August 2011, Week 4


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Tue, 23 Aug 2011 21:26:51 -0400
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Top Ten Myths About the Libya War

by Juan Cole
Posted on 08/22/2011 

The Libyan Revolution has largely succeeded, and this is
a moment of celebration, not only for Libyans but for a
youth generation in the Arab world that has pursued a
political opening across the region. The secret of the
uprising's final days of success lay in a popular revolt
in the working-class districts of the capital, which did
most of the hard work of throwing off the rule of secret
police and military cliques. It succeeded so well that
when revolutionary brigades entered the city from the
west, many encountered little or no resistance, and they
walked right into the center of the capital. Muammar
Qaddafi was in hiding as I went to press, and three of
his sons were in custody. Saif al-Islam Qaddafi had
apparently been the de facto ruler of the country in
recent years, so his capture signaled a checkmate.
(Checkmate is a corruption of the Persian "shah maat,"
the "king is confounded," since chess came west from
India via Iran). Checkmate.

The end game, wherein the people of Tripoli overthrew
the Qaddafis and joined the opposition Transitional
National Council, is the best case scenario that I had
suggested was the most likely denouement for the
revolution. I have been making this argument for some
time, and it evoked a certain amount of incredulity when
I said it in a lecture in the Netherlands in mid-June,
but it has all along been my best guess that things
would end the way they have. I got it right where others
did not because my premises turned out to be sounder,
i.e., that Qaddafi had lost popular support across the
board and was in power only through main force. Once
enough of his heavy weapons capability was disrupted,
and his fuel and ammunition supplies blocked, the
underlying hostility of the common people to the regime
could again manifest itself, as it had in February. I
was moreover convinced that the generality of Libyans
were attracted by the revolution and by the idea of a
political opening, and that there was no great danger to
national unity here.

I do not mean to underestimate the challenges that still
lie ahead- mopping up operations against regime
loyalists, reestablishing law and order in cities that
have seen popular revolutions, reconstituting police and
the national army, moving the Transitional National
Council to Tripoli, founding political parties, and
building a new, parliamentary regime. Even in much more
institutionalized and less clan-based societies such as
Tunisia and Egypt, these tasks have proved anything but
easy. But it would be wrong, in this moment of triumph
for the Libyan Second Republic, to dwell on the
difficulties to come. Libyans deserve a moment of

I have taken a lot of heat for my support of the
revolution and of the United Nations-authorized
intervention by the Arab League and NATO that kept it
from being crushed. I haven't taken nearly as much heat
as the youth of Misrata who fought off Qaddafi's tank
barrages, though, so it is OK. I hate war, having
actually lived through one in Lebanon, and I hate the
idea of people being killed. My critics who imagined me
thrilling at NATO bombing raids were just being cruel.
But here I agree with President Obama and his citation
of Reinhold Niebuhr. You can't protect all victims of
mass murder everywhere all the time. But where you can
do some good, you should do it, even if you cannot do
all good. I mourn the deaths of all the people who died
in this revolution, especially since many of the Qaddafi
brigades were clearly coerced (they deserted in large
numbers as soon as they felt it safe). But it was clear
to me that Qaddafi was not a man to compromise, and that
his military machine would mow down the revolutionaries
if it were allowed to.

Moreover, those who question whether there were US
interests in Libya seem to me a little blind. The US has
an interest in there not being massacres of people for
merely exercising their right to free assembly. The US
has an interest in a lawful world order, and therefore
in the United Nations Security Council resolution
demanding that Libyans be protected from their murderous
government. The US has an interest in its NATO alliance,
and NATO allies France and Britain felt strongly about
this intervention. The US has a deep interest in the
fate of Egypt, and what happened in Libya would have
affected Egypt (Qaddafi allegedly had high Egyptian
officials on his payroll).

Given the controversies about the revolution, it is
worthwhile reviewing the myths about the Libyan
Revolution that led so many observers to make so many
fantastic or just mistaken assertions about it.

1. Qaddafi was a progressive in his domestic policies.
While back in the 1970s, Qaddafi was probably more
generous in sharing around the oil wealth with the
population, buying tractors for farmers, etc., in the
past couple of decades that policy changed. He became
vindictive against tribes in the east and in the
southwest that had crossed him politically, depriving
them of their fair share in the country's resources. And
in the past decade and a half, extreme corruption and
the rise of post-Soviet-style oligarchs, including
Qaddafi and his sons, have discouraged investment and
blighted the economy. Workers were strictly controlled
and unable to collectively bargain for improvements in
their conditions. There was much more poverty and poor
infrastructure in Libya than there should have been in
an oil state.

