Juan Cole Challenges the Left “to Chew Gum and Walk at the Same Time”

Last night MSNBC’s The Last Word solicited the opinion of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) on President Obama’s speech. After the congressman expressed his opposition to the airstrike’s preemptive nature, he voiced what is perhaps progressives’ main objection to U.S. leadership in the Libyan airstrikes — its lack of a Congressional authorization.

Another guest, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), replied (not his exact words), “True, we should have been debating that instead of de-funding NPR.” But he agreed with the actions and plan that the president outlined in his speech. For the record, either host Lawrence O’Donnell or guest Rachel Maddow made the point that, because the Senate had been consulted, opposition was found mainly in the House.

Meanwhile, Juan Cole’s post on Libya March 27 titled An Open Letter to the Left on Libya, in which he writes that he is “unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on,” has generated much attention and response. Essentially a call to the left to be less doctrinaire in its policy on the use of armed force in causes other than national defense, he makes some points that are difficult to refudiate, I mean refute. Beginning with — congressional authorization aside — its legality:

The intervention in Libya was done in a legal way. It was provoked by a vote of the Arab League, including the newly liberated Egyptian and Tunisian governments. It was urged by a United Nations Security Council resolution, the gold standard for military intervention.

On the reflexive use of force:

The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. . . . 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.

On selective application of the use of forces:

Many are crying hypocrisy, citing other places an intervention could be staged. [But military] intervention is always selective, depending on a constellation of political will, military ability, international legitimacy and practical constraints. The humanitarian situation in Libya was fairly unique. You had a set of tank brigades willing to attack dissidents [and] aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.

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

Note: Cole didn’t mention, for example, repression in Bahrain, where U.S. refusal to intercede is due most likely the state’s hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet. As for whether or not the Libyan airstrikes set a precedent:

The UN Security Council is not a court. . . . and works by political will. Its members are not constrained to do elsewhere what they are doing in Libya unless they so please. . . . But if a precedent is indeed being set that if you rule a country and send tank brigades to murder large numbers of civilian dissidents, you will see your armor bombed to smithereens, I can’t see what is wrong with that.

On al Qaeda fighters joining the opposition:

If there were an uprising against Silvio Berlusconi in Milan, it would likely unite businessmen and factory workers, Catholics and secularists. It would just be the people of Milan. A few old time members of the Red Brigades might even come out, and perhaps some organized crime figures. But to defame all Milan with them would be mere propaganda.

Finally:

The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government.

As a progressive struggling with the aerial strikes, you can be forgiven if Cole’s points give you pause. Returning to Congressional authorization, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy responded [emphasis added].

In this particular case, the decision of the Obama Administration to engage the country in a new Middle East war without Congressional authorization represents a long-term threat to the U.S. peace movement . . . and Congress is a key arena in which the peace movement tries to assert influence over U.S. policy.

Of course, it’s important to think long-term about the implications of acts of war without congressional authorization. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair to withhold assistance to Libyans to keep from setting an American legal precedent, no matter how important. Focal Points readers are urged to respond to Juan Cole’s points in the comments section.