Summary: On the fifth anniversary of his overthrow, anthropologist Maximilian Forte is haunted by thoughts about Libyan ruler Mummar Gaddafi. It’s a sad chapter in the history of US foreign policy, rich with lessons for us — and one of Hillary Clinton’s two major initiatives (other other is the massive screw-up of her 1993 health care proposal).
“You just have not seen enough people bleed to death.”
— Explanation of why we must intervene in Libya — despite my analysis — by a special operations officer (retired) & well-known geopolitical expert.
By Maximilian C. Forte from Zero Anthropology.
Reposted with his generous permission.
One thing I did not predict is that, even five years later, what happened to Libya and to Muammar Gaddafi would still cast a long shadow across the centres of European and North American political and economic power. By now, almost all of the leaders who persecuted Gaddafi, have experienced their own demise, by gentler means and thus even less justifiable than what befell Gaddafi.
Almost all of the Libyans that appeared in the videos showing the brutalization of Gaddafi have themselves been tracked down and killed. My expectation, around the autumn of 2015, was that Libya would be conveniently buried during the US electoral campaign. Reality, fortunately, proved me wrong. Libya has instead become a recurring theme in campaign debates, and apart from Hillary Clinton and some forgettable Republican candidates, everyone else is unanimous that the consequences of US military intervention in Libya were catastrophic.
Gone are the days of the smug smiles of belligerent NATO technocrats, the self-congratulations, the propaganda planted in the media heralding the NATO campaign as a great success, a model intervention, forming a template to be used again. Unscrupulous academics who once were thrilled about the intervention in Libya, in order to promote their careers as advocates of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), have conveniently and quickly moved to other projects. The “experts” were royally shamed.
Having reached the fifth anniversary of the brutal torture and execution of Muammar Gaddafi, and the start of the destruction of his country, it is very difficult to transcend “the event”. However, the implications of what happened there, and in Iraq and Yugoslavia before it, demand a broader understanding that is able to connect “here” with “there,” “now” and “then”. Unfortunately, many of those who study and/or criticize imperialism are not applying the lessons they have learned from foreign cases to their own domestic situation, even when the patterns are the same because the forces and the stakes are the same. Rather than say about Gaddafi, “he’s gone,” the most appropriate statement should have been: “and we’re next, if we’re not careful”.
The war on Libya in 2011 and the gory brutality suffered by Gaddafi, representing the same nature of atrocities suffered by his supporters and even by those who were not a party to the conflict (African migrants), speaks volumes about the current situation which envelops all of us. The point then is neither to produce more policy papers of “lessons learned” for interventionists to “do better,” nor to make excuses by speaking of “unintended consequences,” nor to indulge in repeated hyperbole about Gaddafi, nor display one’s empirical expertise by recounting in detail all of the events and actors that have shaped Libya since 2011.
The point should instead be a general eye-opening that leads to a reversal of the fortunes of the transnationalist elites that have grabbed US imperial power, and which smash nations and the nationalists who oppose them. In that spirit, I offer the following points, in no particular order of importance.
The Power of Myth and Mystification
With Libya, as with other nation-destroying military aggressions before it, we witnessed the excessive production of myths used to publicly justify intervention. By now, all of these have been proven flatly wrong, abundantly and repeatedly. Still, one finds the occasional liar or fool who reasserts the falsehood that intervention was needed “to prevent an imminent massacre in Benghazi” in March 2011, but they will have difficulty completing that sentence without turning off their audience.
Exposing the Network
So the power of myth and its ability to mystify is limited, especially when it is repeatedly shown that the dominant elites routinely produce falsehoods, treat the mainstream media as their personal propaganda outlets, and use appeals to emotion and identity to propagate their lies to people (herds) perceived as being mindless bags of emotion and reflex responses. The work of activists and human rights NGOs has similarly been debunked, revealed as a lurid scurrying for visibility and thus cash, so much so that “humanitarian” NGOs are now the stock of numerous parody videos.
The value of what Libya taught us is to expose the network of interests, institutions, and agents that collaborated in destroying that nation: transnational corporations, mercenary firms, weapons manufacturers, bankers, NGOs, left-wing activists, human rights advocates, neoconservative think tanks, corporate-owned mass media, publicly-subsidized mass media, parliamentarians, “public intellectuals,” states and state-affiliated agencies (most notably the US State Department under Hillary Clinton), NATO, AFRICOM, the UN Security Council, and the UN Human Rights Council — to name some of the most prominent.
