Honesty in public life: What we were told about Libya

It’s almost a month since the Foreign Affairs committee published its report “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options,” but there are some things in it that should be noticed.

1) The reason given for the intervention

Why did western powers intervene militarily in Libya? The reason given was that they feared that if the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, recaptured the rebel-held city of Benghazi, he would probably order his forces to massacre civilians there.

What does the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report say?

Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011. . . when Gaddafi regime forces retook Ajdabiya in February 2011, they did not attack civilians. . . .

An Amnesty International investigation in June 2011 could not corroborate allegations of mass human rights violations by Gaddafi regime troops. However, it uncovered evidence that rebels in Benghazi made false claims and manufactured evidence. The investigation concluded that: “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

Many Western policymakers genuinely believed that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered his troops to massacre civilians in Benghazi, if those forces had been able to enter the city. However, while Muammar Gaddafi certainly threatened violence against those who took up arms against his rule, this did not necessarily translate into a threat to everyone in Benghazi. In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.

Note three sentences:

1) “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

2) “In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.”

And, perhaps most significantly, the quotation from Amnesty International:

3. “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

In short, not only were the governments of Britain and France saying things that were highly misleading, but it was also the case that much Western media coverage of Libya was highly misleading. I suspect that Amnesty International was understating the problem, and that the truth is that most Western media coverage presented a very one-sided view of the events.

It is worth noticing that Western media were biased in exactly the same direction as their governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biased media, or was the media coverage biased because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments?

The lesson, it seems to me, is that we in the West should be a lot more sceptical of what our governments are telling us about the Middle East (and other subjects) – and also a lot more sceptical about what our media are telling us – probably about everything, but certainly about the Middle East.

2) The real reason for intervention in Libya.

What was the real reason for military intervention in Libya? It’s always difficult to know, but part of what the report says is alarming (though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising).

The report says “We were told that the political momentum to propose Resolution 1973 began in France. France sustained its push for international action in relation to Libya throughout February and March 2011. ” (Resolution 1973 was the UN resolution that authorised member states to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to use “all necessary measures” to prevent attacks on civilians, and which thereby led to the Western intervention in Libya.)

And the report goes on to say

On 2 April 2011, Sidney Blumenthal, adviser and unofficial intelligence analyst to the then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reported this conversation with French intelligence officers to the Secretary of State:

According to these individuals Sarkozy’s plans are driven by the following issues:

a. A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production,

b. Increase French influence in North Africa,

c. Improve his internal political situation in France,

d. Provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world,

e. Address the concern of his advisors over Qaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.

The sum of four of the five factors identified by Sidney Blumenthal equated to the French national interest. The fifth factor was President Sarkozy’s political self-interest.

In other words, in the case of at least one Western nation (the nation which was most active in pushing for intervention), the motivation was largely national self-interest and personal self-interest.

Or, to put it another way, it was basically about earthly glory.

Of course, that’s not what was said publicly. Publicly, it was all about avoiding a massacre – which sounds a lot better.

One is reminded of the response of Jesus when his disciples began to argue about which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:25-26): “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”

In other words, the disciples were not to emulate earthly kings – and one of the characteristics of these kings who ordered their subjects around was that they expected their subjects to call them benefactors.

Earthly rulers, then as now, like to be thought of as basically being philanthropists. The truth of the matter is that their motivations are not always as selfless as they would have us think.

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