Juan Cole deconstructs pseudo-left jive on Libya

Juan Cole of the Informed Comment blog was a hero of the left when he slapped down mainstream media jive on the Iraq war just a few short years ago. But now he takes on idiot left jive on Libya—which has at times deteriorated into shameless cheerleading for Qaddafi. You don’t have to support the NATO intervention—you can voice legitimate protest over the civilian casualties, and the Orwellian arguments that have been raised in defense of the bombing. But you can still recognize the anti-war left’s own Orwellian arguments—and join with Cole in acknowledging that “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.” In a piece picked up by CNN (!), Cole identifies “Top ten myths about the Libya war,” which we slightly condense here:

Myth #1. Gadhafi was a progressive in his domestic policies.
While back in the 1970s, Gadhafi was probably more generous in sharing around the oil wealth with the population, buying tractors for farmers, etc., in the past couple of decades that policy changed. He became vindictive against tribes in the east and in the southwest that had crossed him politically, depriving them of their fair share in the country’s resources. And in the past decade and a half, extreme corruption and the rise of post-Soviet-style oligarchs, including Gadhafi and his sons, have…blighted the economy. Workers were strictly controlled and unable to collectively bargain for improvements in their conditions. There was much more poverty and poor infrastructure in Libya than there should have been in an oil state.

Myth #2. Gadhafi was a progressive in his foreign policy.
Again, he traded for decades on positions, or postures, he took in the 1970s. In contrast, in recent years he played a sinister role in Africa, bankrolling brutal dictators and helping foment ruinous wars. In 1996 the supposed champion of the Palestinian cause expelled 30,000 stateless Palestinians from the country. After he came in from the cold, ending European and U.S. sanctions, he began buddying around with George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and other right wing figures. Berlusconi has even said that he considered resigning as Italian prime minister once NATO began its intervention, given his close personal relationship to Gadhafi. Such a progressive.

Myth #3. It was only natural that Gadhafi sent his military against the protesters and revolutionaries;
any country would have done the same.

No, it wouldn’t, and this is the argument of a moral cretin. In fact, the Tunisian officer corps refused to fire on Tunisian crowds for dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the Egyptian officer corps refused to fire on Egyptian crowds for Hosni Mubarak.

The willingness of the Libyan officer corps to visit macabre violence on protesting crowds derived from the centrality of the Gadhafi sons and cronies at the top of the military hierarchy… Deploying the military against non-combatants was a war crime, and doing so in a widespread and systematic way was a crime against humanity. Gadhafi and his sons will be tried for this crime, which is not “perfectly natural.”

Myth #4. There was a long stalemate in the fighting between the revolutionaries and the Gadhafi military.
There was not. This idea was fostered by the vantage point of many Western observers, in Benghazi. It is true that there was a long stalemate at Brega, which ended yesterday when the pro-Gadhafi troops there surrendered. But the two most active fronts in the war were Misrata and its environs, and the Western Mountain region.

Misrata fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-defense against attacking Gadhafi armor and troops, finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli. The most dramatic battles and advances were in the largely Berber Western Mountain region, where, again, Gadhafi armored units relentlessly shelled small towns and villages but were fought off (with less help from NATO initially, which I think did not recognize the importance of this theater).

It was the revolutionary volunteers from this region who eventually took Zawiya, with the help of the people of Zawiya, last Friday and who thereby cut Tripoli off from fuel and ammunition coming from Tunisia and made the fall of the capital possible. Any close observer of the war since April has seen constant movement, first at Misrata and then in the Western Mountains, and there was never an over-all stalemate.

Myth #5. The Libyan Revolution was a civil war.
It was not, if by that is meant a fight between two big groups within the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in 2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests, and only when the urban crowds were subjected to artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did the revolutionaries begin arming themselves.

When fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing their city quarters taking on trained regular army troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a civil war. Only in a few small pockets of territory, such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Gadhafi civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort into a civil war. Gadhafi’s support was too limited, too thin, and too centered in the professional military, to allow us to speak of a civil war.

Myth #6. Libya is not a real country and could have been partitioned between east and west.
Alexander Cockburn wrote,

It requites no great prescience to see that this will all end up badly. Gadhafi’s failure to collapse on schedule is prompting increasing pressure to start a ground war, since the NATO operation is, in terms of prestige, like the banks Obama has bailed out, Too Big to Fail. Libya will probably be balkanized.

I don’t understand the propensity of Western analysts to keep pronouncing nations in the global south “artificial” and on the verge of splitting up. It is a kind of Orientalism. All nations are artificial…

Moreover, most nation-states are multi-ethnic, and many long-established ones have sub-nationalisms that threaten their unity. Thus, the Catalans and Basque are uneasy inside Spain, the Scottish may bolt Britain any moment, etc., etc. In contrast, Libya does not have any well-organized, popular separatist movements… Everyone speaks Arabic, though for Berbers it is the public language; Berbers were among the central Libyan heroes of the revolution, and will be rewarded with a more pluralist Libya.

