Left debates Libya: Juan Cole/Gilbert Achcar controversy; The anti-anti-Qaddafi left

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[For more left views on Libya, click HERE.]

Two articles by Louis Proyect, moderator of the MarxMail list. They first appeared at Proyect's website, The Unrepentant Marxist, and are posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.

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By Louis Proyect

April 3, 2011 -- Perhaps the reason people on the left are so upset with Juan Cole and Gilbert Achcar’s “humanitarian intervention” arguments is that they are widely considered “one of us”. In Achcar’s case, the pain is even more acute for the Marxist wing of the left since his credentials are so well established.

Turning first to Juan Cole, we are operating on a plane fairly far removed from the Marxist literature on such matters. Whatever his position, he must be commended for sticking his neck out as a public intellectual. His blog article “An Open Letter to the Left on Libya” has 356 comments, including his own responses. Could you imagine Samantha Powers ever engaging with her critics in this way when she was at Harvard?

Cole begins with a trip down memory lane:

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.

Clearly, Cole is missing the main point. If the disappearance of the USSR makes it easier for the United States to intervene, the only outcome that is guaranteed is a unipolar Empire of the sort that Queen Victoria ruled over. If Queen Victoria was committed to “human rights” in the Sudan, including the very same sorts of issues that George Clooney, Nicholas Kristof and Mia Farrow get worked up over today, why would we expect the US imperialists to behave any differently? Their interest is never about stopping human rights abuses but broadening their global reach.

Like Achcar, Cole does make some very good arguments against the MRZine/Cockburn/Chossudovsky wing of the left:

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.

Unfortunately, he undermines the credibility gained with such solid arguments when he refers to Qaddafi [Gaddafi] as follows:

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.

It would be a good idea for the left never to refer to Qaddafi as a “mad dog” considering the origins of this epithet. At an April 9, 1986, news conference, US President Ronald Reagan stated: “Well, we know that this mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of a world revolution, Moslem fundamentalist revolution, which is targeted on many of his own Arab compatriots.”

Cole is also rather disingenuous in the way he finds legitimacy in an intervention that was not even approved by Congress (Dennis Kucinich, a creature that I would describe as invertebrate generally, has called for Obama’s impeachment):

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.

It is doubtful that anybody can take the idea that the Egyptian and Tunisian governments are “liberated” seriously. Right now the army holds power in Egypt and in Tunisia, the prime minister was appointed by the dictator Ben Ali’s unelected successor. This is not to speak of the role of Saudi Arabia in tilting the Obama administration toward intervention. You can be sure that Saudi Arabia has not yet been “liberated”, not even on the highly qualified basis of Egypt and Tunisia. Asia Times’s Pepe Escobar reports:

You invade Bahrain. We take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. This, in short, is the essence of a deal struck between the Barack Obama administration and the House of Saud. Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya – the main rationale that led to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.

This does not sound very much like the high-minded principles that are taught in Ivy League international relations seminars but more like The Godfather part one or HBO’s The Sopranos.

Cole tries to refute the arguments Marxism traditionally rests on against intervention by making a rather specious case:

Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade.

In fact, this has about as much to do with a NATO no-fly zone as Obama has to do with Paul Robeson. However, there is a point that is worth taking up and that is whether “outsider” interference is always wrong. I will address that after a look at the case made by Gilbert Achcar.

As might be expected, Achcar, who is a Trotskyist at least by reputation, grounds his arguments in Marxist orthodoxy—or at least attempts to. The article titled “Libya: a legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective”,  like Cole’s, is a defence offered up to his comrades. It begins with an epigraph by Lenin:

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made. … To reject compromises ‘on principle’, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously … One must be able to analyze the situation and the concrete conditions of each compromise, or of each variety of compromise. One must learn to distinguish between a man who has given up his money and fire-arms to bandits so as to lessen the evil they can do and to facilitate their capture and execution, and a man who gives his money and fire-arms to bandits so as to share in the loot.

