28 March 2011

Juan Cole’s open letter to the left on Libya

Professor Juan Cole, R.P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan, has posted on his blog Informed Comment (27 March 20100) an Open Letter to the Left on Libya.

He gives an informative account of how the rising developed, and addresses in turn the principal leftist arguments against the intervention: pacifism (the use of force is always wrong), anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong) and the belief that no social problems can ever be resolved by military force.

Of the latter he says:

The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. Those arguing that “Libyans” should settle the issue themselves are wilfully ignoring the overwhelming repressive advantage given Qaddafi by his jets, helicopter gunships, and tanks; the ‘Libyans’ were being crushed inexorably. Such crushing can be effective for decades thereafter.

He also addresses the objection based on inconsistency, in terms aligned with my own observations in Thoughts on the intervention in Libya:

Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an intervention could be staged or worrying that Libya sets a precedent. I don’t find those arguments persuasive. Military intervention is always selective, depending on a constellation of political will, military ability, international legitimacy and practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents, and responsible for thousands of casualties and with the prospect of more thousands to come, where aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.

This situation did not obtain in the Sudan’s Darfur, where the terrain and the conflict were such that aerial intervention alone would have been useless and only boots on the ground could have had a hope of being effective. But a whole US occupation of Iraq could not prevent Sunni-Shiite urban faction-fighting that killed tens of thousands, so even boots on the ground in Darfur’s vast expanse might have failed.

He then gives reasons why the other Arab Spring demonstrations are not comparable to the Libyan situation, and deals with the reason why we should not be worried about setting precedents.

In his final paragraph Professor Cole makes this appeal:

I would like to urge the Left to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in their travails in places like Libya...

This is a thoughtful essay, worth reading in full. The original post may be accessed here.

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