Myth #7. There had to be NATO infantry brigades on the ground for the revolution to succeed.
Everyone from Cockburn to Max Boot put forward this idea. But there are not any foreign infantry brigades in Libya, and there are unlikely to be any… NATO had some intelligence assets on the ground, but they were small in number…and did not amount to an invasion force. The Libyan people never needed foreign ground brigades to succeed in their revolution.

Myth #8. The United States led the charge to war.
There is no evidence for this allegation whatsoever. When I asked Glenn Greenwald whether a U.S. refusal to join France and Britain in a NATO united front might not have destroyed NATO, he replied that NATO would never have gone forward unless the U.S. had plumped for the intervention in the first place.

I fear that answer was less fact-based and more doctrinaire than we are accustomed to hearing from Mr. Greenwald, whose research and analysis on domestic issues is generally first-rate. As someone not a stranger to diplomatic history, and who has actually heard briefings in Europe from foreign ministries and officers of NATO members, I’m offended at the glibness of an answer given with no more substantiation than an idee fixe…

It is obvious that the French and the British led the charge on this intervention, likely because they believed that a protracted struggle over years between the opposition and Gadhafi in Libya would radicalize it and give an opening to al-Qaeda and so pose various threats to Europe… Whatever Western Europe’s motivations, they were the decisive ones, and the Obama administration clearly came along as a junior partner (something Sen. John McCain is complaining bitterly about).

Myth #9. Gadhafi 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.
But we have real-world examples of how he would have behaved, in Zawiya, Tawargha, Misrata and elsewhere. His indiscriminate shelling of Misrata had already killed between 1,000 and 2,000 by last April, and it continued all summer. At least one Gadhaf mass grave with 150 bodies in it has been discovered. And the full story of the horrors in Zawiya and elsewhere in the west has yet to emerge… The opposition claims Gadhafi’s forces killed tens of thousands. Public health studies may eventually settle this issue, but we know definitively what Gadhafi was capable of.

Myth #10. This was a war for Libya’s oil.
That is daft. 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. They had often already had the trauma of having to compete for post-war Iraqi contracts, a process in which many did less well than they would have liked. ENI’s profits were hurt by the Libyan revolution, as were those of Total SA and Repsol.

Moreover, taking Libyan oil off the market through a NATO military intervention could have been foreseen to put up oil prices, which no Western elected leader would have wanted to see, especially Barack Obama, with the danger that a spike in energy prices could prolong the economic doldrums. An economic argument for imperialism is fine if it makes sense, but this one does not, and there is no good evidence for it (that Gadhafi was erratic is not enough), and is therefore just a conspiracy theory.

Cole may overstate things a bit. We’ve always argued that the West’s interest in the Libya intervention is the imperative to control the political trajectory of the Arab Spring—and a key imperative for that is maintaining imperial control of oil (by which we mean the region’s oil, not just Libya’s). We believe an obvious NATO war aim is having a compliant regime in Libya that will counter-balance the OPEC price hawks (a separate issue from corporate profits, and in some ways a countervailing one). And we aren’t yet convinced a “pluralist Libya” is coming. There is still potential for a new dictatorship. And there will still have to be a reckoning between Libya’s revolutionary movement and Western imperialism.

All that said, we are grateful to Cole for calling out the glib propaganda of the relentlessly annoying Alexander Cockburn and Glenn Greenwald. And we are especially grateful for his recognition of the critical and little-appreciated role of Libya’s Berbers in bringing down Qaddafi. This western front has had less aid from NATO than the NTC’s eastern front—and the Berbers’ own recognition of the NTC’s command is uncertain at best. The Berbers may have to continue their struggle (hopefully by civil means) to assure that they have a dignified place in the new Libya.

If mainstream-media triumphalism is a danger to a clear-eyed view of the scene in Libya at this critical moment, so is idiot-left sore-loserism. Thanks, Prof. Cole, for cutting through the malarky.

See our last post on Libya.

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  1. Libya/Cole
    Actually, Prof. Cole is very skilled at kicking straw men’s butts. But when his perspective was criticized by the World Socialist Web Site, he slandered it by claiming that the WSWS wanted to see Gaddafi slaughter Libyans. When the WSWS—which has always opposed Gaddafi from a socialist perspective, including back when he and his sons were being feted by the imperialist powers not long ago—exposed his cowardly lie and demanded a retraction, he did not have the courage to address the issue, instead preferring to perfunctorily repeat the same old lie. That is cowardice and dishonesty. Here is the “exchange”:


    Plans for the post-Gaddafi regime:


    As for the true nature of Libya’s “liberators”:


    We can expect more in the days and months to come. The Libyan working class’s struggle has just begun, and it will include some hard lessons on the nature of its “leaders” and the powers behind them.

