Libya, the Left, and Losing Our Way; Reflections on Empire, Inequality, and “Operation Odyssey Dawn”

Iowa City, IA, Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Beneath the often vituperative intra-left debate over whether or not to support any aspect of the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya and what the consequences of that intervention will be, lay a fundamental question: why did Obama go to cruise missile war? What did the White House hope to achieve? What’s it all about? The administration claims that it merely seeks to protect the democratic rebels and the broad populace against the vengeful dictator Muammar Gadaffi. It’s a humanitarian mission, consistent the United States’ and the West’s supposed longstanding democratic ideals, according to the official White House line.


The knee-jerk, almost self-caricaturing counter from some sides of the so-called radical left says that it’s all about Washington’ desire to grab Libya’s oil by ousting the unsavory but nonetheless anti-imperialist and objectively progressive Muammar Gadaffi in the deceptive name of humanitarian intervention and democracy. This, some on the “radical left” argue, is George W. Bush and Afghanistan and Iraq all over again, with Gadaffi standing in for Saddam Hussein and the Taliban as the bad guy and the Libyan rebels standing in for the Northern Coalition and Ahmad Chalabi  as props to justify another long American colonial war of imperial occupation.


My own position, significantly influenced by the reflections of the two leading left intellectuals on U.S. policy in the Middle East (Gilbert Achcar and Noam Chomsky) is consistent with neither side of this difference.


Too Cynical to Discuss


Washington’s claims of humanitarian concern should be taken with more than a grain of salt, of course. Beyond the fact that “Operation Odyssey Dawn” (OOD) carries its own deadly potential for civilian heath and democracy inside Libya, how seriously are we supposed to take the administration’s declared motives as Uncle Sam continues to massively fund and equip oppressive regimes across the region and world? What about the millions living under the oppressive rule of sadistic autocrats across Africa and in, for example, the key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, home to perhaps the world’s single most reactionary government? The United States is not moving towards targeted bombings and no-fly zones to protect human rights and democracy and discipline oppressors in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Palestine, Israel, Guatemala, Columbia, Honduras, or Yemen, where the U.S.-supported president Ali Abdullah Seleh has recently butchered and maimed hundreds of protestors. The American military and financial aid keeps flowing to authoritarian and unjust rulers in these and numerous other U.S.-backed states. Those rulers and their cronies are not subjected to travel bans and asset freezes and Western-led prosecution for crimes against humanity. They continue to receive official designation as U.S. allies in the “war on terror.” It is hard to believe that a new imperial White House that supported a right wing coup in Honduras (during and since June of 2009) and only reluctantly and belatedly came to offer qualified support for the historic democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt has suddenly been converted into a heroic defender of popular governance and human rights in Libya.  As Noam Chomsky recently told me in response to an e-mail inquiry, “the humanitarian talk is too cynical even to discuss.”


Consistent with that judgment, the left U.S. foreign policy critic Phyllis Bennis has noted a dark irony behind many Americans’ support of the Libyan action. That support was premised on the notion that Gaddafi’s successful crushing of his opposition “would send a devastating message to other Arab dictators: Use enough military force and you will keep your job.”  Things are working out quite differently, with the American intervention seeming to feed top-down repression, not bottom up rebellion in the Middle East. As Bennis observes:


“Instead, it turns out that just the opposite may be the result: It was after the UN passed its no-fly zone and use-of-force resolution, and just as US, British, French and other warplanes and warships launched their attacks against Libya, that other Arab regimes escalated their crack-down on their own democratic movements….In Yemen, 52 unarmed protesters were killed and more than 200 wounded on Friday [March by forces of the US-backed and US-armed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. It was the bloodiest day of the month-long Yemeni uprising...Similarly in US-allied Bahrain, home of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, at least 13 civilians have been killed by government forces. Since the March 15 arrival of 1,500 foreign troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, brought in to protect the absolute power of the king of Bahrain, 63 people have been reported missing.” 


This is contrary to one argument Obama made for his intervention in a nationally televised address to the American people last night (I am writing on the morning of Tuesday, March 29, 2011). In that address, Obama claimed that failure to intervene would have threatened the peaceful transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, as thousands of Libyan refugees poured across their borders, while other dictators would conclude that “violence is the best strategy to cling to power.” A cynical rationale, I think.


