U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The US Intervention in Libya–question for diplomatic historians

Someone at the OAH mentioned that intellectual historians are currently dominating the corps of diplomatic historians, so I hope some of you might be able to help.

How do we assess whether or not the US should be involved in Libya? How important is it that “we” do? I mean, other than ordinary citizens writing their congressmen or foreign policy experts being able to write op-eds?

I came across this post today through H-Afro Am (I’m linking it from another location–it’s all over the web) and I wonder how to assess it’s validity as a non-specialist in the region?

“Libya, Getting it Right: A Revolutionary Pan-African Perspective” by Gerald A. Perreira / March 4th, 2011

For those of us who have lived and worked in Libya, there are many complexities to the current situation that have been completely overlooked by the Western media and ‘Westoxicated’ analysts, who have nothing other than a Eurocentric perspective to draw on. Let us be clear – there is no possibility of understanding what is happening in Libya within a Eurocentric framework. Westerners are incapable of understanding a system unless the system emanates from or is attached in some way to the West. Libya’s system and the battle now taking place on its soil, stands completely outside of the Western imagination.

Read the rest here.


8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think you would have to work pretty hard to find any specialists in the region who endorse even parts of that analysis. I only know what I read, so I could be misled by a grand conspiracy of bourgeois lies, but — if so — it’s a pretty formidable conspiracy that has completely absorbed the entire range of “expert” opinion. And also amnesty Internation, Human Rights Watch, etc. Unless we’re living in the matrix, that article is pretty bad.

  2. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that it’s important that we not assess whether the U.S. should be in Libya as historians. That’s something we can do as concerned citizens, armchair policy wonks, taxpayers, etc., etc. — but not as historians.

    What we can do as historians is bring the past of that region and our involvement in it into view, providing both context (because the present is built upon a whole series of “pasts”) and contrast (because “the past is a foreign country”).

    On this blog in particular we (blog authors and commentors) often play fast and loose with the (admittedly arbitrary) boundaries which separate “the past” from “the present” (or at least from presentism). It seems that many of the regulars here are focused on the history of the past 25 years, which makes critical distance all the harder to sustain.

    I guess some people read history as a cautionary tale; I tend to read historiography as a cautionary tale. Peter Novick paints a pretty stark picture of the political/propagandistic roles American historians chose to play — or were pressed to play — during the wars of the 20th century.

    Everything we do as historians matters somehow for the present — but I think we need to avoid passing judgment on the present as historians, just as we need to avoid passing judgment on the past. It’s not our professional duty. But it’s a perfectly fine after-hours hobby.

  3. Aaargh! And by “our involvement” I mean “American involvement.” I can hear my advisor now: “What do you mean by ‘our’ or ‘we’? American history isn’t about ‘us’ — it’s about historical actors of the past. Don’t confuse the two!”

    Which is, I suppose, my point, however inartfully stated.

  4. “Westerners are incapable of understanding a system unless the system emanates from or is attached in some way to the West.” What does that even mean? Does the opposite hold true then, that a Middle Easterner is incapable of understanding the U.S.? There are plenty of ways to critique the current US intervention. That’s not a good one.

  5. Thanks LD, very insightful about how historians can work in the world. I’ve thought a lot about why this blog tends towards the present, particularly when I’ve been about to post. I think part of it has to do with the ease with which informal blogging comes to present topics. I hesitate to make sweeping judgments about the past, where I would be more likely to footnote and proceed with caution. As a mostly un-published author, I am also cautious to share too much of my research in a free, public domain before it gets into “print” (or at least hosted on a journal’s website and thus vetted by them). And now I’m going to spout off about the present in my off hours.

    Andrew, part of the reason I linked to it is because of all the ways in which Americans failed to understand the role of the CIA in “freedom” movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia during the Cold War. The author argues that part of the reason we are only hearing anti-Gadhafi activists is because that is the side the media is focusing on and/or because that is the side that is outside the country. All over Africa there are pro-Gadhafi supporters (like Ghana)–is that because he bought them off, like I read in one article, or because he represents a way of binding Africa together? Perreira also argues that the country has a relatively high standard of living and that Gadhafi has used oil revenue to build up the infrastructure. NPR’s Planet Money podcast had a whole show about how horribly Gadhafi has overseen the economy and infrastructure. Perreira mentions Gadhafi funding ways to bring water into the desert; Planet Money used just such a scheme to illustrate the waste in the country.

