Libya and the shameless rewriting of history

The repackaging of NATO’s reckless intervention as a clever war for liberty would make Orwell’s Ministry of Truth beam with pride.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Not since Winston Smith found himself in the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, rewriting old newspaper articles on behalf of Big Brother, has there been such an overnight perversion of history as there has been in relation to NATO’s intervention in Libya. Now that the rebels have taken Tripoli, NATO’s bombing campaign is being presented to us as an adroit intervention, which was designed to achieve precisely the glorious scenes we’re watching on our TV screens. In truth, it was an incoherent act of clueless militarism, which is only now being repackaged, in true Minitrue fashion, as an initiative that ‘played an indispensable role in the liberation of Tripoli’.

Normally it takes a few years for history to be rewritten; with Libya it happened in days. No sooner had rebel soldiers arrived at Gaddafi’s compound than the NATO campaign launched in March was being rewritten as a cogent assault. Commentators desperate to resuscitate the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’, and NATO leaders determined to crib some benefits from their Libya venture, took to their lecterns to tell us that their aims had been achieved and they had ‘salvaged the principle of liberal interventionism from the geopolitical dustbin’. In order to sustain these bizarre claims, they’ve had to put the real truth about NATO’s campaign into a memory hole and invent a whole new ‘truth’.

Over the past few days every aspect of NATO’s bombing campaign has been, as Winston Smith might put it, ‘falsified’. Since everybody now seems to have forgotten the events of just five months ago, it is worth reminding ourselves of the true character of NATO’s intervention in Libya. It was incoherent from the get-go, overseen by a continually fraying and deeply divided Western ‘alliance’ and with no serious war aim beyond being seen to bomb an evil dictator. It was cowardly, where all alliance members wanted to appear to be Doing Something while actually doing as little as possible. This was especially true of the US, which stayed firmly on the backseat of the anti-Gaddafi alliance. And it was reckless, revealing that military action detached from strategy, unanchored by end goals, can easily spin out of control.

Yet now, courtesy of the Ministry of Truthers, these deep moral flaws and political failings are being reinterpreted as brilliant stratagems. So the determination of Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama to present their bombing of Libya, not as a Western initiative but rather as a UN-approved act of uber-multilateralism, is now depicted as a brilliant, oh-so-sly decision that massively aided the rebellion by giving the impression that it was more an organic uprising than a power play aided by ‘evil’ Western outsiders. Commentators write about the West’s adoption of ‘humility’ as a ‘strategic device’. They claim the downplaying of America’s role in the setting up of the anti-Gaddafi alliance in March was designed to enhance the likelihood of success. As one observer now claims, ‘It suited everyone for America to appear to take a backseat. It suited the uprising.’

Here, the profound crisis of identity of the West, its increasing inability to project any kind of mission into the international sphere, is refashioned as the knowing adoption of ‘humility’, designed to boost Western influence in tyranny-ruled lands. In truth, the West-in-denial nature of the anti-Gaddafi alliance, where NATO presented its campaign as a non-American, non-gung-ho initiative, spoke to the corrosion of American authority in international affairs and to the post-Iraq moral paralysis of that entity once known as ‘the West’. So in March, it was reported that Washington was being distanced from the alliance and that Cameron was desperately seeking Arab League backing, in order to make sure ‘this did not look like a Western initiative’. It was shamefacedness about what the West is seen to represent today, and a recognition that American authority is now way more divisive than it was during the Cold War, which gave rise to this orgy of Western sheepishness.

Yet now, the moral hollowness and political incoherence of Western institutions revealed during the formation of the anti-Gaddafi alliance are being presented as clever disguises, designed to boost the fortunes of the rebels. Indeed, since the rebels took Tripoli, some observers have even started claiming that we’re witnessing the emergence of a ‘new era in US foreign policy’, a new ‘model for intervention’. According to Fareed Zakaria of CNN, it might have looked as if Obama’s approach was ‘too multilateral and lacked cohesiveness’, what with his decision to withdraw his fighter planes just 48 hours after the intervention started in March, but actually that was all part of a brilliant new strategy called ‘leading from behind’. Others sing the praises of ‘Obama’s light-footprint approach’, claiming that his strategy of ‘limited engagement’ has now produced a ‘nuanced victory’ in Libya. Here, disarray is repackaged as deftness, and a ‘model’ is retrospectively projected on to the mayhem that reigned during the creation and launch of NATO’s mission.

