North Africa and the Middle East - Hands off Libya!

Apr/Jun 2011

The first missiles to hit Libya were launched by US and British warships at 9pm on 19th March, just a few hours before the 8th anniversary of the first missile launch of the Iraqi invasion, on 20th March 2003. Whether this coincidence was due to a cynical oversight by military planners, or to some sort of deliberate design by Western spin doctors, it has more than just a symbolic value.

Because, for all the Western leaders' claim to the moral high ground in front of Gadaffi's "atrocities against his own people" - as Cameron's ministers keep repeating - there is certainly nothing "humanitarian" in this new Western military aggression against a poor country. In fact, the "collateral damage" already caused by the Western intervention to the Libyan population, to the fighters on both sides as well as civilians, is there to show that the military means lined up by imperialism cannot and does not play a "humanitarian" role.

Unquestionably Gadaffi's regime is a gruesome one. His four decades of repression of any form of political opposition have been bloody. His state can only be described as a kleptocracy, which feeds the parasitism of a tiny clique, on the backs of the entire population.

But how many of the West's trusted partners have shared, or still share, exactly the same repulsive characteristics and bloody record - from the Saudi monarchs to the dictators of sub-Saharan Africa? Have the same imperialist leaders ever dreamt of even reading them the riot act, let alone intervening militarily to "protect" the populations from the exactions of their rulers?

And what about the state of Israel, this so-called "oasis of democracy" and so favoured ally of the West, that it benefits from the world's highest level of US military aid per inhabitant, by very far? Hasn't this state killed probably more people in the region than Gadaffi, and certainly caused far more damage and hardship to its population - all in the name of a supposed exclusive "right" to the land of Palestine, justified by its own form of religious fundamentalism?

As to Gadaffi himself, he has become a bona fide business partner of the Western powers, after having sided with the US "war on terror" a decade ago. Western leaders like Blair and French president Sarkozy were all too happy to share his ceremonial Berber tent in order to win oil concessions for their major oil companies and sell heavy weaponry to the regime. It is no coincidence that the French aircraft sent to enforce the "no-fly zone" over Libya have had to contend with French-made Mirage fighters. Yet, over all these years, have Western governments seen any point in making a big thing of the blatant human rights violations of the regime? No, because for the imperialist leaders, Gadaffi was just another one of the gatekeepers of the region's natural wealth and so long as he kept his population under control and guaranteed a regular flow of profits into the coffers of Western companies, he was a useful cog in their world order.

So, no, the Obamas, the Camerons and the Sarkozys of this world have no concern for the fate of the populations and certainly no right to posture as humanitarian crusaders for the rights of those who choose to stand up, today, against dictatorial rulers in the Arab world. Their policies are driven by a far less palatable agenda in which the livelihoods of entire populations count for nothing. If the millions dead of the two imperialist wars of the 20th century and of the subsequent wave of colonial wars, which went on until the late 1970s, were not enough to expose their lies, the trail of blood they have left in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly is.

Imperialism's bloody "humanitarian" trail

In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan too, the Western leaders have managed to dress up their military aggression in a humanitarian cloak.

The first Gulf War was meant to "rescue" the population of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein who, over the previous decade, had been the favourite regional henchman of imperialism. The Kuwaitis were duly "freed" - but not from the yoke of a Kuwaiti monarchy which was anything but democratic. The "no-fly" zones subsequently imposed on Saddam Hussein, allegedly to "protect" the populations from their own ruler, left him just enough room for manoeuvre, to turn popular uprisings in the Shia south and in the Kurdish north into bloodbaths. In fact, this time again, for all the sanctimonious condemnation of his repressive regime by the imperialist leaders, Saddam Hussein did their bidding by putting down uprisings which, if successful, could have put into question a number of national borders and threatened the region's stability - which would certainly have been unwelcome in Western capitals. The real beneficiaries of this war - and its main promoters behind the scenes - were the oil majors, which on top of recovering their assets in Kuwait, laughed all the way to the bank, thanks to the rocketing of oil prices as a result of the conflict.

