In narrow terms, the imposition of a no-fly zone would serve as a gateway for military action designed to secure regime change, an objective pursued by the US since 1969. In broad terms, what was at stake was the strategic repositioning of the US in Africa, guided by economic interests and pursued through its new unified combatant command (AFRICOM), in developing a militarised neoliberal relationship with African states.

Libya: America’s Problem in Africa

On 1 September 1969, then Captain Muammar Gaddafi along with other junior officers overthrew King Idris in a bloodless coup. Soon after that it became clear to the US that Libya would embark on a radical Pan-Arab nationalist course. Gaddafi became chairman of the Libyan Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and commander-in-chief of the Libyan armed forces from September 1969, and then prime minister and minister of defence from January 1970 to 1972. During that time, and only weeks after Gaddafi first came to power, members of the administration of President Richard Nixon met to discuss options for dealing with Libya. In November 1969, high-level meetings occurred between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and various Pentagon and CIA officials to discuss the possibility of landing forces at the US’s Wheelus Air Base in Libya as part of an armed takeover of the country, as well as covert actions to engineer a coup; other options included sanctions, freezing assets, reducing bilateral ties, or simple acquiescence (BACM 2011, pp. 79–119). This was largely in response to the RCC’s announcement in 1969 that it would promptly expel the US from Wheelus, and the British from El-Adem airbase as well, with the expulsions executed in 1970. Also in 1970, Libya began to drastically revise the price agreements for its oil exports, and threatened nationalisation (Thornton 2001, p. 69). From then onwards, the US would develop an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Libya and with Muammar Gaddafi personally.

Tensions between the US and Libya escalated into outright conflict during the 1980s, under the US presidency of Ronald Reagan. Two of the immediate pretexts for US military actions against Libya in that period were the issue of freedom on navigation in the Gulf of Sidra (claimed by Libya as territorial waters, which the US contested), and alleged Libyan support for terrorist acts against US targets. Thus, on 19 August 1981, US jets shot down two Libyan planes over the Gulf of Sidra. The US claimed its planes had been attacked first. During 24–25 March 1986, US forces fired missiles on Libyan targets, again claiming that they had been attacked first. On 16 April 1986, President Reagan ordered US air and naval forces to bomb various installations in Libya, among them Muammar Gaddafi’s own residence, killing one of his daughters. On 4 January 1989, two US Navy F-14 s shot down two Libyan jets, 70 miles north of Libya, because of alleged hostile intentions demonstrated by the Libyans.

In addition to these overt instances of direct military conflict, the Reagan Administration worked on various plans for covert actions designed to overthrow Gaddafi, with the support of neighbouring countries and employing Libyan dissident groups armed and trained by the US. As early as 1981, the US planned for a coup to take place in Libya, with the provision of Egyptian military aid to Libyan rebels. In fact, it was within a mere 2 months of taking office that Reagan had the CIA draft a plan by the then deputy director for operations, Max Hugel, which examined various proposals for covert action, ranging from disinformation and propaganda, to sabotaging Libyan oil installations, and organising military and financial support for Libyan dissident groups in Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, and in the US itself. US media also produced dozens of articles and opeds encouraging the campaign against Gaddafi; and Tunisian and Saudi officials confirmed privately that they were ‘told by officials of the Reagan administration that Qaddafi would be eliminated by the end of 1981’ (Wright 1981–82, pp. 15–16). Among the strategies that were used was the CIA’s creation of real and illusionary events with the goal of making Gaddafi believe ‘that there is a high degree of internal opposition to him in Libya’ (Woodward 1987, p. 481). Published accounts have documented the CIA’s and the National Security Council’s ‘obsession’ with Libya during Reagan’s term, designing a set of escalating acts up to and including a proposed Egyptian invasion of Libya (Perdue 1989, p. 54; Woodward 1987, pp. 181–186, 409–410, 419–420). In an approach that served as a preview of US objectives over 20 years later, the Reagan Administration sought to isolate Libya from the rest of Africa, and tried to pressure the Organisation of African Unity to censure Libya, refuse to hold meetings in Libya, and cancel the planned Libyan presidency of the OAU in 1981, with especially intense pressure on the Liberian government to persuade it to cut ties with Libya and expel its embassy. The various US pressure tactics used to sway African leaders included military and economic aid, naval port calls, and the employment of military advisers (Wright 1981–82, p. 14). All of these capabilities would be later combined and focused on Africa with the institution of AFRICOM, and Libya would it be its first military target.

Tensions with the US under President George W. Bush were dramatically reduced by Libya. In 2003, Libya decided to take responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and to pay compensation to the families of the victims, in return for the lifting of sanctions. In 2004, after Libya announced it would cease development of chemical and nuclear weapons, President Bush withdrew a ban on travel to Libya and authorised US oil companies with pre-sanctions holdings in Libya to negotiate their return to the country. The US also partially lifted sanctions, and approved US companies buying oil or investing in Libya. Most US sanctions were lifted by the end of 2004 after President Bush signed Executive Order 12543 (Klare and Volman 2006, p. 614).

Yet, mutual suspicion, friction, and new tensions developed soon after Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009. That year also marked a milestone in Libya’s decade-long effort to gain a position of respected leadership and influence across Africa: 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the officers’ revolt against King Idris; the 10th anniversary of the Sirte Declaration that founded the new African Union (AU); the election of Gaddafi as AU Chairman; Libya taking up a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council; and Ali Treiki, Libya’s top diplomat on Africa, becoming the Secretary General of the UN General Assembly. Libya under Gaddafi was taking an increasingly important leadership role in Africa and, dissatisfied with the paltry results of rapprochement with the US, was simultaneously blocking US opportunities for investment and economic opportunities in Libya itself as well as impeding greater US penetration into Africa by subverting US plans with what might be called ‘dinar diplomacy’. Libya invested billions of dollars in industrial development across the continent, financed the creation of an African satellite communications network, and provided massive financial contributions towards the African Development Bank and the African Monetary Fund, which would specifically challenge the hegemony of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Gaddafi was passionate about using Libyan oil money to help African allies industrialise and add value to their export commodities, helping even staunch US allies in Africa in achieving a measure of food self-sufficiency. The combined effect was to increasingly move the continent away from its role in the global economy as a supplier of cheap raw materials, which was a legacy of colonialism. All of this happened as the US had developed a new strategic view of Africa and aggressively began to expand military ties and business opportunities.