Unfortunately, this treaty had little to do with the immediate question of an imperialist intervention in Libya. Frankly, there is little in Marxist literature that deals directly with such a matter since it is a phenomenon that only really began to take form long after Lenin’s death. We are dealing with various forms of “rescue” that combine multinational structures like the UN or NATO, or temporary coalitions with a veneer of legality, with powerful military assets, especially cruise missiles. Over and over again, we see operations like Kosovo, East Timor, and now Libya that follow a well-trodden path. The West intervenes to prevent “genocide” or massacres. The closest analogy, at least from a propaganda standpoint, is with Hitler’s genocides but it only works with East Timor.

While opposing Achcar’s arguments for intervention, Alex Callinicos offers an interesting example that seeks to make Achcar look like less of a renegade, not that this accusation made much sense to begin with:

Gilbert is right, revolutionaries have sometimes been prepared to take help from imperialist powers.

Soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, invading German armies were threatening the survival of the infant Soviet republic. Britain and France offered help. Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik central committee: “Please add my vote in favour of taking potatoes and weapons from the Anglo-French imperialist robbers.” (The citation: The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Central Committee Minutes of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918 (London, 1974), p. 215)

But I don’t find this analogy very useful, or one that I have heard on Marxmail, namely that of Lenin coming to Russia on a German train. If you are going to use an analogy, it has to be much closer to the problem under consideration.

Ironically, Achcar’s trump card is one that makes his connection to the Trotskyist movement tenuous at best:

To take another extreme analogy for the sake of showing the full range of discussion: could Nazism be defeated through non-violent means? Were not the means used by the Allied forces themselves cruel? Did they not savagely bomb Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing huge numbers of civilians? In hindsight, would we now say that the anti-imperialist movement in Britain and the United States should have campaigned against their states’ involvement in the world war?

Ernest Mandel’s analysis of WWII holds up rather well against this line of reasoning that so many of us Trotskyist veterans who heard it from CPers in the 1960s and '70s but again from Christopher Hitchens during the wars in the Balkans and in Iraq.

I think that there must be a different way of evaluating situations such as that which confronts us now in Libya. The real problem is in determining the nature of the Libyan revolt that now has been condemned by the “anti-imperialists” as ex post facto counter-revolutionary because of Western intervention. In this schema, Qaddafi is “anti-imperialist” because Western jets are bombing his troops. I posed this question on Mike Ely’s Kasama Project but have not gotten any takers:

Just a hypothetical example but not that far from what happened. Let’s say that the Australian army encountered serious resistance from Indonesian militias trying to hold on to East Timor and that the East Timorese had been armed by the US. Would we support the Indonesian militias?

If Cole and Achcar err on the question of understanding the nature of the beast, their opponents in this debate err on the side of demonising the men and women who took up arms against Qaddafi. By harping on CIA involvement with the rebels, they essentially reduce the opposition to something akin to the Nicaraguan contras or Savimbi’s killers in Angola. While I think both sides will outlive any errors (MRZine of course being excepted) made in this debate, neither has shown their best side.

Finally, although I oppose “humanitarian interventions” by the imperialists, I do think that outside rescues can play a role. When Tanzanian troops entered Uganda to topple Idi Amin, this was a genuine humanitarian intervention all the more so since the murdering tyrant was receiving outside support from guess who:

The same Gaddafi is said to have urged Idi Amin to declare himself as Life President and Amin did so but with dreadful consequences. Amin had to be removed from power by force. When his regime’s doomsday finally arrived in 1979, Amin’s dreaded State Research Bureau, or ‘superior’ army equipped to the tooth with MIGs, tanks, missiles, artilleries, and backed up by constant supplies from Godfather Gaddafi, became utterly useless.

Actually, Libyans fought side by side with Amin’s soldiers. 2,500 Libyan troops sent to aid Amin were equipped with T-54 and T-55 tanks, BTR APCs, BM-21 Katyusha MRLs, artillery, Mig 21s and a Tu-22 bomber, but they were easily defeated by the better organized combined Ugandan-Tanzanian forces commanded by David Oyite Ojok, Tito Okello and Yoweri Museveni.