At the same time, there’s no doubt that oil is the top U.S. consideration in the region.  For more than six decades, the Middle East and North Africa have figured prominently in the military and geo-political calculations of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and American presidents for one reason alone:  the region is the world’s petroleum energy heartland and control of its vast oil reserves is the single greatest economic and strategic prize in the world capitalist economic and political system.  As American post-WWII planners understood quite well, U.S. control over Middle Eastern oil producers gave Washington political-economic “veto power” (George Kennan’s term) over its leading industrial competitors in Europe and Japan. This has been the primary U.S. concern in the region since the 1940s and we can be sure that OOD is all about oil.


Six Reasons to Question the Reflexive “Radical” Response


There are, to be sure, analogies to Washington ’s epic Iraq invasion, also launched on March 19th. Obama, like George W. Bush, is pushing regime change in the deceptive name of democracy in a nation that poses no clear or imminent danger to the United States (The “no-fly zone,” Chomsky notes, was “from the first…a cover for participation in the rebellion”). Obama has further mimicked Bush on Hussein by claiming that Gadaffi has “a large stockpile of chemical weapons” – by playing the “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) card.


But the reflexive “radical” analysis outlined in the second paragraph of this essay is less than impressive for six basic reasons.  First, the Libyan intervention is not primarily a US operation.  As Chomsky told me, “It’s a French and British affair, primarily, with virtually no international support, incidentally, in the region or beyond.”  The older colonial powers have led the way and the U.S. was “dragged in reluctantly,” trying to “move into the background” at a rapid pace - no doubt part of why Obama did not feel compelled to obtain authorization to use force from the U.S. Congress [1]. There’s no prolonged U.S. occupation being planned, of course.


Second, the United States stayed with Gaddafi “until the last minute” (Chomsky) – very different than its long-term demonization of evil Saddam Hussein starting in 1990 (when the formerly obedient dictator defied Washington by invading Kuwait) and lasting through Saddam’s execution in 2006.


Third, the notion of there being something progressive and anti-imperial about Gadaffi is childish nonsense.  After a long and bizarre dictatorial career that (beneath his deceptive claims to be advancing a socialist utopia and direct democracy for “the Masses”) earned him a richly deserved reputation for madness within and beyond the Arab world, Gadaffi dropped all leftist pretensions to re-open the Libyan economy to Western corporations as the Cold War came to a finish. When Washington invaded Iraq eight years ago in the name of protecting the world from Saddam’s WMD, the prolific and brilliant Left Middle East and imperialism scholar Gilbert Achcar notes, “Gaddafi, worried that he might be next, implemented a sudden and surprising turnabout in foreign policy, earning himself a spectacular upgrade from the status of ‘rogue state’ to that of close collaborator of Western states. A collaborator in particular of the United States, which he helped in its so-called war on terror, and Italy, for which he did the dirty job of turning back would-be immigrants trying to get from Africa to Europe.” By this time and ever since, the Gadaffi dictatorship had lost the last shreds of any legitimate claim it might have held to being progressive and anti-imperial. The dictator responded to the rise of democratic protest (inspired by the wave of Middle Eastern rebellion that started in adjacent Tunisia) with raving promises to slaughter those who questioned his rule, claiming that they had been “turned into drug addicts by Al Qaeda” – this after denouncing the Tunisian people for overthrowing their dictator Ben Ali, who Gadaffi called “the best ruler” the Tunisians would ever have. (Gilbert Achcar, “Libyan Developments,” ZNet, March 19, 2011). “The idea that Western powers are intervening in Libya because they want to topple a regime hostile to their interests is just preposterous,” Achcar rightly notes.


