Progressivist Principles Vis-à-Vis Libya

Does Libya boil down to a choice between opposition to dictatorship Versus humanitarian imperialism?

In “Libya 2011: The Human Right to Political Freedom,” Manuel Garcia puts the focus of the US-NATO-led military intervention into Libya as between opposing dictatorship versus opposing anti-imperialism. It is, essentially, a lesser evilest argument.

Garcia begins by citing Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, calling for freely electing representatives through “genuine elections.”

This was cause for wonderment. Where do “genuine elections” take place? What criteria define “genuine elections”? Can elections which are swamped with money in the service of one class — a class that controls the state and private media — be even faintly considered genuine? If “representatives” owe their election to moneyed interests, then whose interests do these “representatives” represent?

For an election to be genuinely democratic, there must be a semblance of economic equality within a society, that all candidates must have equal access to getting their message and program out to the electorate. What societies have now are elections rigged in favor of those with — or best access to — money and favorable media exposure. I submit that there is no democracy extant nationally in any state. What exists now are dictatorships of money and/or power.

Nevertheless, Garcia takes aim at what he perceives to be a dictatorship in Libya. He does not deal with dictatorships elsewhere (except a historical flashback to the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista), and he does not state where and what the genuine democracies are.

Dictatorship,” writes Garcia, “is the captivity of a people’s political rights, and is thus an analog of slavery, which is the captivity of their personal freedom.”

I find the analogy inaccurate. It is an analog of authoritarianism; slavery would more aptly be an analog of forced labor, and that analog applies quite well to the current situation in capitalist countries where so few of the people have access to fulfilling work and fair financial remuneration (a right specified in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). In essence, many of us are wage slaves.

MG: “Dictatorships, being inherently unjustifiable, can never claim self-defense in their efforts to cling to power; the only act they can justify is self dissolution.

I demur: “the only act”? For example, could not another form of government, including a dictatorship, justify itself as protecting the citizenry from economic exploitation by either internal or external interests? Since what many pass off lazily as “democracy” is in the pockets of moneyed interests, and since “representatives” are beholden to moneyed interests, would not a benign dictatorship that guards the economic interest of the masses be a more preferable form of government?

My line of argumentation is that dictatorship is anathema and so are faux democracies. If one is to make an argument against dictatorships and in favor of genuine democracies, then one should point out what a genuine democracy is and where such a genuine democracy can be found. Are the US and NATO states genuine democracies? Furthermore, imperialism is always to be opposed because imperialism is anti-democratic. Therefore, it is logically far-fetched to declare support for imperialist forces opposing regimes one considers dictatorial.

MG: “Dictators hold unwilling supporters through intimidation, and willing supporters through promises of material gain and social elevation.”

Intimidation? This may hold in many circumstances but not necessarily all. The dictatorship of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore comes to mind. Yew held that western-style democracy would not work in Singapore;1 nevertheless, some argue that under the undemocratic hand of Yew, economic fortunes improved for all Singaporeans. The dichotomy drawn up is specious. What if the masses are supporters of the style of government? Might not dictators hold the masses through their yearning for a society which economically empowers the masses through equitable distribution of the wealth and consolidates the wealth of the people and country by controlling the means of production for the betterment of all … who know fully well that if western-style democracy were imposed on them that moneyed interests would quickly grab control and redistribute the wealth evermore unequally?

MG: “Supporters of a dictatorship facing a popular uprising can never claim equal consideration in world opinion to the rebels opposing them…

Garcia makes assumptions about rebels. He assumes that the “rebels” have the will of the masses of the people. What if the rebels do not have that will? Are the rebels then democratic? It is one thing to press a country to hold open and fair and genuine elections, but it is something very different to support a rebel faction that may have very little support from the citizenry.

Garcia does not delve into who the rebels in Libya are. There are many media accounts that paint a very unsavory picture of the rebels.2

MG: “… because such supporters are complicit in violating human rights by helping impose a dictatorship.”

