Libya: Imperial Humanists and Helpless Others

22 September 2012


Zero Anthropology

“From mass hysteria in Twitter, to hundreds of thousands signing an online Avaaz petition calling for bombing Libya in the name of human rights (the same Avaaz that had a petition calling for the release of the non-existent “Gay Girl in Damascus”), we become nerves of mass reaction. We cannot “stand idly by” because that would be what thinking people would do. In our state of frenzy, we scream for action via “social media,” thumbs furiously in action on our “smart” phones. What should we do? Whatever, “do something…stand up and be counted”. If we do not act, we should be held responsible for the actions of others. When we do act, we should never be held responsible for our own actions. Then again, our “action” merely consists of asking the supremely endowed military establishment to act in our name.”

Benghazi residents hold Italian, British, French, American, Qatari and Libyan rebel flags outside the city’s main courthouse on April 13, 2011, as a sign of gratitude and support for Western intervention. (Source: Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository via Wikimedia Commons.)
[…continued from the previous article; see the list of related articles at the bottom of this page, plus information on the latest book, Slouching Towards Sirte]

The empire that speaks of “dignity” first invented the image of the helpless Libyan begging for us to “stop standing idly by”—because we, in the West, are tasked with authoring the history of Libyans, according to this logic—and after inventing the image we went about destroying Libya until the image could materialize. Now U.S. officials tell the media that, “the Libyans have barely re-established full control of their country,” and that the post-Gaddafi government “has limited tools at its disposal,” with Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA official adding that, “the Libyans in just about every endeavor are just learning to walk, let alone run”. They are, in other words, infants. Hence Obama rushed in Marines, drones, and CIA agents to hunt down those that attacked the consulate in Benghazi. According to the U.S., the Libyans themselves do not know who the attackers are; this matter requires U.S. intelligence. Destruction is creation, and in the chaos ensuing from the U.S./NATO unraveling the country, interventionists feel free to inscribe their preferred myths of history—“where they make a desert, they call it peace” (Tacitus, 98, ch. 30).

It’s also interesting to reflect on the contradictory and bifurcated image created of ourselves by the humanitarian imperialists. On the one hand, as civilized Westerners we are something akin to angels. Our actions and thoughts reign high above history, residing in an altostratus of unimpeachable rectitude. In our teleological view of our own progress, we are at the highest point of human cultural evolution, ours being the highest stage of human achievement. We are the standard by which others are measured. We are what the future of all humanity looks like. The absence of our institutions and values in other societies is a measure of their inferiority. We should help them. We should help them to become more like us. These various “savage” others can be raised to our level of dignity, if we help them to acquire “prosperity” through the advance of “opportunity.” Fixated on providence and destiny, we of course resent history, because while history carries the inevitability of change (and we think of ourselves as the paragon of “change” that others must follow), history also means the inevitable decline of empire. As much as we resent history, we find particularity loathsome: some differences simply defy polite tolerance, and demand our corrective intervention. High up in the clouds, perched on the wings of our stealth bombers, we preach the ideology of universal, individual human rights.

On the other hand, both NATO propaganda and the public advocacy of humanitarian imperialists are based on certain assumptions of humanity thereby creating another image of ourselves that is not about dignity, but rather impulse—not even impulse, maybe more something like mere pulsation. This is an image of humanity that is fundamentally founded on consumerism and instant gratification. The vision of our humanity that liberal imperialists entertain is one which constructs us as shrieking sacks of emotion. This is the elites’ anthropology, one that views us as bags of nerve and muscle: throbbing with outrage, contracting with every story of “incubator babies” (first in Iraq, now again in Syria), bulging up with animus at the arrest of Gay Girl in Damascus, recoiling at the sound of Viagra-fueled mass rape. From mass hysteria in Twitter, to hundreds of thousands signing an online Avaaz petition calling for bombing Libya in the name of human rights (the same Avaaz that had a petition calling for the release of the non-existent “Gay Girl in Damascus”), we become nerves of mass reaction. We cannot “stand idly by” because that would be what thinking people would do. In our state of frenzy, we scream for action via “social media,” thumbs furiously in action on our “smart” phones. What should we do? Whatever, “do something…stand up and be counted”. If we do not act, we should be held responsible for the actions of others. When we do act, we should never be held responsible for our own actions. Then again, our “action” merely consists of asking the supremely endowed military establishment to act in our name.

