One of the biggest Western foreign policy adventures in recent years is something that is underreported in the media. So-called ‘intervention’ in Libya has created a failed state that is riven with extremists all vying for power.
So we ask: was this really an epic foreign policy mistake? Or was destroying Libya just another day at the office for politicians, shortsighted bureaucrats, and vulture corporates who continually try to enforce global economic supremacy?
Host Ross Ashcroft is joined by Dr. Matthew Alford, teaching fellow in politics at University of Bath, and Dr. Tim Coles, director and founder of Plymouth Institute for Peace Research.
Libya was apparently former President Barack Obama’s biggest regret. This is what his then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said about the then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi:
“We came, we saw, he died”.
We were in Libya as the country fell. We shot these images below. We listened to the Libyan people who celebrated and believed the noble intentions of the West.
The war was sold as allied forces intervening to deliver a virtuous and prosperous country. But in reality, they were there only for Libya’s resources.
Joining us to discuss what has gone so badly wrong in Libya: Dr Matthew Alford a teaching fellow in Politics at University of Bath, and Dr Tim Coles the director and founder of Plymouth Institute for Peace Research.
Dr Coles describes Libya as a complete humanitarian disaster.
“Mass deaths. The country is fragmented along political lines. There is a kind of counterinsurgency war going on for ordinary Libyans this has been a complete catastrophe,” he says. “A lot of it to do with the NATO bombing back in 2011, but also what’s happened since then with the jihadis flooding the country. The way that this is portrayed in Western media tends to be a some kind of series of events that are just on the periphery of interest.”
The British government launched an investigation into its role in Libya, and its conclusion was that the war was waged on a lie.
“It was sold as a humanitarian intervention because Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi was supposedly about to commit an ethnic cleansing in a region called Benghazi,” Dr Coles says. “The British government later admitted that was based on what they called ‘erroneous intelligence’, or we could just call it a lie. No evidence was presented at the time. They also say in the report that it created a kind of political vacuum to be filled by jihadi groups, including ISIS.
“The media don’t tend to show you the cause and effect: Why do we have massive flows of refugees. This is quite typical.
“If you look at the history of the Middle East and North Africa, there’s a tactic to smash things up using military force, and then sit back and comment on the mess.”
It’s a very cynical tactic, and an extremely dangerous one, in fact.
“The United States is committed to a policy called ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’, which as far as the US military understands it is the ability to dominate the world by force by simply overwhelming any potential to US challenge,” says Dr Coles.
“This can involve space based weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, essentially to encircle the earth. And the goal, they state this quite openly in their vision for 2020 which was published more than 20 years ago, that the goal is to enforce a global neo-liberal economic policy of ‘globalisation’ as they call it which means globalisation in the interests of US corporations. And of course this rhetoric continues today, in, for example, Trump’s national security policy. It is the same Full Spectrum Dominance rhetoric.”
Of course, when a government brazenly announces its intention to rule the world by force, people are going to react, leading to all sorts of complicated effects like a potential arms race.
“Terrorist groups would try and defend their own interests the only way that they know how, which is through terrorism, and the backbone of the global economy and thus US control over it is to control countries politically, and control countries that have a lot of oil reserves,” says Dr Coles. “And the main oil reserves that we know of are in the Middle East. Libya, in North Africa has the largest reserves in Africa. That is the context in which this has happened.
“The theme is to try and control the politics of energy producing regions, so that the public can’t really socialise that energy.
“It means they can’t elect a government that will use the reserves and the revenues from that oil in the public interest because that will close the market to the United States and Britain, France, Italy, the bigger powers.”
What happened in Libya is that the United Kingdom for a long time had connections with radical Islamists with jihadis. Back in the mid 1990s it was revealed by whistle blower, David Shayler that MI6 had actually wired money to the anti-Gaddafi elements in an attempt to depose him in a coup. The jihadis involved in that, they have a history also connected with the UK.
“What we now call Al-Qaeda was created in the late 1970s,” says Dr Coles. “President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Brzezinski, he said that our aim was to draw the Soviets into the Afghan trap.
“The aim was to train about 20,000 jihadis from all over the world. This would provoke the Soviets into invading Afghanistan and draw the Soviets into a long proxy war. Well these jihadis didn’t disappear. They went back to their own countries. Many were granted asylum in the UK.
