I spoke with historian Isa Blumi, author of Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us About the World (UC Press, 2018) about the conflict in Yemen for The Nation.
I reviewed Shock and Awe, Rob Reiner’s new film about the journalists who challenged the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Read my piece in FAIR.
Read my coverage of the protest against David Petraeus at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) in The Nation.
Read this piece in Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR).
Four years after U.S. special forces assassinated Osama bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, famous for exposing the My Lai and Abu Ghraib scandals, published an explosive 10,000-word report in the London Review of Books that challenged the official narrative of the raid presented by the Obama administration.
The U.S. did not discover bin Laden’s location through one of his couriers, Hersh’s reporting claimed, but rather through a senior officer in Pakistan’s intelligence agency (I.S.I.) who wanted to claim the $25 million bounty. Despite claims to the contrary, Hersh reported that Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, heads of the Pakistani army and I.S.I. respectively, knew about the American raid ahead of time and provided assistance. According to Hersh’s reporting—whose sources were a “retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad” and two “longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command… who had access to corroborating information”—bid Laden was a secret prisoner of I.S.I. in the Abbottabad compound since 2006. Hersh also claimed that there was no firefight in the compound, that bin Laden did not use one of his wives as a human shield, that bin Laden was unarmed, and that U.S. forces did not dump his body in the sea.
Next week, Penguin Press is publishing a 757-page sequel to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars (2004), the Pulitzer Prize-winning exhaustive account of the C.I.A. program to arm and equip the Afghan mujahideen in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Coll’s new book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, picks up right where Ghost Wars left off: the death of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban alliance, two days before the September 11 attacks.
In Directorate S, Coll does not reach the same major conclusions as Hersh and Hillhouse did. Based on interviews with “senior Pakistani military and intelligence officers and civilian officials,” “Pakistani journalists who spoke with Pasha and Kayani during May about the raid,” and “senior American military officials,” Coll reports that I.S.I. did not know about the raid ahead of time, repeating earlier claims that President Obama thought that “there was too much danger that I.S.I. would leak the information and allow Bin Laden to escape.”
“It will forever remain a very deep scar in our national memory and our military’s memory, that we failed to detect the raid,” Kayani reportedly told Mike Mullen, U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, shortly after the raid.
By “humiliat[ing] the Pakistani military and [Kayani],” the allegedly unilateral American raid “would change public opinion and stir emotions in the army’s officer class,” Coll writes. “It was the end of an era between the United States and Pakistan.”
As for whether I.S.I. knew about bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Coll—a meticulous reporter and precise writer—does not rule out the versions reported by Hersh and Hillhouse. “It is entirely possible,” Coll writes, “that I.S.I. ran a highly compartmented, cautious support operation involving a small number of case officers or contractors who could maintain deniability. Yet there remains no authoritative evidence—on-the-record testimony, letters, or documents—of knowing complicity by I.S.I. or the Pakistani state.”
Coll’s reading of the documents obtained at bin Laden’s compound offers fuel to the claim that I.S.I. knew about the compound, but do not confirm it. According to Coll, bin Laden’s documents
do contain references to negotiations between Al Qaeda and Pakistan about a kind of mutual nonaggression pact. Bin Laden wrote to Al Qaeda colleagues about the position they should take in such talks, but the letters provide no proof of who was negotiating on the Pakistani side, if anyone. ‘Our stance was essentially: We are ready to quit the fight with you, as our battle is primarily with the Americans; however, you entered into it with them,’ Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a Libyan-born Al Qaeda operator who wrote regularly to Bin Laden, reported in July 2010, referring to apparent contacts with the Pakistani state. ‘If you leave us alone, then we will leave you alone.’
Coll doesn’t have anything to say about how the U.S. discovered bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. He offers only a paragraph on the raid itself, based primarily on the account written by Matt Bissonnette, a Navy SEAL on the mission, in his book No Easy Day.
Coll answered many of the questions raised in this piece in an interview with Slate:
Your book covers the Bin Laden raid. What’s your current opinion on what knowledge the ISI had about Bin Laden’s whereabouts before he was killed?
