Libya and the Left

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Until recently, I never focused much on Libya. As part of the 1960s new left, I cheered the green revolution of 1969, as part of a wave of national liberation movements sweeping the world. Gaddafi seemed to be a revolutionary leader of a movement which overthrew a monarchy, set out to forge a form of Arab socialism and stood among the anti-imperialist forces in the world. Over the years, however, Gaddafi seemed more and more eccentric and Libya was implicated in activities, such as Lockerbie, which seemed both bewildering and indefensible. When my son considered taking a job teaching at the International School of Martyrs, I hoped that he wouldn’t go.

When the invitation came to me to give a lecture in Libya, I hesitated. I saw it as part of a drive for reintegration into the wider world, which I thought was in the interests of the Libyan people. I decided to accept. It was only one lecture. I could learn something about a place where I had never been. I could interact with academics from another culture. I did not think that this meant supporting the regime. I have lectured here and elsewhere while opposing governments in power. I noted that the Department of Foreign Affairs advised Irish citizens visiting Libya that there were severe penalties for criticism of the country, its leader or religion. Refraining from criticism was not my modus operandi anywhere.

I wrote a paper on philosophy of history, entitled ‘Is history a coherent story?’ which was translated into Arabic. My lecture was an argument against grand narratives imposed from above (therefore opposed to Islam as a state religion, which it is in Libya) and for grand narratives forged from below.

Meanwhile, there were uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and heightened interest in North Africa. I was glad that I was going there to get a clearer sense of this major historical shift. However, I thought that Libya was different from Tunisia and Egypt, because it was somehow left and had better distribution of wealth as well as greater wealth to distribute. Jamahiriya, the Libyan form of government, was supposed to be government by the masses, a direct democracy that was superior to representative democracy.  I had doubts about how democratic it was in practice.


I knew that 17 February was to be a day of rage, but I thought that much of what I was reading (much of it on twitter) was over-excited prediction of Libyan exiles thinking that this was the end of the regime.

I arrived on 18 February. I had intensive discussions about the form of government, the distribution of wealth, the role of women and many such matters, although all discussions came back to the current protests, which were escalating in the east of the country. I was trying to assess the arguments and relative strength of both sides. My hosts told me that that it would all blow over, that it was just a fashion imitating Tunisia and Egypt, that it was not true that security forces were shooting peaceful protesters.

As well as hearing conflicting voices on the ground, I was comparing the picture emerging on international news with that on state tv, which was dominated by happy singing and dancing, pro-regime demonstrations and montages of the glories of Gaddafi in his multicoloured regalia. The demonstrations in Tripoli, particularly the big frenzied and carnivalesque ones I saw in Green Square at night, seemed ever more obscene as the bodies piled up in Benghazi. I heard the meglomaniac speeches of ‘the leader’ and the arrogant threats of his son Saif al-Islam, who doesn’t even hold state position. One monarchy had replaced another. Gaddafi had even named himself king of kings of Africa. What did this have to do with the left?

Meanwhile, my lecture was postponed twice, as some of the professors involved were involved in a crisis committee set up by the government. Then the uprising came to Tripoli. I heard gunfire and saw burning buildings. Construction workers, hotel staff and guests began to flee. Then my academic hosts abandoned me, my hotel evacuated me, my return flight was cancelled. The scene was not only one of the regime versus the rebels, but marauders moving into the breach between the end of one regime and the beginning of another. Eventually I made my way to the airport, where there was an apocalyptic encampment in the rain of migrant workers unable to get into the airport and inside were many thousands more fleeing in terror.

Hundreds of African migrant workers, many from Ghana and Nigeria, living next to the airport in Tripoli, Libya, hoping to fly home.

In those 22 hours in airport hell, I saw the true face of the regime and heard the voices of its victims. These were people who lived and worked in Libya, both Libyan and foreign. These displaced people had seen their neighbours disappear or die, their students expelled, the whole population terrorised for decades and now terrorised further for finally rebelling. The gap between the theory of direct democracy and coercive autocracy was stunning and utterly indefensible. As I took in all the displacement, destruction and death, all ambivalence evaporated.

Left forces, particularly in Latin America and Africa, are still equivocating, because this regime has declared itself to be left, even though the oppressive nature of the regime is there for all the world to see so clearly now. The purpose of the left is to stand for liberation against oppression. The liberation of Libya from this oppressive regime cannot come soon enough and the left needs to be on side with it.

Helena Sheehan is professor emeritus at Dublin City University and a left activist for many years.

Photo of Tripoli airport courtesy of War in Context. Photo of migrant camp beside Tripoli airport courtesy of the New York Times.

 

60 Responses

  1. Ciaran O'Brien

    March 9, 2011 10:24 pm

    Agree entirely Helena. Sad to see the ‘dial a dictator’ fanclub not sure whether to back the Libyan people or not. Why do some leftists yearn for a Chavez or a Castro, a strong leader, rather than the power of the people themselves? The CPI, WP, etc should cop on.

