Left debates Libya: Juan Cole's open letter to the left on intervention; Phyllis Bennis and Vijay Prasad respond
March 29, 2011 -- Democracy Now! -- Juan Cole defends the use of military force to prevent a massacre in Benghazi and to aid the Libyan rebel movement.Vijay Prashad warns the United States has involved itself in a decades-long internal Libyan struggle while it ignores violent crackdowns by US-backed governments in Bahrain, Yemen and other countries in the region.
On March 27, 2011, prominent US anti-Iraq-War writer Juan Cole posted this "Open letter to the left on Libya" on his website, Informed Comment.The article argued for support for the UN Security Council authorised military intervention in Libya. In the interests of left discussion, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal posts Cole's article, along with a reply by Phyllis Bennis and a debate between Cole and University of Trinity professor, Vijay Prashad, that appeared on Democracy Now! on March 29, 2011. The transcript appears below Bennis' response.
[For more left views on Libya, click HERE.]
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By Juan Cole
March 27, 2011 -- Informed Comment -- As I expected, now that [Gaddafi]’s advantage in armor and heavy weapons is being neutralised by the UN allies’ air campaign, the liberation movement is regaining lost territory. Liberators took back Ajdabiya and Brega (Marsa al-Burayqa), key oil towns, on Saturday into Sunday morning, and seemed set to head further west. This rapid advance is almost certainly made possible in part by the hatred of [Gaddafi] among the majority of the people of these cities. The Buraiqa Basin contains much of Libya’s oil wealth, and the Transitional Government in Benghazi will soon again control 80 per cent of this resource, an advantage in their struggle with [Gaddafi].
I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorised intervention has saved them from being crushed. I can still remember when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring and extirpate socialism with a human face. Our multilateral world has more spaces in it for successful change and defiance of totalitarianism than did the old bipolar world of the Cold War, where the US and the USSR often deferred to each other’s sphere of influence.
The United Nations-authorised intervention in Libya has pitched ethical issues of the highest importance, and has split progressives in unfortunate ways. I hope we can have a calm and civilised discussion of the rights and wrongs here.
On the surface, the situation in Libya a week and a half ago posed a contradiction between two key principles of left politics: supporting the ordinary people and opposing foreign domination of them. Libya’s workers and townspeople had risen up to overthrow the dictator in city after city– Tobruk, Dirna, al-Bayda, Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Misrata, Zawiya, Zuara, Zintan. Even in the capital of Tripoli, working-class neighbourhoods such as Suq al-Jumah and Tajoura had chased out the secret police. In the two weeks after February 17, there was little or no sign of the protesters being armed or engaging in violence.
The libel put out by the dictator, that the 570,000 people of Misrata or the 700,000 people of Benghazi were supporters of “al Qaeda,” was without foundation. That a handful of young Libyan men from Dirna and the surrounding area had fought in Iraq is simply irrelevant. The Sunni Arab resistance in Iraq was for the most part not accurately called "al-Qaeda", which is a propaganda term in this case.
All of the countries experiencing liberation movements had sympathisers 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 organised crime figures. But to defame all Milan with them would be mere propaganda.
Then Muammar [Gaddafi]’s sons rallied his armored brigades and air force to bomb the civilian crowds and shoot tank shells into them. Members of the Transitional Government Council in Benghazi estimate that 8000 were killed as [Gaddafi]’s forces attacked and subdued Zawiya, Zuara, Ra’s Lanuf, Brega, Ajdabiya, and the working-class districts of Tripoli itself, using live ammunition fired into defenceless rallies. If 8000 was an exaggeration, simply “thousands” was not, as attested byl eft media such as Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! As [Gaddafi]’s tank brigades reached the southern districts of Benghazi, the prospect loomed of a massacre of committed rebels on a large scale.
The United Nations Security Council authorisation for UN member states to intervene to forestall this massacre thus pitched the question. If the left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in [Gaddafi]’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white-collar middle-class people. [Gaddafi] would have reestablished himself, with the liberation movement squashed like a bug and the country put back under secret police rule. The implications of a resurgent, angry and wounded Mad Dog, his coffers filled with oil billions, for the democracy movements on either side of Libya, in Egypt and Tunisia, could well have been pernicious.
The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if [Gaddafi] deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government. (It simply is not true that very many of the protesters took up arms early on, though some were later forced into it by [Gaddafi] ’s aggressive military campaign against them. There still are no trained troops to speak of on the rebel side.)
