Left debates Libya: Imperialist nature of war is now clearer
Aftermath of a NATO airstrike on Tripoli.
[For more left views on Libya, click HERE for articles and associated comments.]
By Michael Karadjis
June 23, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Renfrey Clarke has written a very detailed and thoughtful piece of discussion, and despite my disagreement with it, I welcome the fact that people are willing to put forward unpopular positions (among the left) and have them thrashed out, especially when it is done in such a careful and thorough way.
Throughout the Balkan wars, particularly in Bosnia but also to some extent in Kosovo/a, I followed the course of events closely, and there were many times when one may have considered whether any fleeting, tactical coincidence may have existed between the aims of imperialist intervention and the right of self-defence of the militarily defenceless Bosnian and Kosovar peoples against Europe's fourth major military power, Greater Serbia. Thus I am not oblivious to Renfrey's point that:
It’s still possible that amid the complexities and contradictions of world politics capitalist powers in rare cases will act in ways which – however briefly, obliquely and inconsistently – coincide with the interests of the global masses.
One such case was, I believe, the UN intervention in East Timor in 1999.
I certainly argued against those on the left who believed that imperialism's verbal rhetoric about Serbian war crimes and human rights abuse for eight years (while never doing anything about it), or even its actual intervention in 1999, was cause for the left to celebrate the Chetnik genocidaires as part of our "anti-imperialist" side. I'd rather hang myself than hold such a view while calling myself a socialist.
Yet, as it turned out, there was never any moment when I thought supporting a call for imperialist intervention was justified. In the case of Bosnia, there was always a NATO occupation of Bosnia from the outset, and these occupation forces worked day and night to promote Serbian victory, via a criminal arms embargo of defenceless, besieged Bosnia and the continual attempted imposition of the Serbo-Croatian apartheid plan for the ethnic partition of Bosnia, despite the completely intermingled nature of its multi-ethnic population.
They eventually succeeded in imposing this destruction of Bosnia in 1995 with the US-imposed Dayton partition plan. In the case of Kosovo/a, NATO launched a brutal air war against Serbian people, while deliberately and consistently giving no air cover to the million or so Kosovar Albanians who were forced from their homes and their country by the massively armed Serbian ground forces after NATO intervention began (NATO only hit 13 Serbian tanks in the whole 11-week war, most in the last 10 days). Indeed, there is good reason to believe the Albanians were close to defeating the Serbian occupation army on their own terms before NATO intervention.
Regardless of all this, the point is: how likely therefore is it that such support can be justified in the case of Libya? In a situation where, regardless of the dictatorial nature of Gaddafi’s regime, his actual crimes pale into insignificance compared to what Milosevic and his henchmen “achieved” in the 1990s; in fact, the only large massacre that is ever brought up (before the current conflict) is the infamous prison massacre of 1000 or so people in 1996. And in a situation where, unlike in Kosovo/a where 99.9% of the Albanian population (who were 90% of the Kosovar population) wanted the occupiers out and thus supported the fight for national self-determination, there is little evidence that the whole of the Libyan population supports the rebellion.
The demand by the Libyan rebel leadership that Gaddafi be forcefully removed by NATO, despite the likelihood that Gaddafi retains support in Tripoli, the largest city, so that they can rule all of Libya, is very different to the demand by the Kosovar leadership – while just as pro-imperialist and catastrophic to be sure – that NATO help them drive the Serbian occupation army out of Kosovo only. NATO’s attempt to do that in Libya would in fact be equivalent to the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) demanding that NATO invade Serbia, evict Milosevic and allow them to rule over Serbia.
Of course, despite all this, as Renfrey rightly stresses, every case is concrete, and the specifics in Libya in March 2011 may well be different. But first we need to distinguish two things.
The first is whether or not it was possible to support a brief, initial intervention to save Benghazi from an alleged immanent fall to Gaddafi's troops in March, at the very outset of the imperialist intervention. This, admittedly, is a difficult issue, a "Srebrenica"-type event (as an aside, certainly I believe imperialist forces in Bosnia then, or anyone, should have acted to prevent Srebrenica falling to the Bosnian Serb army, with the resultant massacre of 8300 Muslim captives – and other such besieged Warsaw Ghetto-type Muslim "enclaves" -- but this is not an advocacy of imperialist intervention because imperialist forces had already been occupying Srebrenica, and the whole of Bosnia, for three years, and not only did they do nothing to protect it, their role actually facilitated the Bosnian Serb Chetnik victory, including by disarming the Bosnian forces inside Srebrenica).
