Support the uprising in Libya – no to Gaddafi and no to NATO airstrikes.
The frontpages of the Sunday papers could have been taken from a Chris Morris sketch – IT’S WAR, TOP GUNS 1 – MAD DOG 0, and HUGE STRIKE ON GADDAFI (where they also reveal the shock news that a black person has been on Midsomer Murders). After years of feeling a bit dodgy and awkward over the idea of bombing Arab countries, the politicians and the press are getting back into the swing of things, with air strikes against Libya beginning on the 8th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq no less.
The first shots were fired by the French air-force taking out Libyan armour on the road to Benghazi. This is a bit confusing given what the West was demanding in Libya was a “No Fly Zone” – unless Gaddafi has an army of Transformers, tanks usually cannot fly. In reality we do not have a “No Fly Zone” – we have a concerted bombing campaign against Libya, with plenty of flying being done by NATO aircraft.
These airstrikes are justified on the basis that they are all that remains between Gaddafi and the destruction of the Libyan uprising. After weeks of euphoria throughout the Arab world, with almost all of Libya bar Tripoli falling to the uprising it looked like Gaddafi would be the next despot to be overthrown. In the past week however, it appears that Gaddafi has consolidated his forces - paramilitaries, mercenaries and special forces led by his son Khamis – and is launching a devastating offensive against the rebels. The failure to take Tripoli allowed Gaddafi to regroup and now he has retaken the oil towns along the coast, and his army stands at the gates of Benghazi – the centre of the uprising.
After the UN Security Council supported a No Fly Zone over Libya, Gaddafi called a ceasefire in his offensive. For a while it appeared as if the threat of force alone had saved the uprising. But Gaddafi’s ceasefire was not genuine, he continued to attack Benghazi and the predictable response from the Western powers began.
Some have justified the airstrikes as the only way to save the uprising – and it’s clear from footage in Benghazi that there is support from the rebels for the airstrikes. However while Gaddafi was making considerable gains, the rebels still showed the ability to fight off Gaddafi’s forces in the city of Misurata (the last rebel stronghold in the west of Libya) and at Adjabiya (the last town before Libya’s second city, Benghazi). The rebellion is not a spent force yet, and taking Benghazi would have been a much harder task than the coastal oil towns – it’s where the rebellion would (and perhaps may still) make a bloody last stand, an urban battle in which Gaddafi’s tanks would have been of less use.
The reality is that stopping Gaddafi’s forces from overrunning the rebels could never be done just by stopping his airforce – his forces on the ground are the ones taking the towns and cities, and ultimately it’s the armour and infantry that Gaddafi has consolidated that the rebellion needs to defeat. The “No Fly Zone” has always been a pretext for a much wider bombing of Gaddafi’s army and Libyan towns and cities. The civilian casualties we have seen so far have already provoked the Arab League to call for an end to the bombing, with it’s General Secretary saying “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone. What we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”
The bombing of Libya has been pushed through the UN because the Western powers are desperate to coopt and control the Arab revolutions in their own interests. The USA/UK would have been quite happy to see Gaddafi crush the rebellion discreetly and decisively in it’s early days, and maintain stability in the region but Gaddafi’s brutality made him an unreliable ally. That’s what led to formerly close European allies of Gaddafi to burn their bridges with him, and even go as far as to recognise the rebels as Libya’s legitimate Government. Now that it looks like Gaddafi may remain in control of most of Libya – including the oil fields – the West is now intervening to remove him through their own military force.
While Gaddafi may be an eccentric figure, attacked as an lunatic in the press, Libya is not an irrelevant basket case. It is the richest country in Africa, with the highest standard of living on the continent, and it’s oil wealth makes it an important regional player. Libyan oil money has been used to fund a variety of African rebellions, and an alleged assassination attempt against the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Gaddafi was also a major supporter of the IRA in the 80s, providing the group with an entire trawler of arms – The Eksund – which could have given the Provisionals victory over the British in Northern Ireland if it had not been intercepted by the French Navy. It’s the fear that Gaddafi will align himself with anti-western guerillas throughout Africa – like the brutal RUF in Sierra Leone – that is partially motivating the US/UK to remove him with air strikes. Having a “rogue state” awash with oil money on the Mediterranean cost is not something any of the Western powers are keen on if it can be avoided.
As well as playing an important role in Africa, Libya is also a major supplier of oil to Europe. It provides Spain and Italy with 22% of it’s crude oil – explaining why Gaddafi and Berlusconi got so pally with each other. The civil war in Libya endangers the economies of these European states as the price of oil skyrockets. Also Gaddafi’s brutality has led to Western powers to break links with him – if he stays in power and consolidates his hold over the oil fields in Libya, the West will be denied access to Libya’s natural resources due to sanctions they themselves have imposed. This would be disastrous for many Western oil companies – BP alone have a £900 million dollar deal with Libya. It’s these massive profits which make it clear why there is a bombing campaign in Libya, but not an intervention in the pro-Western state of Bahrain which has been occupied by Saudi troops.
The bombing in Libya marks the return of the discredited “humanitarian intervention” – the idea that NATO aircraft can police the world and bring democracy at the point of a Tomahawk. Many readers of this site may be too young to remember Tony Blair’s war against Serbia in 1999 – often touted as a success compared to the failure of Iraq and the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan. The 73 day NATO bombing of the Serbs was justified as bringing to an end the racist ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars by the Milosevic regime. The reality was that
‘They ran out of military targets in the first couple of weeks,’ said James Bissell, the Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia. ‘It was common knowledge that NATO then went to Stage Three: civilian targets. Otherwise, they would not have been bombing bridges on Sunday afternoons and market places.’ Admiral Elmar Schmahling, head of German Military Intelligence, said, ‘The plan was to first put pressure on the civilian population and second to destroy the Yugoslav economy so deeply it would not recover.’
NATO spent most of it’s bombing campaign attacking Serb society – while the actual ground forces of Milosevic ran rampant in Kosova. NATO managed to destroy only 14 tanks in the bombing campaign – but did successfully attack state-run Serbian TV and the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. If and when the West runs out of military targets to bomb in Libya, you can expect them to target soft civilian infrastructure to push Libyan society to breaking point, just as it did in Serbia.
During the bombing of Serbia there was one significant, brave section of opposition to the air strikes alongside the SSP – that of the Scottish National Party. Alex Salmond was condemned as the “Toast of Belgrade” by Robin Cook, who later transformed into an “anti-war” leader during the run up to the invasion of Iraq. This time round though it appears that the SSP is alone in opposing the bombing – SNP MP’s have went as far as to use the attacks on Libya as a justification to maintain British RAF bases in Scotland.
Every real Socialist supports the overthrow of Gaddafi and the establishment of a democracy in Libya – but we shouldn’t be tempted into believing that the same Western powers who sold Gaddafi arms in the past, and back every other Arab despot have the interests of the democracy movement at heart. The West will use it’s military force not only to remove Gaddafi but to back whichever faction of the Libyan opposition will be the most friendly to their interests. Imperialism has never been progressive, and the only people we should trust to bring democracy and freedom to Libya are the Libyan people themselves.