David McReynolds on Libya
Libya: Real Problems, No
by David McReynolds
PLUS: See the new biographical book about David, just below his feature
Sheila Cooper was my first indirect contact with Libya - back in the 1980's.
Sheila had great secretarial skills, she enjoyed that work, and had been
the essential person to serve as back-up to Peggy Duff. (I just checked Wikipedia
for Peggy - an interesting entry but a deplorable "evaluation"). Peggy was
a great person, a close personal friend, and when she died, not only did
I lose a friend, but Sheila Cooper lost the only really interesting job she
Looking for a job that would bring in enough to allow her to buy a tiny Greek
island and retire, she took a secretarial job in Libya, which paid very well.
I kept in touch with Sheila with the occasional letter, and saw her once
during one of her return visits to London. She never gave me any suggestion,
either when I saw her in London, or in her letters, that Libya was hell on
earth, or a totalitarian nightmare. Sadly, she contracted breast cancer and
died before she could retire.
It was due to Sheila that I had my second indirect contact with Libya. Sometime
in the 1980's I got an invitation (with a free air ticket!) to a conference
on something about "liberation and disarmament" - the exact title escapes
me - to be held on Malta. I thought it smelled a bit odd (even very odd)
but I found out from Sheila that the Libyans had asked her for suggestions
as to who ought to be invited, and she had given them a list of all her friends,
including a Japanese contact, myself, Daniel Ellsberg, and a number of others.
I went and am glad I did - as someone with what might be termed a "limited
income", I'd never otherwise have seen Malta, which was a real treat.
My suspicions, however, were right. No sooner did I get to the first class
hotel where the conference was being held (each of us was assigned our own
luxurious private suite) than I saw, on the table at the entrance, the famous
Green Book on display. For those new to the discussion of Libya, let's move
to the fairly immediate past the establishment of modern Libya. From
1911 to 1951 Libya was a colony of Italy. There was courageous resistance
to the Italians, a resistance which was ruthlessly suppressed. One historian
estimated the Italian military killed half the Bedouin population directly
or through disease in the camps where captives were held.
During World War II Libya was the site of some of the famous desert battles
between Generals Montgomery and Rommel. (The warring parties also left behind
a vast number of land mines, and then refused to ever turn over to the Libyans
the maps that would allow them to be detonated. A number of Libyan farmers
lost their lives in consequence).
At the end of the war Italy surrendered control to the Libyans and the first
(and only) monarch, King Idris. The US found Libya a good place for its Wheelus
Air Base. The discovery of oil in 1959 made Libya an area of great interest
to the British and Americans. King Idris concentrated wealth in his own hands
and it was, perhaps, not surprising that on September l, 1969, a small group
of military officers led by Muammar Gaddafi took power. Gaddafi was then
27 years old.
In 1977 a certain amount of confusion set in as to what to call Libya, as
it officially became the "Great People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya". (I have
never had a satisfactory definition of "Jamahiriya"). And Gaddafi authored
his famous "Green Book", which I have tried to read but found not worth the
effort (perhaps it makes better sense in Arabic). What is certain - and this
accounted for the Malta Conference I attended - is that Gaddafi did not align
himself with the Soviet Bloc but sought a kind of "active neutrality". I
do not recall anyone from the Soviet-dominated World Peace Council at Malta.
It was, one must say, a fairly odd "active neutrality".At various times Gaddafi
has sought to politically unite with Egypt, tried to incorporate Chad, funded
various Muslim movements as distant as the Phillipines, and terrorist groups
in Europe, including Northern Ireland. In fairness, many countries have funded
terrorists - virtually all of the Arab states have been involved, and so
has Israel (which was among the early supporters of Hamas, hoping it might
weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization). The history of the CIA has
involved a good deal of support of terrorists. However one of the aspects
of Libyan policy of which I was aware some years ago was that Gaddafi sent
out hit squads to eliminate Libyan dissidents who had fled to other countries,
a form of terrorism not many countries engaged in.
As I went through the 32 page summary of Libyan history in Wikipedia, it
is clear that it has been recently and extensively revised, and shows an
obvious bias to reflect recent events. President Reagan ordered air strikes
on Libya in 1986 in retaliation for the alleged Libyan involvement in a bombing
of a night club in West Berlin. Gadaffi was the target of the attacks. He
escaped unharmed, but his daughter was killed, and a number of civilians.
That damage I saw when in Libya in 1989.
