Left debates Libya: `The Arab revolution must stay in Arab hands' -- a reply to Gilbert Achcar

Image removed.

French navy technicians load a Mica missile, destined for Libya, under the wing of a Rafale jet fighter on the deck of Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea.

[For more left views on Libya, click HERE.]

By Kevin Ovenden

March 28, 2011 -- Socialist Unity -- The Arab revolution has widened the left’s horizons. In the region itself there is now a historic possibility of a new radical politics: successful resistance to the hegemonic Western powers and to Israel fused with the movement of the young and propertyless masses against the corrupt and complicit elites. 

The fall of Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Mubarak shattered decades of Western policy, rocking them onto the back foot. They are now moving onto the front foot, as the regional despots raid their political and military arsenals to cling on.  

Thus the developing Arab movements and the left face new political challenges and strategic choices. That is the context of the legitimate debate Gilbert Achcar has framed over the Western military intervention in Libya. 

Gilbert outlines a case for qualified political support for the soon to be NATO-commanded air and naval operations in Libya (no one on the international left is in a position to do anything materially/militarily themselves). 

He writes as a well-known Marxist and opponent of the Afghan and Iraq wars, a supporter of the Palestinian struggle and a genuine friend of the most radical edge of the Arab revolutions. 

Gilbert Achcar is no part of the liberal attack pack, who in natural alliance with the neoconservatives brought us the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq. But he argues that over Libya the left should support the action of powers who occupy those two countries, albeit with many caveats and with vigilant suspicion.

It is a badly mistaken position over Libya. When its logic is generalised -- as Gilbert does -- it plays dangerously into the hands of the reactionary forces which he and the left hope the Arab revolutions will eventually eradicate. 

Western intervention across the region

Gilbert introduces two analogies to make the point that socialist principles are not articles of religious faith and are no substitute for providing concrete answers based on a “factual assessment” of concrete situations. 

The point is helpful: the analogies, not. As he acknowledges, proceeding by analogy tends to generate confusing polemics over what is common between unique events, each of which is itself the subject of considerable controversy and of radically different factual assessments. 

The Rwandan genocide, one of his examples, is arguably (at the very least) more a horrific lesson in the consequences of actual Western intervention, in its totality up to and including the eve of the slaughter, than it is a counter-example for those Gilbert takes to task for a “religious” opposition to all Western military action. 

In any case, even the Western leaders who have driven the Libya bombing have not suggested that the events they say they forestalled were analogous to the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide -- though the most rabid tabloids and the bomberatti have. It is self-defeating for the left to insert those connotations ourselves. It is even more damaging if we at the same time fail to foreground the most salient and distinctive feature of which the uprising in Libya is an expression -- the wider Arab revolutionary upheaval.

That regional process, and what it means both for the Western powers and for those who have risen up in Libya, barely features in Gilbert’s analysis. Instead, he largely accepts the question as French President Nicolas Sarokzy, British PM David Cameron and US  President Barack Obama frame it: a particular, Libyan moral dilemma confronting their publics and states, whose wider actions are cropped out. 

But their military action is not some singular response to a potential humanitarian crisis. It is more even than the latest chapter in a history of wars attended by specious humanitarian claims. That said, history alone -- recent and ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan -- should cause anyone who hopes for a progressive outcome to this bombing or who invests it with moral worth to pause and reflect. 

The bloody past and present also contribute to the rational underpinning of a far from “religious” anti-war sentiment, which goes beyond the left to embrace an unprecedentedly large section of public opinion -- a testament to the international movement against the Iraq war. 

The context, however, is not merely historical. The same actors who are launching missile strikes over Libya are intervening at the same time and with the same objectives across the rest of the same region. (Unless we are unfeasibly to imagine that their motives, interests and aims are fundamentally different in Libya and in the Gulf -- an unsustainable moral-political atomism, certainly for a Marxist.)

The same European Union mandarin -- civilising-colonialist Robert Cooper -- is briefing about bringing democracy to Libya and also writing apologias for the Saudi-orchestrated murder of democrats in Bahrain. 

The same President Obama who said that attacks on hospitals were a casus belli against Tripoli is standing by his allies in Riyadh and Manama, who spent many days… attacking hospitals under the noses of the US Fifth Fleet. 

The same treasury revenue going up in smoke as missiles explode in Libya is subsidising Israel’s missiles blowing up people in Gaza -- not two years ago, but today, now, with the threat of much more imminently. 

The same Qatar that is belatedly providing air support for the attacks in Libya is simultaneously sending troops to attack democrats in the Persian Gulf. 

For sure, there are great fractures and differences of emphasis as the US with its European and Arab allies seeks to cohere a response to the challenge posed by the Arab revolutions.  

The US would like more palliative reforms from the kings of Arabia; the Saudis want to give none. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has cleaved as long as possible to the autocrat in Yemen; Frenh foriegn minister Alain Juppe, stung by the political crisis wrought by his predecessors’ intense relationship with Ben Ali, called earlier for Ali Abdullah Saleh to go. 

But the overall aim is the same: to corral the revolutionary process and ensure it is steered along a path which is stable and compatible with the interests of the Western powers and whichever safe pairs of hands they can identify in each state.  

Oil and Western policy

Those interests do ultimately come down to the control of Middle Eastern and North African hydrocarbons. Is the West’s policy about oil? On one level it is always about oil. When Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Sarkozy embraced Muammar Gaddafi, the unspoken interest was oil. When they find themselves intervening to overthrow him, the underlying interest remains oil -- just as it was when the West supported Saddam Hussein in his attack on revolutionary Iran and then, a decade later, drove him out of Kuwait, embargoed Iraq for 12 years, finally invading a second time and executing him. 

The same imperial, capitalist objectives in the region can be served by different politiques d’Etat; to paraphrase Lord Palmerston, imperial chancellories have no eternal friends and no eternal enemies, only eternal interests -- as Hosni Mubarak discovered at the 11th hour. 

