The aftermath of the regime change operation in Libya has become even more horrific, as the United States resumes bombing. The intelligence behind the latest decision to escalate military action in Libya is believed to be faulty again.
Re-escalation of military operations by Western forces in Libya comes amidst a new report by the New York Times on the role Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton played in pushing President Barack Obama to support intervention in Libya when she was secretary of state.
As Dan Wright summarized for Shadowproof, “After a meeting with Westernized Libyan exiles in what appears to be an eerie parallel to the Ahmed Chalabi con, Clinton became convinced that Libya could become a thriving democracy if Gaddafi was overthrown. She then worked tirelessly to ensure the US jumped into the war, pushing back against then-Defense Secretary Gates, National Security Advisor Tom Dolan, and Vice President Joe Biden, who wanted to stay out of the conflict.”
This week on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast we are joined by journalist and author Vijay Prashad, who talks with us about Libya. Prashad recounts what led to the regime change operation and Hillary Clinton. Prashad also talks about Syria, the “suicidal death pact” the U.S. government has with the Saudi government, and the geopolitics between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which greatly influence developments in the Middle East.
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Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Vijay Prashad.
KHALEK: Let’s start with Libya. Because of the election, a lot of what is happening in the Middle East right now has sort of been put on the back burner, media-wise. But the U.S. just started bombing Libya again, and it’s basically a lawless hellhole that’s turned into this haven for extremists, for ISIS. A few years ago, the U.S. apparently liberated Libya. So, give us a rundown of what happened and—I thought Libya was free now. Why didn’t our bombs work?
PRASHAD: If you go back to 2011, the United States was pushed by the French and the British to join a regime change operation in Libya based on the worry, at the time, that there would be enormous civilian casualties as a result of Moammar Gaddafi’s army moving on the city of Benghazi. As it turned out, and as some of us were saying at the time, evidence for the massive casualties was very weak.
There was a reliance on the Saudi media, particularly on Al Arabiya, which was arguing at the time that tens of thousands of civilians had already been killed in the space of just a few weeks. Later, Human Rights Watch found that at most 350 civilians had been killed and the male-female ratio was skewed in such a way that it looked like mainly men had been killed. So, when you do a study of civilian casualties, when one generally finds civilian deaths, there is a basically a population balance of male-female. Because, if say an army is shelling houses, it’s as likely for women to die as men.
When you look for instance at Israeli bombing in Gaza, the male-female ratio is almost close to the ratio of the population. But in Libya, in 2011, it was mainly men dying and not so many women, and the numbers were far below what the Saudi media had been broadcasting and what the Americans, French and the British started to talk about in the United Nations. So, under the pretext of violations of human rights, the French and the British particularly pushed the Americans.
In the United States government, Hillary Clinton played a very important role. She essentially carried the baton of the French and the British and convinced the Obama administration to join this regime change operation. Under cover of a UN resolution, they went in saying that they were only going to protect civilians, but very quickly their bombing transformed itself into the destruction of the Libyan state.
Once you destroy state institutions, once you empower various factions on the ground who are being supplied by mainly Gulf Arabs—This is a very important issue is that on the ground the Gulf Arabs, particularly the Qataris, the Emiratis, and the Saudis, were picking and choosing their preferred proxies on the ground, and given the character of the Qatari and Emirati disposition, their view of what is a good proxy, the people on the ground that were well-armed were largely extremist. So, NATO then became the air force for the extremists and allowed a regime change operation to essentially destroy the Libyan state.
The destruction of Libya was not somehow rooted in the culture of Libya or in the history of Libya over the last fifty years. It was actually rooted in the nature of the regime change operation. Since 2011-2012, matters have become much graver in Libya. There is now virtually no rule of law. There are at least three governments in Libya—a Western-backed government that is in Bayda near Benghazi and Tobruk and there is a government, which is largely an Islamist government, sections of the Muslim Brotherhood, sections of fighters who have previously been with al Qaida in Afghanistan, including Mr. Belhadj, who had been delivered to the Libyans by the British. He’s a very popular man in Tripoli. So, there is a Tripoli government, there’s the Bayda-Tobruk government, and then there’s the ISIS government, which has rooted itself in the central Libyan city of Sirte.
