In late March of 2011, a massacre was averted—not just any ordinary massacre, mind you. For had Qaddafi and his forces managed to crush the Libyan rebellion in what was then its stronghold, Benghazi, the aftershocks would have reverberated well beyond eastern Libya. As Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch wrote, “Qaddafi’s victory—alongside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall—would have signaled to other authoritarian governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia to China that if you negotiate with protesters you lose, but if you kill them you win.” Qaddafi’s defeat seemed to send a message to American politicians and media instead. Contrasting Obama’s handling of Libya with Clinton’s handling of the Balkans, Malinowski observed that “Presidents getmore credit for stopping atrocities after they begin than for preventing them before they get out of hand.”
The NATO-led attack on Qaddafi’s forces therefore did much more than prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya—though it should be acknowledged that this alone might have been sufficient justification. It helped keep alive the Arab Spring: after rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt had begun to transform the political landscape of North Africa and the Middle East, and after Qaddafi’s repression of the revolt had earned the condemnation of both the Arab League and the African Union, NATO’s preservation of Benghazi in March sustained the rebellion and made it possible for the rebels to prevail in Tripoli five months later.
The stakes in Benghazi were exceptionally high. As Qaddafi’s tanks and missiles and rocket launchers were encroaching on the city, the United Nations Security Council, realizing that Resolution 1970 was now inadequate to the crisis, passed resolution 1973 on March 17, a much broader statement authorizing member states “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threatof attack in the country.” (The phrase “under threat of attack” effectively authorized military action throughout the country, as Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa agreed a few days later). With the resolution the UN regained some of its legitimacy, by contrast with its dithering in the Balkans, where atrocity upon atrocity could not move the Russian Federation to authorize the use of force. This time around, Russia merely abstained, as did China, which claimed that although it “had serious difficulty with the resolution,” it had not blocked its passage because “it attached great importance to the requests of the Arab League and the African Union.” Though the Arab League would later protest that the NATO air strikes exceeded the resolution’s mandate, the statement was a significant gesture in itself. This is not to say that great-power politics died on the day Ambassador Baodong made these remarks. Still, these considerations were not the only ones in play. The fact remains that a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council had taken the unusual step of deferring to the judgment of more local bodies such as the Arab League and the African Union.
In the United States, however, one man knew what really needed to be done—and done fast. And so on March 21, Dennis Kucinich stepped up to the microphones to declare that Obama’s decision to join military action in Libya “would appear on its face to be an impeachable offense.” Nor did Kucinich stop there: as Jamal Elshayyal of Al Jazeera reported in August, the Libyan intelligence agency headquarters in Tripoli contained evidence that Kucinich had contacted officials in the Qaddafi regime:
On the floor of the intelligence chief’s office lay an envelope addressed to Gaddafi’s son Saif Al-Islam. Inside, I found what appears to be a summary of a conversation between US congressman Denis [sic] Kucinich, who publicly opposed US policy on Libya, and an intermediary for the Libyan leader’s son.
It details a request by the congressman for information he needed to lobby US lawmakers to suspend their support for the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) and to put an end to NATO airstrikes.
According to the document, Kucinich wanted evidence of corruption within the NTC and, like [Bush Administration Assistant Secretary of State David] Welch, any possible links within rebel ranks to al-Qaeda.
It is almost too easy to trot out the hoary old accusation that Dennis Kucinich was objectively pro-Qaddafi. We may simply observe here that when the crisis was at its most urgent, he was willing to go the extra mile to aid the Qaddafi regime as it attacked its own population.
It was, and still is, possible to oppose American intervention in Libya in various reasonably sensible ways. One can point out that the rebels aren’t a coherent unit, so that it is not clear whom “we” are supporting or what the endgame might be; one can suggest that any intervention on the part of the Western powers runs the risk of delegitimizing the revolt in the Arab world; one can worry about “mission creep” and the possibility of getting involved in a bloody, intractable struggle. One can also argue, as Michael Walzer did at the Dissent blog, that the humanitarian crisis in Libya was not so severe as to trigger the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, so there is no reason to trump the principle of nonintervention, and that should any such intervention become necessary, it should be undertaken by Libya’s immediate neighbors (though Walzer also claimed that a UN resolution authorizing the use of force “would almost certainly be vetoed in the Security Council” just ten days before resolution 1973 was approved). Certainly, as with any human action of any kind in any realm of endeavor, the Libya intervention could be subjected to cost/benefit analyses and consequentialist objections about the advisability of this particular action at this particular time.
