The west is intervening in Libya to overthrow a regime that it previously armed and supported. Khalil Habash and John Rees look at the implications for the Arab revolutions and the future of imperial power in the region.

Libya explosion

The moment the UN passed the resolution to bomb Libya it was obvious what the West wanted: to get a foothold in the Arab revolutions and to maintain control of Libya’s oil.

Of these two aims getting some purchase on the revolutionary process in the Arab world was even more important than Libyan oil, as the simultaneous and co-ordinated Western support for the Saudi Arabian invasion of Bahrain shows.

The intervention by the West has managed to alter the character of the Benghazi revolution. It has promoted the ex-Gaddafi elements within the regime who are also the most pro-Western. These are, after all, figures who have been happily working with the West under the Gaddafi regime but who now find it convenient to continue the same policy but without Gaddafi. They have been joined by some pro-western figures and they will certainly have increased their weight inside the Benghazi regime by becoming the interlocutors of the West in discussions over military and economic aid. The deal to sell oil through Qatar is one symptom of this.

Some see this development as proof that the Libyan revolution was a pro-western plot from the beginning. But this is a mistake. The West did not need a revolution to get a regime that was willing to do their bidding in Tripoli because they already had one. It was headed by Gaddafi. By 2011 Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist rhetoric had been in cold storage for many, many years.[1]

Since 2003, when the Libyan regime decided to renounce to its ‘weapons of mass destruction programme’ and to participate actively in the ‘war on terror’, Gaddafi has become a close ally of western imperialism. He bought billions of dollars of arms and weapons from companies such as BAE Systems. The European Union granted licenses for $834.5 million of arms exports to Gaddafi through to the end of 2009, and that doesn’t include the expanding sales in 2010. The U.S. government under the Bush administration approved arms sales to Libya for $46 million in 2008. The Obama administration reduced this figure to $17 million in 2009 but was considering an armored car deal that would have increased it substantially.

The regime also accelerated the process of economic liberalization, selling off national resources including oil and the gas. A few weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hailed the strong macroeconomic performance of Libya and its progress in strengthening the role of private sector. The whole range of Western oil and gas companies are active in Libya: Italy’s ENI, Germany’s Wintershall, Britain’s BP, France’s Total and GDF Suez, US companies ConocoPhillips, Hess, and Occidental, Anglo-Dutch Shell, Spain’s Repsol, Canada’s Suncor, and Norway’s Statoil.

In addition to this, in 2008, Gaddafi’s regime concluded a deal, which was condemned by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, under the ‘Treaty of Friendship’ with Italy, in which the two countries agreed to cooperate in fighting illegal immigration. The pact allows Italy’s coastguard to deport boatloads of illegal immigrants back to Libyan shores, skipping procedures for filing potential asylum applications.

This agreement was so effective that it reduced the number of such asylum-seekers in Italy from 36,000 in 2008 to 4,300 in 2010. Human right groups have denounced the agreement which violates Italy’s international human right obligations by dumping migrants and asylum seekers on Libya.

It is of course these economic and political developments which are the backdrop to the press pictures of Blair and Gaddafi fawning over each other at the 2007 ‘deal in the desert’.

It is precisely because Gaddafi’s regime was already pro-western that the Western powers had to intervene to get control of a revolution that was threatening it. If they were going to lose their man in Libya they needed to get control of the revolution that was going to replace him. In Tunisia the West waited too long before backing the revolution, and the French Foreign Minister had paid the price with her job for that blunder. In Egypt the West almost held on to Mubarak for too long. With the example of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions before them, and with the revolutions still spreading through the Arab world, the US, UK and France, took a gamble on dumping Gaddafi and using the fact that the Libyan revolution had become a civil war to intervene military, the best possible way to get control of a revolution.

The Transitional National Council in Benghazi thought that it could deal with the imperialists on its own terms, asking for only so much air-cover as would allow them to complete their revolution. But it was never going to be that way.

The first thing that the bombing did was, as we predicted, solidify Gaddafi’s position among his supporters on the ground, if not necessarily among his own government ministers. The second thing it did was to deprive the Benghazi regime of the possibility of defending itself. This was justified by exaggerating the danger of Benghazi falling to Gaddafi immediately before the airstrikes began. But as the Guardian reported the Gaddafi offensive had actually been halted in the suburbs of Benghazi before the airstrikes began. And, as the Guardian also reported, Gaddafi’s move into Benghazi was a result of the threat airstrikes, not something that was prevented by them:

‘Analysts believe the sudden storming of Benghazi by pro-Gaddafi forces was a military ploy designed to negate the potency of international air strikes. Moving his ground forces from the flat, exposed terrain of the desert to the west of Libya’s second city and into its streets not only provided Gaddafi’s troops with vital cover, but increased the risk that coalition air strikes would inflict civilian casualties.’[2]

And imperial intervention cut short the process by which, in a civil war, the anti-government forces learn to fight effectively. In most civil wars the government side start with a military advantage. Usually the anti-government forces lose battles for a long period. Parliament lost to the King in the English Civil War until it was forced to revolutionize its political and military leadership and create the New Model Army. In the American Civil War the South were at the gates of Washington until an internal revolution on the Union side, including the Emancipation proclamation which gave slaves their freedom, gave the Union the capacity to win. In the Spanish Civil War, by contrast, it was the failure of this ‘revolution within the revolution’ which paved the way for defeat.

