A New Challenge to the Left on Libya

I am revising my challenge to the Left on Libya because apparently a number of things I had written had either been misinterpreted, or I am making some modifications myself.

Before I do I should say that I do think there is an argument for supporting the rebellion. I am not dismissing it in its entirety like some thought I was, nor do I not acknowledge that there are some rather progressive and democratic elements in it, again like some thought I was. I was merely pointing to where power lies and where I see things as likely heading. And of course I want to see Gaddafi go and I agree that any improvement is just that: improvement. But, I think we need to be clear about a number of things.

First, that the Left has no power whatsoever. Power speaks two dialects: power in money and power in numbers. We are poor and we are not organized, especially in comparison to our ideological opponents. All we can do is respond to the realities on the ground and define ourselves by what is happening. Gaddafi isn’t falling because of our values. So when I say below that he has got to go because he is not a stable client state for the US I am not saying that the reasons we might have for his departure is in line with US government interests, but simply that why he will soon be departing is because of where real power lies. Gaddafi is going bye-bye because Washington has the power to make it so, not the Left, just as those who will be gaining power in Libya are the ones in a position to exert power, and if we want to be honest with ourselves we should be able to acknowledge that it will not be the leftists or youths or feminists or radicals, but former regime officials who have already struck a deal with Washington to propel them into power. And talking about whether we should support the no-fly zone’s or whether we should agree “the opposition” should be protected is purely academic posturing, because what we feel or support has no bearing on reality because we do not have any power to exert it in order to affect the outcomes. Arguing whether the NFZ will save lives is irrelevant. Our positions change nothing. Being divided over that is asinine. We have no control over whether it exists or not, or how it’s implemented and enforced. Discussing that is not really dealing with what is happening, or why it is happening, or who is filling the political vacuum. Again, all we can do is respond to the facts on the ground and use them to define and clarify where we stand, and perhaps provide us an incentive to organize so that we may become a force with power.

Second, and basically this doesn’t differ much from my challenge in the previous blog, which was to show a willingness and desire to include the plight of the black underclass of Libya in our analysis. And from what I can see the Left is still censoring itself. You have to go to websites specifically geared towards blacks or Africans—like Black Agenda Report—or an occasional report in the press to get any insight. Don’t look to leftist media. I am a strong advocate of leftist media but I have got to say I am disappointed in our coverage of Libya. I encourage all readers to look through the articles on Libya and see for themselves how much we have discussed black Africans. Which is odd. We typically present ourselves as anti-racist yet we have been awfully quiet on the plight of black Africans who are falling prey to the racists on both sides of the civil war in Libya—all the while discussing whether or not there have been humanitarian achievements. If we want to live up to our progressive ideals then the welfare of black Africans must be an important and consistently noted factor in our analysis, and must play a part in defining where we stand.

Gilbert Achar has responded to some criticisms and acknowledged there is a legitimate debate and I certainly agree. There are a few things I want to respond to because I think his comments are (largely?) in response to my own (though he doesn’t mention me by name he brings up Rwanda, Kosovo and the questioning of the rebel leadership—though, predictably, not the plight of black Africans—and from what I can tell I am the only one who has done so).

He totally misses the point of why I brought up Rwanda. First, we did intervene in Rwanda via the RPF. For more information see Ed Herman and David Peterson’s piece here [Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Propaganda System]. But my point was we got it wrong on Rwanda and getting it wrong enabled us to be a cheerleader for an aggressive, genocidal US imperial stooge. Same for Kosovo. Our getting it wrong on Kosovo and fixating on the despot Milosevic blinded us to the tyranny and aggression of the KLA. Fixating on Saddam enabled us to turn a blind eye to unsavory Kurdish and Shiite forces. Fixating on the Taliban blinded us to the Northern Alliance. In all these examples of "humanitarian intervention" an imperialist agenda was carried out and the Left often found itself supporting a force that didn't deserve it. My motivation for being critical of the rebellion is constructive; to understand what we can reasonably expect from it much like what we expect from the RPF, KLA, Northern Alliance, PKK and SCIIRI. We should be able to see all sides clearly and support progress for its own sake while not endorsing any particular group; we should be able to say, "While we oppose Gaddafi for this-and-that, we also have a problem this-and-that with his opponenets. And with that being said we still acknowledge and appreciate progress here-and-there, and support and encourage others to continue struggling for more."

Second, I really take offense to this comment from Achar,

I won’t dwell on the unacceptable arguments of those who try to shed doubt on the nature of the uprising’s leadership. They are most often the same as those who believe Gaddafi is a progressive.

I sure hope I am in the “most” because I’ve never said Gaddafi is progressive. In fact I have been very clear about it so this statement really bothers me. And to avoid discussing that the leaders of the NTC are former regime officials who have already given away the economy to the West in exchange for helping them into power is an interesting move on Achar’s part. He won’t "dwell" on it. It’s an "unacceptable argument.”

