The growing calls for Western intervention in Libya should be opposed. Instead the West should publicly recognise the National Transitional Council and cease all oil payments to the Gaddafi regime argues Chris Nineham.


The mood for military intervention in Libya is growing in the West. ‘Nothing is off the table’ an earlier reluctant Obama said on Tuesday. No media report on Libya is complete without regret of the West’s ‘slowness to respond’, or reference to discussions about the viability and value of intervention.

Alarmingly, normally progressive voices are joining the chorus for military action. Left wing QC Geoffrey Robertson has been putting together a case for intervention under international law and now the online campaign website Avaaz is pushing a petition for military action.

At an emotional level this is understandable. News of the pro-Gadaffi onslaught against freedom fighters is heart breaking. Thousands of lightly armed civilian fighters have been cut down and indiscrimate bombing and shelling attacks in Zawiya and Ras Lanuf must have killed huge numbers of civilians not even involved in the fighting.

Desire for outside help is fuelled by the technological mismatch between the two sides, especially Gadaffi’s aerial supremacy.

For this reason a Western imposed no-fly zone is the favoured quick fix. But the stakes are far too high in Libya to go by first instincts.

The idea that this or any other form of military intervention would improve the situation is mistaken for two reasons.

As even Pentagon chiefs have pointed out a no-fly zone if it means anything is close to a declaration of war. To take control of Libyan air space US or NATO planes would be required to fire not just on any airborne Libyan fighters but on any artillery or missile installation that threatened them.

Such action – an almost inevitable result of declaring a no-fly zone – would completely change the dynamics of the struggle. Suddenly, Gaddafi’s claims to be fighting off a foreign-backed insurgency would carry some weight.

The loyalty of the armed forces – clearly shaky in many places- would most likely be reinforced, and the position of the popular forces therefore weakened. If anyone has learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan it must be that foreign intervention fragments rather than rallies opposition to even the most unpopular regimes and can easily start a spiral into chaos and violence.

More fundamentally we need to draw conclusions from the West’s record in the region. It shouldn’t need rehearsing, but for decades up until a week or two ago the West’s unambiguous approach was to arm, back and publicly defend most of the dictators and despots in the Middle East and North Africa. This policy has only started to change – grudgingly and partially – after heroic popular action has done the democratic heavy lifting in key countries.

Even now the US, Britain and their friends stand fully behind the royal family in Saudi and the Emirs of Kuwait and Bahrain, amongst other despots, all engaged in stamping on the rights of their people.

Given this track record the idea that the West might suddenly have converted to the cause of the people of the Maghreb or the Middle East is laughable. Even if they dress up military action in humanitarian camouflage, the core agenda will be unchanged. More plausible perhaps in the current climate is the idea that Western action could be demanded and controlled by the Libyans themselves. Don’t believe it for a minute.

Leaving aside the practical disasters intervention would bring, the West would demand a high price for any ‘assistance’. One of the outcomes of Western occupation of Iraq, besides almost unimaginable death and destruction, has been Western corporate seizure of Iraq’s key assets including of course oil. It would be hopelessly na√Øve to think that the fact Libya is Africa’s premier oil producer isn’t at the forefront of the US’s current calculations. Any intervention would be shaped above all by this concern

Inevitably interventionists will say the Libyans are calling for action and they know best. Well some Libyans are and they are being widely reported. But there are many other voices. The uprising’s capital Benghazi is decorated with posters saying ‘no to foreign military intervention’ and one of the reasons that the representatives of the National Council gave for sending Britain’s farcical ‘diplomatic mission’ packing on the weekend was that they knew the dangers of being associated with the West.

As Sami Zaptia from the National Youth Council of Libya said in an interview on Wednesday, the international media is telling a one sided story. While they concentrate on Gadaffi’s rally and the retaking of Zawiya, the most remarkable story of the last ten days has been the rapid progress of irregular forces towards Tripoli.

It has taken an immense effort from Gadaffi to retake the small and insignificant town of Zawiya just 30 kilometres away from the capital in the opposite direction from Ben Gazi. The possibility of a successful push eastward in the face of almost universal popular opposition is remote.

The real situation then is that Gadaffi’s forces are isolated in a small area around the capital – which many report as being silently hostile to him- and a few other outposts. The opposition is working as hard as possible to open breaches in these areas, particularly the strategic and symbolic centre of Sirte.

The fact that Gadaffi’s regime sent envoys to Malta, Egypt and Portugal on Wednesday for talks suggests it knows time is not on its side.

In these circumstances all calls for Western intervention should be loudly opposed. What would be helpful would be public moves to isolate Gadaffi. The West should stop planning to meddle and publicly recognise the legitimacy of the National Transitional Council and cease all oil payments to the Gadaffi regime.

Protest: Hands off the Middle East, no intervention in Libya – Troops out of Afghanistan.

2pm Saturday 12 March, Downing Street, London.
Called by Stop the War, CND and BMI

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.