Defeat in Victory for Libyan Rebels?

Barry Biddulph rejects the notion that Western intervention in Libya has shown the possibility of any new, ethical, or progressive content to imperialism.

The victory of the rebels in Tripoli was seen to be dependent on NATO bombing, western weaponry, special forces, and planning by strategists in Paris, London and Washington. From the start of imperialist intervention in Benghazi, NATO has been bending the rebellion towards imperialist aims to secure a transition to a new regime compatible with western interests. This loss of independence and undermining of the rebellion from below was the reason why communists opposed the intervention and the no-fly zone.

Gilbert Achcar, moralising from the University of London, has argued it was not decent to oppose NATO Intervention and the no fly zone. He condemned the anti-imperialist left for not caring for real people on the ground (‘Popular Rebellion and Imperialist Designs’). The Alliance for Workers Liberty has echoed this denunciation, describing those who opposed imperialist intervention in Libya as morally degenerate. But anti imperialists cannot oppose revolutionaries in the Arab Spring and revolutionaries in general for supporting revolts by unarmed people’s against professional armies in Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Revolutions are violent and even attempts at peaceful revolution, as in Chile in 1970-3 can result in mass killings and defeat. Marx opposed any insurrection in Paris in 1871, but when the commune was crushed , he did not claim the leaders of the Paris Commune were morally responsible for 25,000 deaths. Fighting counter-revolution was an inspiration for the socialist future.

Not that Gilbert sees imperialist intervention as motivated by humanitarian concerns. Not directly that is. He considers the main aim was to protect western oil interests. But in his opinion, “western populations do have humanitarian feelings and cannot morally accept seeing their governments killing civilians on a massive scale” So indirectly public opinion in the west can have some effect on minimising death and destruction in Libya and moralising imperialism. In Gilbert’s view, there has been constraint by NATO in Libya compared with Iraq. So imperialism is not entirely reactionary to be totally opposed by knee jerk anti imperialists. Western Imperialism does have a humanitarian aspect and deserves critical support in some instances.

The idea that public opinion can moralise western governments and capitalism does echo the reformism of the trade unions and the Labour Party in their anti-cuts campaign. Make Britain a fairer society. The two million people who demonstrated against the mass killings in the Iraq war, in Britain, would be surprised by Gilbert’s illusions concerning parliamentary democracy. Achcar gives  the Vietnam War as an example of  bourgeois public opinion refusing to accept mass killing, but it was the large-scale killing of American troops, the body count of dead US soldiers, which was decisive in bringing the boys home.  Also, bourgeois western governments have accepted the ongoing massacre of Palestinians.

Gilbert says that he did not support the no-fly zone once Gaddafi’s air force was destroyed by NATO,and the threat to Benghazi was militarily removed. But the nature of imperialism would ensure intervention would not be restricted to Benghazi. The strategy of western governments was to hijack the rebellion and direct it to their own ends. The UN Security Council resolution 1973, to protect civilians and civilian populated areas, was interpreted as regime change. Gilbert acknowledged there were not enough safeguards with the wording of the resolution, but still gave the resolution support as a reflection of the mass uprising, pointing to no imperialist troops on the ground as a protection against imperialist manipulation. (Libyan Developments, 19th March).  But as anti imperialists anticipated, imperialists put special forces boots on the ground to control and guide the anti-Gaddafi movement.

The extent of any massacre in Benghazi is speculation. Many of Achcar’s critics point to the 207 deaths in Misrata, where the heaviest fighting took place in the first two months of the campaign, as a cautionary figure, pointing to  the propagandist nature of claims about a city-wide massacre of hundreds of thousands in Benghazi. Many of the fighters who would have faced death had Gaddafi forces entered Benghazi were later killed in action outside Benghazi. They were brave enough to take the fight to the Gaddafi forces and did not request Gilbert’s moral protection. One of the most striking features of the Arab Spring has been the courage of unarmed civilians to challenged guns and tanks and put their lives at risk. It is this death or victory attitude which has toppled dictators like Hosni Mubarak, not UN resolutions.

The imperialists have learned the lesson of Iraq and are prepared with a blueprint for the future of Libya as a stable regime they can do business with. There will be a quid pro quo for Britain and France in terms of lucrative oil contracts and building contracts to rebuild Libya’s infrastructure. The pro imperialist Transitional National Council faction of Mustafa Abdul Jabril, the ex-Gaddafi official and supporter of neoliberalism, has tightened its grip on the leadership of the rebel movement. Peace and reconciliation will help incorporate security and other officials of the old regime. The rebel movement appears to be politically heterogeneous with civil rights lawyers, Islamists, and politically undefined fighters. Will the revolutionary spirit that initiated the rebellion be extinguished?