Libya: What the West wants
A World to Win News Service.
Despite their rhetoric about democracy, the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Italy and other Western powers did not really welcome the “Arab spring”, and for reason: most of the targets of the people’s anger have been rulers and regimes that these powers have seen as serving their interests, including in Libya.
Now the Western imperialists are pursuing these same interests under new conditions and in some cases, such as Libya, by other means: not necessarily trying to prop up a regime that has been useful to them, but trying to make sure that any new regime is as good or even better for them.
It would be wrong to reduce an analysis of their goals to simply seeking expanded oil riches, since there are bigger strategic-imperial considerations. But it is striking that the two countries most eager for the West to intervene in Libya’s civil war, France and the UK, were also the most eager to re-establish relations with the Gaddafi regime and the ones whose oil companies stand to gain the most in that country. As for their broader interests, these two former major colonial powers in the Middle East are also seeking to recover some of their former regional influence and prerogatives that have been usurped by the US, even while acting more or less in alliance with America.
In the same presidential palace where he welcomed Moammar Gaddafi to one of the grandest state visits in recent years, France’s Nicholas Sarkozy has now received the envoys of the Transitional National Council that claim to speak for the broad Libyan opposition. Sarkozy announced that France would recognize the TNC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
In diplomatic terms, this is an extremely unusual move because normally governments, not movements, are granted diplomatic recognition, and the TNC does not claim to be a government. Further, France’s decision to take it upon itself to decide who it wants to run Libya is the kind of almost undisguised neo-colonialism that led it to risk “losing Tunisia” (as some French politicians fear) by openly treating the now-defunct Ben Ali regime as if he were Paris-appointed local official.
Sarkozy’s haste to embrace the Libyan TNC – largely led by men who until only a few weeks ago were key figures in the Gaddafi regime – was matched by his calls for air strikes to put them in power as quickly as possible.
Sarkoy’s frenetic stance was partly meant for domestic consumption. Being in a hurry to bomb Arabs abroad goes along with his domestic efforts to build an anti-(Arab) immigrant front. But some of the desperation seems to come from seeing the US further overshadow French influence in its former spheres of influence in the Middle East and black Africa.
While not going quite as far as Sarkozy in literally calling for bombs to be dropped on Gaddafi’s residence (Le Monde, 11 March 2011), UK Prime Minister David Cameron was indisputably the first to call for military action, in the form of imposing “no-fly zones”. UK has been no less in a hurry than France. It was the first county to send soldiers to Libya, a team of SAS commandos whose mission, officially labelled “diplomatic”, has never been explained. If they were just there to make contact with the TNC, as claimed, they could have gone to Paris instead of sneaking around in the desert until some anti-Gaddafi forces arrested them. It seems that the commandos’ job was to perform covert political and military reconnaissance to help plan British moves in rebel-held eastern Libya.
“Arab leaders killing their own people” – when the West allows it and when it doesn’t
The kind of regime all the Western governments seek to force on Libya can been seen in the choice of regimes chosen for emergency visits by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, UK Foreign Minister William Hague and other top US and UK officials over the past few months and especially the last weeks. In addition to Egypt, they include three monarchies – Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain – and Yemen, whose leaders UK royal envoy Prince Andrew met with three times recently.
Last December US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the Bahrain government for its “commitment… to the democratic path”. What she had decided to overlook, aside from the fact that the country is an absolute monarchy, is that the Sunni royal family denies the majority Shia population political rights, employment and the privileges accorded to the minority. Initially the protest movement that arose in February this year limited itself to calls for a constitutional monarchy, but King Hamad’s reaction made many people, Shia and Sunni, feel that he must go. Protesters set up a camp in Pearl Square in the capital, Manama. On 17 February police swarmed in, shooting into the tents and killing seven people, some while they were sleeping. (See “A revolution paused”, merip.org)
This failed to crush the opposition movement. On 13 March, as protesters tried to block off the city’s financial district in the biggest demonstrations so far, the police again attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. But the crowds fought back and retook the square. That very day the US’s Gates came to meet with the royal family. The next day a convoy of 150 armoured cars and other vehicles carrying 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf State monarchies crossed into Bahrain to support the royal family and prevent the upheaval from spreading. While Gates may well have urged the king to make some reforms to save his regime, as he claimed, it is inconceivable that the US wasn’t in on the Saudi move.
