March 2011, Week 4


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Mon, 28 Mar 2011 20:13:35 -0400
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An Open Letter to the Left on Libya, Juan Cole

Posted on 03/27/2011 by Juan Cole


As I expected, now that Qaddafi's advantage in armor
and heavy weapons is being neutralized by the UN
allies' air campaign, the liberation movement is
regaining lost territory. Liberators took back Ajdabiya
and Brega (Marsa al-Burayqa), key oil towns, on
Saturday into Sunday morning, and seemed set to head
further West. This rapid advance is almost certainly
made possible in part by the hatred of Qaddafi among
the majority of the people of these cities. The Buraiqa
Basin contains much of Libya's oil wealth, and the
Transitional Government in Benghazi will soon again
control 80 percent of this resource, an advantage in
their struggle with Qaddafi.

I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on,
and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has
saved them from being crushed. I can still remember
when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that
Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring
and extirpate socialism with a human face. Our
multilateral world has more spaces in it for successful
change and defiance of totalitarianism than did the old
bipolar world of the Cold War, where the US and the
USSR often deferred to each other's sphere of

The United Nations-authorized intervention in Libya has
pitched ethical issues of the highest importance, and
has split progressives in unfortunate ways. I hope we
can have a calm and civilized discussion of the rights
and wrongs here.

On the surface, the situation in Libya a week and a
half ago posed a contradiction between two key
principles of Left politics: supporting the ordinary
people and opposing foreign domination of them. Libya's
workers and townspeople had risen up to overthrow the
dictator in city after city- Tobruk, Dirna, al-Bayda,
Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Misrata, Zawiya, Zuara, Zintan.
Even in the capital of Tripoli, working-class
neighborhoods such as Suq al-Jumah and Tajoura had
chased out the secret police. In the two weeks after
February 17, there was little or no sign of the
protesters being armed or engaging in violence.

The libel put out by the dictator, that the 570,000
people of Misrata or the 700,000 people of Benghazi
were supporters of "al-Qaeda," was without foundation.
That a handful of young Libyan men from Dirna and the
surrounding area had fought in Iraq is simply
irrelevant. The Sunni Arab resistance in Iraq was for
the most part not accurately called 'al-Qaeda,' which
is a propaganda term in this case. All of the countries
experiencing liberation movements had sympathizers with
the Sunni Iraqi resistance; in fact opinion polling
shows such sympathy almost universal throughout the
Sunni Arab world. All of them had at least some
fundamentalist movements. That was no reason to wish
the Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians and others ill. The
question is what kind of leadership was emerging in
places like Benghazi. The answer is that it was simply
the notables of the city. If there were an uprising
against Silvio Berlusconi in Milan, it would likely
unite businessmen and factory workers, Catholics and
secularists. It would just be the people of Milan. A
few old time members of the Red Brigades might even
come out, and perhaps some organized crime figures. But
to defame all Milan with them would be mere propaganda.

Then Muammar Qaddafi's sons rallied his armored
brigades and air force to bomb the civilian crowds and
shoot tank shells into them. Members of the
Transitional Government Council in Benghazi estimate
that 8000 were killed as Qaddafi's forces attacked and
subdued Zawiya, Zuara, Ra's Lanuf, Brega, Ajdabiya, and
the working class districts of Tripoli itself, using
live ammunition fired into defenseless rallies. If 8000
was an exaggeration, simply "thousands" was not, as
attested by Left media such as Amy Goodman's Democracy
Now! As Qaddafi's tank brigades reached the southern
districts of Benghazi, the prospect loomed of a
massacre of committed rebels on a large scale.

The United Nations Security Council authorization for
UN member states to intervene to forestall this
massacre thus pitched the question. If the Left opposed
intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi's
destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of
most of Libya's workers and poor, along with large
numbers of white collar middle class people. Qaddafi
would have reestablished himself, with the liberation
movement squashed like a bug and the country put back
under secret police rule. The implications of a
resurgent, angry and wounded Mad Dog, his coffers
filled with oil billions, for the democracy movements
on either side of Libya, in Egypt and Tunisia, could
well have been pernicious.

