Who Won the Libyan war?

A third irremovable Arab president has fallen. Muammar Qaddafi’s final fate, like that of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh currently in Saudi, recovering from an attempted assassination, is still unknown. But one thing is pretty sure: like Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Husni Mubarak, Colonel Qaddafi is the third political victim of the Arab spring. Quite a deed, if one remembers the proliferation of de facto monarchical republics in the Arab Middle East in the very recent past.

While there is much to rejoice in this news, many questions arise concerning the political and military developments of these last months in Libya. In this post, I will focus on the media coverage in and around Tripoli. Next week, I will analyse the emerging Libyan leadership.

It is striking to see how the most recent military developments in Tripoli are mostly portrayed as a “rebel-driven campaign.” To be sure, we are told of how NATO allies coordinate aerial attacks in their support for this the apparently final offensive, but very little is said about the active role that Qatar, France and England have taken in arming, equipping and training the Libyan rebel forces (not to mention intelligence gathering and strategic planning). It is, in fact, probably as much a victory of the Transitional National Council (TNC) as it is of the countries which have thrown in their lots in the hope of securing a substantial share of the (oily) pie and to obtain a prominent role as future regional leaders. Yet, very little has been said about the active role of the U.S. in the unfolding events. “Leading from behind,” Obama’s unique strategy, is perhaps more of a media performance than a military reality. The U.S. has been very much involved.

One can find evidence that the USA is not waiting, arms crossed, to see what will happen in the Cyrenaica and Tripolitana. An article in yesterday’s New York Times reveals pro-active American involvement in planning the future of a post-Qaddafi Libya:

With the lessons of postwar Iraq very much in mind, the Obama administration and its allies oversaw the drafting of “a transition road map” that creates an interim governing authority to fill the vacuum created by the monolithic Qaddafi regime until elections are held.

The road map did not specify dates or a timetable for the election. But the officials said the rebel leaders had consistently pledged to have an open, inclusive government. They have also pledged not to pursue vendettas or a “de-Baathification-style” purge of the political and security bureaucracy, something that fueled the insurgency in Iraq.

“We try to learn lessons,” a senior administration official said. “That’s why there was such as emphasis on post-Qaddafi planning. It wasn’t strictly because of April 2003, but that definitely was on people’s minds.”

A road map, as we know from the Palestinian context, is not just stale scenario mapping out different possible political outcomes. It can be a guide, at times even a semi-binding document for international actors. Even if the quote above does not clarify who exactly drafted this transition road map, the Obama Administration clearly is taking an active role in defining the next moves in Libya.

Thus, one has to recognize the sanitized media covering of the ongoing military campaign. Make no mistake: this has been the case throughout the six months of Libyan coverage. Now, the coverage is only about a rebel-driven campaign, obfuscating the active involvement of external actors. Then, in the first three or four weeks after the March UN Resolution installing a no-fly zone, the media hardly reported on civilian casualties, nor did they show pictures of dead people (the turning point seems to have been the deadlock over the Misrata siege when pictures and stories of the human drama unfolding in the Mediterranean city gave a different, more personalized account of the military operations).

We are thus confronted – again – with the politics of visibility. One can discern different scopic regimes granted to different sets of actors. The involvement of Libyans themselves needs to be seen on the front stage (or they need to be projected as being on the driver’s seat), while that of international actors should only be mentioned in the backstage. There is a logic to this, obviously, if we think of the American context. Politically, it is not a good idea for American politicians to be seen or perceived as having an active role in defining the future of Libya. Instead, one should only react, or act as far as possible away from the (media) spotlight.

There are many instances of this politics of (in)visibility. Last March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the TNC, beyond the public eye. The New York Times reported the meeting in these terms:

Mrs. Clinton met the opposition leader, Mahmoud Jibril, at her hotel here after attending a dinner with foreign ministers of the countries of the Group of 8, who discussed ways to increase pressure on Colonel Qaddafi’s government, including imposing a no-flight zone over Libyan territory. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Jibril met for 45 minutes but did not appear publicly out of concern for his security, an aide said.