The invasion of Afghanistan may have been, ostensibly, an act of retaliation after the 9/11 terrorist attack, allowing Bush to turn his "war on terror" into a "national crusade" and bolster his waning credit at home. But it was nonetheless portrayed as being aimed at freeing the Afghan population from the oppressive rule of the Taliban. The Clintons, in particular, backed Bush's aggression by going on record to register how anxious they were to defend the "rights of Afghan women" against the Taliban - the same Clintons whose administration had been happy, shortly before, to facilitate negotiations between the oil major Unocal and the Taliban, for the construction of a major oil pipeline across Afghanistan. Does this stop Hilary Clinton, in her present capacity as Obama's Secretary of State, from sponsoring Karzai's puppet Islamic republic, despite its institutional oppression of women, or from trying to ban the best-known opponent of this oppression, Malalai Joya, from entering the US in March? As to the cost of this war for the Afghan population, after being "saved" from one set of Islamic warlords, only to be handed over to another such set, whose rule is duly enforced by the guns of the imperialist occupation forces - it probably does not need to be spelt out.

The latest "fait d'arme" of imperialism - the 2003 invasion of Iraq - was, of course, the most bloody and devastating. But this aggression too was premised on the "need" to protect the Iraqi population - and more generally the entire planet - from their ruler! Blair's famous fabricated "dossier" to justify Britain's participation in the invasion against the opposition of the vast majority of the British public, hinged not just on Saddam Hussein's "nuclear threat" to the whole world, but also on his alleged "weapons of mass destruction" against his own population - chemical weapons, in particular.

None was found, of course, not even the smallest trace - otherwise one can be sure that it would have been endlessly paraded by the media to convince the Western public that the partners in crime had been right all along in their scaremongering. In the end, the only "weapon of mass destruction" that the Iraqi population had to face, was the carpet-bombing of their towns and infrastructure under the pretext of depriving Saddam Hussein of his military capacity. And mass destruction it was indeed, both in terms of casualties and in terms of the resulting economic and social catastrophe - from which the country has still to recover.

There again, the imperialist leaders' idea of "protecting the population" and "bringing democracy" only replaced the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein with the rule of stooges who are just as corrupt and brutal. The protests which have been taking place in Iraq over the past years never made the headlines in the Western media - protests against the endemic corruption of the Iraqi authorities put in place by the imperialist forces, against the chronic shortages of electricity or the failure to rebuild a proper sewage system, or against the plaque of unemployment and the on-going price increases of basic necessities. Nor have most newspapers even bothered to devote a line - or politicians, a word - to the demonstrators who were killed in Iraq, in February and March, when the pro-Western "democratic" Iraqi army opened fire on protests up and down the country! Don't expect Washington or London to admit that the only purpose of the armed "humanitarian" policy of imperialism is to replace dictators who have fallen out of favour, with dictators who are expected to be more pliable to Western diktats and more respectful of the interests of Western multinationals!

Imperialism and the Arab world protests

The wave of protest which has spread over the Arab world since the beginning of the year has obviously confronted the imperialist powers with a problem. After all, the demonstrators put into question the rule of the rich countries' long-standing stooges in the region. This could not but worry the strategists of Western capital. In fact, as was shown by the French government's initial reaction to the events in Tunisia - when the French Foreign Affairs minister, who had personal links with dignitaries of the regime, offered to supply Ben Ali with heavy riot-control equipment - the Western leaders grossly underestimated the depth of the discontent and the potential of the protest wave.

However, the combination of the Tunisian protesters' resilience against the regime's repression with the fact that unrest was gathering pace among the region's largest population - that of Egypt - and already spreading fast to other Middle Eastern countries, made the status quo less and less sustainable. In view of the scale of the mobilisation, the Western leaders could hardly consider the option of a direct intervention to support the regions' rulers: if anything, given their record in Iraq, this would have considerably increased the explosive potential of the situation, possibly in an irreversible way. So, instead, they changed tack and began to assert their support for "reform" and for the democratic aspirations of the protesters.

But behind the apparent benevolence of the official language used in Washington, London and Paris, behind the governments' calls for the contested rulers to concede to, at least, some of the protesters' demands or even to go, there was still the same old imperialist agenda, aimed at ensuring the continuing plunder of the region by imperialist multinationals and the subjection of its population to this plunder.

