Monday, April 18, 2011

Why we oppose intervention in Libya

I have based this article on my notes at this week’s meeting of the Socialist Workers Party in Rusholme, Manchester.

The open military intervention of Imperialism in Libya has met with a number of responses amongst the various tendencies of the movement. The more outlandish ones (such as the WRP’s defence of Gaddafi’s ‘revolutionary’ regime) can be safely ignored. But there is a genuine debate amongst some people in the movement about how to respond to UK, US and French warplanes over Tripoli. These people are not just liberal apologists for imperialism or fringe sects but consistent anti-imperialists and there are arguments, though wrong, deserve a proper refutation.

The first thing to point out is the changed situation. If this was 2005 and imperialist warplanes were raining down bombs on Libya, the anti-war response would have been overwhelming, quick and clearly against intervention. But this isn’t 2005 and the situation has changed because, unlike then, the Arab working class is taking to the stage of history. The revolutions currently sweeping through the Middle East, centred on Cairo, have become a touchstone for the rest of the world. From Wisconsin to Tower Hamlets, this confirmation of the actuality of revolution has invigorated workers movements across the planet. Paradoxically, this has led to a softness in some circles when it comes to the question of intervention – precisely because Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy are presenting themselves as liberators defending the ‘rebels’ (not revolutionaries of course).

Passive bombs?
This argument is based on two key foundations, the first being that the intervention is passive. The argument is advanced that the imposition of a no fly zone doesn’t involve soldiers on the ground or control over territory. This is belied by the simple fact the enforcement of a no fly zone means the systematic bombing of airfields, fuel depots, arms dumps and general infrastructure. But this argument has further receded as the NATO intervention in Libya is stepped up – we quickly moved from a No Fly Zone to bombing ground targets (this resulted in the deaths of deserting conscript soldiers who backed the revolution) all the way through to the present situation of Special Forces soldiers on the ground and Western leaders calling for a wider UN Resolution allowing them to send in troops.

It was obvious and is becoming more apparent daily that no imperialist intervention would stick to the strict limits as set down by the TNC in Benghazi. Imperialism has its own logic and Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy cannot now suffer Gaddafi in Tripoli – meaning that intervention will escalate until he is removed. Old-fashioned regime change is the name of the game.

Benghazi Massacre?
The second reason cited by those who support intervention is the current military situation in the ground. At a number of different points in the unfolding revolutionary process, Benghazi has been threatened by Gaddafi’s forces leading to claims that a massacre was about to happen. There is evidence that loyalist forces have carried out massacres in recaptured towns all along the north African coast, so this isn’t fanciful. But there is a crucial difference in that Benghazi, the centre of the revolution, has a population of over million people and is at the furthest point in relation to Tripoli.

Both these factors mean that a massacre wasn’t in anyway inevitable. However, there would doubtless have been bitter fighting at the very least. The crucial thing about the revolutionary struggle, however, is that that fighting would have increased the contradictions on the loyalist side – possibly leading to further uprising in the recaptured towns further back down the supply lines of the loyalist army and increasing the number of deserters to the revolutionary militia. Intervention, on the other hand, put a halt to this political process, closing down space for the revolution in ‘non-rebel’ zones and effectively stabilising the front lines.

Change from above?
The NATO intervention in Libya has had a debilitating effect on the Revolution there. That revolution has begun to lose legitimacy and has definitely narrowed in its scope and vision. The concessions made to imperialism (such as the honouring of foreign contracts) means that rather than a post-revolutionary Libya being a break from Gaddafi and neo-colonialism, its actually looks more like a continuance with a different colour scheme. No-one in Misurata is dying for that.

It also means that the Imperial powers are pretty much cherry-picking who they wish to talk to – one day it Jibril, the next its Mousa Kusa: the search for a client and a willing neoliberal acolyte is one of the crucial tasks facing the imperial powers.

Al these processes have the effect of hamstringing the revolution – the strengthening of the TNC, the honouring of capital’s interests and the search for a amiable leader have all had the effect of isolating the masses from the actual process of revolutionary change. No longer are ordinary people driving through their revolution against Gaddafi – they are now one facet of whole array of interests seeking to remove him. And, crucially, the downfall of Gaddafi will not now be as a result of workers power (like Egypt and Tunisia) but actually as a result of imperialist military strength. This is one of those occasions known as a Pyrrhic victory.

