why i am going around being rude to Juan Cole

Recently University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a noted and respected Mid-East expert, posted an “open letter to the Left” on his blog, exhorting his fellow liberals to get on board with the current military actions in Libya. You can read it for yourself — maybe you have already, since it’s been flying around the internet — but here are some of his key points:

I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed. I can still remember when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring and extirpate socialism with a human face….

Members of the Transitional Government Council in Benghazi estimate that 8000 were killed as Qaddafi’s forces attacked and subdued Zawiya, Zuara, Ra’s Lanuf, Brega, Ajdabiya, and the working class districts of Tripoli itself, using live ammunition fired into defenseless rallies…. If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people….

The arguments against international intervention… all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds….

Some have charged that the Libya action has a Neoconservative political odor. But the Neoconservatives hate the United Nations and wanted to destroy it. They went to war on Iraq despite the lack of UNSC authorization, in a way that clearly contravened the UN Charter…. Neoconservatives wanted to exercise primarily Anglo-American military might in the service of harming the public sector and enforced ‘shock therapy’ privatization so as to open the conquered country to Western corporate penetration. All this social engineering required boots on the ground, a land invasion and occupation. Mere limited aerial bombardment cannot effect the sort of extreme-capitalist revolution they seek. Libya 2011 is not like Iraq 2003 in any way….

Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited (it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole…. [T]he bombing campaign [will come] to an end (Qaddafi only had 2000 tanks, many of them broken down, and it won’t be long before he has so few, and the rebels have captured enough to level the playing field, that little further can be accomplished from the air)….

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…. For the UN, out of the blue, to order the bombing of Deraa in Syria at the moment would accomplish nothing and would probably outrage all concerned. Bombing the tank brigades heading for Benghazi made all the difference….

[I]n Libya intervention was demanded by the people being massacred as well as by the regional powers, was authorized by the UNSC, and could practically attain its humanitarian aim of forestalling a massacre through aerial bombardment of murderous armored brigades. And, the intervention could be a limited one and still accomplish its goal.

And, finally, the line that has earned him a lot of links:

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. If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the Left.

This letter infuriated me. It infuriated me much more than some right-winger’s attacks on the Left would have. You expect that; sometimes you expect your political opposites to call you heartless or gutless. But coming from Cole, who has always seemed like a reasonable man and who was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, it’s intolerable.

I may have overreacted. I wrote on MetaFilter:

As someone who went to Iraq for Bush’s grand humanitarian fantasy, and as a member of Left, I say Juan Cole can go fuck himself. (Unless he’s ready to enlist. No? Right.) …I find liberal chickenhawks in love with righteous war every bit as infuriating as the neocon ones.

Glenn Greenwald of Salon, who’s clearly a fan of Cole’s but not so much of the war, tried to raise the chickenhawk question as gingerly as he could:

Elsewhere, Cole argued… that the test for whether a war is justifiable is whether one is willing to risk one’s own life — or the life of one’s children — to fight it. Cole said he supported the war in Afghanistan because he could answer “yes” for that war, but not for the war in Iraq. How about the war in Libya: is that the proper question to apply to determine its justifiability, and if so, would Cole be willing to risk his own life or his children’s to fight that war?

To which Cole has replied:


Iraq was an illegal war, for no pressing national interest & with no UNSC authorization.

The Libya intervention is legal and was necessary to prevent further massacres and to forestall a threat to democratization in Tunisia and Egypt, and if it succeeds in getting rid of Qaddafi’s murderous regime and allowing Libyans to have a normal life, it will be worth the sacrifices in life and treasure. If NATO needs me, I’m there.

To which I replied, in a comment which has apparently not yet been approved, that I thought that was pretty blithe for a guy who knows he’s never going to be called. I may also have said some other things.

Man… why am I doing this? Why am I so irritated by this guy that I’ve now basically called him a coward in two different public spaces on the internet? And why does the broader problem of war in Libya occupy so much of my emotional energy these days? Why, in short, am I so angry?