In Yemen, also on 13 March, the security forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh attacked demonstrators camped on the grounds of Sanaa University who were demanding that Saleh step down. Police snipers on rooftops fired into the crowd, while other uniformed security forces assaulted the protesters with bullets, clubs and tear gas and plain-clothes thugs charged with knives. About 1,200 demonstrators were injured, 250 of them seriously, according to unconfirmed opposition reports, in addition to the seven killed the day before.
Why is it wrong for demonstrators to be attacked and killed in Lybia’s Green Square in Tripoli, but not in Bahrain’s Pearl Square or Yemen’s Tahir Square in Sanaa? Where are the calls for international action to save Arab lives?
The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. As a U.S. diplomatic cable circulated by WikiLeaks revealed, American commandos and drones are already fighting in Yemen in secret connivance with the Saleh government.
How can any of the Western governments that back and arm the Bahraini and Yemeni regimes claim to be concerned about the rights and safety of people in Libya?
When it comes to using a combination of bullets, bribes and religion to snuff revolt, or absolute and hereditary rule, Gaddafi has nothing on the Saudi royal family. These medieval, fundamentalist rulers can boast of being even more backward than the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially on the position of women. According to Independent columnist Robert Fisk, the US wants the Saudis to provide weapons and other support for the Libyan TNC. It was Saudi leadership of the Arab League that led it to call for a no-fly zone. US officials welcomed this resolution as providing an Arab blessing for whatever the West ends up doing.
But the single strongest proof that what the US seeks in the Middle East is not any kind of democracy but domination by any means necessary is Israel.
After all, the millions of Palestinians didn’t get to vote on whether or not they wanted a few Zionists to kick most of them out of Israel and then go on to colonise much of the West Bank they were supposedly left with.
How can the US, which considers Israel its main bastion in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia an essential ally, which invaded Iraq with such disastrous results for the Iraqi people, and still maintains occupation troops to have the final say over what happens there, which backed Mubarak until almost the last minute and is still trying to keep the Egyptian people under control through Mubarak’s military (far more willing to allow some sort of elections than lift the state of emergency and give people full political rights), now be allowed to claim that it cares about Arab rights and Arab lives in Libya?
The West has never stopped intervening in Libya
The US has been intervening in Libya in various ways for years. It imposed economic sanctions during the period when Gaddafi was a headache for Washington, and in a 1986 assassination attempt bombed one of his residences, killing a baby daughter.
Even while going along with the UK in gradually re-establishing relations with Gaddafi since then, the US also seems to have explored other options. In 2009, long before Sarkozy met with him, the US was courting people like the head of economic development under Gaddafi, Mahmoud Jabril, now the TNC’s chief foreign representative. In a secret diplomatic cable to Washington (revealed thanks to WikiLeaks), the American ambassador to Libya described Jabril as “a serious intellectual who ‘gets’ the US’s perspective.”
Unlike the UK, France and Italy (which initially opposed changing a regime very favourable to its interests), the US has few economic interests in Libya. It considers Libya not a present or potential strategic asset but a distraction from the work of protecting or consolidating its own main levers of power in the region.
More basically, as the world’s dominant power (in both alliance and rivalry with other imperialists), the US has broader and longer range interests to consider. This is related to the fact that the US would likely bear the bulk of the burden for any serious military intervention, but that’s not the only consideration.
Ironically, while US-asset and US-interest-friendly regimes have been the main targets of the popular upheaval and rebellions in the Middle East, the US has been somewhat successful in posing as above it all. Even though the US has been the main force behind constructing and perpetuating the reactionary political order in the region, for the most part, so far this hasn’t been sufficiently reflected in these movements’ demands or the consciousness of many of the participants. This is particularly the case in Libya, where the US and the other Western imperialists certainly did not bring the Gaddafi regime to power, and instead had decades of friction with it. (This is probably one reason why the US demanded his resignation a lot sooner and more forcefully than they did with Mubarak).