Security was certainly an issue on that occasion, but there were also sophisticated political calculations of American officials to not be seen too openly with what was then an embryonic alternative leadership in Libya. The future will tell us how this new emerging leadership will manage to fulfil or betray the hopes of popular democratic openings.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    This post highlights some unusual aspects of the foreign support for the Libyan struggle against a dictatorial regime. It’s not clear whether the apparently quiet almost invisible presence of the outside powers, and especially the US, is determined by the need to support the local legitimacy of the new authorities or is simply a cynical play by the outsiders to leverage their influence – hegemonic intervention with a more human face. I supported the intervention on humanitarian and political grounds and think that the attempt to emphasize Libyan leadership is a good thing.

  • Benoit Challand

    You bring up an important point, Jeffrey: it is difficult to know exactly how active the US, or other pro-interventionist countries, have been in helping the rebel’s offensive. So it is a classical example of the half-full, half-empty glass. However, I strongly believe that the US Administration is very active in the backstage, not just out of sheer interests, but out of fear that the situation gets out of control. International politics hate power vacuum.

  • Scott

    According to the Washington Post, the US is currently conducting ‘secret wars’ in over 75 countries as part of its ‘global security strategy’. I find it interesting however that such ‘secrets’ are so readily known to the public. Apparently, it makes little difference whether this is known or not, so long as the specifics of these wars are kept hidden and the ‘wars’ themselves are conducted under auspices of anti-terrorism. This is just business as usual. (One specific that is known about them is their cost—Obama has recently requested a 5.7 percent increase for the ‘Special Operations’ budget, increasing its sum to $6.3 billion.)

    And yes, the United States has “Special Operations Forces” on the ground in Libya, including CIA agents, a fact which was reported by the New York Times. Again, this aspect of the ‘secret war’ is not so secret. Similar coverage was given of US involvement in Pakistan, Yemen, and in 2008 US Special Operations Forces conducted a raid on Syria. Similar information can be found on other campaigns which extend into South America, including Columbia, Paraguay, and Peru, and on into Eastern Europe, South East Asia, and so on. So I think a fair question to ask is, ‘If so much is known about US ‘secret wars’, why exactly are they so often referred to as secret?’ (One reason might be that the use of ‘secret’ here might be quite cynical or might be meant to imply duplicitousness). I believe Dr. Challand’s article gives an important reason: ‘sanitized’ media coverage. The US White House, State Department, and Pentagon reveal to the public no more than they deem necessary, thus setting up an international theater, replete with backstage and front stage. (I believe this mechanism has elsewhere been too referred to as ‘perception management.’) In this case, it seems aimed at creating the perception that the victory is primarily belongs to the Libyan rebels– it is they who won Libya. We know the situation is much more complex than that, however, not by watching CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News.

    If however, we turn to sources such as the Washington Post or NY Times, we learn a little more about US involvement in Libya, and elsewhere (indeed the very fact that they are involved in the first instance), and the nature of this involvement. And if we move beyond these sources, and there are many credible sources we can turn to, such as Alternet, Common Dreams, or, sometimes, The Nation, just to name a few (I would also include foreign sources such as Al Jazeera), we might learn more. If this is indeed an accurate pattern, it suggests to me that the further away a news source is from the epicenters of power, the more of the backstage they will be willing to reveal and strive to reveal. (However their relative lack of resources may hinder their ability to do this.) In any event, if we look beyond the ‘usual’ sources, we will more easily discover that ‘secret wars’ aren’t really so secret at all. But unlike more authoritarian countries, their does not seem to be much effort to muzzle the messengers. It is as if the US government is saying, “Yeah. So what. What are you going to do about it?”

  • Anonymous

    very interesting and informative. Given the conflicting stories of who exactly comprises the Libyan opposition, I cannot disagree with some involvement on our (and other countries) part— even if we are doing more behind the scenes than onstage, the distinction matters 1) because Libyans want this to be their revolution and 2) because Obama will never get popular support for any intervention– Bush squandered that support on a protracted losing battle. And I agree with Jeff, and supported the intervention on humanitarian and political grounds and agree with the administration that leaving a power vacuum would be tremendously dangerous—- the transition from prolonged autocratic rule to democracy often needs help. I do not see it as hegemonic intervention with a human face— I think we are trying to what we need to do effectively, to leave some (a lot) of it to other countries, but to deal with the reality that the countries in the Middle East wherein rebels (freedom fighters) win are not going to magically become democracies and if they do adhere to strict democratic principles, they may handily vote in another despot— so I see it as a mature and savvied response to the very real potential of Qadaffi all over again.