Now the Benghazi regime is marginalized as the imperial powers decide its fate. Last Tuesday at the London Conference, foreign ministers and leaders from over 40 countries and organizations including the UN, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the European Union and NATO, met to discuss Libya’s political future without the Transitional National Council (TNC) at the meeting.

And despite the TNC’s wishes, there are Western ‘boots on the ground’. President Obama signed a secret order few weeks ago, authorizing CIA covert operations to hasten the downfall of Gaddafi. The two pilots of the US fighter jet F15-E that crashed near Benghazi were rescued by US forces on the ground, now admitted to be CIA operatives, a clear violation of Resolution 1973. Dozens of members of British Special Forces and agents of MI6 intelligence service are also allegedly working on the ground in Libya.

Libya - no interventionWe must hope that the failure of Western intervention and subsequent radicalization in Benghazi once again returns the revolution to the course it was set on when the populace of the city were displaying signs calling for ‘No Western Intervention, We Can Do it Alone’. But, despite divisions within the TNC, if that is not an immediate prospect we must do all we can to ensure the withdrawal of Western forces so that the process of political conflict in Libya is determined by Libyans themselves. This policy is essential if the Arab revolutions as a whole are to have the greatest possible chance of success.

But the outcome of this intervention is far from set-fair for the imperial powers. Full-scale ground deployment looks unlikely as the opinion polls already show a large percentages against the bombing campaign, a result of a decade of anti-war campaigning and the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. This anti-bombing sentiment is also a result of the evident failure and hypocrisy involved in the Libyan intervention.

The imposition of the no-fly zone has actually already involved bombardment of civilians and civilian infrastructure. NATO declared on Thursday 31st of March that it was aware of a report of civilian casualties in Tripoli. The top Vatican official in the Libyan capital, Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, told Catholic news agency Fides that at least 40 civilians died in Tripoli when a building collapsed. He also said air strikes had ‘indirectly’ hit hospitals, including one in Mizda, 145km southwest of Tripoli. General Bouchard said NATO is investigating to determine whether its forces were involved. On Friday night, at least 9 rebels’ fighters and 5 civilians were reported killed by “mistake” in a NATO air strike on the outskirts of the eastern town of Brega.

The hypocrisy of western countries in claiming a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ as justification for intervening in Libya is undeniable. The military forces of Britain, France, and the United States are taking ‘all necessary measures’ to topple the Gaddafi regime, while troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Peninsula Shield Force led by Saudi Arabia continue to ‘stabilize’ the Bahraini regime in the face of a popular uprising.

The discrepancies between intervention for regime stability in Bahrain and that of regime change in Libya are underscored by the fact that the interveners in both cases are one and the same. In Yemen, the authoritarian regime of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih killed some 45 unarmed protesters on the very day that French warplanes began patrolling a no-fly zone over Libya.

The argument for a no fly zone to protect civilians is not even sustainable if we consider only the military situation in Libya. Gaddafi’s artillery poses a more serious threat to civilians than air strikes. In addition, the regime’s aerial assaults have primarily employed helicopter gunships, which are difficult to counter through a no-fly zone because they fly lower and are harder to target than warplanes.

So a ‘stalemate’ of some sort, much though William Hague wants to avoid it, may be the most likely outcome. This may take the form of a war of attrition or a partial regime re-conquest bedeviled by a prolonged insurgency. Gaddafi’s loyalists, while far better equipped and drilled than TNC forces, are not nearly numerous enough to occupy all of Libya’s coastal cities, let alone the Green Mountains where Islamist fighters have holed up before, in the mid-1990s. This situation could lead to partition with a rump, pro-western or quarantined Gaddafi regime in the west and a weak regime beholden to the imperialist powers in the east.

But even this outcome would not be good for the US and its allies. The US is swinging to the view already held by France and other key European Union states that such outcomes are intolerable, partly because oil flows might be interrupted, and because migrant flows might spike as Libya morphed into that Washington bugbear, the ‘failed state’.

All this points to that fact that the Libyan adventure, hastily cobbled together to meet the threat of the spreading Arab revolutions, may have halted the revolutionary impulse in Libya itself but nevertheless threatens to turn into a quagmire for the imperialists. The fate of the Arab revolutions may, in the immediate future, be settled in other places, but the fate of the imperialist intervention may still be settled by failure in Libya.

It is this prospect which should be at the centre of our attention as we campaign to get the imperial powers out of the affairs of the Libyan people and support a popular revolution far from imperialist interests.


[1] For the theoretical framework that of this attitude to the post-colonial states see J Rees, Imperialism and Resistance (Routledge, 2006) esp. pp234-236.