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Richard Seymour: Libya -- All they are saying is give war a chance

Celebrations in Tripoli following Gaddafi's retreat.

By Richard Seymour

August 31, 2011 -- ABC's The Drum -- Libya, the source of so many American nightmares, is fast becoming an American dream. 

Reagan was tortured by Tripoli, and its big boss man, sassing the US. He imposed sanctions, and bombed the country, but had no peace. Bush the Younger was reconciled with the prodigal Colonel Gaddafi, but somehow this alliance seemed, well, un-American

Obama, though, will have the privilege of being an ally of an ostensibly free Libya that he helped birth into existence. At minimal outlay (a mere $1 billion, which is peanuts in Pentagon terms), and with relatively few lives lost from bombing, a US-led operation has deposed a Middle East regime and empowered a transitional regime that is committed to human rights and free elections. 

After the carnage of Iraq, such a simple, swift and (apparently) morally uncomplicated victory seemed impossible. 

Lest we swoon too quickly, however, it is worth remembering that there are other ways to look at this.

We don't, that is, have to see things from the perspective of US state planners. Long before Western politicians and intellectuals extricated themselves from their embrace of the Gaddafi regime, and particularly his adorable sons whom they greatly admired, Libyans were embarking on the process of regime change independently of Washington.

There had been protest developing over matters such as housing, as well as a developing current of human rights dissent. It was not well-developed or institutionalised, as Gaddafi did not even tolerate the most rudimentary forms of civil society opposition that were able to develop under Mubarak's regime. 

Only once, in the early 1990s, did Gaddafi consider experimenting with liberalisation - but the instability erupting in neighbouring Algeria instantly warned him off it. And at any rate, repression became a more instantly saleable commodity in the context of the 'war on terror', as Gaddafi punted himself to international clients as an effective opponent of 'Al Qaeda' (the label of convenience for jihadi movements opposed by Washington). Because of this, Gaddafi usually had little difficulty demoralising opposition with a combination of threats and repression. 

Yet, by February this year, there had been successful revolutions in the hitherto stable states of Egypt and Tunisia. As a result, the rebellion that began on February 17 didn't simply melt away at the first sign of brutality. It spread with a rapidity that evidently rattled the dictatorship. 

The regime, evidently calculating that its greatest advantage lay in military supremacy, forced a war on the opposition. Even as it did so, using air power, machine guns and tanks to extirpate the rebellion, splits from within the regime and the armed forces enabled the revolt to spread and capture more of Libyan territory. For the first two weeks, it looked as if Gaddafi was a doomed man.

To give political expression to this revolt, people's committees arose across Libya. But the movement lacked the institutional structures, the centralised organisation, that was needed to defeat a well-organised army. In this situation, the vacuum was necessarily filled by people who were already well-situated and well-resourced – businessmen, military leaders, professionals, and defecting politicians. Thus, the National Transitional Council was formed. 

The council was in theory supposed to be a national, representative body. Yet from early on it lacked authority beyond some strongholds such as Benghazi. Delegates that were expected to arrive never did. And there were the beginnings of fratricidal in-fighting. Somewhat more ominously, rumours were being spread by the opposition that Gaddafi was using 'African mercenaries' (Libya is an African country – in this context, 'African' means black). The claims, as Amnesty International's Donatella Rivera pointed out, were unfounded. Yet, the more Gaddafi advanced against the opposition, reclaiming lost territory and smashing rebel units, the more these rumours gained ground. Lynchings began to occur. 

In the face of a resurgence on the part of the regime, some elements in the opposition leadership also began to look to an alliance with external powers. Figures such as Ibrahim Dabbashi and General Abdul Fatah Younis, both defectors from the regime, were early supporters of some form of intervention. Initially, such voices were isolated. Other leading figures in the rebellion such as Abdul Hafiz Ghoga outright opposed intervention. Posters appeared on walls in Benghazi pleading for no intervention. 

Yet, as the defeats racked up, the logic of seeking external protection became more appealing. Some rebel elements believed that a defeat would result in massacres. The head of the Transitional Council and former minister of justice Mustafa Abdul Jalil asserted that if Gaddafi took Benghazi, "half a million" would die. This was implausible. The scale of recorded deaths at that point was far from a genocidal massacre. The city of Misrata, which had seen the bitterest fighting, had suffered 257 deaths in the first two months of war. However, the invocation of genocide fitted with a strategy to activate UN support for a no-fly zone to protect the opposition movement. 

Weeks before a UN resolution endorsing NATO action was passed, intelligence and special forces units belonging to external powers such as Britain were already liaising with rebel units in Libya. And the leadership of the rebel army changed, as General Younis was replaced by a former Gaddafi ally named Khalifa Hifter, who had lived in Virginia for the previous 20 years. 

Soon, as NATO bombing began, it was external powers who were dictating the pace of the opposition's assault. They were also dictating how soon and under what conditions the transitional council could gain recognition as the legitimate government of Libya, begin trading oil, and procure weapons. Yet, this still solved a number of problems for the Transitional Council, both protecting them from their spurned ruler and strengthening their hand within the opposition. From being a fractious opposition group lacking national authority and facing defeat, they became an internationally recognised government with material advantages and international force backing them up. Today they are victorious.

However, lurking in this apparent triumph is a defeat of sorts – not for the opposition leadership, but for the original revolutionary upsurge. From being a movement of millions, with untold possibilities, it became a war fought by only a few tens of thousands of soldiers under the command of a relatively conservative elite, many of whom had profited under Gaddafi. Indeed, divisions among that elite resulted in the assassination of General Younis only weeks before the rebels triumphed. Such rivalry once in power could be deadly. 

From being a movement that boldly declared its independence, it became wholly dependent on external powers. Most tragically, elements within it became obsessed with 'Africans', who were frequently arrested, harassed, or killed. In the days following the capture of Tripoli, several news organisations have found evidence of rebels rounding up black men and killing them. "This is a bad time to be a black man in Libya," reported Channel 4's Alex Thomson. This jars with the language of human rights with which the opposition validates its claim to rule. It is also a disgrace to the February 17 revolt.

From the American perspective, a problem has been solved. They have adapted resourcefully to the 'Arab Spring' and placed themselves, however hypocritically, on the side of reform. They have exercised military power in a manner taken to be virtuous, thus making future interventions more plausible.  But Libya's problems seem to be at a beginning, not an end.

[Richard Seymour is a British socialist. He blogs at Lenin's Tomb.]

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