This article represents a minority position within MHI. For MHI’s position, see the editorial above.
Libya and the Left*
by Seth Weiss
The Libyan uprising and subsequent NATO intervention have already, much in the manner of the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, precipitated considerable debate and acrimony, along with disorientation and paralysis, within the Left. Some opposed to intervention, displaying a narrow and reflexive anti-imperialism, lend support, tacitly or otherwise, to Qaddafi’s forces. Others opposed to intervention endeavor a principled “neither/nor” position, neither Qaddafi nor NATO. Here, committed to opposing both Western imperialism and the Qaddafi regime, we ask if a strict anti-interventionist position — specifically, opposition to the rebels’ call for a “no-fly zone” — is consistent with a commitment to protecting civilian populations and supporting freedom struggles in Libya and throughout the region.
The Arab Spring Reaches Libya
On February 15th, four days after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt, Fathi Terbil, a prominent Libyan human rights advocate and attorney, was arrested by security agents at his home in Benghazi, an eastern port city and the country’s second largest. With Terbil’s arrest, the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia and Egypt and has now spread to Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen, reached Libya. Terbil, along with a handful of other lawyers, was representing the families of the more than 1200 political prisoners murdered at Benghazi’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. According to the New York Times, “a crowd armed with gasoline bombs and rocks” gathered in Benghazi to demanded Terbil’s release, and “demonstrators, estimated at several hundred to several thousand, marched to the city’s central square, where they clashed with riot police officers” (“Protests Take Aim at Leader of Libya,” February 16, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/world/middleeast/17libya.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all).
By February 17th — a date which apparently previous to the February 15th events had been designated as a “Day of Rage” via social media websites like Facebook and Twitter — protest had spread across the country, reaching the capital, Tripoli. By the 19th, as reported in the Times, thousands were in the streets, including a demonstration of 20,000 at the courthouse in Benghazi; protestors were met with brutal force, the Times also reported, producing a death toll in Human Rights Watch’s estimation of 104 people (“Cycle of Suppression Rises in Libya and Elsewhere,” February 19, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/world/middleeast/20mideast-protests.html?pagewanted=all). By the 20th, the rebels had taken Benghazi, and mass unrest rocked Tripoli and a number of other towns and cities. According to the Times, “Though the Libyan revolt began with a relatively organized core of longtime government critics in Benghazi, its spread to the capital was swift and spontaneous, outracing any efforts to coordinate the protests…. [T]he revolt in Tripoli appears far more genuinely spontaneous and unorganized than the Benghazi uprising or, for that matter, the revolutions that toppled the leaders of Tunisia or Egypt” (“Qaddafi’s Grip on the Capital Tightens as Revolt Grows,” February 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/world/africa/23libya.html?pagewanted=all).
Popular councils materialized in cities and towns throughout the east. On March 5th, the official establishment of the Interim Transitional National Council was announced in Benghazi. The Council, in a statement on its website, recognizes its obligation to “Guarantee every Libyan citizen … the right to vote in free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections” and to “denounce violence, terrorism, intolerance and cultural isolation….” As well, the Council recognizes its obligation to ensure “The nation’s economy to be used for the benefit of the Libyan people … in order to eradicate poverty and unemployment” and that “the state will guarantee the rights and empowerment of women in all legal, political, economic and cultural spheres” (“A vision of a democratic Libya,” https://web.archive.org/web/20110401112030/http://ntclibya.org/english/libya/).
The leadership of the Interim Transitional National Council, including its chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Justice Minister, comes largely from elite sectors of Libyan society. A piece in Foreign Policy — which describes allegations by Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s commander for Europe, of “flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah” present among the rebel forces as “representing a new level of irresponsibility” — characterizes the Council as “led by a group of well-known and respected Libyan professionals and technocrats” (“Getting Libya’s Rebels Wrong,” March 31, 2011, https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/03/31/getting-libyas-rebels-wrong-2/.