The second is whether the international left can be supporters of an ongoing imperialist bombing campaign that has gone on for three months now, and shows no end in sight – indeed, the only condition for it ending, according to imperialist leaders now, is for Gaddafi to be militarily thrown out by the rebels under an umbrella of NATO bombs. It is the fact that Renfrey seems to be supporting not just the first, but also the second, set of actions that I find extremely surprising, and I believe would require a lot more convincing than even Renfrey's detailed attempt.
At the outset, imperialist bombing itself is a war crime – this can no longer be confused with a temporary, fleeting coincidence, a brief intervention to prevent a city falling etc. How many civilians have been killed by NATO? Does anyone know? If anything, the paucity of interest in the imperialist media regarding this question raises suspicions that it may be a lot higher than is being let on. Can a brutal imperialist war, continuing for months, aimed at forcing out a regime and replacing it with one they prefer, really be still supportable? Can it really still be having a primarily positive effect, of aiding a people’s revolution, rather than undermining it and crushing it in a different way?
Furthermore, Renfrey’s view relies on a number of assumptions that I don’t find entirely convincing. The first and most important is the claim that the vast mass of the population throughout Libya, including in Tripoli, are absolutely hostile to Gaddafi, and where the revolt hasn’t come out in the open (such as in Tripoli), this is merely due to repression; therefore, continuing rebel victories (and thus continuing NATO bombing) will eventually break this repression and allow the masses in these places to come out and join the revolt and finally topple the regime.
Support for opposition
This is a very big assumption to be basing so much on. There were initially some demonstrations in Tripoli, which were crushed, but they were not enough for any firm opinion on whether the mass of people in Tripoli were pro- or anti-Gaddafi. They may or may not be; they may well be divided. The fact that nothing has happened there (or in a number of other clearly pro-Gaddafi places) in three months suggests to me either that the opposition within Tripoli itself (and elsewhere) was never overwhelming, or that whatever did exist has been swamped by a traditional pro-Gaddafi, Arab nationalist reaction to imperialist bombing, or likely a bit of both.
Both are highly likely. The likelihood that the Gaddafi regime still holds some traditional support in some centres cannot be ruled out in my view, because for all we can condemn Gaddafi for, his dictatorial rule, and his backtracking on his own anti-imperialism in both economic and foreign policy terms in the last decade, it cannot be denied that for some decades the bourgeois revolution in Libya was a more radical thing than elsewhere in the region.
That does not give a bourgeois regime carte blanche to slaughter people, and still less does it justify leftists using these facts to go apologist for the crimes of a bourgeois regime. However, it does strongly suggest the possibility that there may be remaining embers of mass support due to this legacy which has not been as comprehensively wiped out as some are claiming. And the quiescence of the masses in Tripoli may indicate this in that city, and elsewhere. Indeed, the fact that Benghazi was always discriminated against even in the most “socialist” period of Gaddafi’s rule is a good reason the shine wore off a lot more quickly there than elsewhere, due to Gaddafi’s policy of patronising certain regions and “tribes” more than others.
The second scenario is also very likely. The onset of NATO bombing of Serbia clearly boosted (temporarily) support for the Milosevic regime, which had been on its knees before the bombing began. This was due to a mixture of nationalistic reaction to being bombed, the crushing of dissent due to the war atmosphere and the wartime censorship preventing Serbian people learning what their “own” army was doing to the Kosovar Albanians (e.g., genocide etc.).
The circumstances in Libya are different, but I would argue the differences make such a nationalistic swing back to the leader even more likely. This is because Arab nationalism has very good reason to be anti-imperialist a priori, at least for the last 60 years or so; to be bombed by the counties that have previously bombed, occupied, invaded your country, and other Arab countries, and that are responsible for the occupation of Palestine, makes such a reaction very likely. By contrast, Serbian nationalism was primarily anti-Muslim and had a pro-imperialist Crusader content. It belatedly came into tactical conflict with imperialism only in as much as imperialism did not need or want an Israel in the Balkans, as Milosevic was offering Serbia to be, and also in as much as you naturally turn “against” imperialists when they are bombing you.
If these two factors are taken into account, and if there really is a difference between different parts of Libya in terms of support for the rebellion versus support for Gaddafi, then Renfrey’s case falls down, and any left support for an ongoing long-term imperialist bombing campaign whose aim is regime change is a very serious mistake, to put it mildly. Of course, Renfrey’s assumptions might be correct and the scenario I am putting forward might be wrong, but in my opinion there is no way of knowing for sure, and I’m not sure how long Renfrey proposes the left should support an imperialist air war based on a hope that something might happen.
