The left debates Libya: The Libyan revolution, imperialism and the left

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Libyan rebels.

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

By Renfrey Clarke

May 3, 2011 -- The “default” response of the left to imperialist interventions of the kind now under way against the Gaddafi regime in Libya has always been militantly hostile, and rightly so. How often has imperialism, as it throws its armed weight around, acted to advance the cause of workers and the oppressed? Members of the left who apply their raw class experience in such cases will not often find themselves in error.

That does not, however, absolve us from the toil of research and analysis. 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.

To fail to identify such an episode is, to put it mildly, not a good look for the left. That’s because our reflex of opposing imperialism’s forays can, in such instances, propel us into positions that are not just embarrassing in retrospect, but which can do lasting damage to our cause.

In my view, just such a coincidence between the machinations of imperialism and specific interests of the world’s oppressed exists in Libya today. If this is the case, can we on the left stick with our traditions and demand that the imperialists stop what they’re doing forthwith? If imperialism were somehow to heed our pleas and cease bombing Gaddafi’s forces, then the Libyan insurgency would more or less inevitably be smashed, and its participants and sympathisers would be killed in large numbers.

On the face of it, the very hint of such a paradox ought to see us stopped in our tracks. What are we doing, backing Gaddafi and his hangmen? But as we know, complex political questions are not to be met with snap judgements. Before we decide that the global left has no choice for the present but to tolerate the bombing, there are analytical issues that must be worked through.

A living revolution?

By any reasonable estimate, the Libyan revolt would have been crushed except for the fact that imperialism on March 19 came to its rescue. Doesn’t the very fact that the revolt could not sustain itself against Gaddafi’s forces except through military intervention by the US, France and Britain – long-time oppressors of the developing world – mean it was already dead by definition? Doesn’t accepting help from such sources rule out any conceivable progressive outcome?

At the very least, revolutionaries need to remember that accepting imperialist help always poses risks and carries definite political costs. Global capitalism, we should reflect, has its own agendas which are not those of the world’s workers and oppressed. Imperialist support always comes with strings attached; to receive this support and keep it coming, political programs must typically be cut back, and blocs with potential allies foregone.

Further, accepting aid from imperialism always legitimises the imperialists to some degree. Political credit that big capitalist powers build up by aiding progressive causes such as that of the Libyan rebels is available to be used for confusing mass opinion throughout the world. It can be used to weaken the popular response to acts of aggression that have no progressive content whatsoever.   

The question of whether to call for or accept imperialist aid is thus subtle and many sided. A living revolution, even if compromised by imperialist help, is obviously better than an immaculate corpse. But this “help” can be so overwhelming that it effectively overruns the revolution and alters its essential character. In place of a popular politico-military struggle waged with imperialist assistance, we are liable to find a war of imperial aggrandisement in which the popular element is only incidental. Even if the forms of rule that result from victory represent an advance – say, a bourgeois-democratic regime that provides a certain space for popular organising, in place of a repressive dictatorship – the political cost to the wider anti-imperialist movement may be so massive that it renders trivial any local gains that might be made. 

In most of the contributions to this debate so far, some or all of the above-noted objections are put forward and used to try to demonstrate that however painful the immediate results might be, the wider interests of the world’s workers and oppressed rule out any variety of support, or even toleration, for imperialism’s intervention in Libya. This is clearly not a mad conclusion, and it doesn’t diminish my regard for the comrades who draw it. Still, I think it’s wrong, or at best without adequate basis in the facts that have emerged to date.

So what are these facts that determine whether imperialism’s bombs have indeed kept the Libyan revolution alive, and whether the potential for an overall progressive balance sheet survives? This discussion will be more pertinent if we first define the stakes in more detail: if the intervention had not gone ahead, would the consequences for the Libyan masses have been as horrific as commonly predicted? 


To justify its “humanitarian” action, imperialism put about a scenario which some on the left have described as “hysteria about genocide”. Genocide is indeed too strong a term, but there is a great deal more behind the warnings than mere hysteria.

As reported by Reuters on March 17, Gaddafi in a radio broadcast threatened the people of the rebel city of Benghazi in these terms:

We will come… house by house, room by room… We will have no mercy and no pity.

When you prime your troops in this fashion, you aren’t planning to have them stick to international military law in their treatment of non-combatants.