Still, this is not reason to lose sight of the popular and democratic character of the uprising that some on the Left have endeavored to downplay, focusing instead on the opposition’s purported links to al-Qaeda, CIA support, and co-optation by Western powers (see, for instance, the commentary of Alexander Cockburn and Vijay Prashad in Counter Punch). Bill Weinberg offers a more nuanced portrait, noting the different layers composing the rebel force, in his World War 4 Report:
….the Libyan opposition does indeed seem to be a “hodge-podge”: In one corner, a small coterie of aspiring bourgeois-democratic technocrats (now in ascendance thanks to deals being quietly made in Paris and Washington); in the other, a few fanatical cells of jihadi types like the “Islamic Emirate of Barqa”; and in the middle, a very large swath of very angry Libyans who have no particular ideological commitment but basically secular and progressive instincts (“Libya: What is the imperial agenda—and where do anti-war forces stand?,” March 27, 2011, http://www.ww4report.com/node/9700).
Jihan Hafiz, reporting on the ground in Libya for the Real News Network, also draws out the popular character of the rebellion. Her video reporting from the International Women’s Day march in Benghazi is especially worth viewing (“Libyan Women March in Support of Rebellion, March 10, 2011, https://therealnews.com/womenmarch0309). According to Hafiz, this was an unprecedented event, in which thousands of women, most for the first time in their lives, marched and protested. (Also notable in Hafiz’s reporting is her documentation of the shift on the ground in Benghazi from opposition to Western intervention to calls for assistance. See “Jihan Hafiz on Reporting From Libya,” April 2, 2011, https://therealnews.com/jhafizlibyareport1.)
In March, Qaddafi’s forces had decisively regained the offensive. The rebels reported more than 8,000 killed in the regime’s brutal crackdown (“Libya rebel spokesman: More than 8,000 Libyans killed in revolt,” Haaretz, March 20, 2011, http://www.haaretz.com/news/international/libya-rebel-spokesman-more-than-8-000-libyans-killed-in-revolt-1.350689).
On March 12th, in an unprecedented move, the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, voted in favor of a no-fly zone over Libya, and on March 17th the United Nations Security Council, with Russia and China abstaining, also voted in favor a no-fly zone. By this point an attack on Benghazi, with the likely possibility of a massacre of civilian populations, was imminent.
At present, it seems the NATO bombing campaign has yielded a stalemate between the rebel armies and Qaddafi’s forces, as the Financial Times reports (“West sees Libyan conflict heading for lengthy stalemate,” April 1, 2011, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/746f1f4e-5c89-11e0-ab7c-00144feab49a.html#axzz1JjrJsnrE). Meanwhile, there are reports of Qaddafi’s sons proposing a transition to a constitutional democracy under the leadership of one of his sons, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the London School of Economic’s doctorate who had threatened Libyans with “rivers of blood” in February (New York Times, “2 Qaddafi Sons Are Said to Offer Plan to Push Father Out,” April 3, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/04/world/africa/04libya.html?_r=1&ref=africa&pagewanted=print).
With events still unfolding, we turn now to the Left’s response to the question of intervention.
Left Anti-imperialist Response
Those on the Left advancing an anti-interventionist position can be divided into two camps. The first camp supports the Qaddafi regime, some explicitly and others tacitly, as a bulwark in a struggle against Western imperialism. Most prominent here are Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Also in this camp are many of the same Left intellectuals and journalists — including Alexander Cockburn, Jean Bricmont, Michel Chossudovsky, and Diana Johnstone — who carved out an anti-imperialist position on the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s by way of genocide denial and apologetics for Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen. Here, a narrow and reflexive anti-imperialism — that is, an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of mentality — prevails.
Consider, for instance, a recent announcement by a Trotskyist group in New York City for a meeting on Libya at the CUNY Graduate Center. It stresses:
Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libyan rebels have avidly sought Western aid, and eventually bombs against Qaddafi. Rebels who fly the flag of the monarchy while allying with religious reaction and the CIA are appealing to imperialism instead of fighting it” (“Forum: Obama’s African War, New York Activist Calendar, posted April 10, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20110706054150/http://nycal.mayfirst.org/node/2928).
