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Juan Cole and Katrina vanden Heuvel: Do We Belong in Libya?

A liberal imperialist

In Juan Cole’s “Open Letter to the Left on Libya,” he criticizes “the left” for failing to support the international intervention in Libya led by France, Britain and the United States. What follows is an individual response by someone whose views cannot always be described as “leftist,” whatever that means in this day and age. I should confess that I know Professor Cole slightly, but we are not friends.

In a recent blog entry at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt suggests that liberal Interventionists and neoconservatives have more in common than either would care to admit. Juan Cole has a long history of supporting military intervention based on “liberal” values. He supported the occupation of Afghanistan, at least post-facto, and the Israeli war against Lebanon in 2006—although he was critical of Israel’s indiscriminate use of force. He is opposed to the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society organizations. On Iraq, his views are harder to pin down, but I think it would not be unfair to conclude that he supported military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein, while strongly disapproving of the way in which the occupation was conducted.

Given his strong and consistent support for US and European military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere, one could conclude that the only thing separating Cole from the neoconservatives is his support for the two-state solution in Palestine, although he certainly does not call for military intervention there to end decades of ethnic cleansing, human rights abuses, etc. Libya, on the other hand, offers the chance to be on the “right side” of what Cole obviously expects to be a quick and decisive victory for the interventionists. Maybe he believes that Libya is a chance to do what could not be done in Iran. Only time will tell whether his “optimism” is justified.

A number of passages in Cole’s open letter are nothing short of bizarre. He speaks of childhood disappointment that the US did not intervene in the 1956 uprising in Hungary and makes reference to the role of American “leftists” in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which fought in the Spanish Civil War. He seems to be unaware that the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was dominated by the Communist Party, and that the Communists in Spain repressed the largely anarchist-inspired revolution, thereby facilitating the victory of Fascism (see George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for details). So much for nostalgia. The choice of example is even stranger, since nowhere does Cole advocate that sympathetic Americans or other internationals volunteer to support the Libyan revolution. Cole places his faith in NATO; he has no strategy for a genuinely popular response to the revolutionary changes taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. So much for internationalism.

Cole argues that there is a humanitarian crisis in Libya. This is no doubt true, but then what civil war isn’t a humanitarian crisis? Clearly, Colonel Qaddafi is a particularly brutal dictator, but it is just as obvious that we are being lied to about the objectives of the “humanitarian intervention.” The purpose of the intervention has always been to overthrow Qaddafi by military force. Libyan government forces are being attacked, whether they pose an immediate danger to civilians or not. Everyone, from the UN, to the Arab League, to Obama has known this from the beginning. What is not apparent is the price that will be charged for this intervention. Presumably, the price will be paid by the Libyan people once Qaddafi is gone.

Cole claims that this is not a war for oil, but he provides no convincing answer as to why NATO has chosen to intervene in Libya. One also wonders what deals have been struck with Arab regimes in exchange for their votes at the Arab League and UN. When is the last time an American official mentioned the word “Bahrain”? Not long before the vote on the so-called no-fly zone. The Turkey of the Mavi Marmara that we admired has turned out to be just as cynical as the Arab dictatorships.

Like Cole, I support the Libyan revolution. I am not as sanguine about its chances for success, however, especially when it depends on foreign military might. The Arab freedom revolutions are about restoring the sovereignty of the Arab peoples. I find it difficult to believe that this is the result favored by the Western powers. The West has exploited the defeat of the Libyan revolution to reassert its control over Libya, and perhaps elsewhere. Don’t be surprised when they try to hijack revolutions in Yemen, Syria or some other country. The passing of dictators has changed nothing about the greed and ambitions of the great powers. At very least, the Arab peoples should go into this with eyes wide open.

Perhaps it is fitting that Juan Cole closes his letter by attempting to rehabilitate Winston Churchill. In many ways, Cole falls within a long tradition of liberal imperialists whose views straddle the right-left divide. Those who credit him with unusual insight into international affairs should understand the agenda he represents.

Adam Sabra

Athens, GA

Mar 30 2011 - 1:52pm

Juan Cole and Katrina vanden Heuvel: Do We Belong in Libya?

What are we waiting for?

I’m trying to understand our president. He says “Qadaffi must go.” (So does our secretary of state and forty nations in the coalition.) Yet he says we are not targeting him. Internet sites are filled with photos of the rebels who have rifles and are driving in little pickup trucks fighting against Qadaffi’s army that has artlllery, tanks, personnel carriers and heavy weapons. Is there something wrong with this or is it just me? Either send in a Tomahawk cruise missile or a Stealth fighter jet and take care of Qadaffi once and for all or else rapidly rearm the rebels with weapons they can use to properly defend themselves before Qadaffi slaughters them.

Mark Jeffery Koch

Cherry Hill, NJ

Mar 29 2011 - 6:15pm

Juan Cole and Katrina vanden Heuvel: Do We Belong in Libya?

The West shouldn't lead

I have been watching the reporting of the London Conference on CNNI. While opinions vary in the forty countries and other organizations involved in the conference, there is some agreement on structural organization. On the Connect The World program, it was mentioned that while the United States was stepping back from leading the coalition, this effort still had a Western face on it. This is a valid criticism, since this is an Arab/North African crisis. Turkey, the Arab countries and Islamic organizations should have a leadership role in this coalition. The “Arab Spring” is, after all, a democratic movement, and inclusion is an aspect of democracy!

Pervis James Casey

Riverside, CA

Mar 29 2011 - 5:24pm

Juan Cole and Katrina vanden Heuvel: Do We Belong in Libya?

Responsibility to Object

Dear The Nation, I think you do a pretty good job on a lot of things, Lord knows all the wackos must keep you busy, but this Juan Cole thing is really a shocker, and now your editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel calling R2P noble? What’s wrong with you? Are you that susceptible to pressure and afraid of liberal hawks? You need to do some research—Chomsky might be good for starters. R2P is a crock, used at will by the empire. It’s very disappointing (not to mention demoralizing) to hear it supported by The Nation. Then Juan Cole even goes so far as to insultingly insinuate that not supporting the bombing and invasion of Libya is tantamount to supporting Hitler. Boy, we sure protected those civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t we? Dresden and Tokyo too, huh? Pathetic.

Pat Clark


Mar 29 2011 - 5:23pm