  2. William Wall

    March 10, 2011 8:59 am

    Thanks for this really interesting article, Helena. It certainly sounds as though the people of Libya presented you with your own paper!
    @ Ciaran, I think it’s a bit more complex than that. Sometimes the people is incapable of acting except through a powerful leader. Sometimes this action brings immense benefits, sometimes not. Sometimes, as in Tunisia say, the opposite is the case. Sometimes people are capable only of false consciousness. I don’t take the view that the population of a country is automatically ‘a people’, or that the wisdom of the population is necessarily wisdom at all. Ireland and Italy present two striking examples of popular stupidity – though there are very tentative signs of an awakening in both countries.
    So I don’t think it’s possible to ‘dial the people’, though that view certainly has its fanclub, as if any randomly selected segment of the world’s population (i.e a ‘nation’) is capable of constituting itself into a revolutionary mass movement at the sight of a red or black flag. Mostly populations, alas, are reasonably content to vote for the same idiots as last time. If they’re to change anything, mostly, they need leadership. The occasions where the action begins with the people is rare enough. But let’s celebrate them where they do happen and give over sniping at each other. Long live the peoples of the Maghreb!

  3. Frank

    March 11, 2011 10:11 am

    I think professor Sheehan that you are either very naive or seriously unaware if you only realized now that Libya was an oppressive nation. Ignoring Ghadaffi’s sponsorship of international terrorism, with Libya itself any criticism of the ruling regime could lead to instant lynching without trial by his supporters. Such cases have been well documented in the past. How could you not be aware of them?

    As for the rebels, when asked who their commander is (news last night) a group of armed men pointed to the sky and said “Allah”. The cry one hears from them is not “liberty, equality, democracy “ but Allah u Akbar. Do not expect assume that rebels against tyranny are themselves enlightened (remember the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, Pol Pot, Taliban etc)

    Finally may I add that if refugees from this conflict reach Europe as indeed they will, we should offer them kindness, shelter, food and a free one way ticket to the Muslim country of their choice.

  4. William Wall

    March 12, 2011 1:30 pm

    Wow, Frank, what swift and incisive logic. A few reporters on ‘the news’ find a few muslim fighters who (surprise, surprise) express the view that God is guiding them, and you move from there to expelling Muslim refugees from Europe. Is it that ‘our’ Europe has no place for people who believe god is guiding them? Or maybe it’s just people who call god Allah who have no place in ‘our’ Europe. Or maybe you’re just against all refugees (and rebels?) and would like to post them to the ‘Muslim country of their choice’. I suppose they’re not ‘enlightened’. Not like us.

  5. Andrew

    March 28, 2011 5:58 pm

    Astonishing political naivete both in the article and the comments; once more, the so-called left rolling over with another ‘humanitarian intervention’, i.e. a war in which people are humanitarianly bombed with DU weapons, while waving terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ like so many adverising slogans. I think there is substantial evidence that many on the so-called left are incapable of rational thought.

  6. William Wall

    March 29, 2011 7:16 am

    @ Andrew. “the so-called left rolling over with another ‘humanitarian intervention’, i.e. a war in which people are humanitarianly bombed with DU weapons”. Can you give me examples of this from the above article and comments? And how do you answer the age-old question: What would you do? Or would you do nothing?

  7. Donagh

    March 29, 2011 9:43 am

    Adam Curtis has a story to tell about humanitarian intervention….and its usually worth listening to Adam Curtis.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/03/goodies_and_baddies.html

    The idea of “humanitarian intervention” which is behind the decision to attack in Libya is one of the central beliefs of our age.

    It divides people. Some see it as a noble, disinterested use of Western power. Others see it as a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism.

    I want to tell the story of how this idea originated and how it has grown up to possess the minds of a generation of liberal men and women in Europe and America.

    It is the story of a generation who became disenchanted with traditional power politics. They thought they could leap over the old corrupt structures of power and connect directly with the innocent victims of war around the world.

  8. Andrew

    March 29, 2011 10:24 am

    Re. the Curtis article, the same assumptions about “our” noble intentions, even as “we” wage illegal war and drop weapons of mass destruction on civilian targets. Very typical of the BBC. Anyone who holds up Tony Blair as a humanitarian should consider seeking professional help.

    William Wall: Sheehan’s comment, “The liberation of Libya from this oppressive regime cannot come soon enough and the left needs to be on side with it” is clearly referring to what is happening now. The comments do not question that the war against Libya is being waged with that aim. It’s all very familiar.

    And you start by denying, by implication, the presence of this tendency in the discussion, but then finish by asserting support for that tendency. I am not sure what your question means – I did not provide diplomatic support and armaments to Gaddafi. It would be nice if those who now wage war against Libya because of the threat of nationalisation of oil revenues would stop supporting, funding and arming vicious dictators. It would also be nice if those who claim they are concerned with human rights and justice would stop cheering along with every act of imperial adventurism.

    Any argument that the humanitarian bombers are motivated by deep concern for thr fate of the Libyan people ought by now to be dismissed with the contempt and mockery it deserves. Yet here we go again.

  9. Donagh

    March 29, 2011 11:19 am

    @Andrew, the Curtis article is perhaps naive in it appraisal of humanitarian intervention, as being based originally in the “good intentions” of those leaders of nominally social democratic parties who just want to change the world for the better. But he does say how wars are dressed up in a way to appeal to the public, and how they are part of Western power politics.

    However, he should have dug a little deeper.

