Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.
― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
By whitewashing the Libyan rebels and demonising the Libyan government, did the leading US intellectual Noam Chomsky help facilitate an imperialist invasion? In a wide-ranging interview with Chomsky, Dan Glazebrook poses this critical question.
This was a difficult interview for me. It was Noam Chomsky who first opened my eyes to the basic neo-colonial structure of the world and to the role of the corporate media in both disguising and legitimising this structure.
Chomsky has consistently demonstrated how, ever since the end of World War II, military regimes have been imposed on the Third World by the US and its European allies with an ascribed role to keep wages low (and thus investment opportunities high) by wiping out communists, trade unionists, and anyone else deemed a potential threat to empire. He has been at the forefront of exposing the lies and real motives behind the aggression against Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia in recent years, and against Central America and Southeast Asia before that. But on Libya, in my opinion, he has been terrible.
Don’t get me wrong: now the conquest is nearly over, Chomsky can be quite forthright in his denunciation of it, as he makes clear during the interview. “Right now, at this moment, NATO is bombing a home base of the largest tribe in Libya,” he tells me. “It’s not getting reported much, but if you read the Red Cross reports they’re describing a horrifying humanitarian crisis in the city that’s under attack, with hospitals collapsing, no drugs, people dying, people fleeing on foot into the desert to try to get away from it and so on. That’s happening under the NATO mandate of protecting civilians.”
What bothers me is that this was precisely the mandate that Chomsky supported.
US General Wesley Clark, NATO commander during the bombing of Serbia, revealed on US television seven years ago that the Pentagon had drawn up a “hit list” in 2001 of seven states they wanted to “take out” within five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran. Thanks to the Iraqi and Afghan resistance, the plan has been delayed — but clearly not abandoned. We should, therefore, have been fully expecting the invasion of Libya.
Given former US president George Bush’s cack-handedness over winning global support for the war on Iraq, and Obama’s declared commitment to multilateralism and “soft power”, we should have been expecting this invasion to have been meticulously planned in order to give it a veneer of legitimacy. Given the CIA’s growing fondness for instigating “colour revolutions” to cause headaches for governments it dislikes, we should have been expecting something similar as part of the build-up to the invasion in Libya. And given Obama’s close working relationship with the Clintons, we might have expected this invasion to follow the highly successful pattern established by former US president Bill Clinton in Kosovo: cajoling rebel movements on the ground into making violent provocations against the state, and then screaming genocide at the state’s response in order to terrorise world opinion into supporting intervention.
In other words, we should have seen it coming, and prominent and widely respected intellectuals such as Chomsky should have used their platform to publicise Clark’s revelations, to warn of the coming aggression, and to draw attention to the racist and sectarian nature of the “rebel movements” the US and British governments have traditionally employed to topple non-compliant governments. Chomsky certainly did not need reminding of the unhinged atrocities of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Nicaraguan Contras, or the Afghan Northern Alliance. Indeed, it was he who helped alert the world to many of them.
But Chomsky did not use his platform to make these points. Instead, in an interview with the BBC one month into the rebellion — and, crucially, just four days before the passing of UN Security Council 1973 and the beginning of the NATO blitzkrieg — he chose to characterise the rebellion as “wonderful”. Elsewhere he referred to the takeover of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi by racist gangs as “liberation” and to the rebellion as “initially non-violent”.
In an interview with the BBC, he even claimed that “Libya is the one place [in North Africa] where there was a very violent state reaction repressing the popular uprisings,” a claim so divorced from the truth it is hard to know where to begin. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is currently being prosecuted for the murder of 850 protesters, whereas, according to Amnesty International, only 110 deaths could be confirmed in Benghazi before NATO operations began — and this included pro-government people killed by rebel militia. What really makes Libya exceptional in the North African Arab Spring is that it was the only country in which the rebellion was armed, violent, and openly aimed at facilitating a foreign invasion.