The Gaddafi regime, of course, has a long history of slaughtering its opponents. Human Rights Watch has reported that 1270 prisoners were killed following a 1996 riot in Abu Salim prison. Amnesty International on March 29 stated:

Thousands of unresolved cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions have occurred during Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s rule.

 In a number of well-documented cases, the regime has staged public hangings of dissidents, later rebroadcasting the executions on television. Some accounts have had Gaddafi supervising proceedings in person.

In a recent six-week investigation in eastern Libya, Amnesty International is reported to have “found strong evidence that Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces have deliberately killed unarmed protesters, directly attacked civilian residents fleeing the fighting, committed enforced disappearances, and tortured detainees”.     

Since then, we’ve learnt of the use by the regime of Grad missiles against residential districts of Misrata, as well as of cluster munitions. We have to conclude that if Gaddafi’s forces were to overrun Benghazi the death toll would be atrocious. Gaddafi is not a gentler soul than was Hafez Assad, and when Assad put down a revolt in the Syrian city of Hama in February 1982, the number who died has been estimated at 20,000.

To move on, do the facts support the view that the Libyan revolution is now dead, or as one participant in the debate has it, “terminally weak”?

As I’ve indicated, Benghazi was in dire peril on March 19 when the bombing began. But the reverses the revolution had suffered by this point need to be placed in a wider context.

The key element here is the fact that the revolution in February and early March showed itself to be overwhelmingly popular in all but a few regions of the country. Wikipedia records that by February 25, 10 days after the first demonstrations, the only Libyan cities still under government control were the capital Tripoli and two relatively small centres: Sirte, the traditional home of Gaddafi’s own tribe, and the remote oil town of Sabha.

Nothing compels the view that this broad underlying detestation of the regime has since ebbed. Imperialist attacks can at times steer national feeling into support for odious political leaders, but before we decide that Gaddafi has benefited from this effect in any marked way, we need serious evidence. Foreign journalists in Tripoli report that pro-regime demonstrations have not been especially large, and have had a visibly contrived nature. Meanwhile, the people of Misrata have fought the regime with desperate courage, while calling for the bombing to be expanded. Libyans in the liberated zones obviously know that the air attacks compromise their national sovereignty, but see ousting Gaddafi as the priority. Intriguingly, a distinction seems to be drawn in mass thinking between bombing Gaddafi’s forces, which is highly popular, and the use of foreign ground combat troops, which has mostly been opposed.

In terms of popular conviction and attachment, we have to conclude, the Libyan revolution still commands strong allegiance even in most of the regions now under Gaddafi’s control. True, there have been no massive splits in the regime’s armed forces; even during the tsunami of anti-regime sentiment in February and March, fewer than 10 per cent of the troops broke ranks. But there is no special reason to think the army rank and file are more enamoured of Gaddafi than Libyans in general. The regime rules by terror, and discipline in the armed forces is ferocious.

The failure of the revolution to prevail militarily also reflects the country’s geography. Most of Libya is relatively flat, open desert, some of the worst terrain imaginable for guerrilla warfare. An exception is the Berber district of the Nafusa mountains, south-west of Tripoli; this was one of the first regions to rise up, and a significant though under-reported insurgency continues there.

In open desert, the key weapons are aircraft, armoured vehicles and mobile artillery. Possession of these initially gave the regime a strong military advantage despite its political weakness. But a foreign air campaign against these weapons is capable of largely cancelling this advantage, allowing political factors to weigh more heavily. When the rebels called on foreign powers to bomb Gaddafi’s forces, this seems to have been their calculation.

Guerrilla warfare, of course, can also take on an urban form. An Associated Press report on April 22 related: “Rarely a night passes without heavy gunfire at neighbourhood checkpoints from roving bands of protesters, said a Libyan journalist in Tripoli.”

A Tripoli physician turned activist is quoted as saying:

The attacks are so frequent and widespread that it suggests the groups are numerous and well equipped.

Overall, the state of the conflict certainly does not bear out the argument that the condition of the revolution is “terminal”. A common characterisation is that the struggle is in “stalemate”, but this does not take into account a series of longer-term factors which have caused US Army War College Middle East specialist Andrew Terrill to remark:

Time is much more on the rebels’ side. The rebels are getting stronger and Gaddafi is getting weaker (Al Jazeera, April 18).