    If Gadhafi was as well-meaning and beneficent as he says he is, why the harsh repression on the media?

    The US getting militarily involved in a oil-rich majority Muslim country makes me very nervous (well, as a partial-pacifist, militarism in general makes me nervous).

    And I do think we in the West could use a little more humility in the way that we deal with other countries (we the policemen of the world, we the democracy-bringers, we the nation-builders).

    I’m teaching a course this semester all about the global anti-apartheid movement in which all of the forces of stability and non-involvement are painted in a very poor light. There is something so incredibly charming and romantic about the idea of grand societal change for the better, but I’d love to take a day in which we closely analyze the reasons (not just the rhetoric) that the US took so long to get involved in South Africa and yet got involved in so many places at the very same time. Was it really just the cold war and economic investment? One of the first papers I ever wrote for graduate school was comparing the rhetoric of the Eastern Bloc in the UN on South African issues to the rhetoric of the US and Britain in the Hungarian revolt of 1956. It was eye-opening how similar they were and how much they talked past each other.

  6. I agree with z and Andrew about the article in question. And while I also agree entirely with Lauren that US policymakers could use more humility in the way they deal with other countries, I don’t think the barrier to their doing so is the absolute epistemic impossibility of understanding the Other.

    I disagree with LD, however, about historians holding forth–and holding forth as historians–on current affairs (for those of you who know that I was a founding board member, and later co-chair, of Historians Against the War this is probably not surprising).

    I think historians, like everyone else, can–and should–play active roles in our various (local, national, international) communities’ political lives. And, also like everyone else, our particular knowledge, experiences, and expertise (including our professional knowledge, experiences, and expertise) will–and should–have an impact on our behavior as citizens. We cannot bracket out what we know as historians from our behavior as citizens. And at a certain level I think it’s a bit dishonest to pretend that we can. (Here, incidentally, is a fine recent example of an historian commenting on a current issue while drawing on his knowledge of history and status as an historian.)

    All that being said, two caveats:

    1) Except in very unusual circumstances, when we hold forth on current events as historians, we are not actually doing history. And when we are actually doing history, we are rarely holding forth on current events. Maintaining the distinction between these two sorts of activities is important. (One additional thought: policymakers frequently turn to actual works of history to guide them, whether or not they should do so, and whether or not the “lessons” they derive from these works constitute a fair reading of them or in any way reflect the intensions of their authors).

    2) The “lessons of history,” such as they are, are rarely unequivocal or decisive. We can learn from the past, but the past alone will almost never tell us what to do. One of the many valuable things that historians can do as citizens is remind policy elites and the broader public who might be prone to fall back on, e.g., the “Lessons of Munich” as a simple guide to handling some new crisis, that history, even that history, does not provide us with clear cut rules for future action.

  7. @Ben: Good points.

    You write: “Except in very unusual circumstances, when we hold forth on current events as historians, we are not actually doing history. And when we are actually doing history, we are rarely holding forth on current events.”

    That’s the key and the clincher. Is there a way to comment “as historians” without seeming to claim that we are “doing history”?

    Perhaps an analogy would be clergy — if a clergyman goes to the city council meeting, introduces himself as Rev. So-and-So, and then talks about the need for a four-way stop sign at the intersection near his house, nobody would surmise that he was acting in a pastoral role. Or would we? I think that could go either way — either he is introducing himself with the title by which he is known in the community, or he is using his title to rhetorical advantage to gain credibility with his audience. Or both?

    Anyway, the idea that historians can tell society “the lessons of history” which will shed light on what people ought to do in the present day is not an idea we can necessarily be blamed for promoting. But we must be aware of its influence and, I would suggest, do what we can to correct it.

    Knowing my own tendency to wade into controversy like William Lloyd Garrison on his high and holy horse and start jawing so that I might as well be knocking heads like Samson swinging the jawbone of an ass — knowing this tendency of mine, I think the best thing for me to do is just stay out of current events and stick with my archival sources.

    They also serve who only stand and wait…

  8. I think the best thing for me to do is just stay out of current events and stick with my archival sources

    No way, LD! I say “speak up even if your voice historicizes!” Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, et al., talk nonsense, and their nonsense needs to be countered in some way by sense of some kind, no matter how provisional.

Comments are closed.