Was the West's Intervention in Libya Justified?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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 juancole.com. 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.
This is not something that could have been done in most situations. I mean, you were bringing up places like Yemen. Bombing Yemen would produce no result whatsoever, and I don’t think anybody has asked for Yemen to be bombed. But in Libya, it made a difference. It saved Benghazi. It saved this popular protest movement, which, by the way, includes so many workers and ordinary people. Some of the cities which have thrown off Gaddafi, like Misurata, were known, for instance, for their steel mill. These are progressive forces who were fighting a wretched secret police regime.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Vijay Prashad. You are opposed to the intervention. Why?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s a long story, and it should go back to a particular kind of understanding of Libyan history, where Libya, from the Ottoman period, has had a divide between the east and the west.
Certainly, Gaddafi, since the 1980s, has been a reactionary leader in Libya, and I have never, ever felt—and I’ve written from the ’80s onward—that Gaddafi is on the side of reaction, rather than a progressive. So let there be no mistake that what I would like to suggest is not a defense of Gaddafi by any means.
On the other hand, there has been a protest movement in the east, as I said, that goes back several decades. Most recently, on February 17th, 2006, there was an uprising in Benghazi. It was put down. And then, the anniversary came on February 17th of this year. There was an attempt to revive the protest, taking inspiration from other parts of North Africa and the Gulf. So, yes, indeed, there was a popular uprising. It was stronger in the east than in the west, although in working-class areas in Tripoli, there was some sporadic rising that was observed, in Tajura and other neighborhoods. So, that is correct.
But very quickly, the French and the United States government came in and attempted to, I think, transform the Arab spring to their advantage. So, for instance, when we talk about the rebel leadership in Benghazi, one should keep in mind that the two principal military leaders, one of whom was a former interior minister in the Gaddafi regime, and the second gentleman was a general who led troops in Chad in the 1980s and was then taken up with the Libyan National Salvation Front, went off to live in Vienna, Virginia, for 30 years, about a 10-minute drive from Langley, and returned to Benghazi to, in a sense, I think, hijack the rebellion on behalf of the forces of reaction. It’s very important to recognize, as Juan said quite correctly, that it’s Qatar and the UAE and the Gulf—the GCC, the Gulf—what is it?—Coordination Council that is behind this—you know, which is the principal Arab support for the humanitarian intervention, as it were, and these are the same places where—the same organization, which has attempted and has now put down the uprising in Bahrain. You had the Saudi Prince Faisal Al Turki talking about the GCC becoming perhaps a NATO of the Gulf region. So, I would like to suggest that, you know, even by February 26th, 27th, when NATO—when the United Nations first took up the Libyan case, the rebellion was not quite a rebel army as it was in Tahrir Square. It had already been substantially co-opted by the people who were on behalf of NATO and the United States.
So the first thing I would say is we should be very careful when we think of the rebels. We should not confuse all the rebellions across the Arab world and consider them all to be the same. There are some important differences. And secondly, the United States and NATO has its own agenda here. And when one supports an intervention, I think one should be very careful to see whose intervention we are supporting. Is this on behalf of those young people, the workers and others, with whom we have, you know, allegiances and alliances? Is it going to be on their behalf? Or is it going to be on behalf of people like Khalifa Hifter, the colonel who has returned from Vienna, Virginia, to lead the troops in Benghazi? So I would just like to say that my sense of dismay at this intervention is precisely because I think it’s for the bad side of history, and in some ways it is a measure to clamp down on the Arab spring, to take attention away, as well, from Bahrain and other places, rather than a part of the Arab spring.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole, your response?
