Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 13, 2011

Edward Herman’s slipshod writing on Libya

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

Edward Herman

As someone who made a fairly substantial investment in countering the demonization campaign against Slobodan Milosevic during the war in Kosovo, I found myself on the same side of some people who I now feel little in common with. Perhaps the main reason for this is that many adopted what amounted to a formula and applied it to every single foreign policy crisis that ensued. While my main interest was in fighting demonization, looking back in retrospect I am afraid that others had a different agenda. As Trotsky once wrote, they sought to put a plus where the ruling class puts a minus. In this formulaic approach, we find apologetics for Mugabe, Ahmadinejad, Qaddafi, various post-Stalinist leaders of Eastern Europe, and anybody else that got on the wrong side of Human Rights Watch.

When writing about Yugoslavia, I found it absolutely necessary to read the press very carefully. The most important instance, of course, was the casus belli for the war in Kosovo, namely the alleged massacre in Račak. People like Edward Herman, for example, worked hard to scrutinize the charges against the Serbs in accordance with the higher standards of investigative reporting that are so crucial when American imperialism is on the warpath.

That is why it is so disconcerting to see such a precipitous decline in his recent reply to Gilbert Achcar over NATO intervention in Libya.  While Achcar is obviously wrong in supporting intervention, our case is not helped by sloppy and lazy if not propagandistic writing by Herman. I refer specifically to this:

Achcar describes the rebel forces fighting Gadaffi as representing a “popular movement” and “mass insurrection.” This is dubious—as Stratfor points out, the base of the insurrection has “consisted of a cluster of tribes and personalities,” the heart of which was in the East,, and whose members and leaders “do not all advocate Western-style democracy. Rather, they saw an opportunity to take greater power, and they tried to seize it.”[5] Achcar fails to mention that this eastern Libya base area was a principal recruiting ground for Al Qaeda, and that the killings of civilians and prisoners by these rebels has reportedly been large.[6]  He does not suggest the possibility of a bloodbath if they were to take over Tripoli and western Libya.

Footnote five cites an article by George Friedman titled “Libya, the West and the Narrative of Democracy”  that appears on the Stratfor website. If Herman would have us rely on Friedman’s expertise on Libya, one wonders if he would recommend the wisdom of these words that appear in the same article?

Each of the countries experiencing unrest was very different. For example, in Egypt, while the cameras focused on demonstrators, they spent little time filming the vast majority of the country that did not rise up. Unlike 1979 in Iran, the shopkeepers and workers did not protest en masse. Whether they supported the demonstrators in Tahrir Square is a matter of conjecture.

Well, that’s a surprise to me. I was fairly certain that Egyptian workers did protest against Mubarak.

But more to the point, can we really describe Libya’s uprising as “tribal” in nature? Friedman makes this point and Herman appears happy to accept it at face value. Our professor emeritus of finance surely can do better.

This trope, which appears widely in the bourgeois press, needs to be scrutinized a bit more carefully. One would have hoped that Herman might have sought out the opinions of Libyans themselves rather than a character like George Friedman, an American citizen who launched Stratfor in a bid to provide CIA type information to investors avoiding risk. On March 30th, Alaa al-Ameri, a British citizen originally from Libya, wrote a piece for Comments are Free on the Guardian website titled “The Myth of Tribal Libya” that included the following observations:

One must also remember who sparked this revolution – it was young people, mostly under 30 years of age, who’ve lived their entire lives in urban centres. How many Glaswegians under 30 know or care from which clan they originated? On what basis, other than cultural stereotyping, do commentators presume that the young people of Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli are any different? Which tribal allegiance was Mohammad Nabbous – a citizen journalist who established the independent internet television station Libya Alhurra in the early days of the revolution – serving when he was shot dead by a sniper at the age of 28 while reporting on the bogus ceasefire cynically announced by the Gaddafi regime on 19 March?

I’d like to ask those who are regurgitating and magnifying the “tribal” propaganda of the Gaddafi regime through the international press – how many Libyans have you consulted about this? How many Libyans who are not members of the Gaddafi regime, not in the middle of a pro-Gaddafi rally in Green Square or some fortified suburb of Tripoli, not under the watchful eye of a pro-Gaddafi minder, have expressed the views you’re repeating in your articles and interviews? As we struggle to liberate ourselves from this horrific regime, you brand us with names hastily acquired from last-minute reading. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – find me a Libyan who’s ever used those terms to describe their country.

By labelling us as “tribal” you effectively dismiss the notion that our uprising has anything to do with freedom, democracy or human dignity. Do you place narrow regional loyalties above these values? I’m sure you would reject any such characterisation, and naturally so. Please do us, as Libyans, the courtesy of allowing us the same human characteristics you attribute to yourselves.

