Sirte Libya war aftermath
Sirte, Libya in the aftermath of the 2011 NATO war (Credit: European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, 2012)

Pundits who helped sell NATO war on Libya push for Trump to lead Syria regime change

Human slaves are now being sold in Libya, after a NATO regime-change war. The corporate media pundits who cheered it on now have their sights on Syria.

By Ben Norton / AlterNet

Pundits across the U.S. are amplifying the calls for further military intervention in Syria, as the Trump administration indicates regime change may be back on the agenda. The U.S. attacked the Syrian government on April 6, launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at a major air base, destroying 20 percent of its planes, according to the Pentagon.

Major media outlets, most politicians from both sides of the aisle and irascible war-hawk writers applauded the Trump administration’s strike with gusto. The uniformity with which the commentariat has embraced the attack hearkens back to six years ago, when many of these same people and publications cheered as NATO overthrew Libya’s government, plunging the oil-rich North African nation into chaos from which it is still reeling.

The 2011 war in Libya was justified in the name of supposed humanitarian intervention, but it was a war for regime change, plain and simple. A report released by the British House of Commons’ bipartisan Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016 acknowledged that the intervention was sold on lies — but by the time it was published, the damage was already done.

Today, Libya is in complete ruins. There is no functioning central authority for swaths of the country; multiple governments compete for control. The genocidal extremist group ISIS has, in Libya, carved out its largest so-called caliphate outside of Iraq and Syria.

Perhaps most striking of all is the fact there are now open slave markets in Libya, where black African migrants are bought and sold. Moreover, women have been banned from traveling on their own in the eastern part of the country, which is under the control of a warlord with longtime ties to the CIA.

Far from “freeing” Libyans, NATO regime change pulled them back centuries. And, in the meantime, thousands of refugees and migrants have lost their lives, sinking into the murky water off the coast.

A coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists helped sell NATO’s war to the public, in the lead-up to and during the intervention in 2011. Since then, many of the NATO war’s most vociferous advocates have fallen silent, avoiding any accountability for their colossal errors of judgment and imperial zeal. Virtually no one has expressed contrition.

Given the impunity pro-war pundits have joined, war after war, it’s no surprise that many of the same figures that cheered Libya’s systematic destruction are ginnig up a new war of regime change, this time in Syria.

AlterNet has compiled a list of the big-name pundits and newspapers that helped sell regime change in Libya, and are doing the same now for Syria.

This is part one of a two-part series. Part one identifies the major regime change pundits; part two looks at the editorial boards of some of the top newspapers that justified military intervention in Libya and Syria, detailing how they got absolutely everything wrong.

Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist with a notorious knack for jejune “gee-whiz” metaphors, has long been a cheerleader for unilateral Western wars of regime change.

“We must do whatever we can to help,” Friedman wrote in a typical February 2011 column on the Arab Spring. Protests had broken out in the Middle East, which Friedman described as “the Arabs’ return to history.”

When NATO militarily intervened in Libya in March 2011 with the supposed goal of protecting civilians, Friedman applauded President Obama in a subsequent op-ed. In his usual neoliberal fashion, the New York Times columnist lamented that the region hadn’t had “free politics and free markets for half a century.” He expressed glib enthusiasm that the region had decided “to join history.”

In an October column, Friedman applauded the regime change imposed on Libya by NATO air power and a collection of Gulf-funded Salafist rebels. “In Libya, Obama saved lives and gave Libyans a chance to build a decent society,” he said. He did concede, “I am still wary, but Obama handled his role exceedingly well.” (Friedman also noted, with a note of admiration, “Barack Obama has turned out to be so much more adept at implementing George W. Bush’s foreign policy than Bush was.”)

The next year, in a July 2012 column, Friedman singled out Libya as a model for intervention, writing of the “kind of low-cost, remote-control, U.S./NATO midwifery that ousted Qaddafi and gave birth to a new Libya.”

Today, in 2017, Libya has the “free markets” Friedman so adores, albeit a slightly different kind: free markets for human slaves.

Friedman still has not learned his lesson. While his colleagues in the intelligentsia merely applauded Trump’s April 6 attack on Syria, Friedman took it to the next level, arguing in an April 12 column the U.S. should not target ISIS, and should instead let the genocidal extremist group weaken the Syrian government and its allies Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.

Friedman also called for using “NATO to create a no-fly safe zone around Idlib Province,” the last rebel-held province in Syria, which even hawkish, pro-regime change analysts have acknowledged is the “heartland” of al-Qaeda. Friedman calls these rebels “moderate”; in reality they are anything but.

He then urged the U.S. to “dramatically increase our military aid to anti-Assad rebels,” ignoring the fact that those rebels had been dominated by al-Qaeda and its hardline Salafi jihadist allies. Unmoved by the facts on the ground, Friedman wrote that the U.S. should be “giving them sufficient anti-tank and antiaircraft missiles to threaten Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian helicopters and fighter jets and make them bleed.”

Nicholas Kristof

Fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is another reliable cheerleader for Western military intervention, always on the grounds that that US Air Force must serve as the guarantor of “civilian protection.”