Renfrey’s second assumption is that the rebel army can still be viewed as the armed representative of the revolution centred in Benghazi. The assumption is certainly understandable given that this was obviously its origins. Renfrey to his credit also provides considerable information about this army, which is not widely understood. Some of the pro-Gaddafi left dress it up as a “rag-tag” army of thugs with guns (in super-racist fashion), run by the CIA and al Qaeda etc. This discourse discredits only those leftists, not the rebel army.
However, the origins of an armed force, how it was initially put together, the fact that it is inevitably a coalition, its basic composition, and what it can turn into are not necessarily one and the same. I do not mean from that that the imperialist intervention turned the rebel army into simply an imperialist-orchestrated ground force from one day to the next. However, just what it does represent now, just what it is fighting for now, deserves closer scrutiny.
We do not trust bourgeois leaders just because of what they say when they say that they want to bring in multi-party democracy and human rights etc. All that may sound better than the bourgeois dictatorship we now have with Gaddafi, but the only reason we can support a bourgeois-led revolt against a bourgeois dictatorship is because of the mass (proletarian, peasant, semi-proletarian urban masses) composition of the revolt itself pushing an oppositional group of bourgeois forward. At the head of a successful revolution, a new bourgeois regime must, due to its class nature, attempt to push the masses back; if fully successful, there is little preventing it from establishing another dictatorship. This is what the new Egyptian rulers are trying to do; but given the strength of the still mobilised Egyptian mass uprising, it has not had an easy time of it. We support the revolution in as much as the masses can stay mobilised and thus maintain mass pressure for democratic and other reform on the new, weakened, set of bourgeois rulers.
What does all that mean, however, once a popular revolt gets transformed into a regular armed conflict, across the northern strip of Libya, regime and rebels taking and losing and re-taking towns from each other, distant from the centres of mass revolt such as Benghazi? And even more so when the military success of the rebel side depends to a large degree on how many imperialist bombs are dropped on the government army?
I would say it does not automatically mean anything, but may mean a big deal. When the rebel army takes over a new city/town, is there a popular rebellion in that city itself which comes out to join forces with it, for which the rebel military victory was simply a necessary helping hand to break the back of the regime’s repression to enable the masses to come out and take control, like in Benghazi and other cities originally in rebel control? If so, then the bourgeois-led military taking over is subject to those same mass pressures; it is an act of revolution.
But what about when there is no particular revolt, and the result is simply that a town passes from regime to rebel military control, and this success is only due to imperialist bombing of regime troops? Is that an act of revolution?
And even worse: what about when a city/town is unquestionably sympathetic to the regime, and the rebel army conquers it militarily against the wishes of the population there, and indeed makes the same blood-curdling threats against Gaddafi supporters there as Gaddafi made against rebel supporters in Benghazi just before the imperialist states used this language as justification for the need for intervention?
In the latter case, the idea that we still have a conflict between an undemocratic regime and a bourgeois-democratic revolution ceases to have any meaning. It is in contradiction to democracy to conquer a people who do not want you there, no matter what kind of “democratic” label you stick on yourself. That does not change the democratic content of the revolution in its own centres, such as Benghazi, and their right to defence against Gaddafi’s troops; however, it does indicate the impossibility of simply identifying military victories of the rebel army with that democratic revolution “back home” as it were. Indeed, in such a case, the fact that such a conquest may occur only due to imperialist bombing of one side is virtually besides the point; the conquest is undemocratic as such, the imperialist role only makes it worse.
Has this happened?
In the March 29 Time, Abigail Hauslohner describes the scene in Bin Jawad ("No Friends in Sight: Libya's Rebels Routed Once More", March 29, 2011, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2062162,00.html) after the rebels had taken over for a third time and then were forced to flee a third time:
The reasons may run deeper than Gaddafi's heavy weapons. "Bin Jawad didn't want to support us from the beginning," says Fayez Mohamed Zwei, a fighter from Ajdabiyah. Indeed, Bin Jawad may be the first town in the rebels' westward push where many of the townspeople are not on their side. Treason is a word the fighters use liberally in describing the town. And conspicuously, there are no local fighters among them.
The treason, they say, dates back to their first traumatic experience at Bin Jawad on March 6, which lasted for about 24 hours … the town never came out to join them — instead fleeing to the hills, or raising white flags as a trick to lure them into gunfire. When the government struck back — aided, rebels say, by the townspeople — the ensuing bombardment resulted in a disastrous retreat over nearly 400 miles (640 km) that took the regime's forces right to the doorstep of the rebels' stronghold, Benghazi” (i.e., this was just before the NATO intervention which allegedly saved them in Benghazi from this onslaught).
Rather than accept they were not wanted there after this experience, they had come back for more two times in the month this article was written.
