Top ten myths about the Libya war
Libyan rebel youth watches the sun set near front lines April 14, 2011 west of Ajdabiyah, Libya. (Getty Images)
August 22nd, 2011
04:56 PM ET

Top ten myths about the Libya war

Editor's Note: Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He writes the blog Informed Comment.

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment

The Libyan Revolution has largely succeeded, and this is a moment of celebration, not only for Libyans but for a youth generation in the Arab world that has pursued a political opening across the region.

The secret of the uprising’s final days of success lay in a popular revolt in the working-class districts of the capital, which did most of the hard work of throwing off the rule of secret police and military cliques. It succeeded so well that when revolutionary brigades entered the city from the west, many encountered little or no resistance, and they walked right into the center of the capital.

Moammar Gadhafi was in hiding as I went to press, and three of his sons were in custody. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi had apparently been the de facto ruler of the country in recent years, so his capture signaled a checkmate. (Checkmate is a corruption of the Persian “shah maat,” the “king is confounded,” since chess came west from India via Iran). [Editor's Note: This is no longer the case as of Tuesday, August 23. It turns out Saif Gadhafi had not been captured by the rebels.]

The end game, wherein the people of Tripoli overthrew the Gadhafis and joined the opposition Transitional National Council, is the best case scenario that I had suggested was the most likely denouement for the revolution. I have been making this argument for some time, and it evoked a certain amount of incredulity when I said it in a lecture in the Netherlands in mid-June, but it has all along been my best guess that things would end the way they have. I got it right where others did not because my premises turned out to be sounder, i.e., that Gadhafi had lost popular support across the board and was in power only through main force.

Once enough of his heavy weapons capability was disrupted, and his fuel and ammunition supplies blocked, the underlying hostility of the common people to the regime could again manifest itself, as it had in February. I was moreover convinced that the generality of Libyans were attracted by the revolution and by the idea of a political opening, and that there was no great danger to national unity here.

I do not mean to underestimate the challenges that still lie ahead– mopping up operations against regime loyalists, reestablishing law and order in cities that have seen popular revolutions, reconstituting police and the national army, moving the Transitional National Council to Tripoli, founding political parties, and building a new, parliamentary regime. Even in much more institutionalized and less clan-based societies such as Tunisia and Egypt, these tasks have proved anything but easy. But it would be wrong, in this moment of triumph for the Libyan Second Republic, to dwell on the difficulties to come. Libyans deserve a moment of exultation.

Read: The great Tripoli uprising.

I have taken a lot of heat for my support of the revolution and of the United Nations-authorized intervention by the Arab League and NATO that kept it from being crushed. I haven’t taken nearly as much heat as the youth of Misrata who fought off Gadhafi's tank barrages, though, so it is OK.

I hate war, having actually lived through one in Lebanon, and I hate the idea of people being killed. My critics who imagined me thrilling at NATO bombing raids were just being cruel. But here I agree with President Obama and his citation of Reinhold Niebuhr. You can’t protect all victims of mass murder everywhere all the time. But where you can do some good, you should do it, even if you cannot do all good. I mourn the deaths of all the people who died in this revolution, especially since many of the Gadhafi brigades were clearly coerced (they deserted in large numbers as soon as they felt it safe). But it was clear to me that Gadhafi was not a man to compromise, and that his military machine would mow down the revolutionaries if it were allowed to.

Moreover, those who question whether there were U.S. interests in Libya seem to me a little blind. The U.S. has an interest in there not being massacres of people for merely exercising their right to free assembly. The U.S. has an interest in a lawful world order, and therefore in the United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that Libyans be protected from their murderous government. The U.S. has an interest in its NATO alliance, and NATO allies France and Britain felt strongly about this intervention. The U.S. has a deep interest in the fate of Egypt, and what happened in Libya would have affected Egypt (Gadhafi allegedly had high Egyptian officials on his payroll).

Given the controversies about the revolution, it is worthwhile reviewing the myths about the Libyan Revolution that led so many observers to make so many fantastic or just mistaken assertions about it.

Myth #1. Gadhafi was a progressive in his domestic policies.