    1. The strawmen are all yours
      And the (ostentatiously named) World Socialist Web Site’s. Here is Juan Cole’s original quote:

      The UN allies won’t allow Gaddafi to take the east and massacre and imprison thousands, however much Alexander Cockburn, the Tea Party and the World Socialist Web Site would like to see that happen, or at least they object to practical steps to prevent it.

      Given the “at least” codicil, this strikes me as a factually correct statement. There may have been legitimate reasons to oppose those “practical steps” on pacifist or anti-imperialist grounds, but state your arguments forthrightly and face up to their implications. I don’t follow the boring and pompous WSWS, but much of the anti-war left has displayed an appalling insensitivity to Qaddafi’s bloody repression.

      In your final link, WSWS uses the term “Rape of Libya”—not, seemingly, in reference to Qaddafi’s hoarding of the nation’s wealth and resort to massacres and bombing his own cities to maintain power, but to the revolution that overthrew him. You put “liberators” in quotes, which is a little cynical but perhaps justifiable given that we don’t know how things are going to shake out yet. WSWS actually puts “rebels” in quotes, which is utterly cynical, and an affront to self-evident reality.

      This is why I don’t take WSWS seriously. I suggest you read World War 4 Report’s coverage instead.

      1. rebs & rev
        I’m only speaking for myself, not the WSWS. There are good reasons for putting both the terms “rebel” and “revolution” in quotes. I am sure that there are many Libyans who sincerely hold the mistaken belief that getting rid of a dictator gets rid of dictatorship. However, they have to follow a leadership, and that’s whom I mean. Men like Hifter, the late Younis, Jibril and others who were once part of the Gaddafi government (some with innocent blood on their hands), as well as some LIFG terrorists like Abdelhakim Belhadj. Their class interests are not the same as the soldiers’.

        There are two good reasons for putting “revolution” in quotes. One is that what is happening in Libya does not constitute a revolution unless one is really sloppy with definitions. A revolution involves the overthrow of a class and changes in property relations. Neither of those are going to happen in Libya. The former Gaddafi functionaries and other elite elements in the NTC will protect their interests against the working class and poor in Libya—uniting with elements of the Gaddafi regime if they need to—as soon as the fighters’ services are no longer needed.

        The other reason is not cynicism, but rejection of wishful thinking. (Cynicism is for media and politicians.) Sure, it would be nice if the leadership in the NTC were truly looking out for the interests of all classes, but that isn’t going to happen. Even if they had the purest of motives, they are beholden to the NATO powers, in more ways than one. One of course is payback for the 20,000-sortie death-and-destruction NATO campaign that’s actually winning the war. The other, probably more important, one is the stranglehold that the NATO powers have on billions of dollars of frozen assets, which will be, as Stuart Levey told Bloomberg News, “leverage to ensure the Obama administration gets the kind of government we’d like to see in Libya.” It’s called neocolonialism.

        That government will be similar to what the administration wants in the USA: one with a privatized economy, with social services cut or eliminated, corporate oil, the rich get richer, the rest get less. Of course, that will cause anger among those who did the actual fighting, but there is a plan for that: as the Libya Working Group recommends, “establish a process to collect weapons, as large sections of the civilian population will be left with arms.” Disarm the people, in other words.

        But even unarmed angry workers are dangerous, so the LWG adds “immediate reengagement with the police [i.e., Gaddafi’s police] in Tripoli to help bring about the restoration of civilian order.” The army—that is, Gaddafi’s army—will be reengaged with as well, restoring the monopoly of violence in the police and army. As the song goes, “Meet the new boss…”

        But for now the rebs are summarily executing enemy soldiers as well as black Africans.

        One curious thing about this revolution. The biggest boosters of it, apart from the imperialist powers, are…the monarchies and dictatorships in the Gulf Cooperation Council! These corrupt, brutal regimes were skittish when the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings took place. One would think that an actual revolution would have them shaking in their boots. Not so. They love it. Is the GCC now revolutionary? Maybe they know something…

        The road ahead is going to be rocky for the Libyan working class, as they see their country turned into a neocolony, and see themselves betrayed time and again by the class they thought would liberate them. But they have fought before, and they’ll fight again, not for imperial interests or for those of one or another faction of the ruling class, but for their own. That is, a real revolution.

        1. propagandistic quote marks
          Get out of here. If you want to be fastidiously rigorous with Marxist definitions—OK, what is happening in Libya may not be a revolution, yet. Denying there is a rebellion is absurd on its face. Neocolonialism is assuredly one of the dynamics at play here. Not the only one. Ask the Berbers who have recovered their language and cultural rights if this is “wishful thinking.”

  2. Speaking of Libya
    This is the most morbidly fascinating blog I’ve yet to come across; the guy cites webster tarpley and engdahl quite frequently, approves of the Thailand military coup, proclaims all the casualties in Syria are bullshit, and many many more joys. I’ve been looking at it for two hours with a brief summary of some pieces at my blog