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OPINION - by Juan Cole

An Open Letter to the Left on Libya

Mercredi, 30 mars 2011 - 10h16 AM

Wednesday 30 March 2011


Some have charged that the Libya action has a Neoconservative political odor. But the Neoconservatives hate the United Nations and wanted to destroy it. They went to war on Iraq despite the lack of UNSC authorization, in a way that clearly contravened the UN Charter.

The Libya action, in contrast, observes all the norms of international law and multilateral consultation that the Neoconservatives despise. There is no pettiness. Germany is not ’punished’ for not going along.
Moreover, the Neoconservatives wanted to exercise primarily Anglo-American military might in the service of harming the public sector and enforced ’shock therapy’ privatization so as to open the conquered country to Western corporate penetration. [Amazing...does Juan Cole think if the rebels win Libya’s oil will be nationalized?]. 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....

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 [There is hardly any significant change yet in the governments ruling Tunisia and Egypt].

It was urged by a United Nations Security Council resolution, the gold standard for military intervention. [This assertion from an expert beggars belief. The Security Council is controlled by the 5 permanent representatives with a US-manipulated gang of three, France not always on board, and an opportunistic two of Russia and China]. Contrary to what some alleged, the abstentions of Russia and China do not deprive the resolution of legitimacy or the force of law; only a veto could have done that. You can be arrested today on a law passed in the US Congress on which some members abstained from voting.

Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the intervention are:

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

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

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

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

Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade. That was a foreign intervention. Leftists were happy about Churchill’s and then Roosevelt’s intervention against the Axis. To make ’anti-imperialism’ trump all other values in a mindless way leads to frankly absurd positions....

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.

Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding. Of course he is not to be trusted by progressives, but he is to his dismay increasingly boxed in by international institutions, which limits the damage he could do as the bombing campaign comes to an end.

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....This situation did not obtain in the Sudan’s Darfur, where the terrain and the conflict were such that aerial intervention alone would have been useless and only boots on the ground could have had a hope of being effective.

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 [What kind of legitimacy does this body have when it is almost entirely composed of despots, many of who survive with US/European support?]

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

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

Another argument is that the no-fly zone (and the no-drive zone) aimed at overthrowing Qaddafi not to protect his people from him but to open the way for US, British and French dominance of Libya’s oil wealth.
This argument is bizarre. The US declined to do oil business with Libya in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, when it could have, because it had placed the country under boycott. After Qaddafi came back in from the cold in the late 1990s (for the European Union) and after 2003 (for the US), sanctions were lifted and Western oil companies flocked into the country. US companies were well represented, along with BP and the Italian firm ENI. BP signed an expensive exploration contract with Qaddafi and cannot possibly have wanted its validity put into doubt by a revolution. There is no advantage to the oil sector of removing Qaddafi.

Indeed, a new government may be more difficult to deal with and may not honor Qaddafi’s commitments [Is Prof. Cole so out of the loop that he has not read of the collaboration that has already been initiated between the rebel “leader” Jebril and the West?].

There is no prospect of Western companies being allowed to own Libyan petroleum fields, which were nationalized long ago [I guess, just like Iraq’s fields, which were also nationalized under Saddam Hussein?]

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. [ This is so absurd...since when has control of oil resources automatically resulted in a surplus of gasoline and a reduction of prices? And this does not even take into account the tremendous increase in demand for oil in countries like China and India]. 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. It is now easy to forget that Winston Churchill held absolutely odious positions from a Left point of view and was an insufferable colonialist who opposed letting India go in 1947. His writings are full of racial stereotypes that are deeply offensive when read today. Some of his interventions were nevertheless noble and were almost universally supported by the Left of his day. The UN allies now rolling back Qaddafi are doing a good thing, whatever you think of some of their individual leaders.

Andreas Whittam Smith: Not even the humanitarian urge can be a basis for war, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/andreas-whittam-smith/andreas-whittam-smith-not-even-the-humanitarian-urge-can-be-a-basis-for-war-2250986.html#

The argument ’not to stand idly by’ as Gaddafi wages war on civilian protesters is powerful. But what has resulted has been muddle and confusion.What if there had been no United Nations resolution on Libya and no airborne attacks? Probably Colonel Gaddafi would have crushed the rebellion and punished his enemies by death or by imprisonment and torture. And then what? This further question is the important one.

Had nothing else been going in Egypt on one frontier and Tunisia on the other, or in, say, Yemen further away, or even in Syria, then Colonel Gaddafi’s opponents would probably have packed it in. What encouragement would there have been to start again given the severe penalties for failure? That was the conclusion drawn in eastern Europe after the Soviet Union brutally put down revolts in East Germany (1953), Poland (1956), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1978)........

Underlying the different interpretations of the UN resolution is the question of whether the purpose of military intervention is simply to protect civilians from attacks from the air by the institution of a no-fly zone, or to tip the conflict in the rebels’ favour by securing not so much a no-fly zone but rather a no-drive area. British ministers are at the aggressive end of the argument.

Which is not where you find public opinion. A ComRes poll carried out for ITN found only 35 per cent said it was right for the UK to take action. Some 53 per cent said it would be unacceptable for British personnel to risk death or injury. In fact, Mr Cameron, Mr Hague, Mr Fox and Mr Harvey are curiously tone-deaf so far as these matters are concerned. The example of the Prime Minister’s ill-considered arms-selling trip to the Middle East on the morrow of the successful outcome of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt shows this clearly. What British ministers are now saying to themselves is that, having obtained the UN resolution on humanitarian grounds, they would now like to use it as the basis for an intervention designed to bring about regime change.

If ministers are out of touch with public opinion, they also lack military experience. If they were better acquainted with the realities of the battlefield, they would be less gung-ho. Military experience fits into Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”. If you don’t possess it, you don’t even know what it is you are missing.