The Libyan regime has large reserves of gold and foreign currency. But while this can be used to hire mercenaries – the rebels report hearing radio exchanges in French and Russian – it is of little use for obtaining heavy weapons in the face of an effective sea blockade. The chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told journalists on April 22 that air strikes had cost Gaddafi “somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of his main ground forces” and the losses are continuing. The rate of attrition will be increased by breakdowns; most of the regime’s tanks date from before 1970, and maintenance has reputedly been inferior. Even the more modern tanks, a small number of Soviet-made T-72s, are vulnerable to today’s shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets.

The quality of the regime’s troops is also suspect. According to French defence minister Gerard Longuet, quoted in a Bloomberg report on April 18, Gaddafi’s soldiers number about 10,000. The dictator, however, mistrusted his military and kept most of the soldiers poorly trained and equipped; his crack troops, effectively an expanded palace guard, are put by Wikipedia at only about 2000. A British Telegraph report from April 19 relates that regime soldiers captured in Misrata included ill-trained conscripts as young as 15. Morale among the soldiers, forced to advance by the certainty of being shot by their officers if they turn and run, is reportedly low.

While the effectiveness of Gaddafi’s forces is on a downward trajectory, that of the rebels’ “Libyan People’s Army” is improving. An Al Jazeera article on April 19 reported that the rebel forces in the east “now resemble a trained militia, if not an army”. In Misrata the rebels have prevailed over Gaddafi’s troops in house-to-house fighting, liberating the main urban area and clearing it of snipers. Weapons are starting to flow to the rebels from outside Libya, though the quantities are still badly inadequate. According to the Guardian on April 14, officials in Doha confirmed that Qatar had been shipping French-made Milan anti-tank missiles to Benghazi. On April 15 CNN reported that one of its teams in eastern Libya had “(seen) the rebels with anti-tank missiles, which they didn’t have before”.

A key long-term strategic advantage for the rebels is the fact that notionally at least they have most of the country’s oil, and the prospect eventually of selling it. More than 70 per cent of Libya’s oil reserves are in the east, on the traditional territory of tribes now aligned with Benghazi. Some oil has already been shipped from rebel-held areas via a port near Tobruk, and Reuters on April 19 reported that at a meeting scheduled for Rome in May, representatives of Western and Middle Eastern states would seek ways to enable oil from Libyan rebel areas to be sold on world markets. Hit-and-run attacks by Gaddafi supporters have stopped the flow for the present, but rebel sources reportedly believe it can be restored.

Diplomatic advances are steadily enhancing the claim of the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) to be entitled to make use of Libyan state assets held abroad. France, Italy, Qatar, Kuwait, the Maldives and Gambia currently have full diplomatic relations with Benghazi. At the “contact group” meeting of NATO and Middle Eastern countries in Qatar on April 13, participants took a position just short of full recognition, stating that the TNC was “in contrast with the current regime … a legitimate interlocutor, representing the aspirations of the Libyan people”. The meeting saw the launch of a temporary finance mechanism which, according to NATO country officials, will give the rebels access to Gaddafi regime funds now frozen in European banks. Legal obstacles appear to preclude any swift transfers, and in the meantime, Reuters reported on April 29, the TNC has only 40 per cent of the funds it needs to operate through to the end of May. But the money in Gaddafi’s foreign accounts gives the TNC a basis on which to seek bridging loans. Recognised increasingly as a legitimate government, and backed by international credits, the TNC is likely to be able to make the arms purchases and hire the military trainers it needs if the revolt is to build on the strong political edge it holds over the Tripoli regime.

Meanwhile, a potentially fatal medium-term weakness of the Gaddafi regime is its uncertain ability to supply food to the areas it controls. Various sources put the proportion of Libyan foodstuffs that have been imported in recent years at between 60 and 80 per cent. On April 28 the World Food Program warned that Libya was at risk of a full-blown food security crisis within 45-60 days. Food imports by the regime are not banned under the UN sanctions, but in generally tight world food markets sellers can pick their customers. The precarious state of the Gaddafi government will inhibit the signing of new contracts.   

The Libyan rebel cause, we have to conclude, is not by any means in “terminal” condition. But with its dependence on imperialist support, is it still a revolution? Has the bombing altered realities in Libya to the point where the popular struggle is simply an excrescence on an imperialist war?

