Top ten myths about the Libya War

Juan Cole writes:

1. Qaddafi was a progressive in his domestic policies. While back in the 1970s, Qaddafi was probably more generous in sharing around the oil wealth with the population, buying tractors for farmers, etc., in the past couple of decades that policy changed. He became vindictive against tribes in the east and in the southwest that had crossed him politically, depriving them of their fair share in the country’s resources. And in the past decade and a half, extreme corruption and the rise of post-Soviet-style oligarchs, including Qaddafi and his sons, have discouraged investment and blighted the economy. Workers were strictly controlled and unable to collectively bargain for improvements in their conditions. There was much more poverty and poor infrastructure in Libya than there should have been in an oil state.

2. Qaddafi was a progressive in his foreign policy. Again, he traded for decades on positions, or postures, he took in the 1970s. In contrast, in recent years he played a sinister role in Africa, bankrolling brutal dictators and helping foment ruinous wars. In 1996 the supposed champion of the Palestinian cause expelled 30,000 stateless Palestinians from the country. After he came in from the cold, ending European and US sanctions, he began buddying around with George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and other right wing figures. Berlusconi has even said that he considered resigning as Italian prime minister once NATO began its intervention, given his close personal relationship to Qaddafi. Such a progressive.

3. It was only natural that Qaddafi sent his military against the protesters and revolutionaries; any country would have done the same. No, it wouldn’t, and this is the argument of a moral cretin. In fact, the Tunisian officer corps refused to fire on Tunisian crowds for dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the Egyptian officer corps refused to fire on Egyptian crowds for Hosni Mubarak. The willingness of the Libyan officer corps to visit macabre violence on protesting crowds derived from the centrality of the Qaddafi sons and cronies at the top of the military hierarchy and from the lack of connection between the people and the professional soldiers and mercenaries. Deploying the military against non-combatants was a war crime, and doing so in a widespread and systematic way was a crime against humanity. Qaddafi and his sons will be tried for this crime, which is not “perfectly natural.”

4. There was a long stalemate in the fighting between the revolutionaries and the Qaddafi military. There was not. This idea was fostered by the vantage point of many Western observers, in Benghazi. It is true that there was a long stalemate at Brega, which ended yesterday when the pro-Qaddafi troops there surrendered. But the two most active fronts in the war were Misrata and its environs, and the Western Mountain region. Misrata fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-defense against attacking Qaddafi armor and troops, finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli. The most dramatic battles and advances were in the largely Berber Western Mountain region, where, again, Qaddafi armored units relentlessly shelled small towns and villages but were fought off (with less help from NATO initially, which I think did not recognize the importance of this theater). It was the revolutionary volunteers from this region who eventually took Zawiya, with the help of the people of Zawiya, last Friday and who thereby cut Tripoli off from fuel and ammunition coming from Tunisia and made the fall of the capital possible. Any close observer of the war since April has seen constant movement, first at Misrata and then in the Western Mountains, and there was never an over-all stalemate.

5. The Libyan Revolution was a civil war. It was not, if by that is meant a fight between two big groups within the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in 2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests, and only when the urban crowds were subjected to artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did the revolutionaries begin arming themselves. When fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing their city quarters taking on trained regular army troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a civil war. Only in a few small pockets of territory, such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Qaddafi civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort into a civil war. Qaddafi’s support was too limited, too thin, and too centered in the professional military, to allow us to speak of a civil war. [Continue reading…]

I applaud Cole for attempting to push back against the war skeptics but I expect that most of his arguments will fall on deaf ears. The issue of Libya has become some sort of perverse ideological litmus test through which many individuals want to polish their anti-imperialist and anti-Western credentials.

Those of us who see a positive development in Libya are dismissed as naive by others who profess an unshakable conviction about Libya’s destiny. Strangely, few of these individuals who think they can see Libya’s future so clearly, happen to be Libyan.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 thoughts on “Top ten myths about the Libya War

  1. Colm O' Toole

    I de-bookmarked Juan Cole early on in his cheerleading the Libyan war. Not because I don’t like reading foreign policy pieces by people I disagree with (after all I still read War in Context and Syria Comment) but because of his blatant American political partisanship on the issues.

    After reading his blog through alot of the Bush years something just rubbed me wrong about his stance on Libya. During the Bush years I would have called him one of the most rigidly Anti-War bloggers I read, speaking out many times about the Colonialist approach of thinking you can make other countries “behave” by going in and punishing them.

    But of course when a Democrat was in the White House the whole thing changed and culminated early in the Libya war, with his attack piece on the Anti-War movements position.

    Now I just feel he is a partisan hack who will defend it if a democrat does it. I even sent an email to since they list him as a contributor to the site asking them to remove any association with him given his recent attacks on the anti-war movement I you’d believe that.