2. Qaddafi was a progressive in his foreign policy.
Again, he traded for decades on positions, or postures,
he took in the 1970s. In contrast, in recent years he
played a sinister role in Africa, bankrolling brutal
dictators and helping foment ruinous wars. In 1996 the
supposed champion of the Palestinian cause expelled
30,000 stateless Palestinians from the country. After he
came in from the cold, ending European and US sanctions,
he began buddying around with George W. Bush, Silvio
Berlusconi and other right wing figures. Berlusconi has
even said that he considered resigning as Italian prime
minister once NATO began its intervention, given his
close personal relationship to Qaddafi. Such a

3. It was only natural that Qaddafi sent his military
against the protesters and revolutionaries; any country
would have done the same. No, it wouldn't, and this is
the argument of a moral cretin. In fact, the Tunisian
officer corps refused to fire on Tunisian crowds for
dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the Egyptian
officer corps refused to fire on Egyptian crowds for
Hosni Mubarak. The willingness of the Libyan officer
corps to visit macabre violence on protesting crowds
derived from the centrality of the Qaddafi sons and
cronies at the top of the military hierarchy and from
the lack of connection between the people and the
professional soldiers and mercenaries. Deploying the
military against non-combatants was a war crime, and
doing so in a widespread and systematic way was a crime
against humanity. Qaddafi and his sons will be tried for
this crime, which is not "perfectly natural."

4. There was a long stalemate in the fighting between
the revolutionaries and the Qaddafi military. There was
not. This idea was fostered by the vantage point of many
Western observers, in Benghazi. It is true that there
was a long stalemate at Brega, which ended yesterday
when the pro-Qaddafi troops there surrendered. But the
two most active fronts in the war were Misrata and its
environs, and the Western Mountain region. Misrata
fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-
defense against attacking Qaddafi armor and troops,
finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they
gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli. The most
dramatic battles and advances were in the largely Berber
Western Mountain region, where, again, Qaddafi armored
units relentlessly shelled small towns and villages but
were fought off (with less help from NATO initially,
which I think did not recognize the importance of this
theater). It was the revolutionary volunteers from this
region who eventually took Zawiya, with the help of the
people of Zawiya, last Friday and who thereby cut
Tripoli off from fuel and ammunition coming from Tunisia
and made the fall of the capital possible. Any close
observer of the war since April has seen constant
movement, first at Misrata and then in the Western
Mountains, and there was never an over-all stalemate.

5. The Libyan Revolution was a civil war. It was not, if
by that is meant a fight between two big groups within
the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious
sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in
2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests,
and only when the urban crowds were subjected to
artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did
the revolutionaries begin arming themselves. When
fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing
their city quarters taking on trained regular army
troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a
civil war. Only in a few small pockets of territory,
such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Qaddafi
civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be
wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort
into a civil war. Qaddafi's support was too limited, too
thin, and too centered in the professional military, to
allow us to speak of a civil war.

6. Libya is not a real country and could have been
partitioned between east and west.
Alexander Cockburn wrote,

     "It requites no great prescience to see that this
     will all end up badly. Qaddafi's failure to
     collapse on schedule is prompting increasing
     pressure to start a ground war, since the NATO
     operation is, in terms of prestige, like the banks
     Obama has bailed out, Too Big to Fail. Libya will
     probably be balkanized."

I don't understand the propensity of Western analysts to
keep pronouncing nations in the global south
"artificial" and on the verge of splitting up. It is a
kind of Orientalism. All nations are artificial.
Benedict Anderson dates the nation-state to the late
1700s, and even if it were a bit earlier, it is a new
thing in history. Moreover, most nation-states are
multi-ethnic, and many long-established ones have sub-
nationalisms that threaten their unity. Thus, the
Catalans and Basque are uneasy inside Spain, the
Scottish may bolt Britain any moment, etc., etc. In
contrast, Libya does not have any well-organized,
popular separatist movements. It does have tribal
divisions, but these are not the basis for nationalist
separatism, and tribal alliances and fissures are more
fluid than ethnicity (which is itself less fixed than
people assume). Everyone speaks Arabic, though for
Berbers it is the public language; Berbers were among
the central Libyan heroes of the revolution, and will be
rewarded with a more pluralist Libya. This generation of
young Libyans, who waged the revolution, have mostly
been through state schools and have a strong allegiance
to the idea of Libya. Throughout the revolution, the
people of Benghazi insisted that Tripoli was and would
remain the capital. Westerners looking for break-ups
after dictatorships are fixated on the Balkan events
after 1989, but there most often isn't an exact analogue
to those in the contemporary Arab world.