JUAN COLE: Well, I just think it’s a mistake to characterize a mass movement of millions of people with reference to one or two individuals. And it’s simply not the case that this was primarily—or, that is to say, only—an eastern uprising. The city of Zuwarah, which is about the farthest west you can get among major population centers, threw off Gaddafi. Zawiyah, which is in the west, threw off Gaddafi. Zintan, a major tribal center of the Zintan tribe, threw off Gaddafi, and Gaddafi’s tanks are still trying to take it back. And Misurata, which is a western city, a major western city of nearly 600,000, threw off Gaddafi. So the east-west divide is a nonstarter here. The west also didn’t want Gaddafi. I would suggest that much of Tripoli didn’t want him, and in especially the working-class districts, Souk Al-Jummah and others, as was mentioned. So, this was a very widely based, geographically and class-wise, widely based uprising.
That there are one or two individuals that you can name who came back to Benghazi and declared themselves leaders is irrelevant. We don’t know what the leadership will look like going forward. There are also, you know, allegations that some of the fighters had fought U.S. troops in Iraq and are, quote-unquote, "al-Qaeda." There’s this tendency to try to take one or two individuals and use them as a proxy to stereotype this uprising. You know, it’s just the youth of Libya, it’s the youth of Benghazi, and often city notables and workers’ unions and so forth. It’s just the people. And you’re going to have all kinds of people there, and some of them are criminals, and some of them might have a terrorist past, and some of them might be hooked up with the CIA. I don’t know. But it’s—you can’t use that as a stereotype for the whole movement and say, therefore, it’s all right if these people are massacred with tank and artillery shells as they stand peacefully in the center of a city square like that of Benghazi.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of President Obama last night. In some of his most detailed comments on the Middle East and North Africa uprisings to date, Obama said the U.S. is broadly supportive of the protesters’ demands.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Ten days ago, having tried to end the violence without using force, the international community offered Gaddafi a final chance to stop his campaign of killing or face the consequences. Rather than stand down, his forces continued their advance, bearing down on the city of Benghazi, home to nearly 700,000 men, women and children who sought their freedom from fear.
At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Gaddafi declared he would show no mercy to his own people. He compared them to rats and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city.
We knew that if we wanted—if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so, nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, this is President Obama talking about his broad support for the pro-democracy movements in North Africa and the Middle East.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back and that we must stand alongside those people who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people. Born as we are out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa and that young people are leading the way, because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama last night, talking about the justification for intervention in Libya and going beyond. Professor Vijay Prashad of Trinity College, your response?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, wherever people would like to be free, unless they live in Bahrain, Yemen and, you know, for a long time, even in Egypt, until the tide was too strong for the Americans to push it back.
You know, the resolutions that the United Nations passed—1970 was the first resolution, and then 1973—are deeply ambiguous resolutions. They got the support of the Arab League. They got the support tacitly, although they abstained of the Chinese and the Russians, because they said that there was going to be no attempt at assisting the rebels, there was only going to be the obligation to protect civilians. So, President Obama has been playing a tightrope between "we are protecting civilians" and "we want to get rid of Gaddafi."
The second thing, get rid of Gaddafi or give assistance to the rebels, is contrary to the U.N. Resolution 1973, and it should be borne in mind that as much as he said we will not commit ground troops, the United States has already committed ground forces. These may not be boots on the ground, but they’re the AC-130 aircraft and the A-10 aircraft, which are both low-flying ground troop support aircrafts. These are not to create a no-fly zone; these are to attack ground troops. So the United States has already taken a position in the middle of a civil war. You know, it has already established that it is, in a sense, the armed wing of the rebels.
So, in that sense, President Obama not once in his speech mentioned the rebels themselves. Like Juan, he spoke of the people versus Gaddafi. And I think that that might be too restricting or too general, perhaps, of a framework to understand this. Now, I, too, believe that there is a broad swath of opinion against Gaddafi, but I think that what this intervention has done is it’s narrowed options. And it’s not that two or three people are controlling the entire dynamic, but it is their faction because they have very close ties now with the principal military power in operation in Libya. It is because of their close ties to the principal military power that their hand is strengthened against the other people in the rebellion. We have seen this over and over again during the moment of so-called humanitarian intervention, that sometimes the worst elements take over a popular movement because they have the closest links to imperial forces. You know, there is a broad movement, and that broad movement is going to be sidelined. It’s very interesting that President Obama never talked about the rebels. He only kept indicating the endgame, which is that Gaddafi must go, that itself in contravention to U.N. Resolution 1973. I found it a very peculiar speech. There was no mention of Bahrain, no mention of the Saudi troops crossing the causeway into Manama, no mention of their quest for freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, your response?