Leading military intervention against Gaddafi could work against US interests and influence. His regime has not inconsiderable support among some sections of his country’s small and relatively better-off population. Western intervention in a country colonized for decades – one where a great many people at first welcomed Gaddafi’s pledges to put an end to national humiliation, and one where the West demonstrated its cynicism by opposing Gaddafi when he made trouble for them and then accepting him when he bowed to their interests – might considerably improve the political conditions that Gaddafi faces. All the more so if the intervention is led by the country still occupying Iraq, that can never stop supporting Israel, and that has drawn a red line about any threat to the rule of the Saudi royal family.
While the main leaders of the Libyan TNC called for a no-fly zone and aerial bombardment, they have not dared call for deeper intervention. Other anti-Gaddafi voices have strongly opposed it. At demonstrations in Benghazi and other insurgent strongholds, people have carried giant banners written in English, and thus meant for the world to see, saying “No foreign intervention – Libyans can do it themselves.”
While it would be ridiculous to confuse Gaddafi with the Taliban, one of the unintended consequences of the US occupation of Afghanistan was to revive the Taliban’s sagging political fortunes by making many people believe that their only real options are to support either the foreign troops humiliating and killing the Afghan people or the Taliban and their allies who are fighting the occupiers.
Such a polarisation in Libya would be disastrous for the people’s movement there and radiate negative political effects throughout the region. But it would also be very bad for the US in Libya and far more broadly.
What no-fly zones are good for
First of all, a no-fly zone would not be bloodless or without extensive civilian casualties under any circumstances. As US Secretary of Defence William Gates pointed out, the establishment of a no-strike zone starts with bombing the other side’s aircraft, airports, command and control centres and so on. Its enforcement requires using missiles, bombs and other high explosives. The no-fly zones imposed on Iraqi Kurdistan under Saddam resulted in the killing of at least 300 people, 200 of them civilians, from 1998-2000 (Washington Post, 16 June 2001).
Secondly, so far at least, the Gaddafi regime has not used its air power to strafe and bomb civilians extensively. Nor have warplanes or even helicopters been decisive in most military engagements. The regime has mainly used tanks, artillery, trucks and men to win battles.
If the US and other Western imperialists want to knock down one regime and install another, they will probably have to send ground troops. The U.S.-imposed no-fly zones in ex-Yugoslavia and Iraq led to air bombing campaigns in both countries, which in turn basically prepared the way for soldiers to move in.
That is exactly what the US wants to avoid, as do some of Washington’s allies.
However, there are bottom lines to this complexity. Just as for the US and its partners in crime the ultimate concern is not whether a regime is elected or openly despotic but whether it suits their imperialist interests, when it comes to warfare their ultimate criterion is not whether civilians and soldiers will be killed but whether war is necessary to achieve their aims.
Anyone who thinks that the US could fight a war without massacring the people should look at Afghanistan, just in the last few weeks: Nato air strikes killed 74 civilians in Kunar province according to local officials. Many children were hospitalised with severe burns. (US commander General David Patraeus claimed that parents had plunged their children into boiling water to “create a casualty incident”). A US helicopter opened fire on ten little boys gathering firewood in the same province, killing nine of them. And a Nato patrol shot and killed an elderly cousin of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kandahar, apparently because any Afghan who leaves their house at night is suspect.
Whenever an invader seeks to impose its will on a people, it ends up considering those people as a whole as potential enemies.
The US already has stationed off Libya an aircraft carrier-led strike group (with troops trained for landings as well as planes), a destroyer, two missile-equipped warships and a nuclear submarine. It also has aircraft bases in nearby Italy, previously used to bomb Serbia. It is conducting AWACS surveillance flights 24 hours a day. Other countries are moving their lethal pieces into place to make sure they get a piece of the pie – Canada sent a frigate right away.
There is certainly the danger that in order to put an end to instability that could spread, assert its commanding place among the world’s exploiters and demonstrate its might and determination to the region, the US might unleash this murderous fire-power. But whether or not it does, the rulers of the US will certainly do their violent best to satisfy their own imperialist interests and not those of the Libyan people and to deny the Libyan people the right to determine their country’s future.
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