“The late foreign secretary of the UK, Robin Cook wrote an article saying that what we call Al-Qaeda simply means the database of fighters that Britain was training and arming back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
“The same pattern is repeated here. We have leftover elements. And of course young jihadis who, take the Obeidi, the man who supposedly blew up the Manchester Arena. His father, Ramadan, was actually connected to the group that I mentioned in Libya in the ‘90s that MI6 was funding. That’s what the Secret Service call ‘blowback’, where you create a radical network of some kind, in this case jihadis, and then they go on to attack your interests at home.”
Then we hear now Trump and his advisers talking about ‘the Libya option’ for North Korea.
“Essentially Gaddafi, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, felt sufficiently threatened to give up his deterrence which was chemical and biological weapons,” says Dr Coles.
The professor said Gaddafi knew this was coming.
“He was essentially threatened into making reforms, which meant privatising resources and opening Libya’s markets. So the situation that Muammar Gaddafi found himself in was trying to stick to his own, in my view, warped and dictatorial policies, you could hardly call it socialist,” he says. “But by the standards of the region it had socialist aspects. Yet he was also trying to appease the United States so that they didn’t destroy the country and overthrow him.
“At that point, the British, France as well, certainly the US, started to organise what became the fourth largest jihadi mobilisation in history according to US sources and US military sources, again hardly reported anywhere.
This coincided with the Arab Spring, which was ordinary people’s efforts to promote some kind of democratic changes in their own countries.
“On the surface the US and Britain were still supporting Gaddafi but underneath it later transpired that even before the Arab Spring, the British started to train anti-Gaddafi terrorists or ‘moderate rebels’, as they called them. That’s just part of the standard propaganda. When it’s our terrorists, they’re not terrorists, they’re rebels or freedom fighters. Terrorism only applies to enemies. So this group essentially hijacked the Libyan Arab Spring, and from there, the so-called rebels were using NATO as a kind of air-force to destroy Libya.
“As I mentioned earlier, it was complete humanitarian catastrophe for ordinary Libyans, major war crimes that NATO committed.
“Ironically, the invasion was, as I said, launched under a humanitarian pretext to stop an ethnic cleansing. But a real ethnic cleansing occurred because of the NATO bombing.
“The jihadis that we were working with started to ethnically cleanse Libya of black Libyans.
“You could find some reporting of this by Amnesty International, but hardly anything. NATO helicopters were watching people drown in the Mediterranean Sea trying to flee to Italy. So, suddenly humanitarian intervention goes out the window.”
There seems to be a blueprint here. We’ve seen this before: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and across other Middle Eastern countries, along with the deep set cynicism that this policy comes with. This blowback Dr Coles talks about. All these terrorist acts, of course are going to happen across the West, because ultimately we’ve been on the wrong side of the argument for the best part of about four decades.
Dr Matthew Alford says it’s longer than that.
“Any great power is going to behave in these kind of ways unless it is called to account by its people,” he says. “That’s been going on for centuries or even thousands of years. So I don’t think that it’s a problem that is peculiar to the post 1970’s or even the post-war world. But I think we can improve society. All societies can and have improved with human rights, if we challenge the metastasised elements of power at the very top.”
“My view is that you’ve got to have police forces, some form of authority and all those kind of things within a society,” he says. “But the danger that we have when you leave in power for a long period of time without any accountability, organisations like MI5, the CIA, NSA etc, then you end up having such cloistered elements that are always ever protected, that you end up having very dangerous entities there. And they know that they can act with impunity.
There were big hearings during the mid 1970s in the wake of the information coming out revealing that the CIA had been involved in assassinations, for example, against Fidel Castro and other broader problems. Dr Alford says the hearings led to some form of accountability for the Central Intelligence Agency and some pull back on what it was willing to do within the world.
“The 1970s in some ways were a bit better, but of course what that entity learned from that as well was ‘Ah well, if we want to carry on doing what we were doing before, we’d better get some better PR.’ And that’s kind of where they went. And it still helps to some extent.”
These powerful state actors still now act with impunity.
“An example of that is the government’s own inquiry into the destruction of Libya,” Dr Coles says.
