Libya Is Not Iraq — Why I’m Leaving “The Reality Based Community”
For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet régime may be the generally-accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.
– George Orwell, from the unpublished introduction to Animal Farm.
There is an overwhelming consensus among Western pundits, on the Left and Right, that the conflict in Libya was “a disaster”. The consensus goes beyond that too. It includes the view that the conflict was, first and foremost, a campaign led by the United States aimed at toppling a hostile government, and that this US adventurism had disastrous consequences for the US, the region, and most of all for the people of Libya. It’s a line of attack that shortcuts past the need for any factual detail by using the phrase “regime change” to invoke the memory of Iraq and associating any opponents with that war — even if they, like me, were vocally against it at the time.
When I set out to write this piece I hoped to simply address the factual differences between the two cases in a systematic listicle kind of way. As I proceeded, however, I realized that approach was insufficient. The factual and moral-philosophical debates are two threads tied together in one knot.
Take what I hold to be the most important objective difference between the two cases: nothing dramatic was happening in Iraq when we invaded. No protests against Saddam Hussein. No civil war. It was just sitting there, being Iraq. Dramatic things were happening in Libya before NATO’s involvement, things that have no place in the Left’s supposedly “reality based” world view, but that should.
The Libyan uprising against Gaddafi was real, and part of the Arab spring, which had value.
It was preceded by spotty localized protest and isolated online calls for change. Libyans, inspired by the fall of Tunisia’s Ben Ali just across their western border, and the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt to their immediate east, rose up in a nationwide rebellion by 17 February — less than a week after the fall of Mubarak.
The NATO air campaign began one month later on March 17, after Libyans themselves called for it in large numbers. One year later these strikes still had the support of 75 percent of Libyans polled. This is simple fact. No one worth responding to debates it. The problem is that no one cares.
Indeed strong revolutionary sentiment continues to this day.
Of course emotions are mixed, even within one individual. Omar Al-Mosmary, a Libyan freelance journalist I traveled with in Libya in 2011, recently spoke to me again online and said there was no question that living standards had dropped since Gaddafi’s fall, but he blamed poor decisions made since the revolution for these crises. He fundamentally rejects the idea he might regret his support for the revolution or the NATO air campaign that aided its victory. His English, while leagues ahead of my Arabic, is far from perfect, but his sentiment is clear:
It was change what must been happen. I cannot regret what must been happen. Actually I not regret at all the uprising… but I regret what happens after the uprising.
What divides the tiny minority I am a member of from the rest of the global commentariat is not our belief in the factual existence of these pro-democracy protests and sentiments among Libyans, but the value that we gave them.
Ask yourself now, what value do you give them? For that is the essential question which will shape how you view the rest of this article.
Do you applaud the courage of those who died to free their country from a dictator either during a peaceful protest or an armed uprising? Do you, like me, see their status as heroes as obvious and inherent?
Or do you believe the Leftist orthodoxy which says that, since they acted alongside the airpower of the West, we must turn our backs on them?
This same orthodoxy dehumanizes these martyrs, and reduces them to stooges of the US and/or Jihadis.
If the intervention complicates that question too much, let us focus for a second on those who died in the period spanning from the beginning of the uprising to NATO’s involvement: Are they heroes? Or are they traitors for turning against their “Brother Leader”?
Mostly they are just pushed aside and treated as an insignificant detail, rather than as the central causal factor driving the whole thing.
Similarly forgotten is the violence employed by Gaddafi forces’ during their attacks targeting the uprising, in which planes bombed heavily populated towns and anti-aircraft guns were turned on protesters. Actions like these gave his threats to go “house by house” rooting out his enemies a terrifying weight.
It’s over. The issue has been decided. We are coming tonight. We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.
-Muammar Gaddafi, from speech directed at Benghazi residents who had risen up against his rule
If you point to these promises of retribution by Gaddafi, you will often be accused of relying on assumptions about what would have happened “if”. Of course, all discussions of world affairs rely heavily on assumed counterfactuals. The anti-interventionist argument itself is no exception. Their argument relies on at least three such assumptions.
1) That without NATO intervention Gaddafi would have triumphed over the rebels in a final and conclusive manner, crushing all opposition, precluding all further splits or the emergence of ISIS or an equivalent fundamentalist insurgency.
2) That this Gaddafi victory would have come more swiftly and more easily than the rebel/NATO coalition’s victory.
3) That the reestablishment of an unchallenged dictatorship would be, in the final balance, a good thing.
