Libya, Waiting to See

by zunguzungu

And so we are bombing Libya. Again we are put in the position—or we put ourselves in the position—of having to “have an opinion” on some indefensible action the United States takes overseas… (RC)


Though I have lots of opinions, I am trying very hard not to have a position on what is happening in Libya. When a big patriotic, national interest event like this happens, the pressure to have a position can be quite strong if you have a high enough opinion of yourself to try to write about it, and that pressure can can force you to take what you think about what is happening — which is likely to be an incoherent aggregation of all sorts of different ideas — and jam it all into the round hole of “what you would do if you were president” or some other reduction to “yes” or “no.” But if you must relate toward the events in Libya as if you were the one making the choice, you will quickly find yourself begging the question that “what is to be done” is the question, and  arguing within that frame such that “doing something” becomes the only possible way to relate to what is happening in Libya, either by its exercise or by its absence.

This is particularly a problem because there is no good option in Libya: with respect to UN intervention, both “nothing” and “something” are completely terrible. And you need to understand that I understand that, because otherwise — no matter how I say what I will eventually say about it — you may mistake me for someone who is in the business of not only predicting the future, but of demanding that a particular course of action, based on my particular insight into events, is the right one. You will mistake me for someone who is under the illusion that “if I were president” is a useful premise for commentary. It’s not, and I’m not doing that. I’m watching the news day-by-day, reading about the past and revising my opinion as I get more information. “When the facts change, I change my opinion,” as Keynes supposedly said; “What do you do, sir?”

One reason it’s dangerous to play the game of for or against is that it produces retroactive consent: by forcing you to take a position on a decision that was already made, you legitimize it by making it seem like there was a democratic process of discussion and debate. There was no democratic process here, nor could there have been, given the time constraints under which such a decision would have to be made. Democracy is slow and unwieldy, and the theory behind having an “executive power” is that it streamlines the decision-making process for decisions that have to be made quickly. We can argue about that theory, but I think we’re long past the point where we can be scandalized by it; every use of military force begins and is “declared” this way.

But this is why we shouldn’t pretend that our opinions right now matter in that way, why we shouldn‘t reduce our thinking to the simplicity of for or against. The two times when it’s useful and necessary to put our opinions in that simplified form are just before the decision (when as citizens, we might exercise some agency over actions done in our name), and far in the future, when we can look back with the benefit of hindsight and decide whether the outcome of that decision justifies revising our policy, assumptions, or whatever. At this point, however, neither is the case: we have little information about what the effects of the decision have been, and yet we also have no power to change the fait accompli that it has already become.

I would suggest, in fact, that it is precisely because there are no stakes in doing so that so many influential columnists and bloggers — who had no powerful opinions about Libya before the NFZ was declared, when their influence might have mattered are now strongly asserting one position or another, vigorously battling each other over a decision that has just become academic. And while this very public debate over Libya (after the decision) allows us to pretend we have a real, functioning public sphere, self-important debate tricks us into thinking that debate actually is important, that “taking a position” is somehow a valuable and necessary social function. I would say, instead, that the fact that the decision has already been taken is actually what relieves their opinions of any force, thereby freeing them to perform their ideology for each other, to position themselves for the next big confrontation with their ideological foes, and to place their cultural and intellectual capital on the market and try to make it grow.

That’s the first problem, a mystification of how decisions are made and of the role that critical opinion plays in that process. The second has to do with the content of the opinions themselves. When you take a position on a contentious issue — especially in an intellectual arena like the blogosphere, where your name is your capital, and you’re trying to make it grow — you invest your ego in the position you take, such that what you think gets structured by the debate more than the by facts. And having staked out that personal position, you begin to take the existence of contrary positions personally: you seek out facts that support your position while (even subconsciously) downplaying facts that don’t, indignantly locking into the rhetorical position of regarding those who see the world differently as not simply, you know, seeing the situation differently, but as being, themselves, different. This last is the worst, I think: instead of being acutely aware of one particular aspect of the problem — and less acutely aware of others (say, the one most motivating you) — you begin to see them as ideologically flawed, even evil or stupid. But pointing out the ideological failings of opponents is a particularly fruitless form of ad hominem, since doing so allows you to pretend that your ideology is the right one, without addressing the fact that all ideologies are machines for oversimplifying the world.