So why the change in policy towards Gaddafi? There are those who serially tell us that this time it’s different, this time the Western governments are subordinating self-interest to humanitarianism. Gilbert is not one of them. But his argument lends them credibility -- and if adopted by the left would encourage them to go further. 

Gaddafi managed neither to fall on his sword, like Mubarak, nor to crush the opposition, like the Al Khalifa kleptocrats in Bahrain -- but only after the intervention of the Washington’s oldest ally in the region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

He did succeed through vicious repression and playing on sectional divisions in Libyan society in displacing the dynamic of the youth-led revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt (which has also been central in Sanaa, Yemen, for six weeks) with an armed conflict more resembling a civil war.  

In those circumstances he became a liability for the West. On the eve of the bombing campaign Obama said that the instability in Libya threatened “vital US allies in the region”. 

Gaddafi himself had already proven that he had no intention of posing such a threat. Those who think that he is some kind of anti-imperialist now would do well to reflect that even as he denounced the Western bombardment as “crusader aggression” he was proclaiming himself as the only possible Libyan leader to maintain peace with Israel and to prevent African migrants from entering Europe. 

It is preposterous, as Gilbert says, to claim that Gaddafi has been hostile to Western interests over the last decade and that that is why the West want to topple him. But equally, it is evident over two last weeks that the flaking-rule of this recently acquired, flakey ally no longer served them well.  

 The wrangling in Western capitals over how to respond and bring a return to stability more plausibly reflects the uncertainty that has beset their attempts to rally a riposte to the Arab revolution than it does some dawning recognition of a hitherto absent moral sensibility. Unlike in Egypt, there was no army high command to switch allegiance to smoothly and safely.   

The same hesitancy marked the Arab despots. They want an end to the revolutionary wave, but they have no loyalty to, still less liking for, Gaddafi -- or necessarily for each other; the Qataris long campaigned for the toppling of Mubarak. The West’s actions are a single axe to fell a two-headed monster, they hope. 

Gilbert says we should not “dismiss the weight of public opinion on Western governments” in deciding their actions, justified as preventing a slaughter in Benghazi. 

Now, only the self-appointed and deluded leaders of “global civil society” would claim that public opinion in Europe and North America is what drove the decision to go to war. Britain and the US went to war on Iraq despite public opinion. 

There is little enthusiasm for this war -- that much is clear from the conflicting opinion polls. So we are left with the observation that public outrage at a predicted massacre was just one factor among many in Sarkozy’s and Cameron’s drive to get the missiles launched and bombs dropped.

Morality and Western bombs

Let us put to one side that it was the dire warnings of the very politicians who pushed for bombing -- Juppe and Britain's William Hague preeminently -- which informed the public discussion about a possible slaughter. Let us also return shortly to whether their warnings were right and what might have been done.  

In a limited sense public compassion was significant. It determined the ideological register in which London, Paris and Washington have chosen to re-legitimise their roles in the Arab region after the battering they have taken from Iraq and the fall of their allies in Tunisia and Egypt. 

Gilbert touches on it when he identifies the West’s concern to ensure a continued “ability to invoke humanitarian pretexts for further imperialist wars like the ones in the Balkans or Iraq”. But that means that giving any credence to their current humanitarian pretext simply makes it easier for them to construct exactly the narrative for more Iraqs. 

Emboldened Western powers make further wars more likely. Supporting their military actions contributes to that. 

Unless we are to detach Libya from what the Western powers are doing and will do in the region and elsewhere, that consequence surely weighs on one side of the moral balance Gilbert enjoins us to strike: “what is decisive is the comparison between the human cost of this intervention and the cost that would have been incurred had it not happened.” The dead in Bahrain and Yemen deserve to be counted too. 

The first cost we will come to know as events unfold in North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. The second, we can never know with certainty. 

It has become largely accepted that Gaddafi was about to take Benghazi and would have killed thousands. The success and scale of Gaddafi’s repression do not for a second decide our opposition to it. But they are crucial to Gilbert’s test for whether we should support what the Western powers are doing. 

So let’s assume that Juppe, Hague and others were right: Gaddafi was about to win and kill thousands. ”Can anyone claiming to belong to the left just ignore a popular movement’s plea for protection… when the type of protection requested is not one through which control over their country could be exerted?”, asks Gilbert. 

Up to then, however, the rebels’ requests had been ignored, not by the left, but by those to whom they were addressed. They asked the great powers who now pose as their protectors for access to weapons days into the uprising. They were refused. 

At the time, Berlusconi’s foreign minister Franco Frattini voiced most clearly the West’s suspicions about the Benghazi rebels: they were an unknown quantity but some were definitely Islamist (he warned ominously of the proclamation of an “Islamic Emirate” on the southern Mediterranean) and a banner opposing Western interference was prominently displayed. 

So intelligence had to be gathered (special forces and spies were dispatched), guarantees had to be sought (commitments to Libya’s commercial treaties were swiftly obtained), the picture allowed to clarify and nothing be done which would enable any agency independent from the interests of the Western corporations and states which had got along famously with Gaddafi over the previous 10 years. 

The condition that intervention would not amount to exerting control over the country was breached before the words in the UN resolution ruling out an occupation were typed up. What else might Sarkozy and Clinton in Paris three days before the UN vote have bargained over from a position of strength with the former regime figures who they plucked as representatives of the Benghazi opposition? 

Gilbert does not address the baleful effects of the West’s embrace on the opposition itself. Nor does he consider how intervention led by the former North African colonial powers allows Gaddafi, of all people, to wrap himself in the shroud of Omar Mukhtar, the hero of the devastating Libyan war of independence against fascist Italy, thus giving him another weapon to shore up support. 

The opposition may well have started as an admixture of forces comparable with the Tunisian and Egyptian movements. But the former regime elements, appointing themselves as leaders, and reliably pro-Western figures have unsurprisingly been promoted as the rebellion becomes more dependent on Western military force. 

If war is an extension of political conflict by other means, then military conflict extends its own political logic. In a position of military weakness the Benghazi council has called for greater and greater Western military action. 