Herman’s advises his readers that Eastern Libya was “a principal recruiting ground for Al Qaeda”, a charge of course made by Qaddafi early on. One supposes that we should be grateful that Herman did not repeat the charge that they were on drugs as well. His reference for this is an article titled “Al‐Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records” by Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman. I guess you can figure out by the title of the article that the authors are professors in the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy’s Department of Social Sciences, the last place you’d expect Edward Herman to be dredging material from.

The article makes clear that the Libyan fighters belonged to The Libyan Fighting Group, an Islamist group that viewed the occupation of Iraq as evil and that was ready to commit its forces to ousting the American crusaders. It strikes me as odd that men motivated to sacrifice their lives in such an endeavor are now cited as reason enough to smear millions of people opposed to Qaddafi as siding with terrorism. This kind of sloppy amalgam was used against Milosevic often enough when some Serbs used ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and should now not be used against the Serbs.

Finally, we must ask some questions about the charge that the Benghazi rebels were killing Black Africans in the manner described by Wolfgang Weber in a wsws.org article titled “Libyan rebels massacre black Africans that is based on an article by Gunnar Heinsohn but which itself is primarily based on a BBC report by a film documentary maker named Farai Sevenzo. It should be pointed out that Weber’s article was cited widely by the anti-anti-Qaddafi left early on, especially since it included this alarming finding:

“Because mercenaries from Chad and Mali are presumed to be fighting for him [Gaddafi], the lives of a million African refugees and thousands of African migrants are at risk. A Turkish construction worker told the British radio station BBC: ‘We had seventy to eighty people from Chad working for our company. They were massacred with pruning shears and axes, accused by the attackers of being Gaddafi’s troops. The Sudanese people were massacred. We saw it for ourselves.’”

Described as a “genocide expert” by wsws.org, Gunnar Heinsohn’s views demand some careful investigation. I for one would be a bit hesitant to rely on the judgment of a sociologist who defends the “youth bulge” theory of terrorism. This theory, according to the Wiki on Heinsohn, proposes that an excess in a young adult male population leads to social unrest, war and terrorism, as the “third and fourth sons” find no prestigious positions in their existing societies. He cites Palestinians as a prime example. This is someone whose analysis of social unrest in Libya I would not solicit, but what do I know?

Now, as I said, Weber’s article relies on Heinsohn’s which relies on Sevenzo’s—three degrees of separation so to speak. So let’s go to Sevenzo’s piece to evaluate his reporting.

Sevenzo writes:

One Turkish construction worker told the BBC: “We had 70-80 people from Chad working for our company. They were cut dead with pruning shears and axes, attackers saying: ‘You are providing troops for Gaddafi.’ The Sudanese were also massacred. We saw it for ourselves.”

This quote has been widely disseminated on the leftwing of the blogosphere, from MRZine’s favorite Sukant Chandan to The Black Agenda Report. Now that’s quite a story, 70 to 80 people—the entire African contingent for an unnamed construction company—being killed in a pogrom. But the problem is that you will find no such reference to the massacre anywhere in Lexis-Nexis, the definitive database for news articles.

In fact a search combing the terms “Chad”, “workers”, “killed’ and “Libya” reveals nothing of the sort. Perhaps the most telling coverage of the abuse of foreign workers comes from the Los Angeles Times that reported in a March 4 article titled “Libyan rebels accused of targeting blacks“:

Across eastern Libya, rebel fighters and their supporters are detaining, intimidating and frequently beating African immigrants and black Libyans, accusing them of fighting as mercenaries on behalf of Kadafi, witnesses and human rights workers say.

In a few instances, rebels have executed suspected mercenaries captured in battle, according to Human Rights Watch and local Libyans.

Now as deplorable as this is, it is a far cry from a story with an uncorroborated claim from an unnamed Turk from an unnamed construction company that 70 to 80 people from Chad were “cut dead with pruning shears and axes”. If that’s the sort of “evidence” that Edward Herman relies on nowadays, then all we can say is that is sad to see how far the near-mighty have fallen.


  1. These “leftists” will use any boogeyman — Al-Qaeda, racism, tribalism, monarchists — to avoid supporting a democratic revolution against an “anti-imperialist” dictator. It’s funny to watch people who criticize U.S. imperialism arming/training bin Laden and co. under the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic while they embrace that logic themselves when it comes to trying to figure out the politics of a war.

    Comment by Binh — April 14, 2011 @ 5:42 am

  2. Facts are stubborn things, and the left needs to be thorough in its treatment of them, as you have been here.

    Comment by Binh — April 14, 2011 @ 5:44 am

  3. Hmmm. What you are saying is that Herman does not check his sources properly, which is doubtless true. On the other hand, Achcar’s articles, which Herman has helped disseminate, are much more intellectually problematic since they rest on the assumption that a Libyan uprising is ipso facto a good thing, that anyone who doubts this is a Gaddaffi sympathiser, and that it is inconceivable that the Libyan resistance to Gaddaffi could be co-opted by Western imperialism. It seems to me that, intellectually speaking, Herman’s behaviour is less undesirable than Achcar’s, and since both of them are intellectuals of comparable stature, aren’t you singling out the wrong one for criticism?

