LIBYA AND THE LEFT
Benghazi and After
by Michael Berube
In late March of 2011, a massacre was averted—not just any ordinary massacre, mind you. For had Qaddafi and his forces managed to crush the Libyan rebellion in what was then its stronghold, Benghazi, the aftershocks would have reverberated well beyond eastern Libya. As Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch wrote, “Qaddafi’s victory—alongside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall—would have signaled to other authoritarian governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia to China that if you negotiate with protesters you lose, but if you kill them you win.” Qaddafi’s defeat seemed to send a message to American politicians and media instead. Contrasting Obama’s handling of Libya with Clinton’s handling of the Balkans, Malinowski observed that “Presidents get more credit for stopping atrocities after they begin than for preventing them before they get out of hand.”
The NATO-led attack on Qaddafi’s forces therefore did much more than prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya—though it should be acknowledged that this alone might have been sufficient justification. It helped keep alive the Arab Spring: after rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt had begun to transform the political landscape of North Africa and the Middle East, and after Qaddafi’s repression of the revolt had earned the condemnation of both the Arab League and the African Union, NATO’s preservation of Benghazi in March sustained the rebellion and made it possible for the rebels to prevail in Tripoli five months later.
The stakes in Benghazi were exceptionally high. As Qaddafi’s tanks and missiles and rocket launchers were encroaching on the city, the United Nations Security Council, realizing that Resolution 1970 was now inadequate to the crisis, passed resolution 1973 on March 17, a much broader statement authorizing member states “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country.” (The phrase “under threat of attack” effectively authorized military action throughout the country, as Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa agreed a few days later). With the resolution the UN regained some of its legitimacy, by contrast with its dithering in the Balkans, where atrocity upon atrocity could not move the Russian Federation to authorize the use of force. This time around, Russia merely abstained, as did China, which claimed that although it “had serious difficulty with the resolution,” it had not blocked its passage because “it attached great importance to the requests of the Arab League and the African Union.”
Though the Arab League would later protest that the NATO air strikes exceeded the resolution’s mandate, the statement was a significant gesture in itself. This is not to say that great-power politics died on the day Ambassador Baodong made these remarks. Still, these considerations were not the only ones in play. The fact remains that a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council had taken the unusual step of deferring to the judgment of more local bodies such as the Arab League and the African Union.
In the United States, however, one man knew what really needed to be done—and done fast. And so on March 21, Dennis Kucinich stepped up to the microphones to declare that Obama’s decision to join military action in Libya “would appear on its face to be an impeachable offense.” Nor did Kucinich stop there: as Jamal Elshayyal of Al Jazeera reported in August, the Libyan intelligence agency headquarters in Tripoli contained evidence that Kucinich had contacted officials in the Qaddafi regime:
On the floor of the intelligence chief’s office lay an envelope addressed to Gaddafi’s son Saif Al-Islam. Inside, I found what appears to be a summary of a conversation between US congressman Denis [sic] Kucinich, who publicly opposed US policy on Libya, and an intermediary for the Libyan leader’s son.
It details a request by the congressman for information he needed to lobby US lawmakers to suspend their support for the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) and to put an end to NATO airstrikes.
According to the document, Kucinich wanted evidence of corruption within the NTC and, like [Bush Administration Assistant Secretary of State David] Welch, any possible links within rebel ranks to al-Qaeda.
It is almost too easy to trot out the hoary old accusation that Dennis Kucinich was objectively pro-Qaddafi. We may simply observe here that when the crisis was at its most urgent, he was willing to go the extra mile to aid the Qaddafi regime as it attacked its own population.
It was, and still is, possible to oppose American intervention in Libya in various reasonably sensible ways. One can point out that the rebels aren’t a coherent unit, so that it is not clear whom “we” are supporting or what the endgame might be; one can suggest that any intervention on the part of the Western powers runs the risk of delegitimizing the revolt in the Arab world; one can worry about “mission creep” and the possibility of getting involved in a bloody, intractable struggle. One can also argue, as Michael Walzer did at the Dissent blog, that the humanitarian crisis in Libya was not so severe as to trigger the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, so there is no reason to trump the principle of nonintervention, and that should any such intervention become necessary, it should be undertaken by Libya’s immediate neighbors (though Walzer also claimed that a UN resolution authorizing the use of force “would almost certainly be vetoed in the Security Council” just ten days before resolution 1973 was approved). Certainly, as with any human action of any kind in any realm of endeavor, the Libya intervention could be subjected to cost/benefit analyses and consequentialist objections about the advisability of this particular action at this particular time.
But from the outset much of the American antiwar left adopted very different lines of argument—lines that had little to do with Libya and Libyans, or indeed with the Arab Spring more broadly. These were tropes that have been forged over the past four decades of antiwar activism, and they were hauled out in 2011 just as they had been over a decade earlier in Kosovo. Ian Williams summarized them in a critical essay for Foreign Policy in Focus: they included “the unconstitutionality of the president ordering military action”; “the invalidity of a UN resolution passed with abstentions”; “the Security Council exceeding its authority by violating Libyan sovereignty”; “the self-interested motives of those intervening”; “the ‘discovery’ of ex-al-Qaeda supporters among the rebels”; and “the failure of the West to intervene in other places where civilians face potential massacres such as Bahrain, Gaza, Ivory Coast, and Yemen.” Williams’s essay was only the opening round of an exchange with Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy and longtime antiwar activist. And a most telling exchange it turned out to be.
Williams argued that the litany of objections to intervention in Libya “evades the crucial question: Should the world let Libyan civilians die at the hands of a tyrant?” In response, Naiman argued (following Kucinich) that Obama had violated the War Powers Resolution, and that much of the American public was doubtful about or opposed to U.S. involvement. Naiman also noted, right on cue, that “the United States has been largely silent on the crackdown in Bahrain.” Williams then replied that Naiman’s answer begins “from a narcissistic Americo-centric point of view, evading the key question. When a group of people who are about to be massacred ask for help, what do you do?” Stunningly, Naiman replied that “the thrust of his argument here seems to be that if you criticize the Western military intervention, you must be a Gaddafi-lover,” and proceeded to pretend that Williams had insulted him personally: “Again Ian Williams comes with the gratuitous insults: ‘narcissistic,’ ‘Americo-centric,’ etc. And again I say: among fair-minded people, those who engage in gratuitous ad hominem attacks weaken rather than strengthen their argument.”