An eventual ‘target of opportunity’ presented itself with the outbreak of street protests in Libya in February 2011, the exposure of serious fissures within the government itself, and the manifestation of strong internal divisions around Libya’s orientation towards Africa, which in previous years had already witnessed deadly mass riots against African migrant workers in the country. Ostensibly, the street protests began in Benghazi on 15 February after a human rights lawyer had been arrested. By 17 February, the protests escalated dramatically. Violent confrontations with security forces ensued: police stations were torched and army barracks were raided. African migrants and black Libyans were targeted once again by opposition protesters and rebels. Soon, whole towns were taken by anti-government forces. On 21 February the defected Libyan deputy permanent representative to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, declared that ‘genocide’ was underway as the Libyan government was allegedly bringing in groups of African mercenaries via the nation’s airports. In addition, prominent Arab and then Western media outlets began to assert that Libya was using jets and helicopters against unarmed protesters. On this basis, from 21 February, the first calls were made for the imposition of a no-fly zone to halt flights into Libya and disable the Libyan air force.

The Aims of the 2011 War

Overtly, the stated aims of the US-led intervention revolved around protecting civilians, saving lives, and averting a greater humanitarian crisis. Thus, Obama declared on 28 March 2011, in terms that echoed Reagan’s speeches: ‘If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world’ (Obama 2011b). In a joint letter, Obama with UK prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy asserted: ‘By responding immediately, our countries halted the advance of Gaddafi’s forces. The bloodbath that he had promised to inflict on the citizens of the besieged city of Benghazi has been prevented. Tens of thousands of lives have been protected’ (Obama et al. 2011). US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates reiterated that, ‘this administration’s approach has been guided by a core set of principles … opposing violence, standing for universal values, and speaking out on the need for political change and reform’ (Gates 2011).

However, two distinct sets of considerations require alternative explanations to be advanced instead. One has to do with the fact that the official explanation continually meandered and changed shape during the course of the war, morphing into varied and repeated justifications for regime change, along with extensive evidence showing that the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi himself was a persistent objective, and proclamations about the ‘democratization’ of Libya as a goal, all of which at one point or another had previously been sworn against as objectives of the intervention (see Forte 2012a, pp. 121–130; Hague 2011; Obama 2011b). The then US secretary of state encapsulated this alternative narrative when rejoicing to a US news reporter ‘We came, we saw, he died!’ following the murder of Gaddafi on 20 October 2011. That the narrative was clearly unsettled is something which requires that we do not take the opening justifications at face value.

Another set of considerations has to do with the alleged humanitarian goals of the intervention: saving lives, protecting civilians, averting a ‘massacre’ in Benghazi. There are several reasons, with ample evidence to support each, that render these goals as questionable in the context of US and European actions leading up to and during the course of the conflict. For example, well prior to any alleged threat by Gaddafi against Benghazi, and as early as a few days after the first street protests began in mid-February 2011, there were already groups of CIA agents on the ground to ‘gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the beleaguered rebels’, joined by more agents later. President Obama had ‘signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to provide arms and other support to Libyan rebels’ even before the international press had begun to speak of an organised, armed rebellion (Mazetti and Schmitt 2011). Also in that period, USAID deployed a team to Libya, as announced by early March (DipNote 2011; Lee 2011). ‘In the early days of the Libyan revolution’, as Hillary Clinton recounted, Christopher Stevens, then the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy, was dispatched to Benghazi to work with the insurgents (Clinton 2012). Thus, before any serious diplomatic initiatives could be organised, before the development of a multinational coalition, prior to establishing the facts of any humanitarian crisis on the ground, and even before a local insurgency could gain strength on its own, the US was already leading the way to intervention designed to secure the overthrow of the Libyan government.

There are many more reasons for questioning the official justifications for military intervention. By all accounts, Libyan government forces had quickly routed insurgents, retaking a number of key towns by late March 2011; foreign military intervention had the immediate effect of slowing the government’s advance and started to equalise the military fortunes of the insurgents who were now backed by the most powerful combined air forces of the world. In effect, the conflict between Libyan forces was thus prolonged for several more months, with more cities destroyed in the process, most notably Sirte, which was a bastion of government support. Thus, with many more inevitably killed than ‘saved’ as a result of the prolonged war, one of the key justifications for intervention was invalidated. US-led forces prolonged the war by also arbitrarily extending their mission in Libya: on 28 March 2011, President Obama had already declared, ‘In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilise a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners … we’ve accomplished these objectives …. I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do’ (Obama 2011b). Nonetheless, the war was continued for seven more months and only ended for NATO once Colonel Gaddafi had been murdered and Libya’s government had been overthrown. Indeed, as a precondition for ending the war, Obama himself stipulated that government forces should withdraw even from the cities where a majority of residents stood with the government, with the list of cities expanding as the war progressed (see Obama 2011a). In other words, the US continually exceeded a military mandate that it had already exceeded, while allowing no solutions except a military one.

In addition, rather than protecting civilians, US and/or other NATO forces targeted civilian infrastructure (water, power, roads, government buildings, and select residential areas), and in a number of documented instances they deliberately targeted civilians themselves (government workers, public broadcasters, and civilian rescuers). Among the more notable, recorded and verified cases occurred on 15 September 2011 in Sirte, when 47 civilian rescuers were targeted as part of the ‘double-tapping’ practice for conducting drone strikes (where first a military target is struck, then all adult, able-bodied men who arrive on the scene thereafter to rescue victims are attacked; see FFM 2012, pp. 44–45). Western human rights organisations also confirmed cases where apartment blocks in Sirte were targeted by NATO bombardments: one case occurred on 16 September 2011 when several airstrikes targeted a large apartment building in Sirte containing roughly 90 apartments and ‘at least two residents were killed’, while NATO did not even list an apartment building as one of its targets, opting instead to produce the following list: ‘Key Hits 16 SEPTEMBER: In the vicinity of Sirte: 5 Command and Control Nodes, 3 Radar Systems, 4 Armed Vehicles, 8 Air Missile Systems’ (see AI 2012, pp. 13–14; HRW 2012, pp. 50–53; NATO 2011a). On 25 September 2011, just before dawn, NATO carried out an airstrike against the home of Salem Diyab in Sirte, killing four children and three women. The apparent target was Mosbah Ahmed Diyab, a brigadier-general, who in fact ‘lived in another area of the city’ (AI 2012, p. 15; HRW 2012, pp. 47–50). Once again, NATO described this civilian residence as a ‘command and control’ facility and deliberately obfuscated the fact that it was deliberately targeting civilian structures: ‘Key Hits 25 SEPTEMBER: In the vicinity of Sirte: 1 command and control node 2 ammunition/vehicle storage facility, 1 radar facility, 1 multiple rocket launcher, 1 military support vehicle, 1 artillery piece, 1 ammunition storage facility’ (NATO 2011b). In yet another case documented and verified by both Human Rights Watch and the UN’s own Commission of International Inquiry on Libya, on 8 August 2011 in the town of Majer, NATO planes bombed a farming compound, in and around which there was no evidence of any military activity. It was struck a second time when civilian rescuers arrived. NATO bombs killed a total of 34 civilians and injured 38 in that attack (HRW 2012, pp. 27–32; UN 2012, p. 16).