But from the outset much of the American antiwar left adopted very different lines of argument—lines that had little to do with Libya and Libyans, or indeed with the Arab Spring more broadly. These were tropes that have been forged over the past four decades of antiwar activism, and they were hauled out in 2011 just as they had been over a decade earlier in Kosovo. Ian Williams summarized them in a critical essay for Foreign Policy in Focus: they included “the unconstitutionality of the president ordering military action”; “the invalidity of a UN resolution passed with abstentions”; “the Security Council exceeding its authority by violating Libyan sovereignty”; “the self-interested motives of those intervening”; “the ‘discovery’ of ex-al-Qaeda supporters among the rebels”; and “the failure of the West to intervene in other places where civilians face potential massacres such as Bahrain, Gaza, Ivory Coast, and Yemen.” Williams’s essay was only the opening round of an exchange with Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy and longtime antiwar activist. And a most telling exchange it turned out to be.
Williams argued that the litany of objections to intervention in Libya “evades the crucial question: Should the world let Libyan civilians die at the hands of a tyrant?” In response, Naiman argued (following Kucinich) that Obama had violated the War Powers Resolution, and that much of the American public was doubtful about or opposed to U.S. involvement. Naiman also noted, right on cue, that “the United States has been largely silent on the crackdown in Bahrain.” Williams then replied that Naiman’s answer begins “from a narcissistic Americo-centric point of view, evading the key question. When a group of people who are about to be massacred ask for help, what do you do?” Stunningly, Naiman replied that “the thrust of his argument here seems to be that if you criticize the Western military intervention, you must be a Gaddafi-lover,” and proceeded to pretend that Williams had insulted him personally: “Again Ian Williams comes with the gratuitous insults: ‘narcissistic,’ ‘Americo-centric,’ etc. And again I say: among fair-minded people, those who engage in gratuitous ad hominem attacks weaken rather than strengthen their argument.”
Admittedly, Naiman was in a tight corner. Since he couldn’t answer Williams’s question about whether it was acceptable for the international community to allow Libyans to be massacred, and couldn’t acknowledge that NATO intervention enjoyed a level of legitimacy and international support wholly lacking in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he wound up energetically rebutting a couple of arguments Williams never made. But then he tried a more morally aggressive defense, writing, “The last thing the United States needed to do … was to engage in a third war in a Muslim country.” This argument has a good deal of bite, for it is undeniably true that previous U.S. wars in Muslim countries have not endeared America to the Muslim world. But as I tracked its iterations on the antiwar left, I got the sense that it is more powerful for what it implies than for what it explicitly says. The statement presents itself as mere prudence, combining a sense that the U.S. might be militarily overextended with the concern that our military operations might be viewed with skepticism and hostility on the Arab street. But the implications are more profound, for the formulation “third war in a Muslim country” manages to blend a valid point—that the US is still in Iraq and increasingly embroiled in Afghanistan, with scant justification—with the suggestion that we are engaging in a colonialist spree of Muslim-bombing. For opportunists on the right and the left, Libya is Obama’s Iraq: the right enjoys this equation, because it seems to offer retroactive justification on Iraq while allowing them to crow about allegedly hypocritical liberals who opposed American military action in 2003 but not now; the left is happy to indulge in the same specious argument, because it offers them proof that there never was a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties, that the Obama administration constitutes Bush’s third term in office, and that Obama is a secret neoconservative.
It may be that some of the knee-jerk opposition to US involvement in Libya—that is, the kind that does not take into account the momentum from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, or the support for NATO action by the Arab League and the United Nations—is an epiphenomenon of the left’s version of Obama Derangement Syndrome. In the U.S., ODS is especially pronounced among the “netroots,” where “progressive” bloggers vie to outdo each other in the agonies of their disappointment in and/or the virulence of their disdain for Obama’s presidency. (Last I looked, they had moved on from determining that Obama is worse than Bush, and had begun deliberations as to whether he is the worst president in U.S. history—though one of the more restrained frontpagers at FireDogLake did say, in July 2011, “I’m not ready to crown Barack Obama the Worst President Ever just yet.”) Often based (quite plausibly) on Obama’s various compromises with Republicans and conservative Democrats over health care and the budget, or his collapses on civil liberties, and often led (rather less plausibly) by partisans of Hillary Clinton, who have apparently decided to take her loss in the 2008 Democratic primaries as an occasion for building an alternate reality in which she is somewhere to the left of Eugene V. Debs (and secretly a hardened opponent of the administration in which she serves), Obama Derangement Syndrome is not specifically about foreign policy. It does, however, allow American leftists to cheer on the Arab Spring while denouncing Obama’s, and the international community’s, attempt to support its expression in Libya.
