Most wars--initiated by the United States or otherwise--require an official rationale. The stated reason for going to war needn't be the real reason, and it can change over the course of the conflict, as the Iraq War ably demonstrated.
As the Iraq War also proved, the media rarely apply much skepticism to the rationale given, or look for additional or alternative motivating factors. NATO's war in Libya is no exception.
The Libya War is an "allied air war to protect civilians," as USA Today put it (5/23/11), in language pervasive in corporate media coverage. The notion that civilians were being slaughtered, and many more were in danger, constituted the case for the aerial bombing of the country. Even as criticism of the war mounted as it dragged on--particularly among Republicans and conservatives--there was little questioning of the reason for going to war in the first place. That Moammar Gadhafi's record was spectacularly ugly was beyond debate.
A February 24 Washington Post editorial thundered, "Mr. Gadhafi has unleashed an orgy of bloodshed in the capital, Tripoli, using foreign mercenaries and aircraft to attack his own people." The day before, the New York Times editorial page (2/23/11) announced that in Tripoli "pro-government forces, relying heavily on mercenaries, were massacring demonstrators." The Times added that "there were reports of warplanes and helicopters being used to attack civilians"--though the paper did note that "authoritative information was difficult to come by."
On television, the carnage and potential carnage loomed large. "In this wave of uprising in the region," explained NBC anchor Brian Williams (2/22/11), "it's the bloodiest we've seen so far sweeping through the Arab world." On the NBC Nightly News (2/24/11), reporter Richard Engel told viewers that "U.S. officials say the dictator is armed with chemical weapons and has a sovereign fund of $32 billion, more than enough to buy mercenaries and loyalists."
CNN's Brian Todd (2/25/11) announced that Gadhafi "has used security forces and mercenaries with guns to battle protesters. But he's got something else in his arsenal--a wicked material he acquired when he was gathering his weapons of mass destruction." The weapon in question was mustard gas. One expert told CNN that Libya no longer possessed weapons to deliver mustard gas, but Todd concluded that "a U.S. official tells CNN in this chaos there's still concern about Libya possessing mustard gas."
Elsewhere on CNN, anchor Wolf Blitzer (2/25/11) declared himself "really concerned" that Gadhafi,
maybe in his final hours, maybe final days, he'll really unleash the mercenaries, the non-Libyan troops, some of his own thugs. And randomly just start killing not just hundreds, but thousands of people. He does have weapons over there that are fully capable of doing that.
"Gadhafi's brutal side has emerged once again," reported ABC's Martha Raddatz (World News, 2/22/11). "This time, flying in cargo planes full of African mercenaries, who don't even speak the language, to do his dirty work. Trained killers gunning down residents and protesters in cold blood."
Some of the most spectacular claims, propagated by U.S. officials in UN and Security Council meetings, concerned Libyan forces using mass rape as a tool (MSNBC, 4/28/11). While officials largely backed off such claims (MSNBC, 4/29/11), New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (4/3/11) showed how to turn a single prominent case of rape into a justification for war:
Many of the most frightening reports from Libya, however, failed to hold up. In a series of articles in the British Independent (6/19/11, 6/24/11, 6/26/11), Patrick Cockburn revealed that human rights investigators have thus far failed to substantiate the most alarming stories about Gadhafi's atrocities. While claims of mass rapes and helicopter attacks were common, Cockburn noted in his June 24 piece:
An investigation by Amnesty International has failed to find evidence for these human rights violations and in many cases has discredited or cast doubt on them. It also found indications that on several occasions the rebels in Benghazi appeared to have knowingly made false claims or manufactured evidence.
A June 1 report from the UN Human Rights Council was unable to substantiate claims about mercenary fighters, pointing out that in some instances the term seemed to be used to describe any foreigners present in Libya, whether or not they were combatants. The investigation did find evidence of reprisals against such foreigners by rebel forces--a phenomenon that had been reported by the Los Angeles Times (3/24/11): "Gangs of young gunmen have roamed the city, rousting Libyan blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa from their homes and holding them for interrogation as suspected mercenaries or government spies." The Times' David Zucchino described "terrorized detainees," many of whom insisted they were actually construction workers, being kept in cells recently used by the Gadhafi regime for torture.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Agence France Presse (3/4/11): "Since the beginning, we have been investigating reports of African mercenaries and most of these reports have been untrue."
The findings, however preliminary, by major human rights groups were little discussed in the corporate media--perhaps not a surprise, given that they undermine claims by U.S. and NATO officials.
This is not to suggest that all of the accusations against Gadhafi are fabricated, of course. That hundreds of protesters have been killed and major cities shelled indiscriminately is without question (HRW, 2/18/11, 4/10/11). Whether that violence was the true or overriding motivation behind the NATO response is another matter--especially considering the crackdowns in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen were just as brutal (Independent, 6/24/11; HRW, 6/5/11)
Meanwhile, even false media reports have a real impact on civilians caught in the middle. In the Independent (6/19/11), Cockburn described refugees fleeing from an imaginary incursion by pro-Gadhafi troops reported by Al-Jazeera. Cockburn told FAIR's CounterSpin (7/1/11): "There's no doubt the men were very worried that the women were going to get raped. And they were going to get raped by mercenaries. They'd really taken all this stuff on board, although there's no evidence for it."
Research assistance: Dante Popple and Rahma Muhammad Mian