Joe Thorne writes on NATO’s role in post-Gaddafi Libya, and whether its ‘humanitarian intervention’ is really cause to re-think anti-imperialism
Less than a month before the fall of Tripoli, the BBC suggested that rather than a rebel victory, “what may emerge is a complicated deal struck between rebels and erstwhile Gaddafi loyalists to get the Libyan leader out of the picture and open up the way for a national transitional government.”
Indeed, I argued in the last issue of The Commune that this was precisely NATO’s strategy. They saw such a compromise as the best means to ensure the political stability they want. It would allow the NATO powers, as the brokers of any compromise, to play king-maker, and perhaps facilitate acceptance of foreign troops on Libyan soil, as ‘peace-keepers. But this was far from certain: the rebels were neither NATO pawns nor idiots, and many would oppose such impositions.
In the event, Gaddafi’s army collapsed quicker than most had predicted. The stalemate which had prevailed since late March was broken on 29th July, when rebel fighters in the West took five small villages in the plain below the Nafusa mountains. This opened the way for the push to the coast and the taking of Zawiyah on 19th August, and the severing of the coastal artery supplying Tripoli with petrol and food. Thus followed a collapse of morale in the loyalist army.
The end, then, was not so much the “grubbier” compromise that the Western powers were hoping for, but a far more straightforward rebel victory. In consequence, the Libyan rebels are in a much stronger position to define the form of a new Libya than they otherwise would have been, and than NATO hoped they would be. In consequence it seems, for example, that a Western base is off the agenda and there are signs that some rebel elements are resisting the imposition of ex-Gaddafi loyalists.
The intervention in Libya has moved some on the left to suggest that unswerving opposition to Western intervention is evidently untenable. They have suggested that, while we ought not to ‘support’ the NATO intervention, neither ought we to oppose it – that is, it would have been wrong to try and stop it happening.
This position has been adopted by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyist grouping, which has adopted this position a number of times over the past few years, including in relation to the occupation of Iraq, the bombing of Serbia, and the hypothetical possibility of Israel bombing Iran.
But this time, it isn’t just the usual suspects who are raising questions: prominent Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar and the Irish Workers’ Solidarity Movement (WSM) have also raised similar concerns. They say that the evidently liberal-democratic consequences of the NATO intervention, the fact that it quite probably averted the mass-killing of thousands of rebels, and the fact that the rebels themselves asked for the intervention were enough to mean that it should not be opposed. To do so, they say, would be in effect to favour despotism and massacre, and to fail in solidarity with the Libyan masses.
It is not possible, here and now, to give a full critique of this position. However, it is possible to say that the foundations on which it is based are incomplete and potentially misleading.
This is because it only evaluates the consequences of the intervention within a limited area – Libya – and within a limited timescale – the present, more or less. If we evaluate the consequences of the intervention, or preventing it, on a global systemic scale, far greater questions are raised. There are at least two reasons for this.
The first is stated well enough by AWL themselves, looking at the brutality of the US occupation of Iraq: “Why did this happen? By 2003 the US administration was drunk on military swagger after its triumph in the Cold War and the easy US victories, or apparent victories, in Kuwait (1991), Bosnia (1995), Kosova (1999), and Afghanistan (2001). It was intoxicated with the idea of reshaping the world on US-friendly, world-market-friendly lines by “short and sharp” blasts of US firepower.”
The number of dead in each listed case increases from a few thousand in the Balkans to the hundreds of thousands in Iraq (2003). If the Libyan intervention proves to be a similar intoxicant, its malign global consequences will far outweigh its local democratic ones.
A second important reason to evaluate the intervention in global terms is that a successful anti-intervention movement – i.e. one which actually tried to stop the bombing – would pose a very serious challenge to our own state. There has never been a successful anti-war movement anywhere, ever which was not also a revolution. Even assuming this trend was broken, the likely-profound consequences of successful working-class action against must be taken into account.
These general considerations are not necessarily enough to decide the question in every case. But they do show that the local consequences of intervention must be weighed against the global consequences. They do show that the question is far more complicated than the matter of whether Libya is now more democratic and free than it was in January, and what would have happened in Benghazi and Misrata had Gaddafi’s advance continued unchecked. The shockwaves of those airstrikes in the Libyan desert may well reverberate for decades, and in every corner of the earth.
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