The anti-anti-Qaddafi left

By Louis Proyect

April 1, 2011 -- The Unrepentant Marxist -- First of all, I want to do a little bit of a Maoist self-criticism and admit that I was wrong in predicting that there would be no imperialist intervention in Libya. Clearly, a Nostradamus I am not.

My mistake, looking back in retrospect, was assuming that there was no need to invade since there was no driving economic need. Unlike Venezuela, Libya had long ago thrown its doors open to imperialist penetration. This led me to believe that imperialism would not intervene. Now there are some who insist that this is an oil war just as was the case in Iraq (leaving aside the question of how little control/ownership the USA exercises there now.) For example, Noam Chomsky told Stephen Shalom and Michael Albert in a recent ZNet interview:

Libya is rich in oil, and though the US and UK have often given quite remarkable support to its cruel dictator, right to the present, he is not reliable.  They would much prefer a more obedient client.  Furthermore, the vast territory of Libya is mostly unexplored, and oil specialists believe it may have rich untapped resources, which a more dependable government might open to Western exploitation.

Chomsky, who has always had a remarkable gift for finding material in the bourgeois press to support his arguments, somehow did not bother to find evidence about Western anxiety over Qaddafi who by the above description appears to be another Chavez, or worse.

Searching for “Libya” and “American oil companies” in Lexis-Nexis between the dates 2004 and 2010 presented an entirely different picture from that drawn by Chomsky. One off the top states:

Is Libya the new Iraq? When Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, an influential energy industry newsletter, posed that question recently in a comparison of investment opportunities in both countries, the answer was clear.

A vanguard of American lawyers, bankers and consultants, many of them based in Houston, has traveled to Tripoli in recent weeks to evaluate Libyan opportunities. Many of these visitors are focused on expectations that Libya plans to offer as many as 11 new oil exploration blocks this month to foreign companies, in the first opening of the nation’s oil fields available to Americans since the early 1980′s.

The risks of entering Libya now are relatively low, in terms of politics and getting to the oil,” said Stephen Davis, co-head of the Middle East and North Africa section of Vinson & Elkins, a Houston law firm that is handling much of its Libya business through a new office in Dubai. ”There’s really nothing quite like it, since the terrain is already familiar to many American companies.”

The New York Times, July 20, 2004

I would think that a lawyer from Houston would know what he is talking about, right?

If you began studying events in Libya from March 1 onwards, you would get the impression that the armed opposition to Qaddafi was a wholly owned subsidiary of US imperialism, like the Nicaraguan contras or the gusanos who were defeated at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Without a no-fly zone, we are led to believe, these enemies of progress would have gotten nowhere.

But if you are willing to look at news reports from day one, the pattern was clear. By late February, without any air support and without any CIA training, the ragtag volunteer army from the east had Tripoli in its sights:

The popular uprising against Moammar Kadafi expanded into an oil-rich area of western Libya long considered one of his strongholds, leaving the long-time leader increasingly isolated and in danger of encirclement as he fights for survival.

Calm was returning to a stretch of eastern Libya that has been seized by the opposition. Residents were restoring basic services in the country’s second-largest city, Benghazi, and setting up informal governing structures.

“The uprising is over. Eastern Libya has all fallen from Kadafi’s power,” said Ashraf Sadaga, who helps oversee a mosque in the coastal city of Derna.

At a rally there, one young man held up a sign addressing Kadafi: “The people have dug your grave,” it said.

But reports painted a grim picture of western Libya. Terrified residents of the capital, Tripoli, said pro-government militias rampaged through some residential areas, firing automatic weapons from pickup trucks and Land Cruisers.

The fall of Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, which is a little more than 100 miles east of Tripoli, as well as a smaller town in the far west meant that the rebellion inspired by revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt now spans nearly the length of the country.

Crowds fought loyalists in Sabratha, about 40 miles west of Tripoli.

The opposition also claimed control of Zuwarah, about 30 miles from the border with Tunisia in the west, after local army units sided with the protesters and police fled.

