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Propaganda for “Justice”: Flattering the State on Libya and Bin Laden

On April 11, The New York Times uncritically repeated the Obama administration's claims that the intervention in Libya was his first “humanitarian war.” With efforts to remove Qaddafi having stalled, the paper is now wondering: “can Obama live with a stalemate?” Of course, the media's framing of the conflict as humanitarian is directly belied by the recent request of a British military commander that NATO engage in an illegal bombing of Libya's “infrastructure.” Such attacks would be an open violation of the rules of war, as established in the Geneva Conventions,(1) although this hasn't caused US political officials and journalists to question the “humanitarian” narrative they've attached to this war.

On April 11, The New York Times uncritically repeated the Obama administration's claims that the intervention in Libya was his first “humanitarian war.” With efforts to remove Qaddafi having stalled, the paper is now wondering: “can Obama live with a stalemate?” Of course, the media's framing of the conflict as humanitarian is directly belied by the recent request of a British military commander that NATO engage in an illegal bombing of Libya's “infrastructure.” Such attacks would be an open violation of the rules of war, as established in the Geneva Conventions,(1) although this hasn't caused US political officials and journalists to question the “humanitarian” narrative they've attached to this war.

The study of the US mass media has progressed far enough over the last few decades that we are able to effectively predict the nature of news coverage of US foreign policy. The following generalizations help in terms of making sense of the nature of mass media bias: 1) American journalists are thoroughly reliant on official sources, to the near or total exclusion of dissident sources that provide moral or substantive challenges to US foreign policy; 2) Closely related to the first point – to the extent that there are “criticisms” or “challenges” to government actions and policies, they are reliant upon the views already being expressed by political and business elites. In other words, if business and political leaders want to put forward a criticism of government, that criticism will receive heavy play among journalists. If these same officials choose to ignore a given criticism, it will essentially remain a non-issue in reporting and media commentary.(2)

In the cases of the Libya war and the assassination of Bin Laden, the above principles provide a useful guide. The range of views expressed on Libya has mirrored those expressed among Washington officials, who have debated nothing but the tactics of pursuing the bombing campaign. Both parties' support, on a substantive level, the “right” of the US to bomb and take out the Qaddafi regime. The New York Times, as the major agenda-setting newspaper in the US, echoes this pro-war approach well. Its editorials on Libya have argued that the war is unquestioningly “humanitarian.”(3) The paper has congratulated Obama as a strong leader in attacking Qaddafi and has celebrated US bombs as “precision guided” and effective in avoiding civilian casualties. To the extent there have been any “criticisms,” they've been overwhelmingly tactical. New York Times' editorials have stressed the need to enlist allied (NATO) support for the campaign (and the need to provide a leadership role for NATO countries), while at times chastising Obama for not acting quickly enough to bomb Libya, worrying that “unless NATO [and the US] get more serious, Libya's liberation war could turn into a prolonged, bloody stalemate.”(4)

To provide some quick examples, one New York Times editorial stressed the “humanitarian” nature of the campaign by claiming that Obama “had a moral responsibility to stop violence on a horrific scale, as well as a unique international mandate and a broad coalition to act with … failure to intervene could have threatened peaceful transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, as thousands of Libyan refugees poured across their borders, while other dictators would conclude that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.”(5)

News reporting has followed the same approach. My search of the LexisNexis database finds that, of the 56 stories The New York Times ran that featured the issue of Libya from March 19 (when the bombing started) through May 14, the paper was more than five times more likely to run news reports stressing the intervention as “humanitarian,” as compared to stories suggesting that the primary (or at least a primary) motive of the US was interest in oil. The ratio of stories referencing concerns over the flow of oil and the general state of Libya's oil industry on the one hand and references to the intervention as “humanitarian” on the other hand, was nearly equal, at about 1:1. This pattern is rather Orwellian, with oil being regularly referenced in stories as a concern for the US, but with those same stories simultaneously refusing to discuss the intervention as driven by geopolitical and strategic interests in oil. In other words, US journalists are acknowledging the vital import of Libya as an oil producing country, without actually acknowledging the vital import of Libya as a vital oil producing country. This approach is beneficial because it allows elite readers of the Times to understand the true power interests at play in this intervention, while pretending that it is entirely driven by humanitarianism.

Revealingly, not a single editorial in The New York Times in this period discussed the intervention in Libya as driven by US oil interests. It was considered acceptable to speak in a somewhat unsavory way about allies, with The New York Times' editors claiming that “events in Libya pose a more direct threat to Europe than to the United States,” since “Europe relies heavily on Libyan oil and a prolonged crisis will cause serious shortfalls in Italy and other countries.” What this convenient posturing ignores is the reality that US officials have long stated that the US must use military force (in addition to propping up repressive dictatorships in the Middle East) in order not only to ensure the flow of cheap oil to the US, but in order to control the oil spigot flowing to US allies, as well as the importance of restricting the flow to US enemies.(6) This point is pretty uncontroversial to those who bother to study historical presidential national security directives, but conveniently ignored by the flatterers of the state at The New York Times.

