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ISR Issue 77, MayJune 2011
Libya’s revolution, U.S. intervention, and the left
By Lance Selfa
IN THE heady days of February, as the Libyan government of Muammar el-Qaddafi teetered, the Arab revolution appeared to be on the verge of forcing out a third dictator. The Libyan revolution had burst onto the scene with the same energy and fighting spirit that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia had shown. Youth led the revolt, giving confidence to wider layers of the population to mobilize. For various historical reasons, opposition to Qaddafi was strongest in the country’s eastern oil-rich regions. Although protests spread throughout the country, they reached farthest in the eastern cities of Benghazi and Tobruk. The mobilization drove the police off the streets and turned many city administrations over to popular committees.
But Qaddafi determined that he wouldn’t follow in Ben Ali and Mubarak’s footsteps. The Qaddafi government, acting through its loyal security forces, launched savage repression against the movement. Pro-Qaddafi forces opened fire on crowds, killing hundreds, while attempting to regain control of the streets of the capital and other major cities. The repression (or the fear for their own skins if they ended up on the wrong side of a triumphant revolution) prompted dozens of high-level Libyan government figures to defect to the side of the anti-Qaddafi opposition. In the eastern part of the country, whole military units went over to the opposition. The Libyan uprising transitioned from mass mobilization into a civil war between Libyan army units and mercenaries loyal to Qaddafi and rebels composed of military defectors and volunteers.
By early March, two key poles started to emerge in the heterogeneous Libyan opposition: one, centered on the Youth of February 17, the popular committees, and other forces who had formed the core of the early mass demonstrations; and a second one, convening generals, ex-members of Qaddafi’s government, and other longtime elite opposition figures. This second group forms the core of the National Transitional Council (NTC), announced March 5. The thirty-one-member Council, chaired by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the Libyan justice minister until only a few months ago, has declared itself the “sole legitimate body representing the Libyan people and the Libyan state.” To date, France, Italy, Qatar, and the Maldives have recognized it as the legitimate Libyan government.
From its formation, the Council canvassed Western capitals for support against Qaddafi. Initially they met with skepticism. Italy’s foreign minister accused the opposition of harboring al-Qaeda elements. For its part, the U.S. appeared as a bystander. An internal debate inside the Obama administration tried to ascertain the direction of the revolution. If Qaddafi could succeed in rolling back the revolution, the U.S. would verbally castigate him while secretly thanking him for cutting short the Arab revolution before it spilled over into a place, like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, that really concerned the U.S.
But as the outcome in Libya appeared increasingly uncertain and the possibility of a protracted civil war looked increasingly likely, Western countries decided to move. The first out of the gate was France, which recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya. France’s loathsome Islamaphobe president Nicholas Sarkozy began amplifying calls, emanating from the NTC, for a United Nations–sanctioned “no-fly zone” over Libya. Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic began banging the drum for “humanitarian” military intervention to stop Qaddafi’s forces from massacring the opposition. Soon other former colonizers of Africa, including Britain and Italy, started clamoring for intervention.
Although late to arrive, the U.S.’s ultimate decision to support the UN “no-fly zone” shifted the balance in its favor. The White House spin portrayed President Barack Obama’s decision to go to war in Libya as a triumph for a triumvirate of liberals—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and Obama adviser Samantha Power—who have well-established records of advocating the use of U.S. military force for “humanitarian” purposes. But Pepe Escobar, the Asia Times correspondent, offered a more plausible accounting of the decision based on his reporting from the UN:
You invade Bahrain. We take out Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. This, in short, is the essence of a deal struck between the Barack Obama administration and the House of Saud. Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya—the main rationale that led to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.
Clinton’s meeting with NTC representatives in late March may also have helped to sew up U.S. support for intervention. The Council has already publicly stated that it will honor the Qaddafi government’s oil contracts and debts. We can only imagine what other assurances Clinton managed to extract from the Council.