To be clear, I am not doing some kind of fair and balanced shtick here. I don’t think all ideologies are equal. I think mine is the right one, obviously. But I do think it’s possible to say that all ideologies are — albeit to differing extents — limiting oversimplifications, universal rules that are derived from one set of circumstances that we then adapt to fit all circumstances, with varying success. Gandhi was a pacifist, to use that often cited example, who also recognized that pacifism worked in the time and place it did because of the time and place it worked in. Had the British empire been willing and able to simply kill every Indian that stepped out of line, pacifism would have been a dead letter, and he understood that [a commenter quibbles usefully with this reading]. If Gandhi was in Benghazi, I don’t know what he would do, but I suspect he would have been flexible enough to judge the situation on its own terms, rather than impose the terms and principles from another context onto it and expect reality to conform. We should do the same. We should learn from the experience of the Iraq war, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the Iraq war.

So that’s my not-so-little prelude to my ambivalence about the Libyan “intervention.” I’m not saying I haven’t fallen into these traps. Of course I have. I’m trying not to, but that’s the thing about structural incentives: you can push against the wind if you know it’s there, but that doesn’t stop it from pushing against you.


For me, the fact that Gaddafi is a fucking cancer is actually really important. People like Richard Seymour are perfectly right to point out that the media and political types who are vilifying him are bad people doing it for bad reasons, just as they do every single time when one of our pet dictators goes rogue. But he’s wrong if he thinks there isn‘t truth to it, or that Gaddafi’s actual villainous-ness is of negligible importance. 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.

This point is worth emphasizing: it has been a long time since words like “sovereignty” and “anti-imperialism” have become reliable tools in the arsenal of third-world dictators defending their international right to oppress and exploit their people. After all, what does “sovereignty” mean other than the international community’s decision to grant one person the legitimate right to rule over a space of geography? Certainly it wasn’t the Libyan people who invested Gaddafi with their hopes and dreams. Gaddafi has no legitimacy by any standard I recognize; he took power in a coup and has kept it by killing and imprisoning everyone who might conceivably oppose him. And while it certainly isn’t clear that the Libyan rebels represent the legitimate democratic will either — though depending on how you define and measure those things, they sure have a hell of a stronger case — it is ridiculous to call an attack on Gaddafi’s military an attack on a “sovereign nation,” or on “Libya” itself, as so many have. Whether this is a conscious argument or just a lazy usage, this is how Gaddafi wants you to see the situation, because it causes you to forget that he’s just the guy with the most thugs, guns, and a (metaphorical) piece of paper signed by the UN saying “We hereby officially pretend that Gaddafi represents the popular will of the Libyan people.” This doesn’t make the intervention right, you understand, but it means you have to look for better arguments against it than “sovereignty.”

You’ve probably heard a good deal about what a vicious despot Gaddafi is, so I won’t repeat it. But you’ve probably heard less about what Gaddafi means in Africa. 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.

The point is not to say that Gaddafi is any worse than the US in this regard, because he’s actually very similar: the “cold war” was a very hot war in Africa, because we had no compunction about sending money and weapons to people that we thought we could use — Mujahedeen style — to destabilize the regimes we wanted to destabilize, for the purpose of the moment, and to hell with the consequences. Mozambique’s decades of civil war was one the results of our fear that communism might spread and imperil our allies in Apartheid South Africa. But Gaddafi is not only playing the same game, he is, quite frankly, really good at it, at least at the regional level. His people actually end up in positions of power, which is one of the reasons why the African Union is acting the way they are.

The fact that Yoweri Museveni, for example, is on the AU’s “High-Level Ad Hoc Committee On Libya” is one clear reason why the AU has been opposed to the UN’s actions in Libya. As opposition figures in Uganda are pointing out, Museveni wrote this piece in Foreign Policy to try to walk the fine line between distancing himself from Gaddafi while not being able to deny their very well-known friendship, and the piece’s otherwise bizarre contradictions and double-speak make a whole lot more sense if you read it with that in mind. Some version of that is going on with many of those people, they may not have the kind of close relationship with Gaddafi that Museveni has, but just about every head of state in the Sahel (and many outside of it) have some kind of past entanglement with Libyan money.

