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The “Decent Left” and the Libya Intervention


Even as NATO celebrates its victory over the Gaddafi dictatorship, there is growing unease about the operation. The Libyan intervention was supposed to be a model of legality, but ended up exceeding the terms set forth in Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a no fly zone but not regime change. US involvement violated the War Powers Resolution. The intervention was presented as a truly international operation, but ended up being directed by Britain and France, the two main powers from the heyday of colonialism, thus adding to the unsavory appearance of the whole enterprise. The intervention was supposed to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, but ended up enabling one in Sirte, where there have been numerous executions of pro-Gaddafi loyalists. It was supposed to dissuade other tyrants from oppressing their own people, but in reality had no such effect.[1] Political repression in Syria actually increased after the intervention. The intervention has generated significant dangers to global security: The character of Western policy toward the Libyan despot – by first persuading Gaddafi to give up his nuclear weapons development program and then overthrowing him – has discouraged other countries from abandoning their own nuclear weapons programs. The intervention thus constitutes a setback for international efforts to curb nuclear proliferation. In addition, vast stocks of anti-aircraft missiles have been looted from Gaddafi’s warehouses in the course of the intervention; these have likely filtered into the world-wide arms market. And even the most hardened observers must be chilled at the fate of Gaddafi himself, who was apparently sodomized before he was killed. This was certainly not the “clean” overthrow it was supposed to be.

In this context, supporters of the intervention seek to shift discussion away from the embarrassing facts and lash out against those who disagree with their views. Michael Bérubé has created a stir recently with his article “Libya and the Left,” [please add link] soon to appear in print in The Point Magazine. This article  defends the intervention, while it attacks writers who oppose it, with a special emphasis on attacking left-wing opponents of the intervention. Both Juan Cole and Brad DeLong recommend this article on their blog sites, while the online edition of The Economist also praises it.

Bérubé condemns what he terms the “addled left” and their “popular shibboleths about the war,” which includes the supposedly widespread view that “Gaddafi was a progressive in domestic or foreign policy” who was “justified in sending out the military to crush the protesters.” There is a strong insinuation throughout the article that most opponents of the NATO intervention were friends of the Gaddafi dictatorship. On his own blog, Cole agrees with Bérubé and extols the merits of his analysis which, according to Cole, exposes the left’s “Woolly thinking, outrageous lies, moon-eyed Gaddafi-worship,” among other sins.

And Bérubé criticizes those who question NATO’s motives for intervening. He is particularly incensed by allegations that Libya’s oil reserves – which are the ninth largest in the world – might have influenced the decision to intervene. Allegations that the NATO states might have acted on self interest are examples of mere “tropes that have been forged over the past four decades of antiwar activism,” and can thus be dismissed.

The article concludes by arguing for a “rigorously internationalist left” one that will support “the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear,” and will do these things even where it “puts one in the position of supporting US policies.” There is a distinct tone of innuendo here — that the existing left is for the most part not internationalist, that it opposes freedom of speech and the like – but no evidence whatsoever.

True, Bérubé inserts intermittent statements that acknowledge a more complex picture and admit that the intervention can be opposed for legitimate reasons. But such qualifications appear brief and pro forma. For the most part, the article is a sweeping indictment against virtually all opponents of the intervention, mostly through insinuated slurs.

“Libya and the Left” will no doubt be cited by many who will nevertheless miss the point that the article is rambling, petty, and self-contradictory; that the most weighty “evidence” cited by Bérubé consists of extended quotes from Cole (who appears to have formed a mutual admiration society with Bérubé); that it cites few facts, and those it does cite are often cited tendentiously; that it focuses more on attacking the moral character of the anti-interventionist movement than on their substantive claims; and that overall, it presents a textbook case of a profoundly illogical ad hominem argument.

Let us now turn to the reality of the situation with regard to the Gaddafi dictatorship: In fact, there has been a problem of Western collaboration with the dictatorship. However, the problem was not one of leftist collaboration, which was relatively minor. The real sources of collaboration were the very same Western leaders who recently crushed Gaddafi — who had been Gaddafi supporters only a few months before. This history of collaboration provides vital context for understanding NATO’s recent intervention.

Here are the facts: Around 2003, Gaddafi essentially offered to abandon his radical policies, including his support for terrorism and his nuclear weapons development program, on the condition that the Western powers would end their adversarial stance and lift economic sanctions, which had been in place since the 1980s. He also offered to cooperate in the War on Terror. The US and European powers accepted this deal, and Gaddafi became a de facto ally. Internally, Gaddafi’s oppression of his people continued uninterrupted, but this was not a problem since Western officials were unconcerned about human rights.

It is important to emphasize that the Western collaboration with Gaddafi during this period was very close indeed. Several states sought to sell weapons to Gaddafi. The French in particular were trying to sell him fighter planes as late as January 2011, only two months before they began to bomb him. Ironically enough, the fighter plane the French sought to sell was the Rafale, which was later used as the main weapon of war against Gaddafi, once French policy changed. We should not be shocked by France’s cynical shifting of loyalties in this case, since France has had a long history of cynical arms dealing (with extensive sales to Libya in the 1970s).

Leaders of several NATO states in addition to France established close relations with Gaddafi, and his previous history of terrorism was forgotten. Western companies poured money into Libyan oil fields, while British MI-6 agents formed close relationships with Libyan security personnel. Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the post-2003 dealings with Gaddafi concerned the practice of extraordinary rendition: We now know that the Central Intelligence Agency sent terrorist suspects to Libya, where they were tortured by Gaddafi’s thugs.

This sickening involvement with Libyan torture practices makes Dennis Kucinich’s pro-Gaddafi dalliances seem trivial in comparison.

And there was further collaboration: Nongovernmental institutions accepted Gaddafi money, with few qualms. The London School of Economics received a large contribution from the Gaddafi family, which aimed at improving their image in Britain. From the US, the Monitor Group consultancy arranged for prominent Americans such as Richard Perle to meet the Libyan dictator.

Thus, Western elites were perfectly comfortable with Gaddafi’s oppressive rule, including his use of torture. These states only broke with Gaddafi when his hold on power tottered, in response to the Arab Spring, and he ceased to be useful. He was no longer viewed as a reliable protector of Western access to Libya’s oil resources.

This shift from being pro-Gaddafi to anti-Gaddafi was undertaken with such suddenness and crass opportunism that the shift must be viewed as another iteration in the sordid history of realpolitik. And contrary to Bérubé’s claims, this collaboration was not undertaken primarily by the antiwar left. It was done by many of the same Western leaders who today are claiming the moral high ground in having overthrown the tyrant — who was considered a close ally only a few months before.

“The Left and Gaddafi” serves mainly to whitewash the history of official collaboration with the Gaddafi dictatorship, and it thus contributes to historical amnesia and foreign policy ignorance. Supporters of intervention may indulge Bérubé’s fantasy that leftists were the main supporters of Gaddafi, but this is a fantasy all the same.

The article also stands as a testament to the debasing of public discussion, whereby serious issues are trivialized through ad hominem attacks. Bérubé presents himself as part of the “decent left,” but he uses the same techniques as David Horowitz and the McCarthyite right.

David N. Gibbs is professor of history at the University of Arizona, who has published extensively on international relations, political economy, and US foreign policy. His latest book is First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009).


[1] See B. J. Bjornson, “Libya and the Left,” November 7, 2011,

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