Rebels complained early on that they were not in a position to call in Western air strikes. They may want US, French and British planes to be the opposition air arm, but they are under US/NATO command. It calls the shots. It isn’t the rebels’ airforce; they are now more NATO’s ground force.   

The Benghazi council has not yet called for ground troops -- which are not ruled out by the UN resolution -- but if a stalemate sets in… what then? Perhaps some more on-the-ground “specialists” to guide in the missiles or some more “advisors” (special forces, i.e. highly trained killers, are already there)? 

Should the left ignore the call for further help, even if a “popular movement” warns of massacres and, as the Pentagon has said, air action alone is not certain to achieve victory on the ground? Shouldn’t we support steps to make the missile strikes more accurate, to reduce “collateral damage”? Wouldn’t it be immoral not to?

Should we seek to expose the insincerity of the West by demanding more militarily action on behalf of the rebels if they don’t succeed quikely? Should we greet any move towards de facto partition with demands that the West “finishes the job” and removes the butcher Gaddafi?

Surely it would be immoral, having prevented the fall of Benghazi, to watch the fighting drag on and Gaddafi remain in control of most of the country? It is the rebels’ requests, after all, which authenticate the moral case for supporting the bombing, according to Gilbert. And they want more bombing. 

The war has already gone further than the restricted no-fly-zone Gilbert says it would be immoral to oppose. The UN resolution went well beyond that. The opening attacks were not against aircraft but on ground forces and Gaddafi’s compound -- they had the coordinates from Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt in 1986. Given the results of every other Western air war, is there any doubt that the cruise missiles and “smart bombs” have caused civilian casualties? (At the time of writing Western warplanes are fully engaged in bombing Ajdabiya so the rebels can take it.) 

Herein lies the essential unreality of Gilbert’s position. He wants to scalpel out from the UN resolution and NATO bombing a humanitarian kernel that we must support. We should oppose the rest. We should monitor the course of an inherently chaotic war to ensure that military action doesn’t go beyond the humanitarian aims we have imputed.

But means and ends were always wider. That’s why the vaunted international consensus collapsed within 24 hours. There was no actual demarcation between a supposed humanitarian mission and the wider objectives of the belligerents -- especially of Sarkozy and Cameron, who openly proclaimed a doctrine of regime change.  

The political futility of Gilbert’s position is apparent when he writes, “… we should definitely demand that bombings stop after Gaddafi’s air means have been neutralised”. The Pentagon declared them neutralised the day before his article appeared, but the bombing continued.    

Alternatives to NATO action

So what is left of the argument that we should have supported a no-fly zone which was superseded before the Security Council vote? Only that Benghazi was about to fall, there would be a massacre and there was no alternative to supporting Western action which, whatever its wider ambitions and methods, did prevent it. Let’s accept the claim of an imminent massacre and look at whether there was any alternative. 

Gilbert dismisses the idea of the rebels arming as impractical: there were only “24 hours” for them to get the weapons and learn to use them. But any impracticality is a result of the political priorities of the Western powers. 

For two weeks they refused weapons and imposed an embargo to stop any shipment while they sought guarantees that the Benghazi rebels would not use them against their vested interests in Libya, established under Gaddafi over the last decade. They blackmailed the genuinely revolutionary elements and suborned others of the Benghazi leadership as Gaddafi’s armor moved in. The left everywhere should say so clearly, not accept the fait accompli of coercion. 

Gilbert argues that the left could oppose war against Serbia and Iraq because we were able to point to diplomatic alternatives, but that over Libya there were none. Now, I don’t know how realistic Vladimir Putin’s diplomacy was in relation to Slobodan Milosevic or how credible was Saddam Hussein’s offer to withdraw from Kuwait. But neither do I remember those being necessary conditions for the movements against the wars of 1991 and 1999. 

Following Gilbert’s thesis nonetheless, there was a high-level African Union delegation on its way to Tripoli to seek a diplomatic settlement when the Western bombing started. Gilbert suggests that Gaddafi is too irrational to be a party to a mediated solution. But we were told that Milosevic and Saddam were also mad dogs, genocidal dictators who would never accept a mediated solution. These are hardly strong grounds for opposing the Balkan and Iraq wars yet giving the West the benefit of the doubt over Libya.  

Gilbert argues that any Arab-organised intervention would cause just as many civilian casualties and lead to just as much imperialist influence over Libya. He cites Saudi Arabia and Egypt as two possible interveners. A few moments’ factual assessment shows that such an intervention would likely open up very different possibilities. 

It was almost certainly impossible for Saudi Arabia to lead an intervention perceived as supporting the Arab revolution. It was leading the suppression of the revolution in Bahrain at the same time. It is the most brittle and ancient of anciens regimes, which has rejected all calls for it to broaden its social base through serious reform. The tensions would have exposed it utterly and opened a breach for the Saudi opposition movement -- much more so than in tiny Qatar. That’s why the House of Saud voted for the West to do it. 

Egypt is different. Mubarak is gone. The army remains. But it presides over a society in which an actual revolution is still being fought out. It’s currently Washington’s biggest regional concern. An intervention led by Egypt would not have simply been a cat’s paw of London, Paris and Washington. Its reflex within Egypt would not have been of the “bomb the new Hitler” variety that is dredged up on these occasions in the imperialist countries. It would have been conditioned by the new found activism of the Egyptian people.  

Egyptian socialists have issued a statement opposing the West’s military action in Libya and agitating for popular pressure to come to the aid of the rebellion in their western neighbour. You only have to picture Egyptian flags, of the kind that fluttered in Tahrir Square, being waved in Benghazi rather than the Tricolor and Union Jack to appreciate what the difference would be. 

There were alternatives to supporting the West’s bombing. Of course, they were not ones Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama would freely choose. They had to be argued and fought for against the line of the Western governments. In that sense they were not as immediate as the willing decisions of those who control powerful states. But if the left were to accept that the only realistic solutions are those that the US, EU and NATO want to entertain, then we too succumb to blackmail and there seems little point in building an independent left. We face strategic choices. 

