Lessons of Libya for the Anti War Movement @ Libya 360°
The following article is based on a speech I gave at Brunel University at the invitation of the Brunel Socialist and Progressive Society.
There is currently a very serious threat of war against Iran and Syria. Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere are also on the ‘hit list’. The key issue for the anti-war movement in the west is, obviously, what can we do to prevent wars of imperialist aggression taking place?
With that question in mind, we need to review the recent history of an African nation that goes by the name of Libya – until quite recently known as the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. In March last year, the United Nations Security Council established a “no fly zone” – which it turns out is ruling class slang for “brutal war of aggression” – ostensibly to prevent the Libyan government from killing unarmed protestors. A year later, I believe it is fair to say that the results of that war have been nothing short of tragic.
Disaster in Libya
It was supposedly a war to save lives, and yet the most reliable estimate we have to date says that 50,000 people have died that wouldn’t otherwise have died. And don’t forget Libya’s population is only 6 million. In Britain, with a population of around 60 million, the proportional number of deaths would be half a million.
Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned and tortured by militias associated with the ruling National Transitional Council – “the rebels”. The people we were told were the “good guys”. And I’m not inventing scare stories – this has all been has been widely documented.
Over the course of the year – and reports of this started to emerge as early as February 2011, before the ‘no fly zone’ was even being discussed – Libya has witnessed widespread lynching and torture of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers, who have been targeted because of the colour of their skin. We’ve seen the videos of so-called ‘rebels’ caging black Africans like animals in a zoo, force feeding them cotton flags. We’ve seen reports of black Libyans being forced to climb up a pole shouting ‘Monkey need banana’. In 2011! Arab supremacists and militant religious sectarians, wholly supported by the western intelligence agencies and the reactionary feudal monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, lynching black Libyans whilst claiming to be fighting for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. In 2011! If this were happening in Mississippi, everyone would be shouting about it, and yet it’s barely reported.
The war has created an estimated 700,000 refugees – over 10% of the population.
So much of Libya’s infrastructure has been destroyed, experts who know the country well have described it having been “bombed into the stone age”. Libya is a technically advanced country. The Great Man-Made River, for example, is considered as an amazing feat of engineering – it’s the largest underground network of pipes and aqueducts in the world, tapping into water underneath the Sahara and using it to irrigate farms and supply drinking water. So NATO bombed it. To prevent the killing of unarmed protestors, presumably.
There is an on-going civil war. And there is the very real threat of the country being balkanised, with the oil-rich east becoming a nice, small, manageable little statelet totally subservient to the whims of the western ruling classes.
Important gains in social welfare, education, housing, women’s rights are in the process of being reversed, as an inevitable outcome of the “shock therapy” that Libya has been, and is being, subjected to. I’m sure many of you have read Naomi Klein’s book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, where she discusses how natural disasters, wars, coups, famines – any kind of large-scale ‘shock’ – have been used by the free market fundamentalists to implement their neoliberal policies. This is what happened in Chile in the wake of the Pinochet coup. This is what happened in Iraq in the aftermath of the war.
Chile in the era before the coup – when it was led by the progressive, socialist-oriented government of Salvador Allende – had a strong emphasis on social welfare programmes, nationalisation, limits to foreign investment, limited engagement with the global markets, high level of spending on education, and so on. The CIA-backed coup opened the way for all that to be reversed, for the economy to be fully opened up to foreign investment and the global market, for privatisation, for the dismantling of the welfare system. The result was of course a massive polarisation of wealth – the creation of a handful of incredibly rich people acting on behalf of western corporate interests, and the terrible impoverishment of vast masses of people at the bottom of the economic heap.
Iraq is a similar story. Oil accounts for well over 70% of Iraq’s economy. In 1972, the property of the multinational oil companies was confiscated and the oil was nationalised in order that oil profits would remain in Iraq and could be used to support the various social welfare projects that were considered to be the best in the Middle East (the campaign to eradicate illiteracy even won Saddam Hussein a UNESCO prize!). The US and British occupiers made sure all that came to an end. In 2008, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil and Total came back to Iraq to claim what they consider to be their birth-right – Iraq’s vast oil reserves.
Libya had the highest Human Development Index of any country in Africa. It had the lowest infant mortality rate in Africa. The highest literacy rate in Africa. The highest life expectancy in Africa. Free, universal education and healthcare. Subsidised fuel and housing. And this in a country which, 60 years ago, was one of the poorest countries in the world. Whatever your view of Muammar Qaddafi or the record of the Libyan Jamahiriya, these are facts that are not disputed. And, just like in Chile, and just like in Iraq, Libya also had very tight restrictions on foreign investment. And it is perfectly obvious that all this will be broken up, the shock doctrine will be applied – and indeed is being applied – and the quality of life for the average Libyan will continue in free-fall for a long time.