The terrorism came home to me in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Friends
of mine lost their only child, a daughter, who had been on the flight returning
home. This destroyed the parents, who continue to live but in many ways died
when the plane disintegrated in mid-air over Scotland. We must keep in mind
that the US has had its own hand in similar bombings. Cubana Flight 455 was
destroyed on October 6, 1976, by a terrorist bomb. CIA documents that were
released in 2005 made clear the agency had advance information on the plans
for this attack. Four men were arrested, two given 20 year prison terms in
Venezuela but Orlando Bosch was acquited on technical grounds and lives -
would you guess it? - in Miami, Florida. Luis Pasada Carriles fled before
his final sentence and came to the US where he was finally brought to trial
on a minor charge but even that trial has been postponed. Both men had direct
ties to the CIA. None of this excuses any involvement Libya may have had
with the Pan Am bombing - it is only important that those who point to Libya
as a sponsor of terrorism must understand the same words apply directly to
the United States. And parents in many countries still grieve lost children.
1989 an invitation came for the Fellowship of Reconciliation to send a team
to Libya to "see for ourselves". We raised our own funds for the flight to
Rome, but, as I remember it, the flight from Rome to North Africa and then
by land to Tripoli, was covered by the Libyans. We went with an expert on
Libya, Dirk Vandewalle, an Associate
Professor at Dartmouth College. Prof. Vanderwalle is an author of one of
the most carefully researched books on Libya. You can track down his recent
comments on Libya by going to Wikipedia. President Obama might consider talking
directly to Prof. Vanderwalle.
We stayed in a good hotel in the center of Tripoli. Perhaps ironically, since
the West sees Libya as a fearful totalitarian state, one of our party told
me they thought the park next to the hotel was a gathering place at night
for homosexuals. I went down and checked it out, and found it true - not
a pick up site on the edge of town, but close to our hotel. I also took note
that while Gadaffi had emphatically deplored the use of Islamic head coverings,
terming them "rags", a number of young women wore them. We were able to walk
through Tripoli freely - which doesn't mean we weren't followed, but it does
mean we did not have "official minders" with us at all times, and if there
were followers they weren't obvious.
Granted this was twenty two years ago, it seems to remain true that the standard
of living in Libya is high the population of six and a half million
people has a per capita income of nearly $15,000. During the time we were
there we met with most of the key government officials, though not with Gadaffi
himself. Our discussions were informal, and none of us felt the people we
talked with were afraid to be candid. The literacy rate, at 82% of the
population, is the highest in North Africa. Basic education is free and is
compulsory to the secondary level. Medical care seems to be very good.
Gaddafi himself may be mad (an easy charge to make, a hard one to prove),
but if so he is also very committed to his sense of Libya's mission. I would
say his foreign policy has been appalling but while there is no political
freedom in the sense that we understand it, I have not seen credible
documentation of the kind of wide spread torture of which Egypt was guilty
under Mubarak. And our tax money funded Mubarak - not Gadaffi. (And when
we talk about prisons, I think the US, with the largest prison population
in the world, is skating on very thin ice).
My problem with the response to the current crisis is that everyone seems
to bring their own view of the world to Libya. Some of the same hard line
Marxist/Leninist groups which had defended Serbia (and even Saddam) now defend
Gaddafi, while other socialist groups, from a more Trotskyist tradition,
have been swift to see in the opposition to Gaddafi the same kind of opposition
we saw in Egypt. The problem for me is that I really do not know much about
the Libyan opposition - while we knew, very early, a good deal about the
There is no doubt at all that Libya has used violence, including air strikes,
against the uprising but the main population is in Tripoli and at this point
that seems to be still in Gadaffi's hands (this may, of course, shift at
any moment). There have been a number of Libyan officials who have sharply
denounced the use of violence and defected - but it is clear from the fact
Gaddafi has appeared in public that he still has a strong base of support.
And while in the early days of the civil disorder there were few Western
journalists in Libya, a number have been invited in by the government and
are now reporting from Tripoli.
Perhaps the oddest division is in the US, where liberals such as Senator
Kerry have called for a no fly zone (and of course Senator McCain, but one
tends to discount him these days). One of the key Republicans, Senator Richard
Lugar from Indiana, has come out strongly against the US going to war. The
Defense Secretary has seemed to put himself at odds with the President, saying
that we lacked solid evidence that air strikes had been directed against
civilians and also cautioning against a no-fly zone.
