I could scarcely believe it when I was told that Hillary Clinton’s reaction to the death of Colonel Gaddafi was, ‘ We came, we saw, he died.’ The statement seemed so vulgar, and at the same time so asinine in its meaningless parodying of Julius Caesar, that I could not imagine that it had actually been made by the Foreign Minister of the most powerful country in the world.
I checked then, and was told by someone I can rely on that she had indeed said. ‘We came, we saw, he died….heh, heh.’ He had seen this on CNN.
I was immensely saddened by this. Some months earlier I had written about what I thought was a civilized element in the lady, the awe that seemed apparent in her eyes while she was watching the killing of Osama bin Laden. That had seemed to contrast with the steely determination of the others in the room, and I had fancied that the maker of policy was at least aware of the wider moral dimensions of that particular execution.
But now it seemed morality was trumped totally by what seemed to be unashamed gloating. Of course there was a difference, in that the Americans were clearly responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden. The lady knew this was a defining moment for American decision makers, for clearly they were behind what could be seen as cold blooded murder. But I assume the powers that be felt this was a risk that could be run, that the argument could be made that Osama was a threat to national security even if disarmed and in custody, and therefore it could be argued that the decision had been made as a form of self defence.
Given the reach of Al Qaeda, as exemplified not only by the attacks on September 11th 2001 but also subsequent terrorist activity in various countries, this was a not wholly implausible claim. Certainly the world seems to have bought it, and there is no great argument, even by the holiest of human rights activists, that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and their military subordinates should be charged with a war crime or a crime against international humanitarian law. But one could see why she was, if not worried, moved by the momentous nature of the American decision on that occasion.
This time round she did not have to worry. There was no excuse at all for the killing of Colonel Gaddafi. He was clearly no longer a threat to anyone, and the only reason was revenge. But the revenge was being taken by Libyans, and the Americans could claim they were in no way responsible for his death.
Unfortunately Hillary Clinton, perhaps again overwhelmed by the momentous nature of what had been achieved, could not let well alone. She had to take credit for the event, to make clear the connection between Colonel Gaddafi’s death and the determination of the Americans to intervene. In doing so, in affirming the link between that death and the American involvement in the change of regime that took place, she reverted to the cynical self—interest that sadly lies behind so many foreign policy decisions, whatever the pretexts proferred for actions that are taken.
The pretext in this case was saving the Libyan people from mass destruction. Colonel Gaddafi provided an excuse for this, in that the responses he and one of his sons was reported to have made when the uprisings began in Benghazi were savage enough to provoke the Security Council into passing a resolution to action, with no dissenting voices. And though it soon became clear that Libyans were being subjected to mass destruction, the claim that was being pressed was that the end result would be a less oppressive regime.
The decimation of Sirte made it clear that the victors were not entirely to be trusted. And then they set the seal on this by torturing and killing Colonel Gaddafi and one of his sons. But even then, it might have been claimed that that was an aberration by individuals. No matter that the manner in which the convoy was stopped suggested some greater determination, the capture and killing of individuals no longer capable of harm could have been put down to individual excess.
But Hillary Clinton seems to have been too triumphant to allow for that interpretation. We came, we saw, he died. We are in charge.
I was reminded then of ‘Heart of Darkness’ Conrad’s incisive account of the imperial process, and its corroding effect on people. His narrator Marlow, the most reliable of narrators in charting the essential ambiguity of human motives, practically begins his narrative by saying, ‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea’.
Imperialism is a nasty business, but Marlow does believe that genuine idealism was mixed up in the process too. And though the British managed generally to profit inordinately by their ventures, I have no doubt that many of those in positions of authority did believe they were doing good for their charges. It was only in extreme circumstances that they gave in to naked self-interest, as expressed in the stunning account of Kurtz’s death – ‘I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, or ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some voice – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!”’
The novel ends with Marlow reporting the death of Kurtz to his fiancé, preserving her ideal image of the dead man by saying that his last words were her name. And one is reminded then of the earlier account of the role of women in perpetuating the myth of doing good through imperial conquest – ‘There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,” till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit. “You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,” she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are’.
Conrad’s point is that, even though men may understand the reality of conquest, they are kept up to the ideal by the innocent faith in higher motives of their womankind. Perhaps because of ignorance, their commitment was genuine, but it was not useless, because it ensured a mark to aim at beyond the sordid actuality.
I suppose, in a rather old-fashioned way, I had thought Hillary Clinton had something of that softness? Idealism? diffidence? in her, when I saw her eyes in the picture of the American hierarchs watching the killing of Osama bin Laden. But it seems I was wrong, and the steel had certainly entered her soul. Triumphalism at the merciless killing of Colonel Gaddafi is understandable, given the tremendous achievement it represents for American hegemony. But it makes the world a much sadder and more horrible place.