This statement is unqualified, and it ignores that Libya was recently lauded for its human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council,3 and as posed is openly assailable by logic based in support of human rights. Supporters of a dictatorship versus a would-be dictatorial group of rebels can hardly be held complicit in violating human rights. Even if the statement were factually, logically, and morally grounded, what then are supporters of a rebel movement that has no genuine democratic basis itself, that is backed by foreign colonialist and imperialist interests, that probably only seeks economic profit and power for the members within the rebel group?4

MG: “Doing what is right is not always convenient, and tolerating what is wrong is often temporally advantageous.”

The aphorism undoubtedly holds in certain situations, but without qualifying what is meant and in what context, the aphorism takes on the nature of a meaningless platitude. What is “right”? Supporting the will of the masses? Is supporting the will of the masses of Israeli Jews to commit massacres in the civilian theater of Gaza5 right?6 Not in any morality-based universe; ergo supporting the will of the masses is sometimes in violation of the UDHR; moreover, which nation actually steadfastly adheres to the UDHR, signatory or not?

There is no need to tolerate any wrong. One can criticize what is wrong in a dictatorship and at the same time criticize what is wrong in the rebel faction and wrong in the US-NATO imperialist faction. And since one is making an argument against the democratic legitimacy of a regime, what basis do the attacking countries have to claim democratic legitimacy? What claims does the UN Security Council have to democratic legitimacy? Should not the UN Security Council have authorized a resolution to protect US citizens after US troops gunned down students at Kent State University in 1970 for protesting the US imperialism? Is not claiming permanent membership on the UN Security Council with a permanent veto wholly undemocratic? Whereby can an undemocratic body derive legitimacy in its actions against another body critics claim is undemocratic (in contravention of the UN’s very own charter)? Is legitimacy granted the US-NATO by professedly acting to protect civilians through its very own killing of them?7 And how does one choose which group of citizens to protect; i.e., regime-supporting citizens versus rebel-supporting citizens?

MG: “So, despite the intrinsic illegitimacy of dictatorships, democratic nations may accept normal relations with certain of them because it is convenient politically and profitable commercially. Maintaining a foreign policy of such amoral practicality is never an honorable argument against assisting a foreign rebellion against dictatorship that has won public sympathy.”

There is no such thing as “amorality” because a moral principle would hold that to take a neutral stance on a question of morality is itself immoral.

MG: “Later, our propagandists will easily recall the imperfections of motive and execution by our governments, and that data will then fuel the competition to define and exploit the historical record of the events. Though annoying, this is of minor importance compared to the immediate and most worthy goal: defending human lives and human rights.”

Santayana’s dictum is tossed into the memory hole.8 Garcia apparently sets the historical record aside for the expediency of defending human lives and human rights. As noble as such defense may be, is it not prudent to examine the historical record to look for analogous occurrences to guide our decisions? After all, humans should not be condemned to repeat their mistakes, should they? Why should states with a long history of killing humans and violating human rights be entrusted to defend against current violations by other states? To have an iota of integrity, a claim to be defending human lives and human rights must be backed by, not just a modicum, but rather solid legitimacy; one cannot be killing humans and holding human rights in abeyance at home and elsewhere and lay claim to pursuing noble goals and enjoy a scrap of legitimacy.

Integrity, honor, and honesty are attributes largely absent from the imperialist classes. Just like the phantom weapons-of-mass-destruction in Iraq was a lie, so it appears the Libyan bombing of civilians was a lie.9 Pretexts has been a long-used tactic of US imperialism. 10

MG: “The likelihood in late March of 2011 that a significant loss of life would be inflicted by Muammar Gaddafi’s jet bombers, artillery, armored troops and security forces in Benghazi was too real a prospect to ignore without then becoming complicit in the outcome, by omission.”

A question needs to be posed here: were the rebels not inflicting a loss of human life on Libyan citizens? What right did they have to inflict loss of life? If they had not rebelled, would “significant loss” of lives be at risk?

Resistance against a dictatorship is legitimate when it is the will of the masses. The rebellion in Libya is of a decidedly different character than the other movements throughout the Middle East. For instance, why do the rebels pursue a violent rebellion in Libya, whereas in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Syria, etc. the protests were/are largely peaceful?

MG: “Gaddafi had vowed to ‘bury’ the rebels, and we can be sure that after a Gaddafi victory a thorough purge of Libyan society would have occurred to ensure no embers of dissent remained to ignite another popular outburst of lese majesté.”

