‘Better Off Than Syria’ – The Latest Dishonest Attempt to Justify the US/NATO War on Libya

Annie-Marie Slaughter both championed the US/NATO war on Libya and quickly deemed it a success. But like most western backers of that war, she stopped talking about Libya once it became impossible to call the war a success. Last year, though, I managed to solicit a brief comment from her on Twitter.

Better off then Syria! Maybe the Libyan tourism industry should adopt that tagline. Lately, I’ve seen several other liberal imperialists, like Arab Spring activist Iyad El-Baghdadi, use this argument:

More recently, one of the pundits from Qatar-Saban funded Brookings got in the act.

Let’s peel back the layers of bullshit. First, this line of argument holds up Syria as an example of non-intervention. In fact, many of the same countries that intervened in Libya (the US and Qatar, most notably) have also intervened in Syria. And by “intervened” I mean “waged war on.”

The difference is that in Syria, outside powers — the US, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, along with Al Qaeda and their other reactionary proxies — haven’t managed to overthrow the government. Things would be even worse for Syrians if they did. If you think things couldn’t possibly be worse, I draw your attention to anti-imperialist Humphrey Bogart: “Things are never so bad they can’t be made worse.” Picture, for starters, Al Qaeda and IS storming Christian and Alawite communities in Damascus.

As for Libya, back in 2011-’12 Michael Berube was not alone in arguing that the US/NATO war was needed to “keep alive the Arab Spring.” The implication was clear: absent US/NATO “help,” Qaddafi — having pushed the opposition back to Benghazi — would soon kill the “revolution.” Now, four plus years after the fact and peace nowhere near, imperialists argue that without US/NATO “help,” the civil war would have raged on and on.

Perhaps the opposition would have continued to mount some kind of insurgency even without US/NATO bombs, (especially if, under this scenario, they still had Qatari arms, CIA assistance, etc.) But there’s no reason to believe the result would have been as bad as the actual proxy war raging now because of US/NATO’s removal of the Libyan government. By any measure, it has resulted in disaster. “There is practically no more state in Libya,” says Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former anti-apartheid activist who chairs of the African Union. I don’t mean to write off the country – courageous Libyans are trying to hold it together — but it’s hard not to be pessimistic if you look at the trajectory over the last four years. This was predictable, and indeed predicted. When outside powers topple governments, there by definition remains no force capable of unifying and managing the country.

The attempt to justify the US/NATO war on the grounds that there’s less suffering in Libya than in Syria isn’t only dishonest; it’s grotesque. It whitewashes the ever-worsening horror in Libya. Those suffering in Libya — including the thousands of black victims of ethnic cleansing by NATO-backed forces — surely don’t take comfort in the fact that more Syrians have died and fled.

But at this point, the not-as-bad-as-Syria argument is the best “success” story that supporters of the US/NATO war can come up with, and they’re sticking to it.

UPDATE: There are many simple political, geographic, and demographic reasons that the killing in Syria has been more extensive; commenter Rami Elamine discusses some of them below. Still, defenders of the war on Libya and proponents of further US intervention in Syria (often the same people) have fudged the statistics to make the situation in Libya look much better than it is. For a while this was making the rounds:

Why, Libya looks almost stable! Except that the “death stats” conveniently begin after 2011 — the year of US/NATO intervention — when some 30,000 Libyans died. As for the refugee number, it ignores the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled to Tunisia, where Libyans need not register with the UNHCR. In fact, an estimated 1.8 million Libyans had fled to Tunisia by 2014, more than a third of the country’s population, meaning that since 2011 Libya has actually lost a greater share of its population than Syria.

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2 comments on “‘Better Off Than Syria’ – The Latest Dishonest Attempt to Justify the US/NATO War on Libya
  1. Rami Elamine says:

    Great article. Can’t believe people are still saying it was a success but I guess like you said it shows the horrifying state of the entire region. I think the homogeneity and size of the Libyan population as well as the size and location of the country itself as compared to Syria are important factors as well. Libya is overwhelmingly Sunni and so sectarianism isn’t the problem it is in Syria, where sectarianism is fueling intensity and brutality of figthing.

    The Syrian population is 3X that of the Libyan yet it is a tenth its size, plus its not as urban of a society so population density is diffuse, mitigating casualties and displacement. Not to mention Libya is not at the center of the war on terror/right next to Iraq like Syria is but adjacent to two relatively stable behemoths, Egypt and Algeria.

    Finally those making the “Libya is better off than Syria because of NATO intervention argument” choose to ignore how weapons and fighters from Libya have contributed to destabilization and problems in region, particularly NOrth Africa where hasn’t been as intense.

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