How Libya is making smart people turn stupid — updated

Update below

I have little doubt the Gaddafi regime pays close attention to the views being expressed by Western critics of the intervention in Libya.

One of the key lessons the Libyan leadership will have duly noted is that so long as Libyan civilians are killed 10 or 20 at a time, the war’s critics will view this as a moderate amount of killing — nothing that merits the application of the term massacre. At the same time, the message going out to Libyan civilians is that many observers in the West have less interest in who is getting killed than in who is doing the killing. Deaths that can be attributed to NATO reveal the dreadful consequences of foreign intervention, while those caused by Gaddafi are, supposedly, the unavoidable consequences of a “counter-insurgency” operation.

I guess it’s on this basis that Glenn Greenwald recommends an op-ed by University of Texas Associate Professor Alan Kuperman which is “well-argued and definitely worth reading.”

Here’s a sample of Kuperman’s reasoning:

Human Rights Watch has released data on Misurata, the next-biggest city in Libya [after Tripoli and Benghazi] and scene of protracted fighting, revealing that Moammar Khadafy is not deliberately massacring civilians but rather narrowly targeting the armed rebels who fight against his government.

Misurata’s population is roughly 400,000. In nearly two months of war, only 257 people — including combatants — have died there. Of the 949 wounded, only 22 — less than 3 percent — are women. If Khadafy were indiscriminately targeting civilians, women would comprise about half the casualties.

Women would comprise half the casualties if most of Misrata’s men thought like the satirical Larry David. (I refer to an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry tells his wife that in the face of an imminent terrorist attack on LA, he should probably leave town and spend the weekend golfing at Pebble Beach because it wouldn’t make sense for both of them to get killed.)

Is it conceivable that the disproportionate number of male casualties has something to do with men telling their wives and children to stay indoors while they risk their lives by going out to buy the necessities their families need to survive?

It’s telling that Kuperman would selectively use statistics from a Human Rights Watch report with the title “Libya: Government Attacks in Misrata Kill Civilians” to construct an argument on how Gaddafi is not targeting civilians.

The very next paragraph after the one from which Kuperman took his numbers states:

A second doctor, interviewed separately, said that hospitals in the city had documented about 250 dead over the past month, most of them civilians. He believed the actual number was higher because many people could not reach medical facilities.

If Kuperman and other Gaddafi apologists still want to cling to the idea that the Libyan leader is showing restraint in his attempt to crush the revolution, they better not read Human Rights Watch’s latest report on the use of cluster munitions.

Government forces loyal to the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, have fired cluster munitions into residential areas in the western city of Misrata, posing a grave risk to civilians, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch observed at least three cluster munitions explode over the el-Shawahda neighborhood in Misrata on the night of April 14, 2011. Researchers inspected the remnants of a cluster submunition and interviewed witnesses to two other apparent cluster munition strikes.

Based on the submunition inspected by Human Rights Watch, first discovered by a reporter from The New York Times, the cluster munition is a Spanish-produced MAT-120 120mm mortar projectile, which opens in mid-air and releases 21 submunitions over a wide area. Upon exploding on contact with an object, each submunition disintegrates into high-velocity fragments to attack people and releases a slug of molten metal to penetrate armored vehicles.

“It’s appalling that Libya is using this weapon, especially in a residential area,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “They pose a huge risk to civilians, both during attacks because of their indiscriminate nature and afterward because of the still-dangerous unexploded duds scattered about.”

A majority of the world’s nations have comprehensively banned the use of cluster munitions through the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which became binding international law in August 2010.

I trust that those who in the past have condemned the use of cluster munitions by countries such as the United States or Israel, will likewise now, just as loudly, condemn their use in Libya.

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reports on the effects of the Libyan government forces’ use of indiscriminate violence against the civilian population in Misrata:

The university professor’s eyes were red-rimmed from sleeplessness as he stood among the mourners.

“The barrage wasn’t random, it was meant to hit civilians and Nato is doing nothing to help us,” he said, to angry growls of assent from men who gathered around.

As he spoke, eight coffins carrying the latest victims of the siege of Misurata were borne past to a makeshift, playground cemetery almost within sight of where they had died. “Gaddafi is doing this to show that Nato cannot protect civilians. What is happening is a disaster, Misurata is really a disaster,” Dr Faraj Garman said.

He and hundreds of others had gathered yesterday in the port area of Ghasr Ahmad for a funeral which mixed anger, defiance and gnawing desperation.

Early prayers had not long finished and the besieged city was emerging to its daily wartime routine yesterday when the rockets fell without warning. At least thirteen were killed and 25 wounded in heavy salvoes at 6.30am and 7.30am. Between 60 and 80 Grad rockets landed among residential streets.

The worst carnage happened as residents and migrant workers joined a long bakery queue for their daily ration of bread. When the first rockets landed, many of those waiting sheltered in a garage. Moments later a rocket struck five feet from its entrance, blasting shards of steel into those huddled inside and killing six.

I guess this would be an example of what Alexander Cockburn describes as a “tsunami of breathless reports suggests that Misrata is enduring travails not far short of the siege of Leningrad in World War 2.”