As Alex de Waal summarizes:

…[Gaddafi’s] Africa policy was pursued by through the instruments of monetary patronage and ideological solidarity, strictly on the basis of personal relations with counterparts. Gaddafi has been erratic and mischievous, misusing Libya’s financial clout to act as the biggest buyer in a regional political marketplace. Between eleven and seventeen African countries—to be precise, African heads of state—have benefited from his largesse. Many rebel groups, especially in neighbouring countries, have also been the recipients of extraordinary Libyan giving sprees. Not only Gaddafi but his lieutenants possess large reserves of money and enormous stores of weaponry.

Gaddafi’s long history of personalizing his interventions in a variety of African contexts is the reason, for example, that de Waal is particularly concerned that Gaddafi is now passing out AK-47’s to anyone in Libya that wants them, which almost certainly includes people who will use them in other parts of the region. As he puts it:

Much of Libya is now ungoverned. That is particularly true of southern Libya. There has been little attention to the towns of the south, such as Sebha and Kufra, with no international correspondents there. These places are matters of great concern to neighbouring governments such as Niger, Chad and Sudan, because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there. Gaddafi’s opening of the Libyan arsenals to anyone ready to fight for the regime, and the collapse of authority in other places, means that such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease. The Sudanese defence minister visited N’djamena last week to discuss the threat.

Reporters on the coast have spoken about African mercenaries serving in the pro-Gaddafi forces, mentioning countries of origin such as Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. There are also rumours that Darfurians, including members of rebel factions based in Libya, are fighting in Libya. The deal is reportedly simple: take whatever arms you can handle, and fight for me, and then those weapons and vehicles are yours for whatever use you see fit. Mercenaries, freebooters and rebels from across the Sahel, and even beyond, are heading for Libya to take advantage of this open-entry, take all you can arms bonanza.

I spoke with one African military officer who welcomed the NATO action in Libya, saying “nothing could be worse than Gaddafi.” I suggested that he wait and see.

I’m just waiting to see like everyone else. But as I do, I think it’s true that the more you focus on what a cancer Gaddafi is, has been, and will be if he stays in power, the more you’re likely to see the upside of UN intervention into Libya. And the inverse of that — and here, now, I’m talking about all the people who don’t know anything about Libya and yet have strong and righteous opinions about what is happening there — the less you know about Libya, Gaddafi, and Gaddafi’s past and present in regional and continental politics, the less you will be able to see that upside. You won’t know what you‘re missing, of course; ignorance about Africa is more than sanctioned. It’s practically required. But it will still be there, unseen.

This is, of course, the usual thing where an area-studies-type-person argues that area-studies-type-knowledge is really important. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. You will always see things through the interpretive matrix of your own beliefs and priorities, and that‘s just as true for people for whom the African context is almost totally missing. If you are — like me — primarily concerned with African politics, that matrix which cause you to see things a bit differently than if you are approaching it through the lens of Palestine and the broader “Arab Spring” movement, or from a total opposition to all “humanitarian military interventions.” Juan Cole has argued that the Libyan intervention is not the same as the invasion of Iraq, and he’s right, but there, too, I think, you can see the particular formulation of the question and problem he‘s using: when and where can a dictator be taken out?

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. The “intervention” into Libya is nothing that anyone should paper over through euphemism, nor should we underestimate the human cost it’s already having; if you’re going to drop enough bombs on a country to have any significant impact on a military conflict, there are going to be significant civilian casualties. But not intervening does not mean there won’t be civilian casualties, it just means our hands won’t be dirty with the killing, and we’ll get to be ignorant that they’re even happening. Tanks and starvation kill people much more effectively than air strikes, and both African history and Gaddafi’s past are full of demonstrations that cheap warfare can be massively more scalable and therefore massively more deadly than firing cruise missiles at $2 million a pop. And an organized secret police infrastructure that relies on intimidation, torture, and disappearances is a lot scarier to me than the kind of relatively limited bombing campaign that this is going to be.

In this sense, while I do understand that a UN intervention could very well end up in a giant humanitarian catastrophe, for all sorts of reasons that you don’t need me to point out, I come back to the fact that a Gaddafi victory would be unthinkably awful, and that because the UN intervention has prevented it, at least for now, it is impossible for me to condemn or regret it. To the extent that I have a “position,” this is what it is.