To win its endorsement of the no-fly zone, the United States had held out for the support of the Arab League and the African Union (AU). It received the support of the Arab League with only 11 of its 22 members voting, and most of these were members of the Saudi-financed and dominated Gulf Cooperation Council of reactionary oil monarchies. In early March, the AU had issued a communiqué condemning Libya’s attacks on peaceful protesters, calling for a cease-fire and humanitarian assistance to Libyans, and urging its member states to open their borders to African migrant workers fleeing Libya. Although the AU did not endorse the no-fly zone, two of its members (Nigeria and South Africa) voted in the UN Security Council to enact it.
Supporters of the no-fly zone urged quick action to head off what they predicted was a Qaddafi-planned massacre of opposition forces in the unofficial rebel capital of Benghazi. We may never know what would have happened in Benghazi. But Phyllis Bennis, in a March 29 article published on ZNet challenging Middle East expert Juan Cole’s pro-intervention stance, offered a reasonable counter to much of the hysterical commentary that formed the core of the pro-intervention case:
Qaddafi’s tanks had already attacked Benghazi and had been driven out by the armed power of the opposition forces—that’s why the tanks were outside the city when they were destroyed by the French warplanes. Was there danger to Benghazi and other parts of the country? Of course. But it is far from certain that the opposition, albeit less well-armed than the government’s forces, lacks the power to fight back. We’ve heard a great deal about military forces who defected with their weapons—in the east apparently Qaddafi lost the ability to deploy any of his military forces very early on.
If anyone wondered what real-world “humanitarian” intervention looks like, NATO didn’t give them much time to wait. Its initial bombing in the first week of the no-fly zone went far beyond its supposed charge to protect Libyan civilians. NATO hit targets across Libya, including several in densely populated Tripoli. It has even managed to kill rebel columns by mistake. Behind the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention, NATO is carrying out a war for regime change (Obama has said repeatedly that “Qaddafi must go”) in Libya. And if it can’t win the ouster of the dictator in Tripoli, it may be satisfied with hiving off a pro-Western state in the east, where Libya’s oil wealth resides.
For its own part, the Transitional Council has continued to push for Western support, having won a deal with Qatar to market Libyan oil under the control of the rebels to raise money to buy arms. The rebels, now under the command of Libya’s former interior minister Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, continue to press NATO to carry out air operations on their behalf. McClatchy Newspapers reported that another former military officer, Khalifa Hifter, moved from Virginia to take his position as Younis’s number two in the opposition militia. Hifter, who once commanded the Libyan military’s 1980s intervention in Chad before moving into opposition to Qaddafi, had lived for decades in the United States, lending quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that he was a CIA asset. Whatever Hifter’s connections to the CIA, we know from a March 31 New York Times report that the CIA is on the ground to build ties with the rebels and helping them to spot targets for NATO.
At the time of writing, the war between Qaddafi and the opposition seems to be bogging down into a stalemate. In early April, Libya’s foreign minister defected to Britain. With each former Libyan official to declare for the opposition, the West adds a new person “we can do business with” to its list of preferred clients in Libya. The rebels and the government have already engaged in fruitless AU-sponsored negotiations for a cease-fire, with negotiations foundering on conditions for Qaddafi’s departure.
The left and Libya
Clearly, the mass opposition to Qaddafi received its initial inspiration from the revolutions that overthrew tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt. As it unfolded as the next phase of the Arab revolution, it demonstrated conclusively that there is nothing about the Qaddafi regime worth defending. The challenge for the left in the West is how to provide support and solidarity with the popular movement against the Qaddafi dictatorship while opposing Western imperialism’s attempts to misdirect or squelch it under the guise of intervening to support it.
Unfortunately, a small number of commentators on the left in the United States as varied as the editors of MRZine, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report have taken positions that show varying degrees of sympathy toward Qaddafi (as have state leaders such as Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro). This current also tends to be skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, the popular challenge to the Qaddafi regime that began with mass protests. Some leftists in the West may have mistaken Qaddafi’s past anti-imperialist and quasi-socialist rhetoric as evidence of his progressive credentials. But the victims of Qaddafi’s torture chambers know better.