Cockburn — who obviously thinks that Gaddafi has been getting a bumb rap in the Western media — says “I’d really like to see an objective account of Qaddafi’s allocation of oil revenues versus the US’s, in terms of social improvement.” Does he imagine that such an account would reveal that Gaddafi’s rule has been benign and socially enlightened?

Anyone who still believes that Libya is in the grip of a civil war should watch the following video in order to better understand what it means to be living under the control of a man who wants to brainwash his “supporters” into believing that he, his country and God are indivisible. There’s nothing benign about an authoritarian personality cult which strips children and adults of their right and capacity to express themselves.

In a civil war, vying populations are locked in a struggle over contested claims to power and territory. In Libya the Gaddafi regime has lost control over part of the population while retaining control over the remainder. But where Gaddafi retains control, he only does so by physical and psychological force.

Kudos to Al Jazeera‘s Inside Story who made a great editorial call by airing this Libyan report without additional commentary. It really does speak for itself.

(Now back to my semi-silence — this probably isn’t the best way to use cervical traction and Prednisone.)

Update: This is in response to some reader comments.

Russia and China had the power to find out what the death toll in Benghazi would have been. Either country could have cast a veto in the Security Council and stopped the intervention. If they had, the Obama administration would have probably quietly let out a sigh of relief as it was let off the hook. But neither cast a veto. Why? Because they were not willing to bear responsibility for what Gaddafi would then do, having effectively been given a green light.

It’s one thing to say, we have no way of knowing whether there would or would not have been genocidal killing take place in a scenario that never took place, but to claim certainty about what would have happened in the absence of the intervention is to make a vacuous assertion.

Moreover, it’s hypocritical to argue that the death toll in Misrata is negligible.

Louis Proyect notes:

My hometown New York City has a population of just over 8 million. That is 20 times the size of Misurata. So an equivalent casualty rate for NYC over a two-month period would be about 5000, right? And over a 12 month period would be 30,000? Now of course this would not be ”genocide” but it would be a massacre of immense proportions.

Consider that Gaza has a population of 1.6 million, just 4 times the size of Misurata. When Israel left 1500 Palestinians dead after its December 2008 invasion, the world cried out against such a bloody attack even to the point that a life-long Zionist by the name of Richard Goldstone felt enough pressure to head a commission that found Israel guilty of war crimes. But when the equivalent death toll in Misurata is nearly as high, our anti-anti-Qaddafi friends see this as a mere bagatelle.

Alan Kuperman is a Zionist who wants to see the US to bomb Iran. A month ago his main concern about Libya was that US opposition to Gaddafi would make the US look like an “untrustworthy ally.” In other words, if the US wanted to protect its international reputation then it better make sure Gaddafi stayed in power! I assume Kuperman is now deeply disturbed to see the Mubaraks thrown in jail.

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  1. Paul, commenting on your back to semi-silence, isn’t Prednisone of the steroid family? You do realize that you might end up with a gargantuan arm out of this treatment, but you’ll sure as hell scare the crap out of anyone who you get into an argument with. Seriously, hope it works, as I am not a fan of going under the knife for any reason, especially when things can go wrong. If you have to give it up, well, we will all just have to suck it up and live with it. Besides, one can only give so much of himself, not to destroy his/her health in the process. Of course, it sure feels good having this fix you provide, even if it’s just one story.

  2. don’t think a six-day course will do much for my biceps. As for what 80psi squeezed around my neck is doing for my brain, who knows? 😉

  3. Steve Ward says:

    American liberals or progressives have been deeply divided about intervention for humanitarian reasons in every war we have voluntarily entered since 1898. If we keep score of the resultant dead, were the results of our interventions in the Spanish American War, World War I, Korea, Viet Nam, Grenada, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, truly humanitarian?

    I’d like that last sentence to be a little smoother but we have been just too humanitarian for easy sentence structure.

  4. You note that Ghadafi is clever at letting only 20-30 people be killed at once or it would be called a massacre. This is exactly what the U.S. is doing every time it kills a wedding party here, a busload of students there, by “friendly fire” or drone attack. What else is collateral damage in the war on terror — other than a massacre on the installment plan?

    Who should intervene against the United States?

  5. I did condemn the use of cluster munitions by Israel and the United States, and I do condemn their use by Ghadafi.

    That does not, however, obviate the question that when Israel used them in Lebanon we said, “They have a right to defend themselves,” and when Ghadafi uses them in Libya we say, “Oh my God we have to intervene because this is genocide.”

  6. Colm O' Toole says:

    I think you are deliberately obscuring Kuperman’s article. The article is not so much that Gaddaffi is using restraint, it is that US warnings of a genocide in Bengazi (with 100,000 dead) are not based on facts, given his conduct in Misrata, which has been surronded and isolated from the rebels since the conflict began and in which 257 people have been killed out of a town of 400,000.

    Any death toll is awful (people are dying just so a dictator can vainly stay in power) but it is not a genocide and gives lie to the US claim that Gaddaffi would kill 100,000 people.