This is, of course, an ideologically shaped position, and like the rest of us — ideologically fallen, every one — I happen to think my own blindness is the right one. I think it would be fair to say, however, that the majority of the bloggers and columnists and commenters I’ve been reading do not share this assessment, though. And while I wouldn’t say that people’s experience of the last ten years of American war have clouded their judgment (or at least not any more than my own experiences have “clouded“ mine), I do think we need to be much more aware of what defining our politics by that experience prevents us from seeing. Only the people of Sierra Leone seem to remember the British humanitarian military intervention in 2000. And anyway, if we see only Iraq in ‘03 or Rwanda in ‘94, we do not see Libya in ‘11. Important things drop out of the picture. You may ultimately decide that the things the NFZ has accomplished don’t justify the means, but you’re not being intellectually honest if you don’t factor them in.

And of course, in many ways, it’s really all to the good that when we think about Libya, we think about Iraq. I think that’s a knee that’s jerking in exactly the way it should: Obama’s foreign policy is not quite the same as Bush’s, but both of their strategic policies are basically amoral and destructive, imho. And the fact that Democrats make war differently doesn‘t make them any less destructive. See under “War in Afghanistan, Obama’s expansion of.” It’s a good thing if the US is getting less trigger happy about military expeditions, if indeed it is.

I strongly suspect, in fact, that part of the White House’s subterranean thinking here has got to be the hope that Libya could provide us with a “good war,” and thereby a means of rehabilitating the doctrine of “humanitarian military intervention,” of sanitizing and legitimizing the “Responsibility to Protect.” This is only part of it, of course; the administration was also surely afraid of what Dennis Ross called “Srebrenica on steroids” and they were fearful that they were facing “the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it.” And to the kind of mind that thinks in terms of “surgical strikes” and “humanitarian military interventions,” Libya presents a really attractive prospect: a diplomatically isolated and utterly villainous regime, easily accessible via fleets in the Mediterranean, and a whole bunch of shiny cruise missiles that we would love and opportunity to use. We should also never forget that military industrial complexes will find ways to rationalize war, especially when they think it’s going to be without significant political cost. And the administration has been nervous, for months, watching the crazy people-power thing happening in North Africa and the Middle East, over which they have had no control or insight. And since Al Jazeera has made sure everyone in the MENA is paying attention to what is happening in Libya, there has been a mounting pressure on the White House to “do something.” Finally, above all, the prospect of Libya “falling into chaos” is something they’re really scared of; totalitarian repression is something they could live with, and cut deals with. Chaos in the oil fields — and in a country so close to Europe — is something they’re really scared of. So they did “something.”

But their decision making process is not what interests me. I don’t share their values, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had any hope that Obama would be anything other than a moderate Republican president, wholly captured by finance capital, and with a distinct hawkish streak. Contra Leon Wieseltier, there is no “honor” to be had in blowing up military equipment that you sold to Gaddafi, even if it were possible not to kill human beings along with it, which it is not. They are doing this for their reasons, and they are not honorable reasons.

But the reasons they’ve had for entering this war are not the reasons I still have some optimism that the results of this intervention will turn out to be better than the results of not intervening would have been. In that sense, I agree almost completely with Gilbert Achcar’s measured quasi-endorsement of the no-fly-zone resolution, which he explains here:

…there are not enough safeguards in the wording of the resolution to bar its use for imperialist purposes. Although the purpose of any action is supposed to be the protection of civilians, and not “regime change,” the determination of whether an action meets this purpose or not is left up to the intervening powers and not to the uprising, or even the Security Council. The resolution is amazingly confused. But given the urgency of preventing the massacre that would have inevitably resulted from an assault on Benghazi by Gaddafi’s forces, and the absence of any alternative means of achieving the protection goal, no one can reasonably oppose it. One can understand the abstentions; some of the five states who abstained in the UNSC vote wanted to express their defiance and/or unhappiness with the lack of adequate oversight, but without taking the responsibility for an impending massacre.

The Western response, of course, smacks of oil. The West fears a long drawn out conflict. If there is a major massacre, they would have to impose an embargo on Libyan oil, thus keeping oil prices at a high level at a time when, given the current state of the global economy, this would have major adverse consequences. Some countries, including the United States, acted reluctantly. Only France emerged as very much in favor of strong action, which might well be connected to the fact that France — unlike Germany (which abstained in the UNSC vote), Britain, and, above all, Italy — does not have a major stake in Libyan oil, and certainly hopes to get a greater share post-Gaddafi.