Admittedly, Naiman was in a tight corner. Since he couldn’t answer Williams’s question about whether it was acceptable for the international community to allow Libyans to be massacred, and couldn’t acknowledge that NATO intervention enjoyed a level of legitimacy and international support wholly lacking in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he wound up energetically rebutting a couple of arguments Williams never made. But then he tried a more morally aggressive defense, writing, “The last thing the United States needed to do … was to engage in a third war in a Muslim country.” This argument has a good deal of bite, for it is undeniably true that previous U.S. wars in Muslim countries have not endeared America to the Muslim world. But as I tracked its iterations on the antiwar left, I got the sense that it is more powerful for what it implies than for what it explicitly says. The statement presents itself as mere prudence, combining a sense that the U.S. might be militarily overextended with the concern that our military operations might be viewed with skepticism and hostility on the Arab street. But the implications are more profound, for the formulation “third war in a Muslim country” manages to blend a valid point—that the US is still in Iraq and increasingly embroiled in Afghanistan, with scant justification—with the suggestion that we are engaging in a colonialist spree of Muslim-bombing. For opportunists on the right and the left, Libya is Obama’s Iraq: the right enjoys this equation, because it seems to offer retroactive justification on Iraq while allowing them to crow about allegedly hypocritical liberals who opposed American military action in 2003 but not now; the left is happy to indulge in the same specious argument, because it offers them proof that there never was a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties, that the Obama administration constitutes Bush’s third term in office, and that Obama is a secret neoconservative.
It may be that some of the knee-jerk opposition to US involvement in Libya—that is, the kind that does not take into account the momentum from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, or the support for NATO action by the Arab League and the United Nations—is an epiphenomenon of the left’s version of Obama Derangement Syndrome. In the U.S., ODS is especially pronounced among the “netroots,” where “progressive” bloggers vie to outdo each other in the agonies of their disappointment in and/or the virulence of their disdain for Obama’s presidency. (Last I looked, they had moved on from determining that Obama is worse than Bush, and had begun deliberations as to whether he is the worst president in U.S. history—though one of the more restrained frontpagers at FireDogLake did say, in July 2011, “I’m not ready to crown Barack Obama the Worst President Ever just yet.”) Often based (quite plausibly) on Obama’s various compromises with Republicans and conservative Democrats over health care and the budget, or his collapses on civil liberties, and often led (rather less plausibly) by partisans of Hillary Clinton, who have apparently decided to take her loss in the 2008 Democratic primaries as an occasion for building an alternate reality in which she is somewhere to the left of Eugene V. Debs (and secretly a hardened opponent of the administration in which she serves), Obama Derangement Syndrome is not specifically about foreign policy. It does, however, allow American leftists to cheer on the Arab Spring while denouncing Obama’s, and the international community’s, attempt to support its expression in Libya.
Lest I be misunderstood (though I will be, despite this attempt at interpretive prophylaxis), I am not insisting that support for NATO military action in Libya should have been a litmus test issue for the left. For one thing, the Libya action, like the Kosovo action before it, put paid to the usual left-right configurations, leaving everyone with unexpected and/or unsavory allies. More to the point, there were and are good reasons to mistrust the rebels, and there were and are good reasons to worry about the extent and the ramifications of any US military involvement anywhere. I am simply insisting that there is a world of difference between these standard caveats and University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle’s claim that the Libya action was an “all-out war” of “plunder and aggression.” Or antiwar activist and 9/11 Truther Steve Lendman’s declaration that “after covering Libya’s rape since last winter in dozens of articles, no forgiving or forgetting is possible for one of history’s great crimes.”
Over the years, I’ve learned to anticipate critiques of the line of argument I have developed here, and elaborated at much greater length in The Left At War. Those who believe that there should be no enemies to one’s left are fond of accusing me of “hippie punching,” as if, like Presidents Obama and Clinton, I am attacking straw men to my left in order to lay claim to the reasonable, vital center; those who know that I am not attacking straw persons are wont to claim instead that I am criticizing fringe figures who have no impact whatsoever on public debate in the United States. And it is true: on the subject of Libya the usual fringe figures behaved precisely as The Left At War depicts the Manichean Left. Alexander Cockburn, James Petras, Robert Fisk, John Pilger—all of them still fighting Vietnam, stranded for decades on a remote ideological island with no way of contacting any contemporary geopolitical reality whatsoever—weighed in with the usual denunciations of US imperialism and predictions that Libya would be carved up for its oil.
And about the doughty soi-disant anti-imperialists who, in the mode of Hugo Chavez, doubled down on the delusion that Qaddafi is a legitimate and benevolent ruler harassed by the forces of imperialism, there really is nothing to say, for there can be nothing more damning than their own words.
But if it were just a matter of a handful of left dead-enders muttering to themselves, I wouldn’t bother. What I was newly struck by—in a way that challenged even my usual cynicism about human affairs—was the frequency and the volume of dead-ender sentiments that began popping up in almost every liberal/progressive blog’s comment threads. It was as if everyone and her brother already knew what to say, needing only to download the appropriate template for the occasion: Western relations with Qaddafi had warmed since 2003, so the attack was pure hypocrisy; this is all about oil; Qaddafi was just one of the monsters we created and supported from the beginning; the rebels are seeded with agents of the CIA; this is all about oil; the attack was planned long in advance, and merely wanted an opportune moment; Obama is Bush’s third term; NATO’s motives are not 99 and 44/100 percent pure; the rebels are thugs and theocrats, like the Kosovo Liberation Army before them; the rebels’ celebrations are just like those of post-Saddam Iraq; if the U.S. were really concerned about Libya then why isn’t it intervening in Bahrain and Syria and Saudi Arabia (though we reserve the right to protest if and when it does); and, once more for the old folks at home, this is all about oil.
I lost track of the number of times I came across people arguing that the intervention is a flagrant violation of the UN resolution and of international law. A flagrant violation? Certainly the intervention speaks to an ongoing debate in international law, between the advocates of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) and the defenders of national sovereignty who fear that R2P will license yet another form of domination of the global south by the global north, or of small, allegedly failed states by the world’s great powers. And it is possible to disagree about the scope of resolution 1973, and whether “all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” might include regime change on the grounds that no civilian would be safe from attack as long as Qaddafi remained in power, or whether regime change is or ought to be beyond the purview of the Security Council. These are real ambiguities, and they will be subject to debate for the foreseeable future. But for some observers, perhaps the mantra “flagrant violation, flagrant violation” has the welcome effect of avoiding interpretive ambiguities and allowing for greater concentration of mind.