All this is laid out fairly clear here in a piece for The American Conservative by Daniel Larison. Larison penned it in response to this piece by Shadi Hamid, a lonely voice defending the NATO intervention years later and one of the people I interviewed in preparation for writing this essay.
The first two points are merely (incorrect) assessments of what a conflict without NATO would have looked like. The third, however, is a value judgement.
That basically identical arguments are put forward by people on the Left tells us something:
The Left won the foreign policy debate against intervention, but it did so in large part by embracing the Islamophobic fatalism which says the best thing for the Muslims of the world is to live under nice stable “secular” dictatorships. The only other option for them is a basketcase jihadi theocracy, like ISIS or The Taliban.
We invaded Iraq. We didn’t invade Libya.
This is a major difference that is often glossed over by the use of the all-inclusive term “regime change” (as if the worst thing about Iraq was the one thing many Iraqis welcomed, the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule), but one that was keenly appreciated by the Libyans I spoke to during my (admittedly short) visit to the country, and those to whom I have spoken since.
I have a vivid memory of a man who explained to me that while he supported the NATO air campaign, if the US sent in a land force, he (and, he suggested, others) would turn on the spot and fight alongside Gaddafi’s forces against it.
Syrians are also capable of making the distinction. But the bulk of the Left now, along with the bulk of the Right, ignores these voices, just as it ignores those who rose up spontaneously and peacefully against the dictatorship that had dominated their lives for decades.
The Syrian Revolution was/is real and was/is part of the Arab Spring, which has value.
As with Libya, there has been a tendency among anti-interventionists on Left and Right to minimize the role of pro-democracy Syrians themselves and emphasize the role of the US and their allies in plotting the overthrow of the regime. However, the reality is that while there may be some dissent in Tel Aviv and Washington about this point, President Obama, viewing Syria through the prism of Iraq, has clearly decided regime change in Damascus is not in US interests.
The US is not “behind” the Syrian uprising, despite much informed-sounding conjecture to this effect.
A widely circulated diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, for example, has been pointed to as evidence the US was working to stoke sectarian and other tensions in the country since at least 2006.
That makes sense. I remember travelling from Lebanon to Syria in 2006 following the war between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon. Posters of Assad and Nasrallah were everywhere. Assad hoped to cash in on the huge popularity of the Shia theological leader whose success against the Israeli military had won him the adoration of many Sunnis.
The war is not mentioned in the cable specifically, but the Syria-Hezbollah relationship is mentioned in other documents from the same database, including one from September of 2006. It is impossible to imagine the war was not part of the assumed background when discussing the Iran-Syria alliance, without which Hezbollah’s military capacity (dependent on Iranian funds and weapons smuggled into Lebanon over the border with Syria) would have been nothing like what it was.
Exacerbating sectarian tensions can be seen as the logical US reaction to this moment of unity. The key word here is reaction. The point I am making is not about the nature of US’s agenda, but about the nature of the Syrian uprising, particularly the peaceful protest movement that broke out in 2011 as part of the wave of protests across the Arab nations, and indeed the world. They were not, as some would like to believe, merely the fruit of US plotting. It is worth noting that nowhere in the cable is there mention of plans to promote local democratic sentiment or a generalized popular uprising, the kind of which was seen in Syria in 2011, just like in the rest of the Arab world.
This absence is significant as the cable, sent to Israeli, US, and EU officials, systematically goes through what the author sees as the Syrian government’s weaknesses and possible ways to exploit those weaknesses. A possible popular uprising of this kind is not mentioned.
It wasn’t the CIA who wrote the secret songs of freedom I heard sung in a tucked-away bar in downtown Damascus in the early part of 2010.
If we accept that Syrians have an indigenous urge toward freedom and dignity — of which these brutally suppressed protests in 2011 were an expression — then what can/did/should we offer as support to those who originally participated in this protest?
[WARNING: Graphic Video]
Nothing. Just nothing? We must respond to their cries for freedom with stony faced silence? We must feel nothing? Or if we cannot help but feel some lingering admiration for those Syrians who wanted something better for their country than to be handed from father to son like a family heirloom, we must suppress that empathy, for fear of aiding the empire?
To shut out these people from our view of history is to shut out the very spirit that animates the Left. Despite themselves, the Left commentariat senses this. This is what forces them to caricature the opposition to these regimes, and resort to the same Islamaphobic tropes that were used to justify US violence during the occupation of Iraq.
Even if you accepted the characterization of the opposition as entirely fundamentalist and incurably sadistic (I do not) there is another problem: the Left’s position has been, generally speaking, that you can’t bomb and oppress away terrorism and fundamentalism, since bombing and oppression is what motivated the terrorism and fundamentalism to begin with. This no longer seems to be the case.
