Trying ‘Shock and Awe’ in Libya
Having laughed off Libyan government peace feelers, Official Washington is now beating the drum for a new round of “shock and awe” bombings and close-combat air strikes to “finish the job” of ousting Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
Typically, this Washington debate is being framed as a series of choices for President Barack Obama and NATO: one, abandon the current campaign of air strikes and let Gaddafi prevail; two, continue the conflict at its current pace and accept a stalemate; or three, commit more military resources to “win.”
The neoconservative-dominated opinion circles of Washington are almost unanimous in their determination to push Obama and NATO to adopt option three. It is a consensus not seen since almost all these same Serious People supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, which started off with the “shock and awe” bombing that was supposed to solve everything.
Left out of today’s Libyan debate is any consideration of building on the African Union’s proposal for a ceasefire and a transition to democracy with Gaddafi on the sidelines. Gaddafi’s embattled regime agreed to those terms, but the plan was spurned by anti-Gaddafi rebels and doesn’t even rate a mention when the “options” are listed in the Big Media.
Besides taking a page from Bush’s “shock and awe” playbook, the Smart Talk in Washington also suggests modeling “regime change” in Libya after NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999.
Those NATO strikes against the capital of Belgrade inflicted hundreds of civilian deaths, with estimates ranging from about 500 to more than 1,200, including the killing of 16 people working at the Serb TV station.
NATO generals justified their bombing of Serb TV on the premise that “enemy propaganda” is a legitimate target in wartime, even if the station’s personnel were unarmed and defenseless. Since then, the intentional targeting of civilian TV and radio stations has become part of Western military doctrine when trying to overthrow Arab and Third World regimes.
The Serbian model is now being applied to Libya with the blessings of senior military officials who participated in that campaign. For instance, Gen. John P. Jumper, who commanded U.S. Air Force units over Serbia, told the New York Times that bombing high-profile institutional sites in Belgrade proved more effective than the destruction of Serbian tanks and other military targets.
“It was when we went in and began to disturb important and symbolic sites in Belgrade and began to bring to a halt the middle-class life in Belgrade, that [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic’s own people began to turn on him,” Jumper said.
Now, Jumper said a similar approach is being pursued in Libya. This week, NATO planes bombed Libya’s capital of Tripoli briefly knocking Libyan TV off the air and blasting Gaddafi’s personal residence (although NATO insisted that the raid wasn’t an assassination attempt, wink-wink).
In other words, the anti-Serb air campaign, which was estimated to kill four Serb civilians for every Serb soldier slain, is now becoming the model for NATO’s military strategy in Libya.
Contradicting a Mandate
One might think the application of the Serbian model to Libya would raise red flags in the U.S. news media since it suggests that NATO may end up killing large numbers of civilians under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians.
However, led by the Washington Post and the New York Times, major U.S. news outlets have ignored this obvious contradiction. Instead, there’s a renewed excitement over the prospect of a new “shock and awe” bombing of an “enemy” country that’s been stripped of its air defenses.
In influential U.S. opinion circles, it’s pro-war propaganda all the time. Indeed, the New York Times seems to publish only editorials and essays favoring an expanded conflict.
Dominating the Times op-ed page on Tuesday was a call from retired Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik to “finish the job” in Libya.
Dubik, who served in the Iraq War and is now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, framed the debate in a way to make escalation and victory the only “responsible” choice. He also projected a long-term U.S. and NATO presence in Libya after Gaddafi’s defeat.
“If Colonel Qaddafi falls, the United States and NATO will have a responsibility to help shape the postwar order, including providing security to prevent a liberated Libya from sinking into chaos,” Dubik wrote. “Washington must start planning and preparing for this complex and expensive contingency and muster the substantial political will required to see it through.”
In other words, we’re looking at another U.S./NATO occupation of a “liberated” Arab or Muslim country.
What’s also clear from the U.S. news coverage is that the Times editors and other opinion-shapers are engaged in Dubik’s important first step, building the “political will” for this new war and future occupation by excluding any serious questions about the wisdom of the desired course.
The Times on Wednesday published another pro-war op-ed – focusing on Gaddafi’s supposed failure to provide quality milk to his countrymen. Meanwhile, there has been zero reexamination of a key rationale for U.S. participation in the war, Gaddafi’s alleged guilt in the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
“The blood of Americans is on [Gaddafi’s] hands because he was responsible for the bombing of Pan Am 103,” declared Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, after a recent trip to rebel-held Benghazi during which McCain joined the call for a larger U.S. military role.
The Times and other leading U.S. news outlets also treat Libya’s guilt as a flat fact, but the case actually remains murky.
In 2001, a Scottish court did convict Libyan agent Ali al-Megrahi for the bombing which killed 270 people. But the judgment appears to have been more a political compromise than an act of justice. One of the judges told Dartmouth government professor Dirk Vandewalle about “enormous pressure put on the court to get a conviction.”
