We don’t know exactly when this brilliant idea struck Obama, but it couldn’t have been much before March 15th, when he suddenly changed his course and sent Susan Rice to the UNSC with a draft of Resolution 1973, which she dutifully passed two days later. The case for intervention was so utterly unconvincing that it didn’t even persuade Obama’s own administration. A senior government official was declaring to Time, as early as March 20th, that “the effort to shoe-horn this into an imminent genocide model is strained”.
This is probably why Obama took an unprecedented nine days from the start of the military actions before he felt himself able to address the nation. And throughout his March 28th speech, he looks angry and uncomfortable. The speech goes on at great length about how distasteful Qaddafi is, and how we’ve built this great international coalition (which is actually tiny compared to GWB’s), etc. etc. etc. But the crucial point is hidden in one paragraph somewhere in the middle, almost hoping that nobody will notice and question it:
“Qaddafi declared he would show ‘no mercy’ to his own people. […] In the past, we have seen him […] kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of [Benghazi]. We knew that, if we waited one more day, Benghazi […] could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. […] And so nine days ago […] I authorized military action to stop the killing”
“In the case of Benghazi, the track record that Moammar Qaddafi had amassed both over the last four decades, in which on a single day he killed, executed 1200 people simply on suspicion of disloyalty, and the reports that we’ve gotten from the towns that he’s overrun […] and the special importance of Benghazi in the rebellion, I think that our best judgment was that what would have happened, had that town been overrun, would have been extremely chilling, deadly, and indeed again a stain on our collective conscience.”
There’s only one problem with this stuff: it’s utterly and completely bogus. None of the three points (Qaddafi has a history of massacre, there are reports of massacres from “overrun” cities, Qaddafi has threatened the civilian population) stands up to even the most basic scrutiny! To put it shortly, the supposed killing of “over a thousand people in one day” was the consequence of a prison riot fifteen years ago; the reports from towns that Qaddafi has “overrun” indicate no massacres of civilian population; and the threats of “no mercy” were addressed towards armed rebels exclusively. If you’re not convinced, let’s look at all the nitty-gritty details in turn.
The killing of “over one thousand in one day” cannot refer to recent events, since the total death toll for the Libyan civil war, over the last month and a half, is estimated by the British government at about one thousand. Examining Qaddafi’s human rights record, there is only one event that can possibly fit the bill: the 1996 Abu Salim prison riot. While such events are deplorable, it is quite evident that even liberal democracies like the US sometimes have to use lethal force against prison riots. Such an episode does not qualify as “execut[ing] 1200 people simply on suspicion of disloyalty”, and so it is quite obvious that Ms. Power based her crucial argument for intervention upon a conveniently misremembered report. (Unsubstantiated, too: Human Rights Watch, who issued the report, bases it on the testimony of a single former inmate, taken eight years after the event, when this person was seeking asylum in the US.)
Regarding the reports from cities captured by loyalist forces, there is no significant indication of civilian massacres by Qaddafi’s troops. There was, in fact, one significant event that occurred several days before the March 28th public addresses of both President Obama and Ms. Power: the rebels had recaptured the town of Ajdabiya. One of Libya’s larger cities, it had revolted at the same time as Benghazi, had been captured by Qaddafi’s forces a few days before the Western military intervention, and had been held by them for over a week. That there had been no massacres of civilians, none of the “mass graves and slaughter” dramatically conjured by the President, is evident from the fact that the gravest irregularities reported from this town have involved nothing more than looting abandoned stores. In fact, the detailed list of casualties from the Libyan conflict is perfectly consistent with a civil war in which the loyalist forces are attacking religiously extremist rebels who armed themselves and used violence from the early days of the protests, with both sides taking casualties in inverse proportion to their equipment and organization.
Finally, the infamous “no mercy” Qaddafi speech has been grossly misinterpreted. Upon looking at the whole speech, the “no mercy” threat is quite clearly addressed to armed rebels alone. Not only did the same speech state that “soldiers would search every house in the city and people who had no arms had no reason to fear”; but Qaddafi also clearly ordered his troops, in the same address, “not to pursue any protesters who drop their guns and flee when government forces reach the city”. The charitable interpretation is that Obama drew all his information about this repeatedly cited speech by only reading a headline; the less charitable, that he knowingly obfuscated the truth.
Because the truth is that, even on March 15th when the decision was taken, there was absolutely no indication that massacre was impending in Benghazi. Qaddafi had no history of massacre or genocide; in the one prison riot cited against him the use of force was probably justified, and the number of casualties is highly uncertain. There was no indication of massacres from cities that had been retaken by loyalist forces, or of any killings besides those incidental to urban firefights against armed rebels. And Qaddafi had clearly indicated that, should he retake Benghazi, unarmed citizens had nothing to fear, and even rebels who dropped their weapons would not be pursued.
If you’re not completely asleep yet, wake up! Obama has just announced today the start of his reelection campaign. My oh my, doesn’t he look presidential in the way he showed that evil bastard Qaddafi, you should totally go and vote for him now (or not!). Yes, he has messed up our foreign policy in the process, indefinitely prolonged a civil war in a third world country, and set nuclear nonproliferation back by decades. But who will care about all that except a few Internet bloggers that nobody listens to anyway! Forward we shall go behind The One, towards greater and greater kinetic actions, for ever and ever, or at least for the 2012-2016 term.