Having made this choice, dumping Ben Ali in Tunisia and then Mubarak in Egypt, was the logical next step for the imperialist leaders, for three reasons, at least.

First, because these rulers had obviously passed their use-by date, as was shown by their inability to contain unrest among their own population - after all, what is the value of a dictator for the rich countries' leaders, no matter how reliable he may have been in the past, if his rule is no longer feared enough by his population to ensure its submissiveness to Western diktats? Especially at a time when the nationalist pan-Arabic explosion, which gave birth to many of these dictatorships, is no longer seen as a threat by imperialism, and when Third World nationalist leaders are no longer able to try to play on the existence of a Soviet bloc to maintain a degree of independence from imperialism.

Second, these regimes have come to be seen by some multinational companies as obstacles to their looting. In countries where the national wealth produced is limited and partly appropriated by these companies, the abject poverty imposed on the population is bound to trigger spontaneous revolts and requires a dictatorial regime to pre-empt them as much as possible and crush them when they happen. But, with time, whatever social basis these regimes may have had initially can only shrink, making them increasingly vulnerable to rivalries within their own ranks. Their stability can only be maintained by buying out the loyalty of the members of their ruling circles in order to give them a stake in defending the status quo. As a result, these dictatorships tend to take on, more and more, a "kleptocratic" form. This may be institutionalised, as in the case of Egypt, where the top ranks of the military had built an empire for themselves within the country's economy - to the point of having their own "ministry of military production" under Mubarak - while the regime's ruling party was the obligatory portal for anyone wanting to get into business or to make a public career. Alternatively, this "kleptocracy" may be informal, as in the case of Tunisia, Libya or Bahrain, where the clique of the ruler, or even just his extended family, controls the main levers of the economy and holds the main strategic positions in the state machinery. But either way, it means that multinational companies which want to do business in these countries also have to give their cut to these "kleptocrats". And why should they, if they are no longer really needed?

The third, and final reason, was a tactical choice which obviously originated from Washington. Perhaps, on this occasion, the US strategists drew from the lessons of the 1979 Iranian uprising, in which, by the time the Shah was forced to flee, most of the repressive organisations of the state had been discredited by their direct involvement in attempts at crushing the protests, thereby leaving the way free for Khomeini to use his "revolutionary guards" to occupy the power vacuum left by the Shah's departure, and set up his regime without having to defer to the imperialist powers. In any case, this time round, the US mentors of the region's armies instructed the generals very early on to remain on the side, leaving all repressive tasks entirely to the police and other "security" forces. As a result, at the chosen time, both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the army generals were able to emerge out of the fray, posturing as the "protectors" of the protest movement against the regime, having kept their troops and credit intact. This ensured that there was no vacuum of power of any sort and that the generals - and, therefore, the state machinery, with imperialism behind it - remained firmly in control of the situation, even after the dictator had been symbolically dumped and the protesters' confidence had been bolstered by what they considered as their victory. Hence the relatively seamless transition - so far, at least - into the post-dictatorship period, which has been seen in Egypt and Tunisia.

Reasserting the imperialist order

This strategy, however, does not quite solve the problems faced by the imperialist powers.

In countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and to some extent Algeria, they may be able to rely on an "alternative" personnel already solidly entrenched within the state machinery, which is ready to take over from the dictatorship in case of necessity. In addition, they can rely on the fact that, in these countries, a sizeable part of the protest movement originated from privileged layers of the population which were simply seeking to get a larger share of the spoils of capitalist exploitation and are not likely to question capitalist property, neither domestic nor foreign. But even in these countries, what about the huge majorities formed by the impoverished masses? What if they felt sufficiently reinforced by the unceremonious departure of the ruling dictator to put forward their own social demands - which would inevitably bring them to put into question the economic stranglehold of imperialism over their countries?

