The late Howard Zinn once said, “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.” This quote has stuck with me throughout the years as a kind of litmus test in which to gauge the credentials of liberators and administers of justice, and I have found it very useful in the case of Libya.
While the left media has shown some diversity in certain respects there are a couple of issues that I feel our analysis has fallen short of what I think we are capable of and what may be expected of us. For example, there is a near unanimity that Gaddafi is the bad guy (no dispute there), the rebels are the good guys (debatable), and that’s about that. We know the US/NATO isn’t really motivated by humanitarian interests and that they have exceeded their mandate by targeting Gaddafi’s forces and compounds and providing cover for rebel fighters (and now openly arming). What differences there are, are whether we should support a NFZ or intervention to help the rebels, or stay out of it so they can liberate themselves. This is a loaded predisposition that sees the rebellion as a liberating force. We do not know who all the rebel leaders are and are apparently unwilling to find out about those of which we do.
Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar has written much about Libya lately. While there is much that I agree with (i.e. pointing out the foreign Western businesses already in Libya, that Gaddafi is a tyrant that needs to go, US imperialism is driving its involvement in Libya, and more) there is some I do not. Achcar wrote in a recent article that, “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.”
Since when did the left start saying it is unacceptable to doubt leaders? It is acceptable to shed doubt on “the nature of the uprising’s leadership” if there is reason to, which there is. If the head of the Interim National Council (INC) is a former Gaddafi regime official—a supposed justice minister (you really got to ask what kind of justice he administered)—who is receiving Saudi support then shouldn’t we be doubtful on Mustafa Abdul-Jalil’s “nature”?
As’ad abu Khalil, another Lebanese scholar, doesn’t find it “unacceptable” and put it more bluntly, “I am now ready to call for the overthrow of the regime that will replace Qadhdhafi, just as I supported for years the overthrow of the Qadhdhafi regime. The Saudi role in the support of the lousy Mustafa `Abdul-Jalil guarantees the birth of a monstrous Libyan regime.”
But it’s not just Abdul-Jalil. There are other regime officials who defected in mid-February 2011 and who we are to believe all of a sudden are progressive “liberators.”
In an article today, Achcar responds to that too by saying:
Pointing to a few individuals of various and contradictory political identities who are playing or trying to play some role in the Libyan uprising does not say what influence they really command, and cannot be convincing as an indication of the shape of a post-Gaddafi Libya, all the less so given that the National Transition Council put forward a clear program of democratic change calling for free and fair elections. The smear campaign against the Libyan uprising is equivalent to that of those who tried to discredit the Egyptian uprising either by pointing to the Muslim Brotherhood’s role or by describing Mohamed ElBaradei as a stooge of imperialism and the April 6th Youth movement as a US-trained operation. And whatever statements this or that member of the Council might give to Western media in order to please the governments that are helping the uprising is secondary compared to the fact that the downfall of Gaddafi will make it possible for a left to emerge in Libya for the first time in more than four decades . . .
Well these “few individuals” do make up the executive team. Abdul-Jalil and Al-Issawi are executive leaders, while Khalifa Hifter is running their military—and they are not radical leftists. And their “program” also has caveats about having an open private system (i.e. they are open for business to foreign investors). Anyway, we shouldn’t accept the document at face value or take from it that Abdul-Jalil and Co. are liberators and “will make it possible for a left to emerge in Libya” any more than we should take from the Green Book that Gaddafi is a progressive and will institute a “program” for participatory democracy. And again, being skeptical and cautious of the “uprising’s leadership” is not necessarily a “smear campaign” that is comparable to other unsavory apologists. Reading Achcar lately gives the impression there is no room for caution or constructive criticism. He has previously said that debate is healthy but taking a position that the rebel leaders are not open to criticism is simply not healthy or productive for the left.
And now there are reports that they head of their military affairs, Khalifa Hifter, may be a CIA operative. McClatchy recently wrote about Hifter by saying that,
The new leader of Libya’s opposition military spent the past two decades in suburban Virginia […] Badr [a friend] said he was unsure exactly what Hifter did to support himself.
It’s speculation but considering the CIA is headquartered in Virginia, it is very possible that Hifter has connections to the agency. I mean what are the odds that a former high-ranking military official with a “personal” grudge against Gaddafi who just happened to live near Langley for the last couple of decades quickly moves to Libya to head the military for the rebellion that the US is supporting? Again, this is speculation but it should at least raise some eyebrows.
Unfortunately, there are still a ton of other questions we don’t have answers on. Most is speculation, like the above. We do know there have been lots of exaggerated claims by both sides. Gaddafi claims 98% support him, and the rebels have routinely exaggerated the ferocity of attacks against them and also their own. Very early on it was claimed that Gaddafi was carrying out aerial attacks, but there has been no concrete proof of that, at least from what I have seen. NATO said they were doing 24 hour surveillance but they haven’t provided proof of Libyan areial attacks. Russia says they too have been monitoring and that they have seen no proof of aerial attacks, but they didn’t provide proof either. With all the journalists on the ground and with modern technology (i.e. cell phones) you would think there were videos showing them. The point here and with everything else is that we need to carefully sift through claims, look for supporting evidence, and try to bring out the truth.
