I think President Obama made the right decision at the time. And the Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951.And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy. Because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of things, there was turmoil to follow.”(Hillary Clinton quoted in Conor Freidersdorf, ‘Hillary Defends Her Failed War in Libya,” The Atlantic, October 14, 2015, theatlantic.com).
Nearly three and a half years after Libyan rebels and a NATO air campaign overthrew Muammar al-Qaddafi, the cohesive political entity known as Libya doesn’t exist.” ( Frederic Wehrey quoted in Conor Friedersdorf)
Building an Empire
In a recent book by distinguished diplomatic historian Lloyd Gardner (“Three Kings: The Rise of an American Empire in the Middle East After World War II,” The New Press, 2009), the author describes the last day of the historic Yalta Conference just before the end of World War II in which the leaders of the allied powers met: President Franklin Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The President informed his colleagues that he had to leave the next day to fly to Egypt. Stalin, according to Gardner, protested saying that there was still unfinished business to discuss (The Yalta Conference in February, 1945 was the last conference the three leaders held before the end of World War II in Europe. In it they were deciding on the shape of the post-war international system).
Gardner reports that FDR explained his surprising departure by saying that he had “three kings waiting for him in the Near East, including Ibn Saud.” Churchill correctly believed that the premature departure and visit to Egypt was part of a United States plan to, in Churchill’s words, develop “some deep laid plot to undermine the British Empire in these areas” (16). And Gardner goes on: “It did not take a suspicious mind to observe that World War II had provided the United States with economic and political weapons—starting with the prewar Lend Lease Act—for Uncle Sam to commence rearranging remnants of the old European empires into an American-styled world order” (17).
What is called the Middle East today for centuries had been the cross-roads of civilizations and the center of worldwide religions. From the thirteenth to the twentieth century much of the area was dominated by the Ottoman Empire, of which Turkey is the current survivor. That empire, weakened and destroyed during World War I, was replaced by the declining British and French empires. After the war Britain and France secured “mandates” to divide up and rule the countries formerly under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. The Sykes-Picot agreement (a secret arrangement between these countries) divided up the region such that France would dominate Syria and Lebanon while Britain would control Palestine, Iraq, and Transjordan. The British already had influence over Egypt, Iran, and Aden (Yemen). Minor power Italy occupied Libya in 1911. The British also promised European Zionists that Palestine would become a homeland for Jewish people in the Balfour Declaration and Arab leaders that Arab peoples would have sovereign control of their own lands. The British influenced the rise of Gulf States and military/political forces in the region led to the emergence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Central to the competition for empire was the discovery of massive reserves of oil in the region.
Roosevelt’s announcement that he was leaving Yalta early to visit Middle East dictators presaged a major thrust of United States foreign policy. The vision was not only to weaken the influence of the Soviet Union but to replace the declining European empires as the hegemonic world powers. To achieve that goal required control of oil and the Middle East and the Persian Gulf states had the world’s largest reserves of that natural resource.
Defending an Empire
To build the American empire after World War II the United States reached out to construct alliances with pliable Middle East elites, made deals with those who were modestly independent, or undermined, invaded, and overthrew regimes which represented a threat to US hegemony.
First, President Roosevelt constructed an informal alliance in perpetuity with Saudi Arabia whereby guarantees of military security, arms sales, and trade would be exchanged for Saudi oil and support during periods of instability in the region.
Second, the United States overthrew the regime of the elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran because he had nationalized his country’s oil resource. In his place, a pliant autocrat, the Shah Mohammad Pahlavi was installed and seven United States oil companies gained control of forty percent of Iran’s oil. When the Iranian people overthrew the Shah in 1979, the United States tilted toward Iran’s hostile neighbor, Iraq. During the 1980s, the United States provided arms, including weapons of mass destruction, to Iraq, as an eight-year war ensued, leading to a million Iranian/Iraqi deaths.
Third, Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, mistakenly believing the United States would support its action. Changing sides, President George Herbert Walker Bush, built a coalition to launch Gulf War I. The Iraqi military was forced from Kuwait, and subsequently a long economic embargo was imposed on Iraq followed by repeatedly bombing targets in that country.
