Some on the Left have begun to make useful contributions to a productive debate about the principles and perils of the ongoing U.S.-led, UN-sponsored military intervention in Libya.
Juan Cole has published an “Open Letter to the Left” in which he explains why he is “unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed.”
I would like to urge the Left to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in their travails in places like Libya. If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the Left. We should avoid making ‘foreign intervention’ an absolute taboo the way the Right makes abortion an absolute taboo if doing so makes us heartless (inflexible a priori positions often lead to heartlessness). It is now easy to forget that Winston Churchill held absolutely odious positions from a Left point of view and was an insufferable colonialist who opposed letting India go in 1947. His writings are full of racial stereotypes that are deeply offensive when read today. Some of his interventions were nevertheless noble and were almost universally supported by the Left of his day. The UN allies now rolling back Qaddafi are doing a good thing, whatever you think of some of their individual leaders.
The Editors of the venerable Middle East Research and Information Project, for their part, are much more suspicious of the intervention, arguing that “it would be naïve to assert that the West chooses to intervene merely because it can. The West steps in because it can and because it wants to.”
Oil-rich and strategically located, Libya is not Western Sahara or the Ivory Coast. The reiterations by Obama and his British and French counterparts that “Qaddafi must go” put Western prestige on the line. So, say events proceed as the West appears to hope and the rebels somehow manage to dislodge the colonel. Or say the US-British-French troika deals the death blow itself. What then? Who will emerge to reconstruct a strong, central state? Who will the West back from among the rebels’ disparate ranks? As the veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn contends, it is likely to be those “who speak the best English” and are “prepared to go before Congress to express fulsome gratitude for America’s actions.” One might add that they are apt to be the most willing to give favorable terms to Western oil firms for invigorated exploration and exploitation of the country’s hydrocarbon deposits. Whether scions of the royal family deposed by Qaddafi in 1969 or renegades from the colonel’s subsequent regime, these elements are sure to be heavier on opportunism than on popular legitimacy. This Libya would look nothing like the democratic state of liberal interventionist dreams, and quite a bit like post-Saddam Iraq.