While back in the 1970s, Gadhafi was probably more generous in sharing around the oil wealth with the population, buying tractors for farmers, etc., in the past couple of decades that policy changed. He became vindictive against tribes in the east and in the southwest that had crossed him politically, depriving them of their fair share in the country’s resources. And in the past decade and a half, extreme corruption and the rise of post-Soviet-style oligarchs, including Gadhafi and his sons, have discouraged investment and blighted the economy. Workers were strictly controlled and unable to collectively bargain for improvements in their conditions. There was much more poverty and poor infrastructure in Libya than there should have been in an oil state.

Myth #2. Gadhafi was a progressive in his foreign policy.

Again, he traded for decades on positions, or postures, he took in the 1970s. In contrast, in recent years he played a sinister role in Africa, bankrolling brutal dictators and helping foment ruinous wars. In 1996 the supposed champion of the Palestinian cause expelled 30,000 stateless Palestinians from the country. After he came in from the cold, ending European and U.S. sanctions, he began buddying around with George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and other right wing figures. Berlusconi has even said that he considered resigning as Italian prime minister once NATO began its intervention, given his close personal relationship to Gadhafi. Such a progressive.

Myth #3. It was only natural that Gadhafi sent his military against the protesters and revolutionaries; any country would have done the same.

No, it wouldn’t, and this is the argument of a moral cretin. In fact, the Tunisian officer corps refused to fire on Tunisian crowds for dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the Egyptian officer corps refused to fire on Egyptian crowds for Hosni Mubarak.

The willingness of the Libyan officer corps to visit macabre violence on protesting crowds derived from the centrality of the Gadhafi sons and cronies at the top of the military hierarchy and from the lack of connection between the people and the professional soldiers and mercenaries. Deploying the military against non-combatants was a war crime, and doing so in a widespread and systematic way was a crime against humanity. Gadhafi and his sons will be tried for this crime, which is not “perfectly natural.”

Myth #4. There was a long stalemate in the fighting between the revolutionaries and the Gadhafi military.

There was not. This idea was fostered by the vantage point of many Western observers, in Benghazi. It is true that there was a long stalemate at Brega, which ended yesterday when the pro-Gadhafi troops there surrendered. But the two most active fronts in the war were Misrata and its environs, and the Western Mountain region.

Misrata fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-defense against attacking Gadhafi armor and troops, finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli. The most dramatic battles and advances were in the largely Berber Western Mountain region, where, again, Gadhafi  armored units relentlessly shelled small towns and villages but were fought off (with less help from NATO initially, which I think did not recognize the importance of this theater).

Read: Obama demands regime change in Syria.

It was the revolutionary volunteers from this region who eventually took Zawiya, with the help of the people of Zawiya, last Friday and who thereby cut Tripoli off from fuel and ammunition coming from Tunisia and made the fall of the capital possible. Any close observer of the war since April has seen constant movement, first at Misrata and then in the Western Mountains, and there was never an over-all stalemate.

Myth #5. The Libyan Revolution was a civil war.

It was not, if by that is meant a fight between two big groups within the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in 2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests, and only when the urban crowds were subjected to artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did the revolutionaries begin arming themselves.

When fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing their city quarters taking on trained regular army troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a civil war. Only in a few small pockets of territory, such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Gadhafi civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort into a civil war. Gadhafi's support was too limited, too thin, and too centered in the professional military, to allow us to speak of a civil war.

Myth #6. Libya is not a real country and could have been partitioned between east and west.

Alexander Cockburn wrote,

“It requites no great prescience to see that this will all end up badly. Gadhafi’s failure to collapse on schedule is prompting increasing pressure to start a ground war, since the NATO operation is, in terms of prestige, like the banks Obama has bailed out, Too Big to Fail. Libya will probably be balkanized.”

I don’t understand the propensity of Western analysts to keep pronouncing nations in the global south “artificial” and on the verge of splitting up. It is a kind of Orientalism. All nations are artificial.

Benedict Anderson dates the nation-state to the late 1700s, and even if it were a bit earlier, it is a new thing in history.

Moreover, most nation-states are multi-ethnic, and many long-established ones have sub-nationalisms that threaten their unity. Thus, the Catalans and Basque are uneasy inside Spain, the Scottish may bolt Britain any moment, etc., etc. In contrast, Libya does not have any well-organized, popular separatist movements.