His regime began implementing neoliberal economic measures in the late 1980s that temporarily stalled in the 1990s before resuming over the last decade. Foreign investment in the oil industry, from Italy, Britain, France, and China, was encouraged. Moreover, Qaddafi’s anti-imperialist credentials faded years ago and he has been a key (if unstable) ally to the West’s “war on terror.” As Vijay Prashad notes in a February 22 CounterPunch analysis,
After 9/11, Qaddafi hastily offered his support to the U.S. In October 2002, Foreign Minister Mohammed Abderrahman Chalgam admitted that his government closely consulted with the U.S. on counterterrorism, and a few months later, Qaddafi’s heir apparent Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi warmly spoke of Libya’s support for the Bush war on terror.
Qaddafi was considered a good enough ally that imperial powers France, Britain, and the U.S. were selling his government weapons only weeks before imposing the no-fly zone.
Far more significant than the small pro-Qaddafi current are those who have supported the U.S./NATO intervention. It’s no surprise that many of the most vocal supporters of a Democratic president’s military action would hail from the Democratic sector of the foreign policy establishment—people like Clinton and Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.). But support for one form or another of Western military intervention extends to important figures on the left and in the antiwar movement. Gilbert Achcar, the veteran socialist and respected scholar—who has published numerous articles, interviews, and books on the struggle in the Middle East, including in this magazine—contended in an interview and a subsequent article published on ZNet:
Can anyone claiming to belong to the left just ignore [the Libyan] popular movement’s plea for protection, even by means of imperialist bandit-cops, when the type of protection requested is not one through which control over their country could be exerted? Certainly not, by my understanding of the left.
Likewise, Juan Cole added his voice to the chorus in support of the UN-sponsored no-fly zone over Libya with an “Open Letter to the Left on Libya” on March 27, in which he chided anti-interventionists as being indifferent to the outcome of the Libyan struggle. Cole has gone so far as to write that “I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC [United Nations Security Council]–authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed.”
Achcar and Cole have made the case for Western intervention in Libya, however limited, for humanitarian aims, and they criticize those on the left who oppose it. But their arguments ignore the context in which the attack on Qaddafi’s forces took place—as well as the long and sordid record of such military actions in the past.
The United States and its European allies began the year with the Qaddafi regime as an ally in the “war on terror” and Libya a fertile ground for Western investment. Until recently, they were prepared to accept Qaddafi’s continued rule in Libya, even at the cost of the rebellion against him being crushed. Only when the threat to regional stability and oil supplies became alarming to the West did they act.
The excuse for intervention has been the call by Qaddafi’s opponents for a no-fly zone and other military action. Of course, Western intervention has many other motivations besides the humanitarian claims in support of Resolution 1973: preserving the flow of Libyan oil, preventing mass migrations of Libyans to Europe, getting rid of a “failed state” in Libya, and stopping the Arab revolution from overthrowing another dictator through its own efforts.
But even if the intervention plays some role in Qaddafi’s downfall—which is by no means certain—any regime that comes to power in Libya will be compromised from the start by its dependence on Western powers that aren’t concerned at all about democracy and justice, but about maintaining stability and reasserting their dominance in a region that has seen two victorious revolutions against U.S.-backed dictators and the possibility of more to come.
The history of U.S. and European “humanitarian” intervention has produced only greater violence and more injustice—in Somalia, in Haiti, in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, and in Iraq. The seemingly progressive cover of opposition to dictators (all of whom the West once supported) can’t hide the fact that these operations produced disasters.
How should socialists respond?
As already argued, socialists support the popular uprising against the Qaddafi dictatorship, and we have no truck with defenders of Qaddafi. But we also oppose the imposition of the no-fly zone and other forms of Western intervention because, in strengthening the role of imperial intervention in the Libyan revolution, they undermine the prospect of genuine freedom and independence. Consider the fate of Kosovo, over which NATO fought a “humanitarian” war in 1999.