This is a vision of us as an audience, a body of public opinion harnessed to a feed bag. One image of us as such an audience was strikingly described in William Gibson’s Idoru (1996):

“Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth…no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.”[1]

Lacking in any dignity in the political and media elites’ constructions of us as reactive bags of emotion, their anthropology as I call it, is also accompanied by NATO’s implicit sociology: societies can be remade through a steady course of high-altitude bombings and drone strikes. It’s like schooling an unruly child with heavy caning, and if that does not work there is always “indefinite detention”.

But remade into what? It was Obama’s stated intention to “install democracy” in Libya through foreign military intervention, which is an amazing indictment of what he means by democracy. Obama announced his “commitment to the goal of helping provide the Libyan people an opportunity to transform their country, by installing a democratic system that respects the people’s will”. The question is though, do Libyans want democracy? What do Libyans understand by democracy? These questions persisted in spite of the July 2012 elections for a national congress. With a 62 percent turnout of registered voters—not a spectacular figure if we had believed that there was a massive and popular yearning for elections—and with 80 percent of eligible voters registered, this meant that the actual turnout of all those who were eligible to vote was little more than 48 percent. After supposedly being crushed by the tyranny of Gaddafi, less than half of Libyans bothered to vote. A British survey that preceded the elections, the “First National Survey of Libya” conducted by Oxford Research International in association with the Institute of Human Sciences, University of Oxford, and the University of Benghazi, presented some interesting results.[2] Only 13 percent of those surveyed said democracy (either “Libyan-style” or “Western-style”) should be installed in a year’s time, with the total number rising to only 25 percent when the time period was stretched to five years. The majority simply rejected democracy. The largest number, 26 percent, wanted to see a single, strong Libyan leader (with another 12 percent choosing a small group of strong leaders), for the next year; the numbers declined to only 22 percent plus 9 percent respectively when choosing for the next five years. Also, 62 percent wanted to maintain a politically centralized nation, rejecting the demands for autonomy by eastern Libya. Just under 50 percent wanted to see any prosecution of former regime supporters, with 66 percent wanting this for former regime members. Also, 53 percent of respondents said that the Muslim Brotherhood should play no role in the political future of Libya—and indeed, religious parties fared poorly in the elections. A further 16 percent said they were prepared to use violence for political ends. It’s also true that the survey reported that 80 percent of Libyans thought that regime change was “absolutely right”; the same number also reported being “very careful with people” out of a lack of trust, and with tens of thousands of armed men roaming the streets, one has to wonder if they would express outright disagreement with the revolution to British outsiders accompanied by academics from Benghazi. What is interesting is that roughly a third of those surveyed manifested an overall pattern of preference for the political system that they had lost, added to a predominant lack of trust overall, and a strong current that prefers violence.

For some, violence and elections worked well together. On the eve of the election, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, killing one election worker. Previously, an election candidate had also been murdered. Following the NTC’s issuing of draft electoral laws, several tribal leaders and militia commanders in Libya’s east declared self-rule, “set up their own council and formed their own army, while saying that they would boycott elections and even work to prevent Saturday’s vote from taking place”. Over 216,000 had registered to vote in Benghazi’s own election in May 2012 for an autonomous Cyrenaica Congress. Misrata, like Benghazi, also sacked its rebel city council, amidst plenty complaints of corruption, and elected an autonomous one. Days before the July national congressional election, militia members from eastern Libya took over oil refineries in the towns of Ras Lanouf, Brega and Sidr, shutting down the facilities to pressure the NTC to cancel the elections. As a result, protesters shut off half of all of Libya’s oil exports. Angry protesters and militia fighters attacked election offices, setting fire to ballot papers and other voting materials, in Benghazi and Ajdabiya. In a sudden move to appease Islamists, the NTC even stripped the parliament waiting to be elected of its responsibility in drafting a constitutional panel, now saying this would be directly elected in a separate vote. On the day of the election itself, “acts of sabotage, mostly in the east of the country, prevented 101 polling stations from opening,” according to the chairman of the electoral commission. With militias firmly in control of Libya’s cities and towns, frequently engaged in deadly assaults on each other, British journalists could only conclude: “Gaddafi has been replaced by what is in effect a patchwork quilt of local dictatorships,” echoing statements I made previously.

