Tom Switzer, host of the ABC RadNat talkshow Between the Lines, held an interesting discussion with Alan Kuperman, Associate Professor of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, about how the West caused the unfolding disaster in Libya.
Best for you to listen to the whole thing, but for those who cannot I’ve transcribed the most relevant and interesting bits.
TS: How do account for the fact that these media reports grossly exaggerated the death toll?
AC: I think it was partially an innocent mistake by Western reporters who had a bad impression already of Qaddaffi. But really the main reason was, was the propaganda efforts of the rebels. They had started this rebellion, they initially for a week or two had made progress, and then, when Qaddafi organised his response, the rebels were in abject retreat. And they were about to lose – lose their rebellion, lose their revolution. And so, what they did is that they resorted to lies, they resorted to propaganda. And they said: ‘Qaddafi is targeting innocent civilians, and is about to commit a bloodbath in Benghazi’. And the West fell for that. Now were the West witting dupes? I think some people were, I think some people were just innocent dupes – they fell for the propaganda. And so, I think Hillary Clinton probably believes that the intervention stopped a bloodbath. But it did not, because there was no blood bath in the offing.
TS: But in fairness, Hillary may have been haunted by the recriminations against her husband Bill, after he failed to stop a genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
AC: I think that’s quite possible. The same is certainly true of Susan Rice [insert here of who Rice is]. She was working in the Clinton administration at the time, responsible for humanitarian affairs and for Africa. And she has said, on the record, that she’s haunted by that, that she will never allow something like to happen again. And the irony is that, in trying to prevent a horrible bloodbath, the US intervened where there was not going to be a bloodbath, and caused a bloodbath. So that the Libya conflict had about 1,000 deaths at the time we intervened, and the war was about to end on its own, and as a result of our intervention the war lasted not one month, but eight months, the death toll was not 1,000, but 10,000, and here we are today, four years later, and Libya is involved in another civil war, and parts of the country have been taken over by al Qaeda and by ISIS. It’s a total disaster, which was driven by good intentions.
TS: Was anyone in the higher echelons of power in Washington, London and Paris warning of the dangers of unintended consequences … Was anyone making that case behind the scenes?
AC: Very senior people, including the Secretary of Defense at the time, Robert Gates. He adamantly opposed this. He said, publicly, he said: ‘The last thing in the world that the US needs to do is to intervene in another muslim state in the Middle East’. He reportedly was on the verge of resigning over this decision but he decided not to …
TS: Alan, what was the impact of Qaddafi’s fall in Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, especially Syria?
AC: It has really been this cascade of tragic consequences. First of all, you had Libya, which was actually an ally in the war on terror. Starting around 2000, they had provided intelligence to the United States to help stamp out al Qaeda, because al Qaeda was a common enemy of Qaddafi and the West. Instead what you have today is a country that is in anarchy, and where you have not only al Qaeda but you have ISIS; ISIS is throughout the country, they have been assassinating Christians where they can find them. So, that’s the first consequence. Secondly, you had spillover of that conflict into Mali; Mali then had a civil war, absolutely directly caused by the Libyan civil war, and in Mali you got what was referred to by a senior congressional official as the largest – the largest – safe haven for islamic terrorists in the world, at the time. You got proliferation of weapons from Qaddafi’s stockpile, including surface-to-air missiles which have now attempted to shoot down planes in places such as the Sinai and in the Gaza Strip [I think he means that islamic terrorists have used the missiles in these attempts, not that the missiles themselves have developed autonomy, which would be much more alarming]. And then, as you said, there was this effect on Syria. And this may have been the most important, because what the Syrians saw was that in Libya, where there was a violent uprising, NATO and the West came in and helped the rebels to overthrow the government. And Syria at that time was largely a non-violent uprising. And they said: ‘Well, we’re not getting any help, but in Libya they got help because they were violent’. And you saw this transformation in the Spring and Summer of 2011 from a non-violent to a violent uprising in Syria. And that’s when the death toll skyrocketed. So you can connect the dots and say, that not only did this intervention in Libya cause a disaster in North Africa, but it really escalated the tragedy in Syria …
TS: So your argument Alan is that George W. Bush, what George Bush did to Iraq is the same thing that Barack Obama’s pretty much done to Libya, with the help, of course, with David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy?
AC: It is a remarkable parallel. In both cases, you had a country that was actually an ally in the war against al Qaeda. You then had propaganda that came out which seemed to justify an intervention – in both cases, the propaganda was false: in Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction, there was no connection to al Qaeda; in Libya, there was no targeting of civilians, there was no imminent bloodbath. You have this intervention, and instead of helping things, it made things a lot worse across the board: it gets a lot more people killed, it turns an ally in the war on terror into an enemy in the war on terror, and it spreads instability throughout the region. So it’s a great irony that Barack Obama, who considered himself so smart, and that he was going to ‘fix’ the mess that George W. Bush got the US into, essentially did exactly the same thing and has got himself into a very very similar mess.
TS: But of course, we’re seeing this unfolding disaster in hindsight. What are the lessons, I mean, what could be done differently if the world, say, is confronted with similar circumstances again?
AC: Well, first thing you need to do is not fall for propaganda. One of the reasons why I was warning about this at the time was because I’ve seen this time and time and time again. Our heart goes out to those who claim that they’re being targeted by dictators, that the dictator’s targeting civilians, that the dictator’s about to commit genocide. Every now and then, there is an actual targeting of civilians and a genocide. But it’s actually quite rare. So we have to be careful not to fall for that. These rebels have a very strong self-interest in tricking us into making us their army and their air force. I think that’s the most important thing. and the second thing is we have to be very careful not to break countries. It’s so much easier to break countries, than it is to put them back together. Sort of like Humpty Dumpty.
TS: Absolutely. That’s right. Well finally, we’re heading into the presidential political calendar. Hillary Clinton has been haunted by the deaths of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans in an attack on Benghazi, on the consular building, I think it was September 11 , 2012. No proof so far of her personal negligence, but to what extent will she face scrutiny over the intervention itself. Remember, she boasted after Qaddafi’s death in 2011: ‘We came, we saw, he died’. Yet, there was no effective cleaning [?] in the aftermath was there?
AC: No, I mean I think that she does bear very very heavy responsibility. Of course the primary responsibility has to lie with the commander-in-chief who makes the decisions, that’s Barack Obama. But she was the one lobbying him, and by all accounts is the one that prevailed upon him to do this. Then the question is: will she pay a price? What I’ve argued is that she will probably not pay a very high price in US domestic politics, and in this presidential campaign. And the reason is that almost everyone from both parties in the United States supported this intervention. Maybe not all for the same reason – maybe some people just hated Qaddafi, other people were doing it for humanitarian reasons – but both Democrats and Republicans supported this intervention.
So, you have:
- a lack of information about what is going on;
- an information source (the ‘rebels’) which has a strong interest in misrepresenting the situation in favour of intervention;
- actors who see strong benefits from appearing to ‘care’, who fear a repeat of a previous disaster [see: argument by analogy], and who aren’t exposed to the costs and consequences of their actions but who perceive some advantage in acting [see: moral hazard].
A recipe for complete disaster.
Note also the logical fallacy of argument by analogy made by the Syrian rebels: ‘If we do what they did in Libya, then we’ll receive similar help’. Small differences can be important.
It’s true, I really believe it: the Stebbing-Heuer Project can save lives.