Instead of protecting civilians, we have evidence of the contrary practice. In some notable cases, NATO forces ignored African refugees adrift at sea, even as they passed NATO vessels that were enforcing a strict naval blockade and had the sea off Libya’s coast under close surveillance. In fact, on NATO’s watch, at least 1,500 refugees fleeing Libya died at sea during the war. They were mostly Africans from south of the Sahara, and they died in many multiples of the death toll suffered by Benghazi residents during the initial protests there that had captivated media attention in the West. Even the Italian government, a party to the NATO campaign, publicly complained that international humanitarian law had been violated when NATO vessels ignored distress calls and passed by boats adrift at sea without aiding them. One might also note that when NATO repeatedly stated it was protecting civilians, this in practice usually meant it was protecting armed civilians opposed to the government, against other armed civilians who supported it.

Thus, if the practice of military intervention belied the proclaimed humanitarian objectives, and the narratives that justified the intervention shifted and then contradicted the original stated aims, then an alternative explanation becomes necessary as the official ones simply fail to convince, as they inadequately account for enough facts in an accurate, logical, and credible manner. Moreover, there is the critical question concerning historical context. Why now? For decades, US leaders and mainstream media in the global North had cast Colonel Gaddafi as a villainous, brutal dictator, long accused of torture and assassinations at home, and seen as key perpetrator of international terrorism. Yet from 2003–10, there had been an official rapprochement. So what was it about 2011 that seemingly caused the US to suddenly discover ‘human rights abuses’ as a justification for military intervention? Indeed, 2011 offered a further twist to this issue: just a little over a month before the first calls for foreign military intervention, the UN Human Rights Council received and discussed a report on human rights in Libya, and of the 46 delegations that commented on the report a majority ‘noted with appreciation the country’s commitment to upholding human rights on the ground’, and further commended ‘the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya for the preparation and presentation of its national report, noting the broad consultation process with stakeholders in the preparation phase’ (UN 2011, p. 3). Was 2011 different then because of the local uprisings? There had been multiple armed uprisings, coup attempts, and assassination plots throughout Gaddafi’s 42 years at the helm, and yet none of those had been used to justify a concerted military campaign to overthrow the government, nor were they read as a sign of government illegitimacy. Nor were the human rights credentials of the rebels pristine and unquestionable for that matter, as many African migrant workers and black Libyan civilians were targeted for rape, robbery, and murder on the basis of the colour of their skin and their perceived allegiance to Gaddafi, while pro-government protesters in Benghazi were also killed (Cockburn 2011). Human rights, therefore, explain very little. Also, why was there such intervention in Libya, and yet the opposite in Yemen and Bahrain? Arguing that ‘just because the US cannot intervene everywhere, does not mean it should not intervene in Libya’ still does not answer why Libya was targeted. Of course, 2011 did offer a new political context that created openings for intervention, particularly around what was much vaunted in the global North as the ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘calls’ from elite quarters for the US to ‘do something’ to aid in ushering a new, democratic Arab world. While that political conjuncture was not insignificant, the only real change that had transpired within the last decade was a new US strategic shift towards Africa, with the creation of a unified military command just 3 years before 2011, that being the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) which would in fact take the lead in the opening weeks of the military campaign. Since we have very little of what was made public from official quarters that is reliable and can help us answer ‘why Libya in 2011’, we have to look at long-term, and short-term historical contexts beyond Libya alone, and understand broader and deeper US political and economic objectives. We thus require answers that take into account multiple factors and varied determinants, and that connect them logically. In this effort, what US officials said to each other privately (as revealed in the several hundred diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Tripoli that were published by WikiLeaks) becomes especially useful, particularly in light of US strategic and economic concerns.

AFRICOM, Oil, and Leadership

A broad outline of the array of US objectives that could and in some respects would be fulfilled by pursuing the path of aggression against Libya in 2011 can be discerned in terms of the immediate strategic geopolitical gains to be had from the opportunities presented by the Libyan crisis, as well as benefits for longer-term political and economic interests both in Africa and the Middle East, if not more globally.

There were at least nine areas where the US could maximise gains to be had by overthrowing the Libyan Jamahiriya Government, presented here in no particular rank of importance. The first would potentially involve increased access for US corporations to contracts funded by massive Libyan expenditures on infrastructure development (and then reconstruction), from which US corporations had frequently been locked out when Gaddafi was in power (USET 2008, 2009c, d). Second and closely related to the first, the US would thereby also expand its hold on key geostrategic locations and control over access to lucrative petroleum resources much sought after by China and others. Third and stemming from the first two, the US and its allies would potentially be able to ward off any increased acquisition of Libyan oil and construction contracts by Chinese and Russian firms. Fourth, the overthrow of the Jamahiriya could ensure that a friendly regime was in place that was not influenced by ideas of ‘resource nationalism’ (USET 2007). Fifth, the US could increase the presence of AFRICOM in African affairs, in an attempt to effectively substitute for the African Union and to entirely displace the Libyan-led Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), whose membership encompassed nearly half of Africa and rivalled the US’s Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) (USET 2009e). Sixth, by intervening for declared ‘humanitarian’ reasons in support of something cast as a ‘popular uprising’ for ‘democracy’, the US could bolster its claims to being serious about freedom, democracy, and human rights, and present itself – unlike the image created by the Iraq war – as being on the side of Arabs and Africans. Seventh, a successful intervention could work to ensure a politically stable North Africa, guided by the belief that democratic states are the best defence against radical extremism. Eighth, by drafting other nations (in NATO and the Arab League) to undertake the work of defending and advancing US political and economic interests, the US could efficiently achieve dominance at a minimised political and economic cost. Ninth, a successful intervention could help to spread the neo-liberal model of governance and development by removing a major impediment. Joseph Biden, who would later become vice president, recounted: ‘I told Qaddafi there are certain basic rules to playing in the global economy … no one will invest in your country without transparency or without stability. To deliver the promise to your people is going to require significant change …’ (Timmerman 2004, p. 19). Taken together, these present a far more convincing picture of US objectives, than that presented in the humanitarian narrative analysed earlier, especially because they fit a historical pattern of US–Libyan relations and global context of neo-liberal intervention.

