[Update 4/17/2017. It is now, of course, obvious that intervening in Libya was a terrible decision. It should have been obvious to me at the time.]
I have misgivings about intervening in Libya. But maybe I’m wrong. Aaron Bady and Juan Cole, two scholars who know more about Libya than I do, and have the same values that I do, think that getting rid of Qaddafi is worth the risk.
Aaron Bady cites Qaddafi’s record of funding dictators and war criminals in Africa, and Juan Cole points out that neutrality is an illusion, given Qaddafi’s overwhelming superiority in high-tech weapons sold by the West.
Click on The Libyan intervention for my earlier post and links to arguments against intervention.
I’m now undecided what position to take on this. I recall the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. I thought then that even though the Bush administration was transparently lying about weapons of mass destruction, it would still be a good thing to get rid of Saddam Hussein. He was a cruel and evil person; one of his decrees was to cut out the tongues of people who maligned him or his sons. Iraqis initially welcomed the U.S. troops. Maybe a more intelligent approach could have avoided all the killing, destruction and civil conflict that followed. Maybe a more intelligent approach will be taken toward Libya.
Of course it doesn’t matter what position I take, because nothing I say or do will affect the government’s decisions or the outcome. The decision has already been made; it was made weeks ago, before any announcement was made, when CIA agents were sent into Libya to pick out targets. All I can do is watch and see what happens.
Bady’s and Cole’s statements are worth reading in their entirety, but here are some excerpts.
First, Aaron Bady.
If you are opposed to imperialism in Africa — and I’m going to assume that you are — then it is important to understand that one of the most successful and murderous continent level “military interventionists” has been Gaddafi, and it has continued up to the present.
There’s a dangerous narcissism in imagining the West has a monopoly on things like imperialism, and that kind of solipsism is often particularly tempting and satisfying to even those in the West that think bad things about “the West”: it allows us to maintain the belief that the West is still the center of the universe, even if it’s now the Devil rather than God. But being opposed to the devil we know doesn’t change the fact that there actually are other devils. And a legacy of anti-colonial thinking has left a lot of leftists unable to understand that being the enemy of our enemy doesn’t make someone our friend. Just because the great powers of The West are imperialist in some sense doesn’t mean that those who oppose them in some sense — people like Gaddafi, Chavez, Mugabe, or Ahmadinejad — actually are anti-imperialist. … …
Gaddafi is not just any dictator; he’s got a combination of continent-wide ambition and deep pockets filled with oil, and he has used that oil money to train, arm, and finance all manner of rebels in some of the bloodiest conflicts across the continent, not for a handful of years, but for over four decades. This is not an invention of the people who are now bombing him. He might use words like “sovereignty” and “Marxism” and “anti-Americanism” when he needs to (and drop them the moment some other position — like a close alliance with the United States — is more useful), but his method has basically been consistent since the seventies: use his money to buy personal influence, with anyone he can, as a route to some kind of regional dominance. And the result has been devastating.
Take Charles Taylor, for example: Taylor may not have invented the child soldier as a technology of warfare, but no one used that method as effectively and as ruthlessly as him, and his scorched-earth campaigns in the West African diamond fields remain the gold standard with which any aspiring committer of atrocities will need to reckon. Taylor trained in Libya in the late 1980’s, Gaddafi’s oil money made his insurgency in Liberia possible, and Gaddafi was an important backer of the RUF guerrilla campaign in Sierra Leone. And even though Taylor was sort of uniquely awful, my point is simply that he’s not unique in this sense: he’s just one of the many examples of what Gaddafi does and has done with his oil money. Unlike the cliché of the African dictator, wallowing in mindless excess and consumption, Gaddafi not only believed in his “revolution” and tried to export it everywhere he could, but he sent money, training, and support to some of the most destructive people on the continent in pursuit of that goal. As a result, he continues to have very close ties and alliances with all sorts of basically illegitimate African heads of state, people like Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Omar al-Bashir, Blaise Compaoré, and Idriss Déby. … …
For me, the issue is this: I am hoping that the outcome of the intervention will be better than the almost certain and massive and immanent bloodbath we were looking at a few days ago, and that Libyans will be as lucky as we are, and be ruled by corrupt neoliberal apparatchiks, instead of by secret police. … …
I could, of course, be wrong about this. Any one of us could be. But at this point, the best case scenario is that the UN intervention will turn out to have been chemo-therapy: poisonous and awful, but still better than the alternative. It’s because we know what cancer is that aggressive chemo-therapy — also one of the worst things there is — turns out to be the less horrible alternative. Almost any outcome is better than dead. By the same token, it’s because we also know what Gaddafi is that the same thing might be true here. The worst case scenario was the one where Gaddafi fulfilled his promise and took over the country house by house, a scenario that seemed a virtual certainty the day before the NFZ was imposed. And as likely as it is that the UN will fuck this up, in other words, Gaddafi was a dead certainty. And so it still seems right to me to celebrate that uncertainty.
Now Juan Cole.
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. … …
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 libel put out by the dictator, that the 570,000 people of Misrata or the 700,000 people of Benghazi were supporters of “al-Qaeda,” was without foundation. … …
Then Muammar Qaddafi’s sons rallied his armored brigades and air force to bomb the civilian crowds and shoot tank shells into them. Members of the Transitional Government Council in Benghazi estimate that 8000 were killed as Qaddafi’s forces attacked and subdued Zawiya, Zuara, Ra’s Lanuf, Brega, Ajdabiya, and the working class districts of Tripoli itself, using live ammunition fired into defenseless rallies. If 8000 was an exaggeration, simply “thousands” was not, as attested by Left media such as Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! As Qaddafi’s tank brigades reached the southern districts of Benghazi, the prospect loomed of a massacre of committed rebels on a large scale.