First, “emboldened by allied air strikes” they pushed into Bin Jawad, just as these air strikes had helped them take other towns. But then, “by Tuesday afternoon, it was the rebels' turn to flee again — in a tangled, panicked traffic jam of gun trucks and civilian cars — as Gaddafi's forces pounded them once again with a barrage of missile fire and sniper shots”. This time, NATO apparently let them down: “TIME saw no sign of fighter-jet support as incoming shells from Gaddafi's loyalists rained down on the rebels. 'Sarkozy betrayed us,' shouted one man.” Then “the rebels pushed back with their own barrage of missiles and machine-gun fire, and fought their way into Bin Jawad once again — only to come under a heavy bombardment from the road ahead, and simultaneous sniper fire from the hills to the south and the town to the north” and “by evening, smoke rose from the town, as new homes and buildings became collateral damage in the ever shifting front line and a rapid exchange of missiles and artillery shells from both sides. By late Tuesday night, Gaddafi's forces had pushed the rebels back all the way to the town of Brega, retaking Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf in between.”
I included all this text of siege and countersiege – of a town hostile to the rebels – in order to suggest that such battles to conquer and reconquer have no relation to any “revolution”, at least from the point of view of the battered people who live there, who the article correctly describes as “collateral damage”. In fact, even if the townspeople were not hostile but simply neutral, such treatment would hardly endear them to the rebels, let alone have anything to do with “revolution”.
Of course it may be suggested that, if we were to concede for argument’s sake that the rebel army was still in some sense representative of the popular will of most Libyans, perhaps they simply need to take over or neutralise that town because it happens to be, unfortunately, in the way, in order to advance their “revolution” further west. However, even if we were to concede that, the actions and statements of the rebel leaders do not exactly exude confidence that they are actually trying to carry through a revolution; quite the opposite:
After pushing back into Bin Jawad on Tuesday afternoon, the rebels quickly set about searching the streets and homes of the town for hidden troops, mercenaries and traitors. "Alley to alley, house to house," shouted one man at the fighters as trucks veered down Bin Jawad's unpaved, bumpy side streets. He used Gaddafi's own words — an infamous threat from an earlier speech that is often repeated in the rebel-held east. … But as the rebels tread into unwelcome territory, they seem to mean it in much the way Gaddafi did — in a kind of unrelenting and paranoid door-to-door campaign to rout their enemies. "Search the houses," another man shouted, as fighters ran down Bin Jawad's alleys and took up position behind walls. Gunfire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades reverberated from within the town. At least one house was set on fire after rebels located a suspected Gaddafi loyalist there.
The fact that, according to this account, the rebels first moved in with support of “allied” air strikes, but then NATO betrayed them as Gaddafi’s forces threw them out, simply underlines the degree to which NATO is in control: see, "now we support you, now we don’t”. Of course, that may be used to suggest that the rebels are not total puppets, or that NATO is not giving them total support. But I think such arguments would be a nonsense simplification in any case, even if such arguments get repeated by many of the Manichean leftists around. My point is actually a little different. If we are more “pro-rebel” than pro-NATO, we may be tempted to join with the rebels who yelled “NATO betrayed us”. However, in this case, surely we should be glad that NATO stopped bombing so that the people of Bin Jawad could be rid of the rule of an army that they opposed and who promised to treat them like Gaddafi treats opponents? I am, anyway. Which doesn’t say much for the rebel army being an army of the revolution.
This may seem like an extended point about one town, but the issue really is Tripoli, with towns like Bin Jawad a dress rehearsal. NATO has already ruthlessly bombed Tripoli, and I suggest the numbers of civilian deaths is probably much higher than is being let on, quite apart from NATO’s targeted killing of Gaddafi’s grandchildren, and now apparently great grandchildren. With NATO openly declaring – for many weeks now – that the aim of the war is regime change, will it step up the bombing of Tripoli to enable the rebels to march in? And what would Renfrey’s attitude be towards this?
Does Renfrey, or anyone, believe that such bombing will precipitate popular revolt against the regime in Tripoli? Given that there has been no evidence of this to date, the only two possible ways Gaddafi could fall under NATO bombing would be either an attempted military conquest by the rebels with NATO air cover, most likely meeting a furious local challenge, or Gaddafi and his entourage taking off in a deal and/or palace coup to save his city from further imperialist destruction. Both “solutions” would be utterly reactionary, to state the obvious, and arguably would be just as big a blow, if not bigger, to the Arab Spring as Gaddafi’s conquest of Benghazi would have been.