Garcia asserts a certainty of “a thorough purge of Libyan society” that is unsubstantiated by facts or explication. However, if such a scenario should unfold, it should be condemned by all people grounded in morality.

On the other hand, how would the institution of oppression following a rebel victory be greeted? Where is the democratic legitimacy of this movement? One need look no further that what the imperialists achieved in Iraq through killing of genocidal proportions. What greater legitimacy does the current regime in Iraq have over the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein? Was the economic disempowerment caused by imperialist “regime change” moral? Was anything moral about the ending of a dictatorship in Iraq?

MG: “Clearly, without outside assistance — minimally, a large infusion of heavier weapons — the lightly armed militias defending the western approaches to Benghazi would have been rolled back, and the anti-Gaddafi revolt crushed.”

Why shouldn’t the rebel movement have been defeated? Do the rebels offer a better Libya?11 Without revealing the backing for the rebels and their compelling vision for a better Libya, why shouldn’t they be defeated (or “crushed,” as Garcia puts it) if they bode worse for Libya, democracy, and human rights?

Garcia argues against staying outside the civil war in Libya. He writes, “Isolationism is convenient selfishness and very often wise policy. In this case it is also a vote in favor of Muammar Gaddafi.”

By the same token, the contrary — intervention — can be defined as a vote in favor of the rebels. It is indisputably taking sides in a civil war.

MG: “[N]o worthy international goals can justify the sacrifice of a nation’s freedom to a dictatorship.”

If intervention in the affairs of another state by outside actors is to be advocated, then for such outside intervention to have legitimacy it must be applied equally in all situations. Ergo intervention is required in Palestine/Israel … not just Gaza.12 Intervention is required in Democratic Republic of Congo, New Caledonia, Tahiti (to Sarkozy’s consternation and apoplexy) Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, etc. And should not the outside world also intervene to undo the colonially and genocidally created states of Canada, the United States, Australia, Aotearoa, etc.?

Why would anyone advocate and justify unfreed countries “freeing”13 other countries?

MG: “Today, I see the people of Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen as similar to the Cubans I lived among when at my grandparents’ house in Batista’s Cuba. They want freedom from their dictators, and I am incapable of being unsympathetic to their desires.”

Garcia makes a analogy; he compares without directly stating names, Muammar Gaddafi to Fulgencio Batista, but Gaddafi was a revolutionary — more like Fidel Castro. Gaddafi overthrew the monarchy (and monarchies are undeniably the antithesis of democracy). Does Garcia then swallow the US line that Castro was a dictator? He was in power longer than Gaddafi. Following the chosen example of Garcia, should he then have been sympathetic to “rebels” at the Bay of Pigs?

MG: “I might learn that ‘countries don’t have friends, they have interests.’ If so, I would want to make sure that I did not compromise anything I had an interest in by thoughtless support of foreign revolts.”

Garcia uses the Cuban example, so what does Castro say?

One can be in agreement with Gaddafi or not. … What is absolutely evident to me is that the government of the United States is totally unconcerned about peace in Libya and will not hesitate to give NATO the order to invade that rich country…

An honest person will always be against any injustice committed against any nation of the world, and the worst injustice, at this moment, would be to remain silent in the face of the crime that NATO is preparing to commit against the Libyan people.14

MG: “Can I really put aside any consideration of the specificity of this particular revolution at this particular time (so inconveniently timed for us), and see a greater good in opposing any help to the anti-Gaddafi rebels because their freedom is not as important in the overall scheme of things as the effort to maintain strict nonintervention by Western powers? I cannot. I am unable to forget the people.”

Gracia assumes that the Libyan people support the so-called rebels. Where does he base this assumption? He provides no evidence in support of that belief. It would be illogical for Garcia to refer back to his stated lack of knowledge of cultures and histories;15 logic would instead dictate that conclusions follow coherent premises, and lack of knowledge does not bode well for the validity of subsequent premise-conclusions.

Garcia poses some questions: “So let me ask you, is it possible to have a bias for freedom, an opposition to dictatorship anywhere, and also oppose the capitalist-imperialist consensus that dominates U.S. and European foreign policymaking?

Why not? The answer is an obvious, yes.

MG: “Is it possible to support popular revolutions against tyrants and dictators — no matter how doctrinally appealing certain of them might be for some of us — even to the point of arming popular revolts so they can credibly match the firepower of their oppressors?