Fourth, the United States supported the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and by the late 1960s made the latter its number one military and economic aid recipient on a per capita basis. President Eisenhower in a 1957 speech labeled the Eisenhower Doctrine declared that the Middle East was vital to US national security. American policymakers opposed secular nationalism in Egypt and Syria, particularly Egyptian President Nasser’s attempt to form a United Arab Republic with Syria in 1958. The Carter Doctrine enunciated in 1980 just one year after the Iranian Revolution, proclaimed the Persian Gulf region another area of prime concern to US security. The United States continued to stand on the side of Israel in military conflicts with Palestinians, encouraging the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. During the Reagan years, the United States tilted toward Iraq and in 1986 bombed targets in Libya with the clear intention of killing that country’s leader.
In sum, since President Roosevelt’s symbolic meeting with Middle Eastern leaders, the United States has engaged in a consistent foreign policy designed to replace the historic empires—Ottoman, British, and French—with its own; using diplomacy, economic ties, subversion, and force.
Confronting an Empire in Decline
The construction of an empire in the Middle East has been confounded by multiple challenges over the years. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 was one. Another was the periodic emergence of leaders in countries who based their popularity on appeals to nationalism; that is the rejection of control from old or new empires. Nasser in Egypt was an example as were Qaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When leaders emerged who claimed to be supportive of building secular states, American policymakers sought to network with theocratic opponents, such as Osama bin Laden in the case of Afghanistan in the 1980s. To justify support from the American people, policies were explained by referring to the communist threat, the perils of national security, the threats against Israel, facilitating economic development, and building democracies in the region. The most dramatic grassroots opposition to dictatorship at home and empire abroad was the 2011 Arab Spring; encompassing popular protest from Tunisia, to Bahrain, to Egypt. Arab Spring would be used one year later not to support the grassroots in the region but as a rationale for the US war on Libya.
In response to the mass murders committed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the George Walker Bush Administration launched a “war on terrorism.” This trope which would guide popular defense of US foreign policy ever since would justify aggression as a necessary response to claimed threats of foreign and domestic enemies. The Bush Administration invaded Afghanistan, and, based on lies, initiated the war on Iraq. With these two wars, stability in the region began to deconstruct. Although most United States troops were withdrawn after President Obama assumed office, interventions continued all around the region using private armies, military aid, and increasing drone warfare. US military operations were carried out in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and a military command structure called AFRICOM was established to send US troops into African countries. In each of these locations terrorists groups emerged and grew in response.
Then came the war on Libya, a war against the Qaddafi regime that was enthusiastically endorsed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The United States secured a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing using air power to protect dissenters opposed to the regime. The United States and its NATO allies used the authority of the United Nations resolution to launch a massive bombing campaign that destabilized Libya. The brutal bombing campaign facilitated the destruction of the regime. Qaddafi was captured and killed. In the aftermath of the US/NATO war on Libya competing political forces emerged destroying the social fabric of the country. As Frederic Wehrey suggests “the cohesive political entity known as Libya doesn’t exist.”
And Now the 2016 Election
While Hillary Clinton offers her active support for the Libyan War as proof of her experience and wisdom in guiding foreign policy, the years since 2011 have shown just the opposite. A Libyan government no longer exists. Hundreds of thousands of Libyans and migrants from elsewhere have been forced to flee. Terrorist organizations, not there before 2011, have operations in that country, launching assaults across North Africa and the Persian Gulf, and the relative stability and wealth of the country have been destroyed.
In addition, it has become clear that US policy toward Libya was not about “democracy,” what some call “humanitarian interventionism,” but forestalling Qaddafi’s efforts to build a new, vibrant, independent African Union that would oppose US troops on the continent (AFRICOM), limit US corporate investments in natural resource extraction in the Sahel, and encourage growing Chinese commerce in Africa.
The Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has been correctly based on opposition to the excessive consolidation of wealth and power in the United States. The issues comprising this agenda are vital to the health, well-being, and future of the American people. The future also is dependent upon the abandonment of the United States empire. The rise of the military/industrial complex and the tragic loss of life and treasure are inextricably tied to a foreign policy motivated by the vision of US global hegemony.
There is a direct lineage between President Roosevelt’s early departure from the peace conference at Yalta to visit Middle East dictators and candidate Hillary Clinton’s prideful defense of the overthrow of the regime in Libya. The results of this historic drive for empire have been and continue to be growing anger in the region, terrorism, mass migrations, enormous human suffering, and a bloated commitment to military/spending and pro-war sentiment in the United States.