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Russ Baker: Quick, Quick: Why Are We in Libya? A New Candor Prevails…Sort Of

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The writer dissects the New York Times and asks, “what was Britain’s particular reason for focusing on Qaddafi, as opposed to any other run-of-the-mill murderous thug in these general parts?”

By **Russ Baker**

By arrangement with WhoWhatWhy.Com.

You’re probably already consuming everything that appears in the New York Times. But perhaps you’re quite busy, and just can’t get to many of the tasty offerings on that paper’s bulging menu. Or, maybe you’re one of those people who do read as many of the articles as possible—and then wonder what they actually mean.

I’m one of the latter, which is why I ponder each article as if it is in the crossword section. And why I feel compelled to offer you a markup of the following, which appeared under the headline “British Commander Says Libya Fight Must Expand”:

     Two months into the NATO bombing campaign against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s

     forces, Britain’s top military commander has said that the Libyan leader could

     remain “clinging to power” unless NATO broadened its bombing targets to include

     the country’s infrastructure.

Hm. So this British guy, whoever he is, wants to bomb Libya to smithereens as a way of forcing Qaddafi out. And I could swear they were originally in there for some other reason—and very reticent about the extent of any military involvement.

     The comments, by Gen. Sir David Richards, came at the end of a week that saw NATO

     step up its airstrikes, with an accelerated tempo of attacks on the capital, Tripoli.

     In the predawn hours of Thursday, a volley of heavy bunker-busting bombs that

     struck Colonel Qaddafi’s underground command headquarters in the city appeared

     to have narrowly missed killing him.

     Colonel Qaddafi’s defiant audio message after that attack, telling NATO he was “in a

     place where you can’t get me,” appears to have played a part in galvanizing opinion

     among NATO commanders, particularly in Britain and France, the nations carrying

     out the bulk of the bombing.

Don’t piss these guys off, or they’ll come for you just on a dare.

     Britain, in particular, with heavy combat commitments in Afghanistan and mounting

     costs for the Libyan air campaign straining its military budget, has been concerned

     that the conflict could be settling into a long-running stalemate.

What was Britain’s particular reason for focusing on Qaddafi, as opposed to any other run-of-the-mill murderous thug in these general parts? I couldn’t remember, so I poked around, and came up with this piece we [AlterNet] ran previously. It points out (courtesy of a little-noticed New York Times mention) how Qaddafi had angered big oil companies by demanding a bigger piece of the action from those extracting oil from his premises. Big petrol, of course, includes BP—the outfit that has British government officials by their privates:

     In 2009, top aides to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi called together 15 executives from

     global energy companies operating in Libya’s oil fields and issued an extraordinary

     demand: Shell out the money for his country’s $1.5 billion bill for its role in the

     downing of Pan Am Flight 103 and other terrorist attacks.

For a second I thought the Times was going to come out and just say it: “That mandate has been stretched beyond recognition to something entirely different

     If the companies did not comply, the Libyan officials warned, there

     would be “serious consequences” for their oil leases, according to a State

     Department summary of the meeting.

Ok, back to the new Times piece…

     Under the United Nations Security Council resolution approving the

     Libyan air campaign, NATO was empowered to use “all necessary means”

     to protect the country’s civilian population from attack by pro-Qaddafi

     forces, which hold Tripoli and much of western Libya, while rebel forces control

     much of the country’s eastern region. That mandate has been stretched

     beyond attacks on tanks, artillery and other units engaged in front-line combat

     to a wide range of targets in Tripoli and elsewhere that have been identified

     by NATO as “command-and-control” centers, including Colonel Qaddafi’s Tripoli


Whoops! For a second I thought the Times was going to come out and just say it: “That mandate has been stretched beyond recognition to something entirely different”—a war to take Qaddafi out altogether. In other words, an invasion, kind of like what Iraq turned out to be.

But the Times doesn’t quite say it, so you’re not quite getting this small but somehow consequential point: what was first presented as “protecting” the civilian population from attack has now segued to attacking—and forcing the leader to flee, or better, killing him.

Of course, all this puts Qaddafi in a truly untenable position, in which he is forced to try even more harsh measures against his uncooperative population, which in turn gives NATO more reasons to express outrage and up the ante.

     But with the war now at the end of its third month and the two sides skirmishing in

     battle zones spread across hundreds of miles, there has been growing concern in

     NATO capitals that the strategy needs a game-changing adjustment that might bring

     a rebel victory closer.

