At the opposite end of the alleged media spectrum, former Spectator editor and current London Mayor, Boris Johnson, agreed in the Telegraph:
‘The cause is noble and right, and we are surely bound by our common humanity to help the people of Benghazi.’
So is the aim of the latest war a noble one? How do Cockburn and Johnson know?
Perhaps they have considered evidence from the recent historical record. Economist Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the US Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, wrote in his memoir:
If this seems heroic, Greenspan's bewildered response to the resulting controversy suggests otherwise:
‘From a rational point of view, I cannot understand why we don't name what is evident and indeed a wholly defensible pre-emptive position.’ (Quoted, Richard Adams, ‘Invasion of Iraq was driven by oil, says Greenspan,’ The Guardian, September 17, 2007)
Certainly it is ‘defensible’, if we accept that the world’s premier power should do as it pleases in pursuit of oil. Greenspan had made his ‘pre-emptive’ economic case for war to White House officials, who responded: ‘Well, unfortunately, we can't talk about oil.’ (Quoted, Bob Woodward, ‘Greenspan: Ouster Of Hussein Crucial For Oil Security,’ Washington Post, September 17, 2007)
Across flak so thick you could walk on it, Greenspan backtracked as he ‘clarified’ that, in identifying oil as the obvious key concern he, of course, ‘was not saying that that's the administration's motive’. (Ibid.)
Or consider Nato's air assault on Serbia in 1999. John Norris, director of communications during the war for deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, wrote in his memoir, Collision Course: ‘it was Yugoslavia's resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform - not the plight of Kosovar Albanians - that best explains NATO's war’. (Norris, Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo, Praeger, 2005, p.xiii)
Norris, again, later claimed he had been quoted ‘both selectively and out of context to advance [a] polemic’. But his words mean what they say: that the plight of civilians was not the prime motive for war, thus contradicting a mountain of propaganda.
Wars Of First Resort
For the latest war to be adjudged ‘noble’, mass violence would have to be a final resort committed by agencies motivated by ethical goals. (To be considered legal, it would have to be waged without shaping Libya's internal affairs - an obvious absurdity) In 2005, Michael Smith wrote of the pre-2003 Iraq war 'Downing Street memo' in the Los Angeles Times:
‘British officials hoped the ultimatum [demanding Iraq readmit UN weapons inspectors] could be framed in words that would be so unacceptable to Hussein that he would reject it outright. But they were far from certain this would work, so there was also a Plan B... Put simply, US aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone were dropping a lot more bombs in the hope of provoking a reaction that would give the allies an excuse to carry out a full-scale bombing campaign, an air war, the first stage of the conflict.’ (Michael Smith, 'The real news in the Downing Street memos,' Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2005 – our emphasis)
Put simply, US-UK leaders were determined to go to war with Iraq.
In 1999, Nato supported a CIA-backed insurgency waged by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Insurgents were clearly eager to stoke a conflict that would trigger foreign intervention - Nato was eager to oblige. Noam Chomsky wrote:
‘NATO chose to reject diplomatic options that were not exhausted, and to launch a military campaign that had terrible consequences for Kosovar Albanians, as anticipated.’
Among the losers, there were the usual winners:
‘[T]he business press described “the real winners” as Western military industry, meaning high-tech industry generally. Moscow is looking forward to a “banner year for Russian weapons exports” as “the world is rearming apprehensively largely thanks to NATO’s Balkans adventure,” seeking a deterrent, as widely predicted during the war. More important, the U.S. was able to enforce its domination over the strategic Balkans region, displacing EU initiatives at least temporarily, a primary reason for the insistence that the operation be in the hands of NATO, a U.S subsidiary.’
Recall that, despite being a violent and unpredictable dictator, Gaddafi was embraced by ‘the international community’ as he renounced all interest in weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, then prime minister Tony Blair declared a ‘new relationship’ between Britain and Libya. In 2007, Blair and Gaddafi did a 'deal in the desert'.
We suspect the real reasons why a non-military solution was 'unachievable' now as part of this 'new relationship' are not being discussed and will surface later, perhaps in someone's autobiography.
A Dirty Little Three-Letter Word
Rory Stewart, a Tory MP, argues ‘we had a moral right to protect Libyans from Gaddafi…’ Really? After everything we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan? In the aftermath of the Kosovo war, the late playwright Harold Pinter told one of us in an interview:
‘When they said “We had to do something,” I said: “Who is this ‘we’ exactly that you’re talking about?” First of all: “Who is the ‘we’? Under what heading do ‘we’ act, under what law? And also, the notion that this ‘we’ has the right to act,” I said, “presupposes a moral authority of which this ‘we’ possesses not a jot! It doesn’t exist!”’