    The ideas behind these good, liberal, intentions are usually fostered by those who came of age in the late 60s, such as ideologue in chief of such interventions, Bernard Kouchner. For a fuller treatment of Dr. Kouchner see our review here.
    http://www.irishleftreview.org/2009/11/04/book-review-le-monde-selon-pierre-pan/

    David Harvey, in a brief history of neoliberalism has this to say about how the ideals of 68 were useful in the coopting of neoliberalism in later decades.

    For almost everyone involved in the movement of ’68, the intrusive state was the enemy and it had to be reformed. And on that, the neoliberals could easily agree. But capitalist corporations, business, and the market system were also seen as primary enemies requiring redress if not revolutionary transformation; hence the threat to capitalist class power. By capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state, capitalist class interest could hope to protect and even restore their position. Neoliberalism was well suited to this ideological task. But it had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices. Neoliberalization required both politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. As such it proved more than a little compatible with that cultural impulse called ‘post-modernism’ which had long been lurking in the wings but could now emerge full-blown as a both a cultural and an intellectual dominant. This was the challenge that corporations and class elites set out to finesse in the 1980s.

    One can see how the marketing of humanitarian intervention fits so neatly within neoliberal ideology. It says that we cannot stand idly by and pay heed to the integrity of individual states but must move against despotic leaders or armies that are murdering their own people. But it ignores completely the power politics, and the geopolitical motives that are usually behind this faux humanitarism.

    But the point remains that Libya would never have been in this situation without the protests and people power in Tunisia and Egypt. This does not ignore the fact that the UK, US and France, or Nato or whatever are not acting against Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, both of which murder their people, or that the West has supplied Gaddafi with arms and was happy to do business with him, and yes, of course, that fucker Tony Blair, employee of JP Morgan, acted as advisor to Gaddafi, and yes, there is a good chance that the prospect of Gaddafi nationalising oil production is behind it. I personally do not support these actions, but I do respect Helena’s opinion on this, and Immanuel Wallenstein’s for that matter, and Gilbert Achcar’s.

  10. William Wall

    March 29, 2011 4:21 pm

    @Andrew. Sheehan’s comment that ““The liberation of Libya from this oppressive regime cannot come soon enough and the left needs to be on side with it” cannot be assumed to support the bombing since it precedes the military intervention. I think we should leave it to her to tell us whether she supports something that has happened since she wrote the article. I think it would be fair to assume that Sheehan supports those in Libya who seek to overthrow Gaddafi.
    That is my own position. Ideally the people of any country, organising and asserting their politics, would successfully overthrow any dictator. Sometimes it happens, mostly it doesn’t.
    I’m no ‘expert’ on the middle east. In fact I know very little about what’s happening there. I read what I can in the hope of learning more.
    My question is really one to which, in my view, there is no simple answer. Given that it looked as if Gaddafi would roll over the nascent rebellion, would you support intervention on the side of the rebels or not?
    It is a constant dilemma – we all know of non-interventionist policies that were disastrous (Spain for example, or Hitler’s early moves, or Rwanda). Would you have supported the International Brigade, for example? And suppose the British government of the time had supplied arms to the Government in Spain, would you have supported that intervention?
    My answer to this dilemma is that it depends on the intervention and the situation. There is no absolute answer.
    It’s hard to contemplate the possibility of Gaddafi retaking Eastern Libya and the probable results in human suffering. In addition, we may point to the hypocrisy of the non-intervention in Yemen and Bahrain, for example. But the logic of the word ‘hypocrisy’ in this context is that NATO should intervene there too or should not intervene at all.
    In the long-run the bombing is undoubtedly designed to limit the uprisings and corner influence – nobody seriously believes in a humanitarian NATO! But if Gadaffi succeeded in suppressing the rebellion, would that be equally bad for the other uprisings? I don’t know. Do you?
    I’m tending towards the view that the people of Libya would have had to deal with the situation in either case. Had Gaddafi won, they would have had to take the consequences of their rebellion. equally, they will have to deal with the Western powers when Gaddafi goes. Which is better for them? Who knows. Time will tell something but not everything.
    So anyway, after that rambling answer, my question remains: Would you support an intervention on the side of the rebels? I’d be interested to know your reasoning in either case. I’m not setting a trap. I’d genuinely like to know.

  11. Helena Sheehan

    March 29, 2011 4:56 pm

    Thanks for all the comments. The uprising and subsequent intervention have raised very difficult questions for the left and ones to which there are no easy answers, even if it seems to some that there are. There has been a storm of controversy over arguments raised by Immanuel Wallerstein, Gilbert Achar and Juan Cole as well, all more expert than myself.

    My position on events that have unfolded since my return from Libya and my article on it above:
    I support the UN resolutions. I think that the implementation of intervention should be under UN command and not left to a coalition of the willing, ie, NATO. However, I am glad that the people of Benghazi were spared from slaughter.

    The opposition to the regime is not especially left. It is a broad spectrum. Many of them feel they have had enough of the left as it has been defined by Gaddafi et al. They have a right to decide their own future. Perhaps they might be better disposed to the left if some of us stand up for their rights now.

  12. Andrew

    March 29, 2011 11:56 pm

    @ William Wall:
    In response to your first question, no, I do not support intervention on the side of the rebels, if indeed they can be spoken of as a collective. The Provisional Transitional National Council has, in a gesture which shows sheer contempt both for international law as well as the people of Libya, been recognised by France as the legitimate government of Libya (no elections necessary); it is a collection of former Gaddafi minions, and its association with the aspirations of Libyans for more democratic representation is cynical and opportunistic. The haste on the part of the “coalition” and its followers to accord legitimacy to this group is telling in this regard.