You have a country, which is oil-rich, which had pretty high social indicators, which indeed had a suffocating political atmosphere for the last several decades but nonetheless was not where we are now, which is a destroyed state, a malfunctioning social order, and where there are assassinations of decent people happening on a weekly basis. This is really the destruction of a country before our eyes by Britain, France, and the United States.
KHALEK: Because there wasn’t an invasion, it did seem like a lighter version of the way that the Iraq War happened, where you had faulty intelligence that people were saying was faulty. That the idea of bombing was based on faulty intelligence that was being pushed by someone like Hillary Clinton and others. And they went in with no plan for afterwards, and they overthrew a regime and now ISIS has expanded. It just seems like a replaying of that, but for some reason, it just hasn’t received as much scorn. I’m not really sure why that is.
When you look across the Middle East, what’s happening in Libya is recurring in other places. It just seems like that situation has replicated itself in other parts of the Middle East, where you have the Gulf Arab states funneling weapons to extremists and making sure that democratic revolutions can’t happen. And then, you have the U.S. and European forces allying with various rebel groups to topple governments but not explicitly. It seems like that’s what is happening in Syria in a way.
PRASHAD: Let’s back for a minute to your earlier statement about Iraq, which is important. After the regime change operation in Iraq in 2003, there was dissatisfaction among the kind of European liberal intelligentsia, which worried that George W. Bush had destroyed the legitimacy of the West to intervene when the West wanted to. So, two years after George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the UN Security Council—In total, the UN Secretariat moved an agenda called responsibility to protect or the R2P doctrine, which was then adopted the UN in 2005.
The R2P doctrine essentially says that if a country, if a state is oppressing or genocidal toward its population, then member states of the UN, with due authorization from the Security Council, can intervene militarily under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. What happened is after the Iraq experience, which was universally condemned, the Atlantic liberals both in Europe and in North America, fought in the UN to create a new justification for intervention, and this is what is known as R2P or responsibility to protect.
The first major test of R2P, because this was only adopted in 2005, was Libya, and it was basically through the R2P language that the UN Security Council was dragooned to pass a resolution under Chapter 7 of the Charter, which allows member states to use force against another member state to protect civilians. So, what the United States did, and the Europeans did, was to suggest that the Iraq experience was essentially an outlier and that the real use of force was to protect civilians. Let’s return to the high moral ground of European intervention.
So, therefore, right after the bombing of Libya, they all began to say that this was, unlike Iraq, a successful war, a good war, because there were no troops on the ground. There was no occupation. We got rid of the bad guy, and now we delivered Libya to the people. They have through this process had a media, which went along with it, and essentially said, well, Libya was a successful intervention because there’s no prolonged occupation and secondly the problems in Libya are not because of the regime change operation. They are longstanding. In other words, it’s all Gaddafi’s fault. The problems in Libya are Gaddafi’s, and therefore, the catastrophe that is after the regime change operation is also Gaddafi’s.
This was clear in comments made to the New York Times in their two-part survey of the Libyan fiasco, where State Department officials and important Atlantic liberals said to the press it’s basically the Libyan people, who are at fault for the chaos in Libya. It’s not the regime change operation. I wanted to say that in order to emphasize that what has not been dented, despite Iraq and now despite Libya, is the immense feeling in the West and among Atlantic powers in particular is that their interventions are necessary in good. So that in Syria, they continue to believe that their input, their intervention, is the good intervention and that the Russian entry into Syria, which took place late last year, is a bad intervention. That is the wrong kind of intervention. A Western intervention is a good intervention.