    Comment by The Creator — April 14, 2011 @ 7:41 am

  4. Imperialism is far from an omniscient force, and with today’s myopic ruling class, I doubt that it will really end up exerting that much influence on the Libyan rebels. For example, Western imperialism backed the Afghan rebels against the Soviet-backed government, and these same rebels later became the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Hardly an outcome in imperialism’s best interest. Now, I’m not in any way implying that the protesters and rebels in Libya are going to set up a reactionary state if they are victorious, but I am saying that regardless of who arms or backs them, this will probably do little to change their overall agenda.

    Comment by Rob — April 14, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  5. Did you read this guy yet?: http://dissidentvoice.org/2011/04/libya-today-and-the-arab-uprisings/

    Comment by Jenny — April 14, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

  6. It seems to me that whether Herman is right or wrong about the murder of black Africans by the opposition is beside the point. Deciding the degree to which Gaddafi is a murderous dictator is also beside the point. We heard what the point was this morning when Hillary Clinton dumped the word “atrocity” on Tripoli. It’s a word she hasn’t used about Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrein or Yemen. It’s too late to ask whether Libya will end up in Western hands. London and Paris have already taken a determining role in the Civil War while Washington helps off stage. Are we really going to believe that they are on a human rights jaunt? In Libya imperialism is already in charge.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 14, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  7. “We heard what the point was this morning when Hillary Clinton dumped the word “atrocity” on Tripoli. It’s a word she hasn’t used about Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrein or Yemen.”

    Is anyone who supports the NFZ suggesting that the Western powers aren’t total hippocrits? Seriously, EVERYONE gets that.

    And do any NFZ-supporters think the West is doing this for the right reasons? No.

    So why keep forwarding these two points?

    The relevant questions are: is the Quaddafi regime worthy of support and is the rebellion worthy of support?

    If you answer “no” to the first and “yes” to the second (as I would), then the questions are: can Western intervention help and can the rebellion dance with the devil without giving away autonomy?

    The last question is the one I grapple with. History isn’t on the side of “yes”. But I don’t want to see the uprising smothered in the crib either.

    Comment by Rojo — April 14, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

  8. “Can Western intervention help and can the rebellion dance with the devil without giving away autonomy?”

    Keeping to your yes-no schema, the answer is no. Autonomy was lost the moment Benghazi changed its line from we don’t want Western help to we want Western help. The rest is romance.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 14, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

  9. Keeping to your yes-no schema, the answer is no. Autonomy was lost the moment Benghazi changed its line from we don’t want Western help to we want Western help. The rest is romance.

    They thought they could win without Western help, then realized they couldn’t win without it. What would you have done? Hash it out with some lefty grad students on MRZine?

    Comment by Rojo — April 14, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

  10. Only one thing’s for certain: with NATO bombings the political outcome (who gets what?) will be identical to Yugoslavia.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 15, 2011 @ 2:35 am

  11. Exactly. And this morning we get the follow up to Clinton’s PR signal of the day before. Obama, no longer playing coy, comes out beside Sarkozy and Cameron in favor of full-fledged regime change. You are going to have a more Western orientated government in Libya than in Yugoslavia where the Serbs have been bombed out but never convinced. None of this has any reflection on the rebels of Benghazi who, as Rojo points out, were caught in an impossible dilemma.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 15, 2011 @ 9:37 am

  12. I’m glad that you all are so certain about the nature of the ‘rebels’ in Benghazi. This rebellion has been sometime in the making, didn’t just spontaneously started. There is no doubt who is in charge in Libya: The US, France and Britain. Btw, why are we always dictated this binary choice? Support Ghazzafi or the insurgency? As to the Talibans in Afghanistan, they more than served US imperialism.

    Comment by Mazdak — April 15, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

  13. This rebellion has been sometime in the making, didn’t just spontaneously started.

    I don’t see what the mystery is. Over a thousand inmates were gunned down in Abu Salim prison in 1996–even Saif Qaddafi called it a massacre. In February the lawyer who represented many of the families of the inmates was arrested. This occurred during the spontaneous revolts taking place throughout the Arab world. So the people of Benghazi joined in. Because they had the temerity to attack one of the left’s heroes, they were stigmatized from the beginning. Long before the West got involved, they were condemned for flying the flag that predated Qaddafi’s reign. They were attacked as racist even though racism is a general problem in Libya. The big problem is that they made a mistake by turning the struggle into a military one. That gave the West an opening unfortunately.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 15, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

  14. Yes, if Quaddafi’s out, you’re going to have a Western oriented government. And you’re going to get one in Tunisia and Egypt and maybe Yemen.

    Comment by Rojo — April 15, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

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