Some have charged that the Libya action has a neo-conservative political odour. But the neo-conservatives hate the United Nations and wanted to destroy it. They went to war on Iraq despite the lack of UNSC authorisation, in a way that clearly contravened the UN Charter. Their spokesperson and briefly the ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, actually at one point denied that the United Nations even existed. The neo-conservatives loved deploying US muscle unilaterally, and rubbing it in everyone’s face. Those who would not go along were subjected to petty harassment. France, then US deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz pledged, would be “punished” for declining to fall on Iraq at Washington’s whim.
The Libya action, in contrast, observes all the norms of international law and multilateral consultation that the neo-conservatives despise. There is no pettiness. Germany is not "punished" for not going along. Moreover, the neo-conservatives wanted to exercise primarily Anglo-American military might in the service of harming the public sector and enforced "shock therapy" privatisation so as to open the conquered country to Western corporate penetration. All this social engineering required boots on the ground, a land invasion and occupation. Mere limited aerial bombardment cannot effect the sort of extreme-capitalist revolution they seek. Libya 2011 is not like Iraq 2003 in any way.
Allowing the neo-conservativess to brand humanitarian intervention as always their sort of project does a grave disservice to international law and institutions, and gives them credit that they do not deserve, for things in which they do not actually believe.
The intervention in Libya was done in a legal way. It was provoked by a vote of the Arab League, including the newly liberated Egyptian and Tunisian governments. It was urged by a United Nations Security Council resolution, the gold standard for military intervention. (Contrary to what some alleged, the abstentions of Russia and China do not deprive the resolution of legitimacy or the force of law; only a veto could have done that. You can be arrested today on a law passed in the US Congress on which some members abstained from voting.)
Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the intervention are:
1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)
2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).
3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.
Absolute pacifists are rare, and I will just acknowledge them and move on. I personally favour an option for peace in world policy making, where it should be the default initial position. But the peace option is trumped in my mind by the opportunity to stop a major war crime.
Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade. That was a foreign intervention. Leftists were happy about Churchill’s and then Roosevelt’s intervention against the Axis. To make "anti-imperialism" trump all other values in a mindless way leads to frankly absurd positions. I can’t tell you how annoyed I am by the fringe left adulation for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the grounds that he is "anti-imperialist", and with an assumption that he is somehow on the left. As the pillar of a repressive theocratic order that puts down workers, he is a man of the far right, and that he doesn’t like the US and Western Europe doesn’t ennoble him.
The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. Those arguing that “Libyans” should settle the issue themselves are willfully ignoring the overwhelming repressive advantage given [Gaddafi] by his jets, helicopter gunships and tanks; the "Libyans" were being crushed inexorably. Such crushing can be effective for decades thereafter.
Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorised mission in Libya really is limited (it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding. Of course he is not to be trusted by progressives, but he is to his dismay increasingly boxed in by international institutions, which limits the damage he could do as the bombing campaign comes to an end ([Gaddafi] only had 2000 tanks, many of them broken down, and it won’t be long before he has so few, and and the rebels have captured enough to level the playing field, that little further can be accomplished from the air).
Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an intervention could be staged or worrying that Libya sets a precedent. I don’t find those arguments persuasive. Military intervention is always selective, depending on a constellation of political will, military ability, international legitimacy and practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents, and responsible for thousands of casualties and with the prospect of more thousands to come, where aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.
This situation did not obtain in the Sudan’s Darfur, where the terrain and the conflict were such that aerial intervention alone would have have been useless and only boots on the ground could have had a hope of being effective. But a whole US occupation of Iraq could not prevent Sunni-Shiite urban faction-fighting that killed tens of thousands, so even boots on the ground in Darfur’s vast expanse might have failed.
The other Arab Spring demonstrations are not comparable to Libya, because in none of them has the scale loss of life been replicated, nor has the role of armored brigades been as central, nor have the dissidents asked for intervention, nor has the Arab League. For the UN, out of the blue, to order the bombing of Deraa in Syria at the moment would accomplish nothing and would probably outrage all concerned. Bombing the tank brigades heading for Benghazi made all the difference.
That is, in Libya intervention was demanded by the people being massacred as well as by the regional powers, was authorised by the UNSC, and could practically attain its humanitarian aim of forestalling a massacre through aerial bombardment of murderous armored brigades. And, the intervention could be a limited one and still accomplish its goal.