Democracy and the Islamist scarecrow

The left wing of the Egyptian revolution -- the most important in the region thus far -- has rejected that blackmail. They are not people who can be dismissed as armchair critics sitting in comfort. And the mass forces that were ranged against Mubarak remain independent of Western tutelage. 

Gilbert, however, privileges the Libyan rebels, who are now dependent on Paris and London, acting on Washington’s dime -- Pentagon spending was 50 per cent of the NATO total 10 years ago, now it is 75 per cent. 

In a deeply worrying aside, he asserts that whatever regime the Libyan rebels might form now would automatically be better than “the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood” playing a “crucial role” in post-Mubarak Egypt. That makes a terrible concession not merely to the Western powers’ military action, but to their politics and ideology as they try to reshape the Arab region under rejuvenated hegemony. 

They want the public East and West to believe that regimes dependent on Western force of arms and constructed at conferences in Paris or London -- like Nouri Al-Maliki’s in Iraq -- are a priori better than long suppressed Islamic movements playing an independent, prominent role. The Arabs, they maintain, are not ready for unguided democracy. Israel’s Tzipi Livni is promulgating bespoke criteria for Arab parties to be admitted to the democratic club; they include recognising Israel. 

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood does not fit the Islamophobic demonology and in any case is an organic part of Egyptian society -- a vital point for anyone who truly believes in national self-determination. As the political space has opened up so have the divisions in an organisation that was always more of a coalition than a monolithic party. There is a widening crack between a politically conservative old guard and a youth imbued with revolutionary aspirations. In fact, several parties look set to emerge from the Brotherhood’s ranks. They include those who emphasise radical democratic and social change as opposed to the imposition of restrictive mores. 

The most popular model among the mainstream of the Brotherhood and among many other Islamists in the region is now the AKP government in Turkey. It is far from a socialist administration. But it beggars belief that on account of its Islamic roots it and those who emulate it must be by definition worse than the forces who hope to come to power in Libya under Western bombs and licence. 

The Turkish government’s position over Libya is to call for Gaddafi to go, to limit action strictly to humanitarian objectives, to criticise military “excesses” and to oppose Western politicking. In those respects, it’s a position not unlike Gilbert’s. But he cedes the pass to those who are waving the Islamist scarecrow. 

Events since the appearance of Gilbert’s article have made bald assertions of the superior progressive credentials of the now Western-dependent opposition in Benghazi untenable. Serious media organisations such as the LA Times -- not conspiracist supporters of Gaddafi -- have carried first-hand reports of grizzly treatment of black migrant workers at the hands of Benghazi’s new security section. They are also rounding up those they say are “Gaddafi loyalists”. What fate lies in store? 

We have been here before. We have seen other sectional movements prove incapable of transcending the divisions fostered or exploited by the regime they oppose, and thus failing to unite the bulk of society behind them. We have seen how in a bitter military conflict some have ended up playing on those divisions themselves. Some have even taken a portion of the brutality they have faced and hurled it back in kind. 

In Benghazi under Western oversight we are not seeing the kind of sloughing off of the muck of ages that lit up Cairo’s Tahrir Square when Muslims and Christians linked arms against divide and rule and pressed the most radical revolutionary path.  

For several reasons, among them Gaddafi’s repression, that process was marginal to the Libyan uprising. The Western powers certainly do not want to see it emerge now in Benghazi, or in Tripoli if Gaddafi falls. They won’t want the voices in Misrata that are skeptical of the West’s role to grow louder. And they are now in a stronger position to stop all that happening. 

Imperial hypocrisies

Gilbert, of course, points out US and European hypocrisies. The apparent contradiction on which the hypocrisy rests is not incidental. It is rooted in a consistent set of deep interests which are far from contradictory: their hands on the spigot of the world’s energy economy against competitors from without and the mass of the people within.

But with Libya as his point of departure Gilbert’s resolution of the seeming inconsistencies of the West takes us in exactly the wrong direction. If followed, it would lead to a strategic divergence on the left and inadvertent relief to the hypocrites. 

Gilbert spells out his approach by pondering the prospect of major Israeli air strikes against Gaza and a hypothetical call for a Western no-fly zone in response: “Pickets should be organised at the UN in New York demanding it. We should all be prepared to do so, with now a powerful argument” -- the argument that you did it over Libya so do it over Gaza.  

In fact, while the deputy prime minister of Israel has mooted an imminent repeat of Operation Cast Lead, more limited air strikes are already happening, and more intensely than at any time in the last two years. 

So this isn’t a question for the future. It is now. What is the response, and what ought it be?

In the region, the reaction among the left and progressives has been overwhelmingly to point to continuing Western -- crucially US -- backing for the state of Israel, the latest egregious example being yet another US veto of a Security Council resolution opposing illegal settlement building. 

It’s been to highlight Tel Aviv’s request for a further $20 billion subvention from Washington. It has been to focus attention on the transitional government in Egypt to demand it reflect popular sentiment, break fully with the Mubarak/Sadat years, open the Rafah border, cut off gas supplies to Israel and declare for the Palestinian struggle. (It has already felt sufficient pressure to caution Israel against an all-out Gaza war.)

Similar arguments are being raised by the radical left and the now considerable pro-Palestinian movement in Europe and the US. 

Their direction of travel is not for further Western military engagement in the Middle East following Libya -- intervention that may come in Syria if events follow a similar pattern. It is for ending that engagement -- direct and through Western support for the military machines of Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

It is not to demand European and US diplomats descend in greater number to “help” bring peace and justice. It is to tell the likes of latter day Prince Metternich, the US State Department’s Jeffrey Feldman, to get back to Washington and take with him his schemes for manipulating opposition forces which he perfected in the sectarian labyrinth of Lebanon. 

It is not for the West to do more; it is for them to stop doing what they are doing. 

This isn’t a semantic game. The movement that emerged in Tunis and Cairo shows the potential for a new agency in the Arab region -- a radical force that is independent of elites, big and small, Western and domestic. 

