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Was the West's Intervention in Libya Justified?

Juan Cole defends the use of force to aid the Libyan rebel movement. Professor Prashad warns the US has involved itself in a decades-long internal Libyan struggle.

As President Obama defends the U.S.-led military attacks on Libya, we host a debate. University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole has just published an article titled “An Open Letter to the Left on Libya." Cole defends the use of military force to prevent a massacre in Benghazi and to aid the Libyan rebel movement in their liberation struggle. In opposition to U.S. intervention in Libya, University of Trinity Professor Vijay Prashad warns the United States has involved itself in a decades-long internal Libyan struggle while it ignores violent crackdowns by U.S.-backed governments in Bahrain, Yemen and other countries in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss Libya and the latest developments across the Middle East and North Africa, we’re joined by two guests. Vijay Prashad is chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, author of 11 books, most recently The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. He opposes the U.S.-led intervention in Libya. And we’re joined by Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan. His blog, "Informed Comment," is online at His most recent book is called Engaging the Muslim World.

Professor Cole, you support the U.S.-led intervention in Libya. You wrote about it in a piece called "An Open Letter to the Left on Libya." Professor Cole is joining us from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lay out your argument for intervention, Professor Cole.

JUAN COLE: Well, intervention is always a problematic thing, and it could go badly wrong, I have to admit from the outset. But you had a situation in Libya which was pretty peculiar. The uprising was a popular uprising. You had crowds coming out into the streets in downtowns, in Zawiyah, in Zuwarah, in so many of the cities of that country, and Benghazi. You had very substantial numbers of the officer corps defecting to the crowds, declaring for them. And it was chaotic, and it was not well coordinated, but it was nationwide. And I would estimate that, at its height, the people had thrown off Gaddafi’s rule in something on the order of 80 to 90 percent of the country. And mostly, it was done nonviolently.

And then the Gaddafi sons, who command these special forces and the tank commanders, made an attempt to put this down. And they did it in the most brutal way possible. They mounted tanks, 30, 40, 50 tanks, sent them into the downtowns of places like Zawiyah, and they just shelled civilian crowds, protesters. They shelled buildings. They brutalized people over days, until they scared everybody and put them down, and then they sent secret police around to round up alleged ringleaders and reestablish secret police rule. And they did this in town after town after town. And then they started rolling the tanks to the east, and they were on the verge of taking the rebel stronghold, Benghazi. And there certainly would have been a massacre there in the same way that there was in Zawiyah, if it hadn’t been stopped at the last moment by United Nations allies.

And here we had a situation where the Arab League met and demanded a no-fly zone. The U.S. Senate voted a resolution for a no-fly zone. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution, 1973, asking not only for a no-fly zone, but for all measures necessary to protect civilian life. And now you have NATO and Arab League members like Qatar and the UAE patrolling Libya’s skies, intervening against those tanks that were wreaking that havoc on ordinary people.

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