There are “acceptable” reasons to “dwell” on it.

Achar also says,

The leaders of the uprising are a mix of political and intellectual democratic and human rights dissidents, some of whom have spent long years in Gaddafi’s jails, men who broke with the regime in order to join the rebellion, and representatives of the regional and tribal diversity of the Libyan population. The program they are united on is one of democratic change — political freedoms, human rights, and free elections — exactly like all other uprisings in the region.

I think As’ad abu Khalil captured reality when he said the leader of the NTC, “Abd Al-Jalil marginalized the lawyers and professionals and secularists.” The “mix” is there but they are not the ones who have the power or who will be filling the political vacuum in Gaddafi’s absence.

The “rebel” leaders of the NTC have already promised Clinton and Sarkozy the Libyan economy if they help them into power by defeating Gaddafi for them—since they acknowledge they cannot do it themselves. The press presented the US turnaround as being unexpected but as soon as the meeting with the delegates was announced it was obvious that something big was happening. Clinton wouldn’t go to Paris to meet with Libyan rebels if the US wasn’t already banking on high expectations, and when NTC spokespersons said their message was they would honor foreign oil contracts and give kickbacks to their friends it became clear that the US would not invest billions of dollars in attacking Gaddafi’s forces if it didn’t expect some form of payment in return.

We keep failing to talk about who is behind the National Transitional Council (NTC), this "democracy movement" this "liberation movement” this “mix of political and intellectual democratic and human rights dissidents, some of whom have spent long years in Gaddafi’s jails, men who broke with the regime in order to join the rebellion, and representatives of the regional and tribal diversity of the Libyan population.” We are quick to throw around vague terms like their motto for democracy, justice and freedom, but the left ought to know better than take empty platitudes hook, line and sinker! What do we really expect from former regime officials? We see how tyrannical Gaddafi is. Well what kind of people could be his Minister of Interior, or a justice minister, or Minister of Economy, Trade and Development, or a general in his military? We don’t know because we haven’t explored or “dwelled” on the questions. But here is what I expect: a very carefully managed democracy, if that.

People say Gaddafi has got to go because his maniacal stranglehold on power is proof he doesn’t deserve to be in power. True, the guy has gone over the top. And, we all ought to know that is not why he has got to go. He has got to go because he is not a stable client for the US. The Saudis are talking about chopping off fingers to anyone who raises their hand against the House of Saud and we do not see Hillary Clinton meeting with delegates from Saudi rebel groups, or hear President Obama saying King Abdullah “needs to go.”

So it stands to ask a couple of questions: does the NTC deserve power if they would give away the economy to have it? And what power does the interim government, who barely exists beyond proclamation, have to do such a thing? What about the government that follows the interim one? Will they be saddled with the obligations of their predecessor much like we witnessed in Iraq? Is this reflective of a democracy, when former regime officials promise the US and the West their economy in exchange for helping them replace Gaddafi as rulers of the country? These are the kinds of things that make me think that if there is any democratic formality it won’t be very functional, but will be tightly managed from the top down. In other words: a sham.

Opposing Gaddafi doesn’t mean we should support the NTC anymore than opposing Hutu aggression should mean we support the RPF. Or opposing Milosevic should mean we support KLA. How can we support something if we’re not even clear about what we support and why? And I think our clarity is missing because there are a number of things we continually avoid in our analyses (i.e. black Africans and “the nature of the uprising’s leadership”). 

(On a similar note: I see Juan Cole pointing out that the Arab League called for the intervention. As pointed out in my last blog, the Arab League only called for the NFZ after Clinton asked them to ask for it in exchange for authorizing Saudi troops to go into Bahrain.)

I guess the question the left should ask if it wants to be honest is: Should we support this “revolution” if even though things may improve only marginally for the Arabs, though not for the black Africans, and if the economy is given away to foreign interests? Can we support a revolution while maintaining constructive criticism of it? I think we can and should.

I don’t really expect many political freedoms will be won for the working class Arabs but there may be some gains. I think the frontmen may likely create a managed democracy and there’s no doubt the economy has already been give away (I seriously doubt the US would invest so much aggression if it weren’t the case) and there is no reason to think black Africans will fair any better. This may not be the glorious revolution some want it to be or think it is; however, a bit of improvement is still an improvement. Though we should at least be able to call it like it is, and so far we haven’t come close, and we cannot until we begin including the plight of black Africans in our analysis and show a willingness to constructively engage and criticize the NTC. Being able to be honest about what is happening and where this is all likely heading will at least allow us to understand what it is we’re supporting and why. Perhaps that will help settle some largely, though not totally, irrelevant differences.

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