The way I approached it here was just to try to lay out what evidence I could find on both sides of the hypothesis that the ISI knew that he was there. I’m perfectly willing to accept the strong possibility that they did know, but as an empiricist I would want some evidence to confirm it other than other people’s anonymously sourced interviews, which I can’t assess. They may be accurate, but I don’t know who those people are or what the basis for their knowledge was. I never found direct sources who were able to describe from their own experience an ISI protection operation.
Then the other thing that we’ve got that we didn’t have a few years ago were all these translated letters that Bin Laden wrote while in exile. To go through them paragraph by paragraph and really take note of what the letters reveal about his own security anxieties and his own relationship with the Pakistani state was fascinating. I tried to deliver some flavor of what the evidence is.
It’s certainly not dispositive that he had no relationship with the Pakistani police, but it does make clear that if he did have a relationship with ISI it was not a relationship that he could call upon to maintain the security of his closest family members as they traveled in Pakistan. He was really quite worried about his family members bumping into the Pakistani state.
Now, his worry is not inconsistent with the possibility that there was a small ISI cell that looked after him, but their message to him obviously would have been, “Don’t count on us for anything else and please stay out of trouble and lay low.” If you put a gun to my head and I had to make a guess …
I would if this were an in-person interview.
I guess I think the totality of evidence about ISI’s conduct over the years would make me assume the worst. I just can’t see the shape of what that relationship would have been in the letters. It doesn’t have a political flavor, it doesn’t have an al-Qaida–negotiating flavor. It certainly doesn’t have a security aspect because he’s so concerned about his son, in particular, but also his wives’ travel.
Have you seen evidence that calls the official American narrative of the raid into question, as Seymour Hersh and others have written?
I don’t see any evidence to call the official narrative into question. The idea that the Pakistanis knew about the raid and it was all staged is one possibility that I’ve heard or seen written about. That doesn’t make sense to me. If the U.S. wanted to protect the Pakistanis they could have done it a completely different way, as the Pakistanis pointed out. They could have had the Pakistanis take credit for some of this. Pakistanis probably would have been ambivalent about that but they had no problem hauling in a lot of other al-Qaida fugitives in the past and they would have been rewarded in the international system for their cooperation. Significant sums of money would have flowed Pakistan’s way if they had done the right thing and been publicized for it.
The idea that the whole raid was phony or that there were no documents or something—that just doesn’t make sense to me.
On the first day of the Spring 2017 semester, national media outlets broke the story. That morning, two legal organizations, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, sent an eleven-page legal letter to Fordham University’s president contending that the school’s decision to deny official club status to the Jesuit university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) violated free speech principles and students’ civil rights.
“This experience has underscored how difficult it is to talk about Palestinian freedom in America without facing serious suppression,” Ahmad Awad, the chapter’s then-president, wrote in the New York Daily News. “I was devastated to discover that Fordham would prohibit SJP — and, even worse, do so not because of any bad behavior, but simply because of what it represents on paper.”
We—that is, Fordham SJP’s founding members, of which I was one—expected to face some Zionist resistance, but the categorical ban blindsided us. After all, several other universities in the tri-state area—Columbia, NYU, John Jay, Brooklyn College, Hunter, Pace, Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale—and many other Jesuit universities—Georgetown, Boston College, Loyola Chicago, and Marquette—have SJP chapters, among the 200 in the US advocating on college campuses for the basic rights of Palestinians. But Fordham did not. In the fall of 2015, we set out to correct that, just over a year after the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014 that killed more than 1,500 Palestinian civilians in 51 days. As citizens of an imperialist state that financially, diplomatically, and militarily enables Israel’s war crimes, ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, and apartheid more than any other, we had a responsibility to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Doing so on Fordham’s campus, we found, was made close to impossible.
