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TRNN Replay: Hamid Dabashi and Nader Hashemi debate the US/NATO intervention in Libya

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Perhaps no question has divided progressive global public opinion more than the Libyan war since the US’ and its allies’ invasion of Afghanistan. Now joining us to talk about this debate, and to in fact debate it, just what’s going on in Libya, to assess the US-NATO role, is, starting from Denver, Colorado, Nader Hashemi. He’s an assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the University of Denver. And in New York City, Hamid Dabashi is a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University. Thank you both for joining us.

HAMID DABASHI: Thanks, Paul. Thanks for having us.


JAY: Now, Nader, you edited a book called The People Reloaded about the Green movement, the Green Revolution in Iran, and Hamid is one of the authors in the book, but you’ve come down on different sides of this Libyan issue to some extent. So, Nader, first of all, start with how you assess the original resolution, and then how you assess the situation today.

HASHEMI: Well, I think there’s two principles here that have come into conflict with respect to the question of Libya, and I think, you know, reasonable people can disagree on this. And the two principles are, number one, supporting the democratic aspirations of people that are struggling for democracy and self-determination, and number two, opposing the foreign domination of those peoples. And so how does one resolve this conflict? I come down on the side of listening to what to me seems to be, likely, a broad consensus among the Libyan people, that they support a NATO no-fly zone and they support NATO air strikes to help them in their liberation struggle against Muammar Gaddafi. Now, I’m not happy about the type of intervention that’s taking place. You know, I wish I can come up with other scenarios that perhaps are more acceptable in terms of international law and that carry less negative consequences. But, you know, when you put it all together, given the balance of forces on the ground, given the fact that we are dealing with a ruthless dictator that seems to be marching again on the city of Benghazi, I’m not going to second-guess what the people of Libya seem to be universally saying, and that is that they support, you know, the NATO no-fly zone and they support coming to the rescue of their democratic revolution.

JAY: Hamid?

DABASHI: As Nader said. Nader and I are most of the time on the same side, and I don’t really disagree with his assessment. But the key operative word in his phrase is “seem”. Libyans don’t have any democratic venue of expressing their ideas. This revolutionary uprising, like the one in Tunisia and in Egypt, began peacefully, people pouring into the streets and demanding their democratic rights. Because it was brutally suppressed by Gaddafi, the revolution has become increasingly militarized, and the urban, happy, jovial aspect of the uprising has given way to militant fighting and shooting and heavy guns and so forth. I hold Gaddafi, of course, principally responsible for this, but I don’t believe that sitting outside Libya I can endorse the military intervention, US-led intervention military intervention with its European allies, that has in fact over the last week or so exacerbated the violence. And as I have always said, I was not party to the decision of United States and its European allies selling arms to Gaddafi. Why should I be party to acknowledging or endorsing the military intervention? I remain unconditionally in support of the revolutionary uprising. I’m sad that it has become so bloodied by both the Gaddafi regime and by US-led invasion, but nevertheless, I don’t believe that we as ordinary citizens should implicate ourselves as he has (in my judgment wrongly), signing a letter to President Obama asking him to arm the rebels. This is in my judgment flawed.

HASHEMI: Well, my response to that would be that, you know, a long time ago, one of the big lessons that I learned about supporting democratic struggles in other countries–and this is a lesson that I learned from Noam Chomsky–is that we should never in advance sort of pre-judge how we can and should help those peoples, but we should always defer to them in terms of their advice, those people who are on the battle lines, those people who have at least popular support, and take our cues from them. And so, again, with respect to Libya, that’s how I’m coming down on this issue, on this conflict. Everyone that I’ve heard from Libya–in fact, it’s hard to come up with one prominent Libyan voice–intellectual, you know, representative of civil society, anyone who’s on the ground, or any Libyan who’s living abroad right now–who actually opposes the NATO no-fly zone. And so I can’t disagree with what again seems to me to be overwhelming unanimous opinion on behalf of people that are facing annihilation by a repressive and brutal dictator. They are all saying uniformly that they want foreign military strikes, not occupation of their country, but they need assistance to tip the military balance in their favor. And I can’t disagree with that, given the objective realities on the ground in Libya today.