The wider revolutionary wave
Imperialist intervention in Libya is not, however, particularly motivated by the need to protect neo-colonialism in that country: its actually a response to the much more serious challenge to imperialism and capitalism that is now spreading across the Middle East.

When Ben Ali and Mubarak were brought down revolutionary street movements and general strikes, western imperialism and the Obama administration in particular were caught in a bind. Had they not killed a million Iraqis to bring democracy? Were they not still occupying Iraq and Afghanistan under that pretext? Now it looked like Arab workers were doing things for themselves – mostly in opposition to their proxy dictators in the region. This explains the US flip-flopping on Mubarak – constantly pressuring him to hold out until they’d found a new partner (the Army Council) and then pressuring him to leave and hand-over power to their chosen successors. The problem in Egypt and Tunisia, from imperialism’s point of view, is that ordinary workers were the deciding factor and the crucial force in society – leading to all sorts of strange revolutionary ideas to be reawakened. This is in stark contrast to the Iraq War, were the terms of reference were defined by the US and UK Occupation and ‘democracy’ could be delivered in the interests of imperialism.

Libya is an attempt to return to that pre-March situation. No longer would Arab revolutions spread across the region bringing down dictators from below and setting-up regimes that were sympathetic to, or at least held hostage by, the popular movements. Independent of the outcome in Libya, the mere fact that it has happened has reasserted the old situation that democracy is the gift of American bombs rather than the political project of an active movement. And like all gifts, it is at the behest of the giver, so western imperialism is intervening on the side of the revolution in Libya, while at the same time intervening to brutally crush the revolution in Bahrain.

The Libyan intervention must be seen in this wider context. It is nothing short of imperialism seeking to incorporate the revolutions sweeping the Middle East in order to protect its own interests.

Ideologically, the reduction of the entire revolutionary process to a simple numbers game of who has the biggest and most guns suits imperialism (because it has them). It also allows those sections of the Arab ruling class who want some change to be able to achieve it without having to resort to supporting popular movements. So intellectuals and businessmen in Benghazi who want the fall of the Gaddafi regime no longer have to rely on the revolutionary militia, they can call on the UK and French air force. This removes the troublesome spectre of mass involvement from the entire process and allows imperialism to continue to be the arbiters of any ruling class disputes in the Region.

What is the alternative?
Imperialism’s strategy, as outlined above, is far from fool proof and even the prospect of intervention on the ground has not halted the revolutionary wave across the Middle East (though it has helped to confuse it politically). But if we don’t back intervention in Libya, then what is our alternative?

In Libya, it means a return to the popular mobilisation that characterised the earlier period of the revolution – the foundation of popular revolutionary committees, the arming of those committees and their organisation on the basis of an elected body. This will no doubt be in opposition to the TNC in Benghazi and, as a result, could extend beyond the ‘rebel controlled’ zones currently being defined by imperialism.

In Egypt and Tunisia, it means the deepening of those revolutionary processes. In Egypt especially, the people have not simply stopped now that Mubarak has gone but it will take the dismantling of the entire system in that country to emancipate people. This example can be truly powerful and instructive to workers in Benghazi and Misurata. It also means armed intervention of Egyptian workers in Libya, however. NATO refuses to arm he rebels but is happy to bomb civilians – the Egyptian masses must demand the opening of their border and the arming of revolutionary fighters in western Libya.

Here in the UK, we have the special task of opposing our government’s intervention and its subsequent incorporation of the revolution. The easiest way to do this is to bring down the Coalition – that means building for the 30 June strike days and adding the demand for an end to the war in Libya to that dispute. In a time of raising class struggle, when we are actively organising for a general strike, there can be no separation between the political and economic. Armed workers in Misurata and striking teachers in Manchester are both fighting the same system and the same crisis.

A world to win
These tasks can seem big but they are tasks that the class has to rise to. The contradictions that have caused the revolutions in the Middle East will continue and will sharpen over the coming period and we have to be ready to meet them as an internationalist, working class and socialist movement. That is why all of the alternatives are based on the independent activity of the working class in the Middle East and here in Europe. Those who look to bombs to change the situation in Libya or anywhere else in the world don’t really accept that ordinary people can change it – but from Tahrir to 26 March, workers are doing that everyday. The task of organised socialists is to deepen that process, extend it, organise it and build a movement that can successfully challenge imperialism and capitalism in the Middle East around the world.

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