Libya slave trade becomes political football

We’ve already noted the unseemly gloating over the chaos in Libya from many who opposed the NATO intervention of 2011. For them, the factional warfare and endemic lawlessness is only an opportunity for schadenfreude—taking glee in the misfortune of others. They were uninterested in loaning support to (or even recognizing the existence of) progressive elements during the Libyan revolution, and they continue to be thusly uninterested today. The Libyan human rights groups that are documenting war crimes by the profusion of militias and foreign powers, the women and ethnic minorities fighting for their rights—all safely invisible to stateside commentators of the left, right and center. For the schadenfreude crew, the Libyans are not actors in their own drama, but pawns to be exploited for propaganda against Obama and Hillary Clinton (tellingly hated by left and right alike). That many of these commentators consider themselves anti-imperialist is high irony, as they have completely internalized the imperial narcissism that makes the Libyans and their struggles and aspirations completely invisible, and turns them into objects for use in political contests within the imperial metropole. Perversely, this attitude even extends to the chilling emergence of a slave trade in abducted Black African migrants in Libya’s remote desert south…

Currently getting lots of play is a Newsweek interview with wonk Alan J. Kuperman predictably entitled “Libyan Slave Trade: Is Obama To Blame?” And, just as predictably, we are about to be told…. yup. We’ve noted this Kuperman fellow before, and he seems to be a strange amalgam of hawkish neocon and isolationist paleocon, depending on the day of the week. He made paleocon noises during the Darfur genocide, blaming the victims for provoking the Sudanese regime and calling on the West to give Khartoum a free hand. But, in the worst neocon style, he’s also called for pre-emptive strikes on Iran to wipe out its nuclear program. It tells volumes that where Libya is concerned, he sounds exactly like the schadenfreude elements of the “left.”

“The responsibility is on Barack Obama’s administration,” Kuperman tells us, speaking of the slave markets. “He made the decision to overthrow Gaddafi.” He adds: “When you break a state and then don’t stick around to rebuild it, you create a failed state. I’m not sure the worst thing going on in Libya is the slave trade.”

You can practically hear the longing in his voice for worse things than the slave trade to be going on, to give him more ammo to use against Obama and Clinton. But, yet again, his comment assumes, first, that it was the US that overthrew Qaddafi, not the Libyans who rose up against him. And secondly, that the alternative was going back to a stable dictatorship under Qaddafi—which was clearly not possible; his autocratic rule had reached the breaking point. But Libyan contexts are invisible to imperial narcissists like Kuperman.

Even more to the point… It is Moammar Qaddafi who is first and foremost to blame for the current social collapse in Libya. Qaddafi completely suppressed civil society for 40 years, so there would be no autonomous institutions when the dictatorship finally crashed, allowing criminal gangs to fill the vacuum. It was Qaddafi who hired Black African mercenaries to put down the rebellion after his army defected, providing convenient propaganda for the racist and xenophonic elements that emerged in the social explosion. It was Qaddafi who even press-ganged African migrants into his mercenary forces on pain of deportation and then used them against the rebels, enflaming a racist backlash. And it was Qaddafi who consciously exploited racism and xenophobia by selling himself to the West as a bulwark against the African immigrant hordes that would otherwise overwhelm Europe.

This last gambit even won him favorable coverage in Italy’s La Stampa in September 2010, which did not fail to invoke the demographic threat of Africa’s booming population. BBC News noted at the time that Qaddafi even invoked the menace of a “Black Europe” if the EU didn’t fund his police state to intercept migrants. Human Rights Watch meanwhile condemned the “deplorable conditions” in Qaddafi’s migrant detention centers. HRW reports noted that detained migrants were routinely beaten and denied food and healthcare in Qaddafi’s Libya. This is the regime Kuperman and his ironic counterparts on the “left” are nostalgic for.

Enthusiasm for dictators and suspicion of revolution now ironically unite left and right. Only those willing to demonstrate some solidarity with the Libyans and African migrants on Libyan territory have any moral right to speak about the re-emergence of the slave trade in the country. Those who just seek to exploit this misery for domestic political gain should be shamed into silence.

  1. Still nostalgic for Qaddafi?

    We just became aware of press reports from Nigeria in 2009 (e.g. Vanguard, Aug. 7) that the Qaddafi regime carried out mass executions of undocumented migrants. Accounts said 30, mostly Nigerians, were put to death, with a second mass execution of over 200 planned—sparking protests in Lagos. News of the executions leaked out from a Nigerian migrant being held in a Libyan prison who spoke to reporters via cell phone.