Labor Standard: Information, Education, Discussion

Why the Labor Movement and Antiwar Movement Should Oppose the British, French, and American Intervention in Libya

by Tom Barrett


On March 20, veteran socialist Kipp Dawson posted this message on the social networking website Facebook:

Question of the day for those of us sitting safely at home in places free from war: How to support the people in their attempts to take back Libya, and defend themselves and one another against the war Qaddafi leads against them, without supporting “Allied” attempts to steal that freedom movement. Not a situation for glib or easy answers.

Many readers know Comrade Kipp and have worked with her in different struggles over the years. I am proud to have known her for nearly forty years, and I consider her a good friend. I have never known anyone more dedicated to the cause of social justice and peace, nor have I ever known anyone more honest and committed to the truth than she. The question she raises is an absolutely critical one for the entire international labor and peace movements, and she is absolutely right that this is “not a situation for glib or easy answers.” I am attempting a response to her question in a public way, because this is a discussion which can be—and must be—educational for all of us who are trying to change this world for the benefit of working people of this and future generations. I’m not going to claim to have the whole answer.

Comrade Kipp poses the question in just the right way: how do socialists support the people in their struggle against Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi without giving any credence to the “humanitarian” pretenses of the imperialist “coalition”—essentially, the United Kingdom, United States, and France—that they are “defending Libyan civilians from slaughter” by Qadhafi’s forces?

We should first clear away some smoke, so we can see the issues clearly: first, it is absolutely true that Libyans, both anti-Qadhafi rebels and civilians, are in danger of slaughter at the hands of Qadhafi’s armed forces. For over four decades they have been living in a repressive police state as it is. Anyone who speaks out against the regime faces imprisonment and possibly torture and death, and now that thousands of people have had enough and have risen up to overthrow the dictatorship, Qadhafi himself has promised to show them “no mercy.” The accusation raised by imperialist leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Qadhafi is a brutal tyrant is, unfortunately, completely true.

Second, one hears the argument—often from antiwar activists—that this conflict is “not our business,” that we should not intervene in the “internal affairs” of another country. Whereas it is true that socialists and antiwar activists have every obligation to oppose imperialist interference in other countries, especially the countries like Libya which imperialism exploits for its natural resources and cheap labor, the struggle for the political and economic rights of the working people, women, farmers, and youth is very much our business. Our responsibility is to do all we can as internationalists to help them win. We understand that the real divisions in the world are not vertical divisions between nation-states or even nationalities, but horizontal divisions between classes. Our interests coincide more with our class brothers and sisters in Libya than they do with the American bankers, businessmen, and the opportunist bureaucrats and politicians who serve them. The old Industrial Workers of the World slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all” applies worldwide. An attack on the workers and students of Libya is an attack on the workers and students of the United States; we have every right and responsibility to do what we can to educate our fellow workers about what’s going on in Libya and to agitate for demands that help that struggle succeed. What we have to think about and talk about is how to do it right.

Lastly, we should never forget what war is and what it means. One can make a good case that war is the most extreme form of exploitation and oppression of the working masses: in the interests of protecting their employers’ profits (in most cases) our young sons and now daughters are sent into battle to kill the sons and daughters of the working people of other countries. Even when one can argue that the cause is just and that there is no other way, war is about suffering and death. It’s about young lives cut short, about survivors coming home maimed or with brain damage, about psychological scars that, in the case of the American soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, have caused more suicides among GIs and veterans than there have been deaths in combat. Rhythm-and-blues singer Edwin Starr may have said it best: “War, huh! Good God, you all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” In almost all cases, the only interest working people have in a war is stopping it.

The situation on the ground is this: as everyone who has not been hibernating is aware, a wave of democratic uprisings has shaken one Arab country after another in 2011. It began in January with the suicide of a young Tunisian who could not find a job and had been denied a permit to sell fruit in the streets of the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouziz. By mid-January the Bin Ali dictatorship had fallen in Tunisia, and street protests were erupting in Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, and then in the most populous of all Arab countries, Egypt. On February 11, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since the assassination of Anwar as-Sadat over thirty years earlier, was forced to resign as president of Egypt. Within days a democratic struggle to overthrow Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in Libya, which lies geographically between Egypt on its east and Tunisia on its west, had broken out, and a few days after that, rebel forces were in control of the eastern provinces, including Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi.