Having resisted the Islamophobic defense of “collateral damage” during the War On Terror for over a decade, the Left has now embraced it in defense of dictators, simply because those dictators are (seen as) adversarial to US foreign policy.
Left- and right-wing narratives on the Middle East fall into a perfect mirrored bigotry: All opposition (to either US or Russian bombardments) is defense of Al Qaeda/ISIS.
Accidentally killing civilians while trying to take out al-Qaeda affiliates was, according to the Left, a terrible crime when the US did it in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq, but apparently tolerable when done on a larger scale by the Assad government and their Russian allies in Syria.
When the US and Russia began coordinating their airstrikes in Syria this contorted moral framework twisted even further. Now it passes without protest when the US bombs Syria and kills Syrians, so long as this killing does not inconvenience the regime or their Russian allies.
Considering these questions, it is clear that attempting to approach the subject in a purely empirical manner is to miss the point.
There are of course important empirical points to be made, including those I made at the time: that the uprising in Libya was genuine and that the NATO campaign had the backing of the vast majority of Libyans.
To those central points I could now add that while conflict does continue in Libya, the death-toll (less than 1500 so far for this year) has never again approached the heights it did during the initial conflict against Gaddafi (thousands per month — including the first month, before NATO’s involvement), nor does it approach the horrific levels of violence currently gripping Syria (approaching 100,0000 per year). The methodology behind these numbers is not identical, but there’s no question about the overall picture they paint.
In Libya, air support for the rebels brought the most violent part of the conflict to a swift close. In Syria air support for the dictatorship has prolonged and escalated the conflict.
There might be good arguments as to why this comparison is misleading. I have not heard them.
These facts are not really denied by anyone — because they are not responded to at all. They are simply seen as irrelevant.
These numbers, and the dead human beings they represent, are pushed into the margins by the majority narrative, on both Left and Right, which is that of foreign regime change.
I reject this and endorse the inverse, putting the revolutionaries at center stage, and consigning NATO’s air power to a secondary role. You can be as nuanced as you like about it, but once those nuances are all thought through, it is incumbent on those with a conscience to decide which of these two factors is more important to them. That shapes how everything else is evaluated.
For example, living standards have dropped since the 2011 revolution/intervention in Libya. This dip in living standards is presented, by most of the Left, as a result of neoliberal policies thrust upon the country, “Shock Doctrine” style, following the fall of Gaddafi’s “revolutionary” regime (I may be strengthening their argument here, which is often more simplistic than this). There are several lines of empirical attack against this argument. Living standards in oil-rich Libya were actually not so great when compared to say, the Gulf kingdoms, who also practice mass redistribution of oil wealth and provide high material standards of living, but who no self respecting Leftist would call “revolutionary”. While there have, no doubt, been terrible economic decisions made in the country since Gaddafi’s fall, worse have been made elsewhere, especially by other oil producers, who have all been hit hard by Saudi Arabia’s decision to flood the market and crash petroleum prices.
But to those of us who see the 2011 Libya uprising as a revolution, the response to this same fact is even more obvious: After every revolution there is crisis and strife. It is to be expected, as after any major political shock. In Egypt, already high prices (a leading cause of the public anger behind the now defeated revolution) soared further, after the fall of Mubarak (they have soared even more since the return to military rule).
Of course it is not up to us whether these kinds of sacrifices are worth it in the end, but up to the people of Libya themselves, as, at the end of the day, is the question of the intervention.
In the words of Charles Davis, another lefty who’s broken with the pack on these issues:
Whether we like it or not, as leftists, as die hard anti-imperialists, there were people there that were pretty much happy that NATO came in and grounded Gaddafi’s planes…there’s an aversion to facts…This wasn’t just the US and NATO and France coming in and deciding to chop off the head of the state. There was a revolution already under way…so what ends up happening is you argue against the whole thing and make it seem like it was just an externally imposed regime change operation. You’re essentially embracing a reactionary conservative argument against revolution everywhere…I’m not familiar with too many revolutions that have been followed by periods of stability.
At the end of colonialism, political and economic crises (and the intrusion of new foreign powers, or the old ones in new guises) predominated in newly independent nations all across the globe. Living standards fell after the end of apartheid. Any major social upheaval brings economic and social chaos, proportionate in large extent to the dimensions of the changes involved: The Haitian, French, and American Revolutions, the British Civil War…there are are no exceptions. Do we therefore disown them all?
