To Avert A Bloodbath – Libya And The Press – Part 1

From the allegedly liberal left to Murdoch’s hard right, the media spectrum continues to shine green for ‘go’ on the Libyan war. An Independent on Sunday (IoS) editorial on August 28 observes:

‘This newspaper supported Nato’s military intervention, and Britain’s part in it, when it began in March, but it was a choice between hard and complex options – and so it remains.’

The editors have not wavered:

‘Nato was right to take limited action to avert a bloodbath five months ago… Liberal intervention is not perfect but, as we said when the uprising began, it is, on balance, better than doing nothing.’

The IoS’s rationale for supporting the war – ‘to avert a bloodbath’ – is a delicate issue. In fact, very predictably, Nato’s war has caused a bloodbath, obliging the editors to carefully write around the problem:

‘It was never likely that the final phase of the fall of Colonel Gaddafi would be an orderly, quick and bloodless transition to democracy. Friday’s news of the murder of hospital patients was probably grisly evidence that the dictator meant it when he threatened to unleash horror. Just as yesterday’s findings of mass graves confirmed the moral depravity of his former regime. Yet we cannot be sure that Gaddafi’s opponents will eschew retribution.’

Gaddafi’s atrocities, then, are ‘news’, ‘confirmed’ – they happened. Atrocities by the ‘rebels’, on the other hand, remain a mere possibility – ‘we cannot be sure’ they will ‘eschew retribution’. And yet, Patrick Cockburn reported ‘rebel’ atrocities in the same newspaper on the same day:

‘The rotting bodies of 30 men, almost all black and many handcuffed, slaughtered as they lay on stretchers and even in an ambulance in central Tripoli, are an ominous foretaste of what might be Libya’s future. The incoming regime makes pious statements about taking no revenge on pro-Gaddafi forces, but this stops short of protecting those who can be labelled mercenaries. Any Libyan with a black skin accused of fighting for the old regime may have a poor chance of survival.’

The Independent’s Kim Sengupta had earlier reported much the same on August 26 and 27, noting of one ‘rebel’ atrocity: ‘The killings were pitiless.’ Reuters provided similar reporting.

 On August 26, the Washington Post quoted Diana Eltahawy, Libya researcher for Amnesty International:

‘In Tripoli, we are seeing the same pattern in recent days that we saw earlier in the east.’ Eltahawy ‘described a record of abuse, torture and the extrajudicial killing of captured pro-Gaddafi fighters that has followed the rebels from east to west as they have taken over the country’.

Elsewhere, Nato’s alleged attempt ‘to avert a bloodbath’ has resulted in additional bloodbaths – its own. According to Libyan officials, Nato airstrikes killed 85 civilians in Majer on August 8. Agence France Presse detailed the horror:

‘Reporters attended the funerals of victims and saw 28 bodies buried at the local cemetery…. In the hospital morgue, 30 bodies – including two children and one woman – were shown along with other bodies which had been torn apart.’ (For discussion, see FAIR’s analysis here)

Reuters this week reported claims by a ‘rebel’ commander that as many as 50,000 people may have been killed in the war. Certainly, Libyan hospitals are awash with casualties. Jonathan Whittall, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières’ head of mission, said on August 25:

‘The hospitals that I’ve been to have been full of wounded – gunshot wounded – in the emergency departments as well as the other wards. In one health facility that I visited, they had converted some houses next to the clinic into an inpatient department. For example, in the one house I went into, patients were lying on the floor, lying on the desks that were left inside the house and had been converted into a makeshift ward for patients to stay. But because of the shortage of staff, there was no nursing staff and the patients were essentially caring for themselves. In another facility, I saw wounded people waiting outside the hospital to get into the emergency room.’

Dr Salah Ahmed, a surgeon, commented:

‘The main problem we have at the moment is with oxygen. A government plant producing it was bombed by Nato. There was also a business which was producing it locally, but the owners have fled abroad.

‘I am not saying this as a political statement. This is what happened and we now have to cope the best we can.’

There could be worse to come. According to Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, ‘weapon proliferation out of Libya is potentially one of the largest we have ever documented… If Gadhafi loyalists decide to mount an Iraqi-style insurgency, they have access to a thousand times the explosives that the insurgents in Iraq had’.

On August 29, The Times described the situation in Tripoli:

‘Seventy per cent of the capital’s homes have no running water… Large parts of the city have little or no electricity. Fresh produce, milk and cooking gas are all but unattainable…

‘Hospitals are running out of oxygen, fixators for treating fractures, and drugs for conditions such as diabetes… The city is filled with the stench of rubbish, and occasional corpses, rotting in the heat. Telephones work only intermittently. Most commercial life ceased months ago. Many people have no money left because the banks are shut and salaries have not been paid.’

A few days earlier, the same newspaper had broken out the champagne:

‘If the Arab Spring, thus far, has had a peak, this was it. In countries we have seen protest and unrest followed by repression or concession, or a mixture of both. This was the complete package: the storming of a breeze block palace; a revolution that looked as revolutions used to.’ (Leading article, ‘Liberating Libya,’ The Times, August 24, 2011)

Earlier revolutionaries might perhaps have raised an eyebrow at the decisive military assistance provided by some of the world’s most notorious colonial and imperial opponents of independent nationalism. Like the Independent, The Times concluded that ‘international intervention was not only warranted but also necessary’.