I also don’t understand the worry about the setting of precedents. The UN Security Council is not a court, and does not function by precedent. It is a political body, and works by political will. Its members are not constrained to do elsewhere what they are doing in Libya unless they so please, and the veto of the five permanent members ensures that a resolution like 1973 will be rare. But if a precedent is indeed being set that if you rule a country and send tank brigades to murder large numbers of civilian dissidents, you will see your armor bombed to smithereens, I can’t see what is wrong with that.
Another argument is that the no-fly zone (and the no-drive zone) aimed at overthrowing [Gaddafi] not to protect his people from him but to open the way for US, British and French dominance of Libya’s oil wealth. This argument is bizarre. The US declined to do oil business with Libya in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, when it could have, because it had placed the country under boycott. It didn’t want access to that oil market, which was repeatedly proffered to Washington by [Gaddafi] then. After [Gaddafi] came back in from the cold in the late 1990s (for the European Union) and after 2003 (for the US), sanctions were lifted and Western oil companies flocked into the country.
US companies were well represented, along with BP and the Italian firm ENI. BP signed an expensive exploration contract with [Gaddafi] and cannot possibly have wanted its validity put into doubt by a revolution. There is no advantage to the oil sector of removing [Gaddafi]. Indeed, a new government may be more difficult to deal with and may not honour [Gaddafi]’s commitments. There is no prospect of Western companies being allowed to own Libyan petroleum fields, which were nationalised long ago.
Finally, it is not always in the interests of Big Oil to have more petroleum on the market, since that reduces the price and, potentially, company profits. A war on Libya to get more and better contracts so as to lower the world price of petroleum makes no sense in a world where the bids were already being freely let, and where high prices were producing record profits. I haven’t seen the war-for-oil argument made for Libya in a manner that makes any sense at all.
I would like to urge the left to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in their travails in places like Libya. If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the left. We should avoid making "foreign intervention" an absolute taboo the way the right makes abortion an absolute taboo if doing so makes us heartless (inflexible a priori positions often lead to heartlessness).
It is now easy to forget that Winston Churchill held absolutely odious positions from a left point of view and was an insufferable colonialist who opposed letting India go in 1947. His writings are full of racial stereotypes that are deeply offensive when read today. Some of his interventions were nevertheless noble and were almost universally supported by the left of his day. The UN allies now rolling back [Gaddafi] are doing a good thing, whatever you think of some of their individual leaders.
On Libya: A response to Juan Cole
By Phyllis Bennis
March 28, 2011 -- War Is A Crime -- Many thanks, Juan, for your thoughtful article. I agree with a number of your points, but I come out with the opposite conclusion. Let me explain why, going through some of the points in your piece.
The Libyan uprising against their longstanding dictatorial regime clearly emerged in the context of the region-wide Arab Spring, and our support for it remains grounded in that broader support. The claims about al Qaeda leading the uprising, of Benghazi’s population all being Islamists or drugged are certainly ridiculous – the fact that an Islamist movement has long had a presence in eastern Libya doesn’t change that, nor does the fact that some people may be proud of the few hundred young Libyan men over the years who joined resistance forces of whatever sort in Iraq or elsewhere.
Now my first disagreement – whether a bloodbath in Benghazi was certain and imminent. In fact, Gaddafi’s tanks had already attacked Benghazi and had been driven out by the armed power of the opposition forces – that’s why the tanks were outside the city when they were destroyed by the French warplanes. Was there danger to Benghazi and other parts of the country? Of course. But it is far from certain that the opposition, albeit less well armed than the government’s forces, lacks the power to fight back. We’ve heard a great deal about military forces who defected with their weapons – in the east apparently Gaddafi lost the ability to deploy any of his military forces very early on. We haven’t seen many of them fighting, but they are a key resource for the opposition. (I’m not sure what you base your claim on that there are no trained troops on the opposition side – where do you think all those soldiers, formerly deployed in eastern Libya, went?)
On the broad question of intervention – somehow we have all fallen into the trap of equating intervention with military intervention. Everything else somehow gets ignored. The UN resolution’s calls for an immediate ceasefire, for negotiations to reduce rather than escalate the level of bloodshed, for accountability – all were sidelined or ignored as soon as direct military engagement was on the table. And then it’s too late.
And by the way, you’re absolutely right that there’s no logical argument to call this a “war for oil” since the Libyan government and Libyan oil deals had been in bed with the Europeans and the US since the 2003 rehabilitation of Gaddafi. That’s why most of us aren’t making that argument.
