Swept Aside: The Guardian on Libya in 2011 Vs Amnesty on Libya in 2014

In October 2011, The Guardian published an article by Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt – two of their most senior political reporters –  entitled ‘How David Cameron Swept Aside Sceptics Over Libya Campaign’.

Laughably described as an ‘investigation’ that ‘revealed how the prime minister overrode scepticism from his cabinet and MI6 to press for military action’ in the first paragraph, the article instead presents the reader with a series of unchallenged quotes and assertions from Tory ministers and anonymous spooks, all designed to lionise Cameron.

We learn, for example, how Liam Fox, the then Secretary of Defence, had ‘warned that there would have been grave consequences if Britain and France had not succeeded in persuading the UN to sanction military action’ in Libya, and that it would have been ‘a huge setback for the Arab spring in countries like Egypt and Tunisia’.

You might think that the Cameron regime selling arms to some of the most repressive governments in the middle east would also constitute ‘a huge setback for the Arab spring’, but they went ahead and did it anyway (and they’re still doing it now). Watt and Wintour apparently didn’t feel this obvious contradiction was worth pointing out to their readers.

We learn that William Hague, the then Foreign Secretary, had been ‘stunned by the success of the high-precision GPS-guided Brimstone missiles after Fox ruled that the collateral damage target – the risks to civilians – should be set at zero’.

Yet at this point, it was already known that NATO airstrikes had killed numerous civilians, including whole families in their homes. It was also known that British fighter jets had deliberately targeted Libyan state media outlets, reportedly killing and injuring journalists in the process, in an action condemned as criminal by Reporters Without Borders and UNESCO – condemnation that, incidentally, never made it into a single British ‘mainstream’ newspaper. Once again, Watt and Wintour apparently didn’t feel this obvious contradiction was worth pointing out to their readers.

The article concludes by outlining how Andrew Mitchell, the  International Development Secretary at the time, had formulated a cunning ‘five-point plan on how to avoid mistakes from Iraq’, which formed the basis ‘of the National Transitional Council’s plans’.

The last words are given over to Mitchell, who says that ‘All the soi-disant experts said, you can’t do it from the air, the Americans said it was naive’, but that Cameron had been ‘brave’ and ‘stuck to his guns’.

The unmistakable message that one is supposed to take away from the article is that of a principled David Cameron, who cares deeply about democracy and human rights in the Arab world, proving his critics from both within the government and the security services conclusively wrong over Libya.

But i’d just like to take a quick look at what a number of experts from outside the government and the security services were saying at the time about the potential ramifications of a violent, externally imposed regime change in Libya.

Louise Arbour, a former U.N. Human Rights Chief and International Jurist, had written in March 2011 that any military intervention in Libya could:

 . . . precipitate a political vacuum in . . . which various forces engage in a potentially prolonged and violent struggle for supremacy before anything resembling a state and stable government are reestablished.


Hugh Roberts, a former researcher at the International Crisis Group, had written in August 2011 of how:

Western governments have been very reckless in engaging themselves to the hilt as they have, politically speaking, with this outfit (the National Transitional Council). And going so far as to recognize it as the only legitimate body, when clearly that is not the view of many Libyans. The idea that this rebellion could just secrete a new functional regime has clearly been wishful thinking.


And some Western diplomats had themselves said in August 2011 that the fall of the Gadaffi regime was likely to be  ‘a catastrophic success’ and a ‘chaotic success’, because alternate governing structures weren’t yet in place (so much for ‘learning the lessons from Iraq’).

Presumably, these people were also among the ‘sceptics’ who had been ‘swept aside’ by Cameron’s stunning success in Libya.

But what if Wintour and Watt were being a little premature – having their ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment, you might say –  in deciding to uncritically amplify Cameron regime propaganda about the success in Libya? What if, in October 2011, it was far too early to be making any kind of judgement along those lines? And indeed, what does Libya look like now, three years later?

Well, according to a new report from Amnesty International, entitled ‘Libya: Rule of the Gun’, it looks like this:

In today’s Libya the rule of the gun has taken hold. Armed groups and militias are running amok, launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas and committing widespread abuses, including war crimes, with complete impunity.

The report provides evidence that:

 armed groups have possibly summarily killed, tortured or ill-treated detainees in their custody and are targeting civilians based on their origins or perceived political allegiances.

And we learn that:

all sides in the conflict have displayed an utter disregard for civilian lives, with indiscriminate rocket and artillery fire into crowded civilian neighbourhoods damaging homes, civilian infrastructure and medical facilities.


At least 93 journalists have also been targeted for attack since the start of 2014, and the persecuted and displaced Tawergha people continue to be exactly that: persecuted and displaced (their home town was destroyed in August 2011, in attack on it by Misrata based rebels backed by NATO airstrikes, described by the U.N. Commission as a Crime Against Humanity – p.13).

As the report makes clear then, the country is in a state of near collapse, and riven by violent conflicts over power and resources. Civilians are bearing a heavy burden amidst the fighting. And strangely, those people who were so concerned about Libyan civilians in March 2011 that they thought NATO had no choice but to starting bombing don’t seem to have much to say about the catastrophe unfolding this time around.

But in light of this new report,  perhaps The Guardian will now commission one or two of their senior political stenographers journalists to write an article entitled ‘How Sceptics And Reality Swept Aside David Cameron Over Libya Campaign’.

I won’t hold my breath.

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