    Regarding your analogy with the International Brigades, for one thing, these volunteers were defending a legitimate government against fascist insurgency. Britain most certainly would not have supported the Republic because it was decisively on the side of Franco. Your comparison should actually be the reverse; it was opposition to the Republic on the part of Britain and other nations that ensured its destruction and Franco’s victory.

    Regarding the consequences of ‘doing nothing’, i.e. not supporting a bombing, I think framing the issue in this way does a disservice to those who desire justice to prevail in international relations. The choice is not between bombing and atrocities. On the contrary, the bombings are quite clearly creating large-scale carnage, not to speak of the wanton use of nuclear (DU) weaponry by the criminal bombers of the ‘coalition.’ It is also likely that the impunity offered by pulverising bombing will permit the rebels to commit atrocities without restraint, as it has been suggested is well underway (see http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-libya-prisoners-20110324,0,5238438.story for one example).

    I place little credence in the war propaganda being served up as news, and so think that reports of massacres, ethnic cleansing, are to be regarded with scepticism, to say the least. Whatever one’s view of Gaddafi, he is well within his rights to suppress an armed uprising; that is the prerogative of every sovereign state, and that prerogative does not depend on whether ‘the West’ approves of its leaders. The humanitarian bombers are breaking international law by intervening in a civil war and setting up a band of rebels as a legitimate government. However, as it has been admitted that these rebels would have no chance of making headway at all without the bombings, it could be suggested that the extent of their popular support has been exaggerated.

    There were several solutions to this situation which did not involve warfare; it should be conclusive evidence of their concerns that the self-righteous humanitarian bombers chose not to employ them. The US was happy to allow the King of Bahrain to invite foreign forces into his country to help crush his own people, in return for Arab League support for UNSCR 1973. There should be no illusion that the bombers have the interests of the Libyan people at heart. Their only concern is to set a more amenable dictator in place of a troublesome one, and will kill, and facilitate the killing of, anyone who proves an obstacle to that goal.

    So, to reiterate, I do not support the rebels, and I certainly do not support indiscriminate airstrikes using weapons of mass destruction in furtherance US-UK-EU strategic goals. I do support a solution that would enable the Libyan people, (as with the Egyptians, Yemenese, Bahraini, etc) to choose the form of government that suits them. That will not happen, because the humanitarian bombers do not want it to happen.

    I hope that goes some way to answering your questions.

  13. William Wall

    March 30, 2011 9:20 am

    Andrew thanks for this long response. I’ll try to respond to your points one by one. And I would like to begin with the caveat that these remarks come from what you might call an interested lay-person rather than one who as any special knowledge of events in the Maghreb – something that, I’m sure, is abundantly clear to you anyway.
    Firstly, I think it’s a simplification to refer to the rebels as the PTNC – a legalist view of what is essentially still a fluid and complex situation. It seems to me that this uprising arose spontaneously and that the forces you refer to (Gaddafi minions, etc) are opportunists seeking to take advantage of the situation. The PTNC are merely the faction within the rebellion that the West chooses to recognise – there are other forces at work in the rebel camp and it is not yet certain that the outcome will be favourable to the western powers.
    I agree that it is up to the people of Libya ‘to choose the form of government that suits them’, and I think we could agree that in any case they must choose a form of government in opposition to Gadaffi or whoever now is seeking to manoeuvre into power (including the west). That being the case, it is a question of the lesser of two evils – which side (Gadaffi + the West or the PTNC + the West) will it be easier to deal with. I believe that the revolutionary situation has not yet set in stone and as long as the people are in arms there is hope. I have no doubt, as you argue, that the PTNC and the west seek to close down that hope.
    As I said, I find your aggregation of the rebels as the PTNC a bit legalistic. I also find the same legalism in your complaint about Sarkozy – his contempt for international law. Since when has international law been much more than the best interests of the powerful? The other side of your comment about Sarkozy is the fact that you think he is in contempt of ‘the will of the people’. How has this will been expressed that you are in a position to say what it is? In any case, Sarkozy is merely trying to save his own neck – it has nothing to do with ‘justice in international relations’.
    The same legalism is evident in your argument about Spain – the democracies should have supported the government because it was legitimate. But the reality was that the Spanish government was struggling with a system of power relations of which Germany (and its allies) and the British Empire were two competing powers. As is usually the case, ‘international law’ did not support the democratic government of Spain against the fascist rebels, because it did not suit the powers represented by that expression to do so. My question still remains: Had Britain decided that it was in its best interests to support the government would you have supported their intervention?
    Again the legalism in relation to my intervention question: ‘I think framing the issue in this way does a disservice to those who desire justice to prevail in international relations.’ I think it’s more productive to see international relations (like politics) as a network of power struggles. I say that because I cannot imagine a government (as opposed to a people) for whom justice is an important consideration. I do believe that justice in international relations is possible, but it won’t come from any government presently constituted. I think ‘justice in international relations’ is at best a pious formulation of what is usually a dirty war.
    Your LA Times link (since when is the LA Times a reliable informant?) says nothing more than that the rebels are rounding up and imprisoning suspected Gaddafi’s supporters and, by implication, they’re probably making a lot of mistakes. The article is dripping with carefully placed language designed to evoke an emotional response. ‘”These are the people who came to kill us,” said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman for the council, gazing on the detainees with contempt.’ It is impossible to imagine the LAT using the same language in relation to Guantanamo Bay officers.
    The officer’s reluctance to say what will happen to the prisoners is given the most sinister interpretation, even though it is most likely the officer hasn’t a clue what happens next. I think the article risks stereotyping Libyans as murderous torturers, the assumption being that such will be the result of rounding up possible fifth columnists behind the lines. There is also, quite clearly, the charge of racism in that many of the prisoners are non-Libyans or darker southern Libyans. I have no idea whether this is true or not.
    Zucchino, by the way, is the author of the great turkey-shoot thriller Thunder Run about how the USA destroyed the Iraqi armoured divisions in the ‘run’ to Baghdad.