Our experience is not unusual. In fact, it is a manifest example of a phenomenon known as the “Palestine exception to free speech,” a disproportionate effort across American institutions to stifle and punish advocacy for Palestinian rights. State governments; officials at museums, community centers, and non-profits; and university administrations in particular regularly capitulate to pressure from pro-Israel lobbyists and suppress the free speech rights of pro-Palestine activists. In a 2015 report, our attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal documented nearly 300 instances of suppression of Palestine activism on more than 65 US college campuses in an 18-month period. Ours was just one.
After submitting our application, we were met with several setbacks, including concern over, to quote the dean of students, “rogue chapters” of SJP that were engaging in forms of direct action that he said he wouldn’t like to see at Fordham. The dean, the director of student affairs, and the student government were also concerned that our support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a nonviolent movement initiated in 2005 by Palestinian civil society to put economic pressure on the state of Israel to restore basic rights to Palestinians, would “stir up controversy.”
Finally, after 364 days of delays and questioning along these lines, Fordham’s student government voted on our application in November 2016. Despite an organized attempt by a few professors and Fordham’s Jewish Student Organization to sway the vote against us, the student government approved SJP for club status. “This chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham fulfills a need for open discussion and demonstrates that Fordham is a place that exemplifies diversity of thought,” its statement read. “[SJP’s] presence will help to create a space for academic discussion and promote intellectual rigor on campus. We do not believe that the presence of Students for Justice in Palestine will take away from efforts to promote a safe environment on our campus.”
But on December 22, the last day of final exams before winter break, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge emailed us to say that he was exercising his never-before-used veto power to overrule the student government’s vote, denying us club status.
First, he wrote, “I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.” Second, he wrote that our unwavering support for BDS “presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding” and fosters “polarization rather than dialogue.” Last, Eldredge took issue with our name, saying that its “affiliation” with the national chapter is not the “best way to provide” “open, academic discussion and the promotion of intellectual rigor on campus.” “There is no appeal of my decision,” he wrote in a follow-up.
But if Fordham is “committed to research and education that assist in the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights,” as the mission statement proclaims, then Eldredge’s claim that the political goals of the Palestinian people “clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University” is without merit. Since the Nakba, the forced removal by Zionist paramilitaries of 750,000 Palestinians at the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the settler colonial government of Israel has increasingly chipped away at the land and rights of Palestinians. Every few years, Israel “mows the lawn” in Gaza, its genocidal euphemism for bombing the besieged population into submission. As occupied people of the West Bank and Gaza, as second-class citizens of Israel, or as refugees across the world denied the right to return, Palestinians should be among the least controversial of groups deemed worthy of international solidarity.
As Radhika Sainath, our attorney at Palestine Legal, quipped, “No one’s more polarizing than president-elect Trump, but Fordham did not ban the College Republicans.” When the College Republicans invited the right-wing, racist political strategist Roger Stone to campus this past October, Fordham president Joseph McShane, S.J., denounced Stone’s “demeaning” opinions, but said he would nevertheless allow Stone’s talk to proceed. “If we err in this decision, we do so on the side of academic freedom,” he wrote. The inherent contradictions in Fordham’s alleged dedication to academic freedom expose clearly the “Palestine exception.”
We argue that there is little that fosters polarization more than Fordham’s ban on SJP. The most effective barrier to open dialogue and academic freedom is an outright prohibition on a group to advocate its political agenda—precisely what Fordham has done to SJP. The deeply flawed conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, one of the sources for the accusation that SJP is “polarizing,” will persist as long as Fordham prohibits SJP from highlighting this distinction. What’s more, every oppressed or marginalized political viewpoint is slandered by the power structure as “polarizing” and “controversial” until it becomes accepted in the mainstream. Powerful officials label something “polarizing” to delegitimize a political idea they don’t agree with.
Regarding our so-called “affiliation” with the national chapter (NSJP), we obtained email confirmation, as requested, from NSJP saying that “we have not had any requirements for any group that comes to our conference to include specific language in their respective constitutions.” NSJP’s website makes it clear: “we do not dictate to SJP chapters: all individual SJPs are autonomous student orgs on their respective campuses.” We also added a line to our proposed constitution, again as requested, making clear that “NSJP requires nothing of us, and we have no responsibility to it.” In this context, it’s hard not to view Eldredge’s decision as anything but an attack on an expression of solidarity with other groups fighting for the basic rights of Palestinians and on anti-imperialist politics more broadly.