JUAN COLE: Well, I don’t think the situation is comparable to Bahrain. I would like to see the Bahrain monarchy, which is a Sunni monarchy ruling over a Shiite majority, show greater flexibility in meeting popular demands for constitutional revision, for better representation of the Shia in the parliament, for moving the monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy. But to compare tiny Bahrain, where there has been some violence against protesters, to Libya, where there was a national popular uprising and where, in Libya, thousands are dead, not 20, it’s just not on the same scale.
And the other thing is, you know, let us be practical, let us be pragmatic. We are people of the left. We care about the ordinary people. We care about workers. We care about the aspirations of the people, and the United States should certainly be putting pressure on the Bahrain monarchy to accommodate them. And in fact, the U.S. has put pressure on it, to the extent that the Saudi government is furious with the United States. I mean, we’re saying it’s not doing enough. The reactionary forces in the Gulf are angry that we’re doing too much. And however, you know, a military intervention in Bahrain is not a practical option, and I cannot see in what way it could even have any hope of success. The Bahraini protesters themselves would object to a direct U.S. or NATO military intervention in Bahrain.
In Libya, the people asked for this intervention: they asked for a no-fly zone. And I would be the first to admit that this is going beyond a no-fly zone. There’s also a no-drive zone. The British and the French and the American fighter pilots have taken out tank positions and artillery positions that had been used to subdue villages and towns that had gone into opposition. The Gaddafi regime has been rolled back by these attacks, and that’s part of what the Western understanding, or the NATO and the Arab League understanding, of the U.N. resolution is, is that Gaddafi was wrong to roll tanks and artillery against these civilian crowds and that those have to be withdrawn. And where they’re not withdrawn, they’ll be attacked.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me just put the final question—
JUAN COLE: So, I don’t—I don’t agree that the resolution, which is worded somewhat ambiguously, that the spirit of it has so far been violated. And President Obama made it quite clear that the United States doesn’t intend to press an invasion of a sort that would overthrow Gaddafi directly.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Vijay Prashad, on this issue of Benghazi, that—the promised massacre of the people of Benghazi, what should have happened? How would that have been prevented?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Firstly, I’m not convinced that there would have been a massacre. I think that there were troops inside Benghazi. They are the troops that were trained and armed by the Libyan regime. They had repulsed an attempt into Benghazi. The tanks were outside the city when they were bombed by French planes.
What I would have liked to have seen was some more action from the—you know, the Arab League to think about, for instance, a war refugee corridor out of Benghazi into the Egyptian border. There is a road that goes directly. It’s interesting that the Egyptian army did not act at all in this, to come and create some kind of corridor. There were war refugees fleeing Tripoli into Tunisia, but there was nothing comparable on the eastern side. This had already become a civil war, and no longer was it simply an unarmed population fighting against a state. It had become a civil war. The real humanitarian intervention there would have been to have conducted the creation of a corridor, a momentary ceasefire, let people leave as war refugees, and then see what happens, because this is not strictly the case in Benghazi of unarmed civilians fighting against a state. It is precisely why General Ham of the African Command said that from a cockpit it is very hard to know whether you’re defending civilians or whether you’re assisting rebels.
AMY GOODMAN: We going to have to leave it—
VIJAY PRASHAD: And he said, in the briefing room we were able to tell it was rebels, but really it was also civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, Juan Cole, we will leave it there, but the debate goes on. Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, blogs at "Informed Comment" at juancole.com—most recent book, Engaging the Muslim World. Vijay Prashad, chair of South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut—his latest book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.