An Anti-Imperialist Analysis of the War Against Libya
BY JAAN LAAMAN, anti-imperialist political prisoner/editor
This article is being written in mid-June, as U.S. and European bombs and missiles continue raining down on the people and country of Libya for the third month in a row. The United States, Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Denmark, NATO, Qatar and some of the other oil kingdoms have all been at war against the official legitimate government and state of Libya.
Initiated under the context of a UN Security Council resolution to “protect Libyan civilians,” this war against the country of Libya has morphed into a clear war to overthrow and/or kill the official Libyan government led by Muammar Qaddafi. This is U.S. and European imperialism waging war against a small, but oil rich, Third World, largely Muslim nation.
From an anti-imperialist perspective, this unfolding military-geo-political-historic reality is not very mysterious or complicated. Western imperialism is waging war to re-conquer or reestablish control over a former colony and neo-colony. As a revolutionary and anti-imperialist, I am totally and completely opposed to the U.S. imperialist state attacking a sovereign nation, bombing its cities, government and military installations and trying to overthrow or murder its official government and leader. And let us be clear, the country and government of Libya committed no acts of war or aggression against the U.S. or any other country. There is not even the pretext of Libya building nukes or weapons of mass destruction.
Anti-imperialists, peace advocates, progressives and certainly all leftist revolutionaries should clearly be against the U.S. and European governments’ war and bombing of Libya. In particular, as activists and revolutionaries within the United States, we hold a personal and international responsibility to make clear we do not support the imperialist policies, and especially wars, of the U.S. ruling class, the U.S. government, and the U.S. corporate elites. Let us remember that when the U.S. president and government orders the American military to attack some country, it is done in our name, in the name of the people of the United States. It is certainly true that we aren’t consulted or given any input into these imperialist policies and wars: none-the-less the policies and wars are done in our name. We also of course are forced to pay for the bombs and bullets. So, it is imperative that we clearly and loudly oppose and resist the imperialist wars of the United States government, including this most recent war on Libya.
The war against Libya has created some confusion, differing perspectives and lack of unity among at least some anti-war, progressive and activist organizations and individuals in the United States.
There are many contradictions in the struggle in Libya. It is useful to identify and follow the development and changes in these contradictions, in order to have a clearer understanding of the war. Very early in February, we witnessed about a week of popular protests in several Libyan cities. At this point the main or principle contradiction (the principle contradiction is that major contradiction that informs, influences and impacts all the other secondary contradictions), was between sections of the public and the government. Some people were demonstrating for political and economic rights and reforms, and there were some calls for changes in the top leadership. Youth, sectors of the working class, relatives of prisoners, and some religious elements were lined up against the government and ruling class.
Within one or two weeks, armed attacks against Libyan police stations and government facilities, especially in the East, were taking place. Underground and foreign backed exile groups (at least some backed by the CIA) created a new level of conflict and a new contradiction between the government and ruling class, versus underground rebel and foreign backed armed groups. This situation soon developed into a low level civil war. The principle contradiction now was between the government and the tribes, people, classes and regions backing the government, versus the armed rebellion and the people, tribes and regions supporting the rebels. This principle contradiction was still internal to Libya, although western imperialist states were supporting the rebel side of the civil war.
When the United States and NATO countries attacked Libya, the principle contradiction changed from an internal civil war, to a war of resistance against a foreign imperialist attack and invasion. The internal contradictions still exist in Libya. There is still a civil war going on. There are still class, regional and tribal conflicts. But the principle contradiction now is the contradiction between the Libyan state, government and people, versus foreign imperialist countries who attacked and started a war against Libya. There are Libyan people and rebel forces who side with the foreign imperialists and act in coordination with them. In fact at this point they act as the main ground forces for the imperialists. At this point, the rebel forces are subordinate to the foreign imperialists who support and direct them against the Libyan government and state.
Let’s now take a brief look at some of Libya’s modern history and the historic events that have and are still unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. Like most of Africa in the 19th and 20th century, Libya was ravaged by European colonialism. Italy attacked and invaded the area that is Libya in the Turko-Italian war of 1911. This invasion set off a 20 year resistance struggle against the Italian colonialists that was centered in the eastern part of Libya around Benghazi.
Italy carried out a brutal occupation and colonization of Libya from 1911 to 1943. With the defeat of the Italian fascists in WWII, Britain, France and the U.S. took control. In 1951, these imperialists created an independent Libyan state by joining together three distinct regions: Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the west and Fezzan in the south.
The British set up a Libyan king, King Idriss, who was from the Senoussi clan of eastern Libya, to rule this country. The King allowed Britain, France and the U.S. to retain their military bases and corporate interests in Libya. Britain kept its bases and political dominance in the east, bordering its former colony of Egypt. France kept its military and its dominance in the southwest, near its colonies of Algeria and Tunisia. The U.S. military kept Wheelus Air Base outside Tripoli to dominate the entire Mediterranean area. In 1955, oil was discovered in Libya, and these three imperialist powers took significant control of the entire oil industry.
This imperialist plunder lasted until 1969, when a nationalist, Pan-Arab, revolutionary-minded group of junior military officers, led by a then 27 year old Muammar el-Qaddafi, overthrew the King, his government and system. Libya changed its name from the Kingdom of Libya to the Libyan Arab Republic and later to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. All foreign military bases were shut down. The oil industry was nationalized, along with many commercial interests that had been under U.S. and British control.
Muammar Qaddafi and the other military officers did not come to power in a revolutionary upheaval of the masses. It was not a socialist revolution. Libya was and still is a class society, with extensive inherited wealth and old privileges. But, Libya was no longer under foreign domination.
Many progressive changes were carried out and a lot of the oil wealth was used to steadily uplift the standard of living of the Libyan people. Most basic necessities—food, housing, fuel, healthcare and education (all the way through college level)—became subsidized or totally free. Within 20 years, Libya had the highest Human Development Index ranking in Africa—a UN measurement of life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income. Conditions for women changed positively and dramatically. Women entered various professional ranks from doctors to teachers to military and security roles.
On the international level, Libya became a firm anti-imperialist voice and supporter of liberation struggles from South Africa, to Palestine, to Ireland, the ETA and the Basque land, and even quietly supporting revolutionary forces in Europe like the Italian Red Brigades, Direct Action in France and the Red Army Fraction in West Germany.
Throughout these years, the U.S. carried out numerous assassination and coup attempts against the Qaddafi regime. The CIA financed and helped organize armed opposition groups. In 1981, they helped set up the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), which maintained a military force, called the “Libyan National Army,” in Egypt near the Libyan border. The NFSL and its military units were reported, in the international media, as being involved in armed confrontations with government forces in the early days (Feb.) of the present Libyan uprising. We’ll come back to the question of who some of the Libyan rebels are later in this analysis.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan sent 66 U.S. jets to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi. They bombed Qaddafi’s house and killed his 2 year old daughter. This is tragically similar to May 1st of 2011, when NATO fired 4 precision missiles in the home of Seif el Arab el-Qaddafi (one of Muammar’s sons), killing him and three of Muammar’s grand children: a 4 year old granddaughter; a 1 year old grandson; a 2 year old granddaughter.
A lot of people have and continue to die in Libya, up to this very moment. This includes babies, children, non-combatants old and young. One dead child is as sad and precious as any other. American bombs, NATO bombs, British and French bombs and missiles are doing most of the killing. This is the reality of imperialism, the reality when imperialist powers attack a country, under whatever pretext.
In the 1980s and especially the 90s, the U.S. government was increasingly successful in isolating Libya with severe economic sanctions and continuing efforts to destabilize the government and economy. After the massive U.S. attack and invasion of Iraq, Libya gave in to U.S. demands. Qaddafi opened up and turned over his entire nuclear weapons development program to the United States Pentagon. He also offered to assist the U.S. in its “war on terror.” Libya had to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie plane bombing and pay $2.7 billion in indemnities. Additionally, in order for U.S. sanctions to be lifted, Libya had to open its markets and “restructure” its economy.
IMF officials descended on Libya with mandatory programs. Although Libya did not have a foreign debt (it had a 27 billion dollar surplus that year), the IMF prescribed the same measures they impose on every developing country. The IMF demanded an end to government subsidies of basic necessities, in order to undermine the public’s support for the regime. Libya was told to privatize 36 state owned companies, including steel mills, cement plants, food factories, truck and bus assembly lines and state farms. This left thousands of workers jobless. Libya also had to sell a 60 percent stake in the state-owned oil company, Tamoil Group and privatize its flour mills.
Another aspect of structural reform was the end of restrictions on imports. Foreign companies were granted licenses to export to Libya. Products from all over the world flooded the previously protected Libyan market. This was a disaster for Libya’s factories, and led to thousands of more job losses. Over the past 5 to 7 years, rising prices, the end of subsidies for necessities, and increasing unemployment has led to poverty and dissatisfaction among growing sections of Libyan people. This has set the stage for a larger and broader opposition to the Libyan government, by its people, than ever before under Qaddafi’s leadership and government.
Let us turn to the events and changes that have been happening in North Africa and the Middle East since the beginning of this year. Social upheaval and liberation struggle began in Tunisia, which led to the overthrow of western imperialist backed strong man Ben Ali. The following month, U.S. imperialist backed Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of power in Egypt. Social struggle is still very intense in both of these countries. The changes, leadership, and type of system that will emerge are not yet clear in either country.
What is clear is that U.S. imperialism (western imperialism overall), suffered a serious loss of power and ability to manipulate events, economies, leaders and entire countries, with the removal of Ben Ali in Tunisia, and especially Mubarak in Egypt. For decades, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been centered on support for the Israeli state; support for and control of Egypt, with the largest population and military machine in the Arab world; and support for and major influence in the Saudi Arabian kingdom and its huge pool of oil. Fundamentally, it is all about the oil in the entire Middle East. It is about who controls the oil, the governments in the region and the huge profits made by the oil companies.
U.S. imperialism never had complete control of all of the countries in this region, but with support for and control of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, they also controlled or manipulated Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Morocco. Turkey is a NATO member and usually supports all U.S. policy in the Middle East. Iraq was a problem until the U.S. invaded and occupied that country. Iran, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria and Libya have not allowed western imperialism to directly dominate or control them. Sometimes these countries have opposed and resisted western imperialist political and economic policies and plans.
For decades, the U.S. government has treated these countries and their leaders as obstacles and often as enemies. This is especially true for Libya, Syria and Iran.
When the people in Tunisia and Egypt threw out their long time dictators, it left U.S. imperialism scrambling to retain some control over this entire region. As the peoples’ legitimate thirst for greater freedom and needed change rippled across North Africa and the Middle East, western powers saw the possibility of new ways to attack and try to overthrow those governments and leaders who had long opposed imperialism. Recent events demonstrate this is especially true in Iran, Syria and particularly Libya.
The people in every country have the right and often the real need to push for reform and even total revolutionary change. We see this happening all across the Arab, Mid-East and North African region. This is a natural and positive development, and activist and progressive people around the world look with interest and support to our sisters and brothers who are trying to bring real change to their lives and lands.
It is the right of any oppressed people to oppose and organize against their leaders if basic needs and rights are not being met. It is not the right of imperialist governments to manipulate, exploit and outright intervene in the internal affairs of another country while personally and politically demonizing their leaders.
Imperialist western powers are trying to regain control of Egypt and Tunisia. They are also trying to take advantage of peoples’ legitimate demands for change in Libya and Syria, by trying to overthrow those leaders and governments who they have been after for years. We can see this by the drastically different actions the U.S. government has taken towards the governments in Bahrain and Yemen, versus their actions toward Syria and especially Libya. The Bahrain government has repeatedly beaten, imprisoned, shot and killed unarmed public demonstrators. The U.S. has said almost nothing about this and continues to support the Bahrain government. The Yemeni government has also repeatedly attacked and fired on unarmed protesters. Recently there have been more armed clashes between government and rebel forces in Yemen. Here too the U.S. government’s response has been mild and they continue to work with the Yemeni regime.
In Syria, repressed unarmed demonstrations and armed clashes between government and anti-government forces have led to U.S. and European sanctions against the government and calls for the president to step down.
In Libya, early in February, there was about a week of public demonstrations that were repressed, but there were no large scale deadly attacks or mass shootings of unarmed protesters.
Within a week, the Libyan opposition took up weapons and it became an armed rebellion between government and anti-government forces. As the Libyan government rather quickly moved to regain control of Benghazi and some other eastern towns, a cry went up from the U.S. and NATO powers that large numbers of Libyan civilians would soon be massacred—but NO massacres actually occurred. And it was at this point that the U.S. and NATO launched their war against Libya.
Let us now look more specifically at some of the elements who make up the Libyan rebels. First, let me say, I have no more, and probably less, access to information than many of you 4sm readers. My information comes from the bourgeois corporate press (New York Times, etc.), the Left press (Marxist, anarchist, etc.), and some information from comrades outside (U.S. and overseas).
There is no question some people in Libya want major changes in their country, including change in the top leadership. There were some public protests in Tripoli and Benghazi in early February. There were some reported clashes with cops and demonstrators, but no reports of mass shootings or killings. In fact a front page NY Times article on February 25 described how different Libya is from other Arab countries facing rebellions: “Unlike the Facebook enabled youth rebellions, the insurrection here has been led by people who are more mature and who have been actively opposing the regime for some time.” The article described how arms had been smuggled across the border with Egypt for weeks, allowing the rebellion to “escalate quickly and violently in little more than a week.”
In the early weeks of what had already become an armed rebellion in the eastern areas of Libya, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), was often quoted and described as being a leading force in the uprising. Earlier in this analysis, I explained how the CIA had set up the NFSL in 1981, including training a military force that was based in Egypt.
Also widely quoted was the “National Conference for Libyan Opposition,” which was a group organized by the NFSL, and the “Libyan Constitutional Union.” This latter group advocates for a return of the deposed monarchy in Libya. In fact the flag of the Libyan rebels, which is often seen in U.S. news clips, is the Senoussi clan flag that was used by the Libyan king, before the monarchy was overthrown in 1969.
All these CIA sponsored and/or U.S. or British based exile groups were incorporated into the Libyan “National Transitional Council” (NTC). Many long time U.S. residents were sent to Libya to be leaders of the NTC. A top military leader is Khalifa Heftah, a retired general from Virginia. A teacher named Ali Tarhouni, who had been living in the U.S. for 36 years, teaching economics at the University of Washington, was recently sent over to become the finance and oil minister in Benghazi, the rebel capital. France, Kuwait and Qatar have recognized the NTC as the “legitimate” representative of the Libyan people. The U.S. government, NATO and others also meet and work with the NTC.
Another element within this rebel uprising are fundamentalist Islamist fighters. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which the CIA lists as the world’s largest Qaeda branch, has periodically launched attacks against the Libyan government even before this rebellion. In March, the NY Times quoted a report by Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, stating, “Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency, fighting against U.S. troops, than any other region of the Arab world.” Many of these experienced Al Qaeda fighters returned to Libya and rejoined the battle against the Qaddafi government.
For years, even before 9/11/01, the Qaddafi government had recognized the danger that Islamist militants posed for Libya and its secular socialist leaning government. Islamist militants were not tolerated in Libya and many were arrested and imprisoned. On March 17, 2011, the NY Times reported that Abu Musab Abdul Wadid, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, stated that he “reaffirmed his group’s solidarity with the Libyan rebels.”
Family, clan and tribal ties are very significant for many Libyans. It has been reported that some eastern tribes, or sections of them, have aligned with the rebellion in Benghazi. Further reports say that hundreds, and perhaps up to 6000 soldiers, have defected from the government and joined the rebels.
And then of course, as we often see on U.S. TV news, there are dentists, students and clerks who have dropped their books and tools and become volunteer rebel soldiers. Many of these grass roots rebels, like the unarmed demonstrators protesting in early February, are trying to bring change to their country and do NOT want foreign powers to come in and take over their struggle and dictate how it will proceed, who will lead it and what type of country Libya will be if they are successful in overthrowing the Qaddafi government. They are all part of what is now an ongoing civil war in Libya.
How this war will develop and conclude is uncertain. What is certain is that major western imperialist powers have directly intervened and are now the major factor and force on the rebel side.
When Barack Obama announced the United States and NATO attack against Libya, he made a big point about not putting any U.S. boots on the ground in this war. He also said the U.S. government was not going to arm and militarily supply the rebels. As it turned out, and was reported in the NY Times on 3/31/11, “In early March President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to provide arms and support to Libyan rebels.”
Since then it has been widely reported that CIA and special forces troops have been in Libya meeting with rebel troops and marking targets for missile and bomb attacks. Even before this was revealed, it was reported that British SAS troops were also in Libya organizing rebel troops and marking targets for bombs and missiles. The boots are already on the ground. Meanwhile, the French, and then the British, recently sent in attack helicopters to go along with the U.S. and NATO jet fighters, bombers, missiles and unmanned drones.
The official publicly announced U.S. cost for this war is $1 billion as of mid-June. Actual costs, including what it costs to keep an aircraft carrier and its group off the coast of Libya, the aircrafts that fly in from Italy and other European bases, the drone flights, etc., are not even included in the $1 billion figure. Wars cost money and this new war in Libya, even in the midst of financial cut backs and budget problems in the U.S., is no exception.
The British Sunday Telegraph reported over a month ago (May 15), that NATO had by then flown 2700 bombing sorties, over 57 per day. Since then the war has escalated in several respects. The English press reported in late May, that General Sir David Richards, head of the British Army has called for and ordered a new level of U.S. and NATO attacks. Richards called for NATO states to intensify the war by directly targeting the Libyan government, rather than protecting Libyan civilians, as specified in the United Nations Resolution 1973. Within days of his remarks, the bombing of Tripoli was intensified. The British general ordered an increase in the range of targets to be hit, specifically including Libya’s infrastructure. The new bombing has already hit telecommunications facilities, ports, government buildings, power grids, fuel depots, schools and hospitals.
I really think, as Americans, we should be ashamed and disgusted that we have allowed our government to get us into this third simultaneous war. The government has tried to diminish the reality of this war against Libya, by calling it a NATO war and an air campaign and that the U.S. only has a back up role now and so on. The reality is we are bombing a wider range of facilities and killing, wounding and ruining more lives than when we started this war.
The government is also trying to present this latest war of choice, as a killing field a lot of the world supports. This is not true. Since March 11, all 53 countries in Africa, are on record, through the African Union (AU), as “calling for noninterference by foreign military forces, the adoption of an immediate cease-fire, the protection of migrant workers from other parts of the continent, swift distribution of humanitarian relief to people in need, and safe passage inside and outside of Libya.”
India, Brazil and China are all on record as not supporting this war. Even Germany didn’t go along with its NATO partners on this war.
People and activist and revolutionary organizations around the world have come out and strongly denounced this imperialist war. Just a small sample of some of these organizations are: Worker’s World Party, Free Arab Voice, World Federation of Trade Unions, Nation of Islam, Communist Party of Canada, Communist Party of Australia, Revolutionary Communist Group (Britain), International Communist League and its U.S. branch, the Spartacist League and many, many more organizations.
The US/NATO war against Libya is an imperialist war that all progressive, anti-war, anti-imperialist and left revolutionaries should oppose and work to end. The natural history and development within Libya, including the civil war which began before the imperialist intervention, has been distorted and polluted by the foreign attack. Whether the people, regional forces, tribes and classes of Libya, are able to resolve their contradictions is unclear and probably not likely, because of the imperialist intervention. Whether the Qaddafi government and an independent Libya survive is also unclear and not at all certain.
The Libyan anarchist whose letter we printed in the beginning of this dialogue on the Libyan war section, was clear as well, that foreign intervention was NOT what he and other anti-Qaddafi activists wanted.
