Hugh Roberts on Libya

This blog has written a little bit on some of the strange reactions and commentary about various countries’ responses to the Libya crisis (mainly Algeria because it fits into the overall focus of this blog, but also other countries). Your blogger does not have especially strong feelings about the Libya intervention as such; the way the Libyan uprising was reported and covered and talked about is more interesting and perhaps more disturbing (and a subject for some other piece of writing, somewhere else). Hugh Roberts, whose work on Algeria is of the highest quality in general and who was with the International Crisis Group until recently, has a long article in the London Review of Books explaining his skepticism of the Libya intervention, its process and the inconsistencies in media reporting and various government arguments in favor of the UN-sponsored NATO effort there. It is a respectable series of arguments and deserves serious consideration. Going beyond the usual complains about western imperialism and oil politics, Roberts argues that the intervention ‘tarnished every one of the principles the war party invoked to justify it. It occasioned the deaths of thousands of civilians, debased the idea of democracy, debased the idea of law and passed off a counterfeit revolution as the real thing.’ There many who argued against the intervention and came off as callus, wooly headed or out of touch (and there were also a great many who favored the intervention who came off as obtuse, hypocritical, out of touch and all that). Roberts comes at the issue a bit differently and his article reflects a genuine concern and consideration for political outcomes in Libya that has not been so clearly articulated by other westerners opposed to the intervention. He cannot be called impartial, as his organization (at the time), ICG, was involved in attempting to influence the course of events in Libya and so he comes with his own baggage, as he puts plainly in the piece. This background comes through in the tone and the diction of the piece but less strongly than it might if written by another analyst; readers should look through his excellent book on Algeria, The Battle Field, made up of vigorously analytical essays on that country’s civil war which are of high quality. In other words, it is hard to say that Roberts is overcome with rage or that he is writing in the interest of some obscure vested interest (aside from his own) or with ill intentions here.

He also argues that the arguments and charges made by supporters of the intervention ‘involved mystifications’ and hyperbole. There are parts of the article which this blogger finds strongly agreeable, especially on the Manichaeism which characterized so much media coverage of the war (‘good’ rebells and ‘bad’ Qadhafites, the irresponsible rhetoric on ‘black’ or ‘African’ mercenaries, the way non-western and non-Gulf positions on Libya were ‘dismissed with scorn by Western governments and press’) and in popular characterizations of the Qadhafite regime as especially different from those of the Gulf states and how easily many people bought into the regime’s public image (although Roberts is perhaps too keen on similarities between the Gulf countries and the Jamahiriyya as the latter was rather more arbitrary and capricious in its repression). He provides a well informed and generally clear-eyed analysis of the way the intervention unfolded in public. He is too light on Qadhafi’s Africa policy (he does not mention, for example, Libya’s impact on west Africa and conflicts there) but quite on the mark when he writes it ‘meant little to the many Libyans who wanted Libya to approximate to Dubai, or, worse, stirred virulent resentment against the regime and black Africans alike.’ The overt hatred expressed toward black people and dark skinned Libyans during the war does not receive enough attention from journalists. Concern about the welfare of migrants and refugees victimized by the war and accusations of being ‘mercenaries’ was treated with cynicism and indifference in western media, especially at the start of the conflict and atrocities against them are underreported (one can find equivocations and balancing, Well they really could be mercenaries!). But one must ask: What did Qadhafi’s regime itself have to do with the oppression and mistreatment of black people in Libya, which is well known and was widespread among average people and the Libyan security forces and police, before the war? If Qadhafi was such a sincere pan-Africanist, why was such bigotry tolerated before? The piece is quite good on media coverage of Qadhafite versus rebel atrocities and NTC misinformation, which has become a something in between a running joke and an irritation among some reporters. Roberts is generally correct when he writes: ‘The standards of proof underpinning Western judgments of Gaddafi’s Libya have not been high.’ This is especially true in popular media and even (if not especially at times) on Al Jazeera and other places praised for their coverage of the war; it was perhaps most obvious during the recent war. And then there is the problem of the Libyan Imazighen (Berbers): Roberts is too brief on them and their struggles (he is also quite correct in the way he discusses the Qadhafite view of Libyan society and enforced homogeneity on ‘legitimate’ forms of Libyan identity and how this has been carried over in rebel discourse, see here for an example). There was not only a problem of ‘recognition’; there was a concerted effort to erase them from public vocabulary, to do away with their language and to discourage its preservation; people were beaten and threatened and tortured to that end. Whether one agrees with Roberts’s view of the intervention or not (or with some of the assertions made about the Qadhafite regime), his account is worth reading and reflecting on. Readers can make their minds up about it for themselves.

One thought on “Hugh Roberts on Libya

  1. In any case, allowing for any of several subtext variations, it is clear that the mainline media reporting approximates propagandistic garbage concerning what happened during these past months. Certainly, the grotesque and barbaric kiling of Qadhaffi himself was a Western endgame that merely magnified all of the barbarity of the warmakers (rather, “enablers”). His quixotic and unique projections from personal fantasy about his heroic historic role did not deserve such an end. His social justice themes and actions (apart from the “political tyranny” question) are under reported. Etc.

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