It does have tribal divisions, but these are not the basis for nationalist separatism, and tribal alliances and fissures are more fluid than ethnicity (which is itself less fixed than people assume). Everyone speaks Arabic, though for Berbers it is the public language; Berbers were among the central Libyan heroes of the revolution, and will be rewarded with a more pluralist Libya.

This generation of young Libyans, who waged the revolution, have mostly been through state schools and have a strong allegiance to the idea of Libya. Throughout the revolution, the people of Benghazi insisted that Tripoli was and would remain the capital. Westerners looking for break-ups after dictatorships are fixated on the Balkan events after 1989, but there most often isn’t an exact analogue to those in the contemporary Arab world.

Myth #7. There had to be NATO infantry brigades on the ground for the revolution to succeed.

Everyone from Cockburn to Max Boot put forward this idea. But there are not any foreign infantry brigades in Libya, and there are unlikely to be any. Libyans are very nationalistic and they made this clear from the beginning. Likewise the Arab League. NATO had some intelligence assets on the ground, but they were small in number, were requested behind the scenes for liaison and spotting by the revolutionaries and did not amount to an invasion force. The Libyan people never needed foreign ground brigades to succeed in their revolution.

Myth #8. The United States led the charge to war.

There is no evidence for this allegation whatsoever. When I asked Glenn Greenwald whether a U.S. refusal to join France and Britain in a NATO united front might not have destroyed NATO, he replied that NATO would never have gone forward unless the U.S. had plumped for the intervention in the first place.

I fear that answer was less fact-based and more doctrinaire than we are accustomed to hearing from Mr. Greenwald, whose research and analysis on domestic issues is generally first-rate. As someone not a stranger to diplomatic history, and who has actually heard briefings in Europe from foreign ministries and officers of NATO members, I’m offended at the glibness of an answer given with no more substantiation than an idee fixe.

The excellent McClatchy wire service reported on the reasons for which then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Pentagon, and Obama himself were extremely reluctant to become involved in yet another war in the Muslim world. It is obvious that the French and the British led the charge on this intervention, likely because they believed that a protracted struggle over years between the opposition and Gadhafi in Libya would radicalize it and give an opening to al-Qaeda and so pose various threats to Europe.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy had been politically mauled, as well, by the offer of his defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, to send French troops to assist Ben Ali in Tunisia (Alliot-Marie had been Ben Ali’s guest on fancy vacations), and may have wanted to restore traditional French cachet in the Arab world as well as to look decisive to his electorate. Whatever Western Europe’s motivations, they were the decisive ones, and the Obama administration clearly came along as a junior partner (something Sen. John McCain is complaining bitterly about).

Myth #9. Gadhafi would not have killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents in Benghazi, Derna, al-Bayda and Tobruk if he had been allowed to pursue his March Blitzkrieg toward the eastern cities that had defied him.

But we have real-world examples of how he would have behaved, in Zawiya, Tawargha, Misrata and elsewhere. His indiscriminate shelling of Misrata had already killed between 1000 and 2000 by last April,, and it continued all summer. At least one Gadhaf mass grave with 150 bodies in it has been discovered. And the full story of the horrors in Zawiya and elsewhere in the west has yet to emerge, but it will not be pretty. The opposition claims Gadhafi's forces killed tens of thousands. Public health studies may eventually settle this issue, but we know definitively what Gadhafi was capable of.

Myth #10. This was a war for Libya’s oil.

That is daft. Libya was already integrated into the international oil markets, and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI, etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who had signed them. They had often already had the trauma of having to compete for post-war Iraqi contracts, a process in which many did less well than they would have liked. ENI’s profits were hurt by the Libyan revolution, as were those of Total SA and Repsol.

Moreover, taking Libyan oil off the market through a NATO military intervention could have been foreseen to put up oil prices, which no Western elected leader would have wanted to see, especially Barack Obama, with the danger that a spike in energy prices could prolong the economic doldrums. An economic argument for imperialism is fine if it makes sense, but this one does not, and there is no good evidence for it (that Gadhafi was erratic is not enough), and is therefore just a conspiracy theory.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Juan Cole. For more, visit Informed Comment.

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soundoff (531 Responses)
  1. Steve

    Very protective of who is allowed to wear the "progressive" label, aren't we?

