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.
Mar 30 2011 - 1:52pm