Likewise, the risk-aversion and commitment-phobia of the venture are being rehashed as superb strategies. So America’s insistence that its involvement in Libya would be ‘time-limited and scope-limited’, and Britain and France’s refusal to entertain the idea of posting troops in Libya, are apparently not signs of their almost pathological unwillingness to do anything that might incur a high moral or existential cost, but rather reflect their discovery, through careful analysis, of the fact that ‘intervention lite’ is the best way to shape world affairs. We’re told that the taking of Tripoli is a success for the new ‘model for intervention’, where the focus is, in the words of one commentator, ‘strike from the skies but keep Western boots off the ground, [as a way of] doing the right thing and ridding the world of a horrible dictator’.

Where the Ministry of Truth’s topsy-turvy slogan was ‘Ignorance is strength’, the Libya lobby’s rallying cry could be: ‘Cowardice is courage.’ In refashioning the risk-aversion of Western powers as a coherent strategy, a choice made by governments that have forensically worked out the best way to reshape nations, these Minitrue cheerleaders of NATO overlook the profound paralysis of the West and its armies today. The ‘no boots’ rule in relation to Libya sprang, not from clever strategic vision, but from the pusillanimous nature of modern governments, which are keen to intervene in foreign states’ affairs (for the perceived PR benefit of appearing tough) yet which want to avoid devoting life, limb or even much time to such interventions. The no-boots rule really speaks to a deep, conflictual trend in modern politics: our rulers, lacking any meaningful legitimacy at home, feel the urge to seek political purpose in foreign theatres – yet their very lack of legitimacy, their moral disarray, means that their foreign ventures are cautious, fearful things.

The part of the NATO campaign that has received the most thorough Minitrue makeover is the bombing of recent days. These raids are being reimagined as the final and decisive acts of a West determined to get rid of Gaddafi and install a new government. NATO’s ‘meticulously targeted’ assaults have created a ‘pathway’ for the rebels, we’re told. In truth, NATO’s latest outburst is best seen, not as the creator of new opportunities for the rebels, but rather as an opportunist stab by NATO forces to make political mileage from the disintegration of the Gaddafi regime. The decisive event in Libya in recent weeks has been the further corrosion of Gaddafi’s authority – and NATO is responding to that rather than having consciously brought it about.

Far from dealing a fatal blow to Gaddafi or providing a golden opportunity to the rebels, NATO’s bombing has been primarily reactive – to the internal combustion of Gaddafi’s writ. That is why this military venture has lasted six months, despite the fact that it consists of massive Western forces rallied against the isolated has-been Gaddafi: because NATO has adopted the role of observing and reacting to events rather than determining them. Thus only when it became clear even to faraway military observers that Gaddafi’s authority was beyond repair did NATO decide to up the ante. The recent bombs were less about achieving ‘pathways’ for a rebel takeover and more an attempt by NATO leaders to derive some political benefits from the slow-burning chaos in Libya, through firing PR missiles at a country whose authoritarian government had disintegrated.

The Ministry of Truthers are repackaging a reckless, strategy-free campaign launched by a deeply divided NATO as the principled act of super-clever men who have now liberated Libya. You’d never know from this Minitrue makeover that this apparently brilliant mission came close to collapse many times, as everyone from Obama to Berlusconi wondered out loud if it should be called off. What we’re witnessing is the shameless projection of active decision-making on to what was in fact a passive, decadent venture driven by PR imperatives rather than political vision. What really happened in Libya is that Gaddafi’s regime fell apart – yet now everyone is reading history backwards and locating this falling apart in the decisions made and actions taken by Western leaders. It’s not hard to see why they’re indulging in this falsification of history: it allows Cameron to pose as ‘brave but not bombastic’, and it allows laptop bombardiers to claim they were right about the wonderfulness of Western intervention. For these self-serving reasons, the buffoonish entry of cowardly NATO forces into a conflict involving a ridiculous dictator is hysterically talked up as a modern-day Normandy.

There’s one difference between the rewriting of the Libya venture and what went on in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Our history-warpers haven’t actually physically destroyed all the evidence showing that the bombing of Libya was in fact a reckless and vain military venture (and there’s mountains of such evidence). They don’t have to. Their powers of self-delusion are so strong, and the critical climate surrounding ‘humanitarian intervention’ so weak, that they simply need to magic up a few flimsy myths and, hey presto, the past is forgotten.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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