In contrast with what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, Qadhafi launched a furious military counterattack on the rebel forces, promising to retake Benghazi and to wipe out the rebellion with “no mercy.” Though some senior officers and some sections of the Libyan army defected to the rebellion, most of it has remained loyal to Qadhafi. The rebel forces have been no match for the regular troops, especially since Qadhafi’s air force has had control of the air and have inflicted devastating casualties with bombing and strafing.

As sympathetic as many of us may be toward the Libyans who are putting their lives on the line to overthrow Qadhafi, it must be understood that the anti-Qadhafi political leadership is not socialist, nor is it a working-class leadership, nor even a particularly anti-imperialist leadership. These are not people who understand the relationship between the finance capital–dominated world economy and the dictatorship under which they have been suffering for over forty years. Indeed, some of the leaders were government officials under that very dictatorship. The best that can be said about their motivation for going into opposition to Qadhafi is that they believe that Qadhafi’s rule has been harmful to their country; to be sure, it is difficult to argue to the contrary.

Because the existing rebel political leadership does not have a political program which is based on a class analysis of the Qadhafi regime and its role in Libyan society, they are not conscious of the danger posed by military intervention by the “international community.” So they have no difficulty asking the “international community”—essentially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—to step in and, at a minimum, enforce a “no-fly zone” over Libyan air space. A no-fly zone—again, for those who have been hibernating—is air space where those powers who have declared it prevent any other aircraft from flying, either by shooting it down in the air or destroying it on the ground. At the present time, the alliance of states enforcing the no-fly zone has denied any plans to organize an invasion of Libya by ground forces. It should be added that the United States has intervened mainly with its Navy, firing missiles from battleships offshore to destroy Libyan anti-aircraft assets. The Navy, except for the elite Seals, has not been deployed in significant numbers to Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. also has used the B2 “Stealth” bomber—an aircraft designed to be invisible to radar—to bomb air defense installations in Libya. The B2s flew from an Air Force base in Missouri and were refueled in midair in the course of their mission.

None of us should denounce the Libyan rebels as “traitors” for seeking military aid wherever they can find it. They are facing a superior military force which has promised them certain death. And what difference would it make if Kipp Dawson or Tom Barrett denounced the Libyan rebels for accepting military aid from an imperialist alliance? They are not listening to us, and if they were, they would dismiss us as (at best) well-meaning but ill-informed foreigners who, after all, are commenting from the safety of their computer desks in the United States. We could complain that the Libyan leadership is “bourgeois,” that it is not challenging capitalism, imperialism, or even promising fundamental social change. We have that luxury. The Libyan people do not. The fight has begun, under a leadership which does not have fundamental social revolution on its agenda, against an enemy which has no respect for human rights or civilian lives.

So what is wrong with an alliance of Western and pro-Western Arab countries taking military action to “save civilian lives” in Libya? Should they just sit back and allow Qadhafi to slaughter the rebels? At this point those who support military action against Qadhafi will point to the example of Rwanda or the Balkans during the 1990s and argue that sometimes, unfortunately, war is the answer.

Though these thorny political questions may pose a dilemma for socialists and others who oppose war and imperialism, they pose no dilemma for Barack Obama, David Cameron, Nikolas Sarkozy, and other leaders of the anti-Qadhafi “coalition.” Actually, they have been handed a golden opportunity, which, it must be said, they are handling deftly. They will be allowed to impose a cooperative regime in Libya which will guarantee them access to Libya’s oil reserves—about fifteen percent of Middle Eastern proven reserves, and moreover which produce “light, sweet” crude, which is cheaper to refine and more profitable to extract and sell. They will also be able to impose a regime which will not threaten the stability of the region and guarantee to U.S. and European companies the rights to explore and develop additional oil and gas reserves within Libya’s borders. Even though Qadhafi has been “housebroken” since the middle-to-late 1980s, his regime’s corruption and his own eccentricities have been more expensive than multinational corporations would prefer. The heads of state of the major world economic powers would just as soon be rid of the mercurial and untrustworthy Qadhafi. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi may be an exception among those heads of state, but here in New Jersey one might describe Berlusconi and Qadhafi as “perfect together,” and that is as much as anyone needs to comment.

