Flooding in Libya Has Killed Thousands. NATO Is Directly Culpable.

The cataclysmic floods in Libya are a direct result of NATO’s disastrous 2011 intervention, which was cheerled by the Obama administration. Just don’t expect the mainstream media to tell you that.

A view of destruction after floods in Derna, Libya, on September 20, 2023. (Aydogan Kalabalik / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Many years ago, documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis talked about the phenomenon of “Oh dearism”: in which the images of horror and suffering around the world that we’re inundated with are stripped of their political context, leaving us to utter an impotent, “Oh dear,” in response. After all, what else can you say about yet another parade of senseless and inexplicable horrors that no one can seem to do anything about?

The devastating flooding in Libya, which has turned the center of the city of Dern to mud, killing thousands and possibly as many as tens of thousands, is a near-perfect example of this phenomenon. Though rooted in specific political decisions made more than a decade ago — namely, the disastrous decision by the US, French, and British governments to militarily intervene in Libya and then topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi — that part of the story has been played down or even wholly left out in English-speaking news coverage, rendering this unfolding calamity just another unfortunate thing happening in some far-off, dysfunctional country for no good reason.

A Disastrous Intervention

By all accounts, the utter breakdown of government in Libya today is fundamental to why torrential rain ended up bursting a pair of dams and killing thousands of people.

The head of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Petteri Taalas, has been widely quoted saying that had there “been a normally operating meteorological service, they could have issued warnings,” and “the emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out evacuation of the people. And we could have avoided most of the human casualties.” Warnings that the dams were in disrepair and desperately needed maintenance went unheeded for years. And that’s all before we get to the disordered government response to the catastrophe, with a BBC report deadpanning that “having two feuding governments makes it difficult to respond to disasters in a swift, coordinated manner.”

To be fair, some media coverage has hinted at NATO’s responsibility for this state of disarray. Gaddafi’s “ouster by rebels, aided by a NATO-led military intervention, did not lead to the change many Libyans had hoped for in 2011, instead ushering in more than a decade of conflict, dysfunction and suffering,” writes the New York Times. You’ll find similar language in reports by the Associated Press, the BBC, ABC News, and CBS.

But this, too, is a gross understatement. NATO’s intervention was not some minor, incidental fact. As a 2016 UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report put it, “the deployment of coalition air assets” — that is, the no-fly zone the alliance received approval from the UN to enforce, ostensibly to protect civilians from a government massacre — “shifted the military balance in the Libyan civil war in favour of the rebels.” In fact, as several postmortems of the intervention pointed out, by the time NATO jumped into the fray in March 2011, Gaddafi had retaken control of most of the country and the rebels were all but defeated.

Western intervention, to put it plainly, was central to Gaddafi’s ouster and the more-than-decade of chaos that followed, and in fact, it’s very unlikely any of that would have happened without NATO’s actions. You don’t have to minimize Gaddafi’s authoritarianism to conclude that the US-backed intervention was a Pandora’s box–level catastrophe.

NATO’s intervention went beyond air support. As the House of Commons report put it, “the combat performance of rebel ground forces was enhanced by personnel and intelligence provided by states such as the UK, France, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates,” while the world concertedly ignored the arms embargo on Libya that had been set up by an earlier UN resolution to supply the rebels with weapons. In the end, NATO was even directly involved in Gaddafi’s death, when a NATO airstrike destroyed the convoy he was traveling in, leading him to be captured and killed.

There is some evidence that regime change was on the menu from the start. Emails showed that as he persuaded then secretary of state Hillary Clinton to push for intervention — which she soon did, playing a leading role in getting the UN authorization that paved the way for Western entry into the conflict — longtime Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal spoke openly about helping the rebels topple Gaddafi. Describing the dictator’s days as “numbered,” Senator John McCain — one of the loudest, most prominent voices demanding US intervention — said that “the question is, can we shorten those number of days to save lives?”

While some officials insisted that getting rid of Gaddafi wasn’t a goal, others, like British prime minister David Cameron, remarked that the autocrat “needs to go.” Not surprisingly, it took a mere month for everyone involved to start talking about Gaddafi’s removal as the objective. In other words, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing to the idea that regime change wasn’t just a side effect of the intervention, but a foundational goal, at least among some of its leading actors.

While the operation was hailed near universally as a triumph at the time, the tragic scenes we’re seeing in flood-ravaged Libya today are a bitter reminder of the costs of that foreign policy “success.” The current devastation is only the latest calamity to befall the country in the aftermath of NATO intervention: Libya’s Human Development Index ranking has collapsed since Gaddafi’s fall as the country plunged into a decade-long civil war, becoming a petri dish for violent extremism and even a beachhead for the modern slave trade.

A Clueless Media

Incredibly, despite this copiously well-documented history, a sizable share of the media went beyond playing down NATO’s responsibility and simply chose not to mention its role whatsoever, nor the power vacuum left in Gaddafi’s wake. This was the case with CNN, Bloomberg, and NBC, and, to a lesser extent, the Wall Street Journal, which briefly mentioned Gaddafi’s overthrow, but explained it as simply another domino to fall in the string of Arab Spring popular uprisings that year. The role of US foreign policy was also conspicuously absent in Foreign Policy, which likewise made no mention of the intervention, only alluding to the post-Gaddafi power vacuum (maybe because its author is an analyst at the NATO Foundation).

But special mention should go to the liberal Guardian, whose coverage has serially left out these two central bits of context in what sometimes reads like a masterclass of subtle obfuscation. “Libya shows the disastrous consequences when governments not only fail to protect their citizens but also put them into greater danger. Muammar Gaddafi’s corrupt regime has been followed by more than a decade of revolution, civil war and political deadlock,” states one piece that points the finger at climate change, neatly sidestepping the need to explain to readers why and how Gaddafi was “ followed by” such disorder. Another mentions Gaddafi’s toppling, but doesn’t say anything about NATO. It stands parallel to a similar New York Times piece that, while making a single mention of the 2011 operation, overwhelmingly stresses “government mismanagement and neglect” as the root cause of the country’s present troubles.

The sum total of this coverage is that readers who aren’t familiar with the 2011 intervention and its bloody legacy in the country and beyond will remain none the wiser. It’s a sleight of hand that shifts the blame entirely onto the current authorities in Libya, who have no doubt proven themselves criminally incompetent, but whose criminal incompetence has seemingly no explanation beyond the fact that it just is — no explanation, that is, other than the fact that Libya is one of those countries in that part of the world where impoverishment, instability, and violence are simply endemic, for whatever reason. As Adam Curtis would say, oh dear.

It’s a perfect example of how news coverage can subtly craft a distorted understanding of world events, simply through the details and facts that those reporting it choose to emphasize, play down, or leave out. In the long term, its more pernicious effect is to hide from the public the risks and realities of our military interventions, providing them with glowing, front-page coverage when they seem to be going well, and virtually banishing them from mention when they turn out less than successful.

And so we’re left not only failing to learn the lessons of recent history, but to watch the perverse spectacle of former president Barack Obama — part of the exclusive club of people most responsible for the ruin we’re seeing in Libya — urging people to donate to organizations providing emergency relief, and pointing to the “unimaginable” toll of “this natural disaster.” For those weaned on current media coverage, what’s happening no doubt does seem “natural.” But if you’ve read this far, you’ll know it’s anything but.