First, the language is (mis)leading and unsupported by facts or data. What constitutes “popular”? Is the opposition of the Libyan rebels to Gaddafi “popular”? If popular, then for who? Second, Garcia posits that Libyans are oppressed. If Libyans are oppressed, then what measure does Garcia use to state this? It is certainly not the United Nations Human Development Index since Libya leads all African states on that measure.16 Or is it just a measure of democracy as defined by the holding of elections.

MG: “In short, can anti-imperialists elevate freedom to a guiding principle?

This is sophistry. Since when do anti-imperialists not claim freedom is a guiding principle? What about the freedom of Libyans to liberate themselves without outside interference? Freedom can be a two-edged sword. And while on the topic of guiding principles, as another guiding principle, should not a would-be enforcer of human rights and protector of civilians have an iota of credibility for the role?17

MG: “For me, solidarity with basic positive human aspirations throughout the globe supersedes strict adherence to any political doctrine.

This statement resonates well, but the “basic positive human aspirations” are not delineated. One assumes Garcia is referring, foremost, to democratic aspirations.

This writer does not grant that the Gaddafi government is a hardline dictatorship. The unsympathetic CIA Factbook states that Gaddafi’s “Third Universal Theory … is a combination of socialism and Islam derived in part from tribal practices and is supposed to be implemented by the Libyan people themselves in a unique form of ‘direct democracy.'”

It also states of the direct democracy: “Jamahiriya (a state of the masses) in theory, governed by the populace through local councils; in practice, an authoritarian state.”

MG: “Those who agree believe it is possible to identify situations worthy of support, where a people are visibly demonstrating their desire to throw off tyranny and govern themselves democratically, and their dictatorial regime is demonstrating its utter lack of legitimacy.”

How does Garcia ascertain this in the Libyan situation? How can one claim a lack of knowledge about the cultures and histories and sound so certain about supporting the rebels without pointing to their legitimacy?

Garcia returns to the Cuban exemplar: “The 2289 Cubans who died during Cuba’s intervention in southwest Africa, and the 450,000 Cuban soldiers and development workers who spent time in this effort, were probably sentimentalists even if many were too young to remember Havana in 1959.”

It sounds somewhat dismissive; at any rate the foreign troops fighting in Libya could likewise be labeled as sentimentalists. However, I believe the Cuban soldiers would prefer to have been called revolutionaries. Does not Garcia’s Cuban analogy apply best to Gaddafi who has supported Black African revolutions? Castro calls Gaddafi as revolutionary.14

MG: “The French, British and Americans, under the guise of NATO, have chosen to intervene in Libya, initially to halt Gaddafi’s assault on Benghazi in early April. The motive for intervening was some admixture of ‘sentimentalism’ and ‘humanitarian imperialism,’ …

Humanitarianism is the professed motive; but why would any progressive believe the professed motives of western imperialists? Does any thinking person today believe that western imperialists invaded Iraq to disarm it of weapons-of-mass-destruction?

MG: “… but the exact proportions of each is a matter of heated debate…

Heated? It seems quite blatant what the motives are? Whereby do western imperialists derive any credibility? From their actions in Iraq? From their support of the Israeli massacres in Gaza or Lebanon? From the initial reluctance to support the uprising in Egypt against the regime of Mubarak (only changing stance when the winds of change were proving undeniable)? From the response to the Sunni al Khalifa regime (a dictatorial monarchy; is there any other kind of monarchy?) crushing the peaceful Shiite (and others) revolution in Bahrain?

MG: “… the pace of the war against Gaddafi will be set by the level and consistency of military assistance to the anti-Gaddafi population.”

Anti-Gaddafi? This is rather (mis)leading? And why are the rebels anti-Gaddafi? Is it because they are pro-the Libyan people?

If the Libyan revolt leads to a stable democratic government then the cause of freedom will have been very well served …

Freedom itself does not, and can not, have a cause. Whose freedom is served by the rebels? What about economic freedom? Freedom from hunger? Freedom from interference by capitalist bankers? Freedom from foreign multi-nationals exploiting Libyan oil? Why does political freedom about non-existent democracy (it exists presently only in theory) trump all these other freedoms?

