Libya – Let’s Not Get Carried Away!

I’m back in town for a week, so will try to blog every day until I leave next week for the APSA meeting in Seattle. Where to start! A lot has happened – but I guess I have to say something about Libya.

As I write this (the morning of August 23d), it is looking like the triumph proclaimes over the weekend was overdone. Gaddafi is still holding on, he has troops loyal to him, and some other parts of the country are sticking to him as well. (The press is dismissing these as the areas of his tribe, but so what? They are people, too.) Maybe by the end of the day he will be gone, but maybe not. So let me just make a few points:

  • There used to be something in England called “Whig history.” Basically, this was the idea that England (and I do mean England, not the UK) was the bearer of political liberty, and destined to triumph and enlighten the rest of the world. Everything that happened was for that purpose, and therefore fated to happen. This attitutde is alive and well in the US. Specifically, there is a feeling that Gaddafi is destined to fall – so whenever there are some signs that he is weakening, victory is proclaimed prematurely. Teleology takes the place of analysis – always a mistake. (Orthodox Marxists used to make the same error; it’s one of the things Nicos Poulantzas was trying to correct.)
  • Even if this turns out to be a victory, that does not mean the war was illegal. Nicholas Burns, a former diplomat and now a professor, makes the following argument (among others) in today’s Boston Globe: “. . . the president was subjected to an unusual, highly partisan, and unreasonable assault by Congress on his constitutional right to commit US forces in the first place. Yet Obama persisted, and it has paid off.” That’s just silly. The War Powers Act says that the President must get approval from Congress for foreign military inteverntion. There is no exception that says “unless the US wins.” If intervention was illegal (as I think), then it still is.
  • Now for the basic point. This should be about democracy and the will of the Libyan people, not about whether Libya will be dominated by the US. That’s going to be difficult. Unlike Egypt or Tunis, Libya has a substantial part of the population that seemed to prefer Gaddafi to the rebels. (I remember vividly hearing a radio interview with people in Surt saying how they would fight to the end to keep the rebels out of their city.) This seemed to be more a civil war between two groups, rather than a popular uprising against a tyrant. (Sure, he was a tyrant, my point is that many people still preferred him. It was not just ethnic loyalty, either – see James Petras’s recent book for an argument that Libyans got substantial social benefits under Gaddafi’s rule.). As in any civil war, you have the problem of how the losing side fits in. They are still Libyans, and entitled to be part of any democratic government.

If Gaddafi is replaced by an independent democratic government, I will be delighted. I just think that the triumphalist crowing is both premature and out of place.