I saw another interesting question raised in the Russian press: how did so many Kingdom of Libya flags get manufactured and distributed so quickly? The point of the question was the possibility that this was a planned uprising. This is worth considering and looking into, among many other things.
Another observation worth keeping in mind is that all the fighting has been over securing coastal cities that are important oil sites. In the week before the US started bombing Libya it was announced that Secretary of State Clinton and French President Sarkozy would be meeting with delegates from the rebellion. This was no secret meeting. It was publicly announced. Afterwards the rebel delegates said their message was that they would honor foreign oil contracts and would remember their friends if they gained power. As soon as that was said I told some of my friends, who didn’t think the NFZ or foreign intervention would happen, that within a week we would be bombing Libya. And we did, making Obama the second president to bomb an oil-rich Arab country on March 19 of the third year of his first term under the banner of humanitarian intervention. Afterwards the press talked about an unexpected turn around for the Obama administration, but anyone with their head screwed on straight and who saw the rebel “message” knew it was completely predictable.
Some like Juan Cole like to bring up the fact that the Arab League called for the intervention but that’s really kind of misleading, and I wonder how Cole didn’t know this, but former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray blogged that a Western diplomat told him that Clinton struck a deal with Arab leaders (presumably Saudi Arabia) saying that the US would authorize Arab forces (presumably Saudi forces) going into Bahrain to put down their rebellion if they called for intervention in Libya.
But one of the biggest problems I have seen in leftist media is the absence of analysis on the plight of black Africans in Libya as it relates to the rebellion, and I bring this up in hopes that going forward we begin to look more at this and discuss it.
Blacks in Libya are at least 1/3 of the population and the most oppressed group. Arab racism towards blacks in Libya is nothing new and unlike some leftist apologists for the rebellion likes to claim, the racism did not start with Gaddafi—who certainly has demonstrated his own racist tendencies. The journalist Andrew Pervis has been in Libya for most of the uprising and keeping a diary and he has documented the racism:
The discrimination against blacks in Libya that helped propel much of the current exodus is shocking. In buses, it is not uncommon for Libyans of lighter skin to roll down the windows as an African is boarding to ‘air’ the place out … a kind of joke. Sub-Saharan Africans and Libyans of darker complexion are overcharged at stores, I am told. In the street, they are routinely referred to by the Arabic word for ‘slave’, abid. Gangs continue to roam the streets targeting blacks, stealing what they have, beating any who resist. For proud people who came to Libya to find money to support their families back home, it is a deep humiliation. When state media announced several weeks ago that black Africans were being hired as mercenaries in Ghaddafi’s forces, the entire community knew that latent racism was in danger of becoming a pogrom so most went into hiding or fled for the border.
More journalists really should go to the refugees in Egypt and interview the black Africans who fled to hear their stories. I say the Egyptian border because that is on the eastern side of Libya near Benghazi, where the rebels have control and because considering the effects of the propaganda system we should expect that a narrow and politicized story against Gaddafi will get played out while other parts of the story will go ignored (so if we have any desire to know the whole story this would seem to be elementary). Already the UN has a group in the western part of Libya and they are documenting forced disappearances of hundreds of people they feel were critical of the Gaddafi regime. And considering reports from earlier this month about abuses towards blacks by rebel forces (some of which ranged from harassment to complete massacres) it would be worth looking into how things are almost a month later. Andrew Pervis was recently in Egypt but honestly, I couldn’t get much from his reports other than a lot of black Africans are there with no idea of what to do or where to go.
One of the few stories we do have is from the Los Angeles Times, who earlier this month wrote on the brutalities of black Africans by rebel forces, and who recently ran an article titled “Libyan rebels appear to take leaf from Kadafi’s playbook” in which they said,
Opposition officials in Benghazi, whose wide sweeps to detain alleged Kadafi supporters have drawn criticism, take journalists on a tightly controlled tour of detention centers. Many detainees say they’re immigrant workers and deny fighting for Kadafi.
In his recent Anti-Empire Report, Bill Blum wrote that, “So who are the good guys? The Libyan rebels, we’re told. The ones who go around murdering and raping African blacks on the supposition that they’re all mercenaries for Gaddafi.” While this is one of the few mentions of the hardships blacks are enduring in Libya hopefully their stories will be more widely covered in the days to come.
Now back to Achcar’s defense of the “uprising’s leadership.” After his shutdown of criticizing the rebellion, he 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.