In leading the war in its opening phases, AFRICOM’s role as part of a US strategic shift towards Africa deserves further elaboration, especially as AFRICOM bridges and combines the political, economic, and military goals of the US in Africa. AFRICOM came about as a result of what was at least a decade-long process of rationalising, strategising, and organising (AFRICOM 2011, p. vi). From 1990–2000, the US intervened militarily in Africa more than 20 times (Catoire 2000, p. 102). There was increased discussion among military planners of the deficiencies in taking a reactive, piecemeal approach, focused only on contingencies, when ‘shaping the environment’ could reduce the need for ‘expensive and uncertain military interventions’ (110, 111). To shape the environment, the military would require a single, unified command devoted exclusively to Africa, rather than have US-African affairs parcelled out to various commands with responsibilities primarily in the Pacific, Asia, and Europe. A US military force was definitely needed, it was argued, in light of France’s announcement in 1997 that it would reduce its military forces on the African continent by 40%, creating a perceived vacuum (105–106). While the purpose of a command would be to ‘enhance access and influence while communicating regularly with senior foreign civil and military leaders on a variety of issues’, it would do so by ‘building better security relations’ with African nations, ‘endeavoring to build trust and “habits of cooperation” that permit quick agreement and common action to resolve regional conflict’; this would be particularly necessary at time when ‘US resources are limited’ (102).

Military strategists also recognised that Africa had ‘tremendous mineral wealth, huge hydro-electrical power reserves, and significant underdeveloped ocean resources’, with the ‘better part of the world’s diamonds, gold, and chromium’, added to the fact that ‘copper, bauxite, phosphate, uranium, tin, iron ore, cobalt, and titanium are also mined in significant quantities’, and ‘some 20 percent of America’s oil’ was being imported from Africa, while Africa itself was seen as a potentially large, new market for US commodities (104). The US military itself is totally dependent on an imported supply of cobalt, among other strategic minerals that belong to the US’s stockpile programme, the loss of which would constitute, as was understood already in the 1950s, ‘a grave military setback’ (Magdoff 2003, pp. 55–56).

Adding to the Pentagon’s work, a high-level body was appointed by President George W. Bush in February 2001 (the National Energy Policy Development Group, NEPDG), which was chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney. The NEPDG’s final document is known as the ‘Cheney report’. The Cheney report focused on Africa as a strategically valuable supply of oil as it could be relied upon in the event of major crises and disruptions in the Middle East and elsewhere; moreover, African oil was deemed to be of high value given its low sulphur content and its relative ease of access (NEPDG 2001: sec. 8, p. 11). In order to expand US access on the continent, the Cheney report argued that African nations, under US guidance, would have to ‘enhance the stability and security of trade and investment environments’ (NEPDG 2001: sec. 8, p. 19). Building on the Cheney report, and mindful of the concerns voiced by military strategists before that, oil industry lobbyists were joined by a select group of members of Congress and military officers in producing a White Paper submitted to the US Congress and the Bush Administration in 2002. The group called itself the African Oil Policy Initiative Group (AOPIG 2002). AOPIG tightly linked military and economic goals, emphasising African oil as a vital interest to the US. AOPIG called for ‘a new and vigorous focus on U.S.-military cooperation in sub-Saharan Africa, to include design of a sub-unified command structure which could produce significant dividends in the protection of U.S. investments’ (2002, p. 6), and reproduced elements of the prior two reports. Like Catoire (2000, p. 107), AOPIG also singled out Libya as an adversary state and a ‘threat possibility’ that exposed US personnel and assets to ‘heightened dangers and diminished opportunities’ (2002, p. 15).

In 2004, an advisory panel of Africa experts, authorised by Congress to propose new policy initiatives, identified five factors that had shaped increased US interest in Africa over the past decade: ‘oil, global trade, armed conflicts, terror, and HIV/AIDS’. They indicated that these factors had led to a ‘conceptual shift to a strategic view of Africa’ (Kansteiner and Morrison 2004: vi, 2). This strategic view, they argued, required that the US should ‘significantly increase’ its ‘presence on the ground’ (4). As with previous reports, this one also combined military with economic goals, the former to preserve and reinforce the latter. Noting that Africa had proven reserves of more than 60 billion barrels of oil – with Libya, as the panel would have known, having the highest proven oil reserves on the continent (39.1 billion barrels) (Frynas and Paulo 2007, p. 240, 241) – the panel noted that Africa had already become the fourth-largest source of US oil imports, and with a slew of major US oil corporations active on the continent accounting for more than 100,000 energy-based jobs in the US, these actors had ‘a stake in the promotion of a stable investment climate’ (Goldwyn and Ebel 2004, p. 6, 11, 12). Like Catoire (2000), the panel also recognised that ‘the leverage the United States can muster, in coalition with others, is not overwhelming and will diminish by the end of the decade’ (Goldwyn and Ebel 2004, p. 7). ‘Stability and development’ could only be achieved if African political leaders pursued ‘a modernising vision’ (9). The US could exercise leverage via its military and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF; in addition, by ‘engaging’ the continent on ‘common principles for the promotion of transparency, development, and respect for human rights, the more effective U.S. leadership will be’ (10). As with the prior policy papers, this panel also called for the Department of Defense to create a unified command focused on Africa (Morrison and Lyman 2004, pp. 115–116); AFRICOM was created on 1 October 2007, and became functional 1 year later. This panel also singled out Libya in ‘fomenting arms trafficking and instability in Africa, and it proposed an initiative that would implicitly counter the work of Libya’s World Islamic Call Society in its proposal for ‘a major continent-wide Muslim outreach initiative on a dramatically large scale’ (Morrison and Lyman 2004, pp. 115–116, 105). Other panellists also cited Libya’s ‘adventurism’ and ‘destabilisation’ activities in Africa, pointing out that it funded rebel movements in West Africa, a key strategic location of oil (Herbst and Lyman 2004, p. 119 133).

