NATO: Caught in the headlights

Read the second part of chapter five of Marwan Bishara’s latest book, The Invisible Arab.

Libyan Rebels Sieze Control Of Tripoli From Gaddafi Forces
Many of the reasons given to justify NATO intervention in Libya have turned out to be false [GALLO/GETTY]

Editor’s note: This article is part two of chapter five, and the fifth of a series of excerpts that Al Jazeera will be publishing from The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions. You can also read an excerpt from the preface, from chapter one, L’Ancien Regime, from chapter two, The Miracle Generation and part one of chapter five, The West: Interests over values.

While people across the world marvelled at the Tunisian “revolution” that toppled Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, Western governments remained conspicuously indifferent, or at best ambivalent. The same hesitation was repeated in Egypt. What a dramatic contrast this was with the West’s swift and enthusiastic support of the Iranian “uprising” two years earlier. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s observation that the United States didn’t take sides during nationwide confrontations in Tunisia and Egypt was illustrative of habitual Western hypocrisy, in comparison with its sharp statements on Iran. Western leaders only began to take clearer positions and make coherent statements in favour of the orderly and peaceful transfer of power after it became clear that their close allies were on their way out.

When it was obvious that the uprisings were revolutions that signalled a clean break with the past, the United States dithered. It saw multiple risks instead of opportunities to be grabbed, defended, and nourished. President Obama stuttered: “The United States has a close partnership with Egypt. President Mubarak has been very helpful. We cooperate on many issues, including working together to advance a more peaceful region (and) those protesting in the streets have a responsibility to express themselves peacefully.” And: “What’s needed right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people – a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens.” Vice President Joe Biden insisted: “Mubarak is not a dictator.” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs remarked: “We are not picking between those on the streets and those in the government,” as he created a moral equivalence between the dictators and the dictated to. When the US government finally caught on with the uprisings that were sweeping through Arab states, the Obama administration decided to cherry pick, supporting change in Libya and Syria but staying quiet on Bahrain and Yemen.


 Frost Over the World – ‘The Invisible Arab’

European leaders figured no better. They acted lethargically as democratic revolutions swept through Tunisia and Egypt, and the extent of Europe’s links with Arab dictators became clearer. French Prime Minister François Fillon had recently visited the Egyptian city Sharm el-Sheik on board an Egyptian plane, and he and his foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, went on frequent vacations as Ben Ali’s guest. Although French President Sarkozy sacked the latter for her close ties with the Tunisian regime, he didn’t exactly stray from the herd in his embrace of Arab autocrats. And Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recused himself from all European deliberations on Libya and was reluctant to join any effort against Gaddafi.

Operation: Cleanse your sins

Following its sluggish response to Tunisia and Egypt and the exposure of its close ties with Arab dictators, the West saw a great opportunity in Libya. Like a beast flailing, the Gaddafi regime was desperate to stop the revolution from succeeding. Here was a relatively rich, oil-producing nation conveniently located on Europe’s southern flanks between Egypt and Tunisia and ripe for regime change. It didn’t have the regional complications that characterised Yemen. In short, this was the easiest location for the United States and Europe to wriggle their way into the Arab Spring. They obtained UN Security Council sanctions against the Gaddafi regime with Resolution 1970 and later obtained a more potent and loosely formulated Resolution 1973, which allowed them to act militarily with little restraint. Within hours, NATO powers intervened under the pretext of protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s wrath “by all means necessary”.

Predictably, Western media – both liberal and conservative – cheered French and British courage, as well as US leadership for preventing “genocide”. Much of the Arab satellite media was embedded exclusively with anti-Gaddafi forces and also covered it favourably. But the massive sacrifice of the Libyan resistance mattered little for those promoting Sarkozy, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, and Obama. This was the West “prepared to fight for its values against barbarism”, according to the New York Times, “the best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th century”. It was amazing how short the media’s memory was, how easily people selectively recalled history.

It soon turned out that most of the pretexts for war were either exaggerated or invented to justify the Western military intervention. The UN resolution and the subsequent NATO bombardment were based on the exaggerated urgency of saving Benghazi from “genocide” following Gaddafi’s menace. But Gaddafi had always been theatrical with his statements. When his forces did capture other cities, they reportedly carried out many offences against the population but not outrageous atrocities or genocide. There was also disinformation regarding Gaddafi’s early bombing of Tripoli from air, the use of mass rape as a weapon, and the import of African mercenaries by plane – all to justify the no-fly zone. The controversial and emotive notion of “the right to protect” was exploited to justify Western military intervention on a humanitarian basis. Libya began to look increasingly like Iraq. A sensation of déjà vu was palpable as the number of dead following the Western imposed no-fly-zone climbed from one thousand or so to an estimated report of thirty thousand. In other words, the intervention to protect led to the death of so many, but NATO considered it a success, a “NATO Spring” of sorts.

The militarisation of the Arab Spring in Libya didn’t bode well for it or other Arab nations such as Syria and Yemen. Western exploitation of the Libyan escalation had also tarnished the Arab revolution with more of the same foreign intervention which had long been detested by the Arabs for being selective and motivated by cynicism. So, yes to the intervention in Libya as it was on the side of the people and against a dictator who had outlived his usefulness to the West; but no to intervention to support people power in Bahrain, because it was contrary to Saudi interests. The intervention also encouraged a reinvigorated NATO to speak of the Libyan operation as a prototype of operations to come.

There is one last aspect of this debacle that has continued to irritate me. And if it sounds like a conspiracy, it is not. In late 2010, France and Britain decided to stage a war game titled Operation: Southern Mistral. It would involve thousands of military personnel and hardware from both countries. The scenario envisioned the two longtime military rivals joining forces for a bombing campaign against an imaginary southern dictator. The simulated war was condoned by a fictitious UN Security Council resolution and was scheduled to begin on March 21 of 2011. Well, the actual bombing of Libya began on March 19. This is surely a coincidence. But it does highlight the French and British mindsets and why no serious diplomatic effort got off the ground. The bombers were already on the runway.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and a former professor of international relations at the American University of Paris. The above excerpt is from his latest book, The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara