Libya: What is the imperial agenda —and where do anti-war forces stand?

The anti-imperialist left is confused and divided on Libya—running a spectrum from vulgar responses that loan comfort to Qaddafi's propaganda, to more serious attempts to seek out a neither/nor position. But even commentaries in the latter category still dodge the question of what are the world's responsibilities to the Libyans as Qaddafi turns his guns on his own people. Especially since the West supplied much of that firepower, this question must concern us. Defense Industry Daily informed us March 3 that Libya has been notably armed by Franceover the past decade, while continuing to deal with its old mainstay Russia.

On the more vulgar end of things is William Engdahl, in "Creative Destruction: Libya in Washington's Greater Middle East Project," on Antemedius March 26 (and picking up some favorable play on Daily Kos). Engdahl is particularly enamored of Qaddafi's al-Qaeda fantasy:

The so-called Libyan opposition itself is a hodge-podge mix of political opportunists, ex-CIA-trained Mujahideen guerillas such as Abdel Hakim al-Hasidi of the so-called Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who openly admits to close ties to al-Qaeda going back to Afghanistan. That certainly raises the level of incredibility of Washington's most bizarre military crusade of recent times.

Engdahl picked this one up from The Telegraph of March 25—one of the UK's more conservative newspapers. So here we have again the odd convergence of elements of the anti-imperialist left with the paleocon right against perceived neocon "regime-change" conspiracies, complete with an Islamophobic twist. We noted this phenomenon a few weeks back when we called out Engdahl for dissing the Egyptian and Tunisian protesters as astroturf "color revolutionaries" stage-managed by the usual suspects (CIA, State Department, Soros). Yet having dissed the heroic Egyptians and Tunisians, he now poses them as a foil to the Libyan opposition—which he virtually portrays as a terrorist conspiracy. (He can't even resist putting "opposition" in scare quotes):

Their "opposition," unlike in Tunisia or elsewhere, was never "non-violent." It was an armed revolt from the git-go, a war of tribe against tribe, not of surging aspirations for democracy. NATO member countries are being told by Washington to back one band of tyrants to oust another whose agenda does not comply with what the Pentagon calls Full Spectrum Dominance.

Not so. World War 4 Report followed the escalation in Libya closely on our weblog. The first glimmer of unrest was an early February Internet call for a "day of rage" which was met with pre-emptive arrests. Then, on Feb. 15, still two days before the planned "day of rage," a vigil for liberation of political prisoners spontaneously escalated into a large protest demanding release of the new detained. Security forces upped the ante with tear gas, water cannons and baton charges. On the weekend of Feb. 20, it tipped into armed struggle, as members of the security forces defected to the protesters, arming them and helping them form militias. The regime responded by threatening "rivers of blood" and favorably invoking the Tiananmen Square massacre. By the 24th, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (also a hash critic of the US and Israel) was warning that "systematic attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity." So while the situation quickly escalated to armed resistance (thanks to Qaddafi's proverbial iron fist, and doubtless years of pent-up anger), it did indeed begin with a nonviolent opposition movement.

More from Engdahl:

It emerges that the main opposition to Gaddafi comes from two very curious organizations—the National Front for the Salvation of Libya and a bizarre group calling itself the Islamic Emirate of Barqa, the former name of the North-Western part of Libya. Its leadership claims the group is made up of former al-Qaeda fighters previously released from jail. Their record of bloodshed is impressive to date.

The main opposition group in Libya now is the National Front for the Salvation of Libya which is reported to be funded by Saudi Arabia, the CIA and French Intelligence. They joined with other opposition groups to become the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition. It was that organization that called for the "Day of Rage" that plunged Libya into chaos on February 17.

So here we have a supposed voice of the left viewing the "chaos" of rebellion against an authoritarian regime as a bad thing. This unseemly police state fetish is an ugly reaction to Donald Rumsfeld's "freedom is untidy" quip and the Bush-era destabilization drives. It clouds our thinking dangerously.

We noted when the National Front for the Salvation of Libya was founded in 2005 that its secular orientation resulted in its secret founding conclave being boycotted by the Salafist jihadi types. So, yes, the Libyan opposition does indeed seem to be a "hodge-podge": In one corner, a small coterie of aspiring bourgeois-democratic technocrats (now in ascendance thanks to deals being quietly made in Paris and Washington); in the other, a few fanatical cells of jihadi types like the "Islamic Emirate of Barqa"; and in the middle, a very large swath of very angry Libyans who have no particular ideological commitment but basically secular and progressive instincts. These are the people we must root for.

A thankfully more sophisticated but still limited view is offered by Phyllis Bennis in "Libya intervention threatens the Arab spring," which ran on AlJazeera, March 22:

Western air and naval strikes against Libya are threatening the Arab Spring.

Ironically, one of the reasons many people supported the call for a no-fly zone was the fear that if Gaddafi 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.

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 US, British, French and other warplanes and warships launched their attacks against Libya, that other Arab regimes escalated their crack-down on their own democratic movements.

In Yemen, 52 unarmed protesters were killed and more than 200 wounded on Friday by forces of the US-backed and US-armed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. It was the bloodiest day of the month-long Yemeni uprising. President Obama "strongly condemned" the attacks and called on Saleh to "allow demonstrations to take place peacefully".

But while a number of Saleh's government officials resigned in protest, there was no talk from Saleh's US backers of real accountability, of a travel ban or asset freeze, not even of slowing the financial and military aid flowing into Yemen in the name of fighting terrorism.

Similarly in US-allied Bahrain, home of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, at least 13 civilians have been killed by government forces. Since the March 15 arrival of 1,500 foreign troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, brought in to protect the absolute power of the king of Bahrain, 63 people have been reported missing.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said: "We have made clear that security alone cannot resolve the challenges facing Bahrain. Violence is not the answer, a political process is."

But she never demanded that foreign troops leave Bahrain, let alone threatened a no-fly zone or targeted air strikes to stop their attacks.

Closer to the mark, but not quite. The Saudi intervention in Bahrain came on March 14, four days ahead of the Western intervention in Libya—although clearly, everyone knew it was imminent. On March 13, the Yemeni security forces were reported to be using poison gas on protesters. Yemen's massacre of protesters came on March 18—the day before the first air-strikes on Libya. True, the opposition in Bahrain (plausibly) charged that Washington had given a "green light" for repression. But note that simultaneous with all this, the Syrian regime was likewise unleashing deadly repression—and certainly without a permission slip from Washington. Finally, it was Qaddafi's own repression that led to the intervention to begin with. So Bennis is absolutely correct to call out the double standard—but the air-strikes are certainly not the only thing threatening the Arab spring. And the situation is complicated by the clear rank-and-file support from the rebels—and the populace of Bengahzi—for military intervention (see AlJazeera, March 20; SMH, March 11).

Immanuel Wallerstein, takes a more heartfelt position of support for the Libyan opposition. But, perplexingly, he sidestepped the whole question of Western intervention by dismissing it as impossible—just three days before the air-strikes! He wrote for Middle East Online March 16:

[T]here is not going to be any significant military involvement of the western world in Libya. The public statements are all huff and puff, designed to impress local opinion at home. There will be no Security Council resolution because Russia and China won't go along. There will be no NATO resolution because Germany and some others won't go along. Even Sarkozy's militant anti-Qaddafi stance is meeting resistance within France.

And above all, the opposition in the United States to military action is coming both from the public and more importantly from the military. The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mullen, have very publicly stated their opposition to instituting a no-fly zone. Indeed, Secretary Gates went further. On Feb. 25, he addressed the cadets at West Point, saying to them: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president again to send a big American land army into Asia or the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined."

To underline this view of the military, retired General Wesley Clark, the former commander of NATO forces, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on Mar. 11, under the heading, "Libya doesn't meet the test for U.S. military action." So, despite the call of the hawks for U.S. involvement, President Obama will resist.

Oops! Called that one wrong, didn't we? A painful error, given Wallerstein's astute closing paragraph:

Let us keep our eye on the ball. The key struggle worldwide right now is the second Arab revolt. It will be hard enough to obtain a truly radical outcome in this struggle. Qaddafi is a major obstacle for the Arab, and indeed the world, left. Perhaps we should all remember Simone de Beauvoir's maxim: "Wanting to be free yourself means wanting that others be free."

Wallerstein explains in a Feb. 1 screed on his website, "The Second Arab Revolt: Winners and Losers," that he sees the current Arab revolutions as a sequel to the 1916 revolt against the Ottoman Turks. But the Western powers fomented and exploited the 1916 revolt, and established a neo-colonial order in the region. Will round two end the same way?

This moment is critical. Up until now, the Arab spring has been a story about popular revolutions shaking off dictatorships—whether within Washington's orbit (the big majority) or without (Syria, Iran to include a non-Arab state, now Libya). Although Islamists have been on board in the protest movements, the basic thrust has been secular and democratic. This is a very poor propaganda environment for al-Qaeda, which has since the start of the year been playing catch-up as grassroots movements have seized the initiative. This has been an historic opening following the dystopian dialectic of jihad-versus-GWOT that was hegemonic in the long aftermath of 9-11.

Now that could all be changing. Western intervention creates a very, very good propaganda environment for al-Qaeda. The "story" could start to change to one about the Islamic world fighting crusaders—again. Especially if the war spreads or becomes a quagmire, the popular, democratic and secular elements could be quickly sidelined, and civil movements pushed aside by armed factions. The hypocrisy of Washington ostensibly coming to the defense of protesters in Libya as it underwrites repression of protesters in Yemen and Bahrain—with only lukewarm criticism for these client states—betrays an agenda to impose control rather than to "save lives." The fact that the US funded and supported war crimes roughly equivalent to those Qaddafi is now accused of in the Israeli Gaza offensive of two years ago also aids al-Qaeda's propagandists. The military intervention rather than the dictatorships could now become the central issue.

An anti-imperialist response must be careful not to play into this dynamic by loaning propaganda cover to the dictators. The military intervention increases rather than diminishesour responsibilities of solidarity to the Libyan and Arab opposition movements.

See our last posts on Libya. and the politics of the GWOT.

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  1. So where should the anti-Imperialists stand on this issue?
    Thank you for a great article. I was hoping the author would discuss the issue rather than doing an overview of the work of others.
    Considering everything the author has mentioned, where should we go with this? Supporting the intervention that will take down Gadafi means supporting western Imperialism – or so many on the left think. But NOT supporting the intervention means the uprising gets crushed in a brutal manner by a dictator and a move towards democracy in Libya is over. Tough choice, I realize, but time is a major factor here. Not moving means the Uprising is crushed – I haven’t heard anyone argue that. But does supporting the duty-to protect-line (that was used to justify the coup in Haiti 2004) in this case mean one supports every aspect of western Imperialism? Can the anti-Imperialists say “intervention was necessary in this case” and not be labeled sell-outs?

    1. That’s a good question
      I certainly did discuss the issue, but resisted the temptation of easy answers. I try to encourage thought rather than tell people what to think. As unpopular a reality as it is in today’s dumbed-down world, truth is arrived at through a dialectical process. Speaking for myself, it would be a lot easier for me to oppose the intervention if my North African friends didn’t all support it, but I have grave misgivings. My job, for the moment, is to confront the advocates on both sides with the tough questions. If you oppose the intervention, what is your answer to the people of Benghazi who were awaiting a massacre before the air-strikes drove back Qaddafi’s advance? If you support it, are you prepared to acknowledge the unsettling political implications for the long term (meaning the coming weeks and months)? And either way, what are our responsibilities of solidarity to the Libyan and Arab opposition movements?

