Glenn Greenwald is one of several “progressive” (USA-ian for “Social-Democratic”) commentators who have been debating Juan Cole on his tempestuous “Open Letter to the Left”. Greenwald’s “Question of Juan Cole” takes what Cole says seriously, and applies serious criticism to the Professor’s unabashed endorsement of a U.S./NATO air war to oust Gadaffi. The more I read, the more convinced I am that Cole is not engaging in an intra-Left debate, or even having a Hitchens Moment (a full-on defection from his principles) as some US anti-war activists have claimed.
Cole wants to go to war because he is having a strong emotional reaction to oppression. I empathize, but that’s not analysis.
He’s not interested in the Left, except that he sees the Left as the primary impediment to what he wants done. So he belittles and abuses leftists who oppose this war with “walk and chew gum” insults, insinuations we’re Stalinist ‘tankies’ defending the suppression of Prague Spring, or nationalistic “isolationists” like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact era Communist Party cadres.
But in the touchstones of his arguments — formal legality, individual morality as definitional of leaders of states, historical exceptionalism, rejection of motivations for imperial action beyond surface ideologies or party labels — Professor Cole reveals himself is a centrist Obama-Clinton Democrat.
If a self identified centrist supporter of “benign imperial intervention” said all this we’d ignore it. It might even harden opposition from the Left. So Cole frames this as the plea of a Leftist, trying to bring us back to that magical time before we became knee-jerk ideologues, when we still (apparently) believed in imperial powers enforcing decisions of the handpicked capitalist Security Council through multi-billion dollar airborne defense systems.
Cole points to the Spanish Civil War as our inspiration. Where powerful foreign militaries used state-of-the-art air power and blockades to shift the tide of civil war to those which might best benefit future investments. (Oh wait, that was the Luftwaffe.) He appeals — as a friend and comrade, mind — to our shared better nature.
Greenwald doesn’t peg him so, but he asks the right question: how does the Professor — who’s opinions are only really of interest in that they are informed by his education and analysis — decide when a war is “justifiable”.
…regarding his test for whether war is justifiable…[Cole says] “My reply would be simple. If you are arguing for war, you don’t have to ask all these fancy questions. There are really only two questions you have to answer. The first is, would you yourself be willing to die fighting for this cause you have espoused? The second is, would you be willing to see your 18-year-old son or daughter killed for this cause?”
This, I think, bolsters my previous argument that (while I wish him well) Cole is not of the Left and is not really directing his critiques towards the left as most leftists would define that group.
The historic Left has since the mid 19th century defined its values around two elements: that political structures serve class conflicts and that human equallity (what Ernst Nolte in “The Three Faces of Fascism” called “transcendence” of all human divisions, against which fascism is a backlash). Most left-wing criticisms of this war in Libya are based on class (the revolution’s leadership is no more progressive than Gadaffi in what class it will empower, even if they’ll be far more humane rulers) and on humanism (we shouldn’t kill people unnecessarily or by our imperial weight, turn a revolution against despotism into an imperial power game).
If Cole’s support or opposition is based not on “fancy questions” but “would I be willing to go kill people?” he’s not asking anything with any relevance to the left.
Again, I don’t think he’s malicious, but I do believe he’s targeting the left only because the criticism of the left is what he believes is most damaging to a war he wants to fight. Not because he’s a leftist with a dissenting analysis based on shared values.
So his emotional lectures about how the Left needs to do X, Y, or Z, (in a fairly patronizing tone) should carry no more weight than the Obama, or Secretary Clinton, or G.W. Bush, or Gadaffi.
My response is that we have to support the overthrow of the brutal Gadaffi regime. But that ‘we’ is not the United States military, CIA, or the European states which attacked, killed, tortured, brutalized and stole from so many for so long in Libya and its neighbors in a colonial orgy which ended only 50 years ago. We as human beings and communities have other options, and we should use them. There are other less imperial actors who can intervene, and we should encourage them. But I reject this hair-on-fire “we don’t have time to debate just support what didn’t work in Iraq” B.S.
Cole has an opinion. Lovely. But it is bolstered only by sterile legalisms, a misreading of the military situation, appeals to ahistoricism (ignore the last two wars), and insult. All of which is covering for reasons no deeper than a gut-check.
I ask more from intellectuals than a gut check, Professor Cole. Your brain got the PhD, and I respect that. Your gut carries no more weight than mine.
I highly recommend this thoughtful article by Matt Meyer “Libya’s Silver Lining: Challenges and Lessons for Western Peace Activists.” It exemplifies what debate amongst those who share Leftist values should look like.
In a week of bombing and bloodshed, I have been amazed and saddened at the amount of confusion, arrogance, and paternalism from supposedly progressive people of the so-called global north. Perhaps I should not be so surprised: the US “left” is an under-developed country, and we would all do well to take some serious lessons — in democracy, nonviolence, and revolution — from our counterparts in the southern hemisphere. Perhaps the silver lining is to learn from the lessons of Libya.
- Question for Juan Cole (salon.com)
- Misinformed Commentary: A Response to Juan Cole From the Left | The Tomathon (tomathon.com)
- Juan Cole’s Open Letter to the Left on Libya (marccooper.com)
- ‘Interventions’ (hughgreen.wordpress.com)
- African Cabbie vs Juan Cole: “The French Cannot Be Trusted In Africa” vs. “Libya 2011 Is Not Like Iraq 2003? (jackandjillpolitics.com)
- A Really Progressive Alternative in Libya (radcontra.wordpress.com)
- Saad’s Revolution: Cole at Truthdig | Informed Comment (juancole.com)
- Answer to Glenn Greenwald | Informed Comment (juancole.com)
- Scarborough Hits Liberals For Libya Hypocrisy (huffingtonpost.com)
- An Open Letter to the Left on Libya | Informed Comment (juancole.com)
- Tom is Moving in on Libya (indigenist.blogspot.com)
- Libyan rebels on the run and US not far behind (thewesternexperience.com)
- Democracy Now: Juan Cole on the Protests in Egypt (crooksandliars.com)
- Dear Left: Re. Libya, Why Do You Think Obama Will Do What You Want Done? [Mike the Mad Biologist] (scienceblogs.com)