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Response to Juan Cole On Libya

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LibyaBy Phyllis Bennis

Response to Juan Cole's An Open Letter to The Left On Libya published in The Nation magazine.

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 thru 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 who over the years 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.

"With the military intervention underway, our job now is to make sure it does not escalate 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."

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 U.S. 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 criticizing this western military assault (yes, western– I’ll get to that in a minute) with the belief that “it was all right…if Qaddafi 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 U.S. to stop enabling the Israeli assault, but we didn’t call for establishing a no-fly zone or U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-led campaign in the UN, but instead was begun by France and the UK, only then the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. instrumentalization of the United Nations to provide political cover for war was what made it illegitimate.

The Obama administration itself recognized 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 U.S. 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 League now remains officially on board but seriously divided. Overall, despite the cosmetic participation of two U.S.-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 democratizing 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 U.S. 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 organization 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-militarized neighbors in the form of arms, etc., might have been appropriate. It was not impossible – civil society organizations, 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 centerpiece 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 centers that happen to be in the midst of heavily populated areas, far beyond the immediate “protection of civilians” authorized 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 U.S. 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 U.S. had immediately ended all arms sales and stopped the current weapons pipeline to Saudi Arabia when its soldiers crossed the causeway. If the U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S., 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 U.S. 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 internationalizing, 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 U.S.-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.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN.


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