  2. Cynthia McKinney loves Qaddafi
    Cynthia McKinney, who has recently been enamored of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and notorious anti-Semite Israel Shamir, now weighs in dogmatically for Moammar Qaddafi, of course. This absurd screed, “Ghaddafi a Hero for African Rights and Liberation,” published on the website of the Red Ant Liberation Army, crows about how “Libya’s Revolution brought free health care and education to the people and subsidized housing.” Hmmm, if Qaddafi did all these wonderful things, why is he facing a popular uprising, one wonders? And does providing free health care and subsidized housing let him off the hook for massacring his own populace?

    These questions don’t occur to McKinney as she goes on to state that the United States is “a poor trumpet” for democracy because of its own legacy of oppression, from “genocide of indigenous Americans to enslavement of stolen Africans to disfranchisement of women…” This, ironically, is just a perverse form of patriotism. For McKinney, the whole question is about America—certainly not about the Libyans, who deserve democracy entirely apart from the United States’ moral credibility to advocate for such. This is a cynical and dishonest distraction of the lowest order. But it gets worse. She next goes on to assert that “Libyans govern themselves by The Green Book, a form of direct democracy based on the African Constitution concept that the people are the first and final source of all power.” Right, except when they protest the glorious leader. Then they’re filthy traitors who deserve to be shot and tortured.

    Has Cynthia McKinney been purged from the Green Party yet? And if not, why?

    1. Cynthia McKinney betrays Libyan women
      Oh, yeah. Shot, tortured and raped. On March 26, a bloodied and bruised woman burst into the lobby of Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel, that favored by international journalists, and began crying to the reporters in the lobby that she’d been gang-raped and beaten by Qaddafi-loyalist soldiers. Government handlers quickly moved in, restrained her, threw a coat over her head, and dragged her off, literally beating back the journalists who had gathered around her. “You are a traitor to Qaddafi!” one hotel “waitress” helpfully taunted her. The woman, since identified as Iman al-Obaidi, either remains in custody or not, depending on who you believe. Her mother insists she is still being held, that she has refused an offer of money to keep silent—and that she considers her daughter a “hero” for daring to tell the world the truth. (AFP, CNN, March 28; WP, March 27; WP, March 26)

      How touching that Cynthia McKinney is so concerned with the “disfranchisement of women.”

  3. More leftist malarky on Libya
    Someone on the usually intelligent FireDogLake blog March 28 writes of “The Libya Ceasefire We Rejected,” giving every benefit of the doubt to Qaddafi that his “ceasefires” were real—and not, as the rebels and civilians on the ground claimed, a cover for his forces to commit massacres and round up the populace to use as “human shields.” Are the rebels and civilians quoted by the world media unimpeachable sources? Maybe not. But Qaddafi? This is the same guy who said there is no uprising, that his people love him, that the West is on his side, etc. And threatened “rivers of blood,” to hunt down the “rats and cats” “alley by alley, house by house,” favorably invoked the Tiananmen Square massacre and even Israel’s Gaza offensive (!), etc.

    The blogger also asserts that Qaddafi had called for UN monitors on the ground to assure that his ceasefire was real. Reuters on March 19 (the same day the air-strikes began) claimed otherwise: Qaddafi called on Germany, China, Turkey and Malta to monitor. Germany rejected the request, saying it was the UN’s responsibility. AFP reported that same day that the Tripoli regime had called for UN observers. A discrepancy in the reporting? Or did Tripoli change its tune after the German rejection? We don’t know, but unlike the FireDogLake blogger, we don’t claim to. We welcome further clarification.

    We’d like to hear a principled and coherent case against the intervention—but the notion that the world can trust Qaddafi is assuredly not it. Want to try again?