A day later, The Times hailed ‘the West’s role as wetnurse to democracy in Libya’. The West, ‘having dipped its toe into Libya’s affairs’ – the ferocious bombing campaign – is today ready ‘to steer Libya towards stability, democracy, legal freedoms and engagement with the world’. (Leading article, ‘The Challenge Ahead,’ The Times, August 25, 2011)

Naturally it is the role of the enlightened West to steer Libya towards democracy. Editors working for the media conglomerate at the heart of the phone hacking police/political corruption scandal – a major attack on democracy and civil rights – presumably perceived no irony in their preaching of ‘democracy, and legal freedoms’. Words that should send a shudder down the spines of any Libyan readers. Seumas Milne, a rare voice of dissent, explains in the Guardian:

‘However glad people are to see the fall of the Gaddafi clan, it’s clear that such intimate involvement of the US and the former colonial powers taints and undermines the legitimacy of Libya’s transformation. They will expect a payback for their investment in the Libyan war: in oil and commercial deals, political support and perhaps even the return of western military bases…’ 



Heavy Bombs – Intervention Lite 

If the Independent and The Times support the dipping of the West’s toe in Libyan affairs, how about the Observer? Reviewing the war last Sunday, chief political commentator Andrew Rawnsley notes with relief, ignoring all of the above:

‘The number of civilian casualties inflicted by the airstrikes seems to have been mercifully light.’

Indeed, he adds, ‘You might call it intervention-lite.’

In April 2003, in an article titled, ‘The voices of doom were so wrong,’ Rawnsley reviewed the progress of intervention-heavy:

‘War is nasty and brutish, but at least this conflict was mercifully short. The death toll has been nothing like as high as had been widely feared.’ (Rawnsley, ‘The voices of doom were so wrong,’ Observer, April 13, 2003)

One million Iraqi deaths later and Rawnsley now recalls the ‘searing experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq,’ above all the ‘horrors of Iraq’ with its ‘slide into bloody anarchy’. A bitterly ironic result given that the Iraq war was an act of selfless altruism, as Rawnsley noted in an article published three days before the invasion began, titled, ‘Shockingly, principle is back in fashion’:

‘For Tony Blair, Iraq has become a personal bottom line, a point of principle of such high importance that he is prepared to stake his career on it.’ (Rawnsley, ‘Shockingly, principle is back in fashion,’ Observer, March 16, 2003)

The Libyan war is also driven by high principle, although the outlook is not entirely unclouded:

‘the equally brutal President Assad and his cronies will not have to duck and cover as Nato warplanes scream overhead… We remain in an unhappy world where western powers may intervene in the name of humanity only if they feel inclined to do so and only if they are not opposed by autocrats in Moscow and Beijing’.

If only ‘western powers’ had free rein to undo the damage they do by installing and supporting brutal tyrants and their cronies, not least through a flood of arms sales. In fact, Rawnsley is a little harsh. As US analyst William Blum has documented, even taking the US record alone, ‘western powers’ have an unrivalled record of intervening in the name of humanity. See this map.

Unchastened by his earlier performance, Rawnsley again finds early vindication in the Western resort to war:

‘Libyans now have a chance to take the path of freedom, peace and prosperity, a chance they would have been denied were we to have walked on by when Muammar Gaddafi was planning his rivers of blood. Britain and her allies broadly got it right in Libya. That won’t make it any easier to get it right in other places at other times.’

The last sentence, again, is chilling but accurate – there will be ‘other places’ and ‘other times’. It could hardly be more obvious that war is now a permanent fixture in the Western political system. Powerful vested interests need war for all manner of internally logical reasons to do with maximised profits and control. They must have war. They will have war.

An Observer leader titled, ‘An honourable intervention. A hopeful future’, commented:

‘The motives of Cameron and Sarkozy, as they first ordered their planes into action, seemed more humanitarian and emotional than cynically calculated. There was no urgent reason in realpolitik to oust Gaddafi as winter passed… No: what sent British jets across the Mediterranean was a perceived need to save lives.’

As The Real News Network has noted, journalists who believe there was ‘no urgent reason in realpolitik to oust’ the Libyan dictator ‘ain’t reading WikiLeaks’ (See our June 22 Media Alert: ‘Three Little Words: WikiLeaks, Libya, Oil’). And can the Observer really be unaware that playing the West’s great trump card of high-tech violence is the best way to seize control of a rebellion that might otherwise have threatened yet one more prized source of oil?

But the real problem with the Observer’s optimistic view is that politics today just doesn’t work like that. Former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges makes the point:

‘The trolls dominate or have neutralized every major institution in the country on behalf of their corporate paymasters. The press, education, Wall Street, labor and our political parties are managed by trolls or have been destroyed by them.

‘Sometimes these trolls speak like liberals. Sometimes they speak like conservatives. Sometimes they are secular. Sometimes they are Christians. But the language they use is a cover for the relentless march toward a totalitarian capitalism and a kingdom where the trolls, if not the rest of us, live happily ever after. Rick Perry and John Boehner overtly make war on Social Security. Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi say they would like to save Social Security but are sadly powerless before the decisions of a congressional super committee they helped form. The result, of course, is the same. We get to choose the rhetoric and manner in which we are deceived and disempowered. Nothing more.’

Hedges concludes: ‘The corporate coup is over. We have lost.’

In other words, we are nations under corporate occupation. The coup that has deprived us of some of our most basic freedoms – the freedom to choose governments that serve people rather than profit; to choose genuinely independent, uncompromised mass media that serve truth rather than power – cannot conceivably, as a matter of elementary logic, be in the business of exporting democracy abroad. It can only be in the business of business – maximised profits and control. It really is that simple.


Part 2 will follow shortly…