Sidi Bouzid and Tahrir Square restored Arabs themselves as the agents of progress in their region after the catastrophe of the neocon experiment with Iraq and all that went before. The West wants to reinsert itself, forcibly if necessary, as the principal actor, the arbiter of progress for the natives. 

It might be objected that it is an uphill struggle for popular Arab movements to force a retreat in Western policy, and to frustrate their and the regional rulers’ interests. That’s true. 

But it is far more preferable, and infinitely more realistic, than lobbying for the imperial powers to become something which they cannot be: a force for progress, if only they could be persuaded to resolve their supposed mixed motives and conflicted thinking in the right way.

This strategic choice is being fought out now in Yemen. The most dynamic elements in the society -- the young people who gather outside Sanaa’s university -- are choosing the Cairo of Tahrir Square over the Benghazi of Western suzerainty. But there are other powerful, sectarian or sectional political actors too. Some toy with Western or Saudi backing to compensate for a failure to pull decisive force behind their own bids to be the replacement for Saleh’s regime. 

A similar political battle is starting in Syria, where the West does have a vital interest in toppling the regime -- but not for one that would be even more of a problem for it and Israel. It doesn’t want a Tahrir Square in Damascus; it would like a Benghazi or Baghdad -- and it will act accordingly. 

The first phase of the Arab rising of 2011 carried echoes of the European revolutions of 1848. They made flesh the truly progressive modern force which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels identified in the Communist Manifesto published that year as “the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”. 

Such independence in the matured global capitalist system of today depends upon many things. Above all it cannot happen without spurning the embrace of the biggest capitalist powers and consistently opposing their ideologies, their political machinations and their killing machines. 

[Kevin Ovenden is a member of the executive of the Respect Party in Britain, an officer of the UK Stop the War Coalition and a leading Palestine solidarity activist.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 03/30/2011 - 23:42


Socialist Worker 2245, 2 April 2011

© Socialist Worker (unless otherwise stated). You may republish if you include an active link to the original.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 03/30/2011 - 23:48



SocialistWorker.org columnist Lance Selfa, editor of The Struggle for Palestine, critiques calls from several left-wing figures to support Western military action in Libya.

THE WHITE House-massaged media spin portrays President Barack Obama's decision to go to war in Libya as a triumph for a triumvirate of liberals--Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and Obama adviser Samantha Power--who have well-established records of advocating the use of U.S. military force for "humanitarian" purposes.

As Stewart Patrick, director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Affairs:

The United States and its coalition partners' decision to launch Operation Odyssey Dawn to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya on March 19 was a vindication of the fragile "responsibility to protect" (RtoP) norm. The diplomatic process to build a consensus about intervention was messy, involving protracted negotiations among multiple parties, and the military outcome in Libya remains uncertain. Still, the Obama administration was correct to champion RtoP's basic principle: state sovereignty is not a license for a dictator to murder his citizens.

It's no surprise that many of the most vocal supporters of a military action launched by a Democratic president would hail from the Democratic sector of the foreign policy establishment--and that a number of these were also critics of the ham-fisted and unilateralist strategies of the Bush administration.

But supporters of one form or another of Western military intervention extend to important figures on the left and the antiwar movement.

Gilbert Achcar, the veteran socialist and respected scholar--who has published numerous articles, interviews and books on the struggle in the Middle East, including at SocialistWorker.org--contended in an interview and a subsequent article published on ZNet:

Can anyone claiming to belong to the left just ignore [the Libyan] popular movement's plea for protection, even by means of imperialist bandit-cops, when the type of protection requested is not one through which control over their country could be exerted? Certainly not, by my understanding of the left.

Likewise, Middle East expert Juan Cole added his voice to the chorus in support of the UN-sponsored "no-fly zone" over Libya with an "Open Letter to the Left on Libya" on March 27. It begins:

As I expected, now that Qaddafi's advantage in armor and heavy weapons is being neutralized by the UN allies' air campaign, the liberation movement is regaining lost territory...I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed.

Achcar and Cole have made the case for Western intervention in Libya, however limited, for "humanitarian" aims, and they criticize those on the left who oppose it. But their arguments ignore the context in which the attack on Qaddafi's forces took place--as well as the long and sordid record of such military actions in the past.

The U.S. and its European allies began the year with the Qaddafi regime as an ally in the "war on terror" and Libya a fertile ground for Western investment. Until this month, they were prepared to accept Qaddafi's continued rule in Libya, even at the cost of the rebellion against him being crushed. Only when the threat to regional stability and oil supplies became alarming to the West did they act.

The excuse for intervention has been the call by Qaddafi's opponents--one call, carefully selected from among others that were rejected by the U.S. and its allies--for a no-fly zone and other military action.

But even if the intervention plays some role in Qaddafi's downfall--which is by no means certain--any regime that comes to power in Libya will be compromised from the start by its dependence on Western powers that aren't concerned at all about democracy and justice, but about maintaining stability and reasserting their dominance in a region that has seen two victorious revolutions against U.S.-backed dictators, and the possibility of more to come.

The history of "humanitarian intervention" by the U.S. government and European powers has produced only greater violence and more injustice--in Somalia, in Haiti, in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, in Iraq--but with a seemingly progressive cover of opposition to dictators who were once supported by the West.

Achcar and Cole are wrong to disregard that history by drawing the conclusion that a U.S.-led military intervention in Libya will produce a different result this time around.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BEFORE ADDRESSING current arguments on the left, it might be worthwhile to recall just what "humanitarian intervention" is--and how it developed as an ideological support for imperialist military action in the post-Cold War era.

The rise of "humanitarian intervention" coincided with the end of the Cold War, when the U.S., with its unparalleled military power, was seeking new justifications for its use. The George Bush Sr. administration and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Colin Powell staked out the ideological territory with Operation Restore Hope, the euphemistic title for their 1992 invasion of Somalia.

But what Bush Sr. and Powell started haltingly, liberals turned into a full-fledged case for Western intervention to prevent humanitarian disasters in a number of countries--from Somalia to Haiti to the Balkans.