I guess I should start with this: I spent pretty much my whole tour in Iraq being angry, and it’s something I’ve never fully gotten over. Part of that was the constant petty annoyance of living on a crappy base in the Tigris Valley. Part of it was the stress of living with the possibility of attack every day: young boys playing in the sand too close to my guard tower or the dud artillery shell someone found lodged in the foundation of our command post or the rockets that destroyed a housing unit a few hundred feet from the tent where I was sleeping (for a year afterward, I would come stark awake at the sound of anything coming down out of the sky, even if it was just a plane landing in Burbank).

But some of my anger also stemmed from the fact that, even though I wasn’t one of the soldiers kicking in doors, I knew that my work involved sending men to capture or kill other men. (Or occasionally it wasn’t men; sometimes soldiers would gather to watch a live feed of a JDAM being dropped on some particularly important and hard-to-reach target. I would go in the other room. I didn’t want to hear the cheering.) I was often the person providing the intelligence that decided someone’s fate. Sometimes it was a team of us. Sometimes we didn’t agree. Sometimes I didn’t know if I was right.

I didn’t do the killing myself. I never put anyone in jail myself. But I made the call that triggered those actions. And I didn’t always know if I was right. And even in the majority of cases, where I was sure I was right, it was a terrible thing.

It didn’t give me PTSD; I don’t have flashbacks and I’m not depressed. But it made me angry. Because I didn’t know why I was there. I generally believed we were doing short-term good, saving the lives of both Iraqi civilians and American soldiers. But still. I resented being there. I resented being at war in someone else’s country for no reason I could discern. I resented being part of killing and jailing people in a fight I didn’t believe in and hadn’t asked for.

Of course, the fight in Iraq was messy urban guerrilla warfare — it’s much less complex to attack Libyan tanks. Everybody can agree that the tanks deserve it. Except, of course, that a lot of the guys on those tank crews probably don’t want to be doing what they’re doing. They’re in an impossible position: kill civilians, or be killed by your superiors.

Is there ever a time to kill a conscript? Certainly. That time is when he’s part of a force that poses an imminent or actual danger to your country. When your national survival (or the survival of the world system as a whole) is at stake, then, yes, absolutely. If the U.S. were invaded, I’d be in the recruiter’s office again tomorrow.

But our survival is not at stake. The survival of the community of nations is not at stake. Secretaries Clinton and Gates have been rather candid about the fact that Libya is not a “vital national interest” to the U.S., and William Saletan points out that the “humanitarian rescue” fig leaf is a little suspicious, given that we’ve ignored quite similar atrocities in the past:

[I]n 1982, Syria’s ruling family used its air force to bomb a rebellious city and then sent in tanks and ground troops to complete the massacre. Amnesty International estimated the death toll at 10,000 to 25,000. In the current Libyan crisis, by comparison, Amnesty reported a week ago, “It is clear that hundreds have died in Libya since unrest began. This has included people deliberately killed, killed as a result of excessive or indiscriminate use of lethal force, those who were caught in the ongoing armed conflict, and as a result of human rights abuses.”

That’s hundreds versus thousands. So a regime’s level of violence against its citizens obviously doesn’t drive our military decisions. Nor does the use of air power to slaughter civilians. What has drawn us into Libya but not Syria is the last thing Clinton mentioned: “The world has not come together” to call for action in Syria or the Ivory Coast. Fatalities and air power don’t matter unless they produce international support for intervention.

And who’s driving that international support? Saletan says that it’s primarily French prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is using the campaign to bolster his own popularity at home. Juan Cole, for his part, acknowledges that Sarkozy’s “grandstanding” is “distasteful,” but is confident that “he is to his dismay increasingly boxed in by international institutions, which limits the damage he could do as the bombing campaign comes to an end.”

Hmm. It certainly doesn’t seem like international institutions are doing too much boxing in, since we’re now looking at providing arms and training to the rebels in order to “[remove] Colonel Qaddafi, even if that was not the stated goal of the United Nations resolution.” If the member states of NATO are not bothered about the careful limitations of the UNSC resolution, why on Earth would Sarkozy be?

Above, I staked out a position that our military should only be called into action to stop an existential threat. But in an abstract moral sense, I am willing to accept that military intervention to stop slaughter is, perhaps, also valid. I can certainly see how, to servicemembers currently serving in Libya, stopping the deaths of civilian protesters might be a good that outweighs whatever killing they have to do, whether it’s kids in tanks or the guys operating anti-air defenses or civilians who just get caught in the crossfire.