    (All in All its a shame because I felt he knew more about issues like Israel-Palestine than just about any other blogger. But I just don’t respect him anymore.)

    On the myths. I don’t really know anyone who held much of them. Obviously Gadaffi traded in his socialist credentials way back in the post-Carlos the jackal era and the last decade since he made peace with Bush he actually privatised some things.

    I never agreed with NATO taking out Gaddaffi because he was some sort of Socialist champion. But because it is a 21st century form of colonialism. An excuse to steal peoples resources and install puppet regimes.

  2. Dieter Heymann

    Commonly a nation unites and resists when foreigners start attacking and bombing it. That does not seem to have happened in Libya. I’ve seen the crowds in Tripoli cheering. They are mostly quite young. I am beginning to think that Gadaffi’s fall is not so much due to a repressive rule but because his rule was so much pre-internet, pre-twitter, and pre-facebook. In other words: thoroughly antiquated.

  3. Observer

    “I applaud Cole for attempting to push back against the war skeptics but I expect that most of his arguments will fall on deaf ears. The issue of Libya has become some sort of perverse ideological litmus test through which many individuals want to polish their anti-imperialist and anti-Western credentials.”

    Disagree with the first part of the paragraph; agree with the second: indeed, in UK at least, Ghaddafi has attracted many supporters who overlook all his crimes, and see him as a romantic mix of Castro, Chavez, Bin Laden and Louis Farrakhan. One would think that Ghadafi’s orders to his men to fire on protestors before the war took off should be enough to not stand by him, but apparently not. Then, there is Ghaddafi’s expulsion of 30,000 Palestinians. Even that is overlooked by those that see him as a romantic warrior.

    “Those of us who see a positive development in Libya are dismissed as naive by others who profess an unshakable conviction about Libya’s destiny. Strangely, few of these individuals who think they can see Libya’s future so clearly, happen to be Libyan.”

    Here I disagree — when I see the awesome, almost demonic power of the West to stir up hatred and chaos for geo political aims, I don’t see much reason at all to be optimistic about Libya — of course, one can’t lay all the blame at the doors of Westerners. After all, to do so, would in its own way, be a kind of orientalism (E.G.”Ahhhh, those pure, but simple minded Arabs ! they are so weak and naive and child like and backward, they can be turned any which way by those all powerful genius game planning Westerners”) No — a lot of responsibility for the Middle Eastern chaos also must rest with the Arabs themselves, who seem to give in to the most brutal states of inter ethnic, inter tribal, inter sectarian hatred at the first opportunity.

    Read Nir Rosen’s very balanced and fair minded accounts of the ways in which Iraqi sects have fallen on their fellow men like packs of wolves, and treated each other in the most barbaric ways. One can’t blame ALL of that on Westerners. In Iraq, the Mandeans and other smaller Gnostic sects that have thrived there for 2,000 years have seen their fellow Arabs rape, murder, behead, humiliate and butalise them — and hundreds of thousands of Sunnis have met the same fate. Whilst one can certainly blame the West for manipulating, and setting it in motion, and preparing the theatre of war for such slaughter by intentionally destroying infra structure, engaging in agent provocateur hits, and spreading incendiary rumour etc — blame must lie with the Arabs themselves as well, for indulging in such mass inhumane slaughter.

    Besides that, much of Libya functions on values that the West hasn’t seen since pre industrial revolution times; values we don’t even understand anymore, notions of tribal networks, collective connections decided by powerful ties to the land, the seasons and agriculture, and a consciousness decided by loyalties as well as basic scriptural tenets to tie groups into patterns of allegiance – the West doesn’t understand these ways of life, and most educated Westerners have never even heard of theorists like Ibn Khaldun, who have recorded such attitudes since the 14th century. (“What, those Arabs actually had intellectuals and academics and thinkers? Nah! You’re kidding right?”)

    I do not see that Libya is suddenly going to turn into a peaceful, fair minded environment any time soon – all of which will please USA and Europe of course.

  4. Citizen

    I second Colm O’ Toole. I have never been a Gaddafi fan, but one of the reasons our country is going down the hill is that everyone seems to viwe everything through a 2-party partisan perspective. For so many “progressives” if Bush does then it is bad,b ut if done my Obama then everything is fine.

    Since many years Juan Cole blog was the first thing I’d read in the morning, but like Colm O’ Toole I to have delisted him – not because I disagree with him, but because of his biased partisan world, which as I said is one of the main causes of our trouble as a country.

    Too bad, because Juan Cole is really knowledgeable about the Middle East. But as I say – knowledge is a prerequisite for wisdom and judgment, but by itself not sufficient to do good

Comments are closed.