Then, there are those countries in which, for strategic reasons, imperialism chooses to stick with the existing rulers, at all costs. Such is the case of the emirates and sultanates along the coast of the Arabic peninsula - Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait - all of which are, in one way or another, part of the backyard of the major Western oil companies. This is also the case for Saudi Arabia, for the same reason, but also due to the monarchy's regional role in the Arab world. It is the case too, for Bahrain, because, in addition to being the financial backyard of Saudi Arabia, where Western banks can get easy access to the petro-dollars of the Saudi magnates, this island-state also plays a vital role in US regional military strategy, by hosting the US Vth fleet - which is imperialism's "first line of threat" against Iran. All this, of course, goes a long way to explain the deafening silence form governments in Washington and London after the bloody repression of the Bahraini protesters, first by the regime itself and then by invading troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Finally there are a few countries where imperialism does not seem to have any "alternative" at hand, or at least not one which is strong enough to be in a credible position to take over from the current dictatorship, in case it runs into difficulties. This is the case of Yemen, whose regime, although closely linked to Washington, has faced, since its inception in 1994, a strong opposition, including armed rebellions. Syria is another case, with the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad - who took over from his father's 30-year rule, in 2000 - playing a balancing game between imperialism and Iran, in an attempt to assert itself as a regional power-broker in Palestine. Last but not least is, of course, Libya, where Gadaffi's 40-year dictatorship has been marred by alternating periods of tension and collaboration in its relationship with the imperialist powers.

In the light of this situation across the whole region, the imperialist intervention in Libya takes on a very obvious meaning. On the one hand, it is a clear warning to all regional strong men that imperialism will not tolerate their going beyond what the imperialist powers are willing to allow. Failure to toe the line will cost them dearly just as the present imperialist bombings threaten to cost Gadaffi all the modern equipment of his army and possibly his rule. On the other hand, and possibly above everything else, this intervention is designed as a warning to the population of northern Africa and the Middle East, that no matter how reinforced they may feel by the downfall of the Ben Alis and Mubaraks (and possibly others to come) in the region, the colossal military might of imperialism is present, throughout the region, ready to strike with mortal blows if its interests are put into question or, even, if its diktats are not obeyed.

Why was Libya targeted? Probably not because of the strength of the rebellion which, despite the significant defections from Gadaffi's army in its favour, is turning out to be quite weak. But the other possible targets all presented considerable risks. In Yemen, with its on-going unfinished civil wars, any form of intervention could turn into a disaster, by bolstering the already existing armed rebellions against the regime. Syria, on the other hand, is far too linked to Iran and Iraq to make the US comfortable, and its influence in Palestine means that any intervention against the Syrian regime might re-ignite the Palestinian powderkeg. Libya, on the other hand, is a huge country with a comparatively small population (only 6 million inhabitants on a territory more than 7 times as large as Britain). Its links with the rest of the Arab world are minimal and, at best contentious - mostly through the employment of immigrant workers, who are just as badly treated as in the Arab emirates. In addition, Gadaffi is a well-established scarecrow figure in Western public opinion, due to his provocative posturing and his alleged involvement in terrorist attacks in the 1980s.

All in all, this made Libya a soft target for the imperialist leaders in the region and they went for it, to make the show of strength they needed, in order to reassert their order over the region.

An intervention against the interests of the population

The farce that preceded this intervention, which saw Cameron, Sarkozy and the Italian president Berlusconi, all claiming to be "leading the world" in their determination to launch a military operation against Gadaffi, while Obama looked as if he was reluctant to go down that road, illustrated the problem of US imperialism.

On the one hand Obama certainly had domestic concerns, given the likely domestic unpopularity of yet another military venture, as Afghanistan is still claiming its toll from the US army and the withdrawal from Iraq has still to be completed. On the other hand, the last thing Obama's US strategists wanted was for the US to be seen as the leading power in this intervention: this would have made even symbolic participation from any Arab country far less likely, and would have increased considerably the hostility to this intervention across the Middle East.

Hence Obama's reluctance to be seen, first as initiating the intervention, and, once it was launched, as leading the coalition. Hence also Cameron's and Sarkozy's gung-ho attitudes, with French aircraft making the first strike of the intervention. As it turned out, however, both were merely acting as obedient poodles to Washington, returning promptly to Obama for orders, and duly wagging their tails. Having made considerable noise against NATO taking over control of the intervention's command structure, Sarkozy eventually complied without further ado.