In early March, Kristof openly made “The Case for a No-Fly Zone” in Libya. “I’m not in the business of providing air cover,” Kristof wrote ironically, noting he had called on the Obama administration to create a no-fly zone.

Later, in an August 2011 column on Libya, subtly titled “‘Thank You, America!’“, Kristof depicted the U.S. military as the saviors of Libya. “This was a rare military intervention for humanitarian reasons, and it has succeeded,” he declared.

The lesson of Libya was “that on rare occasions military force can advance human rights,” Kristof continued. “Libya has so far been a model of such an intervention.” And, “Libya is a reminder that sometimes it is possible to use military tools to advance humanitarian causes.”

In what is now a portentous remark, Kristof included in his column a throwaway line from a rare Libyan critic: “They didn’t do it for us,” he said. “They did it for oil.” (This quote is also quite interesting given the Times published another article that same month on “The Scramble for Access to Libya’s Oil Wealth.”)

Since then, Kristof has had next to nothing to say about Libya. He has moved on to a new crusade for regime change on the grounds of “civilian protection.”

In a column immediately after Trump’s strike on Syria, Kristof cloaked an effusive endorsement of the attack in absurd qualifiers: “President Trump’s air strikes against Syria were of dubious legality. They were hypocritical. They were impulsive. They may have had political motivations. They create new risks for the United States. But most of all, they were right,” he wrote.

“Many of my fellow progressives viscerally oppose any use of force,” Kristof claimed, “but I think that’s a mistake.” He then proceeded to argue “some military interventions save lives.” He cited Iraq in the 1990s, but not Libya — not the intervention where he got it all wrong.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens, a card-carrying neoconservative and former editor of the Wall Street Journal just hired as a columnist at The New York Times, joins the long list of pundits who welcomed regime change in Libya and wants it in Syria.

“Regime change is the only viable solution in Libya,” Stephens openly declared in March 2011, in a Wall Street Journal column aptly titled “We’re (Almost) All Neocons Now.”

Six years after his discredited column, it’s clear that Stephens has learned nothing.

After neocon Paul Wolfowitz called on the Trump administration to take action against the Syrian government. Stephens published an April 5 article in the Journal declaring his agreement.

The next day, on the eve of the attack, Stephens publicly called for Syria to be partitioned on sectarian religious and ethnic lines.

In a Wall Street Journal podcast commending the strike on April 7, Stephens depicted the attack as a blow against “evil” and said a statement by Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, was “so awesome.” His co-host, the equally excited Mary Kissel, applauded.

Three days later, in a column in the Journal, Stephens said Trump and his administration “deserve credit,” and doubled down on his calls for regime change. “The core of the problem in Syria isn’t the Islamic State,” he claimed, adding, “there won’t be any possibility of a cure until Assad falls.”

“Assad at last has good reason to fear the power of the United States,” Stephens rejoiced on April 10.

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter is a leading supporter of the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. An academic who has boasted prestigious positions at Princeton and Harvard universities, Slaughter also served as the head of policy planning for the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and she now heads the New America Foundation think tank.

Slaughter forcefully insisted in The New York Times in March 2011 that a no-fly zone be created in Libya.

In a subsequent triumphalist article in the Financial Times in August, confidently titled “Why Libya sceptics were proved badly wrong,” Slaughter condemned the “skeptics,” declaring, “it clearly can be in the US and the west’s strategic interest to help social revolutions fighting for the values we espouse and proclaim.” She added, “Libya proves the west can make those choices wisely after all.”

Since Libya collapsed into utter disaster, Slaughter has not said much about it. Meanwhile, she is loudly calling for escalating intervention in Syria.

Before Trump’s attack, in an April 5 interview with the BBC, Slaughter called on the U.S. to “punish evil.” If Russia vetoed a council at the UN Security Council, she implied the U.S. should consider taking “action” anyway and launch “a set of strikes that says there is a limit.”

Slaughtered enthusiastically applauded Trump after the strike, writing on Twitter on April 7, “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!! After years of useless handwringing in the face of hideous atrocities.”

“Donald Trump has done the right thing at last,” Slaughter later declared in an April 11 article in the Financial Times. She added, “Trump’s decisiveness and precision in punishing Mr Assad offered a refreshing moment of moral clarity, notwithstanding the risks.”

This is nothing new for the aptly named Slaughter.

In The New York Times in 2012, Slaughter called for “nations like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to arm the opposition soldiers with anti-tank, countersniper and portable antiaircraft weapons,” which they proceeded to do for years. She also suggested that Qatar, Turkey, Britain and France should send special forces to advise rebels committed to toppling the Syrian government.

Max Boot

Max Boot, a self-declared American imperialist, has never met a US-led war he didn’t like.

Boot, who would become a campaign surrogate for Hillary Clinton, was one of a group of war hawks who sent a letter to President Obama on March 15, 2011 pushing for regime change in Libya.

