Blog post

"Monopolizing moral ground": Verso authors make the case for and against intervention in Libya

Morgan Buck25 March 2011

As military strikes continue by air and by land in Libya, political disagreements in the West are ongoing, dividing both right and left over what is now an aggressive UN-backed intervention. The issue has inspired opposition even among Verso authors, as posts by Richard Seymour and Conor Foley have recently demonstrated.

Writing for the Guardian on Tuesday, Richard Seymour explains the use of personal vilification as a political tool in the justification airstrikes against Gaddafi. Seymour, author of The Liberal Defence of Murder, argues that recent attempts to discredit Gaddafi as a political opponent are part of an age-old political tradition of "externalizing evil" and drumming up unquestioning support for such ‘ethically motivated' attacks. Pointing to the use of descriptions from "Cowardly Colonel Gaddafi" to "mad dog" and "foaming at the mouth," Seymour has joined a vehement political debate over the many justifications for the continuing intervention.

The Sun, having suitably vilified Gaddafi, informed us that he had "ordered his armed forces to dress in civilian clothes in a bid to trick Our Boys into aborting their bombing runs". At the same time, he "had around 300 'supporters', including children as young as five, in the grounds of the compound in the Libyan capital at the time - all unaware they were acting as his human shield". By means of such prophylaxis, the Sun sought to assure readers that if anyone was killed, they weren't civilians. And if they were civilians, it was because Gaddafi had engaged in a dastardly ploy to use civilians as a human shield. Either way, "Our Boys" are pre-emptively cleansed of any of the bloodshed, though it is they who are the bombers in this instance.

The demonology is intended to make such ridiculously convoluted tales more plausible. And it has a long history in the annals of British war propaganda. At the height of the Suez debacle, the BBC described Gamal Abdel Nasser as a "barking dictator". Saddam Hussein was also a "mad dog", "barking mad", "foaming at the mouth", "Hitler" and more besides. And he too was blamed not only for the nonexistent WMD but for situating his military targets among civilians, thus using them as human shields - as if the British government routinely situates administrative buildings and MoD offices in the middle of deserted fields in Berkshire. The effect of such rhetoric is to externalise evil. The same states that brought us Fallujah, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib can, through such means, claim a monopoly on the moral high ground.

Blogging in indirect opposition on March 22, Conor Foley, author of The Thin Blue Line argues that:

the case for or against a ‘humanitarian intervention' rests on answering two broad questions: has the level of violence reached such a threshold that the use of counter-force is morally justifiable and is it a practical, strategic option that will actually make things better for the people concerned?


There was never even the remotest prospect of a ‘humanitarian intervention' in Sri Lanka and I only include it in the discussion to show that the option of doing nothing also has moral consequences. On balance I am in favour of the current intervention in Libya. As I said in my previous post, I think that the UN resolution authorizing it puts the protection of civilians at the centre of its mandate and sends a clear signal to governments of the world that they cannot massacre their own people with impunity.

While the oppositional points made by these two authors come nowhere near to encapsulating the details of the debate as a whole, they do raise some crucial points about the argument on both sides. Richard Seymour's full article can be read by visiting the Guardian, while Conor Foley's post can be read at Crooked Timber.