‘Noble’ War In Libya – Part 2


As a Sunday Times leader made clear on March 20, sometimes you just have to draw a line:

‘[T]here can be no accommodation with a man like Gadaffi or any of his family who aspire to succeed him.’ (Leading article, ‘Allies need a rapid victory to outwit Gadaffi,’ Sunday Times, March 20, 2011)

Seven years earlier, Alan Massie wrote in the same newspaper:

‘The sight of Tony Blair shaking hands with Colonel Gadaffi last week will have disgusted many… One may sympathise with these sentiments but, pushing emotion aside, Blair has shown courage. It would be lovely if international politics could be conducted so you were always dealing with decent people. It might be nice if governments were able consistently to pursue the “ethical foreign policy” of which Robin Cook used to speak so enthusiastically but the world isn’t like that.’ (Massie, ‘Keeping Gadaffi close is the safest option,’ Sunday Times, March 28, 2004)

Sometimes, then, there can be accommodation with a man like Gaddafi. It was important not to overstate the extent of his crimes:

‘Of course, Libya remains essentially a dictatorship, even if not as repellent a one as that of Saddam’s.’

And democracy was far more likely to take root in the Middle East ‘in an atmosphere of friendship than of hostility’. Thus Blair was ‘bringing Libya into the fold of the community of nations’.

Like a skilled conjuror, the media slips effortlessly, and without explanation, between the obvious need for ‘positive engagement’ and the obvious need to ‘confront tyranny’.

The previous day, a Telegraph headline had read:

‘Shell fills its boots in the desert sun. The oil major’s deal with Libya is a welcome distraction from weeks of turmoil.’ (Christopher Hope, Daily Telegraph, March 27, 2004)

Christopher Hope commented:

‘Libya’s re-emergence as a place to do business looks well-timed for Western oil companies concerned about dwindling reserve levels. Like Iraq last year, it shows that on occasion politicians are not deaf to the necessity of driving through geo-political change to find more oil which will keep Western economies on the road.’

Reviewing the same rapprochement in 2004, a Guardian leader nodded quiet approval:

‘We should congratulate the Foreign Office for its quiet and effective diplomacy… Col Gadafy should be encouraged, but not at such a forced pace.’ (Leading article: ‘Colonel Gadafy: The prodigal son returns,’ The Guardian, March 26, 2004)

An Independent editorial described Gaddafi as merely ‘the Arab world’s most eccentric and unpredictable leader’, adding:

‘Mr Blair is right to argue that there is real cause for rejoicing in a sinner that repenteth. However distasteful to the families of those murdered, an engagement and reconciliation with Libya that leads to the admission of guilt and compensation is better than continued isolation of the North African country.’ (Leading article, ‘The ethics of shaking hands with a tyrant, and the reality of Mr Blair’s foreign policy,’ The Independent, March 26, 2004)

Again, it was important not to exaggerate Gaddafi’s crimes: ‘It is many years, also, since the Colonel has been actively engaged in supporting terror groups in Europe.’

Seven years later, on March 19, an Independent editorial exalted:

‘The international community has managed to come together over Libya in a way that, even a few days ago, seemed impossible. The adventurism [sic] of Bush and Blair in 2003 looked as if it had buried the principle of humanitarian intervention [sic] for a generation. It has returned sooner than anyone believed possible.’

We have found not a word in that editorial, or any other, on why ‘engagement and reconciliation with Libya’ was advisable and possible in 2004, but completely impossible now. Might the explanation in fact lie in the WikiLeaked cable from November 2007 cited in Part 1:

‘But those who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector that could jeopardize efficient exploitation of Libya’s extensive oil and gas reserves. Effective U.S. engagement on this issue should take the form of demonstrating the clear downsides to the GOL [government of Libya ] of pursuing this approach…’?

In 2004, Andrew Rawnsley wrote in the Observer that ‘Tory attacks’ on Blair’s deal with Gaddafi looked ‘clumsily opportunistic’. And anyway: ‘Our poll today indicates that a substantial majority of voters support the visit.’

Rawnsley drew attention to the positives:

‘It will be an ultimate gain if engagement with the West gradually draws Libya towards more democratic values. It is a start that Amnesty International has at last been allowed into Libya to monitor human rights.’

He added brightly:

‘This is a very British coup. In the eyes of the Prime Minister, this is also a quintessentially Blair coup: a vindication of his own approach to the world, a reassertion of his belief that Britain plays a pivotal role in global affairs.’

Seven years later, Rawnsley shudders at the prospect of ‘a pariah, highly dangerous Gaddafi regime on the southern borders of Europe. The people of Libya will never be truly safe from him until he no longer has the power to do them harm’.

No-one could accommodate this maniac:

‘At the heart of the perils ahead stands Colonel Gaddafi, the great survivor among tyrants. He may be mad, but that doesn’t mean he is entirely stupid… He declared a ceasefire as if he had suddenly become a reformed character who would not hurt a hair on a civilian’s head. We can be justified in regarding that possibility as being about as likely as discovering that Elvis Presley is alive and well living in the stomach of the Loch Ness monster.’