You make a very serious allegation that equates criticising this Western military assault (yes, Western– I’ll get to that in a minute) with the belief that “it was all right…if [Gaddafi] deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds”. Some of us don’t believe this was the best way to protect Libyan civilians, we have different assessments of what was needed, we are concerned about the civilian casualties of no-fly zones, we have a host of other concerns that do not equal supporting a massacre. Your assessment implies that anyone who did not call for no-fly zones and airstrikes in the DRC, in Cote d’Ivoire, in Sierra Leone is therefore fine with the massive bloodletting. How about in Gaza, where we “only” tried to get the US to stop enabling the Israeli assault, but we didn’t call for establishing a no-fly zone or US airstrikes against Israeli military targets, does that mean we were supporting the massacre?
You say that Libya 2011 is not like Iraq 2003. I agree. But it’s way too close to Iraq 1991. Like Desert Storm back then, the Libya intervention was made legal by the UN resolution. But legality is not the same as legitimacy. In 1991 the US used bribes, threats and punishments to coerce the Security Council into endorsing their war – what Eqbal Ahmad called “a multilateral figleaf for a unilateral war”. This is different, the Libya intervention was not initially a US-led campaign in the UN, but instead was begun by France and the UK, only then the US joined in. The refusal of important countries – Brazil, China, Russia, India, Germany – to accept the resolution is only part of why the legal vote doesn’t make it legitimate. You’re right that it’s not the Chinese and Russian abstentions that deprive the resolution of legitimacy– legitimacy isn’t about who abstains but about whether the resolution helps “end the scourge of war” or not, a decision every movement and ultimately every person has to decide. In 1990 the US bribed China to abstain on the go-to-war resolution against Iraq, after Beijing claimed for weeks it would veto. That abstention didn’t make the resolution legitimate – the US instrumentalisation of the United Nations to provide political cover for war was what made it illegitimate.
The Obama administration itself recognised that distinction between legality and legitimacy – and insisted on Arab League and African Union endorsement even though legality requires only a Security Council vote. Early on it became clear the AU (for all the usual reasons that have nothing to do with humanitarian concerns) wasn’t going to join the campaign, so the US quietly dropped that requirement. Instead they focused only on the Arab League, which was reluctantly pulled in to support “only” a no-fly zone, not air strikes or other military actions. Amr Moussa came out against it, then wiggled around again, the Arab League now remains officially on board but seriously divided. Overall, despite the cosmetic participation of two US-provided Qatari warplanes, this is a Western intervention – the quarrelling over command between NATO and its various powerful member states doesn’t change that.
(In the AU, many of the African leaders have relied on Gaddafi’s money and backing. In the Arab League, made up of 22 governments whose leaders, with the exceptions only of newly democratising Egypt and Tunisia, are all under enormous public pressure at home to either give up much of their power or to step down outright – all but three or four are completely dependent on the US for military and/or economic support. So the AU’s refusal, and the Arab League’s willingness, to support the no-fly zone proposal was predictable. Why would we expect either organisation to go against the immediate narrow interests of its member governments?)
My own view is that since, unlike the other uprisings of this Arab Spring, Libya’s uprising turned into a military confrontation, some kind of military assistance might have made sense. I hoped that, in the absence of Spain-style International Brigades, which I would have supported, the possibility of some military assistance from Libya’s newly militarised neighbours in the form of arms, etc., might have been appropriate. It was not impossible – civil society organisations, including Doctors Without Borders, were able to deliver boatloads of medical supplies directly to at least one of the coastal cities, other deliveries might have been possible as well. This assessment is linked, of course, to the recognition that the Libyan opposition actually has military capacity, as they’ve shown in repelling Gaddafi’s forces in numerous places. And that the vast majority of casualties were caused not by Gaddafi’s airstrikes, but by tank and artillery ground attacks; thus the focus on a no-fly zone as the centrepiece was also misplaced. And that a large-scale Western assault that quickly moved beyond a no-fly zone to attacks on isolated military bases, planes on the ground, command-and-control centres that happen to be in the midst of heavily populated areas, far beyond the immediate “protection of civilians” authorised by the UN, was not the appropriate answer.
As to the length of time for this operation, the UN resolution itself implies a long war. It calls on the secretary-general to report to the Security Council “in seven days, and every month thereafter”. While some may hope for 90 days, once military battle is joined it is virtually impossible to control or even determine how long things will go.