Of course not. That would be an argument for living on our knees rather than dying on our feet, for peace without justice. Change is always hard, and often the effort seems fruitless, but in the end it’s worth it. We have inherited a world made better and fairer by countless principled people who refused to settle for a status quo they believed could be improved upon. It is incumbent on us to remember and advance that tradition. We owe it to the billions not yet born.
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” — Abraham Lincoln
I know of barely anyone on the Left who admits even to being bothered by these difficulties. One person who does is Charles. I asked him what he thought about the way Libya tends to be lumped in with Afghanistan and Iraq by our fellow lefties:
[They feel] like they don’t need to know anything about the rest of the world…if you have a few set talking points that you’ve grown comfortable with you can just repeat them for every country and every conflict in the world. And during the Iraq War there were a lot of talking points that we as lefties grew very comfortable talking about…the Left had moral righteousness on its side. We were clearly right, those of us who opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq…and now, I dunno, I feel like with these other conflicts we don’t have as much confidence that we’re morally right, but we just transport our arguments from Iraq to these other conflicts…Cause we know we felt so comfortable back in those days when there was a nice black and white binary, or at least we perceived it as such…
…with the Left on foreign policy there’s been a cynical embrace of war on terror rhetoric when it’s perceived as being an argument against the United States…Those people are perceived as being on the United State’s side, ergo it’s ok for us to call them all “head choppers” which is an actual word, a phrase, that you see on the Left now, “head choppers”!
This was the first of the interviews I’d conducted and I had not yet abandoned my desire to address the issue in a primarily factual manner. But Charles immediately proceeded from the specifics of to the intellectual root of the problem, and as soon as he did I began to realize, that was the real discussion that needed to happen.
It comes down to simply not needing to know anything about the rest of the world. If you know the US empire is bad you can attribute any nefarious thing happening in the world to the US…It’s the Chomskyan idea that we need to focus on our own government…we should as leftists, focus on that we think we can affect change on, but I think some have taken that to mean that we need to center our own governments in every conflict and every part of the world. So if we’re talking about Syria or we talk about what’s happening in Libya we blame everything on our own government…it’s undermining our own analysis. So we don’t even really understand what’s going on. We kind of see ourselves as counter-propagandists…and attribute everything bad that’s happening there to our own government because that’s our responsibility as revolutionaries.
I knew exactly what he was talking about.
On countless occasions, during online discussions, when I’ve been arguing against US imperialism in one form or another, I’ve been confronted with the crimes the US’s enemies, and been accused of being an apologist for those crimes. My response has often been to simply paste the URL to this youtube video, showing Chomsky, during the lead up to the invasion of Afghanistan, responding to a question about the crimes of the Taliban:
the key passage is:
You and I are responsible for what you and I can do, and what we do. We have no moral responsibility for what other people do that we can’t affect…Can’t think of anything to do about them? Fine then have an academic seminar but don’t think it has any moral value.
Should we, by this logic, remain silent (or at least academically disinterested?) when we see a popular uprising being crushed by a dictator who does not happen to be closely aligned with our government? We must sit unmoved by the plight of innocent people?
The full embrace of this principle would seem to argue that yes, we should, since the Russian and Syrian governments don’t care what we think and won’t be affected by our opinions.
Why then does Russia Today exist? What about the variety of other English-language outlets funded by governments outside the umbrella of US power?
These outlets do not just target Westerners, but specifically the counter-hegemonic segments of the Western politics, including the Left. That’s why comments such as mine have been sought after by these outlets, as have those of many people I agree with. Hundreds of millions are spent courting our opinions precisely because our views do matter, increasingly so as time passes.
These outlets also have success in affecting the narrative of the Left, and the universe of ideas in which the Left operates. Russia Today is the most watched news channel on YouTube. It is playing a major role shaping the emerging political consciousness of a new generation.
In this context, critiquing our own governments and their crimes is a necessary but not sufficient part of the fight for justice. If we stop there, we end up saying to people like those brave Syrians, that they should not dream of the freedoms we take for granted in the West. They should accept that the best the people of their region can hope for is the horrible stability of dictatorship (an unspoken premise that also played a key role in rationalizing the global Left’s betrayal of Egyptian democracy). It also blinds us to the factual details of specific cases.
Charles could speak credibly to this aversion to detail, having experienced it himself
Let me be honest, I haven’t always been the best Leftist I could possibly be, right? And Syria’s a great example, cause I spent several years after the uprising, just kinda ignoring it, right? Granted, the world’s busy, there’s a lot of shit going on in my life, Syria’s way over there, and it’s easy to ignore…and then I guess the moment it really hit me was after Obama’s, you know, fake red line was crossed, and I started seeing Leftists argue against intervention, not on any sort of internationalist progressive grounds…I saw Alan Grayson, a democratic congressman from Florida, and during the Bush years was a real viral sensation with his really fiery speeches against the Bush administration telling Chris Hayes on MSNBC…for the US it’s better if they just kill each other over there. And also, we don’t know…the people fighting the dictator, aren’t they all basically Al-Qaeda?
