Libya: Where Are We Going? Did Anybody Bring a Map?

Mar 21, 2011

By the War Times editors

Once again the United States government has abruptly turned on a long-supported dictator, suddenly shocked, shocked, to discover he's capable of making war on his own people. Progressives in this country can be forgiven for thinking we've seen this movie before. We can also be forgiven for remembering that it didn't end well – or in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, that it hasn't yet ended at all.

War Times profoundly applauds the Arab revolts as giving force to the aspirations of long suffering people in Libya and the rest of North Africa and the middle east. The Libyan uprising seemed to be on its way to being smashed, with massacres likely on the way. At least some voices from that uprising, along with the Arab League have been calling for armed intervention by Europe and the United States. At the same time, we worry that these foreign interventions will divide and ultimately undermine these efforts. We know we cannot foresee all the outcomes.

Neither can the United States government and its European allies. It appears they have no idea how their military intervention in Libya will end. Will they succeed in assassinating Gaddafi from the air? Will the country split in two? Will a viable member of the Libyan military emerge to be identified as the new democratic leader by "the Allies," as the media has dubbed the European and American forces?

It's not surprising, therefore, that there is some disagreement among liberals and progressives about whether to oppose the European and US use of military force in Libya. On one hand, we are inspired by the courage and determination of these mostly nonviolent uprisings, and we want to seem them succeed. On the other hand, we doubt both the motives and the strategic wisdom of those running the military attacks on Libya.

Part of the problem is that many of us in the US left don't know enough about Libya to have a useful opinion about events inside that country. We can't know what is actually happening at any moment in Libya, no matter how carefully we monitor the NY Times, Al Jazeera, or the BBC. Nor do we have sophisticated knowledge about internal Libyan politics. We can be sure that part of what we're seeing in Libya is a righteous democratic uprising against a vicious tyrant. But is it also a civil war, an opportunity for a military putsch, and/or something even more complicated?

 
Al Jazeera video of attacks on Benghazi demonstrators, March 15, 2011

What we do know something about is our own country, and the record of its relationship to democratic struggles around the world. For the most part, it's not a good record. In general, whether or not the United States chooses to support democratic aspirations depends on whether or not such aspirations align with what our rulers define as US national interests. Where there is no such alignment – from Congo to Nicaragua – such aspirations have been ruthlessly crushed, while the United States either stands by or actively assists in the crushing. One very recent example is the difference between US (non) response to Saudi-assisted assaults on Bahraini civilians and to Gaddafi's assaults on Libyan civilians.

We also know that even some who called for intervention are now backing off. Representatives of the Arab League have said that the European and especially US attacks on Libya go far beyond the establishment of a no-fly zone envisioned by the UN resolution.

"Shut Up and Leave It to Us"

Something else we know: the Obama administration has gone to war with neither the congressional declaration the Constitution requires, nor even the fig leaf provided under the War Powers Act. This is a dangerous precedent, as liberal Democrats such as Maxine Waters and Eleanor Holmes Norton have pointed out. Andrew Sullivan has rightly observed that the administration's response to any murmurings about democratic process in this country has been, "Shut up and leave it to us."

If there is one thing bitter experience has taught us, it is that we cannot leave it to the US government to protect and nourish democracy in this country or any other.

The situation in Libya has presented US progressives with no good options to support. Certainly we must not support a tyrant like Gaddafi simply because he has rather suddenly become an official enemy of the United States. But at this point, arguments about whether or not "the Allies" should intervene in Libya are moot. It's our job now to do what we can to limit the damage to Libyan democratic aspirations – and our own.

For more information, and a variety of viewpoints on the situation in Libya, take a look at these resources:

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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