During the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, NATO established a no-fly zone over the Bosnian town of Srebenica. That didn’t prevent the massacre of thousands of civilians at the hands of the Bosnian Serb military and fascist gangs associated with it. NATO used the tragedy of Srebenica as justification when it launched its 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. Ostensibly, the NATO war was aimed at protecting Kosovar civilians who faced massacre at the hands of Milosevic’s forces.
Yet it was apparent at the time—and has since been verified by the research of University of Arizona professor David Gibbs—that the bombing actually prompted Serb forces to step up their massacres. And this is not to mention the hundreds—or thousands, we may never know—of Serbian and Kosovar civilians killed by NATO bombs.
More than a decade later, Kosovo exists as a ward of NATO and is home to Camp Bondsteel, a huge U.S. base whose 7,000 soldiers support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, its real government is a combination of what remains of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo and the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. These have presided over a massive privatization campaign that sold off formerly state-run firms to European Union investors. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers around 40 percent while the International Monetary Fund and World Bank collect Kosovo’s share of the debt it contracted as a member of the former Yugoslavia.
This is the “success” that today’s liberal interventionists want NATO to replicate in Libya. Achcar and Cole and others who support the intervention in Libya are wrong to disregard that history by suggesting that a U.S.-led military intervention in Libya will produce a different result this time around.
Supporters of Western intervention proceed from the assumption that a Western no-fly zone was the only option available for the Libyan opposition. But they should recognize that the interplay between imperialism and the Arab revolution constrains what choices are on offer. Reportedly, European governments chose to ignore most of the NTC’s initial demands. But they accepted the NTC’s proposal for a no-fly zone. In other words, the notion that “there was no other choice” but a no-fly zone already accepts a compromise of the Libyan movement’s independence.
In the short space of a few weeks, it appears that the Libyan opposition—or at least the NTC members that the West has elevated as its interlocutors—are increasingly putting themselves in a position of providing cover for the Western attempt to roll back the Arab revolution and to maintain the flow of Libyan oil. The West is marginalizing other forces in the opposition, from youth to social and community organizations.
There is a long history of anti-imperialist movements making temporary alliances or marriages of convenience with various imperialist powers or their agents. The intervention of the French navy forced the surrender of British forces at Yorktown in the final battle for American independence. Agents of the Kaiser supplied weapons to Irish freedom fighters during the First World War. The Soviet Union provided military and political aid to scores of anti-imperialist movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia during the Cold War.
The key in each of these situations was that the liberation forces: 1) fought a historically progressive and just struggle for freedom, and 2) managed to retain an independent identity that made them authentic representatives of the oppressed rather than subordinates to their sponsors’ aims. In fact, in the post–Second World War era, the nonaligned movement of newly independent states often played the imperialist Cold War adversaries, the U.S. and USSR, against each other.
However, there are times in history where the representatives of a just struggle do transform their relationship with imperialism into one of dependence and political subordination. Such a process took place in Kosovo, where the Kosovar Albanian guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, transformed itself from a guerrilla group that U.S. officials once denounced as “terrorists” into the ground spotters for NATO’s air strikes.
A similar development unfolded in the anti-USSR opposition in Afghanistan in the 1980s. What began as a mass popular uprising against the Soviet occupation became, under the tutelage of the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and the Pakistani security services, a proxy army in the U.S.’s Cold War against the USSR. Over the course of the 1980s, the Reagan administration and its allies in the region remolded the Afghan opposition into a vehicle for its most reactionary forces. The CIA/Saudi/Pakistani combine denied arms and support to all but the most reactionary fighters, many of whom now form the leadership of al-Qaeda.
In these cases, genuine anti-imperialists wanting to support just struggles against oppression had to expose the corruption of opposition forces at the hands of imperialism. Whether the official Libyan opposition has gone down the same road as the Kosovar and Afghani resistances remains to be seen. But as the British socialist Mike Marqusee in his essay “Thoughts on Libya and liberal interventionism” has argued, if the current intervention achieves its aims, it will ensure that
if Qaddafi falls, his replacement will be chosen by the West. The new regime will be born dependent on the Western powers, which will direct its economic and foreign policies accordingly. The liberal interventionists will say that’s not what they want, but their policy makes it inevitable.