‘Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions’, US President Barack Obama declared in Ghana in 2009, a sentiment that would be echoed in the policy to establish transparency, good governance, economic growth, and democratic institutions as envisioned by the US in the 2012 US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa (White House 2012, p. 2). The National Security Strategies of 2002, 2006, and 2010 had all highlighted what was perceived as the growing strategic value of Africa (Ploch 2011, p. 14). In the preface to the 2012 document, Barack Obama wrote: ‘the United States will not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes’ (White House 2012: i). The ‘democratisation’ of Africa thus became a US national security concern. Added to the US strategic agenda was humanitarian intervention: ‘We have been the world’s leader in responding to humanitarian crises’ (1). As a US military article had constructed this issue, Africa is ‘a world leader in humanitarian crises, failed states, and deadly conflict’ with more UN ‘peacekeeping missions than any other continent’ (Garrett et al. 2010, p. 17). Africa was the problem, and the US was the source of solutions. This was felt urgently by some as Africa loomed larger: ‘by 2050, there may be two Africans for every European’ (16).

Not far removed from the political imperatives for US leadership as constructed in the National Strategy, economic concerns and moulding African institutions to suit transnational capitalist penetration – shaping the environment – weighed heavily. Barack Obama adverted, ‘Africa is more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular. Africa’s economies are among the fastest growing in the world, with technological change sweeping across the continent and offering tremendous opportunities in banking, medicine, politics, and business’ (White House 2012: i). Identified as important to US prosperity, Africa would need ‘to remove constraints to trade and investment’ and open itself to global markets, and promote ‘sound economic governance’ (i, ii). As a result of such a transformation, President Obama vowed to ‘encourage American companies to seize trade and investment opportunities in Africa … while helping to create jobs here in America’ (ii). However, there would be further obstacles to remove from the path of US expansion: ‘Transnational security challenges pose threats to regional stability, economic growth, and U.S. interests’ (1). As Vice Admiral Robert Moeller declared in 2008, AFRICOM was about preserving ‘the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market’ (Glazebrook 2012).

Both AFRICOM and the TSCTP were vigorously opposed by Libya under Muammar Gaddafi’s leadership, as both the US ambassador to Libya and the head of AFRICOM, Gen Ward, were both aware (see USET 2009a, b). There was also opposition from the Northern African Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), led by Libya (Campbell 2008, p. 21). It also seemed that most of the African continent rejected AFRICOM as well, just as Nelson Mandela, a key ally of Gaddafi, had previously rejected President Bill Clinton’s plans for a US-led Africa Crisis Response force. Thus, in October 2007, members of the Pan-African Parliament, the African Union’s legislature, voted in favour of a motion to ‘prevail upon all African Governments through the African Union (AU) not to accede to the United States of America’s Government’s request to host AFRICOM anywhere in the African continent’ (quoted in Ploch 2011, p. 25). The defence and security ministers of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) stated ‘that sister countries of the region should not agree to host Africom and in particular, armed forces, since this would have a negative effect. That recommendation was presented to the Heads of States and this is a SADC position’; the 25-member body then backed the position and, ‘flatly refuses the installation of any military command or any foreign armed presence of whatever country on any part of Africa, whatever the reasons and justifications’ (quoted in Campbell 2008, p. 21). The Arab Maghreb Union ‘also voiced strong opposition to the placement of US bases anywhere on the continent’ (ibid.). Similarly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued the following statement: ‘ECOWAS has stated resolutely its opposition to American bases in the region. At the forefront of this effort stands Nigeria, whose leadership unequivocally denounced the possibility of American troops being based in West Africa’ (quoted in Campbell 2008, p. 22). In summary, it can be safely concluded that in every single respect of what the US identified as the strategic value of Africa, Gaddafi’s leadership stood opposed, which itself might not have been significant except for the fact that Libya had both the financial leverage and political clout to exercise a significant competing presence in Africa that raised walls against US expansion.

Interventionist Methodology

The intervention to overthrow the Libyan government relied upon an array of methods, some borrowed from previous US plans from the late 1960s and 1980s. One of these involved arming anti-government insurgents, and bombing the way ahead of them, while targeting personnel and institutions of the Libyan state. At every single point, peace talks between the opposition and the government were halted or undermined by the US, and diplomatic action by the African Union was equally thwarted and side-lined both by the US and the UN. After unsuccessfully seeking legitimacy in the form of an endorsement from the AU, the US later decided that it was totally dispensable, and claimed authority for its intervention in Libya thanks to a vote in the Arab League, where less than half of its members voted in support of foreign military intervention. The government of Libya was barred from representing itself at the UN in an unprecedented and almost certainly illegal silencing by the body, while the US government refused to issue visas to representatives of the standing government in Tripoli. At the UN, largely unknown ‘human rights’ NGOs held full sway in propagating unqualified and unsubstantiated exaggerations and fabrication of numbers of protesters killed by the government, while never mentioning atrocities committed by the opposition. In at least one case, one of the Libyan human rights groups speaking at the UN Human Rights Council had not disclosed its overlapping membership with the anti-government National Transitional Council. The general approach at the UN was to take everything stated by the opposition at face value, while refusing to hear the Libyan government. Put simply, virtually nothing was done to avert war, and everything was done to accelerate it. In this respect, the creation of an ambience of ‘emergency’ became a significant part of the interventionist methodology as it could be used to rush to war, stifle debate, and predetermine who would have the authority and legitimacy to speak.

Within relatively short order, it became apparent that humanitarian concerns served as a thin veil for the pursuit other goals. Even in the statements by leading US officials, there was little effort to conceal this fact once the bombing was underway. Nearly 2 weeks after the US fired the cruise missiles that opened the campaign, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained in a congressional hearing how and when the US chose to intervene: ‘it became apparent that the time and conditions were right for international military action’, not because all diplomatic options had been exhausted, and not with reference to a humanitarian crisis, but due to the statements of support for intervention from the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and once ‘our European allies expressed a willingness to commit real military resources’ (Gates 2011).