Kadafi’s traditional backing from powerful tribal leaders also is starting to unravel, analysts said, marking a potential turning point. Key among them is the Warfallah tribe, one of Libya’s largest, which is based south of Tripoli. Leaders announced that they were joining the movement to oust him.

Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2011

Now, as we know, all is fair in love and war. Qaddafi, whose troops fought side by side with Idi Amin’s in Uganda, was not one to be trifled with. After having stockpiled billions of dollars in advanced weaponry from the West, why would he lack the good sense not to use them? Who cares if he lacked a wide base of support in the country? After all, as the longest reigning non-monarch on the planet, he had to fight to preserve his legacy—whatever it was.

Part of the problem is that this was never going to be a fair fight. Additionally, the lack of political freedom in Libya prevented the kind of trade union and civic associations to take root in Egypt and that would play such a key role in toppling Mubarak, Egypt’s Qaddafi. Giving the lack of a cohesive political leadership and the lack of a strategy, the revolutionary struggle against Qaddafi would ultimately have to founder. Today’s Los Angeles Times is brutally frank about the character of the movement that is now on the run and likely to be liquidated before long:

For many rebel fighters, the absence of competent military leadership and a tendency to flee at the first shot have contributed to sagging morale. Despite perfunctory V-for-victory signs and cries of “Allahu akbar!” (God is great), the eager volunteers acknowledge that they are in for a long, uphill fight.

“Kadafi is too strong for us, with too many heavy weapons. What can we do except fall back to protect ourselves?” said Salah Chaiky, 41, a businessman, who said he fired his assault rifle while fleeing Port Brega even though he was too far away to possibly hit the enemy.

For some on the left, the defeat of people like Salah Chaiky is apparently something to be celebrated either implicitly or explicitly. In today’s Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn reminds his readers that Qaddafi, if not exactly a socialist, was generous to his people—one supposes in accordance with traditions of noblesse oblige that reign in feudal societies: “In four decades, Libyans have gone from being among the most wretched in Africa, to considerable elevation in terms of social amenities.” Of course, having never shown the slightest interest in political freedom except when his own ox was being gored, one can understand why Cockburn can shrug off the fact that torture was so widespread in Libya that even the Great Leader’s son was forced to admit:

A foundation run by Libyan leader Moamer Qadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam catalogued an array of cases of torture, wrongful imprisonment and other abuses in a report for 2009 published on Thursday. The Qadhafi Foundation’s report also sharply criticized the continuing domination of the print and broadcast media by the state. The few non-state media are all controlled by a publishing company run by the younger Qadhafi. The report recorded “several flagrant violations” of human rights in Libya during the year, including “cases of torture and ill-treatment” as well as a number of “blatant and premeditated breaches of the law.” The report, distributed to the press, condemned “all forms of torture” and called for the lifting of the “immunity granted by laws of exception to employees of various state agencies. “It also called for a full liberalization of the media in Libya.

Right Vision News, December 13, 2009

But no matter. As long as there is “considerable elevation in terms of social amenities”, who would want to complain about some malcontent having his testicles attached to an electric generator. And why blame Libya for taking part in “extraordinary renditions”? After all, there was a need to defeat terrorism, as the stalwart Marxists at wsws.org would remind us:

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), considered a branch of Al Qaeda, mounted a major challenge to the Gaddafi regime in the 1990s. The destabilizing impact of that challenge was a major factor in the decision of the Gaddafi regime to abandon its traditional anti-imperialist rhetoric and seek an accommodation with Europe and the United States. As recently as 2007, the Libyan government, according to reports, was bracing for terrorist attacks.

I must admit that this came as quite a surprise to me. I thought that the neoliberal policies were a function of the same powerful market forces that were taking place everywhere in the world. I never would have suspected that it was al Qaida that drove Qaddafi to cut deals with Western oil companies so generous that a Houston lawyer would advise his clients that there were no risks in Libya. Imagine that.