“They specifically mention that the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron was culpable for, they’re not honest enough to say war crimes, but that’s the implication. And yet Cameron is able to walk around quite freely.”
And don’t forget the casualty figures. By the Libyan government’s own estimate, 30,000 people died during the first year of the occupation.
“And these people are of very little interest to Western media,” says Dr Coles.
“Which is why we don’t know it,” says Dr Alford.
“Except when they cause a problem to us,” says Dr Coles.
In the first half of the episode, we talked and Dr Coles mentioned this concept of full spectrum dominance. The argument that America and the Western powers are good guys, spreading democracy, the rule of law and freedom, often at the end of the barrel of a gun, and that if we don’t do it, somebody else will, is that a real argument?
“I think we should be aware of how powerful the West is,” Dr Alford says. “All right, yeah, countries like China could impose human rights abuses further afield if there is a power vacuum left. But at the moment we dwarf these other nations in terms of human rights abuses, the number of people we kill. It’s a matter of overkill I think.
“If you’re a comedian in a club or a teacher in a school, it’s all very well to impose some form of order, but if you start using violence to a great extent and the threats go way out of control, that’s what we are. That’s what our civilisation is doing in all sorts of these different parts of the world. Yes, order and yes, some kind of military is necessary on our side of the of the world, and genuine humanitarian intervention is important, also to maintain the integrity of our own nations. But we are so far beyond that.”
Dr Coles says he can’t think of a single genuine humanitarian intervention.
“It’s always done under the propagandistic cover of being in the interest of humanity,” he says. “The so-called third world reject the doctrine of humanitarian intervention because they’ve been on the receiving end of it for centuries, British empire, French empire, American empire. So they know exactly what it is. It’s just thinly masked colonialism.
“And we should also ask who actually has the capability to dominate the world? It’s certainly not China and we know that because US military reports to Congress say so.
“They say that China’s reach is regional. We know that Russia has no intention to dominate the world. We know that from US Army reports.
“They said with the case of Ukraine, they said if NATO starts to interfere in Ukraine, that will provoke Russia. They didn’t talk about Russia starting an aggression. So the military themselves understand this state of global affairs perfectly well. But try getting the media to recognise that.”
When we talk about the military industrial complex should we talk about the media and military industrial complex as one unit? Because it seems there isn’t this talk about this, there isn’t debate. There is a lot left unsaid. There’s a certain selective amnesia about what is reported. Should it actually be called the media and military industrial complex?
Dr Coles says it depends on the specific media.
“So with the BBC for example, it’s basically the state,” he says. “And the state is involved in all of the things that we’ve been talking about. So the lines get extremely blurred there.”
Dr Alford recently co-authored a book called National Security Cinema which points to his position which is that there are strong elements of the national security state, the military industrial complex, the CIA, the Department of Defence, involved in the creation of film scripts that have anything to do with American foreign policy, or anything to do with these institutions that dominate American foreign policy.
“You could perhaps call it the media and military industrial complex,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a conspiracy theory, I’d say it’s possibly perhaps over-egging it a little bit because there is still independence within the media organisations to a reasonable extent. I think it’s important to remember we can use independent media to push out important messages as well.”
The sense we get from from the book is that it is not just one act of propaganda, the propaganda war is incessant and very subtle.
“I think that all organisations, military industrial organisations, are involved in the creation of script, whether that’s news or entertainment,” Dr Alford says. “They do it on a constant basis. There are a large PR organisations that are set up to do that and it’s a constant process. It’s not particularly well-known.
“Part of the reason for that is that until myself and Tom Seckert did this research it was commonly accepted that there were only a few hundred films that had ever had ever been through even the Department of Defence, for example, which is completely wrong. There are several thousand products that have been affected by the Department of Defence and the CIA. It was just a couple of hundred as far as anyone knew back in the when we first began the research, but now that has been blown out of the water.”
The authors and researchers received lists from organisations including the CIA, DoD, the White House, and the FBI.
“They are they have absolutely caked the film and TV scripts,” he says. “And it has become an increasing problem over the last few years as well since they’ve become more involved in reality TV shows, to give a good impression for their soldiers when they go on cookery shows or quiz whatever, but also on larger projects about American military such as Iron Man and Transformers, all these kind of things.”