On the hypocrisy argument, yes military intervention is always selective. And that’s just the point. This isn’t about weighing all the various humanitarian crises, and deciding where and how to respond on the basis of which ones impact the most people, which ones are the bloodiest, which ones are closest, which ones have the most brutal dictator… this is about moving directly to military intervention in a few select cases, while other humanitarian crises are not responded to at all, even by non-military means.
It would be easier to believe that military intervention in Libya really was based on humanitarian motives if non-military but active intervention was already underway in other similar (if so far smaller) crises. For example, if the US had immediately cut all military and economic aid to Bahrain at the first sign of its king bringing in foreign troops to suppress the uprising. If the US had immediately ended all arms sales and stopped the current weapons pipeline to Saudi Arabia when its soldiers crossed the causeway. If the US had announced a complete halt in all military aid to Yemen when Saleh’s forces first attacked the demonstrators. (Not to mention the possibility of a decision to cut military aid to Israel and end the decades of US-granted impunity for war crimes.) All of that is possible. When none of it is done, it’s hard to accept the claim that military intervention in Libya is really grounded in humanitarian motives.
You say that the other uprisings of the Arab Spring aren’t comparable to Libya’s because of the difference in scale of civilian death. That’s true. It’s also true that Libya’s experience is different because the opposition took up arms itself – different than every other one so far (except in a few isolated and discrete incidents), even in the face of horrific lethal attacks by military and police and government loyalist forces, attacks which have left scores or hundreds dead in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria.
And there’s the difference that in Libya people asked for foreign assistance. That certainly seems true – though many said they wanted only a no-fly zone, no other foreign intervention. But do we really think the Obama administration – or any government in any country – would actually commit their military forces because people in another country asked them to? I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it. It also remains a question whether the request of “the Libyans” (as if there was only one voice) will prevail when and if they ask US, NATO, British, French or other planes, ships, troops to leave their territory, their skies, their territorial waters. Who will call the shots then? The other uprisings have made their independence from outside help a point of pride; it’s understandable why desperate people in Libya might make a different decision, but there are consequences. It’s not clear yet how they will rejoin the historical current already underway.
I do not view the world in absolutes. I am not an absolute pacifist. I hold anti-imperialism as a principle but I do not equate that to opposition to any intervention anywhere. As I already mentioned, I believe there are many kinds of intervention, including those aimed at diplomacy, negotiation and accountability. And I actually do believe in some military interventions as well. I see the anti-fascist International Brigades in Spain as great heroes, I supported Vietnam’s overthrow of the Pol Pot dictatorship in Cambodia back in 1978, I condemned the US and France for preventing (yes they were far more active than simply "standing back") the UN from sending Blue Helmets to Rwanda in 1994. There could be other examples. But I do not think that internationalising, and thus escalating, the war in Libya – it had already become a civil war with the two sides, albeit unequally, holding and fighting for territory – is the way to go.
The US-led (NATO cover or not) military intervention is underway. Our job now is to make sure it does not escalate even further into full-scale invasion, and to try to end it as soon as possible. And then to work as hard as we can to support the efforts to consolidate and expand the extraordinary accomplishments of the uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring – in Libya and the rest of the region.
A debate on US military intervention in Libya: Juan Cole versus Vijay Prashad
March 29, 2011 -- Democracy Now! -- As US President Obama defends the US-led military attacks on Libya, we host a debate. University of Michigan professor Juan Cole has just published an article titled “An Open Letter to the Left on Libya". Cole defends the use of military force to prevent a massacre in Benghazi and to aid the Libyan rebel movement in their liberation struggle. In opposition to US intervention in Libya, University of Trinityp rofessor Vijay Prashad warns the United States has involved itself in a decades-long internal Libyan struggle while it ignores violent crackdowns by US-backed governments in Bahrain, Yemen and other countries in the region.
Vijay Prashad, chair of South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He’s the author of 11 books, most recently The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cole, you support the US-led intervention in Libya. You wrote about it in a piece called "An Open Letter to the Left on Libya". Professor Cole is joining us from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lay out your argument for intervention, Professor Cole.