The problem is that the “no-fly zone” originally announced in the UN resolution is only an abstraction. I hesitate to call the idea a complete fiction, but we must be realistic: an air-only strategy will not be enough. A few days ago, the AP was reporting that

“Pentagon officials are looking at plans to expand the firepower and airborne surveillance systems in the military campaign, including using the Air Force’s AC-130 gunship armed with cannons that shoot from the side doors, as well as helicopters and drones.”

Helicopters, drones, and low-flying aircraft with door gunners are not used to maintain a no-fly zone. They are used for direct engagement with ground troops.

And then there was this announcement — NATO is already aware that the rebels can’t win without foreign intervention:

With the possibility of a prolonged military deadlock looming, 40 foreign ministers, Clinton, the heads of NATO and the U.N. and representatives from the Arab League met in London to decide how to help Libya into a post-Gadhafi future.

British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that “the Libyan people cannot reach that future on their own.”

Slate‘s Saletan points out that President Obama’s statements in his speech to the nation seem like they commit us to a full and protracted fight:

“America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him,” said Obama. “The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.”

This was an enormously important statement, probably the most significant thing Obama said last night. It rings true and carries vast implications for how we must respond to the Arab uprisings. We’re trying to encourage peaceful transitions, as in Egypt, while discouraging bloody crackdowns, as in Libya. This means we can’t allow Qaddafi to come out of the Libyan uprising better off than Hosni Mubarak came out of the Egyptian uprising.

Read Juan Cole’s statement above again — the one about how he’ll go serve if NATO calls. “[I]f it succeeds in getting rid of Qaddafi’s murderous regime and allowing Libyans to have a normal life, it will be worth the sacrifices in life and treasure.” He’s on the same page as the president at least — it’s not a no-fly zone; it’s regime change. It’s not Iraqi Kurdistan 1991, in other words — it’s Iraq 2003.

And, of course, there was a principled case to be made for regime change in 2003. Christopher Hitchens, for one, has steadfastly defended the invasion as a good idea, even if badly executed, and he has wasted no time drawing the through-line to Libya:

Here is what I was told in confidence by the British diplomat who helped negotiate the surrender of Qaddafi’s stockpile of WMD…. [V]ery important in the timing, was Qaddafi’s abject fear at watching the fate of Saddam Hussein. This has been amply reconfirmed by many Libyan officials in the hearing of many of my friends.

Never mind Hitchens’ wishful credulity here. (I don’t know why it doesn’t occur to him that this could just as easily have been disinformation put out by Qaddafi and his officials in order to ingratiate themselves with the Bush and Blair administrations in order to ease the process of “coming in from the cold.” Nothing would make the Anglophone nations happier than to believe that their Iraq strategy is producing awesome results, so let’s give them awesome results, and in return we can normalize relations and get trade sanctions lifted. Libya had, at any rate, been trying to end its WMD program and normalize trade since the Clinton Administration, so the “he gave up his nukes after he saw what happened to Saddam” narrative rings a little false….)

The point is, Hitchens was right, and continues to be right, that Saddam Hussein was a terrible person — a brute and a torturer and a perpetrator of naked genocide — and that if you look purely at the leadership of Iraq, there’s no doubt that today’s Iraqi government is much, much better for the people of Iraq than was Hussein. (I mean, sure, it’s horrifically corrupt and funnels reconstruction money to the same militias we were there fighting. But.)

One of Cole’s key points, you’ll remember, was that the UN Security Council and the Arab League support the no-fly zone. But all that that means is that the US, Britain, and France cajoled smaller countries like Gabon and Bosnia into supporting the actions they were fully intent on taking anyway. Germany, Brazil, India, Russia, and China all abstained, which is a polite way of voting ‘no.’

And the Arab League? Why are the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain pleased to see Western powers supporting rebels against one of their own? Could it be that they are overcome by the democratic stirrings of the “Arab spring”? Recent events suggest otherwise. Qaddafi is a nuisance — and a competitor — and they are delighted to see his armies bombed for the same reason Iran was delighted to see Iraq thrown into turmoil after our invasion there. Cole says, in the comments section of one of the above-linked posts, that he is “Not OK with a land invasion, and neither is UNSC, NATO, or Arab League.” Well, there you have it. The Arab League is perfectly willing to see us bomb the hell out of Qaddafi’s tanks, artillery, and planes, but not to go in and finish him off. They want him weak, not removed. We are the cat’s-paw here for Qaddafi’s regional rivals.