As the rebels entered Tripoli in August, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, writing at his renowned blog, “Informed Comment,” issued one of his now-famous “Top Ten Myths” debunkings. Starting from the premise that “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,” Cole proceeded to repudiate some of the addled left’s most popular shibboleths about the war. To wit: Qaddafi was a progressive in domestic or foreign policy; he was justified in sending out the military to crush the protestors; the situation was a civil war in which no foreign power had the right to intervene; the situation was a quagmire; Libya was not a “real” country and would be partitioned by the Western powers; NATO would need and would deploy ground troops; the US led the charge to war; and finally, two truly bizarre claims—namely, “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,” and the perennial “this is a war for Libya’s oil.” “That is daft,” Cole replied (with every justification). “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.” Cole failed to note, however, that this last point could not possibly mollify that sector of the left which has always regarded it as appalling that the U.S. improved relations with Qaddafi after 2003—and has regarded it as even more appalling that the U.S. bombed Libya before 2003. For them the fact that U.S. policy toward Libya changed over time and circumstance is proof positive that it is all about oil, just as the tilt toward Iraq in the 1980s, followed by the first Gulf War, proves the same point.
For his dogged attempts to talk about Libya sensibly and evenhandedly, Cole earned the admiration of much of the blogosphere, which, on matters of foreign policy, does not offer much that can be called informed comment. And he earned himself the usual sobriquets from the usual suspects for the usual reasons, which can be summed up reasonably well by the critics who stopped by his blog to tell him that he is an agent of the Empire. No doubt Professor Cole already knew that, although his secret-imperial-agent status did not prevent conservatives from organizing to deny him an offer from Yale University on the grounds that he was unacceptably critical of Israel. The ways of the Empire are mysterious.
It is still too soon to tell what may come of the French Revolution, so it is a fortiori far too soon to tell what may come of the revolutions in North Africa. I hope nothing I have written here will be taken as jejune triumphalism about the fall of Qaddafi—or that of Hosni Mubarak, or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It is not inconceivable that a popular uprising against a brutal dictator, some elements of which are supported by Western liberals, could produce an Islamist state whose policies are abhorrent to Western liberals. What is now called the Arab Spring might eventually become known as “the year 1979 went viral.” But one thing does seem clear even now: when the Arab Spring began, American liberals and leftists generally cheered it on; American conservatives were torn, holding fast to Kissingerian realism or the desires of the Likudnik bloc or the firm conviction that whatever Obama was or was not or might be doing, it was wrong. (This last principle, infinitely elastic, is what allowed senior Republican statesmen and Deeply Serious People like John McCain and Newt Gingrich to take three or four positions on Libya in the course of a week; when Qaddafi was finally killed, the same statesmen graciously congratulated the French while chastising Obama for delaying the necessary regime change through his dithering.) When, however, the American military joined NATO forces in an armed defense of the Libyan rebellion and a counterattack on Qaddafi, suddenly thousands of leftists had second thoughts. With astonishing rapidity, the “Arab Spring” signs disappeared, and thousands of “Power to the People” signs were replaced with newly minted slogans about stopping the imperialist war machine and its wanton rape of Libya.
As I explained in a response to a special issue on The Left at War published online by the journal Politics and Culture, I do not and will not use the term “anti-American” to describe those of my fellow citizens who oppose all U.S. and NATO military actions. “No doubt some of them are motivated, to some extent, by some form of opposition to the United States,” I acknowledged. “But in the United States, the term operates chiefly to suppress debate (unsurprisingly, and regardless of whether its user intends it this way): in mass media, no ‘anti-American’ intellectuals or activists are invited to discuss American affairs. Outside the United States, it confuses legitimate, principled opposition to American foreign policy with legitimate, opportunistic, resentful, or fundamentalist opposition to American cultural hegemony. And, of course, it forecloses on the question of when ‘anti-Americanism’ is an altogether appropriate response to a state of affairs. I know that when my government is napalming villages or helping death squads murder priests and nuns (including American clergy!), then I count myself among the ranks of the anti-Americans. But my opposition to these things is an opposition to actions, not to entities.”
Having said that, however, I now have to add my conviction that for what I call the Manichean Left, opposition to U.S. policy is precisely an opposition to entities: all we need to know, on that left, is that the U.S. is involved. Then we know that the action is wrong, whatever it may be.
Ten years ago, surveying the post-9/11 landscape in the pages of Dissent, Michael Walzer famously asked if there could be a “decent left” in a superpower. It was the wrong question—or perhaps just the wrong term—and it has since been mocked with a mighty mockery: after all, for the hard left, who take as much pride in hardness and firmness as did any of George Bush’s most ardent admirers, “decency” is a prissy value, to be gauged and monitored by a Decency League made up of schoolmarms and busybodies. The question, rather, should have been whether there can be a rigorously internationalist left in the U.S., a left that will promote and support the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear—even on those rare and valuable occasions when doing so puts one in the position of supporting U.S. policies. That, I think, is the question that confronts the American left after Benghazi, in the years following the Arab Spring.
** This article will appear in The Point‘s upcoming issue 5 symposium: What is the Left for?
1. 1. Kucinich issued the following statement in response to the controversy:
Al Jazeera found a document written by a Libyan bureaucrat to other Libyan bureaucrats. All it proves is that the Libyans were reading the Washington Post, and read there about my efforts to stop the war. I can’t help what the Libyans put in their files. My opposition to the war in Libya, even before it formally started, was public and well known. My questions about the legitimacy of the war, who the opposition was, and what NATO was doing, were also well known and consistent with my official duties. Any implication I was doing anything other than trying to bring an end to an unauthorized war is fiction.
Anyone who reads this statement carefully will notice, however, as did Ryan Reilly of Talking Points Memo, that Kucinich “did not outright deny that he had a conversation with Libyan officials.” The point stands.↵
Michael Berube teaches literature at Penn State University. His most recent book is The Left at War (NYU Press, 2011). View all posts by Michael Berube → This entry was posted in Politics and tagged arab spring, Kucinich, Libya. Bookmark the permalink. Tags: arab spring, Kucinich, Libya ← “That’s Entertainment!” Conserving the Novel →
CounterPunch Diary The “Left” and Libya NOVEMBER 25-27, 2011
by ALEXANDER COCKBURN
The last time we met Michael Bérubé on this site was back in 2007, and he was up to his neck in a rubbish dump, where I’d placed him, in the company of other promoters of the 2003 war on Iraq:
where, I asked, are those parlor warriors now? Had any of them reconsidered their illusions...
“...that all it would take was a brisk invasion and a new constitution, to put Iraq to rights? Have any of them, from Makiya through Hitchens to Berman and Bérubé had dark nights, asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq, for a plundered nation, for the American soldiers who died or were crippled in Iraq at their urging ? Sometimes I dream of them… like characters in a Beckett play, buried up to their necks in a rubbish dump on the edge of Baghdad, reciting their columns to each other as the local women turn over the corpses to see if one of them is her husband or her son.”
