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The Libyan Quagmire …Waist Deep in the Big Muddy (or…so many wars, so little time)

March 20, 2011

note: this is an update: October 20, 2011.

It appears that Khadaffi has been killed in the fighting around Sirte. As is usual when the news just breaks, there are conflicting stories at this time and it will take a few days to confirm what actually happened. That said, politically Mohammar Khadaffi has  been dead since the people of Libya took to the streets in March to condemn his forty year iron-fisted rule. Khadaffi’s role in the modern history of the Middle East is complex (see below). That said, I want to think about his legacy a little more before commenting upon it. My main interest is to tease out what his death contributes to the processes unfolding in the Middle East at the moment.

As it seems that this particular blog entry is getting an inordinate number of hits today, I thought I might simply let readers know that it was written several months ago – published rather widely at the time. Rereading it, my take isn’t all that inaccurate, but it needs updating, something that will be done rather soon. But for starters, I suggest you read Horace Campbell’s The Death of Khadaffi which puts the situation in a more sober light than many commentators are suggesting.


“Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a
Tall man’ll be over his head, we’re
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!”

Song written and performed by Pete Seeger about another Big Muddy…


Humanitarian (?) Interventionalism in Libya

Sarkozy to Khadaffi: Well, I'm going to have to start my re-election campaign by bombing you, you know, play the old human rights card, but don't take it personally

So now add Libya to the Middle Eastern/South Asian countries where the United States is up to its waist militarily. The mainstream media calls this the third, U.S. military intervention in the region, with Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan (2001, 2009) being the other two. But it leaves out the growing U.S. military presence and `not-so-secret’ war in Yemen and the deepening U.S. led intervention in Somalia, bringing the total to at least five.

Nor does it count the recent intensification of security cooperation with Algeria inaugurated in Algiers on March 3-4 with the presence of Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counter Terrorism for the State Department. That agreement covers territory over a swatch from Algeria to Nigeria, two of the continents most prolific oil and gas producers. Then there’s Pakistan which we’re doing a good job blowing apart, not exactly in the Middle East, but no need to be stingy in our definition. Take your pick – 3, 5 or something approaching 10 countries?

So…waist deep in the Big Muddy?

And now Libya.  And we’ve only just begun.

About ten days ago, despite the denials of many of the parties now involved, signs of a  possible major Western attack (read – U.S. directed British, French, Italian, Spanish intervention…and now we can throw in the Norwegians and Danes for good measure)…were already surfacing.

What were the clues…

  1. Major movements of the U.S., British and French navies positioning themselves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Intensive use of U.S. surveillance planes – AWACs – in and near Libyan air space added to the picture. Given the nature of the media reports which focused on the very real human rights abuses of Khadaffi, public opinion in the U.S. and Western Europe in particular for intervention on behalf of the rebels intensified. It looked like a bit more than war games.
  2. Splits in the Obama Administration over taking military action against Khadaffi. Secretary of Defense Gates seemed against as did important spokespeople for the U.S. military who were openly opposed to setting up a no-fly zone over Libya; but Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry were leaning for `stronger’ action and lining up with our more classic neo-con war-mongers: John Bolton, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and from his post-Bush perch at the American Enterprise Institute, Paul Wolfowitz. Lurking somewhere in the background – they’re never far from the political action – AIPAC.
  3. The Fukushima nuclear accident probably played a role too. It put nuclear energy world-wide back on the hot seat, including in Europe. This is particularly troubling for European countries hoping to lessen their dependence on Middle East oil. With nuclear energy once again under attack `from below’, European plans to develop the stuff are, at least, on hold. In the absence of alternative energy development, reliance on Middle East oil came back into focus. At the same time that European countries were taking stock of their energy future, Khadaffi, miffed at the way his European colleagues had turned on him, announced that he intended to cut contracts with major European oil players (Total, BP, Statoil of Norway among them) and turn instead towards providing oil and natural gas to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China). It was about this time that the French and British positions towards Khadaffi hardened. French president Sarkozy, who supported both Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak before their fall from grace, suddenly discovered the Libyan human rights fiasco, the little hypocrite.
  4. The situation for the Libyan rebels on the ground seriously deteriorated. This is no surprise as, although they have justice on their side, the Libyan rebels are politically disorganized, poorly trained and with few big guns and sophisticated military equipment, and are up against a well trained military with air coverage and some of the world’s most modern weaponry. Nor do they have a coherent (or uncoherent) political vision beyond dumping Khadaffi. The rebels overextended themselves terribly by trying to march on Tripoli, were easily repulsed and then the Khadaffi juggernaut struck back with a vengeance. There is little doubt that without foreign intervention, Khadaffi’s forces would have won the day militarily, that the bloodbath which has already taken at least 8000 Libyan lives, maybe more, would have continued and would have been merciless without foreign intervention.
  5. If there were going to be military action it would have to come from the Europeans and the United States. Despite an Arab League condemnation of Khadaffi’s murderous campaign, it was becoming clearer early on that none of the Middle Eastern countries with military potential – the Turks, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan [to say nothing about Israel] were willing to engage Khadaffi militarily for different reasons. (Although in the last days there have been indications that Turkey will join the coalition forces). I mention this because, had the military strike force been one commissioned by the Arab League with mostly Arab participants, the chemistry of what is being played out militarily and politically right now would be very different. But this did not happen

Tony Blair and Muammar Khadaffi: forgiveness for lockerbie in exchange for oil contracts.