But even if that were not true — if, on the one hand, the UNSC and the Arab League were made up of completely disinterested parties, or if, on the other hand, the UNSC and the Arab League had declined to give their blessing to this adventure — how would that make the moral question any different? If it is moral and right to save the Libyan rebels from Qaddafi’s attacks, it is certainly right to do so regardless of whether anyone else approves. In this, I find Hitchens’ hawkish moral consistency somewhat easier to stomach than Cole’s dependence on external validation.

Cole agrees with me on this, in a weird way — but the validation he seems to think is unimportant is that of our elected representatives. When challenged by a commenter about the constitutionality of the President going to war without Congressional approval, Cole snaps, “The War Powers Act has been explained by many commentators. Look into the Korean War, by the way.”

All right. First, commentators have indeed been examining whether President Obama has been acting within the bounds of the War Powers Resolution, and it doesn’t look good. The Resolution authorizes short-term action without Congress’s permission only in cases of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” Not one of those conditions is fulfilled here. (In contrast, President Bush did actually fulfill the terms of the Resolution in invading Iraq by seeking “specific statutory authorization” for war.) You can, of course, argue that the whole Resolution is itself an unconstitutional limitation on the power of the Commander in Chief, and presidents routinely do so argue whenever they violate it. But I notice that none of them ever take it to court. I wonder why.

Second, it’s not clear what Korea has to do with the War Powers Resolution, which was passed in 1973. But other parallels with Korea are interesting — for example, the fact that Truman’s advisers initially thought that the North Korean advance could be halted by air and naval power alone, or the fact that his “police action” provided a nice template for later American interventions, including Vietnam.

This last point is worth pondering. Suppose I’m wrong about the direction things seem to be heading. Suppose the U.S. really does draw down. Maybe Qaddafi will think better of it all and quietly retire. Maybe “former regime elements,” as we used to call them in Iraq, won’t be a problem if he falls. Maybe the new government will be democratic and just and fair in every way. But even if all that happens, it will probably still have been wrong for us to get involved in the affairs of another country when our own national interests weren’t at stake.

Because every time we do this — every time we let the President unilaterally declare war for some reason other than actual national defense — we make it make it that much easier for the next guy. We make it seem natural, even inevitable, that when a president has a whim to go expeditioneering, the rest of the country can’t really do anything about it. And while today’s whim may find resonance with the Left — ah, good, we can save some nice underdog rebels! — I guarantee you that tomorrow’s will not.

“I… don’t understand the worry about the setting of precedents,” says Cole blithely, because it’s not him who has to go and fight and kill people in one of these boondoggles once the precedent of an absurdly low bar to entry into war has been set. It’s not his soul that’s hired out for a president’s (or a professor’s) momentary pleasure in crushing an Evil Dictator.

Well, American boots have already touched Libyan soil — the news broke while I was writing this. Abu Muqawwama has the timeline of a Marine Recon rescue operation to save a downed F-15 pilot. This is nothing like an invasion, of course, but it neatly demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish a neat, tidy air war from a dirty ground war. The air war is the ground war. Our planes are now, essentially, the air force of the rebel contingent — we provide their fighters close air support, and if we are serious about seeing this thing through to regime change, this intertwining is only going to pull tighter. There’s some confusion as to whether any civilians were injured in the Marine Corps operation; at least one local farmer claims to have been hit by American fire:

A second plane reportedly strafed the field where the pilot went down. Hamid Moussa el-Amruni himself said he was shot, suffered shrapnel wounds in his leg and back, but he could still walk. He used an old broomstick as a crutch and said he held no grudge, believing it was an accident.

Here’s hoping that kind of benevolent benefit of the doubt from the Libyan people holds up.

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2 Responses to why i am going around being rude to Juan Cole

  1. Pingback: wait… the Federal Reserve has been loaning WHO money? | The Handsome Camel

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