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.
via Informed Comment.
As Bady wrote in his post, it is too late to affect the decision and too soon to know the consequences, so it doesn’t really matter what position I take or anybody else takes. All we can do is hope for the best and be mentally prepared for the worst.
[Added 4/9/11] Shibley Telhami, writing in the National Interest, said that Qaddafi is so odious that Arab public opinion favors U.S. intervention.
Even more striking at a time when the public is trying to replace autocratic rulers is that both the public and governments have opposed Qaddafi; rarely does one find broad support of this sort on an issue as potentially divisive. There are a number of things that explain these attitudes.
First, timing. The fact that the Libyan uprising started immediately after the Tunisian and the Egyptian protests (which captured the imagination of Arabs everywhere) put the public decidedly on the side of the demonstrators in Libya. I was in Tunisia and Egypt as the Libyan uprisings were taking root and the sympathy was clear in the streets as well as in the media.
Second, people see the revolutions as “Arab,” not just national in nature. While early on, the discourse was about the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, by the time the uprisings emerged in Libya, talk was more about the Arab awakening and Arab revolutions—with expectation of more change to come across the region. No one wanted the train to be stopped by Qaddafi.
Third, Qaddafi’s brutality. Certainly government brutality is hardly rare in the Middle East, but two things made this case particularly hard for the Arab public to ignore: The noticeable use of the military (and mercenaries) against the demonstrations in sharp contrast to what went on in the Tunisian and the Egyptian cases. More chilling were the explicit threats, first by Qaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, and later by Qaddafi, in which he called the demonstrators “rats” and threatened to purify Libya house to house, person by person.
Fourth, Qaddafi is the perfect prototype of the leader the Arab public wants to dethrone. He sees himself as above and beyond country perhaps more than any other (“God, Muammar, Libya”). And people believe he views himself as God’s gift to Libya and to the Arabs; after the death of the popular Egyptian president Jamal Abd al-Nasser in 1970, Qaddafi reportedly remarked that he was a leader without a country and that Egypt was a country without a leader—then called for unity with Egypt. And in these revolutions that are more about dignity and freedom, many see Qaddafi as an embarrassment to their Arab identity.
Fifth, governments have been sensitive to Arab public opinion from the outset. The unprecedented Arab League action of calling on the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya was in part out of deference to pervasive Arab public opinion on this issue. No one wants to be on the public’s bad side in times of revolution. This was particularly true of Syria, which was clearly ambivalent about Western intervention but didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.
Sixth, score settling. Over the years, there has hardly been an Arab government that Qaddafi didn’t manage to alienate, embarrass, or even threaten. And even for many who would normally be uncomfortable with the idea of foreign intervention against a sitting regime, Qaddafi was a greater evil. The Saudi position, for example, was partly due to specific animosity toward Qaddafi; he was accused of trying to assassinate the king. Even the popular leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nassrallah, who had no kind words for the West or its intentions, reserved his strongest criticism for Qaddafi, with whom he had a long-standing feud over the disappearance of the Shiite Lebanese leader, Mousa Sadr, in Libya in 1978. Nassrallah also countered Qaddafi’s preposterous proposition that the West was behind the Arab revolutions and defended them as indigenous and genuine.
Seventh, the position of opinion shapers. The most watched television stations in the Arab world, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyyah, both took on a supportive tone about the revolution in Libya and gave the country considerable attention. It quickly overtook the coverage of Egypt and Tunisia. Importantly, the Sunni cleric, Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi—who has a popular program, “Shariia and Life” on Al Jazeera, and who was the principal speaker in Tahrir Square on the day Egypt celebrated the revolution—not only attacked Qaddafi and called on the Libyans to get rid of him but also justified the international military intervention, even saying that under some specific circumstances collateral damage in such interventions can be justified.
Eighth, the seeming reluctance of the international community, especially the United States, to intervene, made it hard to argue that the West was itching to act. In fact, until the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed, Arab commentaries, including headlines on Al-Jazeera, were beginning to criticize the West for walking away from their “responsibilities.” In some ways, one can say that the US attempt not to make the Arab revolutions about Washington early on helped reduce the suspicion that Washington and the West are now intervening for the wrong reasons.
Finally, the pervasive sense in the Arab world that Arab and Muslim countries are incapable of intervening effectively, especially in times of revolution. This is an argument that many have used (including Yousef Qaradawi) to justify inviting foreigners to intervene. At the popular level it is not even clear that the Arab publics seeking to remove regimes from power wanted to feel beholden to these rulers if they did the right thing in Libya. They may have been happy to see Egypt carry out the mission, but everyone understood that Egypt’s transition made this impossible.
Click on The Striking Arab Openness to Intervention for the whole article and results of public opinion polls. Al-Jazeera found that 80 percent of its respondents favored arming the Libyan rebels and only 30 percent apposed. The Annahar newspaper in Lebanon found 57 percent in favor of “the Western intervention” in Libya and 43 percent opposed.
[4/10/11] Another argument for intervention is that the triumph of Qaddafi will mean an enormous Libyan refugee problem for Egypt.