Lest I be misunderstood (though I will be, despite this attempt at interpretive prophylaxis), I am not insisting that support for NATO military action in Libya should have been a litmus test issue for the left. For one thing, the Libya action, like the Kosovo action before it, put paid to the usual left-right configurations, leaving everyone with unexpected and/or unsavory allies. More to the point, there were and are good reasons to mistrust the rebels, and there were and are good reasons to worry about the extent and the ramifications of any US military involvement anywhere. I am simply insisting that there is a world of difference between these standard caveats and University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle’s claim that the Libya action was an “all-out war” of “plunder and aggression.” Or antiwar activist and 9/11 Truther Steve Lendman’s declaration that “after covering Libya’s rape since last winter in dozens of articles, no forgiving or forgetting is possible for one of history’s great crimes.”
Over the years, I’ve learned to anticipate critiques of the line of argument I have developed here, and elaborated at much greater length in The Left At War. Those who believe that there should be no enemies to one’s left are fond of accusing me of “hippie punching,” as if, like Presidents Obama and Clinton, I am attacking straw men to my left in order to lay claim to the reasonable, vital center; those who know that I am not attacking straw persons are wont to claim instead that I am criticizing fringe figures who have no impact whatsoever on public debate in the United States. And it is true: on the subject of Libya the usual fringe figures behaved precisely as The Left At War depicts the Manichean Left. Alexander Cockburn, James Petras, Robert Fisk, John Pilger—all of them still fighting Vietnam, stranded for decades on a remote ideological island with no way of contacting any contemporary geopolitical reality whatsoever—weighed in with the usual denunciations of US imperialism and predictions that Libya would be carved up for its oil. And about the doughty soi-disant anti-imperialists who, in the mode of Hugo Chavez, doubled down on the delusion that Qaddafi is a legitimate and benevolent ruler harassed by the forces of imperialism, there really is nothing to say, for there can be nothing more damning than their own words.
But if it were just a matter of a handful of left dead-enders muttering to themselves, I wouldn’t bother. What I was newly struck by—in a way that challenged even my usual cynicism about human affairs—was the frequency and the volume of dead-ender sentiments that began popping up in almost every liberal/progressive blog’s comment threads. It was as if everyone and her brother already knew what to say, needing only to download the appropriate template for the occasion: Western relations with Qaddafi had warmed since 2003, so the attack was pure hypocrisy; this is all about oil; Qaddafi was just one of the monsters we created and supported from the beginning; the rebels are seeded with agents of the CIA; this is all about oil; the attack was planned long in advance, and merely wanted an opportune moment; Obama is Bush’s third term; NATO’s motives are not 99 and 44/100 percent pure; the rebels are thugs and theocrats, like the Kosovo Liberation Army before them; the rebels’ celebrations are just like those of post-Saddam Iraq; if the U.S. were really concerned about Libya then why isn’t it intervening in Bahrain and Syria and Saudi Arabia (though we reserve the right to protest if and when it does); and, once more for the old folks at home, this is all about oil.
I lost track of the number of times I came across people arguing that the intervention is a flagrant violation of the UN resolution and of international law. A flagrant violation? Certainly the intervention speaks to an ongoing debate in international law, between the advocates of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) and the defenders of national sovereignty who fear that R2P will license yet another form of domination of the global south by the global north, or of small, allegedly failed states by the world’s great powers. And it is possible to disagree about the scope of resolution 1973, and whether “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” might include regime change on the grounds that no civilian would be safe from attack as long as Qaddafi remained in power, or whether regime change is or ought to be beyond the purview of the Security Council. These are real ambiguities, and they will be subject to debate for the foreseeable future. But for some observers, perhaps the mantra “flagrant violation, flagrant violation” has the welcome effect of avoiding interpretive ambiguities and allowing for greater concentration of mind.
As the rebels entered Tripoli in August, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, writing at his renowned blog, “Informed Comment,” issued one of his now-famous “Top Ten Myths” debunkings. Starting from the premise that “the Libyan Revolution has largely succeeded, and this is a moment of celebration, not only for Libyans but for a youth generation in the Arab world that has pursued a political opening across the region,” Cole proceeded to repudiate some of the addled left’s most popular shibboleths about the war. To wit: Qaddafi was a progressive in domestic or foreign policy; he was justified in sending out the military to crush the protestors; the situation was a civil war in which no foreign power had the right to intervene; the situation was a quagmire; Libya was not a “real” country and would be partitioned by the Western powers; NATO would need and would deploy ground troops; the US led the charge to war; and finally, two truly bizarre claims—namely, “Qaddafi would not have killed or imprisoned large numbers of dissidents in Benghazi, Derna, al-Bayda and Tobruk if he had been allowed to pursue his March Blitzkrieg toward the eastern cities that had defied him,” and the perennial “this is a war for Libya’s oil.” “That is daft,” Cole replied (with every justification). “Libya was already integrated into the international oil markets, and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI, etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who had signed them.” Cole failed to note, however, that this last point could not possibly mollify that sector of the left which has always regarded it as appalling that the U.S. improved relations with Qaddafi after 2003—and has regarded it as even more appalling that the U.S. bombed Libya before 2003. For them the fact that U.S. policy toward Libya changed over time and circumstance is proof positive that it is all about oil, just as the tilt toward Iraq in the 1980s, followed by the first Gulf War, proves the same point.