DABASHI: There are two issues, Nader. One is, first of all, do we have democratic representation from the Libyan side? Which we don’t. And when I see [inaudible] member of the opposition on the Libyan side being in fact manipulated by Bernard Levy, this French intellectual who is now–you know, has been an intermediary between the rebels, so-called, and the French government, to ensure that post-Gaddafi regime is Israeli-friendly, I have every reason to doubt the veracity of this representation. Libya is going through–like any other revolutionary country, through revolutionary representation, and I don’t believe that even those who have asked for a no-fly zone have known or have any control or had any agency over the magnitude of involvement. For example, they were not supposed to have ground force, but as we know for a fact that now CIA agents are there on the ground helping and assisting–is not just helping and assisting with the rebels, but in fact channeling and reconfiguring the revolutionary uprising in Egypt in a manner that becomes US-friendly. It is very crucial to remember when President Obama spoke on March 28 defending his decision for the invasion of yet another sovereign nation-state, he said very clearly–and it is a remarkable statement–that only when our interests and our values coincide do we interfere. This is even much more blunt than anything that Bush ever said, and in fact is worse than what Blair was saying in the preludes to Iraqi invasion. The fact of the matter is that United States is wary, Europeans are wary of these open-ended revolutionary uprisings. And Gaddafi has given them a military foothold into North Africa, not in order to help or protect–first of all, there have been civilian casualties since this invasion started–not to protect the civilians, but in fact to channel, to control, to manipulate and make sure that these open-ended revolutionary uprisings do not end with democratic chaos that ultimately is a prelude to any democratic change, but in fact is controlled by US and its European allies. US, it is in the political DNA, Nader, of United States that it much prefer to deal with dictators and authoritarians. Democracy is messy, they are afraid of these democratic uprisings, and they want to control it. And entire–I mean, all of these dictators, from Ben Ali to Mubarak to Gaddafi, they were controlling North African borders for the European market. And right now, US and its European allies are flexing their military muscles in order to take control of the Mediterranean Sea. This is the larger picture which we are facing, not the question of humanitarian assistance or protection of the civilian lives. Civilian lives–look at what is happening in [inaudible]

JAY: Hang on for a sec, Hamid. Let Nader jump in.

HASHEMI: The larger picture that Hamid just painted–I think he’s raised some important points, and I’m very sympathetic to that portrayal. But I guess I’m responding more to the immediate short-term picture. Approximately 2 weeks ago, Gaddafi’s tanks were on the outskirts of Benghazi. Had it not been for those French foreign fighters that took out the tanks, Benghazi most likely would have fallen, there would have been a massacre, the democratic uprising would have been effectively finished. Anyone, I think, who has any sense of, you know, ethics and morality has to have cheered the bombing of those tanks that prevented a massacre and allowed the revolution to continue. So my thinking on this is less motivated and shaped by the sinister machinations and foreign-policy designs of the United States, which, granted, historically, and even in the contemporary moment, have never been on the side of democratic revolutions. And I think that’s a broad truism. But then also I think we have to be cognizant of the fact that exceptions sometimes do exist to broad rules, and I think we can see one of the exceptions taking place here in Libya with respect to a struggle that’s taking place on the ground and the military struggle that is very much against the side of the democratic forces and in favor of Gaddafi, because he has the tanks and the heavy weapons, and anything that can tip that balance of power and allow the revolutionaries to take the battle to Gaddafi is something that I’m sympathetic with. Let me just add one quick point that Hamid raised earlier about do we have democratic representation. Well, of course we can’t, because it’s been 42 years of, you know, tyranny in Libya, so there’s been no democratic vote. But as far as I can tell, the Libyan transnational council [sic], despite all of its flirtations with, you know, Bernard-Henri Levy, who we can all agree is a fraud–but most Libyans that I’ve spoken to agree that despite the multiplicity of political forces that constitute that council, it does represent at this moment the broad aspirations of most Libyans, who want a better future in a post-Gaddafi Libya. So I’m willing to–based on the statements, based on the positions that they have put out so far, I’m willing to sort of give them the benefit of the doubt, and I’m not going to second-guess what every Libyan I’ve spoken to has said uniformly, that they support that Transitional National Council and they support the NATO no-fly zone over Libya.