In so doing, Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, and their allies can pose as the “liberators,” “promoters of democracy,” and “defenders of the defenseless” in ways that the George Bushes—both father and son—were unable to do. There have been no expressions of support for Qadhafi except for confused statements from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and even more confused statements from former Cuban President Fidel Castro. Even Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been silent. The United Nations Security Council authorized the no-fly zone—neither Russia nor China saw fit to veto the motion, which would have been their right as permanent members of the Security Council. In fact, there were no contrary votes to the motion to authorize the no-fly zone, though several states abstained.

No one should be fooled by the pious statements of concern for the lives and rights of Libya’s civilians coming from the lying lips of the gentlemen and ladies of the intervening powers. They have been content to do business with Middle Eastern dictators for decades, and since the middle 1980s that has included Qadhafi. He has been guilty of false imprisonment, torture, corruption, and a host of other crimes for all of the forty-one years he has held power, but as long as his terrorism did not extend beyond his own borders—and it has not since Ronald Reagan’s bombing of his personal compound in 1986—the United States and its allies have turned a blind eye. One can easily see how concerned Barack Obama is for civilians in the Middle East when one considers his silence at the horrendous death and destruction inflicted on the people of the Gaza Strip. Crimes against noncombatants are less serious when committed by Washington’s allies; why American politicians, including Barack Obama, expect Americans not to notice the hypocrisy is testimony to how little respect they have for the intelligence of the people who voted them into office.

Both Presidents Bush used similar arguments to support their respective attacks on Iraq. They accused Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of the worst crimes against his own civilian population, and, unfortunately, their accusations were for the most part true—not all, to be sure, but it is undeniable that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who was, if anything, worse than Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. Neoconservative leaders such as Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis “Scooter” Libby—who proposed attacking Iraq even before George W. Bush was inaugurated as President in 2001—predicted that Iraqis would greet U.S. forces with flowers when they entered Baghdad. The reality turned out to be quite different, as we know. U.S. intervention provoked a sustained resistance which continues to this day. Barack Obama may claim that the U.S. military presence has ended; Iraqis know differently. They see a garrison of 50,000 troops in U.S. uniform and a garrison at least equal size of private mercenaries, stationed there to defend the interests of multinational corporations seeking to control Iraq’s oil resources and monopolize the supply and maintenance of the fields themselves. It should be understood: there has never been any threat that the advanced industrial countries would be denied access to Iraqi oil, any more than there is any threat that they will be denied access to Libyan oil. But companies like Halliburton, of which former Vice President Richard Cheney served as Chief Executive Officer, want more than that: they want to take control of the oilfields, to install and maintain the rigs, monopolize the supply of spare parts, and to insure that U.S. corporations determine how Iraq’s oil will be distributed—to the detriment of competitors like China, for example. The Iraqi people want no part of this “liberation” and rightly so. The Libyan people will be no different.

Even so, those who recognize all of the problems posed by imperialist intervention will question what the Libyan anti-Qadhafi forces should do, considering the relationship of forces on the ground. Without foreign intervention, wouldn’t there be a slaughter? Didn’t Qadhafi promise it? What exactly should the Libyan people do?

Revolutions have been faced with this problem since the dawn of history. Revolutionary leaderships faced it in Russia, in Cuba, in Nicaragua, in China, in Vietnam, and in Iran. They have handled it in different ways: after all, some were proletarian, some were petit-bourgeois, and some were Stalinist. They resisted counterrevolutionary violence sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But the answer to counterrevolutionary violence usually does not involve the opportunity to appeal to one imperialist faction against another. It often will involve strategic retreats and resorting to such nonmilitary forms of struggle as may be appropriate. This is why revolutions need intelligent and seasoned leadership. It is why the question of leadership is so important. Whatever problems arose in postrevolutionary Russia or whatever false policies have been carried out by those who wished to build revolutionary parties on the model of V.I. Lenin’s Bolshevik party, one cannot evade the question. Someone has to make decisions. Someone has to analyze the situation and recommend a course of action: an advance, a retreat, an alliance; propaganda, agitation, direct action.