With the threat of military intervention escalating into superpower confrontations removed, the U.S. felt less constrained about intervening. In Somalia, Washington invaded under the guise of feeding starving Somalians. The mission morphed quickly into a war with Somalian warlords to impose a U.S.-friendly government. In 1993, forces loyal to the Somalian president succeeded in repelling a U.S. attack and killing 18 U.S. soldiers. Within a few more months, the U.S. withdrew.

Today, the Somalia invasion, memorialized in the film Black Hawk Down, is remembered as a failure. But in its initial stages, the Wall Street Journal hailed it for restoring the U.S. military's "moral credibility." The Journal added, "There is a word for this: colonialism." The Somalia invasion provided a template for the U.S. and its European allies to justify unilateral intervention in Bosnia (to set up "safe havens") and in Kosovo (to save Kosovar Albanians from attack by the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government led by Slobodan Milosevic).

Of course, liberal champions of humanitarian intervention don't call what they advocate "colonialism." Rather, they invent euphemisms like "the responsibility to protect," the term of choice for a Canadian government-appointed International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) that drew up procedures that the "international community" might invoke to intervene to prevent genocide or other human rights abuses. Under these guidelines, which most world governments agreed to in 2005, a state forfeits its right to sovereign control over its territory if it commits human rights abuses against its own population.

But the experience of so-called humanitarian intervention is anything but the rosy picture its liberal architects claim for it.

During the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, NATO established a no-fly zone over the Bosnian town of Srebenica. That didn't prevent the massacre of thousands of civilians at the hands of the Bosnian Serb military and fascist gangs associated with it.

NATO used the tragedy of Srebenica as justification when it launched its 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. Ostensibly, the NATO war was aimed at protecting Kosovar civilians who faced massacre at the hands of Milosevic's forces.

Yet it was apparent at the time--and has since been verified by the research of University of Arizona professor David Gibbs--that the bombing actually prompted Serb forces to step up their massacres. And this is not to mention the hundreds--or thousands, we may never know--of Serbian and Kosovar civilians killed by NATO bombs.

More than a decade later, Kosovo exists as a ward of NATO and is home to Camp Bondsteel, a huge U.S. base whose 7,000 soldiers support the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although it declared its independence in 2008, its real government is a combination of what remains of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission to Kosovo and the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. These have presided over a massive privatization campaign that sold off formerly state-run firms to European Union investors.

Meanwhile, unemployment hovers around 40 percent while the International Monetary Fund and World Bank collect Kosovo's share of the debt it contracted as a member of the former Yugoslavia. Large swathes of infrastructure remain un-repaired since the war, and electric power supply is spotty. Government corruption is rampant. Foreign forces in charge of maintaining "security" stood by while Albanian extremists harassed and murdered ethnic Serbs. As a result, almost all Serbs who lived in Kosovo have fled to Serbia or live in a northern Kosovo enclave effectively partitioned from the rest of the province by Western troops.

This is the "success" that today's liberal interventionists want NATO to replicate in Libya.

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THIS HISTORICAL background may mean nothing to the cruise missile liberals, whose only references to "lessons of history" aren't based on real experiences of what "humanitarian" invasion and occupation have produced.

Unfortunately, in situations like present-day Libya, the liberal hawks are being echoed by people who would normally oppose U.S. intervention in other circumstances.

Many well-intentioned people who consider themselves sympathetic to the Arab revolution see no alternative to the Western attack on Libya, on the grounds that "something had to be done" to prevent Qaddafi and his loyalists from murdering oppositionists in Benghazi. This is the hook on which people who would normally be skeptical of intervention are pulled into support for the action.

Pro-intervention liberals accuse those who oppose Western military action of indifference to mass slaughter or to the fate of the Arab revolution. Writing in the New Republic, John Judis asked how would opponents of Western intervention react to slaughter and the short-circuiting of the Arab revolution: "If you answer "Who cares?"...I have no counter-arguments to offer, but if you worry about two or three of these prospects, then I think you have to reconsider whether Barack Obama did the right thing in lending American support to this intervention."

Besides being a caricature of the left's anti-intervention position, Judis' contention that intervention in Libya will stop massacres and aid the Arab revolution isn't even true. Against those who argued that failure to act against Qaddafi "would send a devastating message to other Arab dictators: Use enough military force, and you will keep your job," the long-time Middle East analyst Phyllis Bennis, pointed out:

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 U.S., British, French and other warplanes and warships launched their attacks against Libya, that other Arab regimes escalated their crackdown on their own democratic movements.

Bennis rightly captures the hypocrisy of supposed U.S. concern with democracy and human rights in Libya while it abets the repression of the opposition by its allies in Bahrain and Yemen.

But Judis' insinuation that those who oppose Western intervention are indifferent to the fate of the Arab masses has other supporters.

For example, the Israeli peace activist Uri Avneri, likening the situation in Libya to allied indifference to the Nazi Holocaust or Western enforcement of an arms embargo against the Republicans in the 1930s Spanish Civil War, fully endorsed the Libyan intervention. "[I]n order to prevent genocide, I am ready to make a pact even with the devil."

Avneri's position has no qualification. Except for references to the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s, it's hard to see what's "left" about it.

By contrast, Gilbert Achcar makes a more serious case for the no-fly zone as "a legitimate and necessary" position "for those who share an anti-imperialist position." In his article on ZNet, he writes:

No real progressive could just ignore the [Libyan] uprising's request for protection--unless, as is too frequent among the Western left, they just ignore the circumstances and the imminent threat of mass slaughter, paying attention to the whole situation only once their own government got involved, thus setting off their (normally healthy, I should add) reflex of opposing the involvement.

Achcar's qualified support for the no-fly zone rests on positions that separate him from Avneri and liberal supporters of the intervention: First, that the Libyan opposition requested the no-fly zone; and second, that the UN resolution should be criticized. "Does it mean," Achcar writes, "that we had and have to support UNSC resolution 1973? Not at all. This was a very bad and dangerous resolution, precisely because it didn't define enough safeguards against transgressing the mandate of protecting the Libyan civilians."