After Dean Eldredge issued his veto, a solidarity petition created by New York City SJP garnered support from more than 125 organizations and 400 individuals. Fordham’s administration received letters expressing support for SJP from more than 125 Fordham faculty members, a group of Catholic clergy and professors, Jewish Voice for Peace, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, the Middle East Studies Association, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
When Fordham announced that it planned to stay the course, SJP organized a rally. Nearly 50 supporters showed up on a cold Monday afternoon, from students to professors to our comrades in NYC SJP, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Workers World Party, and the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network. Fordham responded by charging a member of SJP with violating the university’s demonstration policy. When Eldredge prohibited her from bringing a lawyer to her disciplinary hearing, she walked out. Eldredge then sanctioned her with a warning.
In April, we sued Fordham. Because Fordham is a private university, its students aren’t legally protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. So our lawsuit alleged that Fordham had violated its own policies on free expression and the proper procedure for handling a proposed club’s application—an issue justiciable under a section of New York law that prohibits action deemed “arbitrary and capricious.”
One of the major claims in the lawsuit centers on a curious email we received from the president of student government just a few weeks before the body’s vote of confidence in SJP. After I pointed out in a meeting with student government that it appeared as if our application was being handled in such a way that violated the terms of the club application process, he told us that the guidelines provided to SJP were “written incorrectly,” adding:
The formal Club Guidelines should have been copied exactly to the Club Registration Packet but for some reason that did not happen… During the making of said registration document, both myself and the members of the Office for Student Involvement assumed that the two documents would be exactly the same, unfortunately that was not the case and we are realizing the error in our assumptions…. I apologize on behalf of [student government] for the confusion… I can guarantee that there was no malicious intent for the differences in the forms, simply a lapse in editing.
It’s no coincidence that SJP was the first club to uncover this discrepancy, as no other club has been subjected to the same Trumpian extreme vetting that we were. Fordham tried to explain away the error with the dubious assertion that the confusion created by the incorrectly written documents was a “harmless error created by students, not the university,” and therefore the university wasn’t liable. Ironically, the line in the club application procedure absent from the “incorrectly written” version that magically appeared in the new one—which we did not receive until 11 months after we applied—assigned explicit, unilateral veto power to Dean Eldredge as the final step of the application process. In the old version, Eldredge’s role was merely to “approve” proposed clubs in tandem with another school administrator and before—not after—the student government’s vote.
“Fordham’s student speech policies convey at the most basic level that it cannot treat students or groups that promote views that are unpopular or controversial differently or negatively because administrators or others on campus disagree or have negative associations with them,” the lawsuit made clear. If Fordham values “freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas,” believes that the “expression of controversial ideas and differing views is a vital part of University discourse,” and guarantees that everyone “has a right to freely express his or her positions and to work for their acceptance whether he/she assents to or dissents from existing situations in the University or society,” as its own policies state, then its selective refusal to recognize SJP—in contrast to other political groups like the Feminist Alliance, College Democrats, and College Republicans—based on how much controversy the club’s pro-Palestine, anti-Zionist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics could provoke is clearly arbitrary and capricious.
Further evidence for the arbitrariness and capriciousness of Fordham’s decision can be found in its concern over the perceived behavior of the “rogue” SJP chapters—NYU SJP’s mock eviction notices, for example. In a statement to media, Fordham said that its officials “aren’t in a position to know the truth of these reports,” admitting that its justification for banning SJP at Fordham was based merely on hearsay about students at other campuses, undercutting any rational basis for its decision.