7. There had to be NATO infantry brigades on the ground
for the revolution to succeed. Everyone from Cockburn to
Max Boot (scary when those two agree) put forward this
idea. But there are not any foreign infantry brigades in
Libya, and there are unlikely to be any. Libyans are
very nationalistic and they made this clear from the
beginning. Likewise the Arab League. NATO had some
intelligence assets on the ground, but they were small
in number, were requested behind the scenes for liaison
and spotting by the revolutionaries, and did not amount
to an invasion force. The Libyan people never needed
foreign ground brigades to succeed in their revolution.

8. The United States led the charge to war. There is no
evidence for this allegation whatsoever. When I asked
Glenn Greenwald whether a US refusal to join France and
Britain in a NATO united front might not have destroyed
NATO, he replied that NATO would never have gone forward
unless the US had plumped for the intervention in the
first place. I fear that answer was less fact-based and
more doctrinaire than we are accustomed to hearing from
Mr. Greenwald, whose research and analysis on domestic
issues is generally first-rate. As someone not a
stranger to diplomatic history, and who has actually
heard briefings in Europe from foreign ministries and
officers of NATO members, I'm offended at the glibness
of an answer given with no more substantiation than an
idee fixe. The excellent McClatchy wire service reported
on the reasons for which then Secretary of Defense
Robert Gates, the Pentagon, and Obama himself were
extremely reluctant to become involved in yet another
war in the Muslim world. It is obvious that the French
and the British led the charge on this intervention,
likely because they believed that a protracted struggle
over years between the opposition and Qaddafi in Libya
would radicalize it and give an opening to al-Qaeda and
so pose various threats to Europe. French President
Nicolas Sarkozy had been politically mauled, as well, by
the offer of his defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie,
to send French troops to assist Ben Ali in Tunisia
(Alliot-Marie had been Ben Ali's guest on fancy
vacations), and may have wanted to restore traditional
French cachet in the Arab world as well as to look
decisive to his electorate. Whatever Western Europe's
motivations, they were the decisive ones, and the Obama
administration clearly came along as a junior partner
(something Sen. John McCain is complaining bitterly

9. Qaddafi would not have killed or imprisoned large
numbers of dissidents in Benghazi, Derna, al-Bayda and
Tobruk if he had been allowed to pursue his March
Blitzkrieg toward the eastern cities that had defied
him. But we have real-world examples of how he would
have behaved, in Zawiya, Tawargha, Misrata and
elsewhere. His indiscriminate shelling of Misrata had
already killed between 1000 and 2000 by last April,, and
it continued all summer. At least one Qaddafi mass grave
with 150 bodies in it has been discovered. And the full
story of the horrors in Zawiya and elsewhere in the west
has yet to emerge, but it will not be pretty. The
opposition claims Qaddafi's forces killed tens of
thousands. Public health studies may eventually settle
this issue, but we know definitively what Qaddafi was
capable of.

10. This was a war for Libya's oil. That is daft. Libya
was already integrated into the international oil
markets, and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI,
etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to
endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who
had signed them. They had often already had the trauma
of having to compete for post-war Iraqi contracts, a
process in which many did less well than they would have
liked. ENI's profits were hurt by the Libyan revolution,
as were those of Total SA. and Repsol. Moreover, taking
Libyan oil off the market through a NATO military
intervention could have been foreseen to put up oil
prices, which no Western elected leader would have
wanted to see, especially Barack Obama, with the danger
that a spike in energy prices could prolong the economic
doldrums. An economic argument for imperialism is fine
if it makes sense, but this one does not, and there is
no good evidence for it (that Qaddafi was erratic is not
enough), and is therefore just a conspiracy theory.


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