And the repercussions will extend beyond Libya. Another major goal of the war against Libya was to cut it out of the resistant Global South in general, and out of an emerging Africa in particular. To put an end to its leadership of the African Union; to put an end to its role in developing the Africa Investment Bank; to put an end to its role in developing the single African currency; to put an end to its role in supporting anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements. Some people forget that Libya was a major supporter of the ANC and PAC in South Africa, SWAPO in Namibia, MPLA in Angola, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the PLO, the American Indian Movement, and more.
So you can see from looking at imperialist intervention in Chile, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere that there’s a clear pattern. And guess what: Iran also has a highly developed welfare system, a tendency towards nationalisation, restrictions on foreign investment, prioritisation of education, prioritisation of healthcare, fuel subsidies, a record of support for resistance movements such as Hezballah and Hamas, and so on. Oh, and so does Syria. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what the corporate vultures and geostrategists of North America and Western Europe have in mind for these countries.
Moving beyond the demonisation campaigns
Too many of us weren’t able to predict what would happen in Libya if the government fell. If we’re honest, we should have seen it coming. After all, Iraq is a very clear parallel, and that is still in recent memory – the Iraq war started in 2003, nine years ago.
So one aspect of defending Iran and Syria from imperialist war and interference is to have a clear understanding of what is likely to happen if their governments are defeated. Will these governments be replaced by more progressive forces? Will the people’s lives improve? Or is the western empire positioned to impose its own will? What is the reality of political power on the ground? These are questions that people need to ask. Otherwise, we are reduced to a very naive, very childish narrative. Iran is bad. Syria is bad. Iraq was bad. Libya was bad. Ahmadinejad – bad. Assad – bad. Saddam – bad. Qaddafi – bad. And since we have defined these political movements and personalities as being absolutely bad, then we have to conclude that anything is better. This is the precise purpose of the demonisation and slander campaigns – to make us unquestioningly support any alternative to the status quo. And even if we are peace-loving people who oppose war and don’t like bombs, we’re inevitably a bit weak, lacklustre, ambivalent in our opposition to war when we feel that the outcome of war will at least include getting rid of something that was absolutely bad, absolutely evil.
Just look at Iraq: a sectarian civil war, a million dead, several million displaced, depleted uranium poisoning, the destruction of the national infrastructure, the sell-off of the economy, the collapse of the education and healthcare systems, the huge rise in infant mortality. And yet there’s still this sentiment around even progressive circles in the west that, well, anything is better than Saddam. And it turns out that anything is not better than Saddam; that, for all its faults, Iraq under Ba’athist rule was a hundred times better off than it is today.
A responsibility to develop our understanding
A related point here is that we need to be much more clued up than we are. Ignorant humanitarians are so easily manipulated. We need a decent base level of understanding about the situations in Iran and Syria now. Part of the problem with the Libya situation was that nobody knew a bloody thing about Libya, and therefore we were so open to being manipulated by the emotional pleas and sophisticated lies of the media. There were stories about using “African mercenaries”. There were stories of using “rape as a weapon of war”. There were stories about “slaughter from the air”. Most people swallowed this nonsense because their understanding was based purely on the mainstream narrative. Don’t be caught out like that! Study Iran, study Syria; seek out different perspectives; build a decent base of understanding that you can use to filter the nonsense that comes flying at all of us every day via the global mass media. If more people don’t do this, if more people aren’t ready to actively counter the disinformation campaigns, frankly we have no hope of developing an effective anti-war strategy.
Be a voice of the voiceless
The other thing we need to do, which many feel uncomfortable with, is give a voice to the people and countries under attack. With Libya, there was a total blackout on pro-Libyan voices, combined with blind support for the Benghazi opposition, whose links with the CIA and reactionary social base were definitely a taboo, not to be mentioned at any cost. Outside Russia Today, the media completely ignored those within and outside Libya who supported the Libyan state. And shamefully, the left-wing and supposedly anti-war media contributed to this blackout.
Present the whole picture
There was complete silence in relation to positive characteristics of Libya under Qaddafi. There was complete silence in relation to positive characteristics of Iraq under Saddam. These days there is complete silence in relation to positive characteristics of Iran and Syria. I can understand this silence coming from the imperialist press, which has a very clear agenda, but it’s an extraordinary contradiction coming from supposedly progressive, radical, left forces. It’s like people consider themselves Marxists but haven’t understood even the most basic elements of Marxist philosphy – for example, that all phenomena have both positive and negative characteristics, and that nothing can be properly understood without thoroughly assessing both its positive and negative aspects.