The President made a basic mistake in thinking he had either the power or
the right to tell Libya that Gadaffi had to leave. Libyans are, for very
good reason, cautious about such efforts by foreign powers to determine their
government. And while I would say that much of Gadaffi's foreign policy has
been foolish, or violent, or simply dead wrong (among his past allies have
been - to name just one - Idi Amin), I'm not sure that there is strong evidence
that the people of Libya itself see things this clearly.
Libya is a large country, with the population spread out along the coast,
with the largest concentration in Tripoli. We are not dealing here with Egypt,
where the uprising began in the capital, in a nation which historically has
centered around Cairo. Nor are we dealing with Tunisia, where the government
fell almost without violence and almost overnight. Here we have a society
divided along tribal lines, not along religious, class, or political lines.
My basic position is that the future of Libya is in the hands of the people
there. I hope - based on my own political values - that Libyans have free
elections, and that such elections would result in entirely new leadership.
Gadaffi has been in power too long. But that is my view, and I live in New
York, not in Libya.
The problems with the no-fly zone
It is easy for the Americans or the British to say all we have to do is "even
the playing field" by establishing a no-fly zone. But this leaps over several
realities. First, a "no fly" zone is an act of war. To make it stick you
must bomb all the air defense installations Libya has, with a good deal of
bloodshed. And given the record of the "accuracy" of the American pin point
bombing, we are talking about a good many civilian deaths.
There is also the serious problem of how legal such a no-fly zone would be,
and who would authorize it. The UN? NATO? The US acting unilaterally?
But suppose a no-fly zone doesn't tip the scale. Suppose that it encourages
the opposition to continue fighting - and to continue losing, as I think
they are at this point. Don't we then have some obligation to come to the
aid of people we have, by our actions, encouraged to continue fighting? Perhaps
we help by sending in arms? (The US has already asked Saudi Arabia to do
this). At what point does this become, not only one more foreign war we didn't
need to fight, but a foreign war which becomes, as with Iraq and Afghanistan,
Why not a no-fly zone for Gaza?
Once the Americans decide we should provide a no-fly zone for Libya, what
do we do the next time Israel launches another criminal, enormously bloody
attack on Gaza? Don't we then have an obligation to tell Israel we are setting
up a no-fly zone there? And if not, why not? Do American liberals mean to
tell us there is one rule for a country that doesn't have nuclear weapons
and a strong Congressional lobby and another rule for a country which does
have such weapons and such a lobby? OK, and then aren't we really saying
our morals are very expedient? That we will only attack countries we know
we can attack safely? I note that among the strong advocates of a "no fly
zone" is Senator Lieberman I do think that if there is any land action
needed in Libya, we let Lieberman, McCain, and Obama land on the beaches
and head toward the action. I'm weary of seeing young men and women sent
off to die while the politicians make the speeches.
And finally, the three letter word for our real motives
Only the very young and innocent think nations go to war for moral reasons.
They go to war for two reasons only. One, they have been attacked and must
defend themselves. Two, they see some value from getting into a war. And
what is the value that might lead us to attack a country which has not attacked
us? It is a three letter word - OIL. The same reason we attacked Iraq. But
then we aren't doing this for reasons of compassion and decency and concern
for human rights. If we were, I can list several other countries it might
make more sense to attack. I can suggest Obama might consider a greater public
concern for human rights in Saudi Arabia, where public beheadings are still
much in order.
I'm not happy with the fact I don't have answers for real problems. History
doesn't always give us answers. One of the grave problems of having military
power is that if you have it, then all the problems you see look like nails,
and you think of your power as a hammer. But that makes for very bad politics.
Look at the record: Vietnam, Cambodia, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan (to name
but a few). Finally, look here at home, where the poverty rate is high, where
the hunger rate is much, much higher than in Libya. I can't solve Libya's
problems. But our problems here take priority in my mind.
- David McReynolds -
||THE NEW BOOK COVERING DAVID ...
A Saving Remnant: The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David
When David McReynolds and Barbara Deming first met
in the early 1960s; each was deeply engaged with many of the critical issues
of their day.
The first openly gay man to run for President of
the United States, on the Socialist Party ticket, he devoted his life to
peace and justice, working for forty-five years as the intellectual backbone
of the War Resisters League in NYC.
An American feminist, writer, and political activist
with a deep and lasting commitment to non-violent struggle, she was repeatedly
jailed for her participation in nonviolent protests and traveled to Hanoi
in 1966 to see for herself what the war looked like.
Born on opposite coasts, twelve years apart, they
were left-wing radicals who also happened to be gay, and whose paths crossed
at different points based on their common political concerns.
By the prize-winning biographer and historian, Martin