…I was against intervention… [But]I was kind of troubled by the regressive arguments against it… the “fuck those people” kind of argument.
Then a year later I wrote about the rise of ISIS because the US intervention in Iraq had begun…I explained how the sectarian government of Maliki disenfranchised lots of Sunnis… there was a protest movement that had risen up, and Maliki backed by the US wiped it out. He stole an election with the backing of the US. I gave all these domestic reasons too about why ISIS had come back to power after being Al-Qaeda in Iraq and disappearing. And then when I got to Syria I just didn’t do any sort of domestic analysis, I didn’t get into the history of Syria it was all well, you know, the US gave some weapons to some moderate rebels and they gave them to ISIS and blah blah blah…and, you know, that doesn’t make any sense actually, and I kind of had to realize that when I got challenged on it…there was the same factors going on as Iraq in Syria… a highly sectarian government engaged in mass extreme ultra violence, which gives fertile ground for jihadis. And in fact most of the ISIS weapons did not come from moderate rebels…but from Syrian government weapons depots and Iraqi government depots…
I realized afterward that I completely ignored what was happening in Syria, and didn’t want to get into any of that because it was ideologically difficult for me.
I have caught myself in similar intellectual lapses, both in terms of ignoring the issue, and in terms of diverting the entire discussion back to Iraq.
A recent example: Tony Blair, whom I despise, had come out criticizing Jeremy Corbyn, whom I adore, over the latter “standing by” while Syrian civilians were torn apart by ISIS and the Assad regime, backed up by Russia. My immediate response was to simply tweet the infamous photo of Blair taking a selfie with his mobile phone as a cloud of flame and fills the background, which he had taken in Iraq. Look at this idiot. No further argument was required.
In terms of point scoring in the intra-Labour conflict, it was too easy a shot to pass up. But in terms of the actual situation in Syria it was a cop out. It’s true that Blair is a dickhead. It’s also true that violence is occurring on an industrial scale in Syria, while we argue about who said what in 2003.
Thirteen. Years. Ago.
In some ways President Bush is partly to blame for the very conversation that we’re having today, because we’re all affected by Iraq…My political education depends on two events, 9/11 and the Iraq War, and as someone who was very opposed to the war at the time and participated in protests and sit-ins and what have you…it was very important to me to speak out against what thought was an unjustified war and that I think for a lot of us who studied the Middle East, we thought kind of self evidently, hey…this is going to be a disaster, but I guess like, a lot of my colleagues, a lot of people in my generation, Iraq has had a lasting impact on them in a way that it hasn’t really had on me…
…Whenever Obama talks about these issues today you can tell that the kind of “ghost of Iraq” is kind of lingering in the background. It’s always within that broader framework. And I think that’s very problematic. And we have to make perhaps an extra effort to not make these very facile comparisons.
I agreed with much of what Shadi was saying, which was, paradoxically, both reassuring and disturbing. Shadi has long been one of the more intelligent and humane voices on Egypt, and has a commanding knowledge of the region. But he’s also an unashamed and explicit US exceptionalist. I found myself thinking as he talked that sure, he was a Muslim, but God damn if he wasn’t also an All American Boy:
I mean the lesson of Iraq wasn’t that all interventions are bad. It was that bad interventions were bad. It didn’t undermine the broader case in my mind for an American role in the world where the US does in fact take a lead on stopping genocide and mass killing. Those are the two things, I think, whenever that happens, and whenever there’s a reasonable expectation that we and our allies can act and are willing to act, I think that we at least have to have a conversation…And I think we have to find a way to sort of untangle ourselves from Iraq. Yes there are lessons to be learned, but let’s not overlearn the lesson, or let’s not learn the wrong lessons for the right reasons, or maybe it’s the other way around…
…I don’t actually think the UN is an important part of this discussion…It would be nice to have UN Security Council approval for things that we think are necessary, just, and important but we live in a time when there are two powers on the UN Security Council, who as a matter of principle, almost as a matter of religious belief, will oppose anything we try to do when it comes to intervening against mass killings and genocide…Russia and to a little bit of a lesser extent China…So if we make that the standard, that we cannot even think about intervening against Assad in any way without a UN Security Council approval, then of course it’s never going to happen…So I think we have to make a careful distinction between what is legal internationally and what is legitimate internationally….