We also learn from Vijay Prashad on Counterpunch that the CIA was pulling the strings in Libya even before protests began in Tunisa, months before the Benghazi uprising. (The anti-anti-Qaddafi left seems to have a difficult time figuring out whether the outside agitators making life hell in Libya came from Langley, Virginia or Osama bin Laden’s cave.) Prashad writes:

In December 23, 2010, before the Tunisian uprising, Boukhris, Charrani and Mansouri went to Paris to meet with Qaddafi’s old aide-de-camp, Nuri Mesmari, who had defected to the Concorde-Lafayette hotel. Mesmari was singing to the DGSE and Sarkozy about the weaknesses in the Libyan state. His man in Benghazi was Colonel Abdallah Gehani of the air defense corps. But Gehani would not be the chosen military leader. The CIA already had its man in mind. He would soon be in place.

Fascinating stuff. If I wrote a screenplay based on this, I’d think about casting George Clooney as the CIA agent. He’s an old hand at this.

Meanwhile, we learn from Prashad that the revolution was doomed from the start because Libya is basically two countries, even though some commentators describe the populations of Tripoli and Benghazi as an admixture of ethnic groups from east and west: “That east-west divide smothered any attempt by the working-class in the western cities to rise to their full potential.”

Silly me. I thought the smothering came from other quarters:

TRIPOLI, Libya — A state of terror has seized two working-class neighborhoods here that just a week ago exploded in revolt, with residents reporting constant surveillance, searches of cars and even cellphones by militiamen with Kalashnikovs at block-by-block checkpoints and a rash of disappearances of those involved in last week’s protest.

As rebel fighters in the country’s east celebrated their defeat of a raid on Wednesday by hundreds of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s loyalists in the strategic oil town of Brega, many people in Tripoli said they had lost hope that peaceful protests might push the Libyan leader from power the way street demonstrations had toppled the strongmen in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

The climate of fear suggests just how effectively the government’s ruthless application of force in Tripoli has locked down the city and suppressed simmering rage, even as the rebels have held control of the eastern half of the country and a string of smaller western cities surrounding the capital.

”I think the people know that if they make any protest now they will be killed, so all the people in Tripoli are waiting for someone to help them,” one resident said. ”It is easy to kill anybody here. I have seen it with my own eyes.”

Several people in the two neighborhoods, Feshloom and Tajura, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of Colonel Qaddafi’s secret police, said militias loyal to the colonel were using photos taken at last week’s protest to track down the men involved. ”They know that there are people who have energy and who are willing to die, so they pick them up,” another resident said.

New York Times, March 4 2011

Of course, there is always the possibility that the bourgeois press is simply making things up about repression in Tripoli. Now if we can only get Saif Qaddafi to admit that he was writing propaganda when he said there was widespread torture in Libya.

So what does all this amount to? Basically, the anti-anti-Qaddafi left is straining to fit Libya into a pattern that should be familiar to us by now. The Benghazi fighters are like the Nicaraguan contras or the Kurdish rebels who are, as MRZine put it, “traitors” to their country. It doesn’t matter that the self-appointed (and that is really what they are) “leaders” of the resistance consulted nobody in the ranks when they set upon the course of working with imperialism.

The lack of military coordination, as described in the LA Times above, should give you an accurate sense of the utter disorganisation of the movement politically. When the Kurds fought against Saddam Hussein, they had a strong and cohesive organisation that had years of experience both in the field and in mass struggle.

For all practical purposes, the revolution against Qaddafi began just one month ago and its flaws are a function of its raw and infant state rather than the counter-revolutionary instincts of the participants. Indeed, to make an amalgam between the Benghazi street and the wheeler dealers on the phone with Langley, Virginia, is an absolute slander. Here is the real Benghazi street:

On Feb. 17, the scheduled “Day of Rage,” soldiers and the police opened fire with machine guns on unarmed crowds. Soon, photographs circulated of bodies torn in half by high-caliber weapons. Unarmed young men climbed into bulldozers and drove them in suicidal attempts to breach the high green-and-white walls of the Katiba, the last stronghold of Qaddafi’s authority left in the city, a vast compound that dominates Benghazi’s downtown like a medieval fort. The death toll shot up, and the initial core of politically active protesters like Saih and his fellow lawyers soon grew to encompass a broad swath of Benghazi’s roughly 800,000 people.