An enormous amount of effort then goes into managing democracy. Dr Alford says it’s overkill. It certainly looks like overkill. Where does it end?
“Well, it would end with nuclear war, unfortunately, which we really don’t want,” he says. “That’s the logic of empire. Because you end up eventually pushing a country too far, and that country could be one like Russia or China.
“There’s this common phrase where people say ‘oh, it’s a dangerous world out there’. I think we should perhaps question that a very fundamental level, in that if you go looking for danger, you’re going to find it. But is it really fair to say ‘it’s a dangerous world out there?’ You’ve got Russia, which has an economy the size of Italy. You’ve got China which is a regionalist power. Those are the biggest nuclear powers. You’ve got Iran. The enemies of our country are weak in comparison.”
But this is part of the propaganda drive that you keep painting the other as the baddie while you keep sowing fear at home. It’s an age old trick to divide and conquer your own people.
“Policy planners openly say we’re looking for enemies,” says Dr Coles. “So in the case of Somalia for example, one of the top secret service planners told Parliament that we’re trying to look for links between an Al-Qaeda group and Somali pirates. So were trying to forge these kind of links so we’d have another excuse to get involved. And you have the famous project for the New American Century, a US neo-con document talking about the need for a catastrophic event to justify. It wasn’t just a few wars as people assume, it was a whole global control architecture of drones and backing out of missile treaties and so on. They openly say that we need enemies in order to continue justifying our policies.”
Do these enemies realise this is the oldest trick in the book?
“I think any government would know what the United States and Britain and the way that any other great power is conducting its play,” says Dr Alford. “That’s just bound to be the case. They are part of that world.
“What those warring entities are relying on, is that the people are not going to bother or have time to make themselves aware of how cynically and horrifically their masters are behaving.
“In fact they want to give the impression that they are not their masters.”
“It’s like the old quote from the Usual Suspects: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making you believe that he doesn’t exist: the idea that we live in a democratic society, that our organisations that are running us, are there just to help rather than to actually operate power on the sly.
Which essentially is what Dr Coles’ book, Britain’s Secret Wars: How and Why the United Kingdom Sponsors Conflict Around the World, has rather brilliantly shown.
Dr Alford recently reviewed the book and described it as ‘terrific’. He listed some of the countries Britain is involved in at the moment as a sort of sleeper cell, waging ever more destabilisation.
“I thought this was so interesting about Tim’s book because I think we kind of get the impression that Britain is maybe involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. And if you watch Newsnight that’s kind of the typical. Tim’s book shows really clear evidence that Britain is involved in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iran, Columbia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Papua, Somalia, Bangladesh, Yemen, plus not to mention the fact that there’s also several countries that we arm, and this is more common knowledge, organisation entities like Saudi Arabia.
“So I think although we don’t want to overemphasise the ability of the British to control the world, I think it is fair to say that Britain is much more involved in many more countries than anyone kind of knows about on the street of Britain,” he says. “And the potential for abuse there is really quite significant.”
Radio 4 news recently reported that Britain was working with the Saudi government to repress rebels in Yemen. But at the same time they claimed there was no alliance between Saudi Arabia and Britain.
“So they were at the same time in an operational alliance, they were denying that they were operating together in any meaningful way because obviously the British people doesn’t want Britain to be operating with the Saudi government,which it knows to be horrific,” says Dr Alford.
What do we begin to do, to hold power to account if the corporate media or state media is so incredibly toothless when it comes to this?
Dr Alford said people ought to be lodging Freedom Information Act requests en masse.,
“It really does put the government under pressure to release important documents,” he says. “The reason we found this list of several thousand films that had been rewritten or worked on by by the American State was because we put in a Freedom of Information Act request. That’s all we did. And the government is obliged to listen if more than one person puts in a request at the same time.
“I’m not just talking about people putting in things for films, but anything to do with foreign policy. All it takes is a pro-forma letter, write it out, or put it through email. It very rarely costs anything. Keep doing it. Do it with your friends. Get that information out. Stick it online. Get it so that we are an informed population. That’s a really important thing to do.
“The other thing to recognise is that these people lie like they breathe air.”