After touting itself to foreign audiences as a force for democracy, it was interesting to see what the NTC meant by democracy in the electoral and other laws that they decreed since January 2012. Workers could not run as candidates, given the requirement that candidates must have a professional qualification; anyone who ever worked at any level of the former government was barred, unless they could demonstrate, “early and clear support for the February 17th revolution”; those with an academic degree that involved study of Gaddafi’s Green Book, which was previously a prerequisite to professional advancement, were also barred; also, anyone who received any monetary benefit under Gaddafi could be prohibited from participation—as Massaoud El Kanuni, a Libyan constitutional lawyer, realized, these “criteria could be used against three-quarters of the country”. The NTC would then continue its practice of holding meetings in secret, not even releasing the names of its ruling members. What was known was that Khalifa Hifter, a Libyan exile on the payroll of the CIA, was now Libya’s most influential army officer, especially after Gaddafi defector, General Abdul Fatah Younes, was mysteriously assassinated by forces aligned with the NTC during the middle of NATO’s war. NTC leaders who were officials in Gaddafi’s government clearly exempted themselves from their own laws—they were above the law. Meanwhile, the great mass of Libyans who benefited under Gaddafi, or had any “connections” whatsoever, were to be forgiven of nothing. Yet, insurgent militias guilty of widespread and ongoing atrocities, were to be forgiven of everything: before the elections, the NTC passed a law granting immunity to all of the “revolutionaries.” In addition, the NTC passed a series of laws that criminalized free speech and any ties to the former government in sweeping terms, as if to codify the reign of terror that had been unleashed since Gaddafi’s overthrow: the authorities were to take action against individuals who participated in “official and unofficial bodies of the former regime,” as they pose a “threat to the security or stability” of Libya, with punishments ranging from surveillance to travel bans to barring them from residence in certain parts of the country; “glorification” of Gaddafi or the former regime was also criminalized and punishable by a prison sentence (that the anti-glorification law was later repealed meant little, it simply legalized the ongoing practice of de facto persecution, and its original passage would have been enough to scare some); another law banned spreading “news reports, rumours or propaganda” that could “cause any damage to the state,” with the penalty being “life in prison”; there would also be a prison sentence for anyone spreading information of rumours that could “weaken the citizens’ morale” during “conditions of war,” and Libya was still defined as being at war; there would also be prison sentences for anyone who “attacks the February 17 revolution, denigrates Islam, the authority of the state or its institutions”; and, another law confiscated all property and funds belonging to persons who served in the former regime, that is except for those passing this law (source). NTC Chair, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, threatened: “we will be tough towards people who threaten our stability”. This language echoed that of interim Defence Minister, Osama al-Juwali, who threatened Bani Walid (a pro-Gaddafi bastion that liberated itself from NTC rule) that forces loyal to the NTC would strike it with an “iron fist”. Where’s that anti-Stalinism now?

That this language, the repression and persecution, and the laws above, constitute a “democratic” transformation and “liberation from dictatorship” is something deserving of mockery and condemnation—especially as citizens of NATO states have literally paid to bring this about. But instead of either mockery or condemnation, Western leaders have offered celebratory congratulations. Obama called the elections “another milestone in the country’s transition to democracy,” a statement parroted by the media, while the European Union hailed Libya’s “first free elections” as the “dawn of a new era,” and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared that Libyans had “sacrificed their lives or suffered lasting injury in order to win the right of the Libyan people to build a new state founded on human dignity and the rule of law”—“as if this were now a reality”.

What remains a reality is that Libya continues to be a society at war with itself, not just as a matter of interpretation, but as a matter of the new national security laws. Neither officially, nor in practice, has the war ended. Not only are there still militarily active resistance units that supported Gaddafi, and refuse to admit defeat, but the government and opposing militias themselves also live in fear of possible overthrow. Taking matters to an extreme, Gaddafi is blamed for virtually everything that has transpired since his death, including getting blame for the torture and mass detentions by those who overthrew him. When the U.S. diplomats were murdered in Benghazi, Libyan government officials immediately saw the hand of “Gaddafi sympathizers”. If Gaddafi is to blame for everything, it would mean that he still has power over Libyans, and there has been no real revolution. Worse yet, by consistently blaming Gaddafi, Libya’s new rulers disclaim any responsibility for themselves, which once again is a defeat for dignity as a reiteration of the “helpless Libyan.”

The “helpless Libyan” was of course very popular to those making careers of “helping” and “protecting” others. If Libyans were not helpless, then they would be made so. Once protected, they would be thankful: “One, Two, Three, merci Sarkozy!”. Gratitude is good (even if you have to go all the way to Benghazi to get it). Gratitude provides important symbolic capital, which can then be converted into actual capital: tales of success and victory in countering “genocide,” when properly mass mediated and aided by viral Internet campaigns, can be used to appeal for donations from the public, to offer paid memberships, and seek financial support from states, while retaining a dubious identity as a NGO. In the case of thanks offered to states, gratitude translates into something akin to subordinate acquiescence, offering legitimation and thus serving as a lubricant for power. Thus French President Nicolas Sarkozy could tell his warrior-philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy:

“The role I am playing goes beyond my person, or my mandate. It is the position of France in the Arab world on which the dawn is rising. It is the world order, the style of international relations for the approaching decades that we are in the process of defining. It is an event of long-term import [de longue portée]. A slow earthquake. All this is worth a little patience. Let’s keep in contact. Thank you for what you have done.”