A conflict between Libyans

The imperialist intervention has changed the general strategic equation in Libya by eroding Gaddafi’s heavy-weapons advantage. What it has not done is to transform the dominant picture of a conflict fought out between Libyans. The bombs that fell on Gaddafi’s armoured columns saved Benghazi, but it was not imperialism that drove Gaddafi’s troops out of Misrata; that was achieved through an extraordinary mobilisation of citizens into an improvised military force that battled the regime house-to-house over several months. The bombing in and around Misrata was an important factor, but nowhere near decisive, as Gaddafi’s forces soon learned to conceal their rocket batteries inside half-destroyed buildings.

In the Nafusa mountains there has been little bombing; here, the regime faces an unwinnable parallel with the Afghan war, as it tries to suppress lightly armed but determined fighters operating on rugged terrain they know intimately. In the east, the air assault on the regime’s mobile forces has weighed more heavily. But this is also the theatre in which the largely spontaneous self-organisation of the masses to resist Gaddafi has reached its broadest scope. This is where civilian members of local defence groups patrol their neighbourhoods, and where volunteers in improvised workshops repair armoured vehicles and refashion helicopter rocket pods into shoulder-fired missile launchers.

The imperialist intervention remains crucial for tipping the military balance away from Gaddafi and saving the rebels from short-term defeat. But in the absence of full-scale invasion – which, as will be explained, would be hard for the NATO powers to engineer – the intervention shows no sign of being decisive for overthrowing the dictatorship. Regime change in Libya has now shaped up as a task fundamentally for the Libyan masses, to be fought out almost certainly over many gruelling months.

In the country’s east, the lesson that is emerging from the processes of building new state bodies is that institutions with close ties to the masses are essential for an effective resistance to the dictatorship. The people who set up the TNC in late February, as described by an insightful February 27 Flight of the Silawa post, were from the old elites: “…a minister, senior officers, tribal leaders… They had some authority under the old regime … without being completely tainted by it…”

Speaking of the Gaddafi defectors in the new administration, Der Spiegel on March 30 was less kind: “Most of these men, in their ironed shirts and ties, were ministers, ambassadors, military officers or businessmen... They all had good lives under the Gaddafi regime.”

Ranged increasingly against these types, especially at the local level, are the kind of people whose activism is described in a February 28 Democracy Now posting: “One group calling itself the Coalition of the February 17 Revolution – which is made up of doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, workers, students – just established a [Benghazi] city council to manage the day-to-day activities of the city.”

These people (significant numbers of them are women) tend to have much stronger community links than the old potentates. Unlike the latter, they are gaining a reputation for being able to get decisions implemented.

Meanwhile, the new Libyan People’s Army will be exactly that – not a professional army, but one drawn heavily from among youth (the median age in Libya is just 22), students and the poor. Gaddafi, for all his oil wealth and populist rhetoric, still left a third of Libyans beneath the official poverty line.

In the course of a drawn-out struggle, people active in the institutions closest to the masses will acquire confidence, political grasp and growing authority. We can expect that as time goes on, the TNC will find itself squeezed not just by imperialism from above, but also by the organised population from below.

The future bourgeois-democratic state in Libya will not be independent of imperialism in any thoroughgoing sense. Relying on oil sales for some 95 per cent of its export earnings, and on foreign oil firms for its industry technology, it will face the full distorting pressures of the global capitalist market. But we shouldn’t conclude from this that the bourgeois-democratic institutions that are eventually set up, or the formal liberties that are gained, will be shams without meaningful content. Once the Gaddafi regime has been defeated, the broad nature of the liberation struggle will mean that the country’s half-formed new elites and their foreign allies will find it hard to deny the democratic elections and freedom of organisation and speech that have been promised. Nor will the foreign oil corporations inevitably win the free play with Libya’s oil resources they unquestionably hope for.

Imperialism and its constraints

Might it still be surmised, though, that this picture is far too optimistic? Once set in motion, isn’t the “train that can’t be stopped” of foreign intervention destined to roar right over the Libyan character of the revolution? Won’t the bombing campaign be followed inevitably by “boots on the ground”, rationalised perhaps as humanitarian action to save the population of Misrata? Won’t leftists in other countries who fail to rigorously oppose the use of force by imperialism end up as mere appendages of imperialist aggression? Won’t the masses elsewhere in the Arab world be demoralised, turning the “Arab Spring” back to winter?

None of these outcomes is impossible by definition. But the thinking here, like the train, is essentially mechanical.