This particular idea has not rattled, and largely of course it is because the media is utterly complicit with the Atlantic project, which is to continue to shore up the belief that it has not only the right to intervene but when it intervenes, it does so properly. I consider this to be a kind of global Platt Amendment. The Platt Amendment was pushed through to allow the United States, at any moment, to intervene Cuba from the 19th Century onwards. That was the Platt Amendment.
What we have essentially is a global Platt Amendment, which says that Western intervention anywhere is a good thing, and it always has good results. If it doesn’t have good results, it’s the fault of the people over there.
KHALEK: I think what’s really striking now is that with these particular interventions—at least with the kinds of interventions that are being pushed and discussed by people like Hillary Clinton—are so strongly supported by the Gulf Arab states, and that’s often used as a way to say, see they want it. Or, it’s supported by various factions inside, and so it’s this new thing, oh, well the Arabs they want it. We just want to help them get freedom, which I find sort of interesting and a new dynamic. And it’s also this new, well, we don’t have to do any of the occupying. We’ll just bomb it, and let the Arabs handle the rest. Because now you have countries like Saudi Arabia that want regime change as well.
PRASHAD: Some of this Rania is also the failure of the media. Because, in 2011, when the Arab League met and provided legitimacy for the West to intervene in Libya, what the media didn’t report is what is the nature of the Arab League. The Arab League at least since the Gulf War in 1990-91—Since at least then, the Arab League has been divided into two factions. On the one side, there is the Gulf countries bloc, which is led by Saudi Arabia but includes, of course, all the countries in the GCC, in the Gulf Alliance, in the so-called Gulf NATO, those countries—the Emirates, Bahrain, etc. They are one bloc. And on the other side, there is the bloc of the old Arab nationalist states, whether it’s Algeria, Syria, Iraq, etc. So, the Arab League itself has been in split in two.
At the meeting, [where] basically turned and said please, come and bomb Libya, the nationalist bloc basically was not at the table. That meeting was held principally with the Gulf Arab bloc in attendance. So, when the Arab League said please come and bomb Libya, the media should have been scrupulous in reporting that at that particular meeting only half the Arab League members were in attendance. The other half were not at the table, and very soon afterwards at any rate, the Arab League expelled Syria. So, they have one less member at the table.
This is the kind of scrupulous detail that the media needs to pay attention to. I mean, I remember reporting [inaudible] in 2011 that we need to question the idea that the Arab countries are asking for an intervention. We also need to look very carefully at what the various interests of the Arab countries. Why was Lebanon upset with Libya? This has got to do with a longstanding dispute over the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr, who had gone there to meet Gaddafi and disappeared en route to Italy from Libya. He was probably killed inside Libya.
KHALEK: I think there’s actually some of the Libyans, who admitted he was…
PRASHAD: Yes, absolutely. One of Gaddafi’s children is now in a Lebanese prison. So each country in the Arab bloc that voted to intervene in Libya had their own particular grouse, and this was not reported. It was all reported as if the Arab countries, that is to say strikingly Saudi Arabia, was leading the charge for democracy and human rights in Libya and not that at a previous Arab League meeting Gaddafi had sat there. This meeting was held in Doha in Qatar. He turned to the King of Saudi Arabia and said you are a creation of the British and a dog of the Americans, embarrassing both the king of Saudi Arabia and the emir of Qatar, who was the host of that meeting.
We underestimate that, in monarchies, the power of insult of a king is a extraordinarily generative of policy. It may not be about questions of selling gold or whatever Gaddafi was doing in terms of oil revenues. The insult to the king was something that rankled Saudi Arabia for years afterwards, and the opportunity to take revenge on Gaddafi was enormous. And so, to look at the minutiae of disgruntlement among the Arab League on the one hand is important. On the other hand, to understand that the Arab League itself never operates in unity. There is always a split, and that split should be taken seriously, and it was not taken seriously at all in 2011.