Now that Amnesty has confirmed that the Libyan rebels have been using violence since the very start and have been rounding up and executing black Libyans and African migrants in droves ever since, I began the interview by asking Chomsky whether he now regrets his initial public support for them.
He shrugs. “No. I’m sure what Amnesty International reports is correct — that there were armed elements among them, but notice they didn’t say that the rebellion was an armed rebellion. In fact, the large majority were probably people like us [sic], middle-class opponents of Gaddafi. It was mostly an unarmed uprising. It turned into a violent uprising, and the killings you are describing indeed are going on, but it didn’t start like that. As soon as it became a civil war, then that happened.”
However, in fact it did start like that. The true colours of the rebels were made clear on the second day of the rebellion, 18 February, when they rounded up and executed a group of 50 African migrant workers in the town of Bayda. A week later, a terrified eyewitness told the BBC of another 70 or 80 migrant workers who had been cut to pieces in front of his eyes by rebel forces. These incidents — and many others like them — had made clear the racist character of the rebel militias well before Chomsky’s BBC interview on 15 March. But Chomsky rejects this. “These things were absolutely not clear, and they weren’t reported. And even afterwards when they were reported, they were not talking about the uprising. They were talking about an element within it.”
This may be how Chomsky sees it, but both incidents were carried by mainstream media outlets like the BBC, US National Public Radio and the British newspaper The Guardian at the time. Admittedly, they were hidden away behind reams of anti-Gaddafi bile and justified with the usual pretext of the migrants being “suspected mercenaries”, yet Chomsky’s expertise in analysing media should have been able to see through that. Moreover, the forcing out last month of the entire population of the majority black Libyan town of Tawarga by Misrata militias with names like “the brigade for purging black skins” was recently given the official blessing of Libyan National Transition Council (NTC) President Mahmoud Jibril. To present these racial crimes as some kind of insignificant element seems wilfully disingenuous.
But Chomsky continues to stick to his guns. “You’re talking about what happened after the civil war took place and the NATO intervention, whereas I’m not. Two points, which I’ll repeat. First of all, it wasn’t known, and secondly it was a very small part of the uprising. The uprising was carried out by an overwhelmingly middle-class, non-violent opposition. We now know there was an armed element and that quickly became prominent after the civil war started. But it didn’t have to, so if that second intervention hadn’t taken place, it might not have turned out that way.”
Chomsky characterises the NATO intervention as having two parts. The initial intervention, authorised by the UN Security Council to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, he argues was legitimate. But the “second” intervention, in which the triumvirate of the US, Britain and France acted as an air force for the militias of Misrata and Benghazi in their conquest of the rest of the country, was wrong and illegal.
“We should remember that there were two interventions, not one, by NATO. One of them lasted about five minutes. That’s the one that was taken under UN Security Resolution 1973, which called for a no-fly zone over Benghazi when there was the threat of a serious massacre there, along with a longer-term mandate of protecting civilians. It lasted almost no time, [as] almost immediately, not NATO but the three traditional imperial powers of France, Britain and the United States carried out a second intervention that had nothing to do with protecting civilians and certainly wasn’t a no-fly zone, but was rather about participating in a rebel uprising, and that’s the one we’ve been witnessing.”
“It was almost isolated internationally. The African countries were strongly opposed — they called for negotiations and diplomacy from the very beginning. The main independent countries — the BRICS countries — also opposed the second intervention and called for efforts at negotiations and diplomacy. Even within NATO’s limited participation, outside of the triumvirate, in the Arab world, there was almost nothing: Qatar sent a couple of planes, and Egypt, next door and very heavily armed, didn’t do a thing.”
“Turkey held back for quite a while and finally participated weakly in the triumvirate’s operation. So it was a very isolated operation. It has been claimed that it was carried out under an Arab League request, but that’s mostly fraud. First of all, the Arab League request was extremely limited and only a minority participated — just Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. They actually also issued a request for two no-fly zones — one over Libya and the other over Gaza. We don’t have to talk about what happened to the second one.”