When it came time for Fordham to respond to our lawsuit, it offered an entirely new justification for its decision, one that no university official raised with us at any point in the club application process. Dean Eldredge claimed that he banned SJP to prevent “the resulting possible negative impacts on student safety and the general security of the Fordham community.” As author and activist Sarah Schulman pointed out in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse, Zionists on college campuses have frequently invoked the language of safety and abuse to successfully shut down pro-Palestine activism.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, January 3, a Manhattan court could dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the university’s decisions are not reviewable by a court. But if the court allows the case to proceed, it will be tasked with deciding whether to grant SJP’s request for a preliminary injunction, an order requiring Fordham to temporarily recognize SJP as an official club while the court considers the merits of the case. Without this injunctive relief, SJP’s members could graduate before they have the chance to make Palestine activism a part of their college experience.
“What my peers and I care about is not simply the state of free speech protection on university campuses, though it is unconscionable that Fordham has created these conditions in which many students no longer feel safe to voice support for Palestine,” Sofia Dadap, one of the petitioners, said. “What we believe in is standing against racism and imperialism and actively promoting collective self-determination for Palestinians and all colonized peoples.”
This piece began as a short paper submitted October 2016 for Professor Anjali Dayal’s undergraduate seminar at Fordham University called, “The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention.”
For decades Western policymakers and scholars of international politics have tried to articulate a specific set of standards to guide the practice of military intervention. Following World War II, the international community developed a theory that powerful states could intervene in weak states to prevent genocide. But as the 1990s witnessed several genocides answered by varying levels of Western intervention, those who wanted more intervention—“I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” Susan Rice remarked about the US response to the Rwandan genocide—developed the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P), which called for a more robust response to humanitarian crises in the form of military action.
To determine which humanitarian crises justify international military intervention, noted terrorism scholar Robert A. Pape offers his own theory in an International Security article titled, “When Duty Calls,” as a better alternative to what he considers the overly restrictive genocide norm and the overly permissive R2P standard. Pape’s technocratically dubbed “pragmatic humanitarian intervention” standard has three requirements: a mass homicide campaign waged by the local government, a low-cost intervention plan, and an exit strategy that ensures “enduring security.”
At the outset, it is naïve to credit, as Pape does, an intervention or non-intervention to a state’s adherence to a neutral, non-ideological, apolitical set of standards. To claim, for example, that “a significant reason why the international community has consistently failed to stop genocides is the [genocide] norm itself” assumes that humanitarian intervention is void of politics—when in fact the very opposite is true (the whole “war is politics” thing).
But setting this larger critique aside for a moment, even a point-by-point response to Pape’s piece reveals the folly of his pragmatic humanitarian intervention (PHI) standard. Pape argues that the 2011 NATO air war in Libya met the requirements of PHI. In this short paper I argue that Libya did not, in fact, meet any of PHI’s three requirements for intervention—a mass homicide campaign, a low-cost intervention plan, and an enduring security strategy. Therefore, if Pape thinks Libya fits the PHI standard, then PHI doesn’t work as a standard of intervention for the same reasons that he dismisses the genocide and R2P norms.
Mass homicide campaign
It’s not clear that Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime met Pape’s first requirement that a local government has crossed the mass homicide threshold “when it has killed several thousand of its citizens (i.e., 2,000 to 5,000…)… and it is likely to kill many times that number (i.e., 20,000 to 50,000) in the near future.” Beside the fact that death tolls are notoriously difficult to accurately track as the war in Syria has shown, before NATO’s intervention in Libya (which began on March 19), the death toll was somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000—notably lower than what Pape’s standard calls for.
On March 17 the UN Security Council authorized intervening nations to use “all necessary measures,” including the creation of a no-fly zone but excluding a “foreign occupation force,” to protect civilians on the basis that Qaddafi was about to show “no mercy and no pity” in an allegedly imminent slaughter of the rebel-based city of Benghazi. A week after the intervention began, Obama echoed the Rwanda syndrome: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” Failure to intervene would have been “extremely chilling, deadly and indeed a stain on our collective conscience,” humanitarian crusader Samantha Power, who was on Obama’s National Security Council at the time, moralized. One of her aides warned her not to let Libya become “Obama’s Rwanda.”