The US led overall military operations in Libya, from the official opening of AFRICOM’s Operation Odyssey Dawn on 19 March 2011 until the official end on 31 October 2011. By the end of the campaign, NATO had completed a total of 9,634 strike sorties against Libyan targets, out of a total of 26,156 sorties overall as part of what it called Operation Unified Protector (NATO 2011c, p. 2). Of the 28 member states of NATO, only eight actually took part in combat sorties, which was reduced to six by the end of August 2011. The primary participants in combat were the US, France, Italy, the UK, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, and Norway. The US provided the majority of refuelling, resupply, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and fired nearly all of the 214 cruise missiles apart from seven (Bomb Data 2014). The US also deployed the majority of drones. In terms of ‘boots on the ground’ – which the Libyan insurgents proclaimed they did not want, but welcomed nonetheless – there were US CIA agents and untold number of ‘private contractors’ of various nationalities (Mazetti and Schmitt 2011); there were also British MI6, SBS, SAS, and SFSG troops, in total numbering as many as 350 and deployed from as early as the time of the first street protests at the end of February 2011 (Mirror 2011; Williams and Shipman 2011; Winnett and Watt 2011); hundreds of troops from Qatar fought on the front lines in nearly every region (Black 2011); also, Jordan had troops on the ground (Barry 2011), and, according to the governments of Sudan and post-Gaddafi Libya, Sudan’s military also participated actively in combat and in arming the insurgents. What confuses matters, aside from NATO and US secrecy, is the extent to which non-US air missions were in fact non-US—as Barack Obama himself revealed: ‘In fact, American pilots even flew French fighter jets off a French aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. Allies don’t get any closer than that’ (Obama 2011c).

Sirte, as Gaddafi’s hometown, a major stronghold of popular support for the government, and the birthplace of the African Union in 1999, was to be the war’s most devastated city, coming under particularly intense NATO bombing. Sirte was targeted from the very opening of NATO’s bombing campaign, lasting until the end. Indeed, out of the total number of days spent bombing by NATO, Sirte was targeted for 42% of those days. As the final offensive against the city began in August 2011, NATO flew more than 130 air strikes at the end of the month. In just 3 days after the insurgents first tried entering Sirte on 15 September 2011, NATO bombed 39 targets in the small city. In a period of 3 weeks in September, NATO struck 296 targets here, even before the final month of bombings. The most conservative assessments found that 70% of the city had been destroyed in fighting on the ground and by NATO bombardment. The total number of civilians killed in Sirte, or in all of Libya during the war, is still not known and no credible investigation has been undertaken, either by the UN, or NATO, or by the transitional governments that followed; if anything, there has been a deliberate effort not to unearth these facts by those with the authority and resources to do so, and successive Libyan administrations, indebted to NATO, have explicitly rejected any calls for an investigation.

That one of the immediate goals of the military intervention was regime change is an inescapable conclusion derived from substantial evidence that Muammar Gaddafi was personally targeted in a series of bomb and missile strikes (Forte 2012a, p. 122–129). Moreover, in addition to US drones targeting Gaddafi’s convoy as it fled Sirte on 20 October 2011, one of the prominent opposition leaders, Mahmoud Jibril, later revealed that a foreign agent (likely French) was the one who actually executed Gaddafi (Forte 2012a, p. 129). Regime change is a violation of international law, as it is a violation of US law to assassinate a foreign head of state. However, in invoking the mandates of the UN, specifically UN Security Council Resolution 1970 and even more so 1973, the US and its NATO partners persisted in presenting every action as legal and authorised. Article 4 of UNSCR 1973 specifically mandates member states ‘to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians’ (UNSCR 2011, p. 3). The political and military leadership of NATO would thus present every single action as consistent with that broad and open language, resorting to semantic games in portraying wherever Gaddafi was located as being in and of itself a ‘threat to civilians’. Even as Gaddafi fled, and was struck by missiles fired by US drones, he was still represented by NATO as ‘endangering civilians’.

From a perspective concerned with human rights, protecting civilians, and defending civil liberties, it is interesting to note that in January 2011, France under President Nicolas Sarkozy offered the Tunisian government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali security support, and dispatched riot-control equipment to put down anti-government protests in Tunisia, right down to the final days of Ben Ali’s rule; additionally, the GCC had itself sent troops to quash protests in Bahrain in March 2011, the same month that the bombing of Libya began; also in March 2011, in the face of massive anti-government protests in Yemen demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the US continued to offer its political support and military co-operation. If taking the humanitarian claims at face value, it is difficult to understand what it was about Libya in particular that presented such a crisis of conscience and a moral imperative to intervene on the side of government opponents, even in the same month that the US and its allies were doing the opposite in Bahrain and Yemen. However, pretending that there was a unique and urgent moral demand in the case of Libya certainly aided in ‘shaping the environment’ so as to create an ambience of emergency, and to create that effect public communication became essential in deploying numerous ideational counter-measures to offset questions, criticisms, and potential delays.

Complex Ideational Counter-Measures

Symbolism, myth, morality, and emotion were called upon by supporters of the war with the desire to produce an ambience of ‘emergency’ around the events of February–March 2011, serving a variety of purposes (while complicating or adding to classical theories of imperialism which tend to downplay such factors). Here we are dealing not just with hegemonic norms, but also potentially more intimate belief-systems, learned cultural values, and emergent structures of feeling that seemingly impel ‘humanitarian intervention’. In the rapid lead up to the US-led war in Libya, symbolism, myth, morality, and emotion were used as countermeasures by: (a) dampening or arresting any international mass movement against the impending war; (b) altering the terms of debate by channelling attention to issues of morality; (c) dividing potential leftist opposition by turning the left in the global North into mutually hostile camps divided along anti-imperialist versus pro-democracy lines (and thus achieving the construction of a choice between alleged freedom under imperial dominance versus local authoritarian autonomy); (d) placing obstacles in the path of the articulation and audibility of antiimperialist critiques from the global South; (e) creating an international chorus of voices, predominantly in the global North, predominantly in the mass and ‘social’ media, demanding immediate action which was reduced to specifically military action. The alleged ‘consequences of inaction’ were culturally constructed and socially distributed, with the hope of both spreading accountability and acquiring legitimacy, while also depoliticising the intervention by turning it into a purely moral choice and a question of witnessing, solidarity, and conscience. ‘Not another war in a Muslim country’ was a fear felt in the Obama Administration, and voiced by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates, haunted by the spectre of the recent war of occupation in Iraq. While no significantly new weapons technologies were tested in the war in Libya, some of the newer ideational and communicative technologies of the last 20 years were reworked and deployed.