By this stage he had lost me, endorsing what I proposed to him was a “might equals right” framework for international affairs. He rejected this, suggesting instead that establishing a “moral framework” and a “consensus” came before the discussion of military power. When pushed on who was included in the consensus-forming community, he said the US and Europe would form the “foundation” of any consensus. In relation to the Middle East he suggested Saudi Arabia and other US allies might take a role. His proposal was tailor made, ready to fit snugly into structural fact of US power.
When I questioned the morality of this position he proposed a hypothetical: what if everything about the Libya intervention was the same, except the Russians had exercised their veto? I asked, what if one member of a jury changed their mind? His answer was to express open disregard for the international system:
I don’t consider the proceduralism of the UN system to be sovereign or total or entirely legitimate…
For all his work exorcising it, Shadi’s “ghost of Iraq” still loomed in the background.
Yet, we cannot simply back away from problems. There is a fight to the death underway in Syria between a dictatorship and those who rose up against it. The Libyan example tells us that who wins matters, and that who that is depends in large part on which side receives more external support.
If you support the Syrian Revolution you cannot oppose regime change.
You cannot support the local councils that have sprung up all over the country, while arguing for the continued existence of a regime that seeks to crush them. It’s true that these local councils are in many cases forced to operate in the shadow of armed groups, including fundamentalist groups that are ideologically opposed to democratic systems. It may be that if or when the dictator falls, it is the theocratic impulse which prevails in Syria, over the democratic. But the fact that in many of these “liberated” areas they even exist is a glimmer of hope that should be at the center of the Left’s moral picture. The odds are always stacked against progress. Yet, over time, it prevails.
It is incumbent on the Left to root for these, albeit, tenuous democratic structures, which would most certainly be crushed should the areas they operate in be re-taken by government forces.
To oppose regime change is to ignore the cries of Syrian revolutionaries for solidarity and endorse the Assad dictatorship.
Some on the Left feel happy to do so, and will point to significant support for Assad expressed in polling of those remaining in Syria. This polling — which does not include any of the millions who have fled the country, a group who seem to skew against Assad — shows stronger support for Assad than for any individual opposition group. For how long should he rule? For life? Should power be passed to his son as it was passed to him when his father died?
There is a third option, manifest in the Geneva Accords, which calls for some kind of endgame based around the opposition and regime engaging together in a form of governance, perhaps with some stunted and partial electoral system attached. The example here would be the Taif Accord that brought the civil war in Lebanon to a kind of permanent pause, leaving the country to be rocked by continual political crises, often spilling over into violence, and beset by long-term social and economic stagnation. It is hardly an ideal outcome, but it is obviously an improvement on the current horror show.
Even this, however, seems unlikely when one party maintains such a decisive military advantage over all the others in the form of modern air power.
Of course, something could be done to check that advantage. Perhaps it should.
But to support international action in Syria is not to support Shadi’s vision of basically unchecked US power.
Shadi dismisses the idea of working through the UN, asserting it is impossible, citing the Russian veto as an immovable obstacle. I am not so sure. I do not think there has been a real effort by the US on this front. They call for talks constantly but it is not clear what they bring to the table.
What if the US offered to remove it’s nukes from Turkey? Or cease construction of its missile defense systems in Poland?
What if there was a real effort for a Grand Detente between Russia and the US at the global level, and simultaneously between the Saudi- and Iranian-led blocs at the regional level? Whatever we may think about the odds of success for such a project, there is a moral imperative that such efforts are fully explored before the decision is made to go outside the UN system.
Since Shadi and I spoke it occurred to me that a better analogy for the UN Security Council’s role in Libya, as opposed to a jury, might have been that of a condom. It might look flimsy when compared to the bulk and urgency of the man who’s wearing it, but it can make all the difference in the world in terms of the consequences.
And when it comes to Russian actions to defend its interests in Syria, there are bigger things to worry about than the veto. This is the hard reality that Shadi’s hypothetical alternative history of Libya conceals. The whole point of the veto is to prevent the (nuclear armed) super powers from having to engage in direct, possibly apocalyptic, conflict.
Shadi doesn’t seem particularly worried about that eventuality, presuming (and he explicitly says this) basically sensible and benevolent actions on the part of the US.
I’m sort of assuming this ideal of a US that will more often than not do the right thing…now it’s totally plausible that in the next 20 years, let’s say Trump wins and then after that it’s some crazy dude and that’s what we just starting doing for a while…we could have US leaders that make very dangerous decisions that destabilize the world, they ignore the UN and all of that… so I’m sort of presuming reasonable people being elected…
Paul Barratt, a former Australian secretary of defence, strikes a much more cautious, and somewhat pessimistic note.