Ironically, echoing his earlier article, Rawnsley commented: ‘Public opinion is broadly behind confronting Colonel Gaddafi.’

The Guardian has been more sceptical of the intervention, although for pragmatic reasons:

‘The moment the US intervenes militarily, even under a UN banner, Gaddafi gets what he wants – to be the defender against the foreign aggressor. Libya’s rebels are unanimous in their opposition to a ground intervention.’ 

Media Irrationalists

In adapting so flexibly to the claims of the powerful, the media’s framework of understanding might best be described as irrationalist. Typically, the media does not look for rational causes or systemic motives. It does not explain how leaders clearly emerging from a corporate power base can so often agitate for ‘humanitarian intervention’, and so often in resource-rich countries. It does not learn from history, even very recent history. It does not return to reflect on the credibility of previous claims (‘not news’), or on the testimony of credible witnesses countering such claims (‘no news hook’). It lives in a version of ‘now’ woven from government spin. If evidence drops in their laps, journalists will report, and quickly forget the significance of, the comments of an Alan Greenspan or a John Norris. But to actively seek out such material is to be deemed ‘crusading’, ‘biased’ and, ultimately, ‘radioactive’ (that is, unemployable).

Western journalists are reporting essentially the same Perpetual War being fought against the same ‘rogue states’ using the same means over and over again. This is why, in replying to one emailer, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus wrote:

‘I think the clear military logic is that until Colonel Gaddafi issues a definitive order to halt offensive operations, Iraqi ground forces will be seen as targets.’ (Email, forwarded to Media Lens, March 21, 2011 – our emphasis)

We have seen numerous slips of this kind.

The BBC’s Mark Mardell, wrote of the latest attack by the latest ‘coalition’ on Libya:

‘They felt it was their duty to intervene. We don’t focus on this nearly enough. The Chinese didn’t feel that way. Neither did the Russians. Nor the Indians. Or Brazilians…

‘Why does the West feel this way, when no one else does? Is it a legacy of the enlightenment, a sense of responsibility and shared humanity? Or does it follow from colonialism, a feeling that it is their role to rule, that there is still a version of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”, – the “savage wars of peace” – even if it is defined by geography, not colour.’

The media is good at telling us what our leaders really, truly feel. This time they ‘felt it was their duty to intervene’; that is, their moral duty. In the absence of counter-balancing scepticism, this is just outrageous in ostensibly neutral journalism. When a reader emailed Mardell advising that we had entered him in ‘The Hall of Propaganda Infamy’ for these remarks, he replied:

‘Staggering. It is so sad, when there is a real need for such an organisation that they are so thick and self absorbed.’ (Email, forwarded March 21, 2011)

We responded to Mardell:

Hi Mark

Sorry if you found our comments annoying…. The suggestion that the West perhaps feels it should take up the ‘White Man’s Burden’ can also be read as positing a positive motivation. Kipling’s words are often used to refer to the idea that the West, presuming intellectual and moral superiority, feels obligated to rule ‘lesser races’ for their own good. In other words, your comments can easily be interpreted as offering a choice between two benevolent motivations for Western actions: compassion and a sense of moral duty. A more appropriate counterpoint to a possible motivation of ‘shared humanity’ would be ruthless greed for power and profit regardless of the consequences for the people themselves. [We then cited Alan Greenspan’s comments – see Part 1]

Best wishes

David Edwards (Email to Mark Mardell, March 21, 2011)

Mardell replied on March 21:

Yes I do see that point. I guess I should have been clearer. My presumption was that the reference to Kipling would reinforce the notion of an arrogant sense of mission. Personally, and these are my views not the BBC ..blah blah …, I think that this veneer was always important to Victorian colonialism, while the looting and exploiting went on underneath the moral justification. I think how this translates these days is a pretty important debate to have, and that is what annoyed me : I was trying to get a debate going that I wasn’t seeing much in the general media, not trying to justify the action.
Thanks, Mark

Underneath Mardell’s blog, a poster had noted:

‘I think you mean that cruise missiles are exploding in Libya, not Iraq. To my knowledge America is not launching missiles there.’ (At 2:56pm on 20 Mar 2011, Will wrote, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markmardell/)

Mardell must have made the same Freudian slip as Jonathan Marcus and many others, with the mistake subsequently being corrected.

Also on the BBC’s website, political editor Nick Robinson declared:

‘David Cameron will feel a sense of vindication tonight. An idea which was condemned as sabre-rattling, unworkable and unnecessary has been agreed after days of intense diplomacy.’

Once again, a senior BBC journalist had found instant vindication for a leader he was supposed to be holding to account.


The Anti-Iraq Model

Writing in the Independent, Mary Dejevsky comments:

‘President Obama was elected on a platform that included not just a pledge to withdraw from Iraq, but a renunciation of everything the Iraq debacle stood for: the rush to military force, the idea of the US as the global gendarme, the proselytising of Western-style democracy, and the demonisation of Islam…’

This is pure fantasy, but let’s run with it. Dejevsky continues: ‘Such considerations led him to hold back over Egypt, despite much urging that he jump in sooner.’