Who’s this Bérubé, you ask. Well, for starters he’s the Paterno FamilyProfessor in Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. Penn State’s website informs us that “named professorships provide support for a focused area and are funded by gifts from individual donors,” which means that Bérubé has long been on Joe Paterno’s payroll – as things have turned out an ironic status for someone who’s spent a fair slice of his time barking and snapping his jaws at “the left” for innumerable failures stemming from moral equivocation and blindness to reality. Now that famed football coach Joe Paterno has been fired from Penn State for protecting one of his assistants, Jerry Sandusky, suspected of raping a ten-year old boy, amidst many other suspected assaults on youths under Sandusky’s supervision, we must await Bérubé’s assessment of how it feels to have been the kept man of this fallen idol. Does the title “Paterno Family Professor” remain ensconced on Bérubé’s formal letterhead?
Down the years Bérubé has fostered a niche speciality in trashing what he’s pleased to call “the left,” somewhat in the manner of Todd Gitlin, who – perched on the credential of having once been an SDS president — wrote so many worthy articles bashing this same left in the Sixties and issuing stentorian warnings against any such lapses amid the youth of later epochs that eventually he parlayed his services to decorous establishment thinking into a professorship of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.
Now Bérubé has launched an attack on the “left” for its anti-NATO conduct during the recent upheavals in Libya, during which the current National Transitional Council of Libya has been installed under the supervision of this same NATO. On this site this weekend David Gibbsdeals capably with some of the major follies in Bérubé’s critique, but since the latter inscribes me in his roster of shame, I think a few comments are in order, starting with the obvious fact that Bérubé, eager to preserve his cred as thoughtful progressive critic of Left Excess, has had recourse to wholesale invention. The most obvious fact about what passes for the Left in the US and Europe regarding the entire Libyan saga was that it was only a few notches short of unanimity in endorsing the entire NATO-backed enterprise.
What consistent voices were raised in questioning the premises and applications of the two Security Council resolutions enabling NATO, the factual basis for the reporting coming out of Libya that enabled the near 100 per cent agreement in the press that the UN resolutions justified NATO’s bombing campaign, to avoid “genocide” by Gadhafi “against his own people,” that the credentials and conduct of the rebels, later renamed “revolutionaries” were beyond reproach? Here at CounterPunch some of our contributors such as Vijay Prashad were, initially at least, enthusiastic supporters of the Benghazi rebels. Others, such as myself or Patrick Cockburn, in Libya for the UK Independent, or Diana Johnstone in Paris or Jean Bricmont in Brussels, or Tariq Ali (passim) were critical, raised questions concerning the stentorian pro-NATO chorus. This role is usually regarded as one of the mandates of left journalism.
I do not recall CounterPunch as being part of a substantial chorus in this worthy enterprise. In fact I recall us as being among a mere handful on the left, more in concert with a libertarian site like antiwar.com. This is born out by scrutiny of Bérubé’s attack, which is markedly short on names and publications on which to lavish his reprobations of “the left” which, at least prior to the welcome rise of the Occupiers, has been a scrawny thing in recent years. On Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now one was far more likely to hear CIA-consultant Juan Cole issuing fervent support for the entire intervention than rather any vigorous interviewing of informed sources about what was actually happening on the ground in Libya.
Failure as concerns Libya’s history this year belongs not to the virtually non-existent left, but to the entire political spectrum from progressives and the whole arc rightwards. A substantial measure of blame must be allocated here to the press, both here and in the U.K. Could it be that the press coverage of NATO’s Libyan onslaught was actually worse than the reporting on NATO’s attacks on the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, or on Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion by the U.S.A. and its coalition partners? The answer is yes.
In the case of both of the earlier NATO interventions, the debates pro and con were accompanied by many journalistic and official or semi-official investigations, most of them blatantly partisan, but some offering substantive claims about such issues as war crimes, weapons of mass destruction, the actual as opposed to self-proclaimed motives of the assailants, and kindred issues.
Mark the contrast with the Libyan intervention. In less than a month, from mid-February to mid-March, we moved from vague allegations of Gaddafi’s supposed “genocide” or “crimes against humanity” to two separate votes in the U.N. Security Council, which permitted a NATO mission to establish a “no-fly” zone to protect civilians, this latter protection to be achieved by “all necessary measures.”
By the time U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 had been voted through on March 17, France had already formally recognized the jerry-rigged rebel committee in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya. By the end of May, it was being openly stated by senior figures in the relevant NATO governments that “regime change” was the objective and the eviction of Gaddafi a sine qua non of the mission.
Also, by late May, it was apparent that the rebels’ military capacities were modest in the extreme, that Ghadafi’s eviction was not going to be the overnight affair, confidently predicted in western capitals and in Benghazi, also that NATO’s bombardments were not having the requisite effect.
In the crucial February 15 – March 17 time slot, there was no determined effort to investigate the charges against Ghadafi, leveled in the U.N. Security Council Resolutions and by NATO principals such as Obama and Clinton, the U.K.’s prime minister Cameron, or President Sarkozy and his foreign minister.
The amazing vagueness of news stories of this – or indeed any – topic coming out of Libya has been conspicuous. Here, remember, we had a regime accused in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 of “widespread and systematic attacks … against the civilian population [that] may amount to crimes against humanity.”
Yet since mid-February the reporting out of Libya displayed a striking lack of persuasive documentation of butcheries or abuses commensurate with the language lavished on the regime’s presumptive conduct. Time and again one read vague phrases like “thousands reportedly killed by Gaddafi’s mercenaries” or Gaddafi “massacring his own people,” delivered without the slightest effort to furnish supporting evidence. It was the secondhand allegation of massacres that drove both news coverage and U.N. activities – particularly in the early stage, when U.N. Resolution 1970 was adopted, calling for sanctions and the referral of Gaddafi’s closest circle to the International Criminal Court.
News reports in mid-March, such as those by the McClatchy news chain’s reporters Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and Shashank Bengali, contained no claims of anything approaching a “crime against humanity,” the allegation in Resolution 1973. Yet by February 23 the propaganda blitz was in full spate, with Clinton denouncing Gaddafi and with Reagan’s “mad dog of the Middle East” exhumed as the preferred way of describing the Libyan leader.
The U.N. commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, started denouncing the Libyan government as early as February 18; U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined Pillay on February 21. The U.N. News Center reported that Ban was “outraged at press reports that the Libyan authorities have been firing at demonstrators from war planes and helicopters” (our italics). In these early days, no one who represented the Libyan government was permitted to address the council. Only defectors speaking on behalf of Libya were given the floor.
Now, remember that on March 10 French President Sarkozy, a major player in NATO’s coalition of the willing against Libya, declared the Libyan National Transition Council the only legitimate representative of the Libyan people. So, Gaddafi was facing a formal armed insurrection – not a protest movement demanding “democracy” – led by a shadowy entity based in Benghazi. Seven days later, Resolution 1973 made clear that attempts to suppress this insurrection would elicit armed intervention by NATO.