Libya in a regional context
Most of the arguments in favor of Western intervention put the pointed question to those who oppose intervention: “What would you do?” But answering that question according to the narrow confines in which it is posed—as a response to an immediate situation such as an assumed Libyan army attack on Benghazi—is the wrong way to address it. Our starting point is that the Libyan revolution is part of the revolutionary wave that is sweeping the Arab and North African world. The intervention of Western forces into that process amounts to the introduction of counterrevolution into the region. Not only is this true geographically (Libya lies between Tunisia and Egypt), it is true politically. The “deal” that Escobar described was the license the U.S. gave to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen to crush the revolutionary upheavals in their own countries. The supporters of intervention are asking us believe that the Libyan revolution can be advanced with the aid of the chief backer and funder of counterrevolution in the region!
As Bennis noted in a March 24 article on Al-Jazeera online,
Ironically, one of the reasons many people supported the call for a no-fly zone was the fear that if Qaddafi managed to crush the Libyan people’s uprising and remain in power, it would send a devastating message to other Arab dictators: Use enough military force and you will keep your job.
U.S. and Western hypocrisy was clear to see. While Libyan attacks on unarmed civilians was a casus belli, the U.S. sanctioned the Saudi invasion of Bahrain to support the Bahraini monarchy’s attacks against its opposition. Seen in this way, the Western support for the no-fly zone is about derailing the Arab revolution while posing as its friend.
Instead, it turns out that just the opposite may be the result: It was after the UN passed its no-fly zone and use-of-force resolution, and just as U.S., British, French, and other warplanes and warships launched their attacks against Libya, that other Arab regimes escalated the crackdown on their own democratic movements.
The counterrevolution works in mysterious ways. At first, the West held back, thinking Qaddafi could do the job of defeating the revolution himself. Later, they weren’t so sure. At first, they weren’t sure about the rebels. Now Western governments are trying to cultivate them. A March 20 statement by the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt put it well:
Modern imperialism uses various mechanisms to achieve its single goal, which is to ensure that the Arab regimes remain faithful to the obedience of the monopolies of global capitalism and the politics of colonialism. This is achieved in alliance with the classes which benefit from keeping the old regime alive, and which fear the spread of popular revolution.
So we need to turn the “What would you do?” question around: In the face of this imperialist attempt to short-circuit the revolution, should we stand by and do nothing? Or, worse, cheer on the Empire’s intervention? No, we demand an end to NATO military operations. We demand the cutting off of aid to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain, and we support the deepening of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. And to the Western powers that shed crocodile tears about Libyan civilians facing down a brutal dictatorship, we say, “Lift your anti-immigrant laws and grant asylum to any Libyan who wants it!”
Intervention takes many forms: through propaganda and the use of dubious sources of funding linked with the American administration and companies supportive of U.S.-Zionist imperialism as well as through military operations. The entry of the Peninsula Shield force into Bahrain, the announcement of military intervention in Libya, Hillary Clinton’s visit, the bags of dollars which appear under the under the pretext of “supporting democracy” and spreading “democratic awareness” are all part of the same scheme. This does not mean it is a “conspiracy,” but there is naturally a close interdependence of interests, between systems and governments, and international capitalist monopolies.
We recognize that the fate of the Libyan revolution is tied up with the fate of the Arab revolution. An advance by the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, or Syrian uprisings can help advance the struggle in Libya. And renewed mass action in Libya can shift the balance of forces inside the opposition from those willing to do deals with the West to those who want genuine freedom and independence. The future of the Arab revolution, in Libya and the rest of the region, is still being written. We join with the socialists in Egypt to say:
No to foreign interference. No to counterrevolution.
Long live the revolution of the peoples.
Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket Books, 2008), and is a member of the ISR editorial board.