As I write, thousands of Syrians are camped in the main square of the city of Homs, facing off the security forces that have fired live ammunition at similar gatherings in previous days. So far, the bombing in Libya hasn’t robbed the broader Arab revolt of its virulence. None of us should doubt that there are imperialists who would love to plant thousands of US marines on the shores of Tripoli, just as in the hymn. But it would be speculative to argue that key imperialist sectors have been gripped by invasion fever. For the global left, a correct political course here is not to be charted by invoking the “essential” nature of a stock model of imperialism. There is no alternative to detailed study of the specific players, of the conjunctures they inhabit, of their strengths, weaknesses and peculiar motivations, and of the alliances and antagonisms in which they find themselves.

The most general characterisation that can be made of 21st century imperialism, particularly since 2008, is that it is a system in crisis. The effects of the misnamed “global financial crisis” have not spent themselves, and act as powerful constraints on the actions of capitalist governments. That might seem elementary, but it is astonishing how rarely the general sickness of imperialism, and its diminished options, have figured in the debate among leftists on what the NATO powers might do in relation to Libya.

Most crucially, the constraints operate in the area of government financing. This has been argued emphatically by former US Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, cited by an Arena report on April 8 as stating:

We spent a trillion dollars on regime change in Iraq. We literally cannot afford to do that in Libya through military means alone.

None of the major capitalist powers wants to pay the cost of a massive or prolonged intervention in Libya. Obama is having to battle to stave off big cuts to key domestic programs. Cameron is equally unwilling, as he courts electoral oblivion by unleashing a holocaust against social spending in Britain.

Also crucial is the fact that the military machines of key imperialist players are overstretched carrying on their present aggression. The Pentagon lacks resources to defeat the resistance in Iraq and particularly, Afghanistan; officials from Robert Gates down reportedly responded with coolness to the idea of any intervention in Libya, and remain hostile to suggestions of a major, boots-on-the-ground role in that country. The British armed forces chiefs face big cuts in their budget allocations, and have even more cause to resist “mission creep”.

A further reason for imperialist military strategists to oppose a large-scale ground intervention in Libya is the fact that in strategic terms the country is simply not very important. Even the loss of its oil shipments is being absorbed by world markets. The attention of military thinkers will be focused on the developing struggle in Syria – a country with four times Libya’s population, located in the centre of the Islamic world and on the borders of Israel. The US in particular will resist committing troops to an invasion of Libya in a period when Israel, its key ally in the region, faces the “instability” represented by a large, militant Syrian liberation movement. 

Another deterrent to boots-on-the-ground intervention is more strictly political: support for the idea appears small among voters in any of the imperialist countries that might be called upon to contribute. The IMRA site on April 22 cited a Rasmussen Reports poll of likely US voters which recorded that only 13 per cent viewed the current level of US backing for the Libyan insurrection as “not enough”. Forty-one per cent viewed the current US commitment as “about right”, and 32 per cent as “too much”, while 14 per cent were not sure. 

In sum, the intervention in its current air-warfare form shows no sign of being “a train that can’t be stopped”. Rather, it is a train that was set going only with difficulty, that lacks much momentum, and which at times has seemed in danger of being lost in the shunting yards. The US administration, viewing Libya as peripheral to US security interests and essentially a problem for Europeans, withdrew its aircraft from front-line bombing after less than a fortnight; the arrival on the scene of US drone aircraft is only a minor reversal of this pullback. The picture that emerges of the European NATO powers is not of unity and resolve, but of a grid of cross-purposes. Germany and Turkey want nothing to do with the intervention. Of the 28 NATO countries only 16 are reportedly playing any military role, and of these no more than eight – France, Britain, Italy, the US, Belgium, Canada, Norway and Denmark – are taking part directly in the bombing campaign.

As well as the airborne intervention, other elements of imperialism’s orientation to the Libyan revolution also lack agreement and strategic coherence. The French, British and Americans evidently expected the Gaddafi regime to fold quickly; when it failed to do so, the demand that the leading imperialist powers help equip and train a rebel army presented them with an unwelcome dilemma. Partly in deference to the UN arms embargo on Libya, but above all from self-serving political calculations, the effort to build a rebel force capable of advancing against Gaddafi has been starved of big-power support. Prominent US Senator John McCain has called on the Obama administration to arm the rebels, but administration and Pentagon sources speak of the danger of allowing advanced weapons to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists – code for imperialism’s extreme wariness about supporting any struggle it does not directly control. Overt material assistance has been limited to non-lethal goods such as body armour. The training effort has been confined to providing a few dozen specialists in military organisation and logistics.