We all know about the Western powers’ pretexts and double standards. For example, their alleged concern about harm to civilians bombarded from the air did not seem to apply in Gaza in 2008-09, when hundreds of noncombatants were being killed by Israeli warplanes in furtherance of an illegal occupation. Or the fact that the US allows its client regime in Bahrain, where it has a major naval base, to violently repress the local uprising, with the help of other regional vassals of Washington.

The fact remains, nevertheless, that if Gaddafi were permitted to continue his military offensive and take Benghazi, there would be a major massacre. Here is a case where a population is truly in danger, and where there is no plausible alternative that could protect it. The attack by Gaddafi’s forces was hours or at most days away. You can’t in the name of anti-imperialist principles oppose an action that will prevent the massacre of civilians. In the same way, even though we know well the nature and double standards of cops in the bourgeois state, you can’t in the name of anti-capitalist principles blame anybody for calling them when someone is on the point of being raped and there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists.

This said, without coming out against the no-fly zone, we must express defiance and advocate full vigilance in monitoring the actions of those states carrying it out, to make sure that they don’t go beyond protecting civilians as mandated by the UNSC resolution. In watching on TV the crowds in Benghazi cheering the passage of the resolution, I saw a big billboard in their middle that said in Arabic “No to foreign intervention.” People there make a distinction between “foreign intervention” by which they mean troops on the ground, and a protective no-fly zone. They oppose foreign troops. They are aware of the dangers and wisely don’t trust Western powers.

So, to sum up, I believe that from an anti-imperialist perspective one cannot and should not oppose the no-fly zone, given that there is no plausible alternative for protecting the endangered population. The Egyptians are reported to be providing weapons to the Libyan opposition — and that’s fine — but on its own it couldn’t have made a difference that would have saved Benghazi in time. But again, one must maintain a very critical attitude toward what the Western powers might do.

I’ve quoted Achcar at length because I think he’s right. And he thinks he puts his fingers on the reason why, here, we are seeing a fairly unique situation where it is in the interest of the “Great Powers” to see that as little blood is shed as possible. If Gaddafi makes the streets run with blood in retaking the country, as he has promised to do, and as he would need to do to retake the country, then the flow of oil would become unreliable. And while the entire point of the bombing campaign in Iraq was maximum damage — “Shock and Awe” — this particular campaign will never be anything like the clean war they’d like to pretend it is, but to act like it’s going to be Baghdad 2003 is ridiculous. They are primarily targeting the tanks and artillery that are currently killing civilians. I find it hard to mourn the tanks whose guns have gone silent.

In other words, the number of people who are being and will be killed by Gaddafi’s tanks, artillery, snipers, and torture chambers seem to me to be, simply, on another scale: tanks shelling cities and starving them to death actually kill people a lot more effectively than do cruise missiles. And while NATO has an incentive to keep the body count low, it’s Gaddafi for whom “Shock and Awe” serves a function. This point is worth emphasizing and re-emphasizing: if Gaddafi stays in power, he will have absolutely not one single reasons to be anything but at least as brutal as he was in the bad old days. The last ten years have been a period of relative “restraint” — atrocities were committed quietly, and there were a few openings here and there — because he thought he had something to gain from “restraint,” and he was right: the country has partially opened up to western capital, and the US found in him a valued ally in the war on terror, and cut deals with him. The fact that he was able to get weapons, diplomatic respect, and rehabilitate his international image made violent repression less useful to him. He would never have committed atrocities like he did in 1996 while he thought he had something to gain from “restraint.”

He no longer has that incentive, in any way. He has no allies. He has no defenders. He has no international reputation. The only thing he does have is the military force he acquired as a Soviet and then American client, a secret police infrastructure, and a lifetime’s practice in using them. The only way he will stay in power now is through massive and indiscriminate violence and repression: he has promised to “come inch by inch, home by home, alley by alley,” and he has promised the rebels, who he calls “cockroaches,” that “we will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.” I believe that he will “cleanse Libya house by house” if he can. I think he will do absolutely that if he stays in power and so that remains my biggest fear.

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.