The political complexion and origins of the rebel leadership and its backers received only fleeting attention. Topics such as the rivalry between the French and Italian oil companies, or the input of other international oil majors, and major U.S. banks and financial institutions were rarely touched upon.
The coverage of any fighting was often laughable. The press corps in Benghazi breathlessly described minor skirmishes involving a tank or two, or some armed vehicles, as mighty engagements.
In fact, the mighty armies contending along the highway west of Benghazi would melt into the bleachers at a college baseball game. News stories suggest mobile warfare on the scale of the epic dramas of the Kursk salient or the battle for Stalingrad in World War Two.
By the end of June the “no-fly zone” prompted some 12,000-plus NATO sorties. As with any bombing, civilians died. Since the beginning of NATO operations, a total of 12,887 sorties, including 4,850 strike sorties, were conducted up to June 27.
A team of Russian doctors wrote to the president of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, as follows:
“Today, 24 March, 2011, NATO aircraft and the U.S. all night and all morning bombed a suburb of Tripoli – Tajhura (where, in particular, is Libya’s Nuclear Research Center). Air Defense and Air Force facilities in Tajhura were destroyed back in the first 2 days of strikes and more active military facilities in the city remained, but today the object of bombing are barracks of the Libyan army, around which are densely populated residential areas, and, next to it, the largest of Libya’s Heart Centers. Civilians and the doctors could not assume that common residential quarters will be about to become destroyed, so none of the residents or hospital patients was evacuated.
“Bombs and rockets struck residential houses and fell near the hospital. The glass of the Cardiac Center building was broken, and in the building of the maternity ward for pregnant women with heart disease a wall collapsed and part of the roof. This resulted in ten miscarriages whereby babies died, the women are in intensive care, doctors are fighting for their lives. Our colleagues and we are working seven days a week, to save people. This is a direct consequence of falling bombs and missiles in residential buildings, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries, which are operated and reviewed now by our doctors. Such a large number of wounded and killed, as during today, did not occur during the total of all the riots in Libya. And this is called ‘protecting’ the civilian population?”
With the Libyan intervention, everything was out of proportion. Gaddafi was scarcely the acme of monstrosity conjured up by Obama or Mrs. Clinton or Sarkozy. In four decades, Libyans rose from being among the most wretched in Africa to considerable elevation in terms of social amenities. In a detailed fairly recent report (“The Situation of Children and Women in Libya,” UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office, November 2010), UNICEF noted that Libya had important socio-economic achievements to its credit. In 2009 it enjoyed:
• a buoyant growth rate, with GDP having risen from $27.3 billion in 1998 to $93.2 billion by 2009, according to the World Bank;
• high per capita income (estimated by the World Bank at $16,430);high literacy rates (95 per cent for males and 78 per cent for females, aged fifteen and above);
• high life expectancy at birth (74 years overall; 77 for females and 72 for males)
• and a consequent ranking of 55 out of 182 countries in terms of overall “Human Development”
In terms of the distribution of oil revenues it would be instructive to compare Libya’s record to those of other oil-producing nations.
Gaddafi’s alleged slaughter of his own people, and alleged ordering of mass rapes, formed the sharp edge of the interventionist crusade and of the Security Council resolutions, draped with the imprimatur of the collusive International Criminal Court. These charges were endlessly recycled by the press, without any serious attempt at verification.
By mid-to-late June, human rights organizations were casting doubt on claims of mass rape and other abuses perpetrated by forces loyal to Gaddafi. An investigation by Amnesty International 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.
The findings by the investigators were sharply at odds with the views of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who told a press conference that “we have information that there was a policy to rape in Libya those who were against the government. Apparently he [Colonel Gaddafi] used it to punish people.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “deeply concerned” that Gaddafi’s troops were participating in widespread rape in Libya. “Rape, physical intimidation, sexual harassment, and even so-called virginity tests have taken place in countries throughout the region,” she said.
Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty, who was in Libya for three months after the start of the uprising, said to Patrick Cockburn in late June that “we have not found any evidence or a single victim of rape, or a doctor who knew about somebody being raped.” She stressed this does not prove that mass rape did not occur, but there is no evidence to show that it did. Liesel Gerntholtz, head of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, which also investigated the charge of mass rape, said, “We have not been able to find evidence.”
In one instance, two captured pro-Gaddafi soldiers presented to the international media by the rebels claimed that [added] their officers, and later themselves, had raped a family with four daughters. Ms. Rovera says that when she and a colleague, both fluent in Arabic, interviewed the two detainees, one 17 years old and one 21, alone and in separate rooms, they changed their stories and gave differing accounts of what had happened. “They both said they had not participated in the rape and just heard about it,” she said. “They told different stories about whether or not the girls’ hands were tied, whether their parents were present, and about how they were dressed.”
Seemingly the strongest evidence for mass rape appeared to come from a Libyan psychologist, Dr. Seham Sergewa, who says she distributed 70,000 questionnaires in rebel-controlled areas and along the Tunisian border, of which over 60,000 were returned. Some 259 women volunteered that they had been raped, of whom Dr. Sergewa said she interviewed 140 victims.
Asked by Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s specialist on Libya, if it would be possible to meet any of these women, Dr. Sergewa replied that “she had lost contact with them,” and was unable to provide documentary evidence.
The accusation that Viagra had been distributed to Gaddafi’s troops to encourage them to rape women in rebel areas first surfaced in March, after NATO had destroyed tanks advancing on Benghazi. Ms. Rovera says that rebels dealing with the foreign media in Benghazi started showing journalists packets of Viagra, claiming they came from burned-out tanks, though it is unclear why the packets were not charred.
Rebels repeatedly charged that mercenary troops from Central and West Africa had been used against them. The Amnesty investigation found there was no evidence for this. “Those shown to journalists as foreign mercenaries were later quietly released,” says Ms. Rovera. “Most were sub-Saharan migrants working in Libya without documents.” Others were not so lucky and were lynched or executed. Ms. Rovera found two bodies of migrants in the Benghazi morgue, and others were dumped on the outskirts of the city. She says, “The politicians kept talking about mercenaries, which inflamed public opinion, and the myth has continued because they were released without publicity.”
One story, to which credence was given by the foreign media early on in Benghazi, was that eight to ten government troops who refused to shoot protesters were executed by their own side. Their bodies were shown on TV. But Ms. Rovera, says there is strong evidence for a different explanation. She says amateur video shows them alive after they had been captured, suggesting it was the rebels who killed them.