The real reason, of course, was that Mubarak was ‘our man’. No heroics were demanded of Obama; he just needed to cut off the supply of billions of dollars of weapons to the tyrant. As even the BBC observes, ‘this supposedly anti-war president looks almost as warlike as President George W Bush’.

Dejevsky adds: ‘Supporters of intervention will breathe a sigh of relief and hail this as the anti-Iraq model.’

The ‘Iraq model’: mass violence and mass killing, with war as the first resort.

The ‘anti-Iraq model’: mass violence and mass killing, with war surely not the last resort.

Dejevsky ends:

‘And it is easy to conclude that eight years ago George Bush picked the wrong fight. If you want to foster democracy, why not invest in a country where opposition forces are already championing it on their own? But it is a bit late for such regrets now.’

It takes a special kind of mind to believe that Bush aimed to ‘foster democracy’ in Iraq.

The nation’s most progressive mainstream newspaper, the Guardian, takes a similarly benign view of Western motives:

‘Obama, who made reform and democratisation in the Arab world a key plank of his foreign policy when he spoke in Cairo in 2009, could not stand by and watch as Gaddafi crushed the uprising.’

And yet, as discussed in Part 1, Obama clearly can stand by while allied dictators kill numerous pro-freedom protestors with American weapons in Bahrain and Yemen. Again, there is precious little evidence that the US is interested in real ‘democratisation’, as opposed to pro-Western ‘guided democracy’, which is not democracy at all.

A Guardian blog found that the UN vote to take ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians in Libya ‘is little short of a personal triumph’ for David Cameron. The ‘obvious parallel’ is with the Kosovo crisis, the blog noted: ‘Blair prevailed and the NATO military campaign was a success.’ In fact, the campaign led to a major increase in atrocities, as Nato generals predicted in response to a ‘genocide’ that turned out to be a fraud. Is that success?

Also in the Guardian, Simon Tisdall argues that if the air campaign is successful, ‘the revolution will have been salvaged’. As the magnificent Michael Moore Tweets on Twitter:

‘Let’s hear from the “liberals” who say this is a just war because we’re protecting innocent Libyans–like that’s what we do!’ (http://twitter.com/MMFlint, 5:31 PM Mar 20th)

Tisdall adds:

‘If Libya falls to democracy, then like-minded reformers in Bahrain and elsewhere will be greatly heartened.’

If Libya falls to non-guided democracy, a new ‘rogue state’ will have risen from the ashes of the old.

In a condition of near-total unawareness, Tisdall writes of our dear leaders: ‘It’s a story, as they would prefer to write it, with a happy ending, producing a newly independent country, and another friend for the west.’

A ‘newly independent country’ would naturally be ‘a friend for the West’. This helps us translate ‘independent’ and ‘friend’, which actually mean tied and subordinate to Western power.

The Independent has serious concerns about the war: ‘The West must be careful not to lose the propaganda war’:

‘The regime in Tripoli is claiming that 48 civilians were killed and a further 150 wounded by the initial Western strikes. Those figures have not been verified and the Gaddafi regime is likely to be exaggerating the numbers killed. Something similar took place in the 1999 Kosovo war, when Nato planes, enforcing a no-fly zone, were accused of killing a large number of Serbian civilians in the process.’

Unfortunately, the ‘bad guys’ are always making stuff up in this way. But what about the’ good guys’, including the media knights in shining karma? US Defence Secretary, William Cohen, said during the Kosovo war:

‘We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing… They may have been murdered.’ (Quoted, Degraded Capability, The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, edited by Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, Pluto Press, 2000, p.139)

In their book, The Politics of Genocide, Edward Herman and David Peterson reported that US newspapers used the word ‘genocide’ 323 times in reference to the Kosovo conflict, in which some 4,000 people are estimated to have died on all sides. (Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, Monthly Review Press, 2010, p.35) The death toll in Iraq, by contrast, has been consistently undercounted by a factor of ten.

The Independent added: ‘Allied to dangers of a reversal in the propaganda war is the threat of mission creep on the part of the Coalition.’ The possible loss of the propaganda war is a ‘danger’ for the independent Independent – by which they mean, ‘we’ are backing the ‘good guys’.

In 2004, former Nato chief General Wesley Clark put the ‘good guys’ in perspective. In a filmed interview with Democracy Now!, Clark recalled a conversation with a Pentagon general in September 2001:

‘He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” — meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”’ (Transcript)

Clark added:

‘The truth is, about the Middle East is, had there been no oil there, it would be like Africa. Nobody is threatening to intervene in Africa. The problem is the opposite. We keep asking for people to intervene and stop it. There’s no question that the presence of petroleum throughout the region has sparked great power involvement.’



The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Mary Dejevsky
Email: [email protected]
Simon Tisdall
Email: [email protected]
Nick Robinson
Email: [email protected]
Andrew Rawnsley
Email: [email protected]