As Trotsky himself noted in reply to this kind of mechanical anti-imperialism:
In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist … (“Learn to Think: A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists,” May 1938, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/05/think.htm).
A second camp of the Left anti-interventionists endeavors a principled anti-imperialist position which rejects both NATO intervention and the Qaddafi regime. Most in this camp also, although not all, share a genuine commitment to supporting popular forces for freedom within Libya. However, a narrow anti-imperialism, although of a different sort, also prevails here. This camp faces a real antinomy between its anti-imperialist principles and its interest in supporting freedom struggles in Libya and throughout the region. It has been unable to find a positive resolution to the contradiction, and it has allowed opposition to Western intervention to trump both solidarity with freedom struggles and protection of civilian populations from massacre by tank brigades and aerial bombardment.
As Gilbert Achcar argues in a recent interview with Stephen Shalom on “Z Net”:
… if Gaddafi were permitted to continue his military offensive and take Benghazi, there would be a major massacre. Here is a case where a population is truly in danger, and where there is no plausible alternative that could protect it. The attack by Gaddafi’s forces was hours or at most days away. You can’t in the name of anti-imperialist principles oppose an action that will prevent the massacre of civilians. In the same way, even though we know well the nature and double standards of cops in the bourgeois state, you can’t in the name of anti-capitalist principles blame anybody for calling them when someone is on the point of being raped and there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists (“Libyan Developments,” March 19, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20110322031055/http://www.zcommunications.org/libyan-developments-by-gilbert-achcar).
At stake, as well, was the fate of the Libyan revolution and perhaps that of the other Arab revolutions, too. A victory for Qaddafi, draining the confidence of the masses and emboldening other despots in the region, might well have spelled the end of the Arab Spring.
In the “Z Net” interview, Ashcar goes on to argue that:
. . . without coming out against the no-fly zone, we must … advocate full vigilance in monitoring the actions of those states carrying it out, to make sure that they don’t go beyond protecting civilians as mandated by the UNSC resolution. In watching on TV the crowds in Benghazi cheering the passage of the resolution, I saw a big billboard in their middle that said in Arabic “No to foreign intervention.” People there make a distinction between “foreign intervention” by which they mean troops on the ground, and a protective no-fly zone. They oppose foreign troops. They are aware of the dangers and wisely don’t trust Western powers (https://web.archive.org/web/20110322031055/http://www.zcommunications.org/libyan-developments-by-gilbert-achcar).
Such qualifications, especially on the issue of boots on the ground, are extremely important. The issue of military aid to the rebels also needs careful consideration. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 doesn’t affirm the right of the rebels to arm themselves or loosen up the arms embargo to the rebels’ advantage. As well, calls for Qaddafi’s frozen assets to be handed over to the rebels to fund arms purchases have gone unanswered.
Military aid is not likely, of course, to come without strings attached, and the Western powers are free to favor groupings more compliant to their interests over others for aid. Some have argued that such circumstances present a case for advocating a no-fly zone rather than military aid. Still, others argue that what distinguishes NATO planes from arms in the rebels’ hands is direct control over the weapons by the rebels. Regardless, one thing is clear: The Left has no immediate way of coming to the aid of the rebels on its own, no international brigades to send to fight, and no resources to provide military assistance.
To be sure, solidarity with the Libyan freedom struggles doesn’t demand uncritical support. (And there may be much that deserves strong criticism and condemnation; allegations of reprisals against black Africans alleged to be in the pay of the Qaddafi regime are especially disturbing.) It should also go without saying that NATO intervention is not motivated by humanitarian concern, and the rhetoric of Obama, Sarkozy, and Cameron has reached astounding levels of hypocrisy. Moreover, Western intervention may well have very negative repercussions, including drawing the rebels into positions of accommodation. (This latter argument may be overstated by some — is there not some possibility that the Libyan masses, having thrown off the yoke of one tyrant, will not readily accept a new one?) Still, for all of this, what is the alternative to supporting the rebels’ call for assistance?
*This piece was originally published in World War 4 Report, Issue #174, May 2011.