After 10 days of intervention during which the US provided by very far, most of the military hardware and therefore the real command logistics, the handover to NATO paved the way for a US announcement that, starting from 2nd April, its "air combat" involvement would cease. Of course, this same announcement stressed that all its available military capabilities in the region (meaning around 4/5 of the coalition's immediately available hardware) would remain on alert, ready to be used in case it was needed - which says it all. This is not disengagement. It is just the US telling its partners in crime in the "coalition of the willing", do the dirty work as "we tell you to do it" and "if you really make a mess of it, we will come and clear up the mess". Because, in the meantime of course, although decisions in NATO are supposed to be taken unanimously, it is the US who dominates its command structure - meaning that it remains in the lead position in the intervention, even from the sidelines.

What does this intervention mean for the Libyan population itself? First of all, it means death and destruction. As is already well-known from previous imperialist military ventures, there is no such thing as a "clean" air strike. All military operations shed blood, including the blood of by-standers. And even if they managed to shed only soldiers' blood, this would still be the blood of youngsters who either never had a choice but to follow orders or, in the case of the rebels, did not know what they were letting themselves in for. Either way, this blood is shed at the expense of a population which never asked for it, by rich powers who dispose of their lives for the sole purpose of imposing their rule over the region!

As to the rebellion's leadership, which is supposedly championed by the West as an alternative for the Libyan population to Gadaffi's regime, its self-proclaimed "transitional council" looks rather suspicious. Its civilian wing is led by Gadaffi's former Justice minister, who defected when Benghazi was taken over by the rebels. Its military wing is led by a general who was Gadaffi's former interior minister. Waiting in the wings, are a whole string of high-ranking officials from Gadaffi's regime who have defected over the past two months while they were abroad and are all very keen, no doubt, to use their international connections to jump into positions in a new administration once the dust has settled in Libya. Given the past history of its members, this leadership can hardly be described as having "democratic" credentials. But they certainly do have all the credentials to set up, if given the chance, another repressive regime, possibly not as repressive as Gadaffi's, but not necessarily much less repressive.

Yet these are the people that the great imperialist "humanitarian democrats" have chosen to promote, by force of arms, at the risk of fuelling a prolonged civil war by bolstering support for Gadaffi.

Not only that, but it has turned out in the first days of April, that Obama had already authorised the CIA (some commentators say that Cameron did the same, but British governments are better known for their lies than any others!) to go into Libya and provide material, strategic and training support to the rebellion. So much for the claim by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, that there was "no question of US boots in Libya. Apparently the CIA does not wear US boots?

Does all this mean the end of Gadaffi's bloody rule? Not necessarily even. All sorts of scenarios are still possible. The Western powers are not particularly choosy about the henchmen they entrust with their interests. Gadaffi's regime, which has already proved its usefulness in the past, could still be given a chance - either under Gadaffi himself or under one of his sons. This could happen either because the rebellion's leadership turns out to be too weak to reliably keep the lid over the country, or as part of a deal that would see the partition of Libya into two states, justified by ancient rivalries between Tripoli and Benghazi, its western and eastern centres - which may well be a solution favoured by oil majors like BP, since most of the oil facilities would fall on Benghazi's side. This latter compromise may well be at the centre of the secret talks revealed by the British papers on 31st March.

Whatever may be the case, what will come out of this Western intervention will come at a cost for the population - an immediate cost in terms of immediate death and suffering and a long-term one, because this intervention will not produce a regime which will respect its interests. Having made its demonstration of force, imperialism may well just choose to leave the populations in the hands of Gadaffi's clique, in the whole or a part of Libya, without having reached any settlement. Or it may reach a settlement with one of the two Libyan sides, or both, tailor-made for the interests of western multinationals and, therefore, designed to deprive the population of the benefit of the country's natural resources.

This is why it is in the interests of the working class movement to oppose this intervention without ambiguity, to expose the hypocritical lies behind its alleged "humanitarian" character, to demand an immediate end to Britain's and the West's bombings and military operations in an around Libya, and an immediate withdrawal of Western military forces from the Middle East - including British forces in Cyprus!

Hands off Libya! Imperialists out of the Middle East and North Africa!