Instead, the chemistry of this intervention is in some ways different from the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in in1991 or 2003. The U.N mandate secured from the Security Council is sufficiently broad to include extensive and open ended military operations.

Although the denials are coming fast and furious, the goal is nothing short of `regime change’, eliminating Khadaffi and his sons from power. But there is a different `division of labor among the main players. While, at least for the moment, it is the U.S. military running the show, France and the UK, the two former major imperial powers in the Middle East before the U.S. took over the role post World War II, are in the lead militarily. The Obama Administration is insisting (a little too much) that it will not play a key role. Not credible. Arab military participation (significant and broad in the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq) is, as mentioned above, scant for the moment.

Obama’s Dilemma:

Barack Obama was caught in a dilemma.

From the outset, it must be said that there is no overarching U. S. Middle East policy for the moment. Instead it has become more and more improvised; it lurches from one crisis to another, from one position to another, dealing with each situation as it bursts forth on the scene acting like it knows what it is doing when in fact, there is general confusion at the highest levels.

The neo-cons, whose while out of office still exert considerable influence have a consistent – if not particularly intelligent – answer to each crisis – intervene militarily, protect the old demented and authoritarian – but reliable – U.S. allies. The more liberal elements support a `more selected’ military intervention, but can’t quite come to consensus even within their own ranks – as was the case with Egypt – when intervention is appropriate

Until Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ surprised and hurried visit to Bahrain last week, Obama could argue that despite inconsistencies, an American president had actually for once `taken the side of history’ in support of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, at least in so far as these did away with Zine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power.

But in both Bahrain and Yemen, events have taken a more somber turn. For the United States, the limits of `Middle Eastern glasnost’ had been reached.  The U.S. dilemma can be summed up rather neatly: Obama Administration rhetoric in support of democracy has come into conflict with U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East, much if not most of which centers around oil and natural gas production. Gates’ position, articulated by Andrew Bacevich, Wesley Clark and a number of other strategic thinkers is that the U.S. should be involved militarily (from now on) only where strategic interests are threatened.

It’s one thing to support the democratic renaissance in strategically irrelevant (much as I love the place) Tunisia, or even in Egypt where the military made promises that traffic through the Suez Canal would not be interrupted, and a horse of a different color to support those same processes as they get closer and closer to the oil producing Persian Gulf heartland. Not entirely clear how Libya, which is far more strategic for Europe than for the U.S. fits into the picture. Still,

  • Almost immediately after Gates left Bahrain, the government of King Hamid bin Isa al Khalifa open fired on the country’s human rights’ demonstrators and 1500 Saudi troops entered the island nation to prop up the government.
  • In Yemen, where U.S. Special Forces have been increasingly involved in recent years, almost simultaneously with the Bahraini events, security forces open fired on demonstrators calling for the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for more than 30 years. Many casualties have been reported

And now Libya.

Breaking Up Is Not So Hard To Do...

To a certain extent, Obama again, was on the `right side of history’. His criticisms of Khadaffi ring true and Khadaffi’s attempts to play the old anti-colonial, anti-imperialist card fell flat (at least until the military intervention started). By not intervening militarily, Obama gave the impression of supporting Khadaffi. Countering that impression was one element in Obama’s decision to engage militarily. But the military intervention which started yesterday bodes ill for the region and ultimately for the United States in the Middle East.

We will learn later what deal was cut between the British, French and the U.S. concerning the divvying up of Libyan oil and gas resources. Only the most naïve or ideologically driven would eliminate the oil factor as being one of the driving forces behind this intervention which uses the humanitarian crisis as a pretext for war. Support for the rebels comes with conditions. Again, not denying the justice of their cause, they are a politically weak and therefore easily manipulated force, a convenient front for the implementation of British, French and ultimately U.S. energy plans for Libya.

Where will it end?  Too soon to tell.

A few weeks ago, before Khadaffi’s counter offensive through the rebel forces into turmoil, I hypothesized to a class at the University of Denver that partition should not be ruled out as a possible outcome. A comparison was made between U.S. support of the Kurds in Northern Iraq with support for the Libyan rebels whose remaining bastion is Bengazi. Partitioned states are weak states, and weak states have a difficult time resisting oil company pressures, especially when they are accompanied by military occupation, F-16s etc. Exactly the same scenario as Iraq? Not likely…but perhaps in the long run, when it comes to the `end game’… the similarities will outweigh the differences..

Thanks to Phil Woods, Ibrahim Kazerooni, Hasan Ayoub for fruitful insights, discussion.


note: This piece also appears on ZNET

Related Links:

Daily Show on U.S. Middle East Policy

Patrick Cockburn: Khadaffi Can Not Hold Out But Who Will Replace Him?

Paul Rogers: Libya: The Prospects of War

The U.S. and NATO Preparing for War with Libya?

Libyan Oil and Population Map

Some Useful History of Libya

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