So do the demands of the Libyan opposition, or sections of it, justify support on the left for the no-fly zone? As Gary Younge wrote in the Nation, "Those who are resisting Qaddafi deserve our support. But they don't single-handedly determine the nature of it. Solidarity is not a process by which you unquestioningly forfeit responsibility for your own actions to another; it involves an assessment of what is prudent and what is possible."

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AS THIS publication has always maintained, Muammar el-Qaddafi is a brutal dictator who deserves to be deposed. In fact, until recently, Qaddafi was a friend to the U.S. and Europe, an ally in the "war on terror" and a client for Western military aid. There is nothing "progressive" about the Qaddafi dictatorship.

However, while standing in solidarity with the resistance to Qaddafi and hoping that it will succeed in establishing a post-Qaddafi democratic regime, we also recognize that it is composed of heterogeneous elements, including genuine opponents of dictatorship and imperialism, as well as former Qaddafi regime members who would happily welcome the West's meddling in Libyan affairs.

So any evaluation of the call for the no-fly zone from the Libyan opposition has to take this into account. Even if we assume, as Achcar does, that all of the Libyan opposition is skeptical of imperialism's designs and will guard against them, we know from history that imperialism will do what it can to corrupt it--and will almost certainly succeed with at least sections of it.

The international left has a responsibility to consider whether Western intervention in Libya will actually strengthen the hand of imperialism in the region. This certainly wouldn't aid the Arab revolution.

Both Achcar and Cole proceed from the assumption that a Western no-fly zone was the only option available for the Libyan opposition. But they should recognize that the interplay between imperialism and the Arab revolution constrains what choices are on offer.

Reportedly, the Libyan National Transition Council appealed to European governments with a list of demands, including the handing over of sequestered Qaddafi funds to the rebel government. The European governments chose to ignore most of the demands, but to accept the proposal for a no-fly zone.

In other words, the notion that "there was no other choice" but a no-fly zone already accepts a compromise of the Libyan movement's independence. In the coming weeks, we may learn if the West extracted other concessions from the Libyan opposition in exchange for support for its action--for example, honoring the Qaddafi government's debts or giving preferential oil contracts to particular Western interests.

As SocialistWorker.org has argued, Western intervention has many other motivations besides the "humanitarian" claims in support of Resolution 1973: preserving the flow of Libyan oil; preventing mass migrations of Libyans to Europe; getting rid of a "failed state" in Libya; and stopping the Arab revolution from overthrowing another dictator through its own efforts.

But even for those who accept the humanitarian pretexts for intervention, accepting the no-fly zone cedes the initiative from the Libyan opposition or solidarity activists to NATO and the Pentagon.

Achcar notes that, unlike the Kosovar opposition in 1999, the Libyan opposition has opposed the introduction of foreign troops on Libyan soil. The UN resolution bars this as well. But Bennis, an expert on the United Nations, warns: "What you ask for ain't always what you get." As she writes:

[W]hat they got was probably way more than even the Libyan opposition itself anticipated. And despite the exultation over the first downed tanks, questions loom. What if some kind of stalemate leaves Libya divided and military attacks continuing? What if the opposition realizes that negotiations (perhaps under the auspices of newly democratizing Egypt and Tunisia) are urgently needed, but cannot be convened because the U.S. and French presidents have announced that the Libyan leader has no legitimacy and cannot be trusted?

What then, indeed? Nevertheless, according to Cole, "Assuming that NATO's UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited (it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole."

But these are huge assumptions to make, as Cole, a trenchant critic of the U.S. disaster in Iraq, should know.

Bennis notes that Resolution 1973 requires continuous updates to the Security Council--lending credence to the idea that the UN is "preparing for another long war." In that eventuality, Achcar's worry that Western militaries will be "transgressing the mandate of protecting the Libyan civilians" is almost guaranteed to become a reality.

The British socialist and antiwar activist Mike Marqusee draws out the endgame:

The current intervention ensures that if Qaddafi falls, his replacement will be chosen by the West. The new regime will be born dependent on the Western powers, which will direct its economic and foreign policies accordingly. The liberal interventionists will say that's not what they want, but their policy makes it inevitable.

In the pressure to respond to events, the left does itself no favors if it helps to set in motion a chain of events that could end up producing the opposite of what we all want: an end to the Qaddafi dictatorship, a free Libya and self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East.

That's why, however unpopular a position it appears to be today, the left is right to oppose the UN no-fly zone over Libya and the Western military intervention.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 04/05/2011 - 22:13


By Pepe Escobar

To follow Pepe's articles on the Great Arab Revolt, please click here.

April 1, 2011 -- Asia Times -- You invade Bahrain. We take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. This, in short, is the essence of a deal struck between the Barack Obama administration and the House of Saud. Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a "yes" vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya - the main rationale that led to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.

The revelation came from two different diplomats, a European and a member of the BRIC group, and was made separately to a US scholar and Asia Times Online. According to diplomatic protocol, their names cannot be disclosed. One of the diplomats said, "This is the reason why we could not support resolution 1973. We were arguing that Libya, Bahrain and Yemen were similar cases, and calling for a fact-finding mission. We maintain our official position that the resolution is not clear, and may be interpreted in a belligerent manner."

As Asia Times Online has reported, a full Arab League endorsement of a no-fly zone is a myth. Of the 22 full members, only 11 were present at the voting. Six of them were Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, the US-supported club of Gulf kingdoms/sheikhdoms, of which Saudi Arabia is the top dog. Syria and Algeria were against it. Saudi Arabia only had to "seduce" three other members to get the vote.

Translation: only nine out of 22 members of the Arab League voted for the no-fly zone. The vote was essentially a House of Saud-led operation, with Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa keen to polish his CV with Washington with an eye to become the next Egyptian President.

Thus, in the beginning, there was the great 2011 Arab revolt. Then, inexorably, came the US-Saudi counter-revolution.