The main losers in this war on Libya are all the Libyan people. They are getting killed. Their homes are being bombed. Foreign powers are calling the shots. Even the anti-government rebels have become pawns in an imperialist plot to reassert control over Libya and its oil (Libya has the largest proven oil deposit in all of Africa).
The imperialists also want to use this war in Libya, and later they hope, a conquered Libya, under the direct or indirect control of the U.S. and Europe, as an example to all the people in North Africa and the Middle East, that U.S. imperialism is all powerful and each country better make its own deal of how to live under imperialist control. Whether such a sorry situation comes to be is also uncertain. What is certain is that the struggle for freedom and justice, independence and human dignity will continue. And the struggle against U.S. and western imperialism has to be a central part of any real liberation struggle.
Let me conclude this analysis by clearly stating my personal leanings and questions on Libya, since I have been told I have gotten this situation wrong.
I have long admired and quite often supported Libya, in its domestic and foreign policies, under the leadership of Muammar Qaddafi. This is particularly true from the overthrow of the Libyan king in 1969, till around 2000. In 1969, millions and millions of young people, especially, were in the streets of America opposing war, racism and injustice.
We supported many liberation struggles, especially Vietnam, Palestine and the struggles in Africa. When junior officers overthrew the Libyan king, kicked out western bases and nationalized the oil fields, Qaddafi was admired and supported by activists and revolutionaries worldwide.
In the 1970s and 80s, when Libya was a loud voice and concrete material supporter of liberation struggles around the world, Libya under Qaddafi was saluted. This doesn’t mean that I agreed with or supported all of what Qaddafi did, but overall he was seen as an anti-imperialist and popular nationalist leader. A lot of oil wealth was used to uplift Libyans. The role, rights and opportunities for women were greatly expanded. A firm and ongoing effort was established to keep the government and state of Libya secular. These policies developed and modified over the years, but remained consistent until the early 2000s, when a policy shift toward the U.S. and west was made by the Qaddafi government.
After Bush attacked Iraq, Libya capitulated to U.S. imperialist demands and pressure. This was disheartening for me (and many others) to see. A continuing weakness in Qaddafi’s Libya is that it never had a popular socialist revolution. Until the early 2000s, it had mostly been an internally progressive and somewhat socialistic country, and an anti-imperialist country. It never had significant mass revolutionary formations and organs of power, and therefore too much power has always rested in the central leadership and government.
Certainly having the same leader in power for 40 years will be the source of some internal opposition. I do have criticism of the Qaddafi government and especially some of its policies of the past 8 years. I do understand, like the letter from the Libyan anarchist shows, that there are legitimate activists, radicals and revolutionaries in Libya who feel that the removal of Qaddafi is necessary. I don’t know how large a percentage of the rebellion they are. By all media accounts, the rebels and their leadership are mostly comprised of exiles, pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist elements: people who deserted the Qaddafi government for tribal, regional or personal interests, and Islamic fundamentalists.
I do not feel it is my place to tell the Libyan people, the rebels or pro-government forces, how to organize their nation and move it forward. Still, it does seem to me that a positive path forward for Libya and its people is the AU plan. First of all Africans should be primarily responsible for their own people, countries and continent.
The call for an immediate cease-fire, and an end to ALL foreign military action and a withdrawal of all foreign military forces, followed by humanitarian aid to all parts of Libya and then an AU sponsored peace effort of all factions of Libyans, is what I think would actually help Libya and its people.
Imperialism, U.S. and other western interference will neither benefit nor help Libya in any sense—now or in the future. Libyans need to be given the space and forum to decide their own collective future. It is their country, their land, their future. We in the west can support or criticize who we want, but the principle of self determination for all people and nations demands that Libyans be allowed to work out their own problems and future.
Imperialism has no legal, moral or ethical right, no place or justified interest in Libya. It only seeks to rape, pillage and assert control over Libya, Libyans and their natural resources.
For us revolutionaries, activists and progressive people in the United States, we do have the right to examine, critique and support the various forces in the Libyan civil war. That said, we must be very careful and clear to not support the U.S. bourgeoisie, the U.S. government and U.S. imperialism overall in its war against Libya.