Excerpted from Other Words.
Libya is commonly counted as a success story among the ongoing Arab uprisings. NATO bombing, the story goes, saved thousands of lives and allowed Libyans to overthrow the absurd and murderous Muammar Gaddafi. The intervention proves that the West has aligned its interests in the Arab world with its values — and may even be a measure of redemption for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the deeper colonial past.
Not much of this comforting tale rings true.
The regime Gaddafi led was violent and decrepit. It did, however, have a support base that, albeit narrow, was broader than those of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. Libyans were also divided, to some degree, by long-standing regional and tribal claims, some of which Gaddafi’s regime had exploited to consolidate its rule. The situation a year ago was part popular uprising, part civil war. NATO’s intervention seems to have strengthened the latter half of the equation.
It’s far from clear that NATO warplanes saved lives. When Libya’s deputy UN ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi warned of “genocide” as he defected from the regime in February 2011, the death toll was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. Estimates of the total number dead are now all over the map and run as high as 30,000, but all sources agree that most of these people were killed after the UN Security Council authorized the NATO sorties on March 17.
No one knows how many were civilians, or how many died under NATO bombs, but NATO and allies like Qatar badly overstepped the stricture to “protect civilians” laid out in the UN Security Council resolution. They ignored, for instance, the arms embargo stipulated in the previous resolution, supplying weapons, training, and in the end tactical instructions to the rebels.
The overall effect of the intervention was thus to intensify and prolong the combat on the ground rather than end it swiftly. And the long-term consequences for Libya grossly contradict the NATO mission’s spirit
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Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.