Again…pretty pretty close to stating the actual truth about what is—and has long been the game plan.

But…darn…just…can’t…quite say it. Too…disconcerting…gonna…really…depress…our readers. Might lose faith in what we keep telling everybody is a pretty righteous American foreign policy.

     NATO officials have made no secret of their belief that this would most likely come

     with attacks that weaken Colonel Qaddafi’s hold on Tripoli, ideally attacks that

     spread a sense of despondency among Qaddafi forces and lend an impetus to a rebel

     underground that has roots in some quarters of the city.

     General Richards, chief of the defense staff in Britain, spoke in an interview at NATO’s

     southern headquarters in Naples, Italy, which has served as a command center for the

     attacks. “The vise is closing on Qaddafi, but we need to increase the pressure further

     through more intense military action,” he said in the interview, published in The

     Sunday Telegraph. “We now have to tighten the vise to demonstrate to

     Qaddafi that the game is up.”

Why haven’t we heard more about this Richards chap? Another Field Marshal Montgomery.

     He added that the bombing campaign, which has involved more than 2,500 sorties

     since it began March 19, had been “a significant success.” But he added: “We need to do

     more. If we do not up the ante now there is a risk that the conflict could result in

     Qaddafi clinging to power.”

Oh, ok. So that is what it was all about. And 2,500 “sorties”—nice term, that—unless you’re a civilian being sortied about. Two thousand five hundred bombing runs is a lot.

     The general suggested NATO should be freed from restraints that have precluded

     attacking infrastructure targets; other NATO officials have suggested in recent weeks

     that these could include elements of the electrical power grid in government-held areas,

     and fuel dumps. And he defended attacks seemingly aimed at Colonel Qaddafi himself,

     saying that “if he was in a command-and-control center that was hit by NATO

     and he was killed, that would be within the rules.”

This could all have been so, so much easier. All you had to do was play ball. And never mind those civilians.

Amazing. A really direct guy. Admits that he wants to kill Qaddafi, that he really isn’t allowed to under the original marching orders, but that there’s a way to achieve this “within the rules.”

     A tally of NATO attacks given by alliance spokesmen in Brussels gave a measure of how

     the bombing had already been intensified, with a strong focus on Tripoli. NATO said

     that alliance aircraft struck 39 “key targets” in and around the capital in the first

     four days of last week, including the strike Thursday on Qaddafi headquarters in south-

     central Tripoli. The Tripoli targets, NATO said, included seven “command-and-control”

     centers, compared with only three similar strikes in the 10 days before then.

     But the increased tempo of the attacks has shown little sign, so far, of seriously

     destabilizing Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. For weeks, there has been a heavily dispirited

     atmosphere in Tripoli, with many ordinary Libyans eager to pull Western reporters aside

     to say they yearned for Colonel Qaddafi to be ousted. NATO bombing attacks have often

     been followed by outbreaks of automatic fire in neighborhoods in central Tripoli,

     apparently started by hit-and-run attacks by elements of the anti-Qaddafi underground.

     General Richards’s call for a widening of the bombing targets prompted a dismissive

     reaction from the Qaddafi government. Khalid Kaim, a deputy foreign minister,

     said the airstrikes had been aimed at infrastructure from the start, and he cited a

     string of attacks on what he described as civilian targets in several cities. As for

     attempts to kill Colonel Qaddafi, he said that NATO had conducted four airstrikes

     aimed at Libya’s leader, the latest on Thursday. Further attempts to kill him, he

     said, would be “a waste of time.”

Again, Mr. Kaim, this kind of taunt is just not helpful. You are definitely the runts on this playground.

This could all have been so, so much easier. All you had to do was play ball. And never mind those civilians.

Copyright 2011 Russ Baker


This essay originally appeared at

Russ Baker is an award-winning investigative reporter and the founder and editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhy.

  Anonymous from Libya: How Many Martyrs?: An on-the-ground report of the growing violence in Tripoli as told to Robin Yassin-Kassab. More
  Jake Whitney: Libya is Just: While it is nearly impossible to justify killing, all evidence suggests that more people will die if the United States doesn’t intervene. More
  Robin Yassin-Kassab: Syrian Bloodbath: This is not a moment of hope but the start of a period of great division between Syrians. More
  Juan Cole: Defections, U.S. Withdrawal Point to Political Solution in Libya: It is true that the U.S. is a big part of NATO, but it doesn’t have to be a big part of the air war.


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