NATO intervention started on March 19 with air attacks to “protect” people in Benghazi from massacre by advancing pro-Gaddafi troops. There is no doubt that civilians did expect to be killed after threats of vengeance from Gaddafi. During the first days of the uprising in eastern Libya, security forces shot and killed demonstrators and people attending their funerals, but there is no proof of mass killing of civilians on the scale of Syria or Yemen.
Most of the fighting during the first days of the uprising was in Benghazi, where 100 to 110 people were killed, and in the city of Baida to the east, where 59 to 64 were killed, says Amnesty. Most of these were probably protesters, though some may have obtained weapons. There is no evidence that aircraft or heavy anti-aircraft machine guns were used against crowds. Spent cartridges picked up after protesters were shot at came from Kalashnikovs or similar caliber weapons.
The Amnesty findings confirmed a report by the International Crisis Group, which found that while the Gaddafi regime had a history of brutally repressing opponents, there was no question of “genocide.”
The report adds that “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”
With so many countries out of bounds, journalists flocked to Benghazi, in Libya, which can be reached from Egypt without a visa. Alternatively they went to Tripoli, where the government allows a carefully monitored press corps to operate under strict supervision. Having arrived in these two cities, the ways in which the journalists report diverged sharply. Everybody reporting out of Tripoli expressed understandable skepticism about what government minders seek to show them as regards civilian casualties caused by NATO air strikes or demonstrations of support for Gaddafi. By way of contrast, the foreign press corps in Benghazi, capital of the rebel-held territory, shows surprising credulity toward more subtle but equally self-serving stories from the rebel government or its sympathizers.
The Libyan insurgents were adept at dealing with the press from an early stage, and this included skilful propaganda to put the blame for unexplained killings on the other side. It is a weakness of journalists that they give wide publicity to atrocities, evidence for which may be shaky when first revealed. But when the stories turn out to be untrue or exaggerated, they rate scarcely a mention.
It is all credit to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that they have taken a skeptical attitude to atrocities until proven. Contrast this responsible attitude with that of Hillary Clinton or the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who blithely suggested that Gaddafi was using rape as a weapon of war to punish the rebels This systematic demonization of Gaddafi – a brutal despot he may be, but not a monster on the scale of Saddam Hussein – also made it difficult to negotiate a ceasefire with him.
There is nothing particularly surprising about the rebels in Benghazi making things up or producing dubious witnesses to Gaddafi’s crimes. They were fighting a war against a despot whom they feared and hated, and they understandably used propaganda as a weapon of war. But it did show naivety on the part of the foreign media, who almost universally sympathize with the rebels, to the extent that they swallowed whole so many atrocity stories fed to them by the rebel authorities and their sympathizers.
The only massacre by the Gaddafi regime, involving hundreds of victims, which is so far well attested is the killings at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996, when up to 1,200 prisoners died, according to a credible witness who survived.
Battlefronts are always awash with rumors of impending massacre or rape, which spread rapidly among terrified people who may be the intended victims. Understandably enough, they do not want to wait around to find out how true these stories are. Earlier this year, Patrick Cockburn was in Ajdabiyah, a front-line town an hour and a half’s drive south of Benghazi, when he saw car loads of panic-stricken refugees fleeing up the road. They had just heard an entirely untrue report via al-Jazeera Arabic that pro-Gaddafi forces had broken through.
Likewise, al-Jazeera was producing uncorroborated reports of hospitals being attacked, blood banks destroyed, women raped, and the injured executed.
This toxic mixture of cheerleading and willful blindness persisted through to the end – though now stories do appear about the summary executions, revenge killings and mass imprisonments that are occurring.
These are the real failures, to which Bérubé is indifferent, just as he is indifferent to and entirely ignorant of Libyan history, past and present. His mandate is to issue his pro-forma denunciation of “the left,” an excerise in data-free ranting. By way of an antidote I strongly recommend a fine piece in the London Review of Books by Hugh Roberts, who was the director of the International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project from 2002 to 2007 and from February to July 2011. Roberts is about to take up the post of Edward Keller Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at Tufts University.
A couple of samples:
“The claim that the ‘international community’ had no choice but to intervene militarily and that the alternative was to do nothing is false. An active, practical, non-violent alternative was proposed, and deliberately rejected. The argument for a no-fly zone and then for a military intervention employing ‘all necessary measures’ was that only this could stop the regime’s repression and protect civilians. Yet many argued that the way to protect civilians was not to intensify the conflict by intervening on one side or the other, but to end it by securing a ceasefire followed by political negotiations. A number of proposals were put forward. The International Crisis Group, for instance, where I worked at the time, published a statement on 10 March arguing for a two-point initiative: (i) the formation of a contact group or committee drawn from Libya’s North African neighbours and other African states with a mandate to broker an immediate ceasefire; (ii) negotiations between the protagonists to be initiated by the contact group and aimed at replacing the current regime with a more accountable, representative and law-abiding government. This proposal was echoed by the African Union and was consistent with the views of many major non-African states – Russia, China, Brazil and India, not to mention Germany and Turkey. It was restated by the ICG in more detail (adding provision for the deployment under a UN mandate of an international peacekeeping force to secure the ceasefire) in an open letter to the UN Security Council on 16 March, the eve of the debate which concluded with the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973. In short, before the Security Council voted to approve the military intervention, a worked-out proposal had been put forward which addressed the need to protect civilians by seeking a rapid end to the fighting, and set out the main elements of an orderly transition to a more legitimate form of government, one that would avoid the danger of an abrupt collapse into anarchy, with all it might mean for Tunisia’s revolution, the security of Libya’s other neighbours and the wider region. The imposition of a no-fly zone would be an act of war: as the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, told Congress on 2 March, it required the disabling of Libya’s air defences as an indispensable preliminary. In authorising this and ‘all necessary measures’, the Security Council was choosing war when no other policy had even been tried. Why?
Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west – in other words, he had to accept strategic defeat in advance. These conditions, which were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1. (1) Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;…”
And here’s Roberts concerning the influential charge that Gadhafi had ordered the slaughtering of his fellow Libyans from the air, plus his conclusion:
In the days that followed I made efforts to check the al-Jazeera story [about Ghadafi bombing Libyans] for myself. One source I consulted was the well-regarded blog Informed Comment, maintained and updated every day by Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. This carried a post on 21 February entitled ‘Qaddafi’s bombardments recall Mussolini’s’, which made the point that ‘in 1933-40, Italo Balbo championed aerial warfare as the best means to deal with uppity colonial populations.’ The post began: ‘The strafing and bombardment in Tripoli of civilian demonstrators by Muammar Gaddafi’s fighter jets on Monday …’, with the underlined words linking to an article by Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael for Associated Press published at 9 p.m. on 21 February. This article provided no corroboration of Cole’s claim that Gaddafi’s fighter jets (or any other aircraft) had strafed or bombed anyone in Tripoli or anywhere else. The same is true of every source indicated in the other items on Libya relaying the aerial onslaught story which Cole posted that same day.