How many leftists dared to suggest that perhaps Libya was worth defending on the basis of its exceptionally high level of social welfare? Or on the basis of its role in promoting African unity? Not many.
As anti-war activists, it is crucial that we reflect on all this. Because the non-stop negativity about these countries and movements in the crosshairs of imperialism prevents us from building up a mass anti-war sentiment. Even among people who are anti-war, we end up with a feeling that “ok, we’re opposed to NATO bombing, but we’re not actually motivated to do anything to prevent it.”
To use an analogy from the school playground: Let’s say Andy wants to beat up Ravi. We don’t like Andy, because he’s the neighbourhood bully. So the natural thing for us to do is to come to Ravi’s defence. But if all we have heard about Ravi is that he is not a good guy, then we’re not motivated to do anything for him, and Andy gets away with his bullying. Andy’s spread all these rumours about Ravi, and these made us forget that, even if Ravi is far from being an angel, he did actually help defend some other kids when Andy was bullying them, so the least we can do now is close ranks with Ravi against the neighbourhood bully.
We have to learn to recognise that propaganda war is a step towards military war. We can’t join in with the propaganda war and then say that we oppose military war. That simply doesn’t make sense!
Promote peaceful solutions
The other thing we can do is promote peaceful solutions that respect the sovereignty and wishes of the countries under attack. Regarding Libya, the African Union made important and useful proposals in terms of bringing about a peaceful negotiated settlement between the different sides of the crisis. Hugo Chavez and others made similar offers. These were ignored by the western warmongers, and they were also ignored by most of us. In Syria, the government made a significant concession in the form of a whole new constitution – read both the old and the new constitutions and you’ll see that the differences are far from trivial. It’s obviously meant as a peace offering of sorts, but it has been dismissed by the western warmongers, and again, it also gets dismissed by western leftists who claim to stand for peace! So we are left with the idea that Assad is a demon, Qaddafi is a demon, Ahmadinejad is a demon, and there is nothing they can do that will promote peace; ie, regime change is needed; ie, oh dear, we’re on the same side as Hillary Clinton and William Hague!
Understanding the meaning of unity
My final point is that we need to get our heads around the concept of unity and what it really means. It doesn’t mean coordinating action with all those people who have exactly the same ideas as you. On the contrary, it means putting certain differences aside in the pursuit of common goals. This is something that actual anti-imperialist leaders on the ground understand much better than we do. From an ideological point of view, there are huge differences between, say, Hugo Chavez – a socialist President of a liberal democracy; Fidel Castro – a communist of the old guard; and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – a radical Islamist and Iranian nationalist. And yet they have a strong sense of unity that is built on a framework of anti-imperialism and mutual support.
The biggest enemy – the real enemy in the world – is imperialism. The ruling classes of Western Europe and North America. “The Empire”, if you will. The task of defeating this empire requires a very broad-based unity. Sometimes that means coming to terms with differences that seem very great and concerns that seem very serious. This is especially true when we’re talking about developing unity with large, established movements – and states – that wield actual political power and that are involved in actual physical struggles against imperialism and zionism. In such cases we really have to learn to lose our sense of purism and be ready to deal with stuff that looks pretty ugly to our pampered western eyes. Given that we haven’t ourselves built an effective movement against imperialism, we must at least recognise that this process of building an effective movement against imperialism, or building an independent, pro-poor, non-aligned nation, is an incredibly difficult task in the context of global imperialist domination. Frankly, it cannot be achieved without painful compromises and, dare I say it, a certain amount of political repression of one’s enemies.
For example, Palestinians caught collaborating with Mossad have traditionally been treated very harshly. Collaborators with the security services in apartheid South Africa were not exactly treated with kid gloves by the liberation movement there. When the alternative is to allow people to sabotage and destroy your liberation movement, choices are limited. Global imperialist domination forces compromise and repression on revolutionary movements and on independent countries that refuse to go along with its rule. The compromises and the repression are symptoms of the problem; not causes. The cause is imperialist domination. Every country in the world would be run in a very different way if it weren’t for the concentration of political, economic, military and cultural power in the hands of the western imperialist power structure.
So this has to be our focus if we are to build a meaningful, broad based unity against imperialist war. To quote Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party: “there can be no real freedom until the imperialist – world-enemy-number-one – has been stripped of his power”.
We should be clear that our loyalties are with the anti-imperialist world; our loyalties are with the Global South; and we stand united against that world-enemy-number-one of imperialism.