Fourth, Libyan oil is already under the control of the West. As Achcar notes, “the whole range of Western oil and gas companies is active in Libya: Italy's ENI, Germany's Wintershall, Britain's BP, France's Total and GDF Suez, US companies ConocoPhillips, Hess, and Occidental, British-Dutch Shell, Spain's Repsol, Canada's Suncor, Norway's Statoil, etc.” (Gilbert Achcar, “ Libya : A Legitimate and Necessary Debate from an Anti-Imperialist Perspective,” ZNet, March 25, 2011). This and the fact that Gaddafi had already decisively surrendered to Western business and the American Empire makes the notion that the U.S. and the West are trying to destroy some sort of anti-imperial regime and grab the oil – though France probably hopes to increase its currently small share of Libya’s reserves by playing a leading role in the intervention – look more than a little silly.


Fifth, the opposition to Gadaffi within Libya is not really analogous to the Northern Alliance thugs or the ridiculous Amahd Chalabi. It is largely the same as the other popular uprisings across the region.  Its composition is very similar to the heterogeneous opposition coalitions that have emerged to challenge and overthrow dictators and autocrats in the Middle East in early 2011. And what “unites all the disparate forces,” Achcar observes, “is a rejection of the dictatorship and a longing for democracy and human rights.”


Sixth, it is certainly the case that the Western intervention stopped a likely massacre in Benghazi, saving the lives of thousands and perhaps tens of thousands Gadaffi had essentially promised to destroy.  It is very, very difficult to imagine any other way those lives could have been preserved short of intervention by the imperial, fake-humanitarian, oil-addicted, parasitic, and racist West.


Of course the Western intervention isn’t actually primarily about saving those lives.  As the left socialist Achcar notes, it’s about oil.  More specifically, it’s about preventing a massacre that would have compelled the West to have imposed an embargo on Libyan oil in a time when oil prices are already quite high (primarily for structural reasons), feeding an ongoing epic capitalist recession that is fueling significant austerity and massive popular anti-austerity rebellion in the West itself as well as around the world. The last thing Obama wants as he approaches the 2012 election is a re-deepened economic crisis.  At the same time, the White House is certainly aware that, as Chomsky told me, “a massacre in Benghazi would have been blamed on Washington, something they didn’t want to face.”  Think like Obama from a realpolitik perspective on the potential deadly political consequences of letting Gadaffi move forward with a massacre: significant global and Western public outrage over standing to the side + a worsened economic situation exacerbated by an inevitable embargo = a no-brainer self-interested equation for “humanitarian intervention.”


Some U.S. Web “radicals” (their self-designation often reflects confusion between [a] stridency and cynicism of rhetoric and [b] depth of analysis/ knowledge) are uncomfortable with the notion that any U.S. and Western military intervention in what we used to call the Third World might happen to have a positive humanitarian impact in one instance.  They are afraid that their core identity as bad-ass, hard-core enemies of Empire (and of Obama)will be compromised. Let me (an early radical-Left critic of Obama and the author of a book titled The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power) assure these comrades that acknowledging this is in no way to go soft on Washington or the current administration and its commitment to the petro-imperial project. The analysis presented in this essay is as cynical, radical, and power-centered as any hard core leftist could want.


Empire and Inequality: Mass Diversion


My desire to get into a finger-pointing match with “progressives” who either eagerly support or stridently denounce (in often frenzied and hysterical terms) Obama’s Libya policy is inhibited to no small degree by my sense that the imperial extravaganza includes a standard “wag the dog” aspect in the hands of America ’s dominant Orwellian mass war and entertainment media. OOD has helped divert public attention from at least three critical and ongoing policy and political issues: the epic state-capitalist assault on public sector workers, the poor, social protection, organized labor, and working people more generally and the remarkable popular rebellion against that assault within and beyond Madison, Wisconsin; the equally epic nuclear disaster in Japan and the lethal implications of aging and revamped nuclear power operations (horrifying epitomes of the underlying and very possibly exterminst irrationality of the capitalist profits system) within and beyond the United States, where an old, and accident-prone nuclear  plant (Indian Point, home to 2 of the nation’s 105 currently operating nuclear power reactors) is located just 30 miles north of the world’s financial capital, New York City; (3) the counter-assault on democratic protests in U.S, sponsored regimes like (to name just three)Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Even as they steal vast, desperately needed public resources away from the real and potential meeting of social needs and help distribute wealth upwards (to “defense” contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and other elite, high-tech corporate interests) at home  moreover, imperial military campaigns and the bloodlust they reflect and promote are great authoritarian populace-diverters and domestic democracy-destroyers – all too consistent with the warnings of American Founding Father James Madison, who observed that “The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.”