One of them was Mahdi Ziu. His home was about 200 yards from the Katiba, and he saw a young man shot to death right outside his front door. Ziu was anything but an agitator: he worked as a middle manager at the Arabian Gulf Oil Company. He was a paunchy man, sedentary and diabetic, with thinning hair and glasses and a resigned expression. He liked to read and surf the Internet, his daughter and brother told me. He had a soft heart and often cried when watching television dramas with his wife and daughter on the living-room couch. He disliked politics and tended toward moderation in all things: he would walk away when he heard religious extremists fulminating about right and wrong at the local mosque. But after three days of brutal killing in his hometown, something snapped. “He kept saying, ‘Jihad, jihad, this is the time for us all to go out and fight,’ ” his 21-year-old daughter, Zuhour, told me. Zuhour seemed to alternate between awe and horror as she quietly narrated her father’s death (his wife was sequestered, in accordance with Muslim mourning custom). She sat on a couch in the living room, a slim, pretty girl in a head scarf with her hands folded uneasily in front of her. The neighbor’s baby whined in the next room, and a photograph of her father’s face sat on the table nearby. “If you heard this man,” Zuhour continued, “you would know he was ready for something.” No one else in the family had taken part in the protests; Mahdi’s brother told me, a little regretfully, that he had been too frightened.

By Sunday, Feb. 20, protesters in Benghazi had armed themselves and were focusing all their efforts on storming the Katiba. Every day, soldiers inside the barracks were firing down on the funeral processions that used the long boulevard from the courthouse to the city’s main cemetery, killing more people and generating more funerals, more anger.

On Sunday morning, with the sound of gunfire in the background, Ziu slipped a last will and testament under the door of a friend. He then returned to his apartment and asked the neighbors to help him load a number of full gas canisters into his black Kia sedan, parked just outside the house. They asked why, and he told them the canisters were leaking; he needed to get them fixed. His brother, Salem Ziu, told me that he thinks Mahdi used a small patch of TNT, the kind Libyans use to kill fish, as a detonator. No one really knows.

What is certain is that about 1:30 p.m., Ziu drove his car until it was facing the Katiba’s main gate, near the police station where the first protests began five days earlier. The area in front of him was clear, a killing zone abandoned by all but the most reckless. Rebels fired from the shelter of rooftops and doorways, and snipers at the Katiba fired occasional shots down on the figures darting in the streets. Ziu put his foot down on the accelerator. The guards opened fire, but too late. The speeding car struck the gate and exploded, sending up a fireball that was captured on a cellphone video by a protester a few hundred yards away. The blast blew a hole in the wall, killing a number of guards and sending the rest retreating into the Katiba. Within hours, it would fall to the protesters.

The remains of Ziu’s charred and crumpled car now lie by the open gate of the Katiba. Above and around it are tributes to him in looping spray-painted letters: “Mahdi the Hero.” “Mahdi, who liberated the Katiba.”

NY Times Sunday Magazine, April 3, 2011

Yes, Mahdi is a hero even if people like Alexander Cockburn and Vijay Prashad would have us piss on his grave.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 07/13/2011 - 17:20



Michael Fiorentino and Jeremy Tully argue that the group ANSWER is wrong to tie the anti-imperialist struggle to the defense of a tyrant like Mummar el-Qaddafi.

THE U.S.-led NATO bombing of Libya must end--and Libya's dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi must be supported as a progressive and an anti-imperialist. These were the twin messages of mid-June "Eyewitness Libya" speaking tour sponsored by the antiwar group ANSWER and featuring former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

McKinney was joined on the tour by the Nation of Islam's Akbar Muhammad and various ANSWER activists, as well as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark at some stops. But all of the speakers voiced the same point at the meetings--that in order to oppose the NATO bombing of Libya, antiwar and anti-imperialist activists need to accept that Qaddafi and his regime are progressive.