In a March 2011 op-ed in The New York Times titled “Planning for a Post-Qaddafi Libya,” Boot noted that, for weeks before NATO intervention had even begun, he had been calling for a no-fly zone and airstrikes against the Libyan government. When the bombing commenced, Boot criticized it for not going far enough, and stressed that removing Qadhafi must be a priority.

“This is a worthwhile intervention for both strategic and humanitarian reasons,” Boot wrote six years ago.

Now, while Libya is roiled by disaster, Boot has moved on to shilling for more regime change.

In an April 7 article in the neoconservative Commentary magazine, Boot said it is “of considerable importance that President Trump has now attacked a Syrian air base,” adding, “This is a small but significant step in regaining lost American credibility and putting America’s adversaries on notice.”

“There is a new sheriff in town, and he will be far less hesitant than Obama was about the use of force,” Boot declared.

A few days later, in an April 10 article in Foreign Policy, Boot took Trump to task for not going far enough. The U.S. attack on, which destroyed 20 percent of the Syrian government’s planes, according to the Pentagon, was not aggressive enough.

“It is a good thing he did act,” Boot wrote. But “if Trump is interested in truly ‘decisive’ action in Syria, he will need to go a whole lot further.”

Bill Kristol

Neoconservative idol Bill Kristol, founder and editor of the right-wing magazine The Weekly Standard, joins the list of regime change advocates who applauded Trump’s recent attack on Syria.

Kristol, a harsh critic of President Obama, nevertheless praised the Democratic leader for overseeing regime change in Libya. In a March 2011 interview on Fox News, Kristol admirably called Obama a “born-again neocon.”

In a column published a few days before, titled “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” the Weekly Standard editor applauded a hawkish speech by President Obama. Kristol wrote, “The president was unapologetic, freedom-agenda-embracing, and didn’t shrink from defending the use of force or from appealing to American values and interests. Furthermore, the president seems to understand we have to win in Libya. I think we will.”

Fast forward to 2017, and Kristol is just as hawkish. Before the attack on April 6, Kristol tweeted, “If Pres. Trump takes appropriate action against Assad this #NeverTrumper will of course support him. He’s the president, not merely ‘Trump.'”

“Gorsuch confirmed, Assad attacked: Best day so far of the Trump presidency,” he wrotethe next day.

On April 8, Kristol ramped things up and expressed hope that Syria’s ally Iran is overthrown. “Punishing Assad for use of chemical weapons is good. Regime change in Iran is the prize,” he tweeted. Kristol then doubled down on his calls for regime change in Syria.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, an inconsequential figure whose influence is a mere tiny fraction of the others in this list, is nonetheless another voice to mention, as he is part of a coterie of hawkish obsessive trolls who relentlessly harass anyone who opposes U.S.-led regime change in Syria.

Ahmad and a slew of online interventionist gadflies like Robin Yassin-Kassab, Turkish state media employee Oz Katerji and Sam Charles Hamad purport to be leftists. But as writer Louis Allday has demonstrated, their prinicipal role has been to denigrate and intimidate anyone on the left who strays from the regime change line.

Idrees Ahmad somehow maintains a role as a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books despite his habit of phoning in violent threats to journalists and attacking women on social media as “bovine.”

Like Christopher Hitchens, but without the drunken charms or any of his literary flair, this collection of Trotskyite blowhards and shady rage-a-holics has become one of the most insidious aspects of the neoconservative movement, dedicating themselves to advancing the Clean Break program of regime change behind a left-wing guise.

Ahmad has spent years persistently defending NATO regime change in Libya, striving to rewrite the history of Western intervention. He has gone so far as to claim that the real problem in Libya was not U.S.-led regime change, but rather “hasty disengagement.” That is to say, the West did not intervene enough, in Ahmad’s view.

Unsurprisingly, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad welcomed Trump’s attack on Syria.

Ahmad wrote and tweeted nonstop about Libya, in support of regime change, in 2011. From September 2011 to September 2014, as the nation descended into bedlam, Idrees Ahmad’s Twitter account made no mention of Libya. Since 2014, he has resumed his ardent defense of intervention in Libya using right-wing arguments, such as attacking Venezuela’s socialist government and popular former president Hugo Chávez in order to justify the casualties of NATO war.

In recent years, Idrees Ahmad has vociferously called for even more U.S. intervention in Syria and regime change. On April 7, he doubled down on his demand for regime change, in an article in a small website called The Progressive that rehashes opposition propaganda citing pro-rebel sources.

While spreading the ludicrous conspiracy that the U.S. has supported the Syrian government — which it has spent years and billions upon billions of dollars trying to violently overthrow — Ahmad admirably wrote that Trump’s “strikes were tactical and punitive.”

“The consequences of today’s actions are likely to be far-reaching,” he said. Ahmad happily noted that the U.S. attack “already softened the Kremlin’s stance” and “exposed the limits of Russia’s power in Syria.”

“The regime has lost part of its impunity,” Idrees Ahmad rejoiced. “Whatever the administration’s motives, it worked for Syrians.” He then proceeded to attack the anti-war left, using neoconservative talking points.