    The idea that Gaddafi is ‘well within his rights to suppress an armed uprising’ is, if I may say so, naïve in the extreme. Even in legal terms, Gaddafi’s ‘right’ to govern was questionable, and even more so given the terms in which you have engaged with some of the earlier points (‘the right of the people of Libya to choose…’etc). I’m not sure about ‘the extent of popular support’ for the rebels – and I don’t think you know any more about it than I do – but I’m quite certain that a struggle between a group of untrained and lightly-armed rebels and a (western-trained) well equipped army is no test of popular support. Of course, if the situation had been allowed to continue it would almost certainly have settled into a long-drawn out guerrilla war, but for the vast majority of the people it would have been at best the status quo ante and at worst a personal and social catastrophe.
    I agree with you about the use of depleted uranium weaponry. I’m not sure about the ‘large-scale carnage’. I’m reminded of a line in the Battle Of Algiers where one of the characters, defending the planting of bombs, says ‘Give us planes and we’ll bomb you with those’ (or words to that effect). In this case Gaddafi had the use of planes and tanks and rocket-launchers against the rebels. Most of the fighters on the ground must welcome the turning of the tables.
    As I said in my earlier response, I also agree about the hypocrisy of the west and the transparency of its intentions in relation to the conflict and the other uprisings. I remain convinced though, that the peoples of Libya and elsewhere have to fight one battle or the other – either with their own dictators or with the new dictators the western powers would like to see in place. As long as the revolutionary moment continues, there are possibilities. In the case of Libya, the problem was that the moment was about to end with Gaddafi retaking the Eastern cities.
    I think the aerial attack is a play for power, but not as sinister a one was an actual ground intervention. It allows some small space for the people to assert themselves. Had troops landed on Libyan soil that space would shrink to the microscopic. Needless to say, I would have preferred if Gaddafi had rolled over and gone away and allowed the people the choice of their own political system.

    As a footnote, let me say that the Egyptian uprising seems to have turned out exactly as you foresee for Libya. Now the Egyptian people are faced with that second struggle I mentioned. The petrification of the revolutionary moment occurred when the army stepped in. In that case no western military intervention was necessary to close down the possibilities, although, unsurprisingly, the western powers are insanely happy with the generals. Had Gaddafi swept through eastern Libya, the western powers would have huffed and puffed about ‘the will of the people’ and then settled down to the new reality and gone back to selling him guns . At least at the moment the possibilities remain open.

  14. Andrew

    March 31, 2011 11:27 pm

    I agree with your first point, though it is obvious that since the successful instigation of bombing, the only outcome will be to the advantage of those who term themselves ‘the West.’ In this situation there is no hope of Libyan self-determination.

    You complain that I am being legalistic; I do not agree. In answer to your rhetorical question whether international law ‘has been much more than the interests of the powerful,’ I would ask why anyone should accept or agree with the discourse of the powerful. The reason we are having such a discussion is that international law is quite obviously more than what you claim it to be. I find your statement about the Spanish Civil War, similarly, to be a non-explanation. The Republicans clearly did not see themselves as struggling against a ‘system of power relations’, and British ‘neutrality’ (but tacit support for Franco) in that conflict is not explained by the diktat of some structural logic. The key question is the ends and the values that are served by these power relations, not their simple existence.

    I believe I have answered your question about a scenario in which, through some fantastic change of heart, Britain might decide to support the Republic. However, I will answer it again in these terms, and very briefly: the ‘system of power relations’ operated by British imperialism (indeed, any other brand of imperialism) would, in no possible universe, have led to support for the Spanish Republic.

    Again, you say that it is preferable to view international relations as a ‘network of power struggles.’ I don’t see that this is necessary or profitable as an adequate explanation, because we still have to answer the question of what kind of power is being struggled for, whose ends it serves, and what interests are being satisfied by it. And, of course, your formula leaves out the issue of whether any of these ends are just; are you asserting that this question is of no relevance, and that therefore the answer to the question ‘to bomb or not to bomb’ is simply that it depends on whom it may advantage?