JAY: What do you make of the current situation? You know, you can debate whether or not the UN resolution to simply protect civilians was right or wrong, but a lot of the people that were opposed to the resolution were opposed to it because they said it wouldn’t stop there, the resolution would lead to a plan of regime change, which I think clearly goes past the resolution. So in terms of what’s going on on the ground now, what do you make of what’s happening? I mean, you say you support clearing the way for the rebels. So doesn’t that mean you support that NATO-US will support or have the rebels achieve regime change?

HASHEMI: Yeah, I support regime change. In fact, I mean, I support regime change because that’s what the Libyans want. And let’s not forget, I mean, getting back to the US sort of role here, the United States and Europe was very comfortable with Gaddafi. They had struck an alliance with him post-2003–business contracts, oil exchanges, you know, academics sort of making big bucks off of Libya. So they sort of, you know, were very comfortable with, like, having Gaddafi in power. But now that the tide has turned and now that there’s a sort of democratic sort of tsunami sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, I think they’re trying to salvage, you know, the best situation possible. They’re hoping that they can sort of strike new deals with a post-Gaddafi Libya. Bernard-Henri Levy is dreaming big dreams that somehow post-Gaddafi Libya is going to sort of be an ally of Israel in the region. But as we know, anytime that there is a free and fair election and a public debate in terms of foreign policy aspirations, no one in the Arab and Islamic world wants to sort of turn their country into a replica of Mubarak’s Egypt or Ben Ali’s Tunisia. They are going to express the democratic nationalist sort of aspirations of their populations. And that includes sort of anti-imperialism, it includes support for the Palestinians, etc.

JAY: So, Hamid, Nader supports, in fact, this kind of clearing the way for regime change. What do you make of that?

DABASHI: Well, a number of things. Number one, I don’t think we should turn those who are like me, who oppose US military intervention in the region, into immoral and unethical person who couldn’t care less if Libyans are being slaughtered. This is flawed. Number two, Libyans, even those who agree with no-fly zone, have no political agency over what the US and its European allies are doing and are planning to do. Number three, the fact of the matter is–and Mahmoud [inaudible] in an essay in Al Jazeera–that representative of African Union wanted to land in Libya, in Tripoli, in order to sort out some sort of negotiation between the two factions, and the allied–the US and its European allies, the NATO, would not allow them to land in Tripoli. But ultimately, as I said, I think it is simply wrong of us, those of us who have a larger frame of reference, to allow United–to lend our support; not to allow; nobody has asked our permission–to lend our support and our moral voice to United States, number one, to whitewash its crimes in Afghanistan and in Iraq by virtue of appearing to do a humanitarian military intervention; and number two, something that should very much concern Nader, that this will be used as a model for military strike against any other country, including Iran. So Nader has been on the record, as many of us, opposing military intervention in Islamic Republic in the current democratic uprising. If this model is sold to the world as siding with democratic uprising, which is a joke, then we will have established a very terrible precedent for future.