ANSWER, a leading organization involved in the U.S. antiwar movement, promoted its tour as revealing the truth about NATO's bombing of Libya. But when we attended the San Francisco stop, the presentations were at least as much about supporting Qaddafi as opposing the bombing.

This message does a disserve to the antiwar movement by associating opponents of the U.S. war machine with a regime that, while it is under attack by the West today, was a valued ally in the "war on terror" only a few months ago, and that has a terrible record of political repression and human rights abuses.

Not only does ANSWER wrongly claim that opposition to NATO and U.S. bombing must entail support for Qaddafi, but it has shown a disregard for democratic discussion, which needs to be at the center of any effort to rebuild the antiwar movement.

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AT THE San Francisco stop on the "Eyewitness Libya" tour, we heard McKinney--who had just returned from a "fact-finding mission" that took her only to Qaddafi-controlled areas of Libya--make a number of bizarre statements about the Libyan government, including that Libyans enjoy a participatory democracy [1]: "Libyans govern themselves by The Green Book, a form of direct democracy based on the African constitution concept that the people are the first and final source of all power."

McKinney left no doubt about her backing of Libya's leader of 42 years, going so far as to connect his rule with support for the Black liberation struggle in the U.S.: "There are many people who criticize the support that we give not just for the Libyan people but for Muammar Qaddafi. But as an African American, what I can say to you is that when Black people were fighting oppression and apartheid conditions in this country, it was Libyan people and Muammar Qaddafi who helped them."

The other speakers were equally clear in their pro-Qaddafi message. The Nation of Islam's Akbar Muhammad claimed that Libyan rebels carried out a lynching campaign against Black Libyans, an allegation that has been challenged by left-wing voices [2]. He repeatedly referred to Libya's dictator as "Brother Qaddafi."

ANSWER representative Omar Ali bragged that the rebels--whom McKinney, taking a cue from Qaddafi himself, described as both allies of the U.S. and tied to al-Qaeda--were on the verge of being "crushed" in the eastern city of Benghazi before NATO's military intervention. He insisted that it was wrong to "lump the Libyan uprising in with Egypt and Tunisia."

After the presentations, the audience was subjected to a 30-minute video produced by the Qaddafi regime. The video showed the corpses of dead Libyan soldiers surrounded by rebel fighters against the backdrop of ominous music, with a narrative about how the rebels were Western operatives attempting to foment a civil war. There wasn't a single dead rebel fighter nor innocent civilian killed by the regime's forces among the pictures of the war dead.

Throughout the evening, Qaddafi was described as a pan-African nationalist and anti-imperialist. But the record of his 40-plus years in power shows a different reality.

For example, Qaddafi has hardly been the equitable distributor of wealth that the tour's speakers made him out to be--30 percent of Libya's population lives in poverty (a fact not mentioned from the stage), and much of the country's wealth remains in the hands of a small elite.

Qaddafi's anti-imperialism has also been much exaggerated. He was, indeed, demonized as a madman by the U.S. in the 1980s--the Reagan administration launched an air strike aimed at killing him that instead killed his 2-year-old adoptive daughter.

But Qaddafi consciously set out to overcome this pariah status. By the turn of the new century, he was considered an ally of the U.S. Qaddafi supported the U.S.-backed "war on terror" and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Moreover, he has developed a cozy relationship with Italy's right-wing Berlusconi government and opened up Libya's oil resources to significant foreign investment.

In the early days of the rebellion, Qaddafi used the ideological framework of the "war on terror" to discredit those who were rising up against his rule, claiming absurdly that al-Qaeda had slipped hallucinogenic drugs into young Libyans' coffee, thereby disorienting them enough to revolt.

In reality, the rebellion in Libya was inspired by the mass democratic revolutions in its two neighbors along the Mediterranean coast, Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, people fed up with the lack of democracy and profound inequality took to the streets to show their opposition to the status quo--first in the eastern part of the country near the Egyptian border, then spreading toward the capital of Tripoli, before Qaddafi rallied the regime's forces for a counter-offensive.

