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Go to Libya, Mr Pilger

By Austin Mackell - posted Thursday, 13 October 2011

When I travelled to Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Tobruk briefly this June , not one of the people I spoke to was opposed to the NATO air campaign in their country. When I asked about the opposition to it they said there had been some (a minority) who spoke out against it to begin with, but that once they saw how restrained it was (relative to both Western air campaigns generally, and to the massacre they expected at the hands of Gaddafi) they had largely fallen silent. I did see one anti-NATO banner during my time there. It was on the side of a stall selling banners and flags in Benghazi's Freedom square. The teenager running the stall said they had sold about seven since the uprising began – a drop in the ocean of political expression that has come pouring out of the Libyan people.

Neither before or after the liberation of Tripoli and other areas that were until recently under Gaddafi's control, have I seen credible reporting showing a substantial anti-NATO sentiment – the only place such sentiment does have ascendency, it seems, is the global left.

I am reminded of sitting in a Middle East politics tutorial in the early years of the occupation of Iraq. People were arguing that a hasty withdrawal of American and other troops would leave the country to tear itself apart in a storm of sectarian violence (which, of course, happened any how). I raised a then-recent poll, which had shown a huge majority of Iraqis thought otherwise, and wanted foreign soldiers out of their land immediately. Were the Iraqis all wrong? I asked. Why? Were people saying they were all stupid?


Today, on the question of NATO's involvement in Libya, it is the left rather than the right, who have taken the paternalistic view that they know a people's interests better than the people themselves.

John Pilger, a longtime leading voice of the Australian left and a man who's positions on almost all issues I share, has taken this attitude, both in opinion pieces including one published here on The Drum and in public, and when confronted by Libyans who disagreed with him at a downtown Sydney rally . Tellingly, he is quoted as saying "this isn't really about Libya ... it's about the US." Maybe for you, Mr Pilger.

It seems to me, that he, along with many of my usual travelling companions, is conforming to the right's caricature of left-wing thinking by reacting in a knee-jerk simplistic way. This is evidenced by the fact that his article starts by talking about a UK run arms fair aimed at Middle Eastern buyers, the relation of which to the case of Libya is highly tangental, and goes on to quote comments by Margaret Thatcher about another war, in a different hemisphere, nearly thirty years ago.

One of the few points he raises that is specifically about the conflict in Libya is his assertion that "fragmentation bombs" are being used against civilians in Sirte. He doesn't source this claim, but a google search does reveal similar allegations circulating – all of which can be traced back to a "report" by "Human Rights Investigations" - a Wordpress template website with a proud history going back to April of this year and a clear obsession with discrediting both NATO and the Libyan rebels – though the allegations there relate to a cluster bomb attack in Misurata. It is the same attack that the far more credible Human Rights Watch lay at the feet of Gaddafi.

Mr Pilger and those who share his views would be well served to pay attention to HRW , who

do document mis-deeds by NATO and the rebels, but also pay heed to the much more numerous and systematic abuses carried out by Gaddafi's forces.


These abuses by Gaddafi cannot be ignored. Nor can the occurrence of a genuine popular uprising, which, having survived and defeated one vicious crackdown by Gaddafi's troops, and facing down a column of tanks on their way to Benghazi to finish the job, called for international help.

To Mr Pilger's credit, at least he has not gone as far as some, and attacked the rebels themselves, writing them off as longtime dissident expatriates friendly with western intelligence agencies , Islamic extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda , racists and/or former Gaddafi enforcers switching sides to manoeuvre for position . Perhaps he realises that the fact that not just one, but all of these claims are somewhat true of groups and individuals within the rebel coalition is in fact evidence – along with massive popular participation - of the broad based nature of the uprising.

These factors (combined with a deeper respect for the people of Libya and their opinions, and a deeper concern for their fates) have led most Arab intellectuals, including those from the anti-imperialist left [- to take more nuanced positions than their Western counterparts.

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About the Author

Austin G. Mackell is an Australian freelance journalist with a special interest in the Middle East and a progressive outlook. He has reported from Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli invasion, Iran during the turbulent 2009 elections and recently moved to Cairo to report on the transition to democracy. His work has been featured by outlets including New Matilda, Crikey!, The Diplomat, The Canberra Times,, The Scotsman, The Guardian, New Humanist, CBC, CBS, Russia Today, Citizen Radio and many others. He tweets on @austingmackell and blogs at The Moon Under Water.

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