The responsibility to protect would lead you to try and establish no-fly zones, it’s quite clear that an objective is to destroy Syrian infrastructure like hospitals and water supplies and what have you…it’s a very good case for putting a stop to that…the problem is you’ve got the United States and Russia standing toe to toe backing different sides and refusing to agree, and against the background of Ukraine and what have you, there’s just such a breakdown in trust between Russia and the United States, not all of the wrong doing is on the side of the Russians either, but there’s such a breakdown, so it’s very hard to see how you navigate your way out of this.
I suggested to Paul that for all this talk of the US backing the rebels, I didn’t detect any strong desire for regime change emanating out of Washington, and especially not out of Tel Aviv. He agreed and continued, raising similar questions to Charles’s about the US current role, coordinating its anti-ISIS strikes with the Russians (and through them the Syrians).
The US has never been able to quite figure out what it wants to do in Syria, which always leads me to ask the Australian government, given that we’re intervening in Syria, what are our objectives?
…You should only have the exercise of military force, when it’s warranted, when it’s authorized, and when there’s a clear and achievable objective, the idea of creating a situation where people go on fighting each other forever is just unconscionable.
Paul had been the Australian secretary of defence in 1998 and 1999. Following the Iraq War, Paul became a key member of the campaign for Australia’s own Chilcot style inquiry into the Iraq War. Like Shadi, he feels that the principle of Responsibility to Protect must be salvaged from the wreckage of Iraq. One example Paul knows well is the Australian-led mission to end political violence following the East Timorese vote for independence. His account coincides with my recollection, in that it was both the progressive, even radical, side of politics that supported Timorese independence, and by extension the Australian military presence there.
I had hoped (based on his tweets and other conversations) that Paul would put Libya in the “good intervention” basket along with East Timor, not in the bad basket, with Iraq. He insisted on putting it somewhere in between describing it as having “qualities of both”.
I found myself tempted to simplify the issue, but then wondered if in doing so, would I not be engaging in exactly the same erasure of detail and nuance I was criticizing in others?
In one sense what Paul had done was give what could be termed “the best and most boring question to any answer”, which has many formations and usually begins with “well it depends” and includes phrases like “on the other hand”.
Of course that kind of detailed dispassionate thinking has its place. But on the progressive side of politics there is meant to be something else, a little more ambitious, and therefore, inherently, fraught with greater risk.
Why I’m leaving the “Reality Based Community”.
The “reality based community” is a label much of the Left has embraced. The original quote, now generally attributed to Bush aid, Karl Rove, first published in an article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times, was:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
You still see it in people’s Twitter bios, “member of the reality-based community”.
Thirteen. Years. Later.
The Left’s embrace of the label bothers me for two reasons. First, I do not think the Left is, any longer, particularly interested in the pesky details of reality. Especially not when they contradict a simplistic “anti-imperialist” or “resistance” narrative.
Secondly, and more importantly, is that by accepting the role Rove ascribed to us as diligent observers and critics, or the lesser-still role of counter-propagandist, we surrender the Left’s true role: that of history’s great protagonist.
When that mantle falls instead on the shoulders of reactionary buffoons like Bush, or heaven forbid, Trump, horror ensues. And that is exactly the outcome the Left creates when it takes the small target approach to politics, going after each issue and critiquing the mainstream position, or attempting to, on a purely factual basis, and not doing much more.
Imagine after the French Revolution collapsed, first into terror and then into dictatorship, when American democracy was stained by the horrific contradiction of slavery, when the only successful experiments in parliamentarianism were the moderate, mixed polities, like England’s. What “reality based” arguments could have been made then in favor of democracy?
None. It required an appeal to ideals.
It has long struck me that this is basically the current situation regarding socialism. Replace the French Revolution with Stalinism. Replace the US-then peripheral to the world system — with Cuba and the stain of slavery with that of dictatorship. Replace the mixed polity of England with the mixed economies of Scandinavia. This analogy could help us move beyond our horror at the failures of socialism in the 20th century, and start, once more, to be the side of politics that dreams big.
To base our politics purely on the world as it is, not as we wish it were, is to trap politics in the past. Yet, this is the approach taken, in domestic and international politics, by the bulk of the Anglo-Saxon Left (and probably more broadly than that) for the past several decades.
We retreat into attack. Instead of conjuring a vision of a better world, we busy ourselves with pointing out the contradictions and lies of the status quo.