Revolutionary movements in order to be successful must have an organic connection and grow out of the working masses. This is not just sloganeering: revolutionary movements resist counterrevolutionary violence by disappearing into the people, by becoming less conspicuous until they are “flying below the radar.” The revolutionary survives when the counterrevolutionary does not know whether a person is a revolutionary fighter or simply a worker, farmer, or student. How can this be done? How can a revolutionary movement be built out of the communities of the exploited people? That’s the question that leadership must answer, in its own country, in its own context. These are strategies and tactics which can only be decided by those directly involved in the struggle on the ground. And it should be understood: there will always be a leadership. It may be elected, self-appointed, imposed; it may come from among the people or from outside, but someone will always be making decisions. The question is who and how.

It seems that Obama has learned a thing or two from the George W. Bush experience. He has not taken on the Libya intervention unilaterally; rather, it is being carried out by an alliance of several countries, principally, as we mentioned, France, the U.K., and the U.S. Additionally, he has completely ruled out committing ground troops and has promised to turn over command of the mission to NATO within this month. Though he has expressed a desire that Qadhafi be put out of power, he has not defined “regime change” as the mission’s objective. This does not mean that Obama is necessarily smarter than George W. Bush—he is, but there are few in politics who are not—nor that he is less imperialistic than his predecessor. After all, imperialism is imperialism, whether it is carried out under the French Tricolor, the British Union Jack, or the American Stars and Stripes.

No, what Barack Obama—and his advisers, starting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—have learned is that there is a high political price to be paid, both in international relations and in domestic politics, for a unilateral military intervention in Libya. The Army and Marine Corps are stretched too thin in Afghanistan and—still––in Iraq to intervene on the ground; NATO command gives Obama a useful international cover, as has the UN Security Council’s permission. He has cut the ground out from under any objections on legal or process grounds—thus insuring that there is little opposition from within the Democratic party. Even so, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich has asserted that Obama’s decision to pursue intervention against Qadhafi could be impeachable. Truthfully, there is less chance that Obama will be impeached over Libya intervention than there is of Dennis Kucinich becoming President.

Most importantly, however, Obama is aware that there will be considerable opposition to his policies within the population as a whole. He needs to have this mission accomplished quickly and, if possible, quietly. This political context is one in which working people are facing unemployment, home foreclosures, cuts in medical and retirement benefits, and, yes, are seeing maimed and brain-damaged returning veterans in their communities. He has seen how shallow popular support for an imperialist war can be, and he has politically benefited from it. He also knows that there is another young politician out there who can politically benefit from opposing his war policies. More importantly, he knows that American working people are in a peevish mood, with patience that is wearing thin. If he is going to carry out a war, he has to do it with a minimum of cost and a minimum of time.

It is our responsibility to make this war and all imperialist war as expensive and problematic as possible for this president and his successors. We can start by organizing as many people from our communities, workplaces, and schools to attend either the April 9 march and rally in New York City or the April 10 march and rally in San Francisco, demonstrations organized to demand immediate, total, and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. That applies to Libya, too. We need to connect the waste of billions, even trillions of dollars on death and destruction with the loss of jobs and social services in the United States, even as billionaires are getting massive tax cuts. We need to take the anger that the American working people are feeling and translate it into action.

The conflict in Libya is a conflict with more than two sides. We do not need to choose between Obama and Qadhafi, because they both represent the same class interests. The American working people and the Libyan working people share a commonality of interests that we do not share with the respective political leaders of either of our countries. It is the Libyans’ right and responsibility to do what they can to work for the overthrow of Qadhafi even if the immediate result will not be socialist revolution, and it is our right and responsibility to do what we can to help the Libyan struggle to achieve its objectives. However, it is also our right and responsibility to demand that the United States and all other imperialist governments keep out of the Libyan conflict, and if possible to take direct measures to force them to stay out. Some may consider those two objectives mutually exclusive. They are just the opposite. They are inseparable. So thanks to Comrade Kipp Dawson are in order for raising these questions in just the right way. Those of us involved in the struggles for peace and justice can start with her questions to discuss and debate the issues posed by Libya and the entire Arab revolution in an intelligent fashion.