To satisfy PHI’s requirement of an impending mass homicide campaign, Pape drinks the Kool-Aid, uncritically citing these and other US government officials. “According to Obama administration sources, about 100,000 would likely die without international intervention,” he writes.
But as several observers pointed out at the time, the likelihood of a Benghazi slaughter was not so cut and dry. “[T]here is in fact no evidence… to suggest [Qaddafi] had either the capability or even the intention to carry out such an atrocity against an armed city of 700,000,” Guardian columnist Seumas Milne wrote. “Obama has treated the evidence about Gadhafi as too obvious to dispute… Absent specific, reliable evidence, we have to wonder if the president succumbed to unwarranted panic over fictitious dangers,” Chicago Tribune columnist Steven Chapman argued. Alan Kuperman, professor at the University of Texas, also expressed skepticism. “Gadhafi directed this [‘no mercy’] threat only at rebels to persuade them to flee. Despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda. Indeed, Libya’s rebels started the war knowing that they could not win on their own, and that their attacks would provoke harm against civilians, aiming to draw in outside support—and it worked,” he wrote. Former National Security Council staffer Paul Miller put it more bluntly: “Libya is not Rwanda.”
The lack of evidence of a civilian slaughter suggests that it was not sufficiently likely that Qaddafi—who emerged in international politics as the “mad dog of the Middle East” and later became the “American-approved counterexample to Saddam Hussein” following the latter’s U.S. imposed removal in 2003 and by 2008 “a strong partner in the war against terrorism”—would have killed “many times” the number already killed, as Pape’s PHI standard requires. Thus, if Pape thinks Libya meets the PHI standard, then PHI’s bar for intervention is too low, allowing for too many interventions—exactly the critique Pape makes of R2P.
Low-cost intervention plan
NATO’s intervention in Libya did not meet Pape’s second requirement—that “the cost in lives according to reasonable estimates approaches the risks of complex peacetime and training operations and so is effectively near zero.” According to Human Rights Watch—whose top officials, it’s worth noting, cheered on the intervention—NATO airstrikes killed at least 72 civilians. In all eight airstrikes that killed these 72 people, HRW reported that there was “no indication of nearby military activity.” Other estimates put the civilian death toll much higher.
Enduring security strategy
Pape’s weakest argument in support of Libya as a PHI-approved intervention is his claim that it met PHI’s third requirement that an intervention have an exit strategy for enduring security. Describing the requirements for enduring security, Pape acknowledges that “foreign-imposed regime change… is rarely the best option” because it likely “create[s] a power vacuum, unleashing local rivalries and leading to intense conflict” and “provoke[s] significant internal resistance.” He asserts on four occasions within three consecutive paragraphs that the West was not engaged in a regime change operation:
From the beginning, the United States and the international coalition against Qaddafi disavowed regime change, invasion, or seizure of Libyan oil. Instead, they focused on providing major Libyan rebel areas the wherewithal to become militarily and economically self-reliant, so that Libyans and not foreign powers would decide Qaddafi’s fate…
There is little evidence… of the kind of large-scale, dedicated efforts at imposing regime change, independent of rebel efforts, that the United States has waged historically…
[A]t no point was there a comprehensive, systematic effort to decapitate the Libyan regime…
When compared to past concentrated U.S. efforts, the intervention in Libya did not constitute a serious program of foreign-imposed regime change.