A serial killer with a long history of violent, greed-driven crimes might claim to be motivated by compassion in committing further violence. He might even act morally. But his actions could not possibly be based on any ‘moral right’. And the rest of the world would be entitled to argue that, given his record, he was the last person likely to achieve positive results.
Also, as former Labour and Respect MP, George Galloway, has noted, the claim of ‘noble’ intent is challenged by Western indifference to mass killing in Yemen and Bahrain using Western weapons. Cockburn writes in the Independent:
‘The worst verifiable atrocity in the Arab world in the past week was not in Libya but in Yemen, where pro-government gunmen machine-gunned an unarmed demonstration last Friday, killing 52 people.’
Asked whether the United States still supported Yemen’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, or if it was time for him to go, US defence secretary Robert Gates said:
‘I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen.’
Saleh is an ally of the US against al-Qaeda, Eugene Robinson observes in the Washington Post, and ‘therefore, is a useful tyrant. He gets nudges, not bombs.’
Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa royal family also get nudges. Why?
‘Because the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is based there, astride the Persian Gulf shipping lanes through which 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil shipments must pass… Also, the al-Khalifas are close allies of the Saudi royals, who are desperate to keep the protests in Bahrain from spilling over into the nearby kingdom.’ (Ibid.)
Gaddafi, by contrast, is less cooperative, friendly and amenable. Galloway adds of the Libyan attack:
‘It’s so transparently an attempt to protect British companies’ and other Western companies’ massive investments in Libya that it is discredited in the Arab world.’
And yet a Guardian editorial argues that the support of the Arab League ‘was so essential to the argument that military action had regional backing’.
Important to the argument or to the propaganda? Galloway comments:
‘The Arab League, without exception, is a collection of puppet presidents, corrupt kings – every one of them a dictator; every one of them now, currently, shooting their own people who are demonstrating for democracy… What’s the difference between them and Libya? Everyone watching this knows the difference is a dirty little three-letter word called “oil”.’
Secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks provide insights into the reality behind the ‘noble’ cause. The following cable was sent from the US embassy in Tripoli to the State Department in August 2008:
'Libya’s economy is almost entirely dependent on oil and gas. Libya has the largest proven oil reserves (43.6 billion barrels) and the third largest proven natural gas reserves (1.5 billion cubic meters) on the African continent. Libya currently produces about 1.7 million barrels/day of oil; only Angola and Nigeria produce more in Africa…
‘… Major U.S. energy companies active in Libya include Amerada Hess, ConocoPhillips, Marathon, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Occidental. Joint ventures involving U.S. companies currently account for about 510,000 barrels/day of Libya’s 1.7 million barrels/day production. A large number of small to mid-sized U.S. oil and gas services companies are also working in Libya.'
A cable sent from the US embassy in Tripoli in November 2007 communicated US concerns about the direction being taken by Libya's leadership:
'Libya needs to exploit its hydrocarbon resources to provide for its rapidly-growing, relatively young population. To do so, it requires extensive foreign investment and participation by credible IOCs [international oil companies]. Reformist elements in the Libyan government and the small but growing private sector recognize this reality. But those who dominate Libya's political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector that could jeopardize efficient exploitation of Libya's extensive oil and gas reserves. Effective U.S. engagement on this issue should take the form of demonstrating the clear downsides to the GOL [government of Libya] of pursuing this approach, particularly with respect to attracting participation by credible international oil companies in the oil/gas sector and foreign direct investment.’
For claims of a ‘noble’ cause to have merit, mass violence would have to result in a conclusion beneficial to the civilians ‘we’ are ostensibly seeking to protect. But again, as Cockburn himself notes, this is unlikely to happen:
‘It is the next stage in Libya – after the fall of Gaddafi – which has the potential to produce a disaster similar to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases successful war left the US as the predominant power in the country…
‘The local leaders who rise to the top in these circumstances are usually those who speak the best English and get on with the US and its allies.’
It is important to remember that the anguished cry, ‘Something must be done!’ is in response to a manufactured image of the globe supplied by a corporate media system. The image highlights particular news hotspots – Japan after the appalling tsunami, Libyan opposition forces under attack. Crucially, it does not feature the crimes of Western allies in a comparable way. And it does not feature Western military, economic and diplomatic support, over decades, for despots torturing and killing their own people. These issues do not appear as news hotspots afforded round-the-clock coverage with endless, emotive reports eliciting public outrage and a sense that ‘Something must be done!’