Lost in Libya

Obama's quiet war against Qaddafi


He came slithering out of his hole on Wednesday, wearing his trademark skullcap and desert sarong, to declare that Libya is being attacked by "fascists," something upon which he and Glenn Beck appear to agree. But if you thought, in the face of the military might of the West—and the not-so-mighty forces of Qatar and the UAE—that the initial offer to suspend military operations against the rebels in Benghazi meant a Grenada-like military operation, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, doing his brilliantly psychopathic Churchill impression, promised that he would "not surrender." "We will defeat them by any means," he proclaimed. "We are ready for the fight, whether it will be a short or a long one."

Neither Americans nor Europeans, he understands, are ready for the long one.  

Skirmishes continue between pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces and among those participating in what often feels like a leaderless operation. Meanwhile in Washington, D.C. there isn't much to suggest that the United States is actually at war in North Africa. Indeed, as of this writing, CNN.com isn't displaying a single Libya-related story above the scroll, despite having reporters inside the country.

If the broadcast media were criticized for following the lead of the Bush administration in 2003, the lack of in-depth reporting on this operation is, consciously or not, following the Obama administration's lead of detail minimization. Most frustratingly, there are precious few attempts by American reporters to identify the leaders (and the ideology) of the anti-Qaddafi rebels. And note the almost total absence of press conferences featuring flat-topped, medal-bedecked, lantern-jawed military men highlighting progress (or explaining how one would even define progress), and pointing to giant flat-panel televisions showing the destruction of enemy munition dumps or artillery pieces.

A handful of well-reported, off-the-record accounts suggest that President Obama was, initially, a reluctant participant in the absurdly named Operation Odyssey Dawn, having ultimately been swayed by the humanitarian arguments of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others. And now it appears that, in the face of opposition from his left, he would like to wage his "small war" with a small media footprint. It's a deeply political decision, of course, and one that is bound to irritate those considered his natural constituents on the left. Most Americans would likely appreciate a presidential address to the nation,  something in which a clear set of military goals is outlined (and any successes or failures highlighted and explained).

Ronald Reagan was relentlessly mocked for comparing the Nicaraguan contras to the Founding Fathers and routinely calling the Afghan mujahedeen "freedom fighters." But in this fight we're unsure who we are backing—the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group? the Benghazi Founding Fathers?—so the administration has opted to say nothing at all. Nevertheless we have thrown the might of the American military behind them, whoever they are, whether the White House offers Reagan-like comparisons to the Founders or confused silence.

This war, small scale as President Obama promises it will be ("days not weeks"), has been rather unpopular in the predictable quarters of the anti-war left and paleo-right, but it has also had rather fewer supporters among the mainstream left and right than one might have predicted. So I offer a strategy, however unlikely, for those liberals attempting to sway the anti-interventionist Kucinich left: Despite Qaddafi's pejorative use of the word "fascist," highlighted above, pro-Obama pundits might want to remind their skeptical constituents that a campaign against Qaddafi could be framed as the 21st-century's first anti-fascist struggle! An Abraham Lincoln Brigade for the millennials! Consider how popular "third positionist" Qaddafism has been with the extreme right, a curious history often overlooked by the newly minted Libya experts.

Nick Griffin, for example, the führer of the British National Party, brought his tin cup to Libya in the 1980s, when he was an up-and-coming storm trooper in the neo-fascist National Front. He returned home with a pallet-load of Green Books, though the Libyans had previously funded a "special anti-Semitic supplement to the National Front's monthly magazine." The Italian fascist Claudio Mutti, twice jailed on terrorism charges, saw in Tripoli a "third way" between communism and capitalism, and lined his pockets with Libyan cash. Tripoli's connections to Italy's neo-Nazi organizations are surprisingly deep. And before he became the darling of mainstream academics such as Benjamin Barber, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi was often spotted with his friend Jörg Haider, the former leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party and president of the Austrian-Libyan Friendship Society, who reportedly received significant funding from the Libyan regime.

But if we were to find a true silver lining, however slight, in this seemingly aimless military operation, besides the increasingly remote possibility of ridding the Maghreb of a lunatic mass murderer, it's the possibility of finding out the depths of Qaddafi's involvement in international terrorism—specifically in the 1970s and 80s. In the early 1980s, journalist Claire Sterling caused a firestorm of controversy with the release of her book The Terror Network, which traced much of the terrorism in the Middle East and Europe back to the Kremlin. One of the prongs of the "terror network," Sterling argued, was Qaddafi—the "Daddy Warbucks of international terrorism"—who provided arms and training to various terror groups, including the Irish Republican Army. The broad strokes of her Libya argument are right, but filling in the details would clarify many important historical and contemporary political debates.

It's not impossible that a Qaddafi collapse could help illuminate many of the mysteries of recent history—from the La Belle discotheque bombing, which prompted Reagan's 1986 aerial bombardment of Tripoli and Benghazi, to the downing of UTA flight 772. Indeed, one high ranking government official who defected recently to the opposition told reporters that he could provide proof of Libya's involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, an event conspiracy theorists have often speculated was ordered by Iran. And yesterday, The Guardian reported that a man suspected of murdering London police office Yvonne Fletcher in 1984—also the subject of conspiracy theories, promoted by a flabby documentary produced by Britain's Channel 4—was captured by anti-Qaddafi forces.

But at this point, who expects a Qaddafi collapse? The administration says that while it would welcome his ouster, "regime change" isn't a war aim. So if not that, then what? Like everything related to Obama's small war, that too is unclear.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor at Reason magazine.