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The Libyan Tragedy: lessons for the western left

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The Libyan Tragedy: lessons for the western left

By Tim Anderson


One might have thought that with the "humanitarian' pretexts for the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan fairly fresh in the mind, the western "left' might have hesitated before backing (or refusing to oppose) a similar stunt in Libya.

Apparently not. Perhaps caught off guard by the rapid development of events, many of those who consider themselves "left' or progressive, in the western-imperial cultures, happily joined in the big-power-orchestrated chorus against "dictator' Gaddafi. In doing so they helped legitimise the overthrow of one of the more independent regimes in the middle east, and helped extend big power control of the region.

Never mind some quibbles over the carpet bombing and eventual public torture and murder of Gaddafi himself. Never mind the complaint that a "no fly zone' should not have meant missile attacks. The damage was done. By joining in the chorus against this western-designated "dictator', they effectively backed his very public torture and murder, along with the destruction of an independent political will in that small country.

The consequences of the "humanitarian intervention' in Libya were pretty well understood by most of the left in developing countries (i.e. in most of the world). Fidel Castro, notably, expressed scepticism about Gaddafi's political philosophy and some of his practice, but strongly opposed any NATO intervention (1). The western "left', by contrast, was fragmented and confused on matters of basic principle.

I suggest here some lessons for a western "left' that seems to have found itself deeply embedded in imperial culture:

1. Beware the "humanitarian' pretexts for war and imperial intervention against "dictators'

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The "civilian massacres' by Gaddafi were invented. The insurrection, armed by NATO from day one (2), was being put down by the Libyan army, and the "rebels' cried "we are civilians' as they were being beaten. Others claimed attacks, such as the alleged air strikes on civilians of 22 February, were simply fabricated (3). After a while, the armed insurrection could be "justified' by reference to the Libyan government's earlier attacks on "civilians'. Later on the cluster bombing of the town of Misrata, by NATO, was falsely blamed on Gaddafi (4). The western "left' should have recalled that most imperial wars and interventions were started on similar false pretexts. If Gaddafi and a relatively independent state could be wiped out so easily on such a pretext, the same could apply to many dozens of other independent states.

2. Beware of wishful illusions over a heroic "rising of the masses'

There was no such spontaneous uprising in Libya. The opposition factions were well established (if disunited) before 2011 and the creation of the NATO-backed "National Transitional Council' (NTC): Islamic groups, exile groups armed by the US from the 1980s, Benghazi clans, including those linked to the deposed monarchy (5) along with technocrats who recently defected from Gaddafi's government and wanted fuller engagement with western capital (notably Mahmoud Jibril and Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, along with the late Abdul Fatah Younis, murdered in July by his TNC colleagues) (6). It is no coincidence that those same groups, having prevailed only because of NATO air power, are now warring, not only with Gaddafi loyalists, but amongst themselves, over the spoils (7).

3. "Eccentric' foreign leaders are not fair game for murder

Gaddafi certainly ran a different political system to the alleged western "democracies' (which reify a nominal vote plus corporate dictatorship). While the point of international relations has never been whether outsiders agree with a national system, the Libyan system did have some advantages. Libya under Gaddafi, had a high degree of social inclusion and social citizenship. There was a free education and health system, cheap energy and credit and most owned their own homes. Libya's human development ranking under Gaddafi was by far the best in Africa (8). Further, a UN Human Rights Council report in January 2011 recognised and supported a range of human rights developments in the country (9). All that was gone after the NATO-backed insurrection, complete with missile and drone attacks, carpet bombing, the slaughter of tens of thousands (western audiences have become accustomed to this) and the public assassination of the leader of a non-aggressive regime. Branding a foreign leader a "dictator' has become the new "license to kill'.

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4. Why see "humanitarian intervention' as a desirable development?

The only regimes advocating "humanitarian intervention' are the imperial powers and the former colonists (10). We know what their track record is (11). They habitually seek to control resources and markets, and to dominate entire regions. Why should any intelligent human being believe in the "Santa Claus' theory of international relations? It should have been no surprise to anyone that the NATO-dependent rebels, early in the conflict, offered a large swag of their country's strategic resources to a certain NATO member, in exchange for military backing (12).

5. Beware the imperial role of UN agencies, including the ICC

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Tim Anderson is an academic and social activist based in Sydney, Australia

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Recent 'humanitarian interventions' draw attention... by Tim Anderson on Sunday, Jan 1, 2012 at 2:39:16 PM
To see through the humanitarian pretext is not a f... by Peter Duveen on Sunday, Jan 1, 2012 at 9:16:49 PM
... even though some of those Liberals think of th... by B. Ross Ashley on Monday, Jan 2, 2012 at 10:15:04 PM
why the intervention of the imperialist French Mon... by Jim Arnold on Tuesday, Jan 3, 2012 at 9:14:05 AM