JUAN COLE: Well, intervention is always a problematic thing, and it could go badly wrong, I have to admit from the outset. But you had a situation in Libya which was pretty peculiar. The uprising was a popular uprising. You had crowds coming out into the streets in downtowns, in Zawiyah, in Zuwarah, in so many of the cities of that country, and Benghazi. You had very substantial numbers of the officer corps defecting to the crowds, declaring for them. And it was chaotic, and it was not well coordinated, but it was nationwide. And I would estimate that, at its height, the people had thrown off Gaddafi’s rule in something on the order of 80 to 90 per cent of the country. And mostly, it was done nonviolently.
And then the Gaddafi sons, who command these special forces and the tank commanders, made an attempt to put this down. And they did it in the most brutal way possible. They mounted tanks, 30, 40, 50 tanks, sent them into the downtowns of places like Zawiyah, and they just shelled civilian crowds, protesters. They shelled buildings. They brutalised people over days, until they scared everybody and put them down, and then they sent secret police around to round up alleged ringleaders and reestablish secret police rule. And they did this in town after town after town. And then they started rolling the tanks to the east, and they were on the verge of taking the rebel stronghold, Benghazi. And there certainly would have been a massacre there in the same way that there was in Zawiyah, if it hadn’t been stopped at the last moment by United Nations allies.
And here we had a situation where the Arab League met and demanded a no-fly zone. The US Senate voted a resolution for a no-fly zone. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution, 1973, asking not only for a no-fly zone, but for all measures necessary to protect civilian life. And now you have NATO and Arab League members like Qatar and the UAE patrolling Libya’s skies, intervening against those tanks that were wreaking that havoc on ordinary people.
This is not something that could have been done in most situations. I mean, you were bringing up places like Yemen. Bombing Yemen would produce no result whatsoever, and I don’t think anybody has asked for Yemen to be bombed. But in Libya, it made a difference. It saved Benghazi. It saved this popular protest movement, which, by the way, includes so many workers and ordinary people. Some of the cities which have thrown off Gaddafi, like Misurata, were known, for instance, for their steel mill. These are progressive forces who were fighting a wretched secret police regime.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Vijay Prashad. You are opposed to the intervention. Why?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s a long story, and it should go back to a particular kind of understanding of Libyan history, where Libya, from the Ottoman period, has had a divide between the east and the west.
Certainly, Gaddafi, since the 1980s, has been a reactionary leader in Libya, and I have never, ever felt—and I’ve written from the ’80s onward—that Gaddafi is on the side of reaction, rather than a progressive. So let there be no mistake that what I would like to suggest is not a defence of Gaddafi by any means.
On the other hand, there has been a protest movement in the east, as I said, that goes back several decades. Most recently, on February 17 2006, there was an uprising in Benghazi. It was put down. And then, the anniversary came on February 17 this year. There was an attempt to revive the protest, taking inspiration from other parts of North Africa and the Gulf. So, yes, indeed, there was a popular uprising. It was stronger in the east than in the west, although in working-class areas in Tripoli, there was some sporadic rising that was observed, in Tajura and other neighborhoods. So, that is correct.
But very quickly, the French and the United States government came in and attempted to, I think, transform the Arab Spring to their advantage. So, for instance, when we talk about the rebel leadership in Benghazi, one should keep in mind that the two principal military leaders, one of whom was a former interior minister in the Gaddafi regime, and the second gentleman was a general who led troops in Chad in the 1980s and was then taken up with the Libyan National Salvation Front, went off to live in Vienna, Virginia, for 30 years, about a 10-minute drive from Langley, and returned to Benghazi to, in a sense, I think, hijack the rebellion on behalf of the forces of reaction. It’s very important to recognise, as Juan said quite correctly, that it’s Qatar and the UAE and the Gulf—the GCC, the Gulf—what is it?—Coordination Council that is behind this—you know, which is the principal Arab support for the humanitarian intervention, as it were, and these are the same places where—the same organisation, which has attempted and has now put down the uprising in Bahrain.
You had the Saudi Prince Faisal Al Turki talking about the GCC becoming perhaps a NATO of the Gulf region. So, I would like to suggest that, you know, even by February 26, 27, when NATO—when the United Nations first took up the Libyan case, the rebellion was not quite a rebel army as it was in Tahrir Square. It had already been substantially co-opted by the people who were on behalf of NATO and the United States.
