United States

Obama’s Imperial Twist:
‘Humanitarian’ Regime Change in Libya

By BAR executive editor Glen Ford

Rudyard Kipling must have been roused from his grave by the sights and sounds of the Euro-American Co-Imperial Sphere lifting high the White Man’s Burden, then smashing it down with thunderous force on Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. In Benghazi, the opposition stronghold, young men of unknown political and religious persuasion cheered the foreign warplanes as they incinerated fellow young Libyans in armored columns that had been poised to enter the city. “One, two, three—Thank you, Sarkozy!” they chanted, in praise of the French president whose countrymen killed one million Algerian Arabs three generations ago, and who won the top job in France on the strength of white fear and resentment of French North Africans. France has “decided to assume its role, its role before history,” Nicolas Sarkozy said on Saturday, apparently oblivious to the monstrous implications of his threat. Was “history” calling on France and the rest of the white colonialist world to reclaim lost territories?

The same white-accented voice of history informed Britain and Italy (former colonial overlord of Libya) of their duties to preserve the imperial prerogative to do what they deem is best for the subject peoples, for whose supposed benefit Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched. The United Nations Security Council’s “humanitarian” mandate was broad enough to be interpreted as allowing “the coalition” to act as air support for the rebel armed forces, as the French did at Benghazi. That was fine with the anti-Gaddafi Libyans, who have shown little skill at soldiering and seem to prefer to have their “revolution” handed to them by the imperial powers. “The Libyan free forces seem to be allowing the coalition to clear the road ahead of heavy artillery and military forces which were planning to attack civilian populated areas,” a member of the opposition national council told Al Jazeera. “They’re holding back until the roads are cleared out and then the advance of the volunteers takes place.”

So, this is what humanitarian warfare is like in the former colonies. The most advanced air and sea weapons platforms in existence are privileged to snuff out men and machines of the targeted government, transferring military advantage to opposition forces that will eventually allow them to win the war, despite their failings as fighters and organizers. Yet the imperial coalition partners are not required to declare themselves at war with the people they have just slaughtered. Rather, they are a high-flying, missile-packing, all-destroying “humanitarian” rescue squad—at a cost of as much as $300 million-a-week.

One suspects Sarkozy believes the voice of history is whispering of a more substantial role for France, something befitting a once-and-future empire. Britain, by far the greatest enslaver of humanity on the planet not so long ago, still seeks to justify its own opinion of itself through conquest of somebody, even if the glory must be shared with the likes of Italy under the shade of the American umbrella, where all can drink in Libya’s “sweet” black crude.

The Europeans, although reeking with the stench of five centuries of mass murder and mega-theft, are nevertheless more honest than the Americans about their intentions in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world. President Obama, easily the phoniest man alive today, pretends to be the most reluctant member of the imperial pack, who is eager to relinquish coalition leadership within “days.” His Africa Command chief, General Carter F. Ham, the nominal leader of U.S. forces in the region, stresses his adherence to the narrowest interpretation of the UN mandate. “We have no mission to support opposition forces if they should engage in offensive actions” against Libyan forces, Ham says. His only mission under the UN mandate is to protect civilians. Under those rules, the French massacre of retreating Libyan Army columns was a violation of the mandate, and the rebels should be waiting forever for the Euro-Americans to burn and smash Gaddafi’s forces off the roads, so the opposition can mount its offensive to the west. Given the rebels’ military and organizational weaknesses, and unless Gaddafi quickly collapses from internal schisms, General Ham’s version of the mandate would likely lead to a stalemate lasting who knows how long? It is impossible to believe that’s what Obama—or war-mongering Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and murderous-minded UN Ambassador Susan Rice—are planning for Libya. White House noises about handing over leadership of the coalition within days strongly militate against restraint that could lead to stalemate, and towards decisive resolution of the Gaddafi “problem.”

Obama relies, more than Bush, on deceptive propaganda and semantic trickery, although he is just as willing to use brute force and bald-faced lies. The President will have to employ all of his tricks to accomplish his current political project, which is to make “humanitarian” warfare the signature aspect of an Obama Doctrine. The Libya “crisis” is Obama’s opportunity to raise R2P—”Responsibility to Protect”—from a shaky and highly controversial legal construct, to a broadly recognized justification for superpower intervention, a doctrine that expands, rather than restrains, American military options.

In the midst of a fluid international crisis, Obama’s challenge is to usher in his signature R2P Doctrine while distancing himself from the vocabulary of “regime change” that has been so closely associated with George Bush—without actually forswearing regime change.

Obama’s real policy on Libya is regime change, as it must be for an imperial superpower. More than three weeks ago, he entered the arena of regime change when he declared that “Colonel Khaddafi needs to step down from power, and leave.” The U.S. military immediately began to facilitate Khaddafi’s involuntary exit in coordination with its allies in Europe. Obama is dancing away from the vocabulary—but not the reality—of regime change to establish a new Doctrine that will widen the parameters of imperial action and augment his own presidential legacy.

So, pay no attention to Obama’s words, only to his deeds. The U.S. is the leader of the aggression against Libya because it is the only power that can sustain the action. Of the 128 cruise missiles fired in the opening volley of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the U.S. launched 126. The coalition was brought together by the U.S., and will remain a creature of the United States for as long as it is useful to Washington.

With the collaboration of the Europeans, and building on the current UN mandate, Washington may well seek to establish a kind of UN protectorate over Libya, as was inflicted on Haiti. (I am assuming that the Euro-Americans are fully capable of destroying Gaddafi’s government apparatus through airpower, alone, if they are willing to bear the political costs involved.) The U.S. has no desire to see an independent Libya under the unknown quantities in Benghazi, or a Libyan government based on bourgeois, representational democracy, either. A Libyan protectorate that engages fat and nervous Persian Gulf regimes as Arab “handlers” and interlocutors would be greatly appealing to the imperial partners.

However, none of the advantages that the U.S. and its allies may snatch from their aggression against Libya will prove sustainable over time. The “rebels” in Benghazi have tainted and compromised their own struggle by their invitations to imperial intervention, the consequences of which will disrupt and distort Libyan social development and undermine attempts at forging national unity—while also hampering imperialism’s efforts to pacify the country. The Americans, under different circumstances, might actually prefer a somewhat insecure Libya in order to justify military occupation under some kind of international condominium or protectorate. But the larger Arab world has changed in ways that only greater self-determination—from the West!—can satisfy. The Americans and their allies can destroy Gaddafi’s regime, but they cannot subdue or co-opt the larger Arab nation for very much longer.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at

Black Agenda Report (BAR), March 23, 2011