Megrahi’s conviction assuaged the understandable human desire to see someone punished for such a heinous crime, albeit a possibly innocent man.
Reopening a Terror Case
In 2007, after the testimony of a key government witness was discredited, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission agreed to reconsider the conviction as a grave miscarriage of justice. However, that review was proceeding slowly in 2009 when Scottish authorities released Megrahi on humanitarian grounds, after he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.
Megrahi dropped his appeal in order to gain the early release, but that doesn’t mean he was guilty. He has continued to assert his innocence and an objective press corps would reflect the doubts regarding his conviction.
The Scottish court’s purported reason for finding Megrahi guilty – while acquitting his co-defendant Lamin Khalifa Fhimah – was the testimony of Toni Gauci, owner of a clothing store in Malta who allegedly sold Megrahi a shirt, the remnants of which were found with the shards of the suitcase that contained the bomb.
The rest of the case rested on a theory that Megrahi put the luggage on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was transferred to a connecting flight to London, where it was transferred onto Pan Am 103 bound for New York, a decidedly unlikely way to undertake an act of terrorism given all the random variables involved.
Megrahi would have had to assume that three separate airport security systems – at Malta, Frankfort and London – would fail to give any serious scrutiny to an unaccompanied suitcase or to detect the bomb despite security officials being on the lookout for just such a threat.
As historian William Blum recounted in a Consortiumnews.com article after Megrahi’s 2001 conviction, “The case for the suitcase’s hypothetical travels must also deal with the fact that, according to Air Malta, all the documented luggage on KM180 was collected by passengers in Frankfurt and did not continue in transit to London, and that two Pan Am on-duty officials in Frankfurt testified that no unaccompanied luggage was introduced onto Pan Am 103A, the feeder flight to London.”
There also were problems with Gauci’s belated identification of Megrahi as the shirt-buyer a decade after the fact. Gauci had made contradictory IDs and had earlier given a physical description that didn’t match Megrahi. Gauci reportedly received a $2 million reward for his testimony and then moved to Australia, where he went into retirement.
In 2007, the Scottish review panel decided to reconsider Megrahi’s conviction after concluding that Gauci’s testimony was unbelievable. And without Gauci’s testimony, the case against Megrahi was virtually the same as the case against his co-defendant who was acquitted.
However, after Megrahi’s conviction in 2001, more international pressure was put on Libya, which was then regarded as the archetypal “rogue” state. Indeed, it was to get onerous economic sanctions lifted that Libya took “responsibility” for the Pan Am attack and paid reparations to the victims’ families even as Libyan officials continued to deny guilt.
Yet, despite these doubts about the Pan Am 103 case, the U.S. news media continues to treat Libya’s guilt as a flat fact.
A Defector Questioned
Earlier this month, there was some excitement over the possibility that Gaddafi would be fingered as the Pan Am 103 mastermind by a high-level defector, former Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa, who was believed to be in charge of Libyan intelligence in 1988.
Moussa Koussa was questioned by Scottish authorities but apparently shed little new light on the case and was allowed to go free after the interview. Very quickly the press interest over Moussa Koussa faded away.
Yet, as the clamor now builds in Official Washington for an escalation of U.S. participation in the war – and as the Pan Am 103 case is cited over and over as justification – there has been no serious reexamination of the mystery, only the repetition of Libya’s assumed guilt.
Looking across the landscape of the U.S. news media, it is hard to find any major voice suggesting peace negotiations with Gaddafi’s government or even advocating that the sincerity of its acceptance of the African Union’s plan for a cease-fire and democratic reforms should be put to the test.
Instead, virtually all the talking heads are armchair warriors, with the neoconservative editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times again leading the way by condemning Obama’s decision to minimize U.S. military participation.
“If his real aim were to plunge NATO into a political crisis, or to exhaust the air forces and military budgets of Britain and France — which are doing most of the bombing — this would be a brilliant strategy. As it is, it is impossible to understand,” the Post wrote on April 17:.
“Mr. Obama appears less intent on ousting Mr. Gaddafi or ensuring NATO’s success than in proving an ideological point — that the United States need not take the lead in a military operation that does not involve vital U.S. interests.
“How else to explain his decision to deny NATO the two most effective ground attack airplanes in the world — the AC-130 and A-10 Warthog — which exist only in the U.S. Air Force and which were attacking Mr. Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery until April 4?”
The New York Times has been equally adamant about seeing the AC-130s and A-10 Warthogs put back into action mowing down Libyan troops loyal to Gaddafi. “Mr. Obama should authorize [the ground-attack planes] to fly again under NATO command,” the Times declared on April 14, reiterating a demand that the editors had made just a week earlier.
Yet, if NATO’s real goal is to minimize civilian casualties, Western countries might want to think twice about taking sides in what is shaping up as an ugly tribal war. They might even give peace a chance, rather than replay the civilian bombings in Belgrade or the “shock and awe” over Iraq.