With reference to symbolic constructions, the long-standing US demonisation of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was particularly compelling for many members of the mass audience, especially in the US itself, and the Obama Administration sought to capitalise on that. Over the course of three decades, US government officials spoke in terms that suggested they favoured the overthrow and death of Gaddafi. Successive US presidents thus demonised Gaddafi in ways that suggested he was evil, or subhuman. President Richard Nixon said Gaddafi was ‘more than just a desert rat’ but also ‘an international outlaw’, and urged an international response to Gaddafi; then, President Gerald Ford said Gaddafi was a ‘bully’ and a ‘cancer’; after President Jimmy Carter spoke of Gaddafi as ‘subhuman’; more than all, President Ronald Reagan responded to a question about whether he would ‘not be sorry to see Qaddafi fall’ by stating ‘diplomacy would have me not answer that question’; Reagan’s secretary of state, General Alexander Haig, referred to Gaddafi as ‘a cancer that has to be removed’, while Vice President George H.W. Bush described Gaddafi as an ‘egomaniac who would trigger World War III to make headlines’ (Wright 1981–82, p. 16). One should also recall Reagan’s famous statement about Gaddafi: ‘this mad dog of the Middle East [who] has a goal of a world revolution, Moslem fundamentalist revolution’ (Reagan 1986a: n.p.). To this Reagan added about Gaddafi, ‘I find he’s not only a barbarian but he’s flaky’ and ‘I think he’s more than a bad smell’ (quoted in Bowman 2011: n.p.). Reagan also asserted in a televised address to Americans that Gaddafi ‘engaged in acts of international terror, acts that put him outside the company of civilized men’ (Reagan 1986b). Gaddafi thus stood for the barbaric, the uncivilised, the animal, the disease that stood against international order. For longer than Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi had been symbolised in mainstream narratives as a demonic presence, with little in the way of dissenting or critical voices being heard. The fact of the hegemony of this narrative, over an extended period and with the weight of presidential and mainstream media authority, could help to inculcate a popular belief in Gaddafi as a singularly malevolent, dangerous, and unstable creature. It would take little effort for this narrative to be reanimated in 2011, with the desire to secure popular support for regime change.

In terms of myth, numerous fabrications of atrocity and methods of committing atrocity were conjured up by proponents of intervention in ways that spoke to deeply ingrained beliefs around race and sex, and the violence of non-Western others. Some of these unproven allegations simply recapitulated the narrative of Gaddafi as a perpetrator of egregious and lurid crimes, in a manner that sexualised Orientalist discourse. This was especially the case with the charge that Gaddafi had ordered systematic mass rape against Libyans during 2011, a charge made by both the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and the US ambassador to the UN. The additional charge was that troops, ordered to rape, where fuelled by Viagra. If sex performed an internalising function of graphically vivifying the nature of Gaddafi’s domestic ‘tyranny’, race performed an externalising function that forged a convergence between anti-black racism in Libya and US desires to remove Libya as a leader in Africa. Here we are dealing with the myth of African mercenaries being flown in to massacre protesters, and even to indiscriminately terrorise ordinary Libyans with rape and murder. While not a single African ‘mercenary’ was ever produced to substantiate such claims, nor any evidence recorded in the many photographs and videos of protests and fighting in the streets, there was instead ample evidence documented by international human rights organisations and the media of black Libyans and African migrant workers being indiscriminately assaulted, abducted, tortured, and often murdered by the Libyan insurgents. Thus, the African mercenary myth was useful for cementing the intended rupture between ‘the new Libya’ post-Gaddafi and Pan-Africanism, thereby realigning Libya with Europe and the ‘modern world’, which some in the Libyan opposition explicitly craved. The myth also became a useful cover for mass murder along racial lines. Indeed, Amnesty International itself found that ‘some Libyan rebels seem to regard the war against Gadhafi as tantamount to a battle against black people’ (Ghosh 2011). Other myths produced by Western and Arab media, as well as Libyan activists at home and antigovernment exiles, involved stories proven to be false that concerned alleged atrocities by the Libyan government. These included stories of: Libyan jets, helicopter gunships, and anti-aircraft artillery being used against unarmed protesters; mass defections from government ranks; peaceful protests; and, of course, of a threatened ‘genocide’ against Benghazi (see Forte 2012a: ch. 5, b). Taken individually or together, these myths could be useful in producing an international perception of emergency by heightening fear, rooted in prior beliefs of the monstrosity of non-Western regimes and the sexual violence of black people.

Morality played a paramount role in compelling and justifying foreign military intervention (as counter-intuitive as this statement might seem at this point). In particular, a series of moral dualisms acted as the central justificatory principles. One such moral dualism could be characterised as follows: ‘If we do not act, we should be held responsible for the actions of others. When we do act, we should never be held responsible for our own actions’. A second moral dualism involves selecting certain lives as being better, more important, and thus worthy of being saved than others – thus, while an alleged massacre to come in Benghazi could not be tolerated by Western leaders and key opinion shapers, the actual devastation of Sirte did not occasion any outcry. A third moral dualism comes into play with the selectivity in practice of what in theory claims to be a universal and non-discriminatory defence of human rights: intervention is only justified in some parts of the world, but not in others, regardless of the presence or scope of human rights violations. A fourth moral dualism came into play with the shifting labelling practices employed by US officials and the dominant media: while the US labelled armed civilians in Afghanistan as either ‘terrorists’ and/or ‘insurgents’, in Libya they became ‘revolutionaries’ and their deaths in battle were counted among ‘civilian’ deaths. Hence, ‘protecting civilians’ in NATO’s public parlance became a practice of spearheading the Libyan insurgency by attacking government troops and armed civilians who supported the government. However, the broader role of moralising discourse was to depoliticise military intervention, to arrest opposing discourses, and to remove the motivations for intervention from question.