HASHEMI: You know, those are all important points, but I think just to bring Iran in and sort of speak to the analogy that Hamid just made, well, the difference with respect to Iran and Libya is that in Iran the overwhelming majority of the pro-democracy movement, the Green movement, opposes and strongly rejects US intervention and US policy with respect to sanctions, with respect to this whole debate on the nuclear question. The case in Libya is in fact the inverse. The pro-democracy movement in Libya supports, at this particular moment, at this critical juncture, when they seem to be losing the war, when Benghazi was about to fall, when they need the support to tip the balance so they can continue their struggle, at this moment–. And so I think, you know, just picking up on that point, I support the Democratic aspirations of both the people of Iran and of Libya, and I take my cues from them, not what the United States’ larger agenda may be. And I agree that larger agenda has never been, in the past, a positive agenda for the peoples of the region. But I think there are critical exceptions at key moments, such as this in Libya, when people are about to be massacred, that external force sometimes can make a difference in terms of supporting democratic struggles.

JAY: Nader, what do you make of the critique that the National Council in Benghazi, many of the people, number one, are ex-Gaddafi people? There’s some suggestion some of the people that have returned from the United States may have CIA connections. And clearly the US is trying to shape and so is Europe trying to shape the outcome of all of this. Gaddafi’s not without his supporters in Libya, and some of them are saying what this is doing is simply turning over Libya to this alliance, that Europe and the United States are not going to put in this kind of investment without expecting an outcome they are firmly in control of. There is a nationalist Libyan argument that says what’s happening now is not good for the integrity or national sovereignty of Libya.

HASHEMI: Yeah, that sounds like Gaddafi propaganda to me. Of course, the National Council, the Transitional Council, it’s a coalition of groups–ex-Gaddafi people who have some nefarious ties to external organizations, but a lot of people in Libya from civil society. It’s a coalition that is united in opposing Gaddafi and laying out a pathway to a democratic future. And so I support that council. It’s not an ideal council, but we’re dealing with the real world. There are people from different walks of life. And these issues and these battles are going to be settled in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s overthrow, when there’s going to be an open democratic debate and a constitution and a set of elections that will lead, hopefully, Libya into a better future. And so with respect to the other point, yes, Gaddafi has support in the same way that Bashar Assad has support and, you know, the clerics in Iran have support. Every authoritarian regime as a segment of society whose livelihood and whose careers are tied to the existing of the ruling regime. But I think that support is very marginal, particularly in the case of Libya, and particularly after 42 years of dictatorship.

JAY: So, Nader, just to conclude, you support the way–the current action of US-NATO and the way it’s being carried out? In other words, if you were to make demands of the American politicians, what would you say to them?

HASHEMI: Well, I would say that we need to sort of have as much UN oversight over this operation as possible. It has to have a clear sort of timeline in terms of when it ends. It has to be closely coordinated with the Libyan democratic opposition in terms of how far and how extensive these NATO air strikes should go. So I think, you know, there’s–I’m not saying this is an ideal situation by any means. Any time there is foreign intervention in the developing world, particularly in the Arab-Islamic world, I sort of shudder and recoil, given past experience. But I think there are unique circumstances, as we see in Libya today, when, you know, external intervention can inadvertently help, you, democratic struggles and movements taking place. And again I come down on the side of what seems to me to be a very legitimate, broad-based coalition that is calling for external support to defeat Gaddafi, and I’m not going to second-guess those people who are on the battle lines right now.

JAY: Okay, Hamid, what would you say to the politicians that are leading the charge?

DABASHI: Paul, have you ever seen me talk to a politician? I never talk to a politician. I talk to you, I talk to Nader, I talk to my colleague. The politicians never ask me question when they sell masses of millions of dollars of arms to Gaddafi, or academics who started whitewashing Gaddafi’s crimes by a $3 million a head writing articles here and there what a splendid gift to democracy he is. I never received $3 million from him to write good things about him. Nor am I now [inaudible] position to endorse imperialist military intervention on the model of Iraq, on the model of Afghanistan that now we’re seeing in Libya. I’m very, very worried about the consequences, about the militarization of a peaceful revolutionary uprising. But ultimately my assumption and my position is that United States and its European allies would fail, that this wave of revolutionary uprising, beginning in 2009 in Iran, now extending into North Africa and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, they are quintessentially peaceful revolutionary uprising. And the double standard and hypocrisy of United States and its European allies that turn a blind eye to the massacre of Bahrainis and the horrors of Saudi Arabia and Yemen because they have military base and oil interests in those countries, and suddenly turning their attention to Libya, is flawed and is fraudulent, and I will not be part of it.