Notions of protecting civilians, preventing genocide, ending human rights abuses, putting war criminals on trial, providing humanitarian relief, all of these are rarely even of secondary concern to the key Western actors in actual practice, except as weapons. Sarkozy is at least frank: this story is about empire. Lévy, anxious to show how much of an insider he was in the power group that crushed Libya, unfortunately makes the mistake of providing information that entirely nullifies all of his other claims, such as the grotesque ones that Gaddafi brought war on himself, or the need to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, and so on (source). Lévy is not harmless enough to be judged a mere court jester, which would be his obvious calling–he’s a heavyweight amongst quacks, widely repudiated as such by other French philosophers.

Mocking anti-imperialism: On November 26, 2011, former U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, stands by the iconic statue of a fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet, long a feature of Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli. The statue was stolen and relocated to Misrata by militias who thoroughly defaced it. (Source: U.S. Embassy Tripoli.)

The worst thing one could do to the dogmatic upholders of the “responsibility of protect” doctrine, is to take them seriously and to judge the outcomes of the interventions they endorse, on the very same terms they have chosen. Rather than the protection of civilians that key R2P advocates applauded as the defining feature of the intervention in Libya, what we have seen is a wide range of systematic and recurring actions that demonstrate the exact opposite of civilians being protected. My book demonstrates, through documented cases, a consistent pattern in NATO actions where the safety of civilians was either ignored, or civilians were themselves the chosen targets, or certain civilians were armed and supported in threatening the lives of other civilians. Apart from cases, and speaking in terms of a broader framework, war itself cannot but escalate the costs to human lives, and NATO’s intervention not only prolonged the war, it escalated the war and directly destroyed countless civilian lives both directly and indirectly. If we really wanted to see “civilians” being “protected,” then we needed a counter force to protect Libyans from NATO. Moreover, NATO’s intervention did not stop armed conflict in Libya, as that continues to the present. Massacres were not prevented, they were enabled, and many occurred after NATO intervened and because NATO intervened. The only issue on which NATO spokespersons and R2P advocates can score a rhetorical “win” is on Benghazi having been “saved”—saved, that is, from a fictitious massacre that was not in the offing, and even then one must be possessed of a certain racist bend of mind to talk about lives “saved” in Benghazi when we know of the horrors committed there against countless black Africans and black Libyans. Only if the latter do not count, as if they were to be subtracted from the “humanity” that “human rights” advocates claim as their devout concern, can one possibly make a claim that lives were saved in Benghazi. In addition, it takes a determined partisan to simply dismiss the documented revenge killings that took place, and continue to take place in Benghazi against persons known or imagined to have been loyal to Gaddafi. The implicit agreement tacitly binding NATO and R2P advocates was simply that certain lives were worth saving, and many more were not. Their answer to the killing, real or imagined, that they claimed to find so abhorrent was to introduce more killing. If this intervention is what they imagine to be “humanitarian,” does it mean that they are capable of even worse?

Intervention, as the one that occurs in Libya, is fundamentally opposed to dignity: the very act of intervention implies that there is some deficit or deficiency that requires the curative power of foreign actors. The Libyans are somehow inadequate in this frame of mind, not even their numbers are sufficient; hence we “iPad imperialists” must join their struggle: “we are all Libyans now.” Except we are not, and never can be, nor should we ever pretend to assume someone else’s identity. Imperial hubris (wars seen as “cake walks”) is well accompanied by imperial narcissism (“they will greet us as liberators”), and now we can add imperial personality disorder (I am them, they are all I).

Once foreign military intervention occurs, it scorches the earth in a way that unleashes new forces, and creates new deadly consequences that can be exploited for the purposes of further intervention. As we see in the rapid, militarized response of the U.S. to the killing of its ambassador and staff in Benghazi, intervention begets intervention. More intervention is needed to solve the problems caused by intervention.

The next time that empire comes calling in the name of human rights, please be found standing idly by.


[1] My many thanks to Brendan Stone, host of CFMU 93.3 FM, “Unusual Sources,” for bringing this quote to my attention.

[2] I received data compiled by the survey, along with two written reports and two PowerPoint presentations, from the British authors of the report.


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