I was in Egypt for most of the time, but since many journalists visiting Libya were transiting through Cairo, I made a point of asking those I could get hold of what they had picked up in the field. None of them had found any corroboration of the story. I especially remember on 18 March asking the British North Africa expert Jon Marks, just back from an extended tour of Cyrenaica (taking in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Brega, Derna and Ras Lanuf), what he had heard about the story. He told me that no one he had spoken to had mentioned it. Four days later, on 22 March, USA Today carried a striking article by Alan Kuperman, the author of The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention and coeditor of Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention. The article, ‘Five Things the US Should Consider in Libya’, provided a powerful critique of the Nato intervention as violating the conditions that needed to be observed for a humanitarian intervention to be justified or successful. But what interested me most was his statement that ‘despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.’ So, four weeks on, I was not alone in finding no evidence for the aerial slaughter story. I subsequently discovered that the issue had come up more than a fortnight earlier, on 2 March, in hearings in the US Congress when Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying. They told Congress that they had no confirmation of reports of aircraft controlled by Gaddafi firing on citizens….
The idea that Gaddafi represented nothing in Libyan society, that he was taking on his entire people and his people were all against him was another distortion of the facts. As we now know from the length of the war, the huge pro-Gaddafi demonstration in Tripoli on 1 July, the fierce resistance Gaddafi’s forces put up, the month it took the rebels to get anywhere at all at Bani Walid and the further month at Sirte, Gaddafi’s regime enjoyed a substantial measure of support, as the NTC did. Libyan society was divided and political division was in itself a hopeful development since it signified the end of the old political unanimity enjoined and maintained by the Jamahiriyya. In this light, the Western governments’ portrayal of ‘the Libyan people’ as uniformly ranged against Gaddafi had a sinister implication, precisely because it insinuated a new Western-sponsored unanimity back into Libyan life. This profoundly undemocratic idea followed naturally from the equally undemocratic idea that, in the absence of electoral consultation or even an opinion poll to ascertain the Libyans’ actual views, the British, French and American governments had the right and authority to determine who was part of the Libyan people and who wasn’t. No one supporting the Gaddafi regime counted. Because they were not part of ‘the Libyan people’ they could not be among the civilians to be protected, even if they were civilians as a matter of mere fact. And they were not protected; they were killed by Nato air strikes as well as by uncontrolled rebel units. The number of such civilian victims on the wrong side of the war must be many times the total death toll as of 21 February. But they don’t count, any more than the thousands of young men in Gaddafi’s army who innocently imagined that they too were part of ‘the Libyan people’ and were only doing their duty to the state counted when they were incinerated by Nato’s planes or extra-judicially executed en masse after capture, as in Sirte.
Our Latest Newsletter
We offer two terrific pieces, by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Fred Gardner. A distinguished anthropologist, Scheper-Hughes is one of our favorite writers. Indeed your CounterPunch editors listed her Death without Weeping in its top 100 non-fiction books published in English in the 20th Century. A few months ago we ran her amazing investigation of the international trade in body parts. This time she contributes a very powerful piece – in part autobiographical – on the slow death of the Roman Catholic Church, centered on the Vatican’s appalling response to the disclosures of the past few years of the sexual predations of Catholic priests on children, among them indigenous peoples.
On September 23, 2011, Scheper-Hughes writes, human rights lawyers and former clerical sex abuse victims filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, asking for an investigation to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and three of his top officials, including William Levada, a cardinal, and the former bishop of the diocese of San Francisco, for crimes against humanity.
“The request to war crimes court may seem theatrical. The Vatican did not ratify the Rome statute that created the court, although both Germany (Benedict’s birthplace) and Italy (home of the Vatican) have done so. The ICC only has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed after 2002. Nonetheless, the International Criminal Court has agreed to examine the papers, and a spokesperson has said that the case has merit.
So, finally, what’s a former Catholic to do when her Church is corrupt and moribund? Today, the defections are not just of unhappy priests and nuns, but of the global Catholic community at large. Churches are closing in European and in American cities. The will and the desire to fight the Vatican are mostly gone. The damage, beyond the current sex scandal, to women’s bodies, the indifference to maternal and infant mortalities, to the populations at risk of the AIDS epidemic, especially in Catholic parts of Africa, are too much to bear.
“Some former Catholics take solace in other spiritual traditions. Given the animistic quality of Catholic ancestor worship, some former Catholics embrace a cult of everyday saints, virgins, and martyrs, adding Steven Biko, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Dorothy Day, and Harvey Milk to their older devotion to Saint Joan, San Antonio, and Saint Francis of Assisi. Others look to a green theology based on reverence for earth, and sky and sea, and all the critters that slither and crawl, walk and swim. Some, like Paul Farmer, continue along the Vatican-savaged remains of a once vibrant liberation theology, a theology of hope.
“I am grieved and not relieved by my loss of a faith that once gave beauty, richness and fullness to my life. The secular humanism of anthropology offers an alternative form of discipleship, built around the practice of studied observation, contemplation and reflection. I know that anthropology is a powerful tool capable of taming unruly emotions, replacing disgust with respect, ignorance with understanding, hatred with empathy, and a practice of compassionate and modest witnessing to human sorrows. But it is cold comfort for the former believer, when the mystery is gone and with it the light has gone out of one’s soul.”
Don’t miss this marvelous essay.
Also don’t miss Fred Gardner’s contribution to our ongoing series on Obama’s record. Gardner examines the pledges on medical marijuana he made on the campaign trail and his substantive record thereafter and the current onslaught of the Justice Department on medical marijuana dispensaries in California. Gardner’s question to the leaders of the marijuana reform movement: Did they really read his lips? Did they “over-read” and too optimistically interpret what the candidate was saying.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached email@example.com
A Reply to Michael Bérubé
The “Decent Left” and the Libya Intervention
by DAVID N. GIBBS
Even as NATO celebrates its victory over the Gaddafi dictatorship, there is growing unease about the operation. The Libyan intervention was supposed to be a model of legality, but ended up exceeding the terms set forth in Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a no fly zone but not regime change. US involvement violated the War Powers Resolution.
The intervention was presented as a truly international operation, but ended up being directed by Britain and France, the two main powers from the heyday of colonialism, thus adding to the unsavory appearance of the whole enterprise. The intervention was supposed to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, but ended up enabling one in Sirte, where there have been numerous executions of pro-Gaddafi loyalists. It was supposed to dissuade other tyrants from oppressing their own people, but in reality had no such effect.