    My view of Gaddafi’s right to govern is not naive; Gaddafi has as much of a right to govern as any of the US-backed regimes who are currently and conspicuously not being overthrown by the noble moral guardians currently attacking Libya (and also those not backed by the US). Civil wars are not pleasant affairs, and they usually involve considerable death and destruction – that’s not anomalous, it’s the nature of civil wars, and civil wars have made many states what they are today, for better or worse. Are you suggesting that leaders should respond to armed uprisings by abdicating? Would Obama, who has killed many more people than Gaddafi at this point, respond in similar terms to an armed insurrection? More importantly, would those currently applauding the humanitarian bombers similarly advocate bombing of the US to remove the mass-murderer who currently occupies the White House? If Gaddafi’s rule is viewed as being nullified by acts of inhumanity, Obama’s own authority, as an international terrorist, is nullified ten times over.

    About DU – yes, I am sure those who will be dying of various cancers a few years from now, and those whose children will be born with birth defects from the genetic damage caused by these weapons, will be very grateful for their use.

    And no, the bombing will not give the people ‘space to assert themselves.’ It is designed so that this will not be the case; the rebels were armed and instigated into attacking Libyan forces so that the US and its pet poodles would be ‘forced’ to start doing what they do best, specifically so that peaceful pressure to reform would be co-opted and destroyed. That’s imperial divide-and-rule at work; it seems to work equally well on the leavings of the left.

    As an additional note, I find the proposition that Gaddafi was about to engage in a massacre of thousands of billions of people to be slightly implausible, even if it had not been revealed that the reliable media stooges have been distorting what Gaddafi had actually said about the opposition (he was referring to the armed rebels). Slaughtering large numbers of his own people makes no sense if he has any notion of continuing to rule over them. Unless of course he’s a madman; but then he’s been mad for several decades, but, for reasons that are none too clear, has decided to accelerate his own downfall by proclaiming his genocidal intentions.

  15. William Wall

    April 1, 2011 8:10 am

    1. People accept the discourse of the powerful for many and various reasons, the chief of which is it’s hegemonic nature and because they have no choice. Clearly many people believe international law is about justice. I don’t.
    2. You answer my unlikely scenario for Spain by saying it didn’t happen. We both know it didn’t and couldn’t happen. You seem incapable of speculating in this case, but you’re quite happy to speculate about Gaddafi’s future intentions. I won’t pursue it further.
    3. To your question do I consider some outcomes of power struggles more just than others: yes I do. I do not, however, believe in an objective ‘justness’. My concept of justness arises out of my political views.
    4. Yes, it would be an ideal world if leaders who are guilty of mass murder were to abdicate and subject themselves to the judgement of the people they have harmed. It would be nice to see Blair, Bush and Obama charged with the deaths they have ordered or sanctioned. But these leaders will not abdicate because politics is a power struggle. The powerful set the rules (international law). Thus, in international law, Obama is not guilty of any crime.
    5. As regards leaders abdicating in the face of armed rebellion: that depends on the rebellion. I would hope, for example, that if the tea-party was under arms tomorrow, that Obama would resist. If on the other hand, it were to be the Wobblies… well that’s another story. I’d have to give it serious thought. Quite clearly, I support some rebellions and not others. I take it you would do the same. For example you would not have supported Franco. Would you have supported Castro? No matter what your answer, I argue, your choice is political.
    6. ‘Space to assert themselves’ is under threat whether Gaddafi is given a free reign or not. That is the point of what I was saying. My question is: Is it possible to do something to shift the balance towards the rebels? You clearly think that the western powers (and you’re quite right that the the ‘west’ is just a lucky-bag description these days, since it probably includes China and Russia and Turkey etc) cannot give them that space. My position is that they have a better chance at the moment (I’d like to emphasise that ‘moment’) with the western powers. We’ll have to agree to differ.
    7. Who suggested that Gaddafi was about to engage in ‘the massacre of thousands of billions’ (or even millions)? You mustn’t allow our financial crisis to inflate your concept of the number line.
    8. I think you’ll find that the concept of ‘class struggle’ was in fact uppermost in the minds of most of those who fought in Spain – on both sides. Class struggle is a power struggle between the elite few with their tools (police, army, law etc) and the majority. This is true even when the majority wrongly believe they’re being protected by the elites.
    9. I don’t know what you mean by ‘the leavings of the left’. It’s a contemptible formulation and certainly I can think of no way that it applies to me or to the people who write for ILR. If by it you simply mean to associate yourself with the hegemony of the right, why not say so. I may as well tell you that based on what you’ve written here, they won’t have you.
    10. A lot of your arguments are taking aim at straw men. Many of your formulations seem to me perfectly reasonable – such as the one about Obama’s rule being nullified by the terror he engages in. I’m in complete agreement. I also agree about depleted uranium – a fact I made plain in my previous comment – and the other Arab regimes supported by the west, and the demonisation of Gaddafi by the press, the unreliability of the media, etc. You seem to imply that I take a naive view of what I read in the papers – whereas I have patiently tried to explain to you that i see it all as part of a struggle for power.
    11. Do Gaddafi’s forces use depleted uranium weaponry by the way? I don’t know. And isn’t depleted uranium permissable under your international law? I may be wrong, but I think there is an advisory from the ICJ that found them to be legal because their primary purpose was not to poison people. In international law, it seems, nuclear toxicity is a sad but legal side effect of killing people. Of course if the USA and UK didn’t have those weapons, maybe the judgement would have gone the other way…
    12. I’d like to return to an earlier post of yours. You mentioned that there were several peaceful options that could have been employed to help Libya. Could you elaborate on that? I’d be interested to know.