This ought to have revealed to anyone, everyone, a specific pattern of force that is repeatedly reproduced in the conflicts generated by neoliberal globalists. This pattern has no one preferred national target, as we discovered — it’s not that they were stalking Gaddafi alone. Instead that pattern of force becomes visible anywhere and everywhere that the dominance of transnational capitalist elites is threatened, or where the power of the national and international institutions they have seized is challenged. Therefore, the target could just as well become the mass of discontented working class voters in the US and the UK. Now Gaddafi comes home with all of us, as we all face the prospect of being a Gaddafi.
The Messenger or the Message? The Leader or the Instrument?
Some complicated discussions are not being had about the nature of agents of change. I am suspecting that, at least for many of those who fancy themselves as leftists in North America and Europe, they prefer to wait for a messiah: a pure, saintly figure, beyond all reproach, without the complicated past of a real human being who lived a real human life. The architect of utopia must be perfect.
This is a new puritanism. With this attitude, they have absented themselves from some of the greatest turning points that the world is now experiencing, or even gone as far declaring themselves to be in opposition, and by default on the side of the currently ruling elites. Either that, or they prefer the future to unfold according to some perfect plan laid out in a nineteenth-century manifesto – any deviation, any tactical decision that embraces a moment for what it offers, is doctrinal heresy.
As such, I have been accused of being an “apologist” for Gaddafi. But how could I be just a mere apologist, when instead I am actually a supporter, and proud of that fact? “Defending” Gaddafi? Making apologies for Gaddafi? No, sorry, I am long past that stage–and I deeply and fundamentally do not care who takes offense with that.
Regime Change, Everywhere
It’s amazing to watch morality become harnessed to the ambitions of transnational capitalism and neoliberal globalism. There are three elements to the first, nonviolent, stage of regime change that were revealed by Libya and previous cases, and again now within the US and UK:
(1) Moral Dualism.
If we do not do something to stop “atrocity,” we are as guilty as those who commit atrocities; however, if we do act, we are to be held unaccountable for the atrocities that we commit in intervening. In Libya, it was about being “anti-dictatorship” (so that the much bigger global dictatorship of the US state and transnational capitalism could be preserved); in the US, it has become a question of being conveniently “anti-fascist”.
(2) Moral Narcissism.
What matters most are our words, our declarations, the positions we stake, or as is said more often these days, the virtues we signal. It’s not our actions that count, it’s what we say we feel that matters most.
Along with institutionalized and normalized hypocrisy, demonization is possibly the most dangerous of all the forms of ideological warfare. Entire nations are reduced to a single person: “Gaddafi regime,” “Assad forces” — masking the fact that behind the planned destruction of the person is the intention to destroy an entire nation. False analogies abound, hence the omnipresence of the “Hitler” trope — every opponent to the neoliberal elites is a Hitler: Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, and now Donald Trump. When demonization appears, it is the last stop in an escalation of aggression, whose next stage is almost always violent.
The key thing about regime change, as we discover, is that it is not necessarily and only directed at foreign states. Drawing on the examples of the colour revolutions and Arab Spring, regime change can also be directed within, in an effort to subvert the political organization of the working class — more precise terminology might call this a “pre-coup”. Once again, a similar pattern of force presents itself: moral arguments, identity politics, demonization, myth-making, media disinformation, rent-a-crowds, and then violence. The overall aim is to get everyone to side with the ruling corporate oligarchs, to make us identify with them or their extensions, and to save them, from ourselves. Meanwhile, they will argue that they, as good philanthropic humanitarians, are saving us from ourselves, and some poor souls always fall for it.
The major fear revealed from the leaked cables of US diplomats is that Libya, like other states, was moving toward greater “resource nationalism”. Resource nationalism threatened specific corporate interests, which then turned to the US government for backup. They got what they paid for. Self-determination and national sovereignty remain as the biggest obstacles in the path of neoliberal homogenization.
Breaking the Dictatorship of Globalism
Whether at the national, subnational, or supranational levels, efforts to break the hegemony of neoliberalism are ultimately met with subversion and violence. Not learning this lesson will encourage passivity and failure. The best policy is to be as vigilant and, if necessary, as aggressive as possible, and to come to the struggle well armed. Every single dirty trick and atrocity will be deployed against those who challenge hegemony. Those challenging this system will need to know how to counter, what to counter, when, and with the appropriate tools.