GOSZTOLA: I’d like to ask you a question about what you’re talking about with the media failing in its ability to cover U.S. foreign policy, and specifically, to look at Saudi Arabia. I want to know your thoughts on how this country continues to hold such a great influence over the political class in the United States. Specifically, David Sirota and Andy Perez reported last year that the Clinton Foundation, that a number of its donors were able to obtain weapons deals through Hillary Clinton’s State Department. And so, we see the extreme influence that this country has over what is happening here in the United States, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on what this means for what we see happening in these Middle Eastern countries.
PRASHAD: You see, there is a kind of suicidal death pact between the American elites and the Saudi elites, and this goes back to the 1970s. Some of it manifests itself on the surface as a mutually conjoined interest in engaging Iran. This goes back to the Carter Doctrine of 1979, where essentially the U.S. government pledges itself to protect the Saudi royal family. On the surface, it appears what unites them is something like Iran. On the surface, it also appears that this has to do with oil, but we know that the United States is actually not reliant on Saudi oil imports.
It’s not the oil itself that’s important. It’s not Iran itself that’s important. It’s the massive amount of liquidity of wealth that the Saudis have in their pockets. Even now, when there’s a crisis in Saudi Arabia, they still have reserves of over 600 billion dollars. Their sovereign fund is still quite flush, even though their balance of payments struggles now because of low oil prices. So, what is underneath this surface phenomenon of Iran or oil exports? Well, at least two things. Both of them are reflected in the question you ask, but let’s do the first one.
The first one is that Saudi Arabia has an enormous amount of wealth that it has to hold in some currency or the other, and what it has held that wealth in since the ’50s, but really since 1973, since the time when oil prices spiked and their profits went through the roof. Saudi hold their profits in dollars, and we call that the petrodollar market. That’s a market of dollars, which allows the United States Treasury Department to print money with abandon, without fear of inflation. Because so much of the dollars, of the liquidity produced in America flows out into the Euro dollar and the petrodollar market. So, you have this enormous service that Saudi Arabia provides to the dollar.
And linked to that is that Saudi Arabia puts parts of its enormous amount of its profits in American banks, providing them again with a different kind of liquidity. In other words, on the one side, it provides the government with the opportunity to deficit finance without worries of inflation, without worries of having some kind of credit problem because they are able to print money. And linked to that is that the Saudis basically take their oil profits and put them in American banks. So, Saudi oil money liquifies the U.S. banks and the U.S. Treasury Department. This is an enormous service that the Saudis provide.
Recently, last year, the Russians turned to the Chinese, and they said why don’t you buy oil from us. We are having a hard time selling to Europe because of the sanctions over the Ukraine. So, you buy oil from us and we’ll take payment not in dollars but in renminbi, in the Chinese currency. Angola, China’s second-largest supplier of oil, also accepts payments in renminbi. Saudi Arabia’s sales to China flattened because they cannot afford to take payment in renminbi. They are entirely linked into the dollar system, and it would be a great political betrayal for them to start denominating their oil sales to China in the renminbi. So, the first great service the Saudis is this financial service.
The second major service is what you alluded to, what you mentioned, which is, of course, that Saudi Arabia is the great recycler of the arms industry. They put a lot of their profit into buying weapons from very important arms dealers in the United States, and as a recycler of arms, we know that the arms industry has a big role in Washington, DC. There’s a terrific film that will come out this year called “The Shadow World,” and it’s a film about the global arms industry. What you learn from this is, of course, countries like Saudi Arabia, which basically very rarely have any strategic gains they can make with their weapons. We see this in Yemen, where they have been bombing the country since March 26, but they’ve made no strategic gains at all.
But they have an enormous arms industry, which essentially is a warehouse of the global arms dealers, who then recycle Saudi profits back into the 1% of the United States. So, these are the two reasons why there is a close, as I said a kind of suicide death pact between the elites of Saudi Arabia and the United States. It’s because they are reliant of the recycling of dollars and the recycling of dollars through arms purchases. It’s not entirely about Iran or entirely about oil sales.
For the rest of the interview, listen to the full conversation with Vijay Prashad here.