    Finally, as I see it, your argument comes down to this: NATO is bad (agreed), therefore a NATO intervention is always bad (agreed). In opposition my argument is really about the lesser of two evils. Which will be worse? Victory for Gaddafi or victory for the rebels with NATO? I’m not positive about my answer; you are. My feeling is this: Victory for Gaddafi (which was imminent at the time of the UN resolution) was a certainty and would certainly have been bad. Whether the people of Libya can achieve freedom with the assistance of NATO is at least doubtful. I choose a doubt over a bad certainty. In the end of the day, it is up to Libyans to carry on their struggle to the end. I agree with Jean Luc Nancy who wrote recently:
    ‘It is up to the people in question and to all others, including us, to ensure then that the oil, financial, and arms dealing game that installed and maintained this puppet (among many others) in power does not start over.’
    http://www.criticallegalthinking.com/?p=2793

  16. Andrew

    April 1, 2011 2:50 pm

    1. Do you mean that it’s not ‘about justice’ as it currently operates, or as it’s intended to operate, or as it in principle could operate? Or that it’s a silly idea and we should cheer on whatever big power does which we might think will bring on the collapse of capitalism?

    2. Speculation about Britain’s past intentions with respect to Spain is fruitless, because it’s indulging in fantasy. Does one get a special merit badge for saying that in certain circumstances one might cheer on British interventionism? The analogy with Libya does not work.

    3. I’m not claiming a thing-ness for something nebulous called ‘justice.’ I’m saying that the evaluation of conflicts as just or not is every bit as much a political view as yours.

    4. Mass murder is a crime. Therefore, Obama is guilty of a crime.

    5. I think that it would make little difference to US policy whether, in some fantasy scenario, the Tea Party were somehow to overthrow the US armed forces. That wasn’t my point.

    6. You’re clearly behind the rebels on this one. I’m happy to differ with you on that.

    7. I was poking fun at the atrocity propaganda that has been rolled out on cue.

    8. And what if those on the side of the Republic were of a different class? Would the concept still apply? Repeating that a struggle for political power is a power struggle isn’t very enlightening.

    9. I stand by my disregard for what passes for the left. It has behaved supinely in the face of blatant criminality. (A polite suggestion, by the way – ease up on the ad hominem.)

    10. Again, I don’t find the explanation that a struggle for power, you see, is all about a struggle for power very explanatory.

    11. I suggest proceeding from what we do know. My objection to the use of DU is not based on the opinion of the ICJ. I’m stating that they should not be used, full stop. But here’s where you chime in and tell me it’s part of a power struggle, right?

    12. The first peaceful option would be not to intervene in a civil war and to let people deal with the issue for themselves. They have a knack for doing that. Divestment of assets, sanctions, an actual no-fly zone which wasn’t used as an excuse for bombing; these are others.

    Finally, I reiterate the point that Gaddafi has the right to put down an armed rebellion. If excessive force is used, there are ways to address that which do not involve bombing with toxic weaponry. There is no doubt that the rebels are being backed because they are sure to toe the line if or when they succeed in deposing Gaddafi. The message is that no uprising will be tolerated which does not happen on the US’s terms. That gives nothing to be sanguine about.

    “It is up to the people in question and to all others, including us, to ensure then that the oil, financial, and arms dealing game that installed and maintained this puppet (among many others) in power does not start over.’”

    It is starting over, Jean-Luc. Can’t you see that?

  17. William Wall

    April 1, 2011 3:20 pm

    Andrew, re. 9. There’s no ad hominem whatsoever. I was responding to what saw as your ‘contemptible formulation’ of me as part of the ‘leavings of the left’. I apologise if it was uncalled for.
    Now I’m beginning to see that we do in fact agree. When you say ‘justice’ you mean ‘politics’ and so do I!
    I also agree that Obama is guilty of a crime, and, as I’ve repeatedly said I object to the use of DU. My point about it being legal under international law related to your earlier assertion that international law was more than just the discourse of the powerful. Of course it’s wrong, and the ICJ is wrong too. Another point on which we agree.
    Re. 1. I believe, like you I suspect, that it’s possible for international law to behave justly – but not as presently constituted.
    So really, it just comes down to whether we think this intervention can be better than another intervention. I don’t believe that divestment etc works in a revolutionary situation unless you’re prepared for a very long war.
    I don;t think we’ll make much further progress – certainly we’re not likely to convince each other. I understand your viewpoint very well and in other circumstances I’d share it completely. In these circumstances I don’t. It’s been very interesting tossing these ideas around, and thank you for taking the time. I look forward to further posts from you. All the best.

  18. William Wall

    June 13, 2011 3:59 pm

    For my own part, I don’t support oxymorons – ‘humanitarian bombing’. However, as to the western intervention in Libya, it remains to be seen whether it is useful or not. That will depend on what eventually emerges from the situation. The others who posted here can speak for themselves. Funnily enough, Andrew, not having thought about this post for a very long time, this very morning I wondered if you were going to come back to it. Presto.

  19. Andrew

    June 13, 2011 4:03 pm

    I myself believe that the oxymoron is very appropriate to what is going on, and to the logic that is being employed in favour of it.