So the first thing I would say is we should be very careful when we think of the rebels. We should not confuse all the rebellions across the Arab world and consider them all to be the same. There are some important differences. And second, the United States and NATO has its own agenda here. And when one supports an intervention, I think one should be very careful to see whose intervention we are supporting. Is this on behalf of those young people, the workers and others, with whom we have, you know, allegiances and alliances? Is it going to be on their behalf? Or is it going to be on behalf of people like Khalifa Hifter, the colonel who has returned from Vienna, Virginia, to lead the troops in Benghazi? So I would just like to say that my sense of dismay at this intervention is precisely because I think it’s for the bad side of history, and in some ways it is a measure to clamp down on the Arab Spring, to take attention away, as well, from Bahrain and other places, rather than a part of the Arab Spring.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole, your response?
JUAN COLE: Well, I just think it’s a mistake to characterise a mass movement of millions of people with reference to one or two individuals. And it’s simply not the case that this was primarily—or, that is to say, only—an eastern uprising. The city of Zuwarah, which is about the farthest west you can get among major population centres, threw off Gaddafi. Zawiyah, which is in the west, threw off Gaddafi. Zintan, a major tribal centre of the Zintan tribe, threw off Gaddafi, and Gaddafi’s tanks are still trying to take it back. And Misurata, which is a western city, a major western city of nearly 600,000, threw off Gaddafi. So the east-west divide is a non-starter here. The west also didn’t want Gaddafi. I would suggest that much of Tripoli didn’t want him, and in especially the working-class districts, Souk Al-Jummah and others, as was mentioned. So, this was a very widely based, geographically and class wise, widely based uprising.
That there are one or two individuals that you can name who came back to Benghazi and declared themselves leaders is irrelevant. We don’t know what the leadership will look like going forward. There are also, you know, allegations that some of the fighters had fought US troops in Iraq and are, quote-unquote, "al Qaeda". There’s this tendency to try to take one or two individuals and use them as a proxy to stereotype this uprising. You know, it’s just the youth of Libya, it’s the youth of Benghazi, and often city notables and workers’ unions and so forth. It’s just the people. And you’re going to have all kinds of people there, and some of them are criminals, and some of them might have a terrorist past, and some of them might be hooked up with the CIA. I don’t know. But it’s—you can’t use that as a stereotype for the whole movement and say, therefore, it’s all right if these people are massacred with tank and artillery shells as they stand peacefully in the center of a city square like that of Benghazi.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of President Obama last night. In some of his most detailed comments on the Middle East and North Africa uprisings to date, Obama said the US is broadly supportive of the protesters’ demands.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Ten days ago, having tried to end the violence without using force, the international community offered Gaddafi a final chance to stop his campaign of killing or face the consequences. Rather than stand down, his forces continued their advance, bearing down on the city of Benghazi, home to nearly 700,000 men, women and children who sought their freedom from fear.
At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Gaddafi declared he would show no mercy to his own people. He compared them to rats and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city.
We knew that if we wanted—if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so, nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorised military action to stop the killing and enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, this is President Obama talking about his broad support for the pro-democracy movements in North Africa and the Middle East.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back and that we must stand alongside those people who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people. Born as we are out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa and that young people are leading the way, because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama last night, talking about the justification for intervention in Libya and going beyond. Professor Vijay Prashad of Trinity College, your response?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, wherever people would like to be free, unless they live in Bahrain, Yemen and, you know, for a long time, even in Egypt, until the tide was too strong for the Americans to push it back.
You know, the resolutions that the United Nations passed—1970 was the first resolution, and then 1973—are deeply ambiguous resolutions. They got the support of the Arab League. They got the support tacitly, although they abstained, of the Chinese and the Russians, because they said that there was going to be no attempt at assisting the rebels, there was only going to be the obligation to protect civilians. So, President Obama has been playing a tightrope between "we are protecting civilians" and "we want to get rid of Gaddafi".
The second thing, get rid of Gaddafi or give assistance to the rebels, is contrary to the UN Resolution 1973, and it should be borne in mind that as much as he said we will not commit ground troops, the United States has already committed ground forces. These may not be boots on the ground, but they’re the AC-130 aircraft and the A-10 aircraft, which are both low-flying ground troop support aircraft. These are not to create a no-fly zone; these are to attack ground troops. So the United States has already taken a position in the middle of a civil war. You know, it has already established that it is, in a sense, the armed wing of the rebels.
So, in that sense, President Obama not once in his speech mentioned the rebels themselves. Like Juan, he spoke of the people versus Gaddafi. And I think that that might be too restricting or too general, perhaps, of a framework to understand this.