The New World Order is Rule by Science Fiction
As I argued earlier this year about Libya (here and here), the “new world order” proclaimed by US president George H.W. Bush (his words, not those of a so-called “conspiracy theorist”), is like being ruled by science fiction — best symbolized by this monologue of a character calling himself “Wings Over the World,” in the 1936 movie Things to Come…
“Everywhere we find these little semi-military upstarts robbing and fighting. That’s what endless warfare has led to — brigandage. What else could happen? But we, who are all that are left of the old engineers and mechanics …have pledged ourselves to salvage the world. We have the airways — or what’s left of them. We have the seas. And we have ideas in common. The brotherhood of efficiency …the freemasonry of science. We’re the last trustees of civilization when everything else has failed”.
Libya is experiencing simultaneous rule by, arguably, four separate governments claiming authority over the nation: the House of Representatives in Tobruk, the General National Congress in Tripoli, the Islamic State in Sirte, and the most absurd thing of all, an air-dropped Government of National Accord, a fiction created by the UN and hatched in luxury hotels in Geneva and Tunis, imposed on Libya as yet another government (one that recently retreated in the face of a coup attempt). In this NWO we have governments without addresses, and addresses without governments. We have anti-interventionist interventionism, and wars that are kinetic humanitarian operations. Peoples will accept our democracy and follow our plans for them. Failure is success, war is peacebuilding, and abduction is protection. Sovereign governments are to be replaced by invented governments, subservient to the world’s only real government: transnational capital.
Not only are the currently ruling elites bizarre and irrational, they are also extremely dangerous and need to be immediately removed from power, everywhere.
Academics Are Not Your Friends
Since I am an academic, I am ending on a personal note, which also implies some grounding in experience. It may seem ironic that I would choose to say “academics are not your friends,” but it’s a caution to everyone that academics have a variety of interests that may be at cross-purposes with yours, and that is usually the case. This is a frank statement: I myself am not an activist, and I am deeply suspicious of those who try to recruit me to add symbolic capital to their cause. Many resent that anthropologists may not confirm their prejudice, that our field may not be a repository for their customized biases. When we take a different position, we are accused of not being “real anthropologists”. All such a statement proves is that we are not your hood ornament, and that you probably don’t have a clue about what anthropology is (because we ourselves don’t agree on what it is, what it was, or what it should be).
I think some are worried that we might say inappropriate things, that could make the polite and delicate elites (and their coteries of wannabes) feel pretty uncomfortable — things such as verbal expressions of racism should not be taken at face value, corruption isn’t always what it seems, and authoritarianism may be a popular choice. Just awful, I know.
However, not only are most academics devotedly or passively tied to the dominant neoliberal global “order,” they are also very keen about their professional careers and they crave the positive estimation of their peers. They can sometimes be heard to state that they seek to “speak truth to power,” but just look at the conceit underlying the statement — like they own truth, and stand outside of power. However, when it came to Libya, you could count the anthropologists criticizing NATO’s war on three fingers — if that many. Anthropologists otherwise became the silent academic majority.
But when politically expedient, they will suddenly come to life and mount elaborate petition schemes for regime change, or to condemn someone else’s “human rights abuses”. Their apparent motto is: “Either you look over there, or don’t bother looking at all”. Others will take breaks from their publishing to pose as street activists, and then get a book deal out of it. Some of the most ardent careerists I have ever met are anarchist anthropologists. Academia is full of prima donna types, and missionaries, and a great many drones. And some, I assume, are good people. Caveat emptor.
PS: To close, what follows are segments of interviews I did for a documentary on the 2011 war on Libya and its impact on the Sahel, highlighting the historical and geopolitical significance of this monumental figure, this bedouin nomad known as Muammar Gaddafi, to whom I owe an unpayable debt for his inspiration and courage.
Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.
Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.
Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.
For More Information
- Who are we helping in Libya? Here are some answers.
- Why the Libyan War is important to us – and to our children.
- A child-like credulity is required to be a US geopolitical expert.
- Important information about Libya hidden behind the veil of the US news media.
- The promise: We’re from America and we’re here to help you. The reality: bomb ‘em and leave them.
- See Libya burn. We helped set it afire.
- What did we learn from our intervention in Libya?