Perhaps the most successful example of this is the work of Ralph Nader, who despite failing to ever win public office, has been able to affect numerous policy changes, according to Wikipedia:
Nader’s activism has been directly credited with the passage of several landmark pieces of American consumer protection legislation including the Clean Water Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act…
However, even he sees this piecemeal approach as, in the end, wrong headed. In an interview two years ago on the YouTube channel “The Real News”, on an interview program called, incidentally, Reality Asserts Itself, he described what he sees as the origins of this intellectual fashion:
Joe McCarthy…it was like a reign of terror. He scared people. He intimidated people. He ruined peoples’ careers…The overall impact…on the progressives and liberals, was it made ’em veer away from any kind of systemic public philosophy to change things for the better…If you had any kind of coherent doctrine or platform, they would label it as an “ism”…We became very empirical, went after the auto companies; unsafe cars — no ism there. People are being killed every day, injured because of unsafe cars, lack of seat-belts, and padded dash panels. And that has affected the Left all the way to the present day.
Nader, of course, knows that this approach had some great successes:
Concrete reforms, civil rights, women’s rights, the beginning of gay/lesbian rights…the rights of students on campus, and then consumer rights, and then environmental. You see how programmatic it was. Everybody avoided linking it together…
Perhaps the best example of the continued prominence of this approach on the Left is the work of Naomi Klein. In The Shock Doctrine, Klein repeatedly makes a point of the Chicago Boys’ ideological gusto, the extent to which they sought the “blank slate” of a society shattered by crisis, so they could impose their beautiful societal blueprint. They were like the Bolsheviks. They were like crazy communists. Not us. Her next big work, This Changes Everything was once described to me by a friend as “a big sensible critique of capitalism”. The key words are “sensible” and “critique”.
It is this same attitude of “sensible critique” which we now bring, not just to the question of international action in Libya and Syria, but to the revolutions there, themselves.
To paraphrase another argument put forward by Shadi in our interview: prudence, in this context, is cowardice.
As if to confirm my worries about the Left’s lack of ideological commitment and spiritual fire, of the people I interviewed it was Shadi Hamid, The All American Boy, who seemed the most idealistic.
Consider the following, Shadi had just agreed with me that while we might argue about how to minimize the suffering there isn’t “anything resembling a good option”, and how:
Once history happens it can’t be undone, there’s a kind of path dependence, the fact that we lived through these past five years will shape the contours of the rest of our lives in a way that’s irreversible…History in that sense is a very heavy thing. And that’s why I don’t think we should take what Obama has done or not done lightly and think, if Hillary wins, maybe she can undo some of the damage…History has already happened in Syria.
I was struck by his sense of the overwhelming responsibility of being participants, however small, in history, bestows on us. I was struck by how rarely I feel the presence of that same existential burden in my discussions with my comrades.
The Left has learned to be cynical and defensive, to celebrate its own impotence, to think small. The same Left that fought to raise masses out of poverty and enfranchise them with the vote, the Left that fought racial and class injustices and acted on the principle that reality could be improved, that it was subject to our will. That ordinary people everywhere acting collectively could overcome oppression and win their freedom. This principle quickly crumbles to nothing when you start carving out exceptions.
If there is to be a Left worth fighting for it must be, in the words of Gilbert Achcar:
A Left for which human emancipation from oppression is the highest value, while all the rest, including anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and socialism, are but derivatives of this primordial principle.
Without that essential orientation toward freedom, we on the Left are nothing. Yet we seemed, in the cases of Libya and Syria, to be ready to abandon that principle entirely, instead organizing our actions around a single-minded opposition to what we perceive (often incorrectly) to be the goals of US foreign policy.
The people of Libya and Syria deserve better from us, as do the billions not yet born. Sometimes the only way to justice is through the fire.
[Edit: In the five years since I posted this here, and the six years since it was originally published, the situation in Libya has continued to deteriorate. But I stand by this work for three reasons: 1) Syria, which shows the counterfactual of what happens when the dictator survives and maintains power, is far worse. 2) At some point the current situation becomes more the result of decisions taken since the fall of Gadaffi, rather than a result of that fall 3) I hold it is the broader retreat of the Arab spring, especally the re-installation of a military junta in Egypt, which backs the military strongman Khalifa Haftar who has seized control in the east which is the main obstacle to Libya’s progress. This largely reflects choices made by the foreign policy establishment in the United States, especially after the ascention of John Kerry to the role of secretary of state, who reversed the Obama administrations previous position of at least partial support for democratic transitions in the region. ]
Originally published at www.importantcool.com on October 14, 2016.