It is difficult to know just what either NATO or the rebels plan to do with Tripoli if the people there don’t decide to revolt and Gaddafi does not accept their invitation to leave office. According to Richard Norton-Taylor and Chris Stephen ("Libyan bombing alone will not budge Gaddafi UK officials warn", June 14, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/14/libyan-bombing-will-not-budg...):
Almost three months into the campaign of air strikes, Britain and its Nato allies no longer believe bombing alone will end the conflict in Libya, well-placed government officials have told the Guardian. Instead, they are pinning their hopes on the defection of Muammar Gaddafi's closest aides, or the Libyan leader's agreement to flee the country. "No one is envisaging a military victory," said one senior official.
Note that “not envisaging a military victory” does not mean ceasing the military campaign of bombing the hell out of Libyan people to try to force Gaddafi’s aides, or Gaddafi, to jump ship. But it seems to indicate that many imperialist strategists have no interest in seeing the kind of reverse instability that would result from an outright rebel military victory against Gaddafi in Tripoli if this wasn’t welcomed by the people there (note here I am not talking about the kind of anti-capitalist “instability” that would result if a rebel advance was met with a mass uprising joining them, but rather the kind resulting from a crushing military victory of one side against the regime *and people* of the other). Thus supporting and then not supporting the rebels with air power is all part of using them for a while but then letting them know who makes the decisions for them.
It is not clear from the article whether this is what all or most imperialist leaders think, but this thinking for them is logical. What however do the rebels want? I don’t really know, and I don’t think a view can be formed based on this one article. For the record, however, this article appears to suggest the rebels are only being talked into this by NATO, and that their own preference would have been NATO cover for their advance into Tripoli. Referring to the absence of coordinated NATO cover when Gaddafi’s forces recently struck back at rebel-held Mistrata, the article continues:
The absence of Apaches dismayed rebel units, not all of whom are sure of Nato's motives in failing to offer co-ordinated air support. None will say so publicly, but some commanders say the alliance (ie, NATO) may want Tripoli to rise up against the dictator, rather than be "liberated" by rebels from elsewhere - an event that could trigger political infighting in the postwar period.
I may well be reading too much into this. What I can say, however, is that if this is the case, then I can have no sympathy for the moans by some rebel leaders about “betrayal” by NATO when and if this refers to a refusal to fully back rebels’ invasions of Gaddafi-held cities, especially Tripoli, with air power; quite the opposite in fact.
Several months ago, Hugo Chavez made an initiative for a ceasefire before NATO intervened, with the aim of preventing such intervention. I assessed this as a decent and genuine move, but unlikely to be of much use. This was because, like most of us, we assessed then that Gaddafi’s ferocious repression had lost him any remaining support and thus the uprising was likely to throw him out very soon, on its own, without support from NATO bombs. A ceasefire might just hold them back. Part of the problem was also Chavez’s unfortunate use of foot in mouth, such as his past celebrations of Gaddafi as a great leader etc., which was unlikely to win him many hearts and minds in Libya at the time.
As it turned out, the rebels’ rejection of this did not help them, because to the extent that the conflict was already becoming largely a military conflict across a stretch of north Libyan territory, Gaddafi’s well-armed forces had the upper hand (the turn from peaceful uprising to military campaign was not the fault of the rebellion, as some apologists for Gaddafi claim, but of Gaddafi’s brutal repression of the peaceful protests, but the result is there nevertheless). Thus they were pushed all the way back to the gates of Benghazi before NATO intervened.
The mistake in our assessment at the time was in identifying the success of the popular uprisings elsewhere in Libya (and perhaps Tripoli itself at the time) with the success of the military campaign on the ground. In reality, while related, they were not the same thing; a full ceasefire, giving the out-gunned rebel armed forces a breathing space, may just as likely have been a good thing for new uprisings. The alternative, in any case, has spoken for itself.
Regardless of this, it is clear that now the continuing rejection by the rebel leadership of new calls for a mediated ceasefire – most recently from the African Union – is a disastrous decision and simply reflects their undying belief in NATO airpower as their saviour, essentially a demand that NATO impose regime change on their country by force and not “betray” the Benghazi leaders who believe they have the right to rule all Libya come what may. As NATO steps up its months-long, open-ended brutal bombing all over Libya, especially now of Tripoli, this attitude of the rebel leadership is increasingly making them simply as much a part of the problem as is anyone else.
That does not mean that the popular forces in Benghazi and elsewhere do not have a right to defend themselves against reconquest by Gaddafi – they do – and trying to collapse the whole war into a purely two-way contest, or claims that developments “prove” the rebellion was a conspiracy from the start etc., are all spurious. But much of the war now, and certainly the NATO and rebel condition for ending it – regime change forced by NATO bombs – is way different to whatever dilemmas may have been faced in Benghazi in March.