The reason the uprising in Libya shared so many features of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere is because they were all driven by the same underlying conditions of poverty, oppression and political repression.

But to ANSWER, the Libyan rebels were all CIA stooges, motivated not by a desire for freedom and democracy, but to do the bidding of the U.S. and other Western governments.

Of course, there are anti-Qaddafi figures and organizations in Libya with longstanding connections to the U.S., and a number of them are now represented on the Transitional National Council, which has claimed to speak for the whole opposition in Libya. But there are at least as many stories and examples from early on in the rebellion to show the opposite--for example, when rebels promptly evicted British MI6 agents they discovered inside Libya [3].

One of the primary aims of the Western intervention has been to shift the balance within the opposition to those who can be relied on to protect U.S. and European interests. U.S. officials have actively promoted not only those who were on the CIA payroll for years, but military officials who until just months ago were part of Qaddafi's regime.

The West wants a regime to replace Qaddafi that will be amenable to striking deals with Washington--as well as a reliably pro-U.S. government as a beachhead in the midst of the upheavals in the Arab world. Diplomatic and political attempts to shape the anti-Qaddafi opposition are every bit as important to this goal as the NATO bombing campaign. Opponents of the U.S. war machine must oppose every aspect of Western intervention.

But to claim that the rebellion against Qaddafi was driven by Western influence in the first place is to turn the real history of the uprising upside down.

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THE "EYEWITNESS Libya" tour illustrates a further issue--the question of building a democratic movement that welcomes all opponents of U.S. power and supporters of the Arab revolutions.

In February, ANSWER members in San Francisco--who had supported earlier protests in solidarity with the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia--gave the cold shoulder to Libyan activists organizing a February 26 demonstration in solidarity with the rebellion in their country. Organizers agreed beforehand on a message of opposing Western intervention. Thus, ANSWER's refusal to support the demonstration can only be explained as the result of its backing of Qaddafi. Through its actions, ANSWER has tried to create a wedge between Libyan solidarity activists and the antiwar movement.

During the "Eyewitness Libya" tour, Libyans were barred from the Los Angeles event [4]. "Not only did ANSWER tell them that they would not be allowed to pay their $10 and attend the event, a line of ANSWER people formed a human wall to divide the sidewalk between and us and them," wrote author Clay Carson on the Daily Kos website.

In San Francisco, Libyan opponents of Qaddafi were allowed into the event, but were treated with hostility. Nevertheless, during the discussion, a Black Libyan who said he had endured torture at the hands of the Qaddafi regime called out ANSWER for its allegations that the rebels were racist.

A Libyan activist Hoda Emneina, who supports the intervention, spoke next, saying: "There is a difference between being against intervention and standing with a murderer. I can respect if you are anti-intervention, but what I cannot respect is that you spread Qaddafi's lies, saying he is for the Libyan people. He is not for the Libyan people!"

ANSWER has played an important role in the antiwar movement, and all those who oppose war and imperialism need to work together to build opposition to the U.S. empire. But if ANSWER wishes to tie the antiwar movement to a defense of tyrants like Qaddafi, that position needs to be challenged. Linking antiwar politics to support for Qaddafi or any other dictator is destructive to a movement that stands for peace and justice.

As for Cynthia McKinney, we agree with the Palestinian authors of a recent open letter [5] urging her to rethink her pro-Qaddafi position:

The Palestinian and Libyan peoples are connected, both struggling against state-sponsored brutality and political repression. Palestinians stand in solidarity with our Libyan brothers and sisters in their revolution against Qaddafi, as well as others rising up against oppressive dictatorships in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The Palestinian movement for human rights, civil rights and equality has been invigorated and inspired by these pro-democratic movements.

We need an antiwar movement that can continue to protest U.S. wars and occupations in the Middle East--and that embraces all those inspired by the spread of the Arab revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East. Such a movement will only be weakened by associating our struggle with regimes, whether allied to the U.S. or not, that crush political dissent and uphold an unjust system.