On most of this we agree. My argument, however, is that it was always painfully clear that Security Council Resolution 1973 was intended by the triumvirate as a fig leaf for precisely the “second intervention” Chomsky decries.
“It wasn’t clear, even for those five minutes, that the imperial powers accepted the resolution. It only became clear a couple of days later when they started bombing in support of the rebels. And it didn’t have to happen. It could have been that world opinion, most of it — the BRICS, Africa, Turkey, and so on — could have prevailed.”
It seems bizarre and na–ïve for a man of Chomsky’s insight to feign surprise at the imperial powers using UN Resolution 1973 for their own purposes in order to topple one of the governments on their hit list. What else would they have used it for? It is also exasperating: if it had been anyone else talking, I would have told them to read some Chomsky.
Chomsky would have told them that imperial powers don’t act out of humanitarian, but instead that they act out of totalitarian impulses and to defend and extend their dominance of the world and its resources. He would also have told them, I would have thought, not to expect those powers to implement measures designed to save civilians, because they would only take advantage of them and do the opposite.
However, on this occasion Chomsky seemed to be following a different logic. Does Chomsky accept that his whitewashing of the rebels and demonising of Gaddafi in the days and weeks before the invasion was launched, may have helped to facilitate it?
“Of course I didn’t whitewash the rebels. I said almost nothing about them.
The original interview took place before any of this — it was in the period when a decision had to be made about whether even to introduce a UN resolution to call for a no-fly zone — and incidentally I said after that had passed that I thought that a case could be made for it, and I would still say that today.
Yet, even after the British, French and US aggression in Libya had become abundantly clear, Chomsky published another article on Libya on 5 April. By this time thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Libyans had been killed by NATO bombs. This time Chomsky’s piece opened by criticising the British and American governments not for their blitzkrieg but for their alleged support for Gaddafi “and his crimes”. Didn’t this feed into the demonisation that justified and perpetuated NATO’s aggression?
“First of all, I don’t accept your description. I wouldn’t call it NATO aggression, as it’s more complex than that. The initial step — the first intervention, the five-minute one — I think was justifiable. There was a chance — a significant chance — of a very serious massacre in Benghazi. Gaddafi had a horrible record of slaughtering people, and that should be known — but at that point, I think the proper reaction should have been to tell the truth about what’s happening.”
I can’t help wondering why the responsibility to “tell the truth about what’s happening” only applies to Libya. Should we not also tell the truth about what’s happening in the West? About its unquenchable thirst for diminishing oil-and-gas reserves, for example, or about its fear of an independent Africa, or its long track record of supporting and arming brutal gangsters against governments it wants removed? Chomsky is familiar enough with the examples. Should we not tell the truth about the crisis currently enveloping the Western economic system and leading its elites increasingly to rely on war-mongering to maintain their crumbling dominance? Isn’t all this actually a lot more pertinent to the war on Libya than recounting the alleged crimes of Gaddafi from 20 years ago?
Chomsky argued with US academic and activist James Petras in 2003 over his condemnation of Cuba’s arrest of several dozen US agents and execution of three hijackers. Petras had argued then that “intellectuals have a responsibility to distinguish between the defensive measures taken by countries and peoples under imperial attack and the offensive methods of imperial powers bent on conquest. It is the height of cant and hypocrisy to engage in moral equivalences between the violence and repression of imperial countries bent on conquest with that of Third World countries under military and terrorist attack.”
On the present occasion, Chomsky has done worse than this. Far from drawing moral equivalences, he has simply airbrushed out of the picture the crimes of NATO’s Libyan allies, whilst amplifying and distorting the defensive measures taken by Libya’s government in dealing with an armed and US-backed rebellion.
I remind Chomsky of his comment some years back that Libya was used as a punch bag by US politicians to deflect public attention away from domestic problems. “Yes, it was. But that doesn’t mean that it was a nice place.”
It’s a lot less nice now.