It is difficult for me to discern how much of a dictator or not Gaddafi is. There is so much disinformation surrounding the situation in Libya.18 He appears to have been in some form of power for a long time, although currently he has no formal titular leadership. Does length of time in power connote dictatorship.

I oppose leadership concentrated in the hands of one or a few individuals in any government. It is a foolhardy move for professed revolutionaries. There is a danger of basing a revolution in a person rather than the masses. The Chinese Revolution became embedded in Mao Zedong. When he died, the Communist revolution unraveled. The ideals the Communists fought for have been replaced by largely capitalist ideals.

Gaddafi should have removed himself further from the Libyan power structure long ago and given “the people” the opportunity to govern themselves. It is much more difficult to decapitate the masses than one person. Giving imperialists a target is never advisable.

It is important for progressives to support the democratic aspirations of all peoples. It is also important for progressives to oppose foreign meddling in the affairs of other peoples and other states. The fact that there is apparently a conflict of principles at play does not necessitate the abandonment of any principles. Among evils, lesser or greater, eschew all.

  1. Fareed Zakaria, “A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 1994. []
  2. Who are the the rebels? See John Rosenthal, “‘Funny’ Anti-Gaddafi Cartoons Reveal Rebel Racism, Anti-Semitism,” Pajamasmedia, 1 May 2010. Gary Gambill, “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG),” Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor, 3: 6, 23 March 2005. Chris Adams, “Libyan Rebel Leader Spent Much of Past 20 Years in Langley Virginia,” McClatchy, 30 March 2011. []
  3. UN Praised Libya’s Human Rights Record. Washington Attempted to Block Release of UNHRC Report,” 5 April 2011. []
  4. The rebels commitment to democracy was revealed in an article, where one rebel leader stated, “they are ‘Western-educated intellectuals’ who would lead the new state, not the ‘confused mobs or religious extremists.'” See Vijay Prashad, “America’s Libyans,” MR Zine, 3 April 2011. []
  5. See Sergio Castini, “Variation on a Theme: Israel ‘s Operation Cast Lead and the Gaza Strip Missile Conundrum,” The Rusi Journal, August 2009, 154:4: 66-73. []
  6. “A whopping 94 percent of the Israeli Jews support or strongly support [Operation Cast Lead]. “92 percent of the Israeli Jews justify Israel Air Force’s attacks in Gaza despite the suffering of the civilian population.” “Survey: Most Israeli Jews support Gaza operation,” Xinuanet.com, 15 January 2009. In a recent poll, it was reported that 60 percent favor another attack on Gaza, with only 30 percent against it: “60% of polled Israelis support a new war on Gaza,” Occupied Palestine, 17 April 2011. []
  7. “However, after visiting Tripoli on Sunday, South African President Jacob Zuma called on NATO to stop the attacks which have claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians in the past weeks.” See “World Leaders Slam West’s War in Libya,” Pan-African News Wire, 14 April 2011. []
  8. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Life of Reason Vol 1. []
  9. Airstrikes in Libya did not take place – Russian military,” RT.com. []
  10. See Kim Petersen, “Grasping at Straws: Searching for a War Pretext,” Dissident Voice, 4 March 2003. []
  11. See, for example, “Libyan insurgents begin to reverse decades of progress in African cooperation,” David Rothscum Reports, 5 March 2011. []
  12. Palestine, including the part renamed Israel, was usurped by terrorism against and an expulsion of the indigenous people of Palestine []
  13. Is transforming a political system to western-style democracy “freeing”? []
  14. Fidel Castro, “NATO’s plan is to occupy Libya,” Granma, 21 February 2011. [] []
  15. Of the current violence in Libya, Garcia wrote, “Perhaps if I studied their cultures and histories, I’d find good reasons to overcome my emotional impulses in their favor.” []
  16. Libya is ranked number 53 in 2010. See “International Human Development Indicators,” Human Development Reports. []
  17. See “Obama Lied About Gaddafi Bloodbath?RT.com. []
  18. See, for example, Leonid Savin, “Libya: Attacks on Civilians, Destruction of Civilian Infrastructures and Tough Information Warfare,” Strategic Culture Foundation. []
Kim Petersen is an independent writer and former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.