    Useful to whom? And if a client regime sufficiently pliant to the wishes of ‘the West’ should emerge (presumably after enough pacificatory killing has been done) would that confer retrospective benediction on an act of aggression?

  20. William Wall

    June 13, 2011 4:35 pm

    I believe that’s what the west is doing for Syria, Bahrain, etc. (Except that of course, nobody is leaving anything to anybody really…)

  21. Andrew

    June 13, 2011 4:44 pm

    Well, if you exclude the fact that Hilary Clinton exchanged Saudi Arabia’s vote for its resolution on Libya for permission to invade Bahrain and kill protestors, and that Syria is a US client state, then certainly the West is doing nothing.

  22. William Wall

    June 13, 2011 5:01 pm

    The logic leads inevitably to never responding because we never know who’s asking. As my mother used to tell me, You sit on your arse like Thos. No idea who Thos was.

  23. s johnson

    August 31, 2011 11:07 pm

    I know this is an old thread. It’s true that a critical eye current events will show how cheap and silly Professor Sheehan’sviews were. I hope she will not let vanity keep her from learning better, but I am not hopeful. The sad truth is, the moment the rebels started lynching black people and flying the monarchist flag, you knew everything you needed to know to avoid the crime of supporting their cause. The dying in Tripoli and across Libya has only begun. For those of you who have chosen to take this blood onto their hands, shame.

  24. Andrew

    September 1, 2011 8:03 am

    WW, ‘pace’ has a meaning similar to ‘contra’ in that context.

    I’ve answered you on this a number of times, but for clarity’s sake, who are ‘they’ and what is ‘it’?

  25. Helena Sheehan

    September 1, 2011 10:16 am

    Why should anything that has happened in the past 6 months change my mind about what I wrote then? I have followed events closely and my conviction that the Gaddafi regime deserved to fall has grown ever stronger. What do you think about all the death and suffering they have caused? What do you think of their luxury of their lives? There was no ‘government of the masses’. The masses are the opposition to the regime. Ideologically they are a broad spectrum, although unfortunately without much in the way of a left in evidence. I don’t think that too many of them are monarchists. They just see it as the flag of pre-Gaddafi Libya. I am not allied to the TNC. The lynching of blacks by rebels is utterly indefensible. On whose hands is that blood? As to the cruel and dismissive adjectives you have used about me, s johnson, whoever you are, they say more about you and your level of discourse than mine.

  26. Andrew

    September 1, 2011 10:31 am

    The Gaddafi regime did not “fail”, it was overthrown by a coopted band of rebels, many of whom are Islamic extremists, led by British, French and Qatari special forces. In any case, whether or not the Gaddafi regime “deserved to fall” is for the people to say, not you; unfortunately, they have not, and will never be, consulted on the issue, now that the face of the TNC has been fully exposed, with its “Draft Constitution” proposing that Libya be governed by Sharia law.

    Your notion that this is somehow a broadly based uprising would be laughable if it were not so obviously blind to what has been happening. The overthrow of Gaddafi was a NATO project first to last, and the bloodshed that has been involved, far greater than anything Gaddafi was responsible for, is on the hands of NATO and its apologists, you included. Your comments, and your article, are simply a rehash of liberal imperialist propaganda, with the aim of justifying an imperialist carve-up of Africa.

  27. Helena Sheehan

    September 1, 2011 10:41 am

    I have never defended NATO nor imperialist intervention anywhere. I believed that the UN had a responsibility to protect when the Gaddafi forces were at the gates of Benghazi. Any intervention should have been defensive and under UN command and not left to a coalition of the willing or NATO. NATO have acted as if it were the air force of the TNC and I do not defend that. I don’t know who you are, Andrew, as you do not use your full name, and what you political history is, but I have a long history of anti-imperialist activism, especially with respect to Africa.

  28. Andrew

    September 1, 2011 12:43 pm

    I was not aware formal introductions were a requisite for commenting on this site; I thought it was free for all to contribute who would. I do not see how my credentials are at all relevant to the discussion, nor yours for that matter. I was responding to your statements, as they are all that is relevant.

    I note that you invoke the “responsibility to protect” doctrine; this was designed and invoked to justify the overthrow of an elected government acting against the interests of the US and its allies. It was first deployed in deposing the elected Government of Haiti by the US, Canada and France, with plenty of NGO support, and it was done with full UN involvement. UN forces have acted as death squads, murdering large numbers of Lavalas supporters under the pretext that they are criminals.

    I see no contradiction between NATO’s bombing of Libya and the UN’s role; the UN legitimised the occupation of Iraq, in contravention of its own Charter, following the act of aggressive warfare launched in 2003, so it has plenty of form in this area. It was clear to anyone who cared to look that the no-fly zone imposed over Libya by the UN was simply the pretext for an act of aggressive warfare, and that there was as little concern for civilian life in Libya as there has been for the 1.3 million or more murdered by the US and its collaborators (this country included) in the occupation of Iraq.

    Would you support an invocation of “responsibility to protect” in bombing “the West” on the grounds of its crimes against humanity? I strongly doubt it.

  29. William Wall

    September 1, 2011 1:36 pm

    Andrew I was simply quoting one of your earlier comments. When I asked what position you advocated vis-a-vis intervention you replied ‘leave it to them’. I wonder if that’s S Johnson’s position too?