To circumvent legal and diplomatic problems, the imperialist powers have the option of assigning the job of weapons donor to minor allies. So far, only Qatar has admitted, tacitly, to sending arms shipments. Libyan rebel spokespeople refer in veiled terms to receiving other weapons from “friendly countries”. The quantities, though, are clearly small, and there is no special reason to think the shipments owe much, or anything, to imperialist instigation. 

On the ground if not in the air, the task of defeating Gaddafi has been thrust firmly into the hands of the insurgents, forced whether they like it or not to rely on their own commitment and ingenuity. From the scantiness of big power material assistance, many rebels have drawn the lesson that imperialism is ambivalent about supporting the popular cause in Libya, and democratic freedoms in general. In rebel-held Benghazi, there has been at least one demonstration against NATO.

There may be some corners of the globe where the intervention has fed illusions about the supposedly benign and progressive motives of the big capitalist powers. But this seems less and less the case among the Libyan fighters, and their allies in other Arab countries do not appear to be deluded either. Poll results released by the Pew Global Attitudes Project on April 25, more than two months into the Libya operation, showed just 20 per cent of Egyptians holding a favourable opinion of the US, with 79 per cent taking the opposite view. This finding was reportedly more hostile to the US than under Bush in 2006.

Decisions and dangers

The overall picture that emerges of the imperialist intervention in Libya is thus of confusion, division, fiscal and military incapacity, and to a notable degree, reluctance. The possibility of imperialist “boots on the ground” reaching the point where doubt is cast on the essentially Libyan character of the struggle against Gaddafi has to be assessed as remote. This assessment must now be fed into the calculations of the global left.

If the prospect of imperialism substantially escalating its intervention in Libya is minimal, then for the left to tolerate the bombing campaign is not critically dangerous for us. Of course, for opponents of capitalism there is always an element of gambling in giving even conditional support to acts of war by imperialist countries. But hopefully, we did not join the left in order to feel safe, or to dodge unpleasant decisions. If we refuse to make this wager, our only other clear option – of demanding an immediate end to the no-fly zone and the bombing – would lead if enacted to the smashing of the Libyan revolution more or less as night follows day. The demoralising impact of this defeat on the struggles in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere would probably not be decisive, but it would not be inconsiderable either.

Meanwhile, demanding an immediate halt to the intervention puts us in quite real peril in the Australian political context. It’s only been through luck that some Guy Rundle of the social democracy hasn’t taken serious points off the left, smearing us all over the bourgeois media as pawns of the Gaddafi dictatorship. But perhaps I speak too soon.

Carrying through a major change of line is always a delicate political task, and there is a need to think in detail about how the shift to a position of tolerating the intervention might proceed. It needs to be explained that any support we give to actions of imperialism is highly conditional, and subject to being withdrawn as the situation alters. Introduction of substantial numbers of imperialist ground combat troops would see us change our position instantly. We should also make clear that any support is limited in time; at the point when Gaddafi’s key advantages – in terms of aircraft, armour and mobile artillery – cease to be crucial, our tolerance of the NATO intervention will turn into opposition. To bring this date forward, we should place heavy stress on the demand that the imperialist powers expedite the arming and training of the Libyan rebels. In particular, ways should be found to supply the rebel forces with ample quantities of modern anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, so that the bombing and the no-fly zone become redundant. 

Our campaigning around the Libyan revolution takes place largely in a peace-movement context, so there is a need for formulations that will have traction in these circles. What do we raise, when the immediate logic of the demand “End the intervention!” is support for Gaddafi and his cut-throats? Most productive, in my view, would be a focus on the astutely framed ceasefire demand put forward by the TNC. This calls for Gaddafi and his family to leave Libya, for the regime’s armed forces to withdraw from the cities and for armed hostilities, including the NATO intervention, to then cease.

These are the minimum conditions for an end to the killing. True, they would leave Gaddafi’s army and security apparatus intact. But as the rebels obviously calculate, an end to the fighting on these terms would cause the political mobilisation of the masses to re-ignite, and where this would lead is not in doubt.

If we were to campaign on this basis, we would clearly be neither apologists for NATO aggression, nor bed mates of Gaddafi. We would be realistic-minded advocates of an enduring peace, and our political position would be unassailable.

[Renfrey Clarke is an Australian writer and long-time left activist, currently living in Adelaide. Throughout the 1990s he was Green Left Weekly correspondent in Moscow.]