That the Libya intervention was not a regime change operation is patently false. As is the case for many American interventions—take, for example, Iraq in 2003 or Panama in 1989—Obama administration officials offered several competing, evolving justifications. Although some explicitly denounced regime change at the outset of the intervention in March, what began as a mere civilian protection operation quickly ballooned into intervention in the country’s civil war in the form of large-scale support for the rebels in an effort to overthrow Qaddafi. Armed American drones were bombing Qaddafi’s strongholds throughout the spring, summer and fall, totaling at least 145 drone strikes. After rebels captured the capitol of Tripoli in late August with the help of U.S. drones, the pace of strikes escalated in the hunt for Qaddafi. Indeed, the strike in late October that led to Qaddafi’s capture, gang rape, and death at the hands of rebels was an American one. Astute observer Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, even called the initial civilian protection justification “scarcely believable”:
Given that decapitation strikes against Qaddafi were employed early and often, there almost certainly was a decision by the civilian heads of government of the NATO coalition to ‘take him out’ from the very beginning of the intervention…
In truth, the Libyan intervention was about regime change from the very start. The threat posed by the Libyan regime’s military and paramilitary forces to civilian-populated areas was diminished by NATO airstrikes and rebel ground movements within the first 10 days…
The intervention in Libya shows that the slippery slope of allegedly limited interventions is most steep when there’s a significant gap between what policymakers say their objectives are and the orders they issue for the battlefield.
But in Pape’s lawyerly parsing of events, dropping bombs on a dictator does not constitute regime change as long as a rebel coalition is also fighting to oust him—in other words, regime change by proxy is somehow not regime change. To argue that the United States simply provided rebels “the wherewithal to become militarily and economically self-reliant, so that Libyans and not foreign powers would decide Qaddafi’s fate” removes American agency in Qaddafi’s overthrow. Could the rebels have toppled Qaddafi without American air support? Likely not. Pape’s erasure of American influence is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s—who pushed hard for the intervention as secretary of state—psychopathic cheer, “We came, we saw, he died.” Perhaps a more accurate description of events would have attributed more agency to the US government: “We came, we bombed, he died.” Even “[w]hen compared to past concentrated U.S. efforts,” Pape is still wrong. As journalist Rania Khalek recently pointed out, all regime change efforts don’t always look the same. Regime change in Libya looked less like Bush’s overthrow of Saddam and more like a Reagan-style dirty war. But it was still regime change. Historians will discuss it as such.
What’s more, Pape acknowledges that “[s]aving the lives of people in immediate danger would make little moral sense if the long-term consequence was to create a situation of open-ended, ungovernable chaos resulting in the deaths of these, and perhaps more, people.” Applying this standard to Libya, he writes, “Although the road to long-term security and stability in Libya is uncertain, the available evidence suggests that the country is not descending into the kind of chaos and violence that would fundamentally undermine the goals of the intervention.” It’s important to note here that Pape’s article was published in the summer of 2012, less than a year after Qaddafi’s death. In this context, upholding the “success in Libya”—while simultaneously admitting that “the road to long-term security and stability in Libya is uncertain”—as a model intervention for the workability of a new intervention standard should prompt immediate skepticism of the standard.
Time has rendered Pape’s standard ineffective. Since 2011 Libya has turned into precisely what Pape warns against: a failed state wrought with chaos, instability, competing governments, and violent jihadism—in other words, justification for further intervention. In a bit of historical irony, the United States has begun to “seize on the effects of its own bombing campaign in Libya to justify an entirely new bombing campaign in that same country,” journalist Glenn Greenwald writes. Since August 2016 the U.S. has been bombing the Islamic State in Libya, which has seized on the power vacuum and rampant instability created by the very intervention that, in Pape’s view, had established “enduring security.” This Kissingerian denial of history among interventionists is alarming, as the conditions created by American interventions are used over and over again by policymakers to justify further intervention.
In Britain, the Libya intervention directly produced blowback. As Max Blumenthal reported, the guy who bombed the Ariana Grande concert in May 2017 came from an anti-Qaddafi family funded by the U.K. government in 2011.
Pape critiques the genocide standard for intervention on the grounds that it “does not sufficiently address the question of the long-term political consequences of humanitarian intervention.” Similarly, he lambasts the R2P standard because it makes humanitarian intervention “indistinguishable from foreign-imposed regime change.” But as we see in the Libya case, Pape’s standard fails on these two points, as well. Despite Pape’s technocratic effort to create a better standard of intervention under the guise of “pragmatic” objectivity, his embrace of the Libya war shows that his standard fails to produce policy that improves the conditions of people on the ground.