That’s testable. First, there is a hierarchy to the council, as mentioned, and it is dominated by former regime officials, and as pointed out above, the head of the military is a likely CIA operative—not a radical leftist dissident. I have contacted the rebel leadership quite a few times now asking if they have any intention on speaking out against the abuses of black Africans and to call on them in solidarity to join their revolution, and to date (March 31, it’s been three days) I have not gotten a response. Now, the Interim National Council (INC) has recently issued announcements about their treatment of (which followed the highly critical report by Los Angeles Times) prisoners and Al-Obaidi, but they have not said a word about the plight of their darker-skinned brothers and sisters. And again, they make up one-third of the population, are the most oppressed group and are fleeing the revolution into Egypt by the thousands every day. If the rebels need foreign assistance to win and protect themselves from a massacre then why have they not appealed to the black community to join their struggle in solidarity? I do think it is also a completely fair question to ask why human rights dissidents are not sticking up for the black underclass; they can speak out with specificity on the horrors visited upon an Arab woman, but don’t have it in them to to stick up for blacks. This goes back to my litmus test à la Zinn.
While we get that Gaddafi is a military dictator of a forty-year autocratic regime who has no problem making horrific statements and threats of violence to secure his power and who should surely be toppled, it is the rebellion we are supporting, and the struggles of the black underclass, that we have shown a considerable amount of unwillingness or inability to consider or be constructively critical towards.
So what information is not being included in leftist media which has incredible significance for understanding what is going on? There is an armed rebellion with US, UK, French and Saudi support made up of former regime officials and possibly CIA operatives who are not only ignoring the black underclass, and are not appealing to them to join their struggles but are abusing them (to put it mildly), and promising kickbacks to the foreign powers who help them into power, something Achcar considers to be of only “secondary” consideration, while they wage a civil war largely around the coastal areas that are conveniently where all the oil is.
In previous blog posts I brought up the historical examples of Rwanda and Kosovo. Of course Achcar appears to have responded to them. Maybe he is responding to liberal apologists for Obama, I am not sure; but if he is responding to me I think he missed my point. My point was, for Rwanda, that we did intervene via our support for the RPF. For more information see Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Propaganda System by Edward Herman and David Peterson. And just like the KLA in Kosovo, we claimed the government was committing genocide while we supported an armed rebellion to carry out a regime change under the bullshit banner of a humanitarian intervention. We also did this in Afghanistan via the Northern Alliance and in Iraq via Kurdish and Shiite militias. Of course we can find some differences in the examples but that’s not the issue. The issue is that the left has oddly been unable or unwilling to consider that we have more reason to believe this is another US-sponsored regime change under the bogus banner of humanitarian intervention, not liberation.
Furthermore, we should not take from this that Gaddafi was progressive or anti-imperialist or not already a stooge for the West. As much as some leftists don’t like to hear the Iraq analogy, Saddam was not anti-Western when we turned on him and the extent of our demonization of him was why we could not rehabilitate him, and is why the New York Times “journalist” Thomas Friedman wrote twenty years ago that what Bush Sr wanted out of the Persian Gulf War was an iron-fisted military junta without Saddam. It might be more useful to see the Libyan civil war as a fight for who gets to be a stooge for the West. Gaddafi tries selling himself from the angle that without him black hordes will overtake Europe, and the rebels assured “Queen Hillary” they would remain open to foreign investors. President Obama eventually sided with the rebels not because he would lose sleep if they were “massacred” by Gaddafi’s forces, but rather I suspect because he was assured it would be the same old song and dance but without the liability of a dictator known as a “madman.” Noam Chomsky made this point recently when he told Michael Albert and Steve Shalom that,
Some argue that oil cannot be a motive because Western companies were granted access to the prize under Qaddafi. That misconstrues US concerns. The same could have been said about Iraq under Saddam, or Iran and Cuba for many years, still today. What Washington seeks is what Bush announced: control, or at least dependable clients.
This adventure will provide the US an opportunity to shove the “Responsibility to Protect” down the throat of the international community while also being the first AFRICOM war, a command center so unpopular it is headquartered on another continent (Stuttgart, Germany)—and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the new government of Libya rewards AFRICOM for their generosity with allowing them to move their headquarters to Libya, or at least a base. Achcar may think striking a deal with the Devil is of only “secondary” concern but I differ. I don’t think Washington would invest so much political capital and miltiary adventure unless it expected a payoff, and the norm of nearly every military adventure we have engaged in since WW2 has resulted in establishing a base or two.
Basing our position on reflexively defending the rebellion without knowing (or wanting to know) who they are, or how they are treating the black underclass, or their special relationship with unsavory foreign powers doesn’t really help provide an accurate analysis of what is going on. And using this insulated view to define where we stand seems to be very unhelpful. However, if after an honest and more complete assessment we can say we support the rebellion but have reservations and concerns about this-and-this then I think we might be in a better position to discuss what exactly we support, to what degree and so on. We might even be in a better position to help certain segments of Libya whose struggles won’t end with the fall of Gaddafi.