Emotions which, when given voice, supported and demanded intervention, were themselves moulded and motivated by the skilled use of language, within the context of what media commentators dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’. Vicariously experienced through messages from activists on the street posted to social media, a certain fervour acquired momentum that hailed all protesters in any streets in North Africa and the Middle East as agents of a new progressive order of freedom, democracy, and human rights. The Iraq War was seemingly forgotten as some Westerners now saw themselves as part of an alliance with Arabs against local tyranny (while preserving US dominance). What remained to shape these emotions into a direction that favoured military intervention in Libya (and potentially in Syria) was the deployment of stock narrative tropes that themselves evoked emotional responses. Thus, the ‘international community’ of ‘civilised’ nations ‘not standing idly by’ as assaults on protesters stained ‘the conscience of the world’ meant intervening on ‘the right side of history’ to ‘save lives’ and ‘protect civilians’ with ‘surgical strikes’ that respected ‘human rights’. Intervention thus became not a geopolitical act, but something akin to therapy, or a mode of health-care provision. That Libya was made to stand out as the special subject of direct intervention, and be accepted as such by some, owes a great deal to the prior demonisation of Gaddafi, moral dualisms, and the powerful pull of racial and sexual myths. An anti-imperialist stance could thus be made to look as dark, sinister, and seemingly a part of ‘the problem’. Emotional responses, however, were highly dependent on attention spans, and as Libya began to fall into ever deeper chaos as a result of the intervention, and violence continued steadily past 2011, the emotional outcry diminished considerably. Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that such emotions resonated outside of social media, revealing dominant opinion formations in social media spheres not to reflect mass opinion on the whole.

Libya may thus also offer a case study of how the regimentation of emotion can inform new theorising about imperialism. However, considerable caution is necessary. On one side, it is largely true that social and corporate media resonated with calls for a no-fly zone to be imposed, from late February to early March 2011. As an example, the online activist organisation Avaaz (2011) collected more than 800,000 signatures petitioning the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Meanwhile, it did not clarify to signatories that the UN had no power of its own to implement this, and that such action would involve direct military intervention to destroy Libyan airfields and air defences, as Defense Secretary Gates had to explain emphatically (HAC 2011). Indeed, Avaaz’s campaign director obfuscated this latter fact, saying the petition was not a call for military intervention (Hilary 2011). Major human rights organisations in the global North, along with numerous newspaper editorials, made similar calls. On the other side, it is largely not the case that these views were representative of a plurality or majority of citizens, and there is little evidence that they succeeded in persuading the public to back such calls for intervention. A series of opinion polls conducted in the US showed large majorities were against the idea that the US had a responsibility, moral or otherwise, to intervene in the Libyan civil conflict, and even while significant majorities reaffirmed their dislike for Gaddafi and even supported his removal, they were against US military intervention aimed at regime change. The national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, conducted from 10–13 March 2011, during a critical period of especially heightened dissemination of most of the elements discussed above, found that: 63% rejected the idea that the US had a responsibility to intervene, lower than was even the case for the wars in Kosovo and Bosnia; only 16% favoured bombing Libyan air defences, an essential part of imposing a no-fly zone; 69% of US respondents rejected providing arms to Libyan opposition groups; and 82% were against sending US troops. Even so, among those favouring military intervention, moral arguments tended to win over arguments for regime change (Pew 2011, pp. 1–2). A number of polls by other organisations, also conducted in March 2011, tended to produce results very similar to those reported by the Pew Research Center (see e.g., ABC 2011; Polling Report 2011), with some reporting that fewer than 10% of Americans supported US military intervention to remove Gaddafi (Angus Reid 2011). As something of an exception, a CNN poll found greater support for establishing a no-fly zone and sending arms to the insurgents, with 76% reporting an unfavourable opinion of Gaddafi; yet even here, 62% were opposed to military intervention for the purpose of regime change (CNN 2011, pp. 2–3). By June 2011, what limited US public support existed for the Libyan War had declined further (Condon 2011). In addition, most elected representatives in the US Congress consistently voted to deny support for the war. As one example, on 24 June 2011, the US House of Representatives voted 295–123 against a resolution authorising the limited use of force in support of the NATO mission in Libya (AP 2011).

Protecting Libya: Imperial Humanitarianism

The culmination of all of these factors was the intent to continue fortifying a system of globalised humanitarian abduction, ultimately rooted in the civilisational projects of nineteenth-century British and American colonisation. This system involves claims to be better at administering the world, and being entitled to administer it, according to either divine, moral, political, economic, or technological endowments. Humanitarian interventionism thus points to a way of administering the world that goes beyond brute force alone, and harkens back to the older philosophical premises of settler colonialism. Part of this claim to administrative enlightenment involves the idea of protection, which assumes that some exist in a natural state as hapless and incapable victims who require the aid of powerful outsiders. It also assumes that natives are ruled either by brutish or irresponsible chiefs and parents, and thus redemption necessitates external correction. The construction of ‘humanitarian emergency’ as if it were a simple fact, one that occurs naturally or due to innate deficiencies in a given (usually non-Western) sociopolitical system, tends not only to reinforce notions of pathological primitiveness, but goes further by creating the ‘need’ for a custodial relationship between the tutors from the global North and their racially differentiated wards. It is not surprising, then, that the ‘responsibility-to-protect’ doctrine – articulated by key proponents such as Gareth Evans, Lloyd Axworthy, and Michael Ignatieff – should arise from settler states such as Australia, Canada, and the US, with long histories of missions, residential schools, and ‘Indian schools’, along with the office of ‘Protector of the Aborigines’ in British colonies. Aboriginals were to be saved from themselves, rescued from their own inborn defects and savage habits while their lands and political self-determination would be surrendered to their rescuers.

Humanitarian interventionism is premised on an understanding that the sovereignty of others should not matter when others prove themselves incapable of proper self-rule, as implied by the construction and application of international programmes of good governance, transparency, accountability, and aid to civil society via non-governmental organisations in order to ‘save failed states’ (see Helman and Ratner 1992–93 vs Gordon 1997). This updated version of the civilising mission is found in new reprises of the white man’s/woman’s burden in saving others from barbarity, what some call the ‘white savior syndrome’ (Cammarota 2011). This syndrome usually involves creating decontextualised ahistorical binaries (using mythological principles of demonisation and sanctification): bad guys and good guys, dictators and civil society, extremists and moderates, black and white, them and us.

To the extent that contemporary notions of protection reflect a prior history of settler colonisation and extant philosophies of liberal humanitarianism, we should expect to see an updating of the processes of abduction beyond the straightforward acts of seizure of the past, when indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents and relocated to white-run schools. Abduction in the contemporary sense can involve, in broad terms, the assumption of responsibility for/over others, thus appropriating control of their social formation; it can also involve varied forms of removal, from the adoption of children to international scholarships and other forms of retraining; it can involve destabilisation, regime change, and forms of military destruction, so that intervention today may beget intervention tomorrow; abduction may also involve the capture of local leaders and placing them on trial in international tribunals or local courts under foreign occupation; and it can involve various ways of creating the suffering of others and then pleading the need to come to their rescue.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Concordia UniversityMontrealCanada