    August 23, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  2. jose

    Kadafi is evil? Who helped make him a dictator? The same ones who support these terrorists who deposed him and that will copy him in every detail, difference is that they may become enemies of US / NATO because we all know that the rightwingers will never respect their compromises with these terrorists. In Tunisia and Egypt the "protests for democracy" ended in a possible islamic dictatorship and in a military dictatorship that's already giving signs that will not be friends of US / NATO. It's just a remake of History. US / NATO did same in Afghanisthan... Who helped the Talebans? And now who's the worst enemy of Talebans? Libya is just one more ridiculous remake...

    August 23, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Reply
    • Kanye West

      Obama got them on the run, and you got mad. Sux to be U, my man.

      August 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  3. Nic

    When something never happened you don't correct yourself by saying "this is no longer the case" you say "this never was the case, and we're sorry for reporting BS as if it were fact."

    August 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  4. Karr

    What about Burma ? Their rulers are no saints. Would NATO or anyone else think about the poor burmeese , forget about helping them. Libya is interesting because it has oil. In Burma, you get beetel nuts.

    August 23, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  5. Randy

    CNN's sole ambition is to advance the liberal cause. What the liberal media needs to address, is how soon are we going to regret supporting the fringe groups who are going to take over all of these Middle Eastern nations. This was France's and the European Unions fight from day one. What we need to ask, WHY? It's about the payoff, my friend. Weak, stupid, reactionary foreign policy, completely directionless, that's what this is, and soon enough we will regret it.
    Maybe what we should be asking ourselves is why, what's the real agenda, who is gaining out of this, or hopes to. Why is France and the EU so gun-ho all of a sudden?, especially when we don't even know who we're dealing with? What's really going on?
    I'm going to be real interested in the incoming Libyan regimes stance toward France. They can't be so stupid as to not see France's ulterior motives, or forget the past.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:54 am | Reply
  6. Randy

    France is in a state of desperation right now. They've been burying their head, as the western world has been catching up and encroaching on a Muslim world that doesn't want it's filth. Their socially and economically in crisis as is most of the EU, trying to stay in the old world, and adapt to the new. Hmmm, here comes a very well orchestrated revolutionary period in the middle east, and now their suddenly interested, and willing to go to war? Come on people, wake up. This isn't about justice or human rights.

    August 24, 2011 at 1:02 am | Reply
  7. Brian

    "Gadhafi and his sons, have discouraged investment and blighted the economy."

    GDP Growth – Libya 10.6% – US 3%
    Inflation – Libya <1% – US 2.1%
    Population below Poverty Line – Libya 7.6% – US 14.3%
    Unemployment – Libya 10% – US 9.2%

    Some in a glass house is throwing stones again....

    August 24, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Reply
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    Everybody who is blaming Gadhafi for the Pan Am and La Belle attacks should check their facts. Your very own CIA / FBI's main evidence for the Lockerbie attack was proven fraudulent and CIA Agents knew way before La Belle happened that it was going to happen, that as well is a proven fact. Repeating MSM lies doesn't make them right.

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    August 26, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Reply
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      July 5, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • Itala

      Sounds like if they have a Problem, they should take it to MAC-V Headquarters in Saigon. Oh wait, sorry, that's where the Last War Started by a DemiCommie to show that he's a Great War Leader, even thgouh he never had a combat slot in the U.S. Military ran his Bloody Folly. My bad.By the way, anyone see that Light at the End of the Tunnel yet?

      July 21, 2014 at 11:07 am | Reply
    • Pinzon

      that some former coitresscrngters are going to meet with Kha... Qa... Gadhafi.Oh, I'll just bet that they are!"That damned fool in the White House is looking like an even bigger moron than usual with this Libya thing. We've gotta get in there and make a deal with Kha... Qa... Gadhafi so this thing ends before the next election cycle really gets goin'."

      July 25, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Reply
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      July 6, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Reply
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  23. Mohamad

    This guy is clearly a wack job... I mean, come one, who reefrs to their own people as mice on international TV, and promises to fight until the last drop of blood is drained from his body in front of the UN. Obama is clearly not in loop, or doesn't care to be. Both are being useless, and ignorant.

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