Political repression in Syria actually increased after the intervention. The intervention has generated significant dangers to global security: The character of Western policy toward the Libyan despot – by first persuading Gaddafi to give up his nuclear weapons development program and then overthrowing him – has discouraged other countries from abandoning their own nuclear weapons programs. The intervention thus constitutes a setback for international efforts to curb nuclear proliferation. In addition, vast stocks of anti-aircraft missiles have been looted from Gaddafi’s warehouses in the course of the intervention; these have likely filtered into the world-wide arms market. And even the most hardened observers must be chilled at the fate of Gaddafi himself, who was apparently sodomized before he was killed. This was certainly not the “clean” overthrow it was supposed to be.
In this context, supporters of the intervention seek to shift discussion away from the embarrassing facts and lash out against those who disagree with their views. Michael Bérubé has created a stir recently with his article “Libya and the Left,” [please add link] soon to appear in print in The Point Magazine. This article defends the intervention, while it attacks writers who oppose it, with a special emphasis on attacking left-wing opponents of the intervention. Both Juan Cole and Brad DeLong recommend this article on their blog sites, while the online
edition of The Economist also praises it.
Bérubé condemns what he terms the “addled left” and their “popular shibboleths about the war,” which includes the supposedly widespread view that “Gaddafi was a progressive in domestic or foreign policy” who was “justified in sending out the military to crush the protesters.” There is a strong insinuation throughout the article that most opponents of the NATO intervention were friends of the Gaddafi dictatorship. On his own blog, Cole agrees with Bérubé and extols the merits of his analysis which, according to Cole, exposes the left’s “Woolly thinking, outrageous lies, moon-eyed Gaddafi-worship,” among other sins.
And Bérubé criticizes those who question NATO’s motives for intervening. He is particularly incensed by allegations that Libya’s oil reserves – which are the ninth largest in the world – might have influenced the decision to intervene. Allegations that the NATO states might have acted on self interest are examples of mere “tropes that have been forged over the past four decades of antiwar activism,” and can thus be dismissed.
The article concludes by arguing for a “rigorously internationalist left” one that will support “the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear,” and will do these things even where it “puts one in the position of supporting US policies.” There is a distinct tone of innuendo here — that the existing left is for the most part not internationalist, that it opposes freedom of speech and the like – but no evidence whatsoever.
True, Bérubé inserts intermittent statements that acknowledge a more complex picture and admit that the intervention can be opposed for legitimate reasons. But such qualifications appear brief and pro forma. For the most part, the article is a sweeping indictment against virtually all opponents of the intervention, mostly through insinuated slurs.
“Libya and the Left” will no doubt be cited by many who will nevertheless miss the point that the article is rambling, petty, and self-contradictory; that the most weighty “evidence” cited by Bérubé consists of extended quotes from Cole (who appears to have formed a mutual admiration society with Bérubé); that it cites few facts, and those it does cite are often cited tendentiously; that it focuses more on attacking the moral character of the anti-interventionist movement than on their substantive claims; and that overall, it presents a textbook case of a profoundly illogical ad hominem argument.
Let us now turn to the reality of the situation with regard to the Gaddafi dictatorship: In fact, there has been a problem of Western collaboration with the dictatorship. However, the problem was not one of leftist collaboration, which was relatively minor. The real sources of collaboration were the very same Western leaders who recently crushed Gaddafi — who had been Gaddafi supporters only a few months before. This history of collaboration provides vital context for understanding NATO’s recent intervention.
Here are the facts: Around 2003, Gaddafi essentially offered to abandon his radical policies, including his support for terrorism and his nuclear weapons development program, on the condition that the Western powers would end their adversarial stance and lift economic sanctions, which had been in place since the 1980s. He also offered to cooperate in the War on Terror. The US and European powers accepted this deal, and Gaddafi became a de facto ally. Internally, Gaddafi’s oppression of his people continued uninterrupted, but this was not a problem since Western officials were unconcerned about human rights.
It is important to emphasize that the Western collaboration with Gaddafi during this period was very close indeed. Several states sought to sell weapons to Gaddafi. The French in particular were trying to sell him fighter planes as late as January 2011, only two months before they began to bomb him. Ironically enough, the fighter plane the French sought to sell was the Rafale, which was later used as the main weapon of war against Gaddafi, once French policy changed. We should not be shocked by France’s cynical shifting of loyalties in this case, since France has had a long history of cynical arms dealing (with extensive sales to Libya in the 1970s).
Leaders of several NATO states in addition to France established close relations with Gaddafi, and his previous history of terrorism was forgotten. Western companies poured money into Libyan oil fields, while British MI-6 agents formed close relationships with Libyan security personnel. Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the post-2003 dealings with Gaddafi concerned the practice of extraordinary rendition: We now know that the Central Intelligence Agency sent terrorist suspects to Libya, where they were tortured by Gaddafi’s thugs.
This sickening involvement with Libyan torture practices makes Dennis Kucinich’s pro-Gaddafi dalliances seem trivial in comparison.
And there was further collaboration: Nongovernmental institutions accepted Gaddafi money, with few qualms. The London School of Economics received a large contribution from the Gaddafi family, which aimed at improving their image in Britain. From the US, the Monitor Group consultancy arranged for prominent Americans such as Richard Perle to meet the Libyan dictator.
Thus, Western elites were perfectly comfortable with Gaddafi’s oppressive rule, including his use of torture. These states only broke with Gaddafi when his hold on power tottered, in response to the Arab Spring, and he ceased to be useful. He was no longer viewed as a reliable protector of Western access to Libya’s oil resources.
This shift from being pro-Gaddafi to anti-Gaddafi was undertaken with such suddenness and crass opportunism that the shift must be viewed as another iteration in the sordid history of realpolitik. And contrary to Bérubé’s claims, this collaboration was not undertaken primarily by the antiwar left. It was done by many of the same Western leaders who today are claiming the moral high ground in having overthrown the tyrant — who was considered a close ally only a few months before.
“The Left and Gaddafi” serves mainly to whitewash the history of official collaboration with the Gaddafi dictatorship, and it thus contributes to historical amnesia and foreign policy ignorance. Supporters of intervention may indulge Bérubé’s fantasy that leftists were the main supporters of Gaddafi, but this is a fantasy all the same.
The article also stands as a testament to the debasing of public discussion, whereby serious issues are trivialized through ad hominemattacks. Bérubé presents himself as part of the “decent left,” but he uses the same techniques as David Horowitz and the McCarthyite right.
David N. Gibbs is professor of history at the University of Arizona, who has published extensively on international relations, political economy, and US foreign policy. His latest book is First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia(Vanderbilt University Press, 2009).
 See B. J. Bjornson, “Libya and the Left,” November 7, 2011, http://www.newshoggers.com/blog/2011/11/libya-and-the-left.html