  7. I think most of us here would agree that if, indeed, NATO could do something to prevent the imminent massacre of 100K civilians, then it should. The same would apply if it were the Chinese or the Russian army. In other words, one might be able to overlook the nefarious motives behind the intervention and simply judge by the likely outcome. So, for those of us who object to the Libyan intervention, this projected number is key. If the number is 257 instead, then the logic changes to “NATO is more likely to cause more harm than good in the long run.” As we saw it in Iraq and Afghanistan. To call us Gaddafi apologists is a weak insult that seems intended to change the subject. Given the track record of the US military and NATO, it strikes me as awfully naive for the likes of Juan Cole to take their prognostications of “mass slaughter” at face value. It also boggles the mind how such experts could not see the current stalemate coming, with a protracted tribal conflict likely to cause more deaths and produce zero democracy in the end. Makes one want to reconsider the whole meaning of the word “expert.”

  8. What’s the threshold for intervention? First there need to be a 100,000 dead and then outside powers will jump in to clean up the mess? What if it’s just 50,000? Or 10,000? Let’s not forget that the US (population 309 million) made the world shake all because of a paltry 3,000 deaths.

    There have been an estimated 2-8,000 deaths in Libya (population 6.4 million) since Gaddafi started trying to crush the revolution. Let’s average that at 5,000. Were the equivalent number to have died in the US, that would be 240,000 deaths!

    As for my calling people “Gaddafi apologists”, I will henceforth adopt Louis Proyect’s much more accurate “anti-anti-Gaddafi crowd”.

    As for changing the subject — this is the crux of the matter. Unlike the anti-anti-Gaddafi crowd, I do not see Western intervention in Libya as the core issue. The debate about the merits or lack of merits to a so-called humanitarian intervention are secondary to the success of the Libyan revolution, which is itself a crucial phase in the wider Arab democratic revolution. If at some point it becomes clear that NATO is impeding rather than assisting the revolution, then I won’t hesitate to say it’s time for NATO to disengage.

  9. Paul: I think we disagree, but I appreciate your taking the time to reply (especially in view of your physical difficulties.) Best wishes.

  10. Steve Ward says:

    But neither [Russia and China] cast a veto. Why?
    Perhaps because they saw the United States walking into a quagmire. What could be more delightful for them.

    Back to our humanitarian intervention in World War I. We wanted a new leader for Germany. And the Germans indeed did get a new leader. Perhaps that’s why they are not willing participants in the regime change game.

    Regarding the cervical problem, make sure you are not bending your head back to look at the computer screen through the lower lenses of your bifocals. That narrows the spaces in cervical spine where nerves come out.

  11. pangloss says:

    Steve I’ve always thought the US only intervened in WWI because US financiers pressured Wilson to do so because the money boys were scared to deaths that the UK was going to lose and then default on all those loans they had provided.

  12. rosemerry says:

    There was a humanitarian PRETEXT for intervention-this is one of the main Rules of War Propaganda, like “We did not want this war” and “our collateral damage is a mistake, theirs is wilful and extreme”, not to mention “their leader is a madman/criminal/terrorist”. Lord Posonby wrote ten of them in UK in WW1.

  13. I know this has been said a lot before, but shouldn’t the world be consistent with it’s interventions? Otherwise everyone might get the idea that “humanitarian” isn’t the real reason that NATO is bombing Gaddafi and “revenge” and “oil” are.

    Also I have read (only once) and for the life of me I can’t remember the source that there is very much a tribal element to this revolt. That is that Gaddafi’s supporters are of one tribal grouping – his own representing the east of the country and another -the rebels- representing the west of the country.

    In parting it seems to me that the media while reporting the rebels as being an organised force consistently show pictures that depict the opposite.

  14. Ron linville says:

    Paul: thanks. It ‘s cold out here for us anti-anti-anti-gaddafiists. I’m a lifelong antiwar guy who’s been holding my nose and defending the Libyan intervention, at cost ( I was defriended by Cindy Sheehan!). I agree with you that our Exit Plan is when MoMo goes and US oil interests stay, or when some Langley hang-about suddenly becomes Rebel Strongman…for me, the virtue of intervention, past the emergency of (3?) weeks ago, is the extent to which it is pro-democracy.
    STEVE: “humanitarian intervention in WWI”? Eh? Pangloss has it right. And if by ” new leader”, you meant Hitler– sorry , that’s one of the few things the US is NOT responsible for ( try German industrialists); besides, although the punitive Versailles Treaty certainly helped, on top of the Depression, cause the misery that spurred Bktker’s rise, the war itself had been over for 15 years before he came to power.

  15. URL of this article:, I post this again for those who might not see it already. I think it’s quite too the point. But, of course, we are all free to think what we want.

  16. I have been posting comments here for several weeks. Not one has ever showed up. This site is very far from even the appearance of being fair and balanced.

  17. Barb — What are you talking about? Your comments have appeared here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

    I’m not surprised you are unaware that all your comments have appeared on this site, because I see very little evidence that you read much of the content here.