For his dogged attempts to talk about Libya sensibly and evenhandedly, Cole earned the admiration of much of the blogosphere, which, on matters of foreign policy, does not offer much that can be called informed comment. And he earned himself the usual sobriquets from the usual suspects for the usual reasons, which can be summed up reasonably well by the critics who stopped by his blog to tell him that he is an agent of the Empire. No doubt Professor Cole already knew that, although his secret-imperial-agent status did not prevent conservatives from organizing to deny him an offer from Yale University on the grounds that he was unacceptably critical of Israel. The ways of the Empire are mysterious.
It is still too soon to tell what may come of the French Revolution, so it is a fortiori far too soon to tell what may come of the revolutions in North Africa. I hope nothing I have written here will be taken as jejune triumphalism about the fall of Qaddafi—or that of Hosni Mubarak, or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It is not inconceivable that a popular uprising against a brutal dictator, some elements of which are supported by Western liberals, could produce an Islamist state whose policies are abhorrent to Western liberals. What is now called the Arab Spring might eventually become known as “the year 1979 went viral.” But one thing does seem clear even now: when the Arab Spring began, American liberals and leftists generally cheered it on; American conservatives were torn, holding fast to Kissingerian realism or the desires of the Likudnik bloc or the firm conviction that whatever Obama was or was not or might be doing, it was wrong. (This last principle, infinitely elastic, is what allowed senior Republican statesmen and Deeply Serious People like John McCain and Newt Gingrich to take three or four positions on Libya in the course of a week; when Qaddafi was finally killed, the same statesmen graciously congratulated the French while chastising Obama for delaying the necessary regime change through his dithering.) When, however, the American military joined NATO forces in an armed defense of the Libyan rebellion and a counterattack on Qaddafi, suddenly thousands of leftists had second thoughts. With astonishing rapidity, the “Arab Spring” signs disappeared, and thousands of “Power to the People” signs were replaced with newly minted slogans about stopping the imperialist war machine and its wanton rape of Libya.
As I explained in a response to a special issue on The Left at War published online by the journal Politics and Culture, I do not and will not use the term “anti-American” to describe those of my fellow citizens who oppose all U.S. and NATO military actions. “No doubt some of them are motivated, to some extent, by some form of opposition to the United States,” I acknowledged. “But in the United States, the term operates chiefly to suppress debate (unsurprisingly, and regardless of whether its user intends it this way): in mass media, no ‘anti-American’ intellectuals or activists are invited to discuss American affairs. Outside the United States, it confuses legitimate, principled opposition to American foreign policy with legitimate, opportunistic, resentful, or fundamentalist opposition to American cultural hegemony. And, of course, it forecloses on the question of when ‘anti-Americanism’ is an altogether appropriate response to a state of affairs. I know that when my government is napalming villages or helping death squads murder priests and nuns (including American clergy!), then I count myself among the ranks of the anti-Americans. But my opposition to these things is an opposition to actions, not to entities.” Having said that, however, I now have to add my conviction that for what I call the Manichean Left, opposition to U.S. policy is precisely an opposition to entities: all we need to know, on that left, is that the U.S. is involved. Then we know that the action is wrong, whatever it may be.
Ten years ago, surveying the post-9/11 landscape in the pages of Dissent, Michael Walzer famously asked if there could be a “decent left” in a superpower. It was the wrong question—or perhaps just the wrong term—and it has since been mocked with a mighty mockery: after all, for the hard left, who take as much pride in hardness and firmness as did any of George Bush’s most ardent admirers, “decency” is a prissy value, to be gauged and monitored by a Decency League made up of schoolmarms and busybodies. The question, rather, should have been whether there can be a rigorously internationalist left in the U.S., a left that will promote and support the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear—even on those rare and valuable occasions when doing so puts one in the position of supporting U.S. policies. That, I think, is the question that confronts the American left after Benghazi, in the years following the Arab Spring.
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