On the issue of Bin Laden, news coverage similarly worshipped the state. Despite serious questions about whether the assassination violated the Fourth Geneva Convention and US domestic law, and despite concerns that the attack violated Pakistan's sovereignty and was an open violation of the rules laid out in the United Nation's Charter, US media coverage has been euphoric. Obama has been celebrated as a visionary leader, who is willing to make the “tough” decisions (such as engaging in executions and violating other state's sovereignty) “needed” to fight terrorism. To take one example, the editors at The Washington Post urged readers to “celebrate” Bin Laden's execution as demonstrating that he had “been brought to justice” – justice apparently including extrajudicial killings and assassinations. In all the commentary in the US mass media, I haven't seen a single news report, editorial, or pundit who has made the case that the Bin Laden assassination was a violation of international or domestic law. The question of whether the strike was legal has, on occasion, been raised, but was promptly answered in the affirmative, with US officials and pundits celebrating the operation as permissible according to national and international law. The complete refusal to seriously consider claims of the operation's illegality is quite damning for a “democratic” system that prides itself in promoting the rule of law and open “debate” among “all sides” of an issue.

What the potential blowback of US contempt for the rule of law may be going into the future has been almost completely ignored in political and journalistic circles.

There was much discussion of whether the execution would incite al-Qaeda to attack the US again, although this point is hardly a revelation considering that the Obama and Bush administrations have spent years stoking public fear at home about another possible attack in order to win reluctant support for their wars. However, there has been zero discussion warning that the Bin Laden attack and accompanying drone strikes throughout the Middle East (undertaken in the name of “fighting terror”) could further destabilize Pakistan and endanger the few high level political officials willing to work with the US in “counterterror” operations. Pakistan's Western allied political leaders have long been targeted by radical Islamists operating throughout Pakistan (who are allied to a large extent with the nation's intelligence service, the ISI). US pundits and officials have essentially spit in the face of these allies with the recent raid, followed by belligerent rhetoric from US leaders that have sought to portray these leaders as either allied with al-Qaeda (with no evidence ever presented, of course), or incompetent in their alleged inability to take on al-Qaeda militants. The latter point, predictably, ignores international reports that show that the Pakistani government had directed US attention to the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad as far back as two years ago and had even raided that location years earlier in search of al-Qaeda leaders.

It's no surprise that the US mass media has sided with the Obama administration in its recent military adventures. Furthermore, the marginalization of anti-war voices has long been a staple of American political commentary. What appears to be far more novel is the increased vigor with which the public has opposed recent military initiatives. Although the Bin Laden assassination was met with much fanfare among the American public, the campaign in Libya is radically less popular.

A March 2011 poll from the Pew Research Center found that just 27 percent of Americans supported a US intervention in Libya, compared to 63 percent who were opposed. Majority support was barely reached for sanctions (51 percent supported them), while minorities supported more intense interventions such as implementing a no-fly zone (supported by just 44 percent), sending arms to rebels (23 percent), bombing Libyan air defenses (16 percent) or sending troops (just 13 percent). As should be expected during the onset of war, support for Obama grew substantially once the US actually started to engage in military operations against Qaddafi. Support, however, remains tepid at best. As of April 2011, just 39 percent of Americans supported Obama's handling of the Libyan conflict. Fifty-six percent supported the implementation of the no-fly zone, which most seem to think is necessary as a means of preventing full blown humanitarian disaster. At the same time, however, just 18 percent support increasing US military involvement in Libya by further escalating US military activities.

Political scientists have long spoken of the “Vietnam Syndrome,” in which Americans are increasingly unwilling (post-Vietnam) to commit large numbers of troops to bloody and costly long-term conflicts with uncertain outcomes.(7) The recent growth in public suspicion of foreign wars represents a major progression in the intensity of the Vietnam Syndrome. If public opposition continues to grow as it has, it will be very difficult for the US to escalate another military conflict anytime in the near future. I think this growth in skepticism is obvious on a very basic level. Most people I talk to are simply fed up with the endless “War on Terror.” They see that we have dramatic problems at home, and in light of the recent US assassination of Osama bin Laden, are ready to see the “War on Terror” come to a close.


1. For more on the illegality of targeting civilians through collective punishment, see the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention.

2. For more on media's reliance on officialdom, see the following studies: Jonathan Mermin, “Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); Lance W. Bennett, Steven Livingston and Regina G. Lawrence, “When the Press Fails: Political Power and News Media From Iraq to Katrina,” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); Daniel C. Hallin, “The 'Uncensored War': The Media and Vietnam,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); Anthony R. DiMaggio, “When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion and the Limits of Dissent,” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

3. A search of LexisNexis reveals more than a dozen stories referring to the intervention in humanitarian terms from March through April 2011.

4. Editorial, “At War in Libya,” New York Times, 22 March 2011, 26(A); Editorial, “President Obama on Libya,” 29 March 2011, 30(A); Editorial, “Keeping Ahead of Qaddafi,” New York Times, 8 April 2011, 28(A); Editorial, “Stalled Mission in Libya,” New York Times, 5 May 2011.

5. Editorial, “President Obama on Libya,” New York Times, 29 March 2011, 30(A).

6. For more on US interest in controlling the flow of Middle Eastern oil, see: Chapter 6 of “When Media Goes to War.”

7. Richard Sobel, “The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy Since Vietnam,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Michael T. Klare, “Beyond the Vietnam Syndrome: U.S. Interventionism in the 1980s,” (Washington D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1981); G. L. Simons, “Vietnam Syndrome: The Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy,” (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1998).

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