Juan Cole: An Open Letter to the Left on Libya





[Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).]

As I expected, now that Qaddafi’s advantage in armor and heavy weapons is being neutralized by the UN allies’ air campaign, the liberation movement is regaining lost territory. Liberators took back Ajdabiya and Brega (Marsa al-Burayqa), key oil towns, on Saturday into Sunday morning, and seemed set to head further West. This rapid advance is almost certainly made possible in part by the hatred of Qaddafi among the majority of the people of these cities. The Buraiqa Basin contains much of Libya’s oil wealth, and the Transitional Government in Benghazi will soon again control 80 percent of this resource, an advantage in their struggle with Qaddafi.

I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed. I can still remember when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring and extirpate socialism with a human face. Our multilateral world has more spaces in it for successful change and defiance of totalitarianism than did the old bipolar world of the Cold War, where the US and the USSR often deferred to each other’s sphere of influence.

The United Nations-authorized intervention in Libya has pitched ethical issues of the highest importance, and has split progressives in unfortunate ways. I hope we can have a calm and civilized discussion of the rights and wrongs here.

On the surface, the situation in Libya a week and a half ago posed a contradiction between two key principles of Left politics: supporting the ordinary people and opposing foreign domination of them. Libya’s workers and townspeople had risen up to overthrow the dictator in city after city– Tobruk, Dirna, al-Bayda, Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Misrata, Zawiya, Zuara, Zintan. Even in the capital of Tripoli, working-class neighborhoods such as Suq al-Jumah and Tajoura had chased out the secret police. In the two weeks after February 17, there was little or no sign of the protesters being armed or engaging in violence....

The United Nations Security Council authorization for UN member states to intervene to forestall this massacre thus pitched the question. If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people. Qaddafi would have reestablished himself, with the liberation movement squashed like a bug and the country put back under secret police rule. The implications of a resurgent, angry and wounded Mad Dog, his coffers filled with oil billions, for the democracy movements on either side of Libya, in Egypt and Tunisia, could well have been pernicious.

The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government. (It simply is not true that very many of the protesters took up arms early on, though some were later forced into it by Qaddafi’s aggressive military campaign against them. There still are no trained troops to speak of on the rebel side)....

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