Losing Our Way


A recent Huffington Post item reports that “In the opening days of the assault on Libya, the United States and the United Kingdom launched a barrage of at least 161 Tomahawk cruise missiles to flatten Muammar Gadhafi's air defenses and pave the way for coalition aircraft….In fiscal terms, at a time when Congress is fighting over every dollar, the cruise missile show of military might was an expenditure of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Each missile cost $1.41 million, close to three times the cost listed on the Navy's website…Raytheon Corp. is the manufacturer of the Tomahawk Block IV, a low-flying missile that travels at 550 miles per hour. During a decade of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, the Pentagon has increasingly relied on the Tomahawk. A year ago, Raytheon boasted of its 2,000th Block IV delivery to the Navy.” (See Sharon Weinberger, “Cruise Missiles: The One Million Dollar Weapon,” Huffpost Business (March 25, 2011) at  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/25/cruise-missiles-missile_n_840365.html). 161 X $1.4 million = $225 million Tomahawk Cruise Missile expenditure in just the beginning Obama’s  Libya action, including a nice cost-plus profit for leading "defense" (Empire) contractor Raytheon. Someone other than I can calculate the social opportunity cost of $225 million as more and more Americans run out of ammunition in the war on economic destitution.


This is a question I hope somebody will raise tonight as Obama attends a $30, 800 per-plate Democratic Party dinner in Harlem ’s gentrified up-scale Red Rooster Restaurant. As reporter James Ford notes, “the president will headline a big fundraiser in Harlem . Big, that is, in money, but not attendance. The Red Rooster Restaurant will have only 49 patrons for dinner, but those few customers are expected to raise $1.5 million….Thousands of supporters of — and probably at least a few demonstrators against — the president are expected to line the streets outside of the new, gourmet restaurant.”  (James Ford, “President Obama’s Visit to NYC,” Pix 11,http://www.wpix.com/news/wpix-obama-nyc-visit-traffic-money,0,1200731.story?track=rss


Perhaps the selected diner cadre will include an official from Raytheon. After the newly inaugurated Obama declared he would not appoint any lobbyists to government, his pick for second in command – charged with overseeing acquisitions – at the Pentagon was William Lynn, a former Raytheon lobbyist.


The dining club will certainly not include the former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who recently wrote the following in his very last Times column:


“So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.”


“Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.” “The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely. “


“Nearly 14 million Americans are jobless and the outlook for many of them is grim. Since there is just one job available for every five individuals looking for work, four of the five are out of luck. Instead of a land of opportunity, the U.S. is increasingly becoming a place of limited expectations.”


“Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.”


“New ideas and new leadership have seldom been more urgently needed. “


“This is my last column for The New York Times after an exhilarating, nearly 18-year run. I’m off to write a book and expand my efforts on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society. My thanks to all the readers who have been so kind to me over the years. I can be reached going forward at [email protected]” (B. Herbert, “Losing Our Way,” NYT, March 25, 2011)




Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011).  Street can be reached at [email protected]  




1 In 2007, candidate Obama was asked the following question when it was feared that the United States was going to attack Iran : Under what circumstances would the president have the constitutional authority to bomb Iran without first seeking authorization from Congress? His answer: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States . In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch.” Essentially, Obama said that the president had the authority to act first and seek approval later if there were an imminent threat to the security of the United States and that the president could not order a military attack without the approval of the Congress if a threat to the United States was not imminent. Both statements were accurate but neither applies the current situation in Libya . They have pretty much disappeared down the Orwellian memory hole as far as many of Obama’s liberal and centrist supporters are concerned.  Many of those supporters would likely be complaining about constitutional violations if the Libya venture was being conducted by a President McCain.  Likewise, many Republicans would be muzzling the constitutional concerns they are currently voicing if one of their party currently held the title of Commander in Chief.  Such is the moral and intellectual level and situational politics of partisan identity and behavior within and beyond Washington.

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