Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An Open Letter to the Left on Libya, Juan Cole

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 influence.


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 difference.


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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