HASHEMI: Just quick–I mean, the difference between Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, I think there are significant, stark differences. Number one, it didn’t have UN sanction. In the case of Libya it did.

DABASHI: [inaudible] imperial and economic interests of United States in the region. That is the constant that worries me.

HASHEMI: No, I’m worried about that as well, Hamid, but I just wanted to point out there was no UN sanction in the case of Iraq; there is in the case of Libya. And secondly, the case of Libya, the people overwhelmingly support external–support any no-fly zone to support their struggle. In the case of Iraq, it was qualitatively different.

DABASHI: Yeah, that is what Ahmad Chalabi and /kE."nan.m@."ki.ja/ also told Bush: when the US army enters Baghdad, they will be welcomed with rosewater and baklava.

HASHEMI: Yeah, but we now know they were lying, right? But I think the case of Libya is qualitatively different. And I’m not happy about, you know, external intervention in any country, particularly in North Africa.

DABASHI: Yes, but the question is not, Nader, your happiness. The question is political and moral positions that we have to have, not to sign something asking–. Did you sign a document asking President Obama to arm Hamas or to arm Hezbollah? I mean, it’s just–.

JAY: What was the letter that was sent to Obama that you’re referring to, Hamid?

HASHEMI: It was a letter that was supported by–that was signed by many sort of Arab and Muslim sort of intellectuals and scholars.

DABASHI: Not many; a few.

HASHEMI: I think there were hundreds of them, from what I recall, sort of calling in to sort of take–what I recall, take the case of Libya very seriously, support the [inaudible]

DABASHI: No, no, no, arm, arm, specifically asking President Obama to arm the rebels.

HASHEMI: Well, I don’t recall the term “arm”. My–.

DABASHI: I have seen the letter and I have seen people who have signed it.

JAY: Well, let’s just ask the question now, Nader. What do you think on the issue of whether or not US and/or NATO should arm the rebels? What’s your opinion on that?

HASHEMI: Again, I defer to the democratic aspirations of the Libyan people and to the Transitional Council. If they say that they need the arms to sort of fight Gaddafi, I’m not going to second-guess them. I think–I take my cues from what people on the ground who are fighting for democracy and who are opposing this vicious tyranny want from us abroad. And that’s not just in the case of Libya; it’s in the case of all democratic struggles: I take my cues from democratic forces on the ground. So if they want the arms, then I would defer to them. If they don’t, then I would defer to them again on that point.

JAY: Quick last word, Hamid, on that?

DABASHI: I think I said, Paul–I said everything I want to say.

JAY: Gentlemen, thank you both.

HASHEMI: Thanks.

DABASHI: Thank you.

HASHEMI: Take care.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Nader Hashemi is Assistant Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver He has a PhD from the University of Toronto. He is the author of "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies". Nader is also co-editor of "The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Democracy in Iran"

Hamid Dabashi Born on June 15,1951 into a working class family in the south-western city of Ahvaz in the Khuzestan province of Iran, Hamid Dabashi received his early education in his hometown and his college education in Tehran, before he moved to the United States, where he received a dual Ph.D. in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Max Weber's theory of charismatic authority with Philip Rieff (1922-2006), the most distinguished Freudian cultural critic of his time. He is currently the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, the oldest and most prestigious Chair in his field. He has also taught and delivered lectures in many North American, European, Arab and Iranian universities. His books include Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future (2001), Iran: A People Interrupted (2007), and The Green Movement and the USA: The Fox and the Paradox (2010).

Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies" and co-editor of "The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Democracy in Iran" and most recently "The Syria Dilemma".