Profiteers rejoice

Humanitarian imperialists will spin en masse this is a "conspiracy", as they have been spinning the bombing of Libya prevented a hypothetical massacre in Benghazi. They will be defending the House of Saud - saying it acted to squash Iranian subversion in the Gulf; obviously R2P - "responsibility to protect" does not apply to people in Bahrain. They will be heavily promoting post-Gaddafi Libya as a new - oily - human rights Mecca, complete with US intelligence assets, black ops, special forces and dodgy contractors.

Whatever they say won't alter the facts on the ground - the graphic results of the US-Saudi dirty dancing. Asia Times Online has already reported on who profits from the foreign intervention in Libya (see There's no business like war business, March 30). Players include the Pentagon (via Africom), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Saudi Arabia, the Arab League's Moussa, and Qatar. Add to the list the al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, assorted weapons contractors, and the usual neo-liberal suspects eager to privatize everything in sight in the new Libya - even the water. And we're not even talking about the Western vultures hovering over the Libyan oil and gas industry.

Exposed, above all, is the astonishing hypocrisy of the Obama administration, selling a crass geopolitical coup involving northern Africa and the Persian Gulf as a humanitarian operation. As for the fact of another US war on a Muslim nation, that's just a "kinetic military action".

There's been wide speculation in both the US and across the Middle East that considering the military stalemate - and short of the "coalition of the willing" bombing the Gaddafi family to oblivion - Washington, London and Paris might settle for the control of eastern Libya; a northern African version of an oil-rich Gulf Emirate. Gaddafi would be left with a starving North Korea-style Tripolitania.

But considering the latest high-value defections from the regime, plus the desired endgame ("Gaddafi must go", in President Obama's own words), Washington, London, Paris and Riyadh won't settle for nothing but the whole kebab. Including a strategic base for both Africom and NATO.

Round up the unusual suspects

One of the side effects of the dirty US-Saudi deal is that the White House is doing all it can to make sure the Bahrain drama is buried by US media. BBC America news anchor Katty Kay at least had the decency to stress, "they would like that one [Bahrain] to go away because there's no real upside for them in supporting the rebellion by the Shi'ites."

For his part the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, showed up on al-Jazeera and said that action was needed because the Libyan people were attacked by Gaddafi. The otherwise excellent al-Jazeera journalists could have politely asked the emir whether he would send his Mirages to protect the people of Palestine from Israel, or his neighbors in Bahrain from Saudi Arabia.

The al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain is essentially a bunch of Sunni settlers who took over 230 years ago. For a great deal of the 20th century they were obliging slaves of the British empire. Modern Bahrain does not live under the specter of a push from Iran; that's an al-Khalifa (and House of Saud) myth.

Bahrainis, historically, have always rejected being part of a sort of Shi'ite nation led by Iran. The protests come a long way, and are part of a true national movement - way beyond sectarianism. No wonder the slogan in the iconic Pearl roundabout - smashed by the fearful al-Khalifa police state - was "neither Sunni nor Shi'ite; Bahraini".

What the protesters wanted was essentially a constitutional monarchy; a legitimate parliament; free and fair elections; and no more corruption. What they got instead was "bullet-friendly Bahrain" replacing "business-friendly Bahrain", and an invasion sponsored by the House of Saud.

And the repression goes on - invisible to US corporate media. Tweeters scream that everybody and his neighbor are being arrested. According to Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, over 400 people are either missing or in custody, some of them "arrested at checkpoints controlled by thugs brought in from other Arab and Asian countries - they wear black masks in the streets." Even blogger Mahmood Al Yousif was arrested at 3 am, leading to fears that the same will happen to any Bahraini who has blogged, tweeted, or posted Facebook messages in favor of reform.

Globocop is on a roll

Odyssey Dawn is now over. Enter Unified Protector - led by Canadian Charles Bouchard. Translation: the Pentagon (as in Africom) transfers the "kinetic military action " to itself (as in NATO, which is nothing but the Pentagon ruling over Europe). Africom and NATO are now one.

The NATO show will include air and cruise missile strikes; a naval blockade of Libya; and shady, unspecified ground operations to help the "rebels". Hardcore helicopter gunship raids a la AfPak - with attached "collateral damage" - should be expected.

A curious development is already visible. NATO is deliberately allowing Gaddafi forces to advance along the Mediterranean coast and repel the "rebels". There have been no surgical air strikes for quite a while.

The objective is possibly to extract political and economic concessions from the defector and Libyan exile-infested Interim National Council (INC) - a dodgy cast of characters including former Justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, US-educated former secretary of planning Mahmoud Jibril, and former Virginia resident, new "military commander" and CIA asset Khalifa Hifter. The laudable, indigenous February 17 Youth movement - which was in the forefront of the Benghazi uprising - has been completely sidelined.

This is NATO's first African war, as Afghanistan is NATO's first Central/South Asian war. Now firmly configured as the UN's weaponized arm, Globocop NATO is on a roll implementing its "strategic concept" approved at the Lisbon summit last November (see Welcome to NATOstan, Asia Times Online, November 20, 2010).

Gaddafi's Libya must be taken out so the Mediterranean - the mare nostrum of ancient Rome - becomes a NATO lake. Libya is the only nation in northern Africa not subordinated to Africom or Centcom or any one of the myriad NATO "partnerships". The other non-NATO-related African nations are Eritrea, Sawahiri Arab Democratic Republic, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Moreover, two members of NATO's "Istanbul Cooperation Initiative" - Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - are now fighting alongside Africom/NATO for the fist time. Translation: NATO and Persian Gulf partners are fighting a war in Africa. Europe? That's too provincial. Globocop is the way to go.

According to the Obama administration's own official doublespeak, dictators who are eligible for "US outreach" - such as in Bahrain and Yemen - may relax, and get away with virtually anything. As for those eligible for "regime alteration", from Africa to the Middle East and Asia, watch out. Globocop NATO is coming to get you. With or without dirty deals.

[Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).]