The arguments against international intervention are
not trivial, but they all did have the implication that
it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi
deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just
exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to
petition their government. (It simply is not true that
very many of the protesters took up arms early on,
though some were later forced into it by Qaddafi's
aggressive military campaign against them. There still
are no trained troops to speak of on the rebel side).

Some have charged that the Libya action has a
Neoconservative political odor. But the
Neoconservatives hate the United Nations and wanted to
destroy it. They went to war on Iraq despite the lack
of UNSC authorization, in a way that clearly
contravened the UN Charter. Their spokesman and briefly
the ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, actually at one
point denied that the United Nations even existed. The
Neoconservatives loved deploying American muscle
unilaterally, and rubbing it in everyone's face. Those
who would not go along were subjected to petty
harassment. France, then deputy secretary of defense
Paul Wolfowitz pledged, would be "punished" for
declining to fall on Iraq at Washington's whim. The
Libya action, in contrast, observes all the norms of
international law and multilateral consultation that
the Neoconservatives despise. There is no pettiness.
Germany is not 'punished' for not going along.
Moreover, the Neoconservatives wanted to exercise
primarily Anglo-American military might in the service
of harming the public sector and enforced 'shock
therapy' privatization so as to open the conquered
country to Western corporate penetration. All this
social engineering required boots on the ground, a land
invasion and occupation. Mere limited aerial
bombardment cannot effect the sort of
extreme-capitalist revolution they seek. Libya 2011 is
not like Iraq 2003 in any way.

Allowing the Neoconservatives to brand humanitarian
intervention as always their sort of project does a
grave disservice to international law and institutions,
and gives them credit that they do not deserve, for
things in which they do not actually believe.

The intervention in Libya was done in a legal way. It
was provoked by a vote of the Arab League, including
the newly liberated Egyptian and Tunisian governments.
It was urged by a United Nations Security Council
resolution, the gold standard for military
intervention. (Contrary to what some alleged, the
abstentions of Russia and China do not deprive the
resolution of legitimacy or the force of law; only a
veto could have done that. You can be arrested today on
a law passed in the US Congress on which some members
abstained from voting.)

Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the
intervention are:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)

2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in
world affairs by outsiders are wrong).

3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social
problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of
military force.

Absolute pacifists are rare, and I will just
acknowledge them and move on. I personally favor an
option for peace in world policy-making, where it
should be the default initial position. But the peace
option is trumped in my mind by the opportunity to stop
a major war crime.

Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US,
progressive people actually went to fight in the
Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade. That
was a foreign intervention. Leftists were happy about
Churchill's and then Roosevelt's intervention against
the Axis. To make 'anti-imperialism' trump all other
values in a mindless way leads to frankly absurd
positions. I can't tell you how annoyed I am by the
fringe left adulation for Iranian president Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, on the grounds that he is
'anti-imperialist,' and with an assumption that he is
somehow on the Left. As the pillar of a repressive
Theocratic order that puts down workers, he is a man of
the far Right, and that he doesn't like the US and
Western Europe doesn't ennoble him.

The proposition that social problems can never be
resolved by military force alone may be true. But there
are some problems that can't be solved unless there is
a military intervention first, since its absence would
allow the destruction of the progressive forces. Those
arguing that "Libyans" should settle the issue
themselves are willfully ignoring the overwhelming
repressive advantage given Qaddafi by his jets,
helicopter gunships, and tanks; the 'Libyans' were
being crushed inexorably. Such crushing can be
effective for decades thereafter.

Assuming that NATO's UN-authorized mission in Libya
really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that
a foreign military occupation is avoided, the
intervention is probably a good thing on the whole,
however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy
grandstanding. Of course he is not to be trusted by
progressives, but he is to his dismay increasingly
boxed in by international institutions, which limits
the damage he could do as the bombing campaign comes to
an end (Qaddafi only had 2000 tanks, many of them
broken down, and it won't be long before he has so few,
and and the rebels have captured enough to level the
playing field, that little further can be accomplished
from the air).

Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an
intervention could be staged or worrying that Libya
sets a precedent. I don't find those arguments
persuasive. Military intervention is always selective,
depending on a constellation of political will,
military ability, international legitimacy and
practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in
Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades
willing to attack dissidents, and responsible for
thousands of casualties and with the prospect of more
thousands to come, where aerial intervention by the
world community could make a quick and effective

This situation did not obtain in the Sudan's Darfur,
where the terrain and the conflict were such that
aerial intervention alone would have have been useless
and only boots on the ground could have had a hope of
being effective. But a whole US occupation of Iraq
could not prevent Sunni-Shiite urban faction-fighting
that killed tens of thousands, so even boots on the
ground in Darfur's vast expanse might have failed.

The other Arab Spring demonstrations are not comparable
to Libya, because in none of them has the scale loss of
life been replicated, nor has the role of armored
brigades been as central, nor have the dissidents asked
for intervention, nor has the Arab League. For the UN,
out of the blue, to order the bombing of Deraa in Syria
at the moment would accomplish nothing and would
probably outrage all concerned. Bombing the tank
brigades heading for Benghazi made all the difference.

That is, in Libya intervention was demanded by the
people being massacred as well as by the regional
powers, was authorized by the UNSC, and could
practically attain its humanitarian aim of forestalling
a massacre through aerial bombardment of murderous
armored brigades. And, the intervention could be a
limited one and still accomplish its goal.

I also don't understand the worry about the setting of
precedents. The UN Security Council is not a court, and
does not function by precedent. It is a political body,
and works by political will. Its members are not
constrained to do elsewhere what they are doing in
Libya unless they so please, and the veto of the five
permanent members ensures that a resolution like 1973
will be rare. But if a precedent is indeed being set
that if you rule a country and send tank brigades to
murder large numbers of civilian dissidents, you will
see your armor bombed to smithereens, I can't see what
is wrong with that.

Another argument is that the no-fly zone (and the
no-drive zone) aimed at overthrowing Qaddafi not to
protect his people from him but to open the way for US,
British and French dominance of Libya's oil wealth.
This argument is bizarre. The US declined to do oil
business with Libya in the late 1980s and throughout
the 1990s, when it could have, because it had placed
the country under boycott. It didn't want access to
that oil market, which was repeatedly proffered to
Washington by Qaddafi then. After Qaddafi came back in
from the cold in the late 1990s (for the European
Union) and after 2003 (for the US), sanctions were
lifted and Western oil companies flocked into the
country. US companies were well represented, along with
BP and the Italian firm ENI. BP signed an expensive
exploration contract with Qaddafi and cannot possibly
have wanted its validity put into doubt by a
revolution. There is no advantage to the oil sector of
removing Qaddafi. Indeed, a new government may be more
difficult to deal with and may not honor Qaddafi's
commitments. There is no prospect of Western companies
being allowed to own Libyan petroleum fields, which
were nationalized long ago. Finally, it is not always
in the interests of Big Oil to have more petroleum on
the market, since that reduces the price and,
potentially, company profits. A war on Libya to get
more and better contracts so as to lower the world
price of petroleum makes no sense in a world where the
bids were already being freely let, and where high
prices were producing record profits. I haven't seen
the war-for-oil argument made for Libya in a manner
that makes any sense at all.

I would like to urge the Left to learn to chew gum and
walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way
through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical
progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in
their travails in places like Libya. If we just don't
care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder
and repression on a vast scale, we aren't people of the
Left. We should avoid making 'foreign intervention' an
absolute taboo the way the Right makes abortion an
absolute taboo if doing so makes us heartless
(inflexible a priori positions often lead to
heartlessness). It is now easy to forget that Winston
Churchill held absolutely odious positions from a Left
point of view and was an insufferable colonialist who
opposed letting India go in 1947. His writings are full
of racial stereotypes that are deeply offensive when
read today. Some of his interventions were nevertheless
noble and were almost universally supported by the Left
of his day. The UN allies now rolling back Qaddafi are
doing a good thing, whatever you think of some of their
individual leaders


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