Now, I, too, believe that there is a broad swath of opinion against Gaddafi, but I think that what this intervention has done is it’s narrowed options. And it’s not that two or three people are controlling the entire dynamic, but it is their faction because they have very close ties now with the principal military power in operation in Libya. It is because of their close ties to the principal military power that their hand is strengthened against the other people in the rebellion. We have seen this over and over again during the moment of so-called humanitarian intervention, that sometimes the worst elements take over a popular movement because they have the closest links to imperial forces.
You know, there is a broad movement, and that broad movement is going to be sidelined. It’s very interesting that President Obama never talked about the rebels. He only kept indicating the endgame, which is that Gaddafi must go, that itself in contravention to UN Resolution 1973. I found it a very peculiar speech. There was no mention of Bahrain, no mention of the Saudi troops crossing the causeway into Manama, no mention of their quest for freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, your response?
JUAN COLE: Well, I don’t think the situation is comparable to Bahrain. I would like to see the Bahrain monarchy, which is a Sunni monarchy ruling over a Shiite majority, show greater flexibility in meeting popular demands for constitutional revision, for better representation of the Shia in the parliament, for moving the monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy. But to compare tiny Bahrain, where there has been some violence against protesters, to Libya, where there was a national popular uprising and where, in Libya, thousands are dead, not 20, it’s just not on the same scale.
And the other thing is, you know, let us be practical, let us be pragmatic. We are people of the left. We care about the ordinary people. We care about workers. We care about the aspirations of the people, and the United States should certainly be putting pressure on the Bahrain monarchy to accommodate them. And in fact, the US has put pressure on it, to the extent that the Saudi government is furious with the United States. I mean, we’re saying it’s not doing enough. The reactionary forces in the Gulf are angry that we’re doing too much. And however, you know, a military intervention in Bahrain is not a practical option, and I cannot see in what way it could even have any hope of success. The Bahraini protesters themselves would object to a direct US or NATO military intervention in Bahrain.
In Libya, the people asked for this intervention: they asked for a no-fly zone. And I would be the first to admit that this is going beyond a no-fly zone. There’s also a no-drive zone. The British and the French and the US fighter pilots have taken out tank positions and artillery positions that had been used to subdue villages and towns that had gone into opposition. The Gaddafi regime has been rolled back by these attacks, and that’s part of what the Western understanding, or the NATO and the Arab League understanding, of the UN resolution is, is that Gaddafi was wrong to roll tanks and artillery against these civilian crowds and that those have to be withdrawn. And where they’re not withdrawn, they’ll be attacked.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me just put the final question—
JUAN COLE: So, I don’t—I don’t agree that the resolution, which is worded somewhat ambiguously, that the spirit of it has so far been violated. And President Obama made it quite clear that the United States doesn’t intend to press an invasion of a sort that would overthrow Gaddafi directly.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Vijay Prashad, on this issue of Benghazi, that—the promised massacre of the people of Benghazi, what should have happened? How would that have been prevented?
VIJAY PRASHAD: First, I’m not convinced that there would have been a massacre. I think that there were troops inside Benghazi. They are the troops that were trained and armed by the Libyan regime. They had repulsed an attempt into Benghazi. The tanks were outside the city when they were bombed by French planes.
What I would have liked to have seen was some more action from the—you know, the Arab League to think about, for instance, a war refugee corridor out of Benghazi into the Egyptian border. There is a road that goes directly. It’s interesting that the Egyptian army did not act at all in this, to come and create some kind of corridor. There were war refugees fleeing Tripoli into Tunisia, but there was nothing comparable on the eastern side. This had already become a civil war, and no longer was it simply an unarmed population fighting against a state. It had become a civil war. The real humanitarian intervention there would have been to have conducted the creation of a corridor, a momentary ceasefire, let people leave as war refugees, and then see what happens, because this is not strictly the case in Benghazi of unarmed civilians fighting against a state. It is precisely why General Ham of the African Command said that from a cockpit it is very hard to know whether you’re defending civilians or whether you’re assisting rebels.
AMY GOODMAN: We going to have to leave it—
VIJAY PRASHAD: And he said, in the briefing room we were able to tell it was rebels, but really it was also civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, Juan Cole, we will leave it there, but